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Martha Thompson's blog posts
On UUSC’s blog, a range of contributors — from staff members to participants on experiential learning trips — share their thoughts and reflections on UUSC’s work and related topics. The views expressed by individual contributors here do not necessarily reflect the views of UUSC.
Submitted by Martha Thompson on Wed, 07/17/2013 - 8:34am.
Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., said in his most famous "I Have a Dream" speech: "I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character."
Tragically, on July 12, 2013, a jury in Sandford, Fla., demonstrated once again that that day has not yet come for this country. The jury found George Zimmerman not guilty of murdering Trayvon Martin, despite the fact that Zimmerman shot and killed the unarmed teenager. It once again demonstrates to us all that our "justice system" persists in not valuing the lives of people of color the way it values the lives of white people in this country.
UUSC's Civil Liberties Program actively works against racial profiling. This case demonstrates why our society has to overcome racial profiling if we want to guarantee that every citizen in this country can enjoy and exercise their rights to life, liberty, and happiness. In the court case, both sides agreed that it was George Zimmerman's perception of Travyon Martin as a young black man that dictated his actions. Trayvon Martin was subsequently shot by George Zimmerman, who has now been acquitted. This is a tragic demonstration of how racial profiling allows harmful stereotypes to become someone's perceived identity and to make possible the suspension of a person's human rights based solely on that false stereotype.
The irony is that in the heated media discussion of a case in which a young African American man was killed because of harmful stereotypes, certain radio programs and pundits have used that discussion to continue to push those very stereotypes. Certain media outlets have continued to disseminate the despicable stereotype that young African American men are dangerous — which further endangers other young African American men.
Once the verdict came out, the NAACP immediately started a national petition to the Department of Justice to file civil rights charges against Zimmerman. The ACLU has requested a civil case against Zimmerman, and thousands of people marched in protest in cities across the country. The Department of Justice announced that they were still investigating the case.
We may have an African American president, but too many institutions and individuals are still judging children by the color of their skin — and that was fatal for Travyon Martin. We need to continue to work so that in this country the lives of children of color are valued as much the lives of white children — in practice as well as in theory.
Submitted by Martha Thompson on Tue, 08/28/2012 - 8:31am.
What does reconstruction in Haiti look like two and a half years after the 2012 earthquake? With about 390,000 people still in tents in the heat of Port-au-Prince? Well, according to the Haitian government, the U.S. State Department, and the Inter-American Development Bank, reconstruction in Haiti looks like the Caracol Industrial Park project they are building for $224 million in northern Haiti far from the site of the earthquake.
To build this "showcase" reconstruction project, the Haitian government evicted 366 farmers off fertile land in a country that cannot feed itself and where rural farmland is at a premium. According to a New York Times article on July 5, 2012, "The project includes a heavy fuel-oil power plant, a dense housing complex and a port" all supported by the U.S. State Department. Environmentalists are alarmed about the detrimental impact on the pristine bay and aquifer of a port, high-density housing, and the burning of heavy fuel oil. Funds approved by the U.S. Congress will go to build houses in Caracol, although they have not yet built any in Port-au- Prince. This reconstruction project to provide housing and jobs for homeless earthquake survivors begins by pushing 366 families off their land and will damage a fragile environment.
But these details pale in comparison to the labor record of the Korean company Sae-A, which the project's backers have actively recruited as the anchor company for the industrial park. According to the New York Times article, the Workers Rights Consortium, the AFL-CIO, and Guatemalan labor leaders have all documented labor-rights abuses — including use of force against union members, use of riot police, death threats, harassments, and assaults on workers — by Sae-A in their Guatemala factory. Why is Sae-A the employer of choice in a country that desperately needs decent jobs?
The Haitian historian and author Laurent DuBois said, "The way I see it, in a deep, long historical way, Haiti was founded by ex-slaves who overthrew a plantation systems and people keep trying to get them to return to some form of plantation." We all agree the people of Haiti suffered terribly in the earthquake. Is a reconstruction project that displaces families, damages the environment, and offers jobs under a ruthless sweatshop enterprise with a grave record of labor violations the best the U.S. government can come up with for reconstruction?
