If you want to do a mitzvah this Black Friday, please consider joining the growing movement that is demanding that Walmart treat its employees with human dignity and pay them a livable wage.
Emboldened by news from Walmart CEO that hundreds of thousands of Walmart workers are paid less than $25,000 a year, Walmart workers and supporters announced plans today for protests on Black Friday (November 29). Workers are demanding that Walmart to commit to improving labor standards, providing workers with more full time work at $25,000 a year and to put an end to illegal retaliation.
Today’s announcement follows revelations this week that many Walmart workers don’t have enough money to cover Thanksgiving dinner for their families, as well as the historic federal government finding that Walmart has been violating workers’ rights nationwide. In the meantime Walmart is the country’s largest retailer and employer, making more than $17 billion in profits, with the wealth of the Walton family totaling over $144.7 billion – equal to that of 42% of Americans.
Check out the new online video, above, in which the OUR Walmart campaign member Martha Sellers discusses employee’s struggles to get by on Walmart’s low pay. The video includes incredulous reactions from the media to the news that employees – not the company – are coming together to donate food to those who can’t afford a Thanksgiving dinner on their Walmart wages.
Over the past month, there have been exciting grassroots Walmart actions across the country, including the largest-ever civil disobedience against the retail giant in Los Angeles, Chicago, Miami, Seattle, Ohio and Dallas. On Black Friday last year, 30,000 Americans called for the country’s largest employer to change at over 1,000 stores in 46 states. This year is set to be even bigger, with experts like Occidental College professor Peter Dreier already calling Black Friday 2013 a “day for the history books” and a “major turning point in American history, similar to the Flint sit-down strikes of 1937.
Click here for information about a Walmart action near you (or to register one). Click here to sign an online petition started by Walmart employee Charmain Givens-Thomas that calls on President Obama to meet with strikers to “hear firsthand why they are appealing for respect and calling on Walmart to pay them enough to feed and support their families.”
I’ll see you in the streets this Black Friday!
While I’m sure that Syria has been on the lips of many a rabbi this High Holiday season, I’ll be honest with you: I’ve struggled with whether or not to give that sermon this year. Not because I don’t consider it to be an issue of critical importance, quite the contrary – no one can deny that the situation in Syria is a tragic and critically important one in our world at the moment. If I’ve been hesitant, it’s only because I’m not really sure I have much to add to the myriad of political analyses we’ve heard in the media these past few weeks.
So while my words to you today are not directly related to Syria, I would like to begin with one small but powerful story out of this crisis. It comes from an article written by my friend Aziz Abu Sarah, a young Palestinian peace activist and educator. At the moment Aziz is the Co-Executive Director at the Center for World Religions, Diplomacy and Conflict Resolution at George Mason University – and he was recently made a National Geographic Emerging Explorer where he serves as a cultural educator. Several JRC members know Aziz well as he was one of our tour guides of a JRC trip to East Jerusalem and the West Bank two years ago.
As the news out of Syria became more and more dire, particularly the news of the growing refugee crisis, Aziz and a colleague put their heads together to explore some kind of action they might possibly take. There are currently more than 2,000,000 Syrian refugees in camps throughout the Middle East – mostly in Lebanon, Jordan, Turkey, Iraq and Egypt. Women and children make up three quarters of the refugee population. There are over 1,000,000 children refugees as a result of this crisis.
In the end, Aziz and his colleague decided to establish an educational summer camp for refugee children on Syrian-Turkish border. In a blog post about his experiences in the camp, he wrote, “Whether the US bombs Assad or not is not in my control, but being active to help those in need is.”
In his post, Aziz wrote movingly about the children he had met and the stories they told him – stories that were at once horrific and at the same time the ordinary everyday stories of children everywhere. At the conclusion of his post, he wrote:
These are the stories that we need to remember when we argue about Syria. These are the people paying the heavy price. When we pass by a news item about Syria, we must remember the millions of children that could become another lost generation without our willingness to engage and help…
Opening our hearts and finding compassion must come before any discussion on military intervention.
When I read Aziz’s post, it reminded me how easily we debate these crises even while knowing so very little about the people who are actually living through them. How we tend to view these kinds of global tragedies in the abstract. It’s understandable, of course – when we read the staggering statistics coming out of these crises zones, it literally staggers our comprehension. How on earth do we grasp numbers such as these, let alone the reality of the suffering behind the statistics?
But while it’s understandable, I do find something profoundly troubling about this phenomenon. Because when we reduce people in crisis zones to abstractions, it invariably creates a kind of emotional callousness in the ways we think and form our opinions about the crises themselves. When we don’t make an effort to understand the human reality behind the headlines, it seems to me, our political ideas emerge in something of a moral and emotional vacuum.
I do believe that Aziz is absolutely right: before we start holding forth on whether or not to bomb, we must first open our hearts and find compassion for the people of Syria. We must make an effort to learn who they are, to learn about their unique experiences, to listen to them. Whatever we believe must be done, the process by which we form our opinions must begin with an effort to get to know the human beings behind the abstractions.
