Romina Martiniello started her role as Social and Ecological Justice Animator for Caritas Australia in August. We got in touch with Romina to discuss the role and what it means to work towards a vision of ecological and social justice.

What does the role of Social and Ecological Justice Animator at Caritas Australia entail, exactly?

This is a new role for Caritas which reimagines the previous role of Justice Educator to encompass a stronger focus on ecological justice as well as social justice, which Caritas is so well known for. We have four Animators, each responsible for different regions of Australia. It is our job to communicate and animate the work that our International Programs staff are doing with vulnerable communities overseas to the Australian community. As the Animator for Victoria and Tasmania, my role also includes serving as the Caritas Diocesan Director for the Archdiocese of Melbourne, which means I am the key Caritas contact for parishes throughout Melbourne as well as Catholic primary and secondary schools across Victoria and Tasmania.

My Catholic faith was central and foundational to all the things I had developed such strong passions for – young people, cultural diversity and understanding, gender equality and all kinds of social injustice as well as ecological justice and kinship with all of God’s creation.
Romina Martiniello photo 2 edit 3
Romina Martiniello

What first drew you to NGO world? Can you tell us a little about your own journey towards this role?

As a young person, my own personal faith journey was formed through social justice experiences. I began volunteering weekly at my local Vinnies store when I was 15 and began working with young people during my school holidays to run youth camps at Don Bosco Camp, with the Salesians in Melbourne. I met and journeyed with many mentors through this work – I am convinced that everyone we meet can reveal another face of God to us, another unique and invaluable lesson in the infinite manifestation of God’s goodness.

It was there I came to understand that as Catholics, we are called not only to be charitable and generous, but to move from charity to justice, where we advocate for the vulnerable people in our communities in ways that are ongoing, sustainable, respectful and authentic.

In 2014, I went to Phnom Penh, Cambodia, as a Cagliero Project volunteer. I spent 12 months living and working at Don Bosco Technical School, which offers a two-year associate degree to the most disadvantaged young people across Cambodia and guarantees them employment post-study. This is a very real chance to break the cycle of poverty and advocate for themselves with the same freedom and opportunity that people like me have always been afforded.

The experience of living and working with a religious community was an incredible exercise in expanding my understanding of both spirituality and humanity.

I learned that while imperfect, the contribution of the Catholic Church to the broader development world is a critical part of the work that must continue to be done in order to eradicate poverty so that we can realise true social and ecological justice for all people.

Through my experience in Cambodia, my ongoing Salesian formation and my university studies in sociology and international development, I began to understand that my interests and passions not only complimented my faith, but that my Catholic faith was central and foundational to all the things I had developed such strong passions for – young people, cultural diversity and understanding, gender equality and all kinds of social injustice as well as ecological justice and kinship with all of God’s creation.

What are your hopes for the role?

As someone with a strong passion for young people and youth ministry, I know that social and ecological justice are often the entry points for young people into a personal faith and relationship with God. So many young people are hungry for change and are inspired by people and organisations whose actions match their words. Our Church, especially through organisations like Caritas, has a responsibility to invite young people, and all people, into a journey towards justice for all, inspired by our gospel of love. In 2020, the political and social climate of our world demands that our faith be one that is alive and visible through the work that we do with and for others.

I hope that our animator team, with the support and collaboration of our resources team and international staff, can work together to tell the incredible stories of justice and hope from our overseas and Australian communities. By sharing these stories, we can educate and encourage Australians to work with us to end poverty, promote justice and uphold the dignity of their sisters and brothers.

So many Australians already support Caritas through our Lenten campaign, Project Compassion, which enables us to do the work that Catholic Social Teaching demands of us with our partners. We want to create a culture of social and ecological justice among Australians that is lived and realised every day.

How can young people best remain hopeful about social and ecological justice?

I don’t think there’s much point in doing anything if hope is not involved. Caritas employs a strength-based approach and while being honest about the serious injustice and suffering in our world, we approach our work with optimism and with a belief that what we are trying to do can and will be achieved. The stories that we tell really highlight the strength of the people that we work with, and that’s everything from the stories we tell, the photos that we use and the way we partner with communities in ways that uphold dignity and equal-power relationships. Caritas sees the world in a way that is hopeful and believes that justice will be realised.