The U.S. government could improve this project in several ways. They could seek an employer with a good record in labor rights instead of Sae-A. They could provide funding for a labor-rights monitor. They could make sure they integrate stringent environmental protections into the project plan. They could ensure that there is adequate housing for workers and guarantee adequate pay. They could guarantee that the displaced farmers have access to ongoing livelihoods or access to other viable land. All of these actions would signal that this is a reconstruction effort that takes into account the voices of the Haitian people, that sees them as active participants — not submissive recipients — in this effort.
Submitted by Martha Thompson on Fri, 03/09/2012 - 2:59pm.
Community members gather in northern Uganda as villagers return to rebuild their lives.
When I picked up my 11-year-old son from his friend's house on Monday, both boys told me about an amazing video they had just seen on YouTube that showed a really bad man named Joseph Kony who forced children to become soldiers. As a result of the exponential attention the Invisible Children Kony 2012 video is getting, you are probably hearing a lot about Uganda, Joseph Kony, and his horrific tactics. Kony is unfortunately alive and well (you can even track his actions), and it is indeed crucial to stop him from brutalizing more children. For me, the biggest issue the video leaves open is what happens to the children who survive Kony. At UUSC, we believe it's crucial to consider what happens to those children soldiers once they are freed or escape, as thousands have.
Since 2008, UUSC and our partner Caritas have helped over 20,000 of the Acholi people in northern Uganda rebuild after the brutal war between Joseph Kony's Lord's Resistance Army and the Ugandan government. When these people returned to rebuild their villages after the war, they faced the challenge of what to do with the thousands of abducted children who escaped or had been released. The true tragedy of this war is that Kony made children murder and mutilate others in their villages precisely to guarantee that their communities would reject them, making his army their only refuge. The amazing story of heroism is how so many of these returned child soldiers have been able to draw on their resiliency not only to escape but to try to rebuild their lives in the face of initial rejection by their own people.
With the advice of our partner, UUSC found that the best way to help these former child soldiers gain acceptance was to integrate them into community activities, not treat them as a separate group. When I first visited Acuru in 2009, a formerly abducted soldier refused to sit in the circle of villagers or even attend the meeting, because he felt so shamed and rejected. One year later, in the same village, he was sitting in the back row — but he was part of the meeting. He was also leading an oxen team and was a member of the dance troupe. "I got a chance," he said. "This kind of work helps heal me." Our experience in Uganda has taught us that people have incredible wells of resilience that can be tapped if you believe in them and see them as survivors, not victims.
Kony continues to wreak havoc in central Africa, and he definitely must be stopped. We need to understand and take on our role in that — but it's important that we also understand the key roles Ugandans and Africans have played and continue to play. In the viral Kony 2012 video, the narrator's son Joshua clearly sees his father as a hero, but we want to hold up all the invisible heroes of this war in Uganda — the Ugandan religious leaders, parliamentarians, human-rights workers, parents, and NGO workers who struggled for years to bring attention to the war, to convince Kony to release children, and ultimately to bring peace to northern Uganda. As Semhar Araia says in the Christian Science Monitor, "We also know that young people's minds are open and hungry. They should be inspired by knowing Africa is empowered, saving itself and working with partners to remove Kony. That is the real story."
Check out more on UUSC's work with Caritas in Uganda:
Submitted by Martha Thompson on Mon, 08/08/2011 - 11:06am.The famine in Somalia is like a firework, lighting up a massive, slow-burning food crisis in Eastern Africa and the Horn of Africa. This famine did not happen over night. Its causes are deeply intertwined — the impact of donated food on small farmers with the expanding desertification of the Horn of Africa and growing arid areas in Kenya and Ethiopia as deforestation and climate change turn arable land into arid land. As land grows more arid, the resulting loss of grazing and water for nomadic herders creates conflicts between clans. Those conflicts deplete people's wealth and animals — this makes them more vulnerable. As people have to sell their remaining animals, they get low prices for them while food prices climb. The global oil market results in higher fuel costs which drives grain prices up at a time when people have less money. The changing climate pattern is triggering this shift throughout much of Eastern Africa and the Horn.
Courtesy of Oxfam East Africa
People are resilient on the whole — particularly people who make a living on the margins, as do many of the nomadic herders and small farmers in Southern Somalia now affected by the drought. Governments in Kenya and Ethiopia have the capacity to measure rainfall, acquire food stores, regulate food prices, provide distribution mechanisms — in short, mitigate some of the successive shocks that people are feeling.