Now I realize that most of us don’t have the wherewithal to pack up and move to Turkey to work with Syrian refugees – but this doesn’t let us off the hook. Because quite frankly, we don’t have to literally go to the Middle East to discover populations at risk. While Syria has been at the center of the headlines of late, in truth there are all too many of communities in crisis in our midst. We don’t have to go all that far to find them.
Indeed, this is another way that our abstractions affect our perception of the world. Crises are things that happen “over there.” To be honest, sometimes it seems to me that we relate to the at-risk populations in our own backyard as if they are as far away as the Middle East. But of course, they’re not. They are right here, right outside our very door. They may not be of the same magnitude of those in places like Syria, but they are all too real nonetheless.
Here’s but one example, from right here in Chicago. Many of you, I know, are familiar with the initiative known as “Safe Passage” a program formed in 2009 as a response to gang and street violence in at risk Chicago neighborhoods. The program places community workers wearing bright fluorescent vests near public schools as a presence that will help create “safe passage” for High Schoolers who were walking to and from school.
The program was expanded significantly this past May, after the Chicago School Board closed almost 50 public elementary and middle schools in predominantly African-American and Hispanic communities on the South and West sides. Among the many devastating impacts of this decision was that it forced many children to walk longer routes to their new schools, through additional dangerous neighborhoods and across multiple gang boundaries. Whereas these children had previously walked an average of a few blocks to their neighborhood schools, many of them now have to walk half a mile or more through areas that are, quite literally, battle zones.
To deal with this reality, the school board expanded Safe Passage, hiring an additional 600 workers at $10 an hour to serve 12,000 schoolchildren in at-risk communities on their way to their new schools. While it is still early in the new school year, the preliminary reports are not promising. There have already been reports of violence along Safe Passage routes – not including the myriad of areas where children are not served by the program. We are now hearing reports that overwhelmed workers are quitting or just not showing up for work. One alderman has suggested the use of drones to protect children along Safe Passage routes.
No, we don’t need to look far away to find stories of children in battle zones. They are, in a very real way, right outside our door.
How do we respond to news such as this? Though it pains me to say so, I would suggest most of us who live the relatively safe and secure neighborhoods of greater Chicago respond to this news the same way we respond to the tragic news coming out of Syria, or Somalia or the Congo. Most of us, I think, thank goodness it’s not our reality. We quantify it in the abstract. We respond as if it’s happening “over there.”
Except it’s not. It’s happening right here in our very own community and in communities just like it across our country. These populations may not be terrorized by tyrannical dictators or civil war, but their lives and their families’ lives are at risk in a very real way. As a parent, I cannot fathom how it must feel to raise my children in neighborhoods wracked with violence, to send them off to walk miles to school through gangland battle zones. I cannot begin to fathom it. And maybe that is part of the problem.
This Yom Kippur, the season when our community honestly takes account of itself and how we might collectively atone, I think it is eminently appropriate to ask ourselves: what has been our response to communities in crisis? And are we truly able to see them? Have we truly opened our eyes and our hearts to their realities – particularly those who live right here in our own nation, our own city?
I can’t help but wonder what our communities would look like if our public policy was guided by such an approach. Let’s return to the example of Safe Passage that I gave earlier. There is no doubt that Chicago Public Schools, like all major urban school districts, faces daunting challenges. But unfortunately in my opinion, the Chicago School Board, like so many other urban school boards, now seeks to address these challenges from a corporate, efficiency-focused mindset rather than a community-based one.
I believe this approach to public education is problematic on many levels – but perhaps the most troubling is the way it has utterly blinded us to the critical role neighborhood schools play as the bedrock of our communities – particularly our at-risk communities. In areas that have already been profoundly destabilized by massive cuts to public services, neighborhood schools have served as the only real glue that holds these communities together. By closing these schools, CPS was in many cases literally cutting the final piece of government investment in these communities – and the last remaining institution in which residents can invest in one another.
It is impossible to understate the devastation these kinds of decisions inflict on low-income communities that have long been seriously at-risk. For decades, in fact, urban renewal policies have been decimating neighborhoods, uprooting residents who are largely poor and people of color. Neighborhood assets, like churches, stores, and parks that have been important community centers for generations, have become abandoned or have disappeared. And so residents have been forced out – they have become refugees, in as sense, of a different sort.
The neighborhood school is often the one institution still surviving in low-income neighborhoods and it has historically served as points of pride and community for families. If you had any doubt that these schools are important to their neighborhoods, you had only to listen to the thousands of parents who attended community meetings on school closings over the past few months. Despite their pleas, however, our new “education reformers” have chosen to close schools rather improve them, using the argument that we are in a time of public sector austerity and that we need to orient them to market forces.
This is what happens when leaders view schools using a corporate model rather than a community-based one. When CPS closed 50 neighborhood schools and slashed the budgets of those that remained, Chicago’s non-elected board addressed this issue with a top-down mindset that was ultimately divorced from the real-life reality on the ground. And so now we have it: thousands of students are now leaving their already devastated neighborhoods every day are forced to walk through battle zones in order to get to their schools.
