Meet the Team: Three Lay Staffers Steer Advocacy Office for Jesuits of Canada and the U.S.

By Tracey Primrose

August 1, 2016 — In downtown Washington, D.C., K Street has long been associated with lobbyists, the high-powered, high-priced hired guns who advocate for corporate interests. Just a block from these power brokers sits the advocacy office of the Jesuit Conference of Canada and the U.S., where a very different kind of lobbying takes place. Here the three-member lay staff is dedicated to raising up the voices of the voiceless and championing a number of issues central to the Jesuits’ social justice mandate, including immigration and prison reform and environmental justice.

Cecilia Calvo, who hails from Minneapolis, joined the team in April as its senior advisor on environmental justice, a new position. Previously, Calvo served for eight years at the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, where she led the USCCB’s Environmental Justice Program. Her interest in environmental justice started at an early age.

“Since I was a child, I always had a love of nature and, during college, that grew into a strong connection with social justice, connecting concern for the environment with concern for people living in poverty and how they are often most affected by environmental harm.  

“And there’s a connection between my passion for the environment and my faith. Years ago at my home parish, a visiting priest gave a homily about the environment. Up until that point, I hadn’t been familiar with Catholic teaching on care for creation. That was the moment when I connected to it and, ultimately, how I wound up working at the bishops' conference.”


Calvo in Santa Rosa de Lima, Guatemala, during a USCCB solidarity visit to Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador focused on the environmental and social impacts of mining in these countries.

Kristen Lionetti, the Jesuit Conference’s new policy director, is from Colorado. Prior to joining the advocacy office, she worked for the Catholic Legal Immigration Network (CLINIC) and with Catholic Relief Services in El Salvador. Like Calvo, her college years set the stage for her life’s work.

“College was an eye-opening time for me in starting to think about social injustice in a more systematic way. My college involvement with campus ministry and with the Catholic Worker in Tacoma laid the groundwork for my work with the Jesuit Volunteer Corps.

“As a JVC volunteer in Nicaragua, working on social issues and education, it was an important time because I saw the way people’s lives were impacted by policies in my own country. It was an experience of both awakening and establishing a commitment.”


In 2014, Lionetti visited with the widow and children of a friend from when she was a Jesuit Volunteer in Managua, Nicaragua, along with Fr. Joe Mulligan, SJ, in-country coordinator for JVs there.   

Matt Cuff has served on the advocacy staff since 2012 as a policy associate. A graduate of both Scranton Preparatory School and Fordham University, he had an early connection to the Jesuits, which helped inspire his current work.

“When I was a freshman in high school, we watched a movie about Oscar Romero in theology class, and El Salvador quickly became a hugely important place in my own formation as a person. When I was at Fordham, I went to El Salvador on a service project, and that was eye-opening. Learning about the Jesuits who were martyred there in 1989 and how they lived their faith in the public square inspired so much of what I try to do today.”

Cuff spends a significant amount of time on Capitol Hill, bringing those affected by the decisions made in Washington to the seat of power. “One of the most important things we do here is make a connection between people’s lived experiences and policy makers. I find it life-giving to bring someone who’s experiencing challenges — whether poverty, immigration or criminal justice issues — and introducing that person to a Congressional staffer or member of Congress. I’m also gratified by the work we do with young people, especially how we help them understand advocacy as an integral component of justice.”


Cuff with Jesuit Father Greg Boyle, founder and Director of Homeboy Industries, at the White House in 2014. 

Through his work, Cuff has visited Jesuit ministries, from Homeboy Industries in Los Angeles, which provides training to formerly gang-involved and previously incarcerated men and women, to Rikers Island in New York City, where a young Jesuit works in prison ministry. He says of these field visits, “There’s a sense of hopefulness that’s really special that we try to bring with us when we meet with policymakers.”

Calvo is also gratified by her work on the ground with affected communities in the U.S. and Latin America, and the privilege of “being able to lift up their voices.” During her time with the Bishop’s Conference, she was able to work with Jesuit Archbishop Pedro Barreto Jimeno of Huancayo, Peru. The archbishop is a strong advocate for the people of La Oroya, where mining has caused the town to have the unfortunate distinction of being one of the top 10 most contaminated places in the world. 

She recalls, “We were able to bring the archbishop to testify at a Congressional hearing, and for me, that was very exciting. Just to make it real. And that’s what attracted me to working with the Jesuits, that spirit of accompaniment and the bottom-up approach.”


Calvo (far left) with Fr. Pedro Hughes; Dr. Fernando Serrano of Saint Louis University; Archbishop Pedro Barreto, SJ; Representative Chris Smith of New Jersey; Mary DeLorey of Catholic Relief Services; Melissa Swearingen of the USCCB; and Richard Coll of the USCCB. They gathered for a congressional hearing to draw attention to the social and environmental impacts of a mineral smelter in Peru.

Lionetti shares her colleagues’ enthusiasm for working with people. “Over and over again, and I’m thinking specifically of my time in Central America, you hear that the best thing you can do is listen and take it back to your country. Advocating on border issues wouldn’t be possible without the people on the ground. It’s important to both work within a system and yet be a prophetic voice for what our systems should look like. That happens through a commitment to social justice and social change, through analysis and by working in collaboration to influence decision makers.”


Lionetti returned to Nicaragua in 2014, where she had previously served as a Jesuit Volunteer. 

She credits the advocacy office’s reports, including Documented Failures, about the consequences of failed immigration policy, as shining a spotlight on Obama Administration policies that have had a tragic impact on migrants. Those reports and advocacy, she says, are creating shifts in how the Customs and Border Protection agency deals with certain issues.


Cuff (right) with Stephen Nicholson, SJ, and Matt Ippel, SJ, at a Jesuit social ministries meeting in Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic, in April 2016.

The team is preparing for a busy fall, focused on possible Congressional action on criminal justice reform. They will also work to establish advocacy priorities on climate change and extractive mining industries. And as all three staffers have a special place in their hearts for the people of Central America, the plight of migrants is always front and center in everything they do.

Do you want to learn more about vocations to the Society of Jesus? Visit www.jesuitvocations.org for more information.



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