Villanova tackles poverty, inequality with new initiative

The university is utilizing a $1 million gift to help spark discussions and inspire change to provide hope for those less fortunate
By: | October 26, 2020
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Building on existing programming and a commitment to serving those in need, Villanova University said it is increasing its focus on issues of poverty and inequality by launching an interdisciplinary program that will address longstanding problems through discussions, curriculum and policy solutions.

Backed by a $1 million donation from Villanova graduates and philanthropists Paul and Christine Tufano, the ultimate goal of the academic effort is to find creative and definitive ways to break down systemic barriers that have led to financial disparity for millions of Americans.

“The events of 2020 have only underscored the need to address longstanding inequities that continue to plague our nation,” says Paul Tufano, CEO and chairman of the AmeriHealth Caritas Family of Companies, which is a Medicaid managed care firm. “From a public health crisis with economic ripple effects that have disproportionately impacted the working poor, to an overdue national reckoning on racism and racial disparities, we need public policy solutions and we need them now. Christine and I want to raise the public consciousness and, working with Villanova, help to identify and create momentum for innovative solutions.”

Issues of poverty are not only prevalent in cities such as Philadelphia, but also on campuses throughout the U.S. One of the new leaders of the project (which will be part of Villanova’s Charles Widger School of Law) is Stephanie Sena, the first fellow and an adjunct professor at the university. She is also executive director of the nonprofit Student-Run Emergency Housing Unit of Philadelphia, which sets up students with housing, food and other basic needs.

Villanova says Sena will instruct classes on public policy, poverty and inequality within the law school as well as assist on a bigger initiative – a yearly symposium that will bring together top voices to present best strategies for tackling issues of poverty among various groups, including minorities and those with disabilities.

Mark Alexander, dean of the Widger School of Law, said it will be important in driving discussions to not lose sight of one the key components.

“When we discuss poverty, inequality must be part of the conversation,” he said. “Students, faculty and alumni continue to show a passion for the many issues surrounding poverty and inequality, so I can think of no better place to further examine this important topic than at Villanova.”

The project is part of an overall mission by the University’s Office of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion to drive programming that furthers efforts to uplift those who are less fortunate, something university president Rev. Peter Donohue says is part of the work “derived from our patron saint, St. Thomas of Villanova, known for his great charity to the poor and marginalized – to ignite meaningful, positive change.”

The Office recently launched workshops and other discussions around the initiative  “Living Race—Transforming Community” and has featured classes such as “Global Poverty & Justice”, “History of Homelessness” and “Epidemiological Approaches to Health Care and Health Disparities.”

Many other universities, understanding that poverty and inequality exist both in broader society and with students who may attend their institutions have offered similar programming to students as well.

The Stanford University School of Humanities and Science’s “America’s Poverty and Inequality” course features a number of modules on the existence of hardship in the U.S. and potential solutions. Notre Dame offers an interdisciplinary minor in Poverty Studies. Williams College has poverty-related courses in its Center for Learning in Action.

Paul Tufano says universities such as Villanova can and must make a difference in changing the dynamic for those in need.

“Everyone deserves the opportunity to live their own version of the American Dream and this large-scale, university-wide effort will study and innovate at the root causes that have kept that dream out of reach for too many Americans and for too long,” he said.