Of course this phenomenon is not only restricted to our schools. In too many ways, our public policy is guided by the corporate goals of efficiency and profit over community and the greater good. While it is certainly true that many of our public institutions are bloated and inefficient and in need of reform, when we destroy them wholesale in this manner, we fail to reckon with the very real human cost of these actions. Even worse, when we privatize our public works, whether it is public housing, our health care system, or our prisons, we do more than simply turn lives into abstractions. We increasingly view human lives – and in some cases, human misery – as commodities to be profited from.
Whether we call this privatization or neo-liberalism whatever we choose to call it, I do believe it represents a very real form of institutional oppression. It may not be as obvious or as brutal as the oppression meted out by the Bashar Al-Assads of the world, but I submit it is a form of oppression nonetheless. Both stem from a view of our neighbors as somehow “other.” Both benefit from a more privileged people’s willingness to turn a blind eye. And most important, both forms of oppression affect the real lives of real people.
So what is there to be done? On an individual level, I think, one answer is very simple: we need to connect. We need to venture out of the hermetically sealed worlds we too often construct for ourselves and learn more about the people with whom we live – particularly those whose day-to-day reality is fundamentally different from our own.
Earlier this month, I read an article by a German journalist who was in Chicago to write about urban gun violence through a grant from the Pulitzer Center. It was fascinating to read the impressions of this European visitor from a Berlin, a city larger than Chicago but with a fraction of the homicides.
Here is how the journalist, Rieke Havertz, ended the article:
It is human nature to ignore Chicago’s gun violence as long as the shooting stays in the “bad” neighborhoods. Don’t take the “L” down south — that was the advice I always heard when I spoke about visiting less-fortunate neighborhoods.
I ignored the advice and nothing happened to me except that I got to know the city. I discovered that it’s not just money that needs to be thrown at these neighborhoods. They need economic opportunity, education, health care. They need a Chicago that is not a segregated city.
They need people who care. Take a different path, reach over the walls.
I know many JRC members who work and volunteer with in at-risk communities in Chicago and right here in Evanston – and I have learned a great deal from them over the years. I think it would behoove us all to not just to learn about these communities, but to create real connections, nurture real relationships. To meet and listen to those who live there. To relate to them as real people, not as charity cases to be helped or problems to be solved. To learn about their reality, their struggles, their needs, from them, not news reports or politicians or pundits.
We need to learn and act on an advocacy level as well. Here in Chicago, there is a remarkable grass-roots coalition that is shaping up and organizing on behalf of the at-risk communities in our city. In fact, polls show that 60% of Chicago’s citizens oppose the school closings and they are starting to make their voices and their presence heard in a major way. After the CPS’s announcement, many of us took to the streets for three straight days of marches in protest – and although the school closings and budget cuts are now a reality, they have galvanized a movement that is attracting a remarkable coalition – including growing numbers of young people.
But this movement has not grown up overnight – and it is not simply focused on the issue of public schools. It has in fact been building steadily over the years; it is the product of many community-based organizations mobilizing and organizing on behalf of the most vulnerable members of the greater Chicago community.
I’m proud to say here at JRC we are becoming increasingly active in this movement. I encourage you to find out more about our efforts and seriously consider lending us your support. Specifically speaking, I encourage to consider getting involved in our Labor Justice Task Force, our Immigrant Justice Task Force and to speak with JRC members who are currently exploring ways we can become active with Northside P.O.W.E.R., an institution-based people’s power organization with members on the Chicago’s North side and in North Shore Communities.
I have also personally been active with the wonderful organization Arise Chicago, an interfaith community organization that does important, critical local work on behalf of worker justice. (And of course, I would be derelict if I did not mention that we have many other active and vital Tikkun Olam Task Forces at JRC – I hope you will speak to JRC’s VP for Tikkun Olam and learn how you can get involved in our ongoing social justice efforts.)
I also want to encourage us all to educate ourselves and find ways to act on a national level as well. Indeed, it is not an understatement to say that the at-risk populations in our country are currently vulnerable in ways we haven’t seen in decades. According to new data from the US Department of Agriculture, more than one in five American children face hunger, this at a time in which our Congress is considering cutting the SNAP program (aka food stamps) for more than 800,000 Americans who currently receive them but still do not get enough to eat or maintain only a barely adequate diet.
The crisis facing our food stamp program is a particularly critical issue at this very moment – and I would be extremely derelict if I devoted a sermon to our at-risk populations without mentioning this. According to a new report released just a few days ago by the Agriculture Department, food insecurity in our nation remains at a stubbornly high 14.5 percent. According to these statistics, one in five American children are currently facing hunger.
Thanks to the stimulus package, we’ve been able to address this issue through the SNAP program, which last year served 47 million Americans to meet their basic nutrition requirements. However next week, House Republicans, in an effort led by Representative Eric Cantor, will vote to cut $40 billion out of the food stamp program – an act that would literally force hundreds of thousands of Americans into food insecurity.
In regard to this bill, Rep. Jim McGovern made this very astute comment:
There are 50 million people in the United States of America who are hungry, 17 million are kids. It is something we all should be ashamed of, and the United States House of Representatives is about to make that worse. This is a big deal and my hope is that we’ll treat it as such and not just let it go by without a lot of discussion and debate because we’re all focused on Syria.
