Such change requires a belief that flourishing communities for all are actually possible to create.
“My academic and advocacy work has focused on how we develop communities so everybody can flourish; not segregated neighborhoods of rich and poor,” says Stivers, Director of the Graduate Humanities program at Dominican and Associate Professor of Ethics. “My perspective on homelessness has been to argue for policies that address poverty, such as affordable housing and living wages. Even though charity always will be necessary, many people can avoid homelessness if they simply have a job that pays well and housing they can afford.”
In 2011, Stivers wrote a book entitled “Disputing Homelessness: Alternative Christian Approaches.” She speaks publically and addresses the issue in her classes.
This spring semester she is teaching an economic justice colloquium with Ethics and Biblical Studies Professor Dr. Bonnie Howe in partnership with the St. Vincent DePaul Society in San Rafael. Students will interact with the homeless in the soup kitchen and at the homeless help desk and will also do home visits with people in poverty. In class, they will examine structural factors – housing, health care, and educational systems as well as tax, welfare, and labor policies – that impact how people fare in communities. In addition, students will reflect on Biblical understandings of justice and compassion and philosophical theories of justice in relation to poverty and homelessness.
“The service is important because students need to get out there and meet homeless people,” Stivers says. “Only then will they understand the obstacles people face to being housed.”
They might be surprised by who and what they see and how homelessness impacts families, many of them headed by a single mother. Stivers said that increasingly the face of homelessness is female and that the average age of a homeless person is nine years old. She cites statistics about how the homeless rate in Marin County has risen 35 percent the past two years and how 40 percent of foreclosures have directly affected people renting and living in those dwellings.
“Laura really has her heart in social justice issues, and is both sensitive and intelligent when addressing them in her teaching,” said Lynn Sondag, Chair and Assistant Professor in Dominican’s Department of Art, Art History and Design.
“I value her focus on community-engaged learning, and how in her service-learning courses she provides students with opportunities to experience and engage deeply with difficult and complex issues. Students appreciate what they learn from her, both as a scholar and a teacher. They know that although they are being challenged, they will gain significant academic skills and civic knowledge, and be better prepared for future endeavors.”
Last semester, Sondag and Stivers taught a service-learning environmental justice and advocacy colloquium course. Students learned about the U.S. environmental movement from wilderness preservation to pollution and environmental justice and did art projects related to these issues with immigrant youth in the Canal area of San Rafael.
The class had a profound effect on the students, a majority of whom were nursing students.
“They realized that issues of pollution, workplace safety, and lack of green space in neighborhoods were hugely relevant to their nursing vocation,” Stivers says. “Most of them never thought of themselves as environmentalists because it had never been framed in a way that connected to their lives … They came out of the class thinking environmentalism is really important.”
Stivers’ interest in the intersections between environmental and economic ethics was influenced by a father who taught ethics and a mother who worked with children in the community. Stivers grew up with friends who lived on both sides of the tracks, from inner city Harlem in New York City to suburbia in Washington State.
Stivers learned at a young age to be an advocate for people in need. When she moved to California to attend seminary she worked with a popular education cooperative in Berkeley – “Just Economics” – that developed workshops on economics from a values perspective for nonprofits organizing for economic justice and social change.
Eventually Stivers lived aboard for two years in Costa Rica. This experience led to her focus on international economic policy and its impact on global poverty. A co-edited book “Justice in a Global Economy” was the result.
A marriage and growing family turned her attention to domestic issues in this country. Serving as theological ethicist for the Presbyterian Church USA’s taskforce and publication on homelessness “From Homelessness to Hope” led to her book on homelessness. She now serves on the Leadership Council of The Marin Interfaith Street Chaplaincy and will be nominated to serve on Marin County's Homelessness Policy Steering Committee.
In 2012, Stivers published her latest book, “Christian Ethics: A Case Method Approach” and is now writing articles for undergraduate textbooks. But she has another project in mind on the horizon. She would like to take students on educational trips. One possibility she is excited about is for students to visit an Arizona religious organization – “No More Deaths” – that offers water, food, and medical treatment to immigrants crossing the desert.
“Students would learn about the economic reasons prompting migration and be able to evaluate U.S. immigration policies,” Stivers says, “And they would hear from people whose deep faith calls them to practice compassion to fellow sisters and brothers.”
Until then, Stivers, who recently started running the Graduate Humanities Masters program, stays busy working with Dominican’s service-learning and interdisciplinary colloquium programs.
“I love Dominican’s new focus on engaged learning and creative pedagogy. It is an exciting time to be here,” Stivers says, “Engaged and experiential education really makes a difference for students.”