A History Divided

The Poverty Initiative Immersion toured much of Wilkes-Barre on Sunday. Images of deindustrialization, of the human and environmental toll of a changing economic structures are staggering — calling us to deeply question how we are forming economic, political and human communities

January 19, 2013

Ranwa Hammamy

The second day of our immersion found us beginning once more in AD30, discussing three concepts that could each be the focus of a semester-long course of their own: rights, religion, and race. We opened our reflection with a conversation on the necessity of education and analysis in the generation of effective social action. What struck me the most about the group’s discussion was the knowledge based in the experience of working with others who have organized movements for change without first engaging in an in-depth exploration of the system at hand. The ideas put forth by the group beautifully connected with the tree metaphor presented in the previous day – when we don’t engage in an intentional analysis of what exists beneath the diverse struggles we face, we end up focusing not on the roots, but on the leaves of the tree. As a result, the system stays in place, firmly planted, and new problematic leaves grow. Intentional analysis has the power to bring us together more effectively, as it encourages us to look beyond what we face as individuals or specific communities. The informed combination of our struggles creates a form of social action that all remain connected to, regardless of the issue at hand in the present moment, because we can better appreciation its relation to our universal well-being.

The discussion then transitioned to a focus on “rights” and almost instantaneously we came across our first major concern – what do we mean when we say “rights”? Martin Luther King, Jr. in his campaign spoke about shifting the focus from “civil rights” to “human rights”, leading me to believe that there is something more universal that must be at the core of our efforts when we are working to bring people together. As one student said, he envisions rights as being “the minimum, the floor” that all are entitled to have. The question we must then ask is what are those basic rights? What do we define as universal, can we even define what is universal in a society that is as diverse as this one? The reality facing many social movements is their inevitable limitation: whomever is at the forefront represents one voice from the margins. Thus, there is a danger for movements that attempt to achieve basic human rights to unintentionally exclude others who have been pushed into the margins. This pattern can run the risk of continuing the division among the dispossessed…unless we remember to engage in the intentional analysis that brings attention to the systemic concerns behind each of our struggles. Later, when the conversation incorporated the Declaration of Independence, the “God-given rights of people”, I could not help but wonder if we need a change in our view of this document’s message. The Declaration of Independence is often seen as a self-assertive document, and thus has served as a reference point for many individual movements. But for an effort such as this one, which places unity at the forefront of bringing essential change, should we adapt our interpretation of this statement as a reminder to observe the rights of others? When our own rights are violated and denied, it is easy to become trapped in a concern for the alteration in our own situation. But if our social framework is based in an understanding of others’ rights, in a gratitude for the humanity and worth of those around us (as well as ourselves), appreciating needs different from our own and uniting across lines becomes a more natural response.

When the conversation shifted towards the nature of “rights” in religion, I admit that I became a little uncomfortable. Having been raised I a non-Christian environment, I am concerned when conversations on religion in social movements remain focused on Christianity and the Bible. While that conversation is an essential part of our discussion, particularly when examining the oppressive forces at play in US history, rights (if they are truly universal) cannot be defined by a religious, let alone solely Christian, framework. I realize that this statement is potentially controversial, and I do not mean to say that religion plays no role in our work to assert or defend our human rights. But the defining work, in order to be universally applicable and unifying, cannot be based in an element of society that not all share. That being said, our reflections on and protection of these rights can only be strengthened by a deep religious understanding of their relevance to whatever faith we may proclaim.

After lunch, we returned to discuss perhaps the most complex topic yet – race. The presentation by Jeffrey Perry began with a powerful statement – “there is no white race.” Having read some of Tim Wise’s anti-racism work, I was familiar with some of the ideas surrounding the intentional construction of race, but this presentation offered a deeply historical analysis that was conducted by Theodore Allen. Allen’s theory identifies race as being a social construct carefully crafted by the ruling class. His analysis beginning in early-colonial America presents the invention of the “white race” as a way of preventing those in the lower classes from coming together against the wealthiest members of society. By dividing the poor with the invention of the “white race”, the wealthy created a system that united Euro-Americans of different class levels against poor African-Americans. Thus, “plantation politics”, as defined by Du Bois, began to take hold of our society in its earliest days, pitting poor whites against African-Americans, and creating a system of social control that left the wealthy untouched. Class unity among the poor was effectively prevented with the creation of this new social construct. Among the inevitable conclusions of this analysis is the reality that modern-day racial oppression only serves to perpetuate class division, and serves as one of the greatest hurdles to the creation of a movement that unites the poor and dispossessed. So long as racism is allowed to continue, there will not be an effective effort to address the glaringly unjust economic disparity in our society. Perry’s presentation was a powerful reminder of why efforts like the Poor People’s Campaign and the Poverty Initiative are needed – to show the shared story, to create a class-consciousness that unites across different lines, and to recognize what is at the root of our experience of oppression so that we can come together to assert our truly universal human rights.

