BY BRIANNA NIELSON
I began my Freshman year of college afraid to step foot on BART (the Bay Area’s form of public transportation) by myself. Stereotypes of Oakland, feelings of discomfort with mental illness, and thoughts of self-doubt around my ability to confidently navigate unfamiliar territories initially prevented me from exploring a place I now consider to be part of my home. But as I unlearn my implicit biases and grow in my own self-confidence, my comfortability in navigating a city also increases. I ended my Junior year of college flying to Rome by myself, navigating cities and airports I had never been to before, purchasing coffee and train tickets in a language that was foreign to me, and learning to discern whether my feelings of discomfort were due to actual danger or simply a result of my sheltered and privileged upbringing. Apart from the two-minute breakdown I allowed myself to have inside a bathroom stall in Rome’s largest airport terminal, I handled a flight cancellation, missed connection, and overnight stay in a random airport hotel with a sense of calmness and grace my Freshman-year self would have never imagined I could possess. Over the course the last few years, I sought out opportunities to further this personal growth, seeking experiences that would challenge me to notice what conditions I feel unsafe in and question why that might be and building relationships with individuals who would encourage me to continue leaning into that discomfort.
I entered my year with Loretto Volunteers hoping to continue this trend. I was craving those moments—from conversations about systemic oppression and instances of solidarity to experiences of shared learning and outbursts of laughter—that speak to the values of this program, the power of community, and the spirit of Loretto. But for the last couple months, I’ve felt lost. I’ve found it hard to embrace the discomfort I so eagerly sought out in college and have been longing for the opportunity to forge a deeper connection to the Loretto values of social justice, community, spirituality, and simple living.
It would be easy for me to seize this opportunity to digress into a conversation about the inequities in the US healthcare system, illustrating how I watch every day as the culture of medicine exacerbates stereotypes around race and geographical location, belittles patients who are struggling to make healthier choices, and criminalizes families who are unable to support their sick relatives. I could also critique my placement site and talk about how the sign in our staff-only bathroom asking men to “put down the toilet seat” now features a penciled-in comment telling ladies not to put down men represents just one of the challenges of working for social justice surrounded by the culture of a federal agency rooted in a nation governed by patriarchy and white supremacy. But as someone who committed to live into the value of social justice, I also need to be thinking critically about the way the systems closest to me perpetuate the same imbalances of power and privilege that I am quick to point out everywhere else.
Loretto Volunteers, after all, is a program built by white people for white people. Everything from the college graduate expectation and writing-intensive application to the demographics of the neighborhood that surrounds our volunteer house in St. Louis shows that we, as a program have opportunities for growth. There is more we could do to support the trauma many have experienced living in a nation governed by patriarchy and white supremacy. There is more we could do to support those actively trying to unlearn the ways in which these systems of oppression have shaped how they perceive the world and the conflicts that arise within it. There is more we could do to not only increase diversity within the program, but foster inclusivity alongside it. My hope is that Loretto can be a space to unlearn and heal from the decades each of us have spent living in and operating through systems of oppression. A space where we can wrestle with questions of privilege and access. A space where we can name and explore how whiteness operates within both ourselves and the larger system. A space where we can search for the steps that would allow us to move forward not only as a small cohort of volunteers, but as members of the greater global community as well.
There have been times this year where this hasn’t happened. Where we have failed to use an anti-oppression lens to shape our expectations of community life and forgotten to ensure that our actions--and their impact--align with the values of this program. It is in these times where I feel even more lost, wishing my placement site was more representative Loretto’s values and when I can’t make that connection, craving the people, places and experiences that have allowed me to learn and grow in the past. But as I write this reflection, I realize I’ve been desperately searching for morals I’ve had within me all along, looking externally for confirmation that my actions match my beliefs, and expecting the program to embody its values without acknowledging that I have the power to do so too. And so I am grateful for Loretto not because it’s the perfect representation of community, social justice, spirituality, and simple living, but because it grants me the space to explore the values I hold so deep within myself, trusting that I will work intentionally to align my actions with those values.
Brianna Nielson recently graduated from Saint Mary’s College of California with a degree in biology, minor in psychology, and a passion for exploring the intersections of healthcare and social justice. She’s spending the year working with the ComPACT team at the St. Louis VA Hospital to support all aspects of veterans’ physical and mental well being.
In Their Own Words
We invite you to get to know Loretto Volunteers and the program here. Volunteers introduce themselves and reflect on their experiences.