Partner Spotlight: Ursula Rakova

Keeping Carteret Island culture alive during climate-forced relocation

“We feel that climate change violates our rights to continue to live on the island that we were born on and that we are connected to.” – Ursula Rakova

The Carteret Islands of Papua New Guinea are among the frst communities on earth having to relocate because of climate change. Back in 2006, Carteret Island Elders began noticing sharp increases in sea surges, tides, and coastal erosion. Sea levels were rising, food sources were dwindling, and there was no formal relocation process or support system in place.

Tired of waiting for the government of Papua New Guinea to turn their talk about relocation into action, the Elders decided to create a support system of their own. They asked Ursula Rakova, the daughter of the matrilineal clan community and an environmental activist, to lead their community’s migration to higher ground.

Born on the tiny island of Han in the Carterets, Ursula is well acquainted with her community’s deep connections to their land. She explains,

“The islanders are connected to the islands. They were born there, they grew up on the island, and having to move means detaching themselves from the islands that they’re connected to. The islands are basically their identity. It’s their way of life.”

This deep connection is why Ursula puts migration with dignity, and keeping Carteret Island culture alive, at the forefront of her climate-forced displacement programs.

Responding to the Elders’ call to lead, Ursula founded the non-governmental organization Tulele Peisa, one of UUSC’s seven climate-forced displacement partners in the South Pacific. Tulele Peisa, which means “Sailing in the wind on our own” in the local Halia language, supports Carteret Islanders through all stages of relocation, from the first stages of the move to finding a new home and new employment in Bougainville, the resettlement destination in the Solomon Islands.

One way Tulele Peisa works to keep Carteret Island culture alive is local advocacy, for which UUSC is providing funding. This emerging project supports youth and community members, as they advocate for their rights and forge connections and relationships in Bougainville in advance of moving, which makes the move smoother and more comfortable. With UUSC’s support, Tulele Peisa is organizing youth and Elder speaking tours, and engaging Papua New Guineans and Bougainvilleans in lobbying to protect the rights of climate-displaced peoples and ensure that Carteret Islanders’ culture can thrive wherever they are.

Together with Ursula’s leadership and Tulele Peisa, UUSC is supporting migration with dignity for the Carteret Islanders facing severe climate change impacts they did nothing to create. Ursula’s migration strategy recognizes the importance not just of supporting Carteret Islanders as they leave their homes behind — but also of creating a new home that fits, as best it can, with their identity and way of life.

UUSC’s Environmental Justice and Climate Action Program focuses on assisting indigenous populations of the South Pacific and Alaska, regions that rely on coastal habitats and are facing severe climate change impacts with limited resources.

Workers Organizing for Welcoming Communities

Across the country, in cities large and small, people are organizing to build communities that are inclusive, embrace new members, and celebrate the diverse contributions and experiences of all their residents. Through our grantmaking and advocacy, UUSC has tapped into this energy to amplify these efforts.

A few weeks ago, I was fortunate to visit with two of our partners Greater Minnesota Worker Center (GMWC) and Rural Community Workers Alliance (RCWA). Both organizations are partners under Love Resists, UUSC’s joint campaign with the UUA, and deeply engaged in organizing workers to resist the criminalization of our neighbors based upon their identities and create safer, more just, and welcoming communities.

Building Welcoming Communities is Contagious

UUSC began partnering with GMWC in St. Cloud, Minn., last year, supporting the center’s “Resist and Persist” campaign. This effort seeks to advance human rights and social justice by “welcoming refugees and protecting undocumented immigrants and other vulnerable populations from deportations.”

I had to the opportunity to visit with incredible community organizers at GMWC in their St. Cloud office, including Ahmed, Mohamed, Sado, and Yasmin (starting left).

Thanks in part to GMWC’s outreach, the community of St. Cloud is becoming a friendlier place for immigrant and refugee communities. GMWC focuses primarily on organizing low-wage Latinx and Somali workers; however, their work extends beyond worker rights, enriching the lives of all St. Cloud residents by fostering a welcoming culture.

A great example of GMWC’s impact was their efforts to defeat a city council effort to reduce refugee admissions in the city. With the resolution defeated, GMWC’s next step was to advocate for the city council’s passage of a “Welcoming City” resolution, which inspired the nearby city of Willmar to do the same.

RCWA staff members and local workers meet to discuss their work to create a welcoming community.

RCWA Centers Welcoming Efforts on Immigrant and Worker Rights

From my first moment in Milan, Mo., there was an inescapable sense of community. Located in northeastern Missouri, the town is over two hours away from Kansas City, the nearest major city. The community has a tradition of self-sufficiency rooted in neighbors supporting neighbors. It is in this spirit that RCWA began organizing the town’s Latinx workers to address workplace issues, ranging from discrimination to low pay in 2013.

Following the November 2016 election, many of RCWA’s members were concerned by damaging and dangerous rhetoric around immigration and worker rights. Determined to address the issue head on, the group expanded their efforts around making sure Milan is a welcoming community for all residents.

UUSC has supported RCWA’s continued advocacy for workers’ rights, as well as their organizing efforts to help community members overcome fear of immigration enforcement actions, which they are advancing in partnership with local allies.

Continuing our Support for Welcoming Communities

After witnessing our partners’ incredible impact on building welcoming communities, I was reminded of how this work truly is a process. As they reminded me, their successes have not occurred overnight. With that in mind, it remains as critical as ever to continue directing energy toward sustaining the nationwide momentum around building more welcoming communities. As UUSC works to advance human rights and social justice in 2018, our continued partnerships with grassroots groups leading this work across the country will be critical to our success.

As I joined our partners in meetings with their community members, the importance of this relationship was always at the forefront of their conversations. As one of the workers in Missouri said, “Thank God that there are good people … who are interested in opening our eyes to stand up for our rights and stand up with us against those who exploit us … we are really grateful to partner with UUSC.”

Reflecting on my trip, and looking to the year ahead, I cannot wait to see what these organizations will accomplish through their ever-evolving and deepening roles as builders of welcoming communities ­­– and I’m energized by the opportunity to continue supporting them in their efforts. Join Love Resists in this movement to learn more and check out our Sanctuary and Solidarity Toolkit,, which provides easy steps for taking action in your community.

Everything that Counts: Learning from our Nepal partners (Part III)

Movement-building through Eye-to-Eye Partnership

Our site visits to communities benefitting from Tewa and LAHURNIP’s work kept Michael and I busy for most of our Nepal trip. We were honored to host a convening with all of the partners we’ve been supporting since 2015 before leaving the country.

To sit and listen to their stories, from women who gained livelihood skills (Tewa, Empower Generation, and Dalit Mahila Ekata Kendra) and families who learned to make healthier food choices (RHEST), to groups now able to effectively advocate for their rights (LAHURNIP, Women for Human Rights, single women group), was truly awesome. Partners didn’t hesitate to use time together to discuss synergies between their projects and share ways to better support and collaborate with each other in the future.

Sita Adhikari, co-founder and country director of Empower Generation, presents on their work empowering women through clean energy entrepreneurship and distribution.

These partner meetings and site visits allow for honest, heartfelt conversation that lays the foundation for authentic relationships and meaningful support among organizations. This is especially important as UUSC winds down our recovery work in Nepal. There’s so much to be