Our day ended with a tour of different key sites in the Abolitionist (and anti-Abolitionist) movements, highlighting once more the division that perpetuates the oppressive systems in our society. One of the prime examples was our stop at Five Points, where the poor of different backgrounds co-existed peacefully for some time. However, this harmony dissipated with the institution of the draft in the Civil War, and division between Euro-Americans and African-Americans surged. Seen as the cause of the draft, African-Americans became targets of hostility, which came to a peak in the “Five Point Riots”, in which dozens were killed and unity among the poor in the area was destroyed. Our tour continued to the site of Collect Pond, which had been a location of poor living conditions for many across colorlines, and the African Burial Ground, now a national monument identifying the location where hundreds of Africans were buried in the 17th and 18th century. One of the memorial walls had an inscription that dedicated its existence to those who “are not forgotten”, an important message to remember as we examine the roots of the division ad oppression present in our society today. We continued to Printers Row and City Hall, where the role of mass media in generating social movements through the endorsement of a particular stance on a divisive issue was considered in relation to our work today.

Our tour and day ended with visits to Zuccotti Park and Wall Street, key sites of the Occupy movement. During our visit to these sites, we were reminded of how they were places where people were united against oppressive economic systems, showing us how barrier-crossing was possible and functioning today. But we were also reminded of one of the greatest risks of coming together – that is when the attempts to divide us are the strongest. The lessons of the day flowed through my mind – our actions must be grounded in deep reflection on and understanding of the forces at play. Only then will we be able to move beyond our own narrow understandings of what rights we are struggling for, and create a universal movement that is based in bonds that defy past, present, and future attempts to prevent unity among the marginalized.

Where does hope come from?

A blog from Wednesday, January 9, 2013:

Mercedes, Laurel, and Alvaro, students from the University of Central America (UCA) in San Salvador. Overhead posters of Oscar Romero, UCA martyr priest Ignacio Ellacuria, and Martin Luther King, Jr.

You’ve been reading about our extra-busy days and extra-profound discussions and experiences.  Today, Wednesday, was no different.  We began the morning with a panel of distinguished invited guests, the heads of the Episcopal, Lutheran, and Reformed denominations.  These are three of the Protestant denominations who supported the people throughout the times of conflict.  In the afternoon, we visited with three theology students from the University of Central America (UCA), the Jesuit university where liberation theology is still taught by the likes of Jon Sobrino.  Later we met with the former Human Rights Ombsbudswoman of El Salvador, a position that was created by the Salvadoran Peace Accords in 1992 to report human rights abuses of in El Salvador.  In the evening, we attended a house concert by Guillermo Cuellar, a Salvadoran musician who worked with Romero writing and performing songs expressing the struggles of the people, including the Salvadoran Popular Mass.

Right to Left: Episcopal Bishop Martín Barahona, Lutheran Bishop Medardo Gomez, Reverend Santiago Flores of the Reformed Church

In the panel of the three church leaders, Lutheran Bishop Medardo Gomez talked about how he was disappeared and tortured for his role accompanying poor communities during the war. International ecumenical pressure demanded his release.  The leaders talked about the role of the church in the more recent history, including how the Catholic Church helped negotiate a “truce” between the two major gangs in El Salvador in spring 2012.  One leader said that these churches understand themselves as united by a common ecumenical “Theology of the Cross”, which is a commitment to never abandon the most vulnerable.  This refreshed a place in me because I understand my own call to ministry to have such a theology, yet sometimes I feel timid to say it in front of church leaders and committees because I am constantly called on to defend how that is a legitimately “ordainable” church ministry position. The Salvadoran church leaders confirmed that an ecumenical and interreligious coordination between the north and the south of the continent is necessary to change the systems of injustice that are continental and worldwide in scope.  What form will and must that take?

