"Each student that walks through the doors of Loyola deserves to know that they are known, loved and that they belong at Loyola," says Penna, who is eager to get settled in his new role. "The task ahead is to seek ways to help students become more, to assist Loyola in becoming more welcoming and, ultimately, to make our community more inclusive."
The timing is ripe for such a position at Loyola as the school continues to strive to be the leading Jesuit college preparatory faith and education center in the nation. Although new to the faculty lineup, the concept for such a role has been in development for a number of years. "It's important to acknowledge all the people who worked tirelessly to make our community more just and welcoming," Penna says. "Just because this position was just created doesn't mean it's a new endeavor."
Specifically, Penna notes the efforts of School Counselor and Diversity Club Moderator Sarah Bennett; Security Aide and African American Youth Group moderator Beatrice Shoular and Theology Teacher and Director of the Ignatian Service Learning Program Tim Martin, PhD, among the many who have worked for the creation of this position.
Penna begins this new role with an initial examination and guiding questions such as how can we bring those in the margins forward, building a more inclusive community? How can we be merciful and compassionate in this work? And how can we shape our work around a diverse representation of the Loyola community in terms of identities, perspectives and experiences? Informing the work will be four groups: an executive steering committee, inclusion committee, a culturally responsive pedagogy cohort and a student advisory board.
"The success of school culture depends on everyone living up to the Jesuit, Catholic ideals," he says. "It's a responsibility we carry together."
Among Penna's top priorities as he carves out a new role? —Identifying data points to begin measuring shifts in engagement, understanding and participation in school culture; launching a book club; partnering with Jesuit School Network affiliates and other community stakeholders; meeting with Chicago Catholic grade school principals; working with Loyola Academy cultural clubs; and initiating the first "Ride Along" with a student coming from the south or west side of Chicago.
"There is a lot of joy in this role," continues Penna, who was born and raised just outside Washington, DC, and holds degrees in theology and political science from Xavier University. "This role is about fostering kinship throughout the community. It's an honor to walk with and be in solidarity with students as they find their place and their voice at Loyola."
Before finding his calling in education, Penna was active in politics and interned with Sr. Helen Prejean, CSJ, a prominent advocate for the abolition of the death penalty. In 2008, Penna came to Chicago where he married his wife and began teaching theology and coaching JV girls' lacrosse at Loyola. During that time, he earned a master's degree in Cultural Educational Policy from Loyola University Chicago. Before becoming the Director of School Culture, Penna served as the assistant director to the Academic Resource Center and oversaw the Magis Program from 2013–2018.