Now these cuts are unlikely to become law since the Senate would never pass them and President Obama would certainly never sign them. But the very fact that such a bill could even be voted on in the House is a clear sign that those advocating for the poor and the hungry in our country must remain incredibly vigilant. We simply cannot let our foreign policy discussions, however important, to eclipse these critical issues facing at-risk citizens here at home.
Every Yom Kippur, we recite our prayers in the first person plural. When we seek atonement, hope and healing for the New Year, we don’t do so for our own individual selves – we ask for these things on behalf of our entire community. I would claim that in this day and age it is getting harder and harder for us to connect with this aspect of our Yom Kippur prayers. Increasingly, it feels to me that we liturgical lip service to the concept of community. Too often it seems like we’re all living our parallel lives, without the sense that at the end of the day we’re all somehow in this together.
But in fact, we are. I do believe this sense of living separately from one another is itself the illusion. At the end of the day, our fates are intertwined. We’re very much mistaken if we believe that we’re somehow immune from risk. As we all know too well, the middle class is being squeezed and endangered in ways we haven’t witnessed in decades. Over the years and even now, there have been JRC members living on the verge of hunger and homelessness. These problems are not somewhere “over there” and in truth, they never really were. Perhaps it’s only our individualistic 21st century perspective that has changed.
So this Yom Kippur, I’m suggesting a recalibration of our spiritual perspective. To view the risk to the well-being of some members of our community as a risk to our own well-being. In a very real way, to own the danger and let go of our illusions of invulnerability. Otherwise, what do all of these prayers really mean? What do our lives really amount to if we cannot somehow see them as integrally connected to the lives of others, whether they live in Syria or the Southwest side of Chicago or in Evanston?
May this be the new year we let go of our illusions. May this be the year we decide to share the risks as well as the rewards.
May it be a rewarding year for us all.
(Click here to sign a petition that tells the House and Senate to put low-income families ahead of corporate welfare and to oppose all cuts to food stamps.)
If you want to see an inspiring example of young people speaking truth to power, take a look at the clip above. At a recent meeting of the Chicago School Board a group of students publicly demanded to know, one after the other, why the board was closing down fifty public schools in predominantly black and brown Chicago neighborhoods – and publicly asked why the students themselves had no voice in decisions that directly affect them and their communities.
The video begins with a single student speaking at the podium. At about the 2:00 mark individual students begin standing up and speaking out from the audience as security guards rush in and escort them from the room. Finally a hand is placed over the video taker’s camera and he is pushed out – you can hear his voice telling the guard, “I’m just here for students.”
The students’ action is all the more dramatic when you consider that the Chicago School Board is an unelected body that is appointed by Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel – meaning they are utterly unaccountable to the community. Underscoring the depths of this fraudulent “public body”, Emanuel recently announced that he was appointing millionaire venture capitalist Deborah Quazzo to replace outgoing board member, billionaire Hyatt heiress Penny Pritzker (recently nominated by President Obama to be US Commerce Secretary).
What makes Quazzo qualified to make decisions that will impact the 400,000 students that attend Chicago Public Schools? According to reports, Quazzo is the daughter of a corporate CEO/bank chairman from Jacksonville who moved to Chicago after marrying Stephen Quazzo, Co-Founder and CEO of Pearlmark Real Estate Partners. She successfully climbed the ranks of investment banking and venture capital at J.P. Morgan and Merrill Lynch. In 2001, she co-founded ThinkEquity Partners – an “investment firm boutique” that a few years later ran into serious financial problems and eventually had to file for Chapter 7 bankruptcy protection.
Quazzo is just the latest example of the kind of people who the mayor has personally chosen to serve on the Chicago School Board (which is headed up by President David Vitale, Chairman of Urban Partnership Bank and former President and Chief Executive Officer of the Chicago Board of Trade.)
This, in a nutshell, is why these courageous young students spoke their truth to a body that so patently answers to wealthy corporate interests rather than the communities of Chicago.
For my part, I’ll second the words of the invisible cameraman: “I’m here for the students.” Please watch this clip and share this widely.
Just in time for the Jewish festival of Shavuot, I strongly commend to you “Poverty, Chesed and Justice,” a text study just released by T’ruah: the Rabbinic Call for Human Rights together with Justice at Hyatt.
It is customary to engage in a late night study session on the eve of Shavuot – and since the story of Ruth is traditionally read on this festival, a study that focuses on the struggle of women workers at Hyatt feels profoundly appropriate.
As the introduction notes:
In the Book of Ruth, Ruth’s actions are lauded as acts of chesed, kindness. Ruth’s kindness is embodied through action: not just following her bereft mother-in-law Naomi back to the land of Israel, but taking on grueling work in the fields in order to keep them from falling into abject poverty. It is this determination and chesed that causes Boaz to notice Ruth and to perform his own acts of chesed in return. We hope that this Shavuot, the Hyatt Hotel Chain will display similar chesed toward the women who toil every day to change linens, scrub bathroom floors, and carry heavy bedding, all in the hopes of providing a better future for their children.
