Ignatian Carbon Challenge brings 'Laudato Si'' to life in Catholic schools

Students at Walsh Jesuit High School sort though a day's worth of garbage into piles of plastics, trash and uneaten food as part of a trash audit for the Ignatian Carbon Challenge. (WJ Green Team)

At the onset of the 2016-17 school year, students at Cheverus High School in Portland, Maine, walked outside their classroom to learn about trees. Beforehand, theology teacher Mary King had quizzed them on corporate logos — they knew hundreds — but found they lacked similar recall about the local flora.

"We don't know an elm from an oak," she said.

The outdoors exercise had students identifying the trees around their campus: In Maine, plenty of pines, though students spotted a maple and American beech, as well. Back in the classroom, they took to social media to share snaps of their campus foliage, but also to see what grew near Catholic schools elsewhere in the country. There was a cottonwood in St. Louis, a sycamore and aspen in Omaha, Nebraska, and redwoods outside Santa Cruz, California.

The photo-sharing activity, through the hashtag #iggycarbon, was part of the Ignatian Carbon Challenge, a program created by Cheverus teachers King, Cicy Po and Helene Adams, but adopted by Catholic schools nationwide through the Ignatian Solidarity Network.

"It was just one of those really cool moments where we recognized that this was something people were really doing everywhere," said Karen Nielsen, a junior at Cheverus, a coed Jesuit prep school.

Since its debut in September, the Ignatian Carbon Challenge has presented thousands of participating students each month with eight possible actions: some simple, others more intensive, but all aiming to bring Laudato Si' to life within Catholic schools, and ultimately, in students' daily lives. Each challenge is grounded within a concept from Pope Francis' encyclical on the environment and human ecology, "Laudato Si', on Care for Our Common Home," something teachers appreciated as Catholic backing for what they were doing.

In different ways, the challenges attempt to stimulate thinking in students about sustainability and climate change, the impact of seemingly innocuous habits, and their relationship to the world around them. A separate institutional track takes the challenge to the wider school to consider ways it can implement sustainability along three dimensions — facilities, strategic thinking, community formation — into the on-campus culture.

The "ID a tree" challenge was from September, when all challenges focused on confronting habits. A couple of November challenges encouraged students to learn about the Green Climate Fund and contact elected officials to encourage support. A January challenge had students count how many days they can go without purchasing a single-use plastic item, while another asked them to find entrepreneurs in their community who were turning garbage into a successful business.

One of the more popular challenges came in February, when classes held a taste test comparing fair trade chocolate with a Hershey's bar.

"Any time you're feeding boys chocolate, it's a good day for them," said Bill Anderson, a science teacher at St. Louis University High School, which is also participating in the challenge.

In its first year, 26 schools and 5,000 individuals have taken up the carbon challenge, which was initiated within the Jesuit network but is open to all Catholic high schools. Kim Miller, program director for Ignatian Solidarity Network, said participation has surpassed expectations.

"But I think the bigger goal for us was to create a program that worked, and allows folks to engage in Laudato Si', on both an individual and an institutional level. And I think we've seen that this year," she told NCR.

Another Cheverus junior, Eva Griffith, added that the challenge "has really raised the attention of a lot of students and kind of allowed them and me to step back and think about the choices I make every day and how those are going to affect the world down the line."

Building momentum

The Ignatian Carbon Challenge was first conceived after Cheverus science and theology teachers together attended the 2014 Ignatian Family Teach-in for Social Justice, an annual gathering of the Ignatian Solidarity Network. After Laudato Si' was published in June 2015, the school read Georgia Clark's 2014 dystopian novel Parched, and the faculty held a daylong in-service focused on environmental justice, climate change and how departments could incorporate them into courses the following year. From those discussions, the carbon challenge was born.

"We wanted to come up with a challenge to share with the whole network of Jesuit schools … building on the momentum of our experience in our school and on the momentum of the document, Laudato Si'," King said.

In the encyclical, Francis spoke of the importance of ecological education, particularly at a young age, so that those plantings "continue to bear fruit throughout life." He said "ecological citizenship" has to go beyond providing information and into instilling good habits.

"Only by cultivating sound virtues will people be able to make a selfless ecological commitment," the pope wrote. "A person who could afford to spend and consume more but regularly uses less heating and wears warmer clothes, shows the kind of convictions and attitudes which help to protect the environment. There is a nobility in the duty to care for creation through little daily actions, and it is wonderful how education can bring about real changes in lifestyle."

More: "Mercy2Earth seizes the weekend Earth Day, Divine Mercy Sunday align" (April 20, 2017)

Actually reading Laudato Si' has been a key piece of the challenge. In some schools, it's meant reviewing the passage paired with each challenge; in others, it's helped ingrain the encyclical in reading assignments for theology and social justice courses. Nielsen recalled working on homework one night with a non-Catholic friend from another school, who after reading parts of Laudato Si' responded, "Wait, the pope said this? Really?"

Nielsen said that most of her peers knew basics like "reduce, reuse, recycle" but that the challenge and encyclical have helped them develop a larger understanding of why Catholics, and all people, are called to consider environmental issues like climate change.

Cheverus framers worried about possible pushback along polarized climate lines, but so far those fears have not materialized. King said that the social justice aspect provides an entry point for many Catholic adolescents — "Teenagers have a well-developed sense of justice" — into such discussions and into their faith.

Likewise, students with strong pro-life views present a foundation for talking about human communities affected by environmental degradation.

One challenge had King's theology students watch the documentary "The True Cost" about the garment industry and fair trade. Despite the assignment falling over a break, many students watched the film, which has spurred conversations that continue to appear in essay questions and other class discussions.

