How the UAPs Open Conversations Across Ministry Areas

For Fr. Ted Penton S.J. The Universal Apostolic Preferences (UAPs) of the Global Society of Jesus are an invitation to collaboration and shared mission. ”With the UAPs, these are the four ways that all Jesuits and all Jesuit Ministries are called to live out their mission. So to me it opens a lot of conversations across ministry areas that have historically been siloed to a significant degree,” Fr. Penton explained. Published in February of 2019, the UAPs are a set of four areas that focus the work of the Jesuits during this decade. Showing the Way to God, Walking with the Excluded, Journeying with Youth, Caring for our Common Home. These Preferences are not strategic goals or objectives but rather a horizon that shapes and guides the work of all Jesuits and lay collaborators. Penton continued “The question is how are we doing this in our high schools and in our parishes and in our social ministries. Our social ministries, for example, are walking with the excluded; they are promoting care for our common home; but they are also showing the way to God.”

This June, Fr. Penton will finish his mission as the Secretary of the Jesuit Conference Office of Justice and Ecology (OJE) and will begin his tertianship, the next phase of his formation as a Jesuit, in Lebanon. Based in Washington, DC, OJE brings the voice of U.S. Jesuit leadership to the federal government, advocating for policies that promote social and ecological justice. Fr. Penton joined OJE in the summer of 2018 and has seen the office through the COVID-19 pandemic, as well as a crucial period of internal growth. He has played an important role in the office’s response to the Universal Apostolic Preferences and has been a leading voice in the Society of Jesus’ effort to examine the history of Jesuit-led boarding schools for Native students and begin a process of healing.

Among his many responsibilities in his role as Secretary, Fr. Penton has served on the Board of Directors for many Ignatian social justice organizations including the Ignatian Solidarity Network (ISN), the Jesuit Volunteer Corps (JVC) and Magis Americas (MA). This diverse portfolio of responsibilities reflects the complex and inspiring breadth of the work being carried out by Jesuits and lay partners throughout the Conference. 

Speaking about the diversity of these organizations, Fr. Penton shared, “Each organization has its own strengths, its own areas where it can bring the most to bear, where it can have the most impact.” At the same time the impact of each organization is amplified by working in coordination with the greater Jesuit network. 

“Sharing with one another, knowing what each other are doing contributes to the overall impact of the whole network,” he explains. “We each have our own distinctive kind of strategic vision of where our particular organization is going. But for each of these organizations, an important part of that is precisely to be working in conjunction with and in partnership with the others.” 

Since their publication in early 2019, the UAPs have not only set a horizon for all Jesuits and lay collaborators to work toward. They also unite us in a common mission and give us a common language to discuss and understand our work. Fr. General Sosa, S.J. underlined this point in a letter to the global Society on the occasion of their publication. “The implementation of the Universal Apostolic Preferences,” the letter explains, “has as a condition the deepening of collaboration among Jesuits and our companions in mission and among the ministries and apostolic units.”  

Fr. Penton elaborated on this point, explaining that the Preferences provide a common language and framework to discuss our shared work, further facilitating this “deepening of collaboration” within the extended Jesuit ecosystem and when this work includes individuals who are less familiar with the Society. “Jesuit jargon can make it more difficult to collaborate with those who are less familiar with us whereas my experience with the UAPs has been that the people very quickly and immediately understand (or at least it makes much easier quicker to understand) our mission when it’s laid out in that way.” 

Working to unite diverse organizations around the Society of Jesus’s core apostolic mission, as reflected in the UAPs,  also means working across sectors, such as parishes, high schools, and ministries. During Fr. Penton’s time as secretary, he made a point of pursuing concrete actions that would foster community amongst Ignatian organizations. For example, he organized Ignatian Advocacy Leader trainings to equip people across the network to conduct meetings with their federal representatives. Fr. Penton made a point to include leaders from various backgrounds–high school principals, university campus ministers, directors of social ministries– so that these organizations could learn to advocate on important justice issues. This effort to unify people from diverse professional and personal backgrounds toward the common goal of policy change has been a central focus of Fr. Penton’s work at OJE and has been aided by the common language provided in the UAPs.

Still, moving from these common ideals to concrete actions is not always a simple task, so it is important to recognize the leadership of OJE and Fr. Penton in particular in this work. “Ted has a keen understanding of the value of relationships in the work toward justice. More than focusing on policies or political moments, he has strengthened the partnership between national level Ignatian organizations,” explained Fr. Sean Michaelson, S.J., Socius and Treasurer of JCCU. “These relationships not only make our advocacy more effective, they nourish our spirits for the long journey toward social transformation. In this way, Ted embodies the message of the Universal Apostolic Preferences, recognizing they’re not objective ideals but actions that call us into a profound relationship with God and one another.”

The Jesuits and the many organizations that support their broad justice initiatives, including JVC, ISN, Magis Americas, and so many more, will continue to be guided and shaped by the UAPs over the next six years or so. We are, in some ways, just beginning to understand how these Preferences are calling us to refocus, re-evaluate or collaborate more effectively and efficiently. However, in the context of OJE, under the guidance of Fr. Penton, the common language provided in these Preferences has already contributed to a clearer understanding and expression of our shared mission.

Linguistic Equality, a Precondition for Economic and Political Equity

In May of 2016, Dr. Michel DeGraff, responded to Danielle Allen’s, Director of Harvard’s Edmond J. Safra Center for Ethics, Professor of Government and Education, essay on What is Education For? He focused on linguistic equality as a precondition for political and economical equity. His response was originally posted on the Boston Review.