What moved this food crisis to famine in Southern Somalia however is the combination of lack of governance and conflict, in the context of the so-called global war on terror. Somalia has not had a functioning government since 1991 when Siad Barre was driven out of power. Behind the headlines over the last decades, there have been numerous power struggles in which the West has interfered, exacerbating struggles and divisions. The U.S. backed an Ethiopian invasion in 2006 to throw out a group of Islamists called the Islamic Courts of Union and supported the Transitional Federal Government in Mogadishu which now controls 60% of the capital with the help of UN troops. The Ethiopian invasion radicalized sectors of the ICU which formed the Al Shabaab, the group now in control of Southern Somalia. Al-Shabaab has ties to Al Quaeda and their aim is to establish an Islamic state. They are suspicious of the UN and large western aid organizations. Relationships between Al Shabaab and the relief organizations have deteriorated in the last several years resulting in aid being gradually diminished, leaving people with even less support on the ground. Now in the midst of escalating famine, many relief organizations are still reluctant to enter the area and Al-Shabaab is not clear about whether they will allow them access.
As a result, villages in Southern Sudan are emptying out and Mogadishu is filling with families who have walked hundreds of kilometers to find food and aid. Their stories are illuminating the reality we don't see. According to Concern Ireland, every family that has arrived in Mogadishu has lost at least two children on the way, and the ones who have lost two are considered the lucky ones.
Submitted by Martha Thompson on Fri, 05/06/2011 - 8:29am.
Girls at Haiti's Camp Oasis are living in temporary shelters while their housing is constructed.
The following blog post was written by Martha Thompson, manager of UUSC's Rights in Humanitarian Crisis Program, and Wendy Flick, manager of UUSC's Haiti emergency response.
Many people feel discouraged by what they see and read in the news about Haiti more than one year after the earthquake. People are still in tents, and the government seems to be ineffective at best, with no substantive response to the people. The structural problems of Haiti's economy and political system run deep and have consistently marginalized the majority of the population for decades. Knowing all this, many begin to doubt if it's worth trying to do anything positive in the earthquake relief in Haiti until the political and economic systems in Haiti change. In spite of this challenging context, we believe that it is essential to keep striving to accompany Haitians in improving their lives, especially as part of long-term sustainable recovery efforts. To that end, UUSC has been working with partners and policy makers to support overlooked survivors since the earthquake and to facilitate powerful social change moving forward.
The bad news is that our Haitian partner organizations have had to deal with this for most of their lives. But these experiences can be turned into good news — because they've figured out ways to make changes, improve their lives, move ahead, and create pockets of hope despite the larger systemic dysfunction. If the average Haitian waited for the government and the economic structures to change before they tried to improve their situation, they would be dead from waiting. If UUSC waited for those changes before we acted, we would be guilty of letting people die waiting.
UUSC and our partners can't wait for a stable government in Haiti to act now. We work to empower our partners and countless survivors so they can work to create a stable government that responds to their needs and at the same time continue to build positive examples of change.
In the best possible world, the Haitian people and grassroots groups will be able to cooperate with an effective government to improve the lives of all Haitians — but we cannot sit by in the meantime.
We cannot wait for the government to develop a program for children orphaned by the earthquake — but we can partner right now with Camp Oasis, a Haitian organization, to create a new group home for 40 orphaned girls who were living alone in the camps. And we can work with them to make it a model program that can be replicated elsewhere in Haiti. The government does not yet have a plan for displaced survivors who are still sleeping on the floor in homes of rural relatives in the Central Plateau, but UUSC partner the Papaye Peasant Movement is providing them land upon which they are building houses through a cooperative.
Together in partnership with nongovernmental grassroots organizations in Haiti, we search for the openings where we can move forward and respond effectively to the needs of the earthquake survivors in a way that empowers them. Then, when there is a functioning government, survivors can raise their voices and impact the government agenda to address their concerns. At the same time, UUSC works on the policy front in Washington, D.C., in coalition with other progressive organizations committed to change in Haiti — particularly through the Haiti Advocacy Working Group.
We understand and agree that there is dire need for deep structural change in Haiti. We also believe that there is enormous power and will at the grassroots level to bring about positive change in Haiti. The progress being made in grassroots efforts on the ground is encouraging, even while the political landscape remains bleak. By supporting these efforts, UUSC and its partners are playing a vital role in bringing about economic and societal transformation from the ground up.
