Economic Justice in the Hood

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Brandon Morel, a member of our Maryknoll Young Adult Empowerment community for the East Coast region, was born and raised in the Bronx, New York. For over 10 years, he has used his background in theater, visual arts and music for peace education. He is an international artist, husband, father, youth minister, entrepreneur and public figure who works to engage the Hip-Hop community by redirecting its efforts towards love.

Sociologists characterize the experiences of people who grow up “in the hood” as economically challenging. This is due to the high levels of poverty and injustice that dominate this urban landscape.

Brandon recalls when he was 15 years old and was not able to pay for his PSAT (Preliminary Scholastic Aptitude Test) to prepare to get into college. He came home to find his mom, who was recently divorced from his dad, crying over bills at the kitchen table. He decided to collect cans and spare change to pay for his exam. But when he brought a Ziploc bag filled with spare change and single dollar bills to school, the dean refused to accept it. His guidance counselor, who witnessed what had happened, pulled him aside and gave him cash in exchange for his spare change.

Reflecting on past injustices because of his material poverty, Brandon states “economic justice is all about access and understanding.” That means opportunities for financial growth would be available to all communities, and processes to educate these communities would support them in making better economic choices for their families.

“Everyone we grew up around was living paycheck to paycheck; food stamps, and WIC check to WIC check,” he says, referring to a governmental nutrition assistance program for women, infants and children.

Brandon went to a youth group at St. Raymond parish, in the Parkchester neighborhood of the Bronx, initially for free pizza and a place to hang out on Sunday nights. Later, he was invited into leadership. Also at St. Raymond’s, he met his mentor, Jive Poetic, through a community outreach program funded by Catholic Charities. Jive Poetic taught him the art of rhyming and spoken-word poetry, which gave him a voice to address economic injustice, he says. Once he graduated from high school, he found a “home” in the Church.

“I have been blessed to learn about things that my parents and grandparents knew nothing about,” he says. “Between church and other community organizations, I was exposed early on to other forms of income that are both legal and moral while empowering me to look beyond a minimum wage job.”

Brandon’s journey into ministry came from his desire to serve his community. “The more my faith expanded and my high school friends and I grew apart, the more I saw walking with young people in ministry as an outlet for making lasting change,” says Brandon, who also goes by the artist name The Symbol.

Years after starting his own record label and clothing line in high school, Brandon developed a non-profit organization, seeing a need to promote entrepreneurship in inner-city communities. He later decided to focus on youth ministry to help young people from a more Christ-centered approach. He continues to believe that teaching inner-city youth about financial independence, start-up capital, and working with finances could help them break free from generational cycles of money mismanagement.

Now working as director of youth evangelization at St. Michael-St. Malachi in Eastern New York, Brooklyn, he encourages inner-city youth to find the same faith connection he found in high school and college.  He states that Maryknoll’s Young Adult Empowerment community has been a good place to dialogue with like-minded individuals. Brandon says that “access to this community can be the start of some impact down the road as we gather in solidarity to be intentional about creating social change.”

Featured image: Brandon Morel sings during a youth event at Holy Trinity Church in Passaic, New Jersey, in 2019. The event drew 400 teens as part of YouthWeek.




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About the author

Walter Hidalgo

Dr. Walter Hidalgo was born and raised in the south side of Providence, Rhode Island, to immigrant parents from Guatemala. He has a master's of arts in Church History and Sociology from Union Theological Seminary at Columbia University and a doctorate in ministry from New York Theological Seminary, where his focus was on the intersectionality between Hip-hop culture and socio-spiritual movements. As a Maryknoll Mission Educator Promoter based out of New York, he also leads the Maryknoll Young Adult Empowerment Community for the East Coast region.