We are hopeful about our mission and while we don’t have all the answers, we’re already doing such great work. Our message to young people particularly, is that it can be done. Let us help you be a part of it. Let us bring you into this story.

What are the most prominent ecological and social challenges that we’re facing and what’s the best way to meet them?

My background is in youth work and youth ministry, but my study background is in sociology and international development.

My work now looks at eco-justice and social justice, so a lot of that will deal with climate change. Climate change and ecological degradation are huge issues affecting people, not just the environment. One challenge is continuing to de-politicise the issue. We need to ensure that political labels don’t get in the way of recognising real issues and get in the way of our efforts to work together for good.

In terms of practical things we can do for the cause of ecological justice, there are two simple ways to start: one is to get people thinking about the issue of overconsumption. The amount of resources our society consumes is not sustainable. If we keep consuming natural resources at this rate, we’re going to run out and more people will to continue to suffer. And we often don’t see the faces or the impacts of this suffering. That’s one thing we try and communicate through our Project Compassion stories.

There are many ways to fight overconsumption, like being careful where we choose to shop and making sure our clothes and food are ethically sourced. Waste management, fast fashion, transport and over-consumption of animal products are areas where many of us could make small sustainable changes. Small changes are not enough on their own, but they will have some impact and are an important act of solidarity and a way of living out our faith through works.

Bigger-picture actions have bigger-picture impacts so we need to raise awareness about the various social and political structures that people could address. Encouraging banks, superannuation companies, corporations or companies that we buy from to divest from unethical funds and fossil fuels is a big one.

Part of your role is to encourage awareness, enabling young people to make smart choices as to who we shop with and being conscious of what we’re funding through our purchases.

Exactly. And something Caritas can offer in terms of the eco-space in schools is in the way we approach it in the classroom. The Catholic Earthcare Schools certification process encourages student-led change and helps set the school and students up for success in changing behaviours so we care more for our common home. A lot of schools still approach ecological issues from a science perspective, which great, because the science is critical. But they don’t often look at ecological issues in their RE classes. I’d love to encourage students to continue to make a connection between ecological justice and social justice. They’re interdependent.

Climate change is a justice issue that affects the lives of people and creates poverty. It isn’t something we’re used to talking about in RE, but ecological justice is a conversation to be had in that space. As Pope Francis made clear in Laudato Si, this is a moral issue and there is a huge moral imperative for the Church to speak up on this issue.

In terms of other social challenges, I would be remiss not to mention racial justice, the refugee crisis and the global displacement of people in general, as well as gender equality. They’re all incredibly important and they’re all spaces Caritas has been active in for a long time, working with schools to educating young people about these issues through resources and school engagement.

Another challenge is that in a year that has been so politicised, remembering that we’re all a part of the body of Christ and developing an understanding that when one part suffers, we all suffer. And if we emphasise our connection, it will then help us in the way we can offer help to others.

How can people get involved?

Obviously a key part of what Caritas does is encouraging Australians to support and get involved in the work of Caritas. I don’t ever want parishes, or anyone really, to feel like we only want them to support us financially. While the support we receive from Project Compassion and our other campaigns funds our work, we also want people to be involved in the Caritas story in other ways.

We have a new youth coordinator role where the work is not just about fundraising, it’s about mobilising young people who care about social justice and ecological justice through formation programs like our ‘Walking With God’ initiative, thereby contextualising prayer, reflection and action in ways young people ‘get’ while still keeping them connected to our church, our ministry and our mission.

It’s about promoting the stories and the message and, ultimately, promoting the heart of the Gospel through Catholic Social Teaching. We really want to be a presence that inspires hope and promotes the Gospel to people through our stories, particularly this year when we need to remind ourselves of the good news in our world and communities. Yes, we need the financial support of the community, but really we want to connect with the Catholic community and invite people into our story in whatever way that they’d like to be part of it.

What type of world do you want? For you, your children and your grandchildren? How can you ‘be more’ to help create that world? The theme of Project Compassion 2021 is ‘Be More’, inspired by Oscar Romero. The Melbourne Project Compassion launch will take place at St Joseph’s College, Ferntree Gully on Shrove Tuesday, 16 February 2021.

For more information on Caritas or Project Compassion and how you can be involved, click here.