The Human Rights Omsbudswoman was the biggest wake-up call yet for our group to the actual reality of El Salvador.  Our group came on this trip seeking to learn the liberative spirituality and praxis of Romero and his challenge for today.  But this takes for granted that much liberative spirituality and praxis based on remembrance of Romero exists here in El Salvador. Up until now on the trip we have been surrounded by the minority in El Salvador who do care about Romero and practice a liberative spirituality.  The Omsbudswoman laid out a frank reality in which the dominant consciousness has little commitment to follow Romero in a justice-seeking way of life and of being church. As I listened to the conversations in the bus after our visit, I heard such things as:  How could the Omsbudwoman say that the Salvadoran people are not a revolutionary people?  How could she say that the people are more status-quo than seeking to change the reality, after all we’ve heard about Salvadoran history during our visit here?

Lest we think that El Salvador is any different in this regard than the United States, I point out the quandary that the Salvadoran leaders with whom we speak must struggle to reconcile: how delegations of concerned people from the United States come to learn from El Salvador’s history; meanwhile, during the war and now, the US government’s policy toward El Salvador seeps life out of the Salvadoran people.  During the Salvadoran Civil War, the US sent $1 million EVERY day to fund the war that killed over 75,000 of the Salvadoran people.  And today, the United States dictates CAFTA free trade laws and norms of “development” and “aid” that benefit the world’s oligarchy more than change the systems sustaining poverty.  Deregulated flow of capital steals the wealth produced by Salvadoran workers in factories out of the country.

“We have to say the truth, without minding who it will bother. -Jon Cortina, SJ”

To reconcile these ironies, the Salvadoran leaders we speak with say “Oh, we know that the US government is different from the US people.”   But I no longer feel excused by that excuse.  The convicting question to us from the United States is thus:  are we a revolutionary people, with all the positive connotations this word can carry—of seeing through the lies to create domestic and foreign policies that work toward better lives for the majorities both in the US and countries like El Salvador?  Is the government in the US really much different from the dominant consciousness of the US people?  Can we use that excuse today?

Guillermo Cuellar, a Salvadoran musician who worked with Romero writing and performing songs expressing the struggles of the people, including the Salvadoran Popular Mass.

Sometimes when considering these difficult questions, I wonder if, and how, we’ll ever change dominant consciousness in the US enough to improve our own conditions and those of El Salvador.  It’s a question we’ve asked to many of our speakers:  from where does your hope come?  How do you keep doing the work you do amid frustration and violence?  In a meditative service at the Chapel where Romero was assassinated, our facilitator asked us what word we think best describes Romero. I responded “Inspiration” because I think that he was inspiration to people of his day and to us today to summon the courage needed for the required work to counter the normative power relationships and consciousness.  I accepted the facilitator’s suggestion to adopt this as a commitment in my own life for the next segment.  Thus, in the night, Guillermo Cuellar’s songs washed over my body and into that space where fear and courage negotiate.  He interwove his songs with the stories that inspired them.  He told stories of encounters with Romero and of the faith, suffering, and resistance of the Salvadoran people.  Contained within the Salvadoran organized “pueblo” and in the music that sustains them is the sometimes unutterable, often unspoken, assumption that we will ever seguir adelante (continue forward).

Having been in the city of San Salvador up until now, we have most of the country undiscovered—both its geography and its conditions.  Thus we head to the mountains today.  We have yet to have encounters with so many more things that are the realities of El Salvador:  poverty, young adults with fifth grade educations, scorched earth massacres, communities built in refugee camps.  Que nos vaya muy bien.  (May we have a good trip.)

- Jennifer Wilder, MDiv 2013

Poverty Scholar Summer Residencies – Lenora Knowles (2 of 4)

Poverty Initiative Fellows Summer Residencies

Seeking to simultaneously support the work of Poverty Scholar organizations and further develop the leadership skills of Poverty Initiative Fellows, this past summer we launched a program of Fellows Summer Residencies for three of our Fellows.

