Seven Finalists Recognized for their Love and Respect for the Poor
WASHINGTON (November 10, 2004) — Donald De Leon, who has challenged labor practices in California that exploit workers and immigrants and degrade human dignity, is the 2004 recipient of the Cardinal Bernardin New Leadership Award. The annual award, presented since 1998, honors young Catholics who demonstrate leadership in fighting poverty and injustice in the United States.
Seven other young Catholics from across the country were recognized as finalists for the award: Nicolas Brunick, Archdiocese of Chicago; Richard Cunningham, Jr., Diocese of Metuchen, N.J.; Jessica Cedrone Damato, Diocese of Camden, N.J.; Catalina (Kathy) Magana, Diocese of Tucson; Justin Russell, Archdiocese of Washington, D.C.; Anthony Stieritz, Archdiocese of Cincinnati; and Doris Valenzuela, Archdiocese of Los Angeles.
The Cardinal Bernardin New Leadership Award is presented each year by the Catholic Campaign for Human Development (CCHD), a national program of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB), which provides grants to community-based, self-help groups that are addressing the root causes of poverty. The program also works to educate Americans about social problems that contribute to poverty in order to raise awareness about poverty and its tragic impact on this country.
The award honors Joseph Cardinal Bernardin (1928-1996), former archbishop of Chicago and a leading voice on behalf of poor and low-income people, who understood the need to build bridges across ethnic, economic, class and age barriers. The award will be presented Sunday, November 14, in Washington, D.C., during the USCCB's annual meeting.
De Leon has staffed The Interfaith Council on Religions, Race, Economic and Social Justice in San Jose since 2002. In that capacity, he has been involved in numerous campaigns to support workers and their rights, including Justice for Janitors 2003 (healthcare benefits); the Truth Commission (2004) for Cintas workers (low wages, on-the-job injuries); and the Grocery Workers Campaign (2003-2004) (healthcare). In the LSG Skychefs Campaign (2003), he organized a "breaking of bread" between workers and management to emphasize their common humanity; he also organized similar "bread-breaking" meetings between immigrants (both documented and undocumented) and U.S. citizens during the Immigrant Workers Freedom Ride march in San Francisco (2003). By so doing, he called on Americans to promote respect for the human dignity that is shared by all and to reject exploitation of immigrants. A third such "bread-breaking," held at Stanford University, marked the end of a student hunger strike to protest the treatment of temporary workers.
"The breaking of bread alters the relationship among people," De Leon said. "After breaking bread with each other, we are no longer simply bound by a contractual, monetary, or power relationship. We recognize each other as having equal human dignity, and treat one another as such, not simply as people we pay or people for whom we work."
In addition to his work on labor issues, he organizes and leads workshops on social justice issues, including the Faith in Action Training Series (FIATS) in San Jose. "Graduates of the series have gone on to lead the social action committee in their respective congregations. Several have become quite vocal in economic justice campaigns. Some participated in voter registration drives," De Leon said. "It's difficult to work for justice because you take a risk," but the training develops skills that help counter that risk. He is a member of the national board of the United States Urban Rural Mission, a faith-based organization that seeks to empower and be in solidarity with peoples facing poverty, injustice and oppression. He is also an active member of St. John Vianney Parish in San Jose.
CCHD Executive Director Father Robert J. Vitillo said, "Don has exceptional talent in bringing workers and management together. He also has a gift in his understanding of low-income workers and what they need on an everyday basis to sustain their dreams of economic and social parity for themselves and their families. Human dignity is a gift of God who willed that all people be able to satisfy their basic needs for shelter, food, living wages, and access to good health care. Don has been very effective in his efforts to promote the rights of those who struggle under the burden of unjust labor practices; his service to the cause of justice could serve as an inspiration and example to many other young people who wish to share with those less fortunate the blessings and talents they have received from God. I congratulate Don and his parents as he receives the Cardinal Bernardin New Leadership Award."
De Leon, 27, holds an undergraduate degree in economics from the University of Notre Dame, with a concentration in International Peace Studies. He received a master's degree in Theological Studies in 2002 from the Franciscan School of Theology in Berkeley, specializing in Ethics and Social Theory.
His work in social justice is focused on giving everyone a voice and making sure it is heard. "Catholics can't just focus on the rituals of the faith and ignore their brothers and sisters suffering from injustice. God wants people to take action in their lives, not just to take part in ceremonies."
After he received his master's degree, he accepted the position at The Interfaith Council, an association of clergy and laity committed to social and economic justice, which is funded by Working Partnerships USA, a CCHD-funded policy research organization in Silicon Valley with close ties to labor. While national media were writing about the young millionaires of the technology boom, Working Partnerships and the Interfaith Council focused alternatively on low-wage workers behind the scenes performing service jobs as janitors and workers in hotels and restaurants.
"The Silicon Valley was the home of the great labor organizer, Cesar Chavez, and is home to a significant and prophetic labor movement, which serves the community rather than only its individual members. The labor movement is laying the foundation of social change. You build a cathedral brick by brick. You build power for working families, and build a community and structures that will be here after we are gone. You plant the seed. Real social justice must go beyond winning a certain campaign."
Born in Guam to Filipino parents, De Leon's first language was Tagalog. He is the son of Dionisio and Amelia Flores De Leon, who live in Dededo, Guam. De Leon was baptized in the village of Mongmong, where he served as a parish altar boy at Nuestra Senora de los Aguas Church (Our Lady of the Seas). His high school theology teacher at Father Duenas Memorial School planted the seeds of interest in social justice.
De Leon credits his parents and their sacrifices for his education and his commitment to social justice. He also credits his family in Bataan and Muntinlupa, Philppines, for shaping his perspective on life. "My parents had a hard life in the Philippines as kids; they were not well-to-do. But they had a belief that God was always guiding them and blessing them. I have a sense of being led, and God is with me every step of the way. I've been blessed with a wonderful family, enlightening experiences, and an excellent education. There is a reason I have been blessed, and perhaps it is so I can work for justice for others. I cannot forget the humble roots of my family."
De Leon has announced his planned departure in 2005 from The Interfaith Council to pursue doctoral level work in psychology and is interested in the combination of social justice and community empowerment. He plans to address economic stressors on working families that destabilize a community through higher divorce rates and increased health problems, for example. "If we want to build strong families we have to work for community empowerment and economic justice," he said.
The Cardinal Bernardin New Leadership Award is presented to a young Catholic between the ages of 18 and 30 who demonstrates leadership to bring about long-term, community-based solutions to poverty in the United States. The Catholic Campaign for Human Development is one of the nation's largest funders of self-help, community-based programs initiated and led by the poor. Funded by an annual collection in Catholic parishes across the country, CCHD has distributed more than $270 million to more than 4,000 self-help projects over its 34 years. This year, CCHD announced nearly $9 million in grants to support 330 local projects, selected without regard to religious affiliation, in 45 states, the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico, and the U.S. Virgin Islands.
Editors: For more information about CCHD, visit www.usccb.org/cchd. For more information about the Bernardin Award, contact Barbara Stephenson at 202-541-3364.