Right on. The story of Ruth is a story of solidarity, compassion and redemption. Here’s hoping the workers of Hyatt – and all workers everywhere – find an ample measure of each this Shavuot
Last night, I had the very good pleasure and honor to welcome Chicago Teachers Union President Karen Lewis to my congregation. In recent years, Karen’s leadership has put her at the center of one of the most important labor struggles in the country – this past September the CTU teachers’ strike was a national news story, due in no small way to Lewis’ visionary and stalwart leadership. Now she’s leading the charge to resist plans by Chicago mayor Rahm Emanuel and the Chicago Public School board to close 54 Chicago schools – a decision which would affect 30,000 children, mostly in low-income, African-American neighborhoods on the city’s South and West sides.
When Karen first accepted our invitation to present at JRC, she told us she was particularly interested in talking about the Chicago schools crisis from a religious values point of view. Many aren’t aware that Karen converted to Judaism twenty years ago – at a time in which she was on a personal spiritual search and was drawn to the Jewish tradition of questioning and debate. As it turns out, she will be celebrating her Bat Mitzvah in June – so I encouraged her to use JRC appearance as a laboratory to explore some of the themes in her Torah portion.
Her portion, Shelach Lecha (Numbers 13:1-15:41) relates, among other things, the story of the twelve scouts send by by Moses to report on the Promised Land. Ten of them return with words of discouragement, reporting that they saw giants in the land. “We felt like grasshoppers to ourselves,” they said, “and so we must have looked to them!”
In her presentation, she pointed out that forces of domination in society can often have this effect on us. In the case of Chicago schools, it is easy to feel cowed by the powerful political-corporate interests that are decimating public education in our city – and in fact, in cities around the nation. The key, Lewis said, is not to be daunted or to give in to a slave mentality that “idealizes Egypt.” The answer, as ever, is to organize and fight back.
Among the many important points Karen made in her presentation was her insight into the deeper issues around the school closings. While she did not disagree that there are problems in Chicago Public Schools (she likened it to a “mildly dysfunctional family”) she vociferously denied Mayor Emanuel’s claim that the system is “broken.” What’s truly broken, Lewis rightly pointed out, is our commitment to the most vulnerable communities in our city.
This was, for me, her most important point of the evening. “Rahm Emanuel says that closing these schools was ‘a difficult decision’” she said. “Make no mistake: closing schools in black and brown communities on the South Side is not a difficult decision. That was an easy decision. You know what a difficult decision would be? If Rahm Emanuel went to his good friends at the Chicago Board of Trade and the Chicago Mercantile Exchange and told them to pay their fair share. That would be a difficult decision!”
Amen. In a recent Chicago Sun-Times article, Chicago community organizer Amisha Patel pointed out, in fact, that claims by City Hall and CPS that schools must be closed to save money are simply not true. In fact, they are choosing to close schools while sending millions of dollars to Wall Street:
Every year, CPS pays approximately $36 million in toxically high interest rates, linked to so-called swap contracts, to banks like Bank of America and Goldman Sachs. These arrangements, in which CPS pays a fixed interest rate to the banks — typically between 3.5 and 5.25 percent — to protect itself against fluctuating interest rates in the bond market, were supposed to save CPS money.
But the arrangements backfired — and became morally reprehensible — when the banks crashed the economy and the Federal Reserve slashed interest rates to bail them out. Now the banks are profiting greatly from the federal bailout, but Chicago’s schools get nothing — no such relief for them from crippling high interest rates — even as the banks continue to extract millions of dollars from CPS.
Big banks were saved by public money, but many Chicago communities are besieged by record high unemployment and foreclosure rates. After jeopardizing our jobs and our homes, now these banks are coming for our children’s schools. We need a mayor who will stand up to Wall Street and fight for our communities.
But rather than demanding that these banks renegotiate the swap deals, as other cities successfully have done, Emanuel is choosing to close 54 schools. CPS claims the closures will save an average of $60 million a year for 10 years — numbers that many studies have shown are based on unrealistic assumptions, such as the district being able to sell 50 percent of shuttered schools. At the same time, CPS fails to account for the cost to the children who must cross new gang lines to get to school, the disruption of their stability and the creation of even more vacant buildings.
Renegotiating these swaps could save CPS tens of millions of dollars every year — money that could keep schools open. But that would mean putting the interests of poor, black children ahead of the banks, a difficult move for a mayor whose top campaign contributors come from the financial services industry.
Karen Lewis taught powerful Torah last night – and I’m happy to say that there is a Jewish organizing initiative growing in our city that is heeding her call to fight back against the corporate decimation of our public school system. Jewish Solidarity and Action for Schools (JSAS) has drafted a letter to Mayor Emanuel that states “these discriminatory school closings fly in the face of our Jewish and human values.” The letter will be delivered to the Mayor’s office by JSAS activists today.
Here’s Karen with the leadership of JSAS after her talk:
Had the honor this morning to participate in an interfaith ceremony at Chicago’s Daley Plaza that called on Illinois Senator Dick Durbin to resist devastating cuts to Federal programs in the upcoming “fiscal cliff” budget talks. It was quite a dramatic and inspiring gathering, organized by IIRON, Make Wall Street Street Pay – Illinois and other local organizing initiatives. Over 40 members of the Chicago clergy community marched to Daley Plaza, where we encountered two Golden Calves symbolizing the idolatrous motivations behind Wall St. greed and wealth disparity. After hearing from several speakers, one of the calves (a piñata, as it turned out) was smashed open, gold coins scattering in every direction.