Danielle Allen’s essay provides added inspiration for my efforts to help solve an education-and-equality challenge in Haiti, a country with one of the highest rates of inequality. As director of the MIT-Haiti Initiative and a founding member of the Haitian Creole Academy, my work in Haiti has led me to more deeply understand linguistic equality as a precondition for the economic and political equity that Allen seeks.

The creation and dissemination of knowledge, especially STEM knowledge, in local vernaculars can advance both economic and political equality. Indeed, home vernaculars are necessary for universal access to high-quality education. Unless they are utilized in education, there are many children who will never grow to participate in the political system, ensuring the perpetuation of a cycle in which the poorest are blocked from shaping the distribution of social, economic, and political capital. The humanities, together with STEM disciplines, can help break down this barrier, as we are doing in Haiti through the MIT-Haiti Initiative.

For centuries now, the Haitian state has failed the vast majority of Haitians on both the economic and political fronts. Language is at the heart of the problem. In spite of the Haitian Constitution’s recognition of both Kreyòl and French as official languages—and its stated view that Kreyòl is “the one language that binds all Haitians together”—the primary language for instruction and examination in Haiti remains French. Yet at least 95 percent of Haitians speak only Kreyòl. How does this work? The answer is, it doesn’t.

The use of French in schools systematically privileges children of French-speaking families, and it penalizes those who come from communities in which only Kreyòl is spoken. The system thus offers no possibility for equal economic opportunity. Nor does it deliver what Allen calls participatory readiness: the state, the schools, and many segments of civil society convey to children the unambiguous message that they can become fully active “citizens” only if they can speak fluent French—an alienating and impossible task for most Haitian children, especially given their lack of opportunity for immersion in French-speaking contexts and the dearth of competent teachers.

Haitian leaders and intellectuals, including well-meaning educators, often cite two sorts of pseudoscientific arguments for maintaining French as the sole or primary medium of instruction. First, they say that children’s interests are best served through French instruction because Kreyòl, as a “young” and “still emerging” language, cannot express complex concepts in science, mathematics, philosophy, etc. Second, they claim that children who speak Kreyòl only will be isolated in a linguistic ghetto.

Among many rebuttals to these claims, my own work argues for the status of Kreyòl as a full-fledged language that has the capacity to express complex concepts, on a par with any other language. Moreover, warnings about the creation of a linguistic ghetto ignore the possibility that Kreyòl-speaking children who can build solid foundations for literacy, numeracy, and logic in their native language are on a stronger footing to learn second languages like French, English, and Spanish, alongside acquiring important knowledge in the humanities and STEM.

Finland’s superior school system, in which Finnish is used as the primary language of instruction, provides a robust refutation to the myth that local languages necessarily enclose their speakers in linguistic ghettos. Finnish, which has only 5.5 million speakers, is about twice as “local” as Kreyòl, which has more than 10 million speakers, many of them spread around the world. As anthropologist Suze Mathieu points out, there are more Kreyòl speakers in the Americas than there are French speakers—in effect making Kreyòl more of an “international” language than French, so far as the Americas are concerned.

The persistence of French as the primary language of instruction and of formal discourse in Haiti must then be viewed as an instrument of linguistic apartheid, to be analyzed from a Fanonian perspective: French is enlisted as both a marker of social and political domination and a tool for the perpetuation of this domination.

The MIT-Haiti Initiative produces digital learning tools and other educational resources in Kreyòl for active learning at advanced levels of STEM. We are already finding that teachers teach better and students learn better when the medium of instruction is Kreyòl. Our data also suggest that children become more proficient readers and writers and better learners when they learn to read in their native language.

While Allen’s argument prioritizes liberal arts over STEM as a path toward distributive justice via participative citizenship, we have seen how the production and dissemination of scientific knowledge in Kreyòl can help usher in both economic and political equality in Haiti. In one post-workshop survey for the MIT-Haiti Initiative, a physics teacher recounted how the use of active-learning tools in Kreyòl would ease students into class participation with great excitement, provoking them to ask questions and enter into debates in ways they characteristically would not when the instruction was conducted in French. In fact, the teacher admitted that when the discussions became too lively, he would silence the students by switching back to French.

Similar oppression affects speakers of vernacular dialects in the United States as well, such as speakers of African American Vernacular English. It goes so far as to affect court rulings, as in the Trayvon Martin case against George Zimmerman: the prosecution’s star witness, Rachel Jeantel, was perceived to be an unreliable witness because she spoke African American Vernacular English, rendering her effectively voiceless. Linguistic inequality thus has graver consequences than merely hobbling the interpersonal skills that enhance civic participation. Even Justice Clarence Thomas has attributed his silence on the Supreme Court to having grown up as a speaker of the Gullah variety of English.

Local languages are indispensable for participatory readiness on a global scale. But the activism needed to promote them often requires academic training that is inaccessible to the communities of their speakers. In the MIT-Haiti Initiative, we see how Kreyòl-based classroom tools and methods have the potential to shift educational outcomes toward both distributive and political equity. The initiative may well suggest that a tight collaboration between humanists, educators, scientists, mathematicians, and engineers is a winning option for all concerned. Such analysis doubles as a plea for a retooling of linguistics. This retooling would be part of the general “revision of the liberal arts curriculum” that Allen advocates. Alongside its contributions to both science and social justice, linguistics, like education and other disciplines in the humanities, has too often been used as a tool for intellectual and political domination. Yet linguistics is critical, alongside education and STEM, for tackling global challenges, especially in promoting participatory readiness and distributive justice in disenfranchised communities that speak local languages—in Haiti and beyond. As Marx said, “the task is not merely to understand the world, but to change it.”