In a series of blog posts, we will share reflections from each of our Fellows on their residency program experience including: Daniel Jones (an NYU student who spent 8 weeks with the Brazilian Landless Workers Movement–MST), Lenora Knowles (who spent 2 months with the United Workers in Baltimore, MD and Jennifer Wilder (who spent 2 months in Central America with the Christian Base Communities, on the Texas/Mexico border, and with the MST in Brazil). We will also post reflections from PI’s Crystal Hall on her work with Poverty Scholars partners in VT and the United Workers in Baltimore.

Lenora completed her first year in the Master of Divinity program at Union Theological Seminary and has participated in the Poverty Initiative Fellows Program since September 2011. During her year with the Poverty Initiative, she took part in the Homeless Union History Study-Work Project, Poverty Scholar organization actions and trainings, Poverty Initiative staff meetings and educationals, and traveled with the Poverty Initiative immersion course in January.  Below are Lenora’s reflections from her residency program in Baltimore.

This summer of I had the powerful opportunity to partake in an exchange with the United Workers Association of Baltimore, Maryland. United Workers is a human rights organization based in Baltimore, Maryland. This community of folks strives to be an organization of poor folks, organizing across color lines (and any other cultural or socioeconomic boundaries for that matter) to end poverty. Baltimore is a deindustrialized urban center. Like many towns and cities across urban and rural regions of the United States, Baltimore has experienced shift away from an economy based on industrial production toward a more service and tourist based economy. This focus in tourism has only exacerbated the already deep seated economic instability and disparities and exploitative social relationships permeating throughout Baltimore neighborhoods.

There are many things that can be said of the current situation of Baltimore along with the history that has birthed such conditions. Despite the complexities and nuances that make up the Baltimore context I think it is helpful to take into account the immense amount of city backed private development and the thriving local Democratic machine currently headed by Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake. Over recent years there has been a great deal of private development in the city center and harbor areas in the form business parks, hip living spaces, restaurants, shopping centers, and other tourist attractions of the downtown Baltimore Harbor. Not only are areas like the Inner Harbor public land, but the city has committed millions of dollars (corporate tax right offs and rent relief programs) to big name developers and corporations. The dominant rhetoric justifies such city spending with the logic that more business will mean more jobs for Baltimore. However, as many workers at UW will tell you, these jobs do not make up consistent employment that uphold their human rights. Likewise, in the midst of such corporate favoritism, Baltimore children and communities are battling policy measures that devalue people, like recreation center and firehouse closings.

Not only is United Workers strategizing, organizing, and mobilizing within a city where the local government is unabashedly in good with corporations and developers, but they are also working within a community in which the last six mayors (not including Rawlings-Blake) have been members of the Democratic party. Likewise, Rawlings-Blake is a black woman and the daughter of a member of the Maryland House of Delegates in a majority black city. I say all this because for most, all signs point toward a city government for the interest of those communities in need and perhaps more specifically for the interest of those economically devastated black communities. This may explain the overwhelmingly uncritical allegiance to Rawlings-Blake and the Democratic Party, despite the fact that the last mayor of Baltimore (also a black woman) convictions of fraudulent misappropriation of city funds. I explain all of this not to rant against the Democratic party,  but instead to provide just a mere hint of the complex setting of Baltimore city and the state of Maryland.

United Workers emerged was founded in 2002 by a group of homeless day laborers working at Camden Yards. They were struggling for human rights more specifically work with dignity. After a great deal of strategery and commitment they were able to win a living wage for service workers at the stadium–wages rose from $4.50 in 2003 to an hourly wage of $11.30 After such a concrete win, the organization turned its attention and energy to the Baltimore Inner Harbor. United Workers dubbed this poverty zone to be a “Human Rights Zone” in October of 2008. With this declaration, the United Workers went public with their commitment to the fight for the human right to health care, education, and work with dignity for the low wage workers of Inner Harbor. Since 2008, United Workers has expanded their vision for human rights to include the concept of Fair Development, not only in the Inner Harbor, but in the rest of Baltimore city.  In the February 2011 the United Workers released a report with a summation of the human rights violations taking place in the heart of Baltimore’s so called development success. This vision for Fair Development includes a plan for development that respects human rights, maximizes public benefits for the people of Baltimore, and is sustainable for the public and the earth. The plan for Fair Development expands beyond the geographical limits of the Inner Harbor because the workers of the Inner Harbor are also parents, students, neighbors, artists, people of faith, and community members. After much thought and reflection, United Workers has responded to this reality by taking on a new committee structure led by UW human rights educators throughout the city. These committees meet in church halls, living rooms, offices, and schools.