We didn’t focus on Dick Durbin simply because he happens to our senator. As the Majority Whip for the Democratic Party, Durbin is one of the most important players in Washington, officially charged with leading the Democrats who control the Senate. And thus far, there is ample reason for concern that his leadership bodes ill for the more vulnerable members of our society.
Since Congress has kicked the budgetary can down the road, critical social programs in this country stand to lose $600 billion dollars on January 1 unless they choose to act. Durbin has already indicated that he favors a “grand bargain” with Republicans that may entail cuts to Social Security, Medicare and/or Medicaid. Just as ominously, Durbin has still not signed an open letter written by Congressmen Harry Reid and Bernie Sanders (and signed by 29 senators) calling on the members of Congress not to cut Social Security.
For our part, the interfaith community of Chicago has written a letter – to Senator Durbin:
Dear Senator Durbin:
Our message to you comes from Deuteronomy 30:15-19 & Joshua 24:15 as we ask you “to choose this day whom you will serve…!” We urge you to choose life and to reject “Simpson-Bowles” or any other “grand bargain” that cuts vital services to vulnerable Americans. We urge you to make absolutely to make absolutely no cuts to Social Security, Medicare or Medicaid.
Working Americans did not create this economic crisis or this false and manufactured “fiscal crisis”. Wall Street’s speculative bubble, made possible by Congressional deregulation crashed the global economy. As a result, the American people have suffered unemployment, underemployment, foreclosure, homelessness, and have lost their savings, retirements and wealth. Congress used working people’s taxes to bail out Wall Street banks instead of assisting underwater homeowners, creating jobs or rescuing state and local governments. The people have suffered enough. Doing further harm to working people is morally unconscionable.
It is immoral to make any further cuts to vital federal programs and services when wealthy individuals and big corporations are not paying their fair share to care for the broader community of whom they are part and on whom they rely. In this time of unparalleled income inequality and concentrated wealth, we will not accept any solution to the federal budget deficit other than raising revenue from those who have not done their share and can easily afford to do much more.
The kinds of cuts being discussed under Simpson-Bowles and other “deals” will literally result in sickness and death for many and will fall upon the poor and vulnerable in order to provide for the excess for the wealthy. Senator Durbin, you now face a choice between serving the false gods of greed and excessive wealth or implementing policies that promote life and shared prosperity. It is important that as a key leader in the Senate you stand firmly on the side of those who stand to lose so much. Therefore we bring to you four demands:
- Block any reductions in benefits for Social Security, Medicare, or Medicaid
- Block any extension of the Bush Tax Cuts for people with taxable income above $250,000 per year
- Block the “sequestration” cuts to domestic programs set to occur in January 2013
- Support progressive sources of taxes including a robust estate tax, taxing capital gains at a rate equal or higher to wages and pass a strong Financial Transaction Tax (aka the Robin Hood Tax)
To Chicago residents: A myriad of local organizing initiatives is holding a rally on Friday, November 9 in Pritzker Park (State and Van Buren) at 3:00 pm. Together we will tell our elected officials: “We Won’t Pay for Your Crisis!” and demand that the wealthy and big corporations must “Pay Their Fair Share”.
On Sunday, we headed northwest, winding our way through a long, gorgeous mountain pass, to Volcanoes National Park, where we spent an incredible afternoon at the Iby’Iwacu Cultural Village. Iby’Iwacu was founded by Rwanda Eco-Tours, the visionary tour agency that has shepherded us along our trip (as well as our last one in 2008). During the course of our tour, we’ve been so appreciative of RET’s skillful readiness to help us organize such a complex and unorthodox tour of Rwanda’s NGO world. The real bread and butter of their organization, however, is their eco-tourism mission.
From their website:
Rwanda Eco-Tours was founded and is run by native Rwandans who are passionate about their country, their people, their natural resources and providing you with the highest quality yet educational tourism experience that responsibly contribute to the conservation of Rwanda’s beautiful natural resources – her parks, lands and indigenous animals, most notably the endangered mountain gorillas – as well as the development and socio-economic well being of local people.
The Iby’Iwacu Cultural Village, one of RET’s signature projects, was founded to allow ex-poachers the opportunity to embrace conservation and cultural preservation, while still being able to make a living and strengthen the economic sustainability of their local community. It is quite remarkable to consider that this effort has allowed these local Rwandans, whose existence previously depended upon poaching and bush meat, to become transformed into environmental and cultural conservationists.
Immediately upon exiting the bus at the village, we were greeted by a wave of local children selling original crayon-drawn pictures of gorillas, elephants and other local species (above). The compound itself was built to resemble a traditional Rwandan native village. We then met our guide, John, who started our tour in front of the King’s hut. In a semi-solemn ceremony, Rich was elected king, I was made King’s Advisor, and Katia Waxman, Queen. After the three of us were dressed in Rwandan royal finery, were were all walked through an interactive simulation of Rwandan social/political/cultural protocol.