Individual habits make a difference

Four years ago, Po detected among her science students a resigned attitude toward large environmental issues, but whether due to the carbon challenge or other forces, those feelings have subsided. The goal of the challenge, King added, was to show students that change isn't left to corporate CEOs, presidents or even parents, but that through their individual day-to-day habits, they, too, can make a difference.

Francis in the encyclical urged people not to think efforts like recycling, reducing water use, turning off lights, and carpooling "are not going to change the world. They benefit society, unbeknown to us, for they call forth a goodness which, albeit unseen, inevitably tends to spread."

The Cheverus teachers stressed the challenge isn't meant to dictate what schools should do, but rather inspire them and their students to take any variety of actions. A primary goal seeks to move sustainability beyond an add-on mentality to an essential part of their mission as Catholic institutions.

"We want it to be part of the fabric of our schools," King said.

Po would like to see the challenge cultivate collaboration among U.S. Catholic schools in developing agents of social change. In her own school, she's already noticed how the challenge and "the wind of Laudato Si' " have affected cultural norms and been a galvanizing force behind actions, such as implementing a waste management program, initiating a "no idling cars" policy, or pursuing renewable energy: "In that way, it's added weight behind voices that were kind of disparate before. And it's unified a lot of those voices, so that real things are happening."

More: "Pope receives electric car, as studies for an all-renewables Vatican underway" (March 10, 2017)

Some of the greatest activity from the Ignatian Solidarity Challenge has occurred at Walsh Jesuit High School in Cuyahoga Falls, Ohio. After learning of the program at the 2016 Teach-in, senior Roman Gioglio approached his school's administrators to see if they could join the institutional challenge. They agreed, and Gioglio got to work.

Through the newly formed WJ Green Team, he and about 40 dedicated students have transformed their school:

  • They installed three water bottle filling stations and sold 100 water bottles to limit single-use bottles;
  • They persuaded their lunch caterer to switch from Styrofoam plates to biodegradable ones, which they can place in the school's composting system;
  • A bulletin board details the school's energy and water use compared to an average household and offers suggestions each month on ways to reduce, such as turning off lights in vacant rooms and using natural light when possible.

The challenge has "promoted a lot of discussion about these problems, and that's kind of the first step to solving the issue," said Gioglio, whose own passion for the environment he attributes in part to living near Cuyahoga Valley National Park.

One of the latest Walsh projects has been a bit messier — but on purpose. At the end of one school day in February, green team members gathered all the trash accumulated that day, dumped it onto tarps inside the school commons, and began sorting it between plastics, trash and uneaten food. The visual caught the attention of their peers as they walked by, as did the stench.

"A lot of people came up and they were like, ‘What was that, what are you guys doing?' It also smelled really bad," Gioglio said.

The trash audit was among the facilities challenges, and Gioglio hopes they can use the data from the exercise to educate the school on how make better use of their already in-place waste bins for recycling, composting and trash.

"Being able to use those three bins correctly is kind of a problem that we struggle with," Gioglio said.

Carbon challenge, version 2.0

For all its success in the inaugural launch, the Ignatian Carbon Challenge hasn't been without challenges of its own.

That includes tying challenges more to Laudato Si' and other church documents, and making it as cross-curricular as possible. Then there's the issue of syncing the challenges with lesson plans at points more prepared to address them.

"Trying to have something that fits into everybody's curricula at exactly the same time would be just short of a miracle, I think," said Anderson, the St. Louis University High teacher who is part of the committee preparing the next iteration of the Ignatian Carbon Challenge.

Version 2.0 was set to launch in April, with the resources ready by midsummer. It plans to scale challenges down from eight to four per month, though each will offer a simple and more difficult level to allow students and teachers more flexibility. Flexibility will also be a focus for when challenges can be completed — for example, allowing one listed in September to be taken up in March when it might make more sense with the syllabus.

As for ingraining the challenge more into the school, the teachers behind the challenge empathize with others who see it as one more thing to do in an already busy curriculum. They experience it themselves.

"I know I feel that way often, too," Anderson said. "But I think this is important enough that we need to make sure that we can find ways to get it pretty much across the board."

Po, one of the Cheverus co-framers, said she has at times found it difficult to integrate the program into her already established way of teaching advanced-placement biology. She said the 2.0 committee is constantly looking for ways that allow teachers to use the challenge "in a way that fits with their curriculum." By expanding the program outside science and theology classrooms, the teachers said it magnifies the importance of environmental justice and other social justice issues, as do parallel steps at the administrative level.

That teachers are attempting to depart from established rubrics to introduce ideas on sustainability is not lost on students, said Nielsen.

"You have to come to terms with the idea that your education is not something you're just reading out of a book and that you're having to learn some of the things that are in the environment directly around you, and try and relate that to what you're reading out of the textbook," she said.

Miller with Ignatian Solidarity Network hopes even more schools take up the challenge for the ‘17-18 school year, and the planners are exploring report-back incentives to better gauge participation. They are careful to strike the right balance of competition — they intentionally avoided prizes so not to create more waste — and recognize that schools are all starting at different points. More publicized reports celebrating schools with high participation is one idea, but they're resolute to keep the focus on personal growth and positive lifestyle changes.

"It's not about who can be the greenest person in the school or even in the country, in terms of the challenge as a nationwide thing," said Griffith, the Cheverus student. "But just looking at the goals every month and saying, ‘What can I do to challenge myself?' "

[Brian Roewe is an NCR staff writer. His email address is broewe@ncronline.org. Follow him on Twitter: @BrianRoewe.]

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