Champions of Social Justice

Jack LaVigne and his mom Alison
Jack LaVigne and his mom, Alison.

Jack LaVigne

By Claudia Ricci, Ph.D.’96

A visit to Ethiopia last February opened Jack LaVigne’s eyes to the country’s poverty and deprivation. Many citizens in the capital of Addis Ababa were desperate for housing, food and medical care, and he was troubled at “the lack of closeness of people in exile, struggling to connect to a larger community.”

LaVigne’s experience in Ethiopia – part of a Christian mission – made him realize just how privileged he is. As an English major at UAlbany, he had spent the previous three years enjoying small classes and forming close-knit relationships with faculty and fellow students. “To be part of a community that grows and thinks together is so important, and I am so grateful!”

Lalibela Ethiopia

The marketplace in Lalibela, Ethiopia.

During his two-week stay in Ethiopia, LaVigne helped to set up “instant” medical clinics that delivered help to AIDS-infected people in Addis Ababa. He accompanied a nurse and a translator, going door to door in a slum called Suki, offering assistance and counseling, hygiene supplies and HIV drugs, as needed.

It was a challenge, LaVigne acknowledges, to keep the situation in perspective. “You go with it, you roll with what’s happening, you’re in it and you’re helping people. You think something is being accomplished.” But then comes the realization that the government has failed to provide for its people.

“We aren’t able to do anything to help restructure the political situation or the economy, and that is so frustrating,” LaVigne observes. At the same time that people are sick and starving, the Ethiopian government is focused on bringing big developers into Addis Ababa to modernize the city with large corporate buildings. “The discrepancy between the 99 percent and the 1 percent is all the more apparent in a third-world country.”

Clinic in Suki

The clinic in Suki.

At one morning devotional service, it was LaVigne’s task to select a Bible verse. He chose “Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.” He spoke to the group about the frustration he felt working in the slums of the city. “What exactly will they be inheriting?” LaVigne asked. “And when exactly will it happen?”

He is also pondering another question: Will his trip to Ethiopia affect his plans after graduation next May? LaVigne has tinkered with the idea of joining the Peace Corps; “it’s definitely on my mind.” He adds: “I don’t know. It takes a lot of courage to devote that much of your life to something. It’s really a great labor of love.”

LaVigne is part of a UAlbany family. His father, Mark, earned a master’s in communication in 2003 and is now enrolled in a doctoral program in the same department. LaVigne’s mother, Alison, graduated with a master’s in social work in 1997.