When we emerged from the royal hut, we were joyfully greeted by singing, drumming, dancing Rwandan “tribesmen.” After joining in the celebration (above), we were treated to a demonstration in a medicine man’s clinic and honed our native archery skills (below).
Then the real celebration began. (See bottom pic and the fabulous clip up top).
For anyone contemplating a trip to Rwanda, I can’t say enough about Rwanda Eco-Tours – an important agency that truly embodies the best of the eco-tour movement. And I highly, highly recommend a stop at Iby’Iwacu Village, a place that definitely hits the sweet spot between local community development, environmental conservation, cultural preservation and joyful abandon.
On Thursday we shifted our volunteer efforts to CHABHA (“Children Affected by HIV/AIDS), an international NGO that supports grassroots projects in Rwanda and Burundi that care for orphans and other children affected by HIV/AIDS. In Rwanda, CHABHA works with three neighborhood organizations: AMOHORO, which is located in in Kucyiru, Kigali, AGAPE, in Kicukiro, Kigali, and AJESOV in Nyamata (about an hour south of Kigali).
On Thursday morning we first met with the remarkable CHABHA staff: Executive Director David Loewenguth (above right), Coordinator of Associations Micheleine Umulisa (above left), and Patrick Nimubona, who coordinates the Bright Future Program for CHABHA. Bright Future International is an independent NGO that serves underprivileged children around the world. BFI partners with CHABHA, who provides the children for their programs in Rwanda. (Untangling the enormously complicated international NGO/local organization partnerships has been a popular subject of conversation on our bus rides…)
One of CHABHA’s most important functions is to accompany association workers on their regular home visits to the families they support. These visits help CHABHA and local association staff to track the status, needs and conditions of these households – on a deeper level, they clearly enable workers to establish deep and lasting relationships with those they are serving. In some ways it seemed to me that these regular connections provided nothing short of a spiritual life line to these families.
For our first series of home visits, we traveled to the AGAPE association in the Kicukiro district of Kigali and and accompanied CHABHA staff person Micheleine (above left), AGAPE administrative assistant Anna-Marie (middle) and AGAPE worker Grace (right). It’s hard to describe the emotional impact these home visits had upon us – and we’re still having a hard time sorting through the intensity of visiting these families, home after home.
On our first stop, we visited a single mother of four. Her home, like almost all the homes we visited, was made of mud brick. She welcomed us graciously and our group crowded in her small, very dark living area. Her home only had one other room – a smaller bedroom area separated from us by a curtain. Anna-Marie spoke with her and Micheleine interpreted for us.
The mother and her children were all HIV positive. For her regular job, she washed clothes for her neighbors, but at the moment she was too ill to work and as a result, she has no food to feed her children. (Malnutrition is a huge problem for individual with HIV/AIDS because the ARV medications do not work if they are not taken with food.) She also told us that she used to have some rabbits (that CHABHA supplies to be raised, bred and sold for food) but they were recently stolen.
We were overwhelmed with the enormity this mother’s despair. At the same time I couldn’t help but be struck by her innate sense of dignity. Though she was clearly feeling unwell, she was deeply gracious to us and obviously wanted us feel welcome in her home. At the end of our meeting, Anna-Marie said a prayer for her and her family in Kinyarwanda. I asked if I could say a short prayer for her in Hebrew; Anna-Marie said of course. After I concluded a Mishabeirach (Jewish prayer for healing), the mother then offered a prayer for us.
We five more homes before we finished. By the end, we were overcome by familial circumstances more dire than any of us could ever comprehend. While it sometimes felt as if the support offered was but a drop in the bucket of in terms of their sheer need, by the end we came to realize that NGOs such as CHABHA and local neighborhood associations such as AGAPE are the real front line heroes in addressing the scourge of extreme poverty. Anne-Marie, for instance, is far more than a neighborhood association worker – she is clearly is a spiritual matriarchal figure for the families of AGAPE.
There are many more similarly powerful stories I could tell about out myriad of CHABHA home visits that we made between Thursday and Saturday and I hope perhaps I’ll try to add one or two more before I’m through blogging our trip. (One postscript about our first visit: at the end of the day, we returned to the CHABHA office. When we told David about the mother’s situation. He said that in extreme cases like this – i.e., in which families were unable to feed themselves – CHABHA workers revisited immediately with emergency food provisions).
After lunch one of our groups visited an organic learning farm and agronomy class run by CHABHA in partnership with (yes, yet another international NGO), Gardens for Health. The garden and class were located at a school on the edge of Kigali. Getting to the site was an adventure in itself, bouncing up and down in a truck up and down a winding rutted road until we reached the school in the Bumbogo district.
We met with Samuel, the agronomy teacher, who showed us their learning garden (above), which was lined with rows of beets, cabbage and carrots. The ground was dry and rocky, but the crops appeared quite lush. Samuel (back row, middle) said that as part of their organic farming curriculum they raise local livestock and use the manure for composting. Though few of these children have much land to speak of at their homes, the intention is for them to take this knowledge and cultivate kitchen gardens for food and income generation in their communities.