This summer I spent a great deal of time working on two emerging committees. One committee consists of a group of folks that meet in the living room of a committed UW leader located in a thriving Latin@ neighborhood in East Baltimore. The combination of English class and human rights curriculum was created after a series of community needs assessments were conducted throughout that same area. The Latin@ residents expressed an overwhelming need for English classes in order to be able to survive and thrive within the larger community. With this curriculum, United Workers will to not only attempt to meet the immediate needs of the people (ie English lessons), but also expand participants’ understanding of their own power as families and communities to secure their own human rights to education, housing, health care, work with dignity, etc. Just in my short time in Baltimore this newly formed  committee proved to be a beautiful challenge to develop the language and content of a curriculum that is based in nuanced and general understandings of local, national, and global history, political economy, social movements, and the particularities of the Baltimore Latin@ community. I also had the opportunity to think and work through the possibilities and questions of a human rights curriculum to be implemented within three northeast Baltimore Catholic parishes. Important questions came forth on how to thoughtfully engage faith commitments for justice and the abolition of poverty. More specifically, the question emerged on how we harness those intersections and commonalities as well as explore and challenge those differences among congregants. Although, I am stepping into the second year of the Master of Divinity program here  Union Theological Seminary and second year as a Poverty Initiative Fellow I have been deeply moved to keep the challenges and realities of my United Workers family at the forefront of my scholarship and daily ruminations.


Poverty Initiative at Union Theological Seminary


Borderland Bloggers

(from January 5 )

Over Christmas break in the mountains of North Carolina, waiting in the car for my mom to come out of the post office, a headline of a newspaper in one of those sidewalk newspaper boxes caught my eye:  “Shogun Raid: 12 Deported.”  If you know me, you know that “raid” and “deported” would have caught my eyes, but only North Carolina mountain locals will know the significance of “Shogun:” a Chinese buffet restaurant, a local favorite.  Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) had shown up one day in December to Shogun, and 12 men and women never made it back home to their families like normal after a workday; instead they were arrested and deported.

The headline and the local news article broke the ice for a powerful conversation among family members when we reached that day’s destination: our family’s favorite Mexican restaurant.  We touched on everything from immigration, to capitalism, to neocolonialism, to justice, to community organizations, to taxation, yada yada.

As our conversation came to a close, my family member offered me an important suggestion:  “Ya know, Jenn, you’re really passionate about all this, and you’re gaining some specialized knowledge, but what about the rest of us?  Why should I care? Make it concrete for me.  How does this relate to me what and where I am in my life?”

Well, as 10 of us from Union Theological Seminary traveled yesterday to San Antonio, TX and will travel to the Texas-Mexico border in the next few days, we’ve taken this advice and request to heart.  On this “Bodies, Borders, and a Blog” site, we will share stories, experiences, analysis, reflections, and images that give the Borderlands a concrete story, shape, faces, and reality.  Out of this, the importance of the Borderlands can begin to emerge for each of us, given our individual conditions and commitments.

Union Theological Seminary Borderlands Trip 2012 Group

We understand the “Borderlands” in at least two ways: The Borderlands as a geographical region with an important history, geopolitical context, and ongoing crisis. And the Borderlands as an experience of individuals and communities with their identities threatened and in flux.

Like you, we don’t know what to expect in the 10 days ahead, as we journey in these Borderlands. We’ve read some books, even taken a related class within the confines of a Union Theological Seminary classroom, and all of us come with experiences and interests relating to the border, human rights, identity, justice, and faith communities. We travel with open eyes, ears, hearts, and minds, and we invite you to join us, this January 4-14, to see what might connect with you and emerge for you given how, what, and where you are.