Submitted by Martha Thompson on Fri, 03/11/2011 - 9:52am.
UPDATE (Tuesday, March 15, 10:30 a.m.): After weekend developments and careful consultation with the Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA), this post has been updated.
As you know, an 8.9-magnitude earthquake struck off the coast of northeastern Japan on Friday afternoon (keep in mind the time difference). The earthquake triggered a devastating tsunami that has killed scores of people, leveled buildings in several cities, and inundated farmland. The full extent of the casualties and damage is not yet known. Japan, which has an excellent disaster-response infrastructure, is already mobilizing rescue and relief efforts.
In response to the earthquake — the strongest in Japan's recorded history — and the tsunami, the International Federation of the Red Cross has deployed 11 emergency assessment teams and is providing first aid and health care. The Office for Coordination of Humanitarian Assistance has 62 international search-and-rescue teams ready to go, and various countries have already pledged support (including the United States, which President Obama has said "stands ready to help").
Our hearts and thoughts go out to the people of Japan in this difficult time of loss and destruction. UUSC is engaging with the UUA to determine the most effective way that Unitarian Universalists can support the Japanese people, and how UUSC can best use its expertise in disaster response. If you would like to donate to the relief effort, please give to the UUA-UUSC Japan Relief Fund.
Submitted by Martha Thompson on Fri, 01/14/2011 - 1:12pm.
Looking at Haiti one year after the January 12, 2010, earthquake is deeply disturbing. The life of a Haitian earthquake survivor in Port-au-Prince is precarious, difficult, and a constant struggle. The failures of the aid organizations, the vacuum that exists in government, and the reluctance of donors to make good on their pledges are all problems of this particular disaster. This is all made much worse by the cholera epidemic in the north of the country that has now claimed 3,600 people's lives and the disputed elections that have caused violence and unrest and insecurity. Gangs have moved into this gap, further increasing insecurity for people.
But these things have not just happened as a matter of course; they are not even inevitable. They were not inevitable results of the devastating earthquake in China in 2008 or even the 2005 earthquake in Pakistan. That 2005 earthquake in particular was not a shining example of disaster response, but survivors were much further along one year later than they are in Haiti. Disasters do not make a clean sweep, but they bring into clarity the fault lines in societies. The earthquake laid bare the inequities in Haitian society with breathtaking clarity, and the passing of time has only highlighted them.
Since this is a blog and not a book, let's just look at one factor that contributes to the disaster of the disaster response, the shelter emergency. A year later, the fact that 1.4 million people are still living in tents almost numbs us through repetition. But why are they still in tents? That question can be quickly answered by saying the aid agencies did not provide temporary housing, and they are not moving into reconstruction. But why aren't they? That question leads down to the fault lines.
You cannot build temporary housing without raising issues about land use. In a small, overcrowded island nation with a highly skewed distribution system and a corrupt political system, land ownership and land use are explosive issues. The peasant organizations have highlighted the issues around rural landlessness but urban land use is just as skewed. Many neighborhoods are on occupied land, using squatters' rights. Others are charged high rents for small pieces of land. The landlords know that the earthquake is a moment this could be shaken up. It's happened in other countries; people have moved on to land and stayed.
Temporary housing is more permanent than tents — it's much harder to remove, which makes it easier for people to claim their space by virtue of being there. Aid agencies are not building temporary, let alone permanent, housing, because the government and the landlords will not let them. Our partners tell us that the government won't let people go back to two main areas of land near the center of the city, Fort Nacional and Bellair, although people are ready to do so. The only places the government has allowed temporary housing to be built on a large scale are the sites outside of Port-au-Prince that they want to relocate people to.
The Chinese saying that disaster equals opportunity works a number of ways. The earthquake could open a crack of opportunity for people in the city slums to get more adequate housing than they ever have had, built by foreign aid monies. Or it opens a crack of opportunity for the government and the landlords to clear unwanted squatters off their land permanently. The marginalized in Haiti who flock into Port-au-Prince do not have resources to rent decent housing. Their right to decent housing is not only ignored by the government; the government works against it. As far as the government and the wealthy landlords are concerned, the slums of Port-au-Prince should be removed and they should control this land; the earthquake could provide them that chance. And so in no way can temporary housing be built, because it opens the crack of opportunity for the marginalized, not for those that hold power — these are the real fault lines in Haiti.