We then went into the school yard with Samuel to sit in on the class. (It took some time getting there as school was just letting out and we were immediately engulfed by excited young students. By the time we got to the class, Samuel had just started the lesson, the subject of which was eggplant. (One student explained to us that there are two kinds of eggplant – and that in Rwanda they grow the smaller kind for local consumption and the larger purple kind for export.)
Samuel shared their very extensive agronomy curriculum with us, after which the students introduced themselves to us one by one. More than a few explained that they were taking this class to help their communities with their new-found skills. We were then asked to introduce ourselves to the class – and asked to mention our favorite vegetable. (Elaine: swiss chard, Rich: cabbage, Me: tomatoes).
During Q &A, Rich Katz, ever the passionate Middle School teacher, asked the students too divide up into four groups and decide among themselves what they thought were the most effective methods for retaining moisture in earth after watering. (One boy looked at me, smiled, and said “No problem!”) They came up with a variety of spot on answer: spreading leaves next to the crops, using plastic, using drip irrigation, etc. By far our favorite Q &A moment occurred when they were asking us questions. One boy, maybe thirteen or fourteen asked Liora if she was single. As you might expect, hilarity immediately ensued.
While we were in Mubogo, the other half of our group stayed at the CHABHA office, where they sat in on classes with Project Independence, CHABHA’s after school vocational training program. Another smaller group went back to Nyaconga, to put the finishing touches on the WE-ACTx jewelry coop space. There was, needless to say, much to share around the dinner table on Thursday night.
Friday morning, we’re visiting AJESOV, another CHABHA-supported association located in Nyamata. On the way we will be visiting two well-known genocide sites that are now maintained as memorials. More on this in my next post.
On Wednesday we were back at the WE-ACTx office to finish assembling the new children’s library. The library itself was originally the brainchild of JRC member Katia Waxman, who created the idea for her Bat Mitzvah social action project last year. Through her efforts, 450 books were donated, which she and her mother (trip coordinator Elaine Waxman) brought over from Chicago. (That’s Katia above, second from right, Sara Fox, far left, Brenda Feis, third from left, Seth Fox and Rachel Pinkelman).
When we arrived at the office Wednesday morning, we discovered that William had finished the mural (below) and the wall shelves had been finished and installed. We spent the morning sorting through the books and arranging them. When we finished, Katia’s project was finally complete – a wonderful legacy to leave to the children of WE-ACTx.
After lunch, we traveled to the WE-ACTx house for a very cool Rwandan dance lesson (Full disclosure, I sat this one out and merely watched, sensing my moves wouldn’t have been a very pretty sight…)
Afterward, we split up into groups and visited the homes of three different Peer Parents, giving us the very special opportunity to get to know them and their families in a more personal setting. These visits completed our last full day with WE-ACTx, although five of our group will go back tomorrow to the jewelry cooperative to complete the work in their showroom.
A few words on this particular project: it began when a group of women met through a “Preventing Mother to Child Transmission Program” at WE-ACTx’s Nyacyonga clinic. The women (with us, below) decided to form a craft collective to generate income to buy baby formula as an alternative to breastfeeding in an effort to reduce the risk of transmitting the virus to their babies. They initially produced woven plastic shopping bags, but eventually settled on craft jewelry – they are now a fully licensed cooperative that they named, “Ejo Hazaza” (“Tomorrow”).
Speaking of tomorrow – our volunteer efforts will focus on the work of CHABHA – another inspiring Rwandan NGO.
Tuesday began with another return visit: this time to the Ineza Woman’s Sewing Cooperative in the Ramera district of Kigali. Ineza was founded in 2006 by WE-ACTx, who helped group of women with ten sewing machines to create an income generation project for their community. They were initially supported by WE-ACTx, who helped connect them with the Latin School in Chicago and eventually Ineza dolls were sold at (of all places) the swanky Barney’s store in Chicago’s Gold Coast for $50.00 to $100.00 a piece.
Now a thriving women’s craft cooperative, Ineza sews a variety of items out of beautiful African textiles, including handbags, clothing, laptop cases, wallets, etc. They have now grown to the point where they are financially independent of WE-ACTx and maintains their own bank account. Their gorgeous merchandise has also become available via the internet through Manos de Madres, so as soon as you finish reading this post you should check them out and buy their products.
After lunch, the youth members of our delegation joined the young people of the WE-ACTx youth program for the afternoon while the rest of us volunteered at another WE-ACTx income generation project – a new women’s jewelery cooperative in Nyaconga (below).
The women of Nyaconga make lovely glass beaded bracelets as well as recycled paper necklaces and earrings. Right now their work space and showroom is located in a large drab space that does little to show off their beautiful work. So with the help of our new artist friend William (who designed the mural painted last Friday at the WE-ACTx children’s library) we were mobilized to paint the walls of the space in colorful shades of light purple, pink, green and yellow (below).
I have to say we’re getting pretty good at painting – and it’s been enormously satisfying to help support these economic empowerment efforts in this way. Four of us will return to the showroom on Thursday to finish assembling the showcase and arrange the large amounts of jewelry inside.
Our teenagers reported that they had an amazing, joyful afternoon with the WE-ACTx young people. I’m going to try to coax one or more of them to write guest posts about their experiences. Stay tuned…