January 11, 2021

Kari Nelson (C’16)

Kari Nelson (C’16) was a Justice Fellow at the Equal Justice Initiative in Montgomery, Alabama, and is a part of the CO2 of Inequality working group for the "Economy of Francesco" international conference.

Kari Nelson
Kari Nelson

In November 2020 Pope Francis convened “Economy of Francesco," a global online gathering of young people determined to make the economy fair, sustainable, and inclusive. Georgetown University asked participating students and alumni to reflect on their experiences in two essays: the first considers their pre-conference working groups and the second offers personal takeaways after the gathering.

The Economy of Francesco: Building a More Just and Hopeful World

Pope Francis’ papacy significantly shaped my Georgetown University experience as an undergraduate. My first year, as I was sitting in Healy Hall during my Problem of God course, the bells of Healy started ringing above me to announce that a new pontiff had been elected. After class ended, I hurried out to the John Carroll statue and joined other excited students to run to the Wolfington Hall (the Jesuit residence), mirroring the Georgetown tradition of running to the White House on election night. Pope Francis’ teachings and his emphasis on caring for the poor and marginalized, including care for creation, were present in every retreat I attended and in several classes I took during my four years on the Hilltop. Georgetown is where I learned how to articulate the commitment I have always felt in my soul. My education and vocation must be put in the service of others, accompanying and prioritizing the marginalized in society. The “Economy of Francesco” conference represents yet another way my continuing Georgetown journey is aligned with Pope Francis.

I chose to work within the CO2 of Inequalities village (the conference’s name for working groups) because I was intrigued by the idea of inequality as a “carbon dioxide” of humanity. Like CO2, the consequences of inequality are often ignored by those who are not directly harmed, even more so by those who produce the toxic amounts. It is the poor and marginalized who most pay the price. After graduation, I completed a year of service through the Jesuit Volunteer Corps, working as an intake specialist at a legal nonprofit that represents those on Georgia and Alabama’s death rows and advocates for equality, dignity, and justice for people impacted by the criminal legal system. There I saw firsthand the deep disparities in who is incarcerated and sentenced to death. The criminalization of poor people and people of color is a significant source of CO2 in the United States and contributes to a toxic environment where people are crying out for breath. My experience as a Jesuit Volunteer forever opened my eyes to the systems that not only permit but encourage inequality to thrive. The CO2 of Inequalities village envisions how to dismantle those systems and “build an economy that is regenerative and inclusive by design, that no longer produces victims.” 

The online lectures leading up to the “Economy of Francesco” event in November 2020 have reinvigorated my commitment to build a more just and hopeful world. University of Oxford economist Kate Raworth’s seminar on “Designing a Regenerative and Distributive Economy” explained her donut economics model. Raworth discussed the importance of creating an economic system that serves the needs of all people while not exceeding the planet’s resources. We must meet peoples’ needs and stay within the limits of the environment to remain in the “donut.” I was inspired by Raworth’s model for its holistic thinking. Instead of defining the success of an economy solely based on its endlessly growing GDP, we must consider people’s health, education, the effects of climate change, inequality, and other factors to create more accurate measures of societal success.

In the months leading up to the virtual conference, it has been heartening to see people from around the world, of all ages, and in an array of fields come together with the sincere belief that we can reshape our economies and our societies to allow all people to flourish. This is an audacious hope, and it necessitates advocates who are interdisciplinary and interconnected. I am very much looking forward to learning even more during the conference and seeing how this global meeting can inspire lasting change.

The First Step Towards a New Economy

Glancing out of my window was enough to remind me I wasn’t actually in Italy, but for three days in November, during this time of the COVID-19 pandemic, I virtually joined thousands of young people from around the world “in” Assisi. At our computers, all of us united in the effort to build a more just and sustainable economy. When Pope Francis invited us to the "Economy of Francesco" conference in May 2019, he wrote, “Your universities, your businesses and your organizations are workshops of hope for creating new ways of understanding the economy and progress, for combating the culture of waste, for giving voice to those who have none and for proposing new styles of life.” Even during this global health crisis, his message remains the same. We must begin building a new world in the world we currently have, and we must remain hopeful, though the world often suggests that there is little for which to hope. Overall, the conclusion of this conference, this coming together of young economists, entrepreneurs, and change-makers, signifies the beginning of the process.

I have studied painful histories and efforts to memorialize the past both as an undergraduate at Georgetown and in my subsequent work. Through these efforts I have seen that people who have benefitted from the marginalization of others, and those who have directly committed the violence, often want to move to reconciliation before confronting the truth of the harm itself. The conference allowed participants to agree upon the truth in which we are operating: that our current economic systems do not put people first and are too often destructive to the poor and the planet. If we wish to change these systems, we must first see them clearly for what they are.

My thematic village, the CO2 of Inequalities, hosted a session with University of Oxford economist Kate Raworth about “donut economics,” a system which meets humanity’s needs without exceeding Earth’s resources. The session, titled “We Are All Developing Countries,” challenged participants to think about the end goals of the economy and by what measures we should judge the success of an economy that centers life over money. Currently, our economies are focused on constant expansion and endless growth, maximizing short-term profit for corporations and maximizing personal consumption for those who can afford it. Raworth believes we can achieve an economy of life that lives within the “donut” by promoting local marketplaces and mindful consumption, as well as sharing information and technology between countries. These efforts must be enforced through policies, but we as societies must first agree on the foundational ethics and how we measure success instead of solely looking to profit.

By framing the conference as a beginning, participants knew that the conclusion of the event was far from the end of these conversations. I left reassured that we can start working to build the “Economy of Francesco” within our own lives and spheres, beginning with a moral grounding that is reliant on our relationships with others. I am recommitted to always work, as Georgetown taught me, for and with others. As Pope Francis said in his closing message to the conference, “Deep down, we lack the culture required to inspire and encourage different visions marked by theoretical approaches, politics, educational programs and indeed spirituality, that cannot be fit into a single dominant mindset.” How can we convince someone to care about the poor if he refuses to see them? Our efforts to shape a new economy must be interdisciplinary. Economists must build models that center the poor and marginalized, educators must help others learn about the world around them, historians must reveal the lessons of the past, activists must advocate for and with the excluded, and all of us, together, must work for truth. Hopefully, from there, we can begin this journey towards the “Economy of Francesco.”

Kari Nelson (C’16) is a 2016 graduate of Georgetown University and majored in American studies. After graduation, she served with the Jesuit Volunteer Corps in Atlanta, Georgia, working at the Southern Center for Human Rights. While she was a Justice Fellow at the Equal Justice Initiative in Montgomery, Alabama, she assisted with the April 2018 opening of the Legacy Museum and the National Memorial for Peace and Justice. Kari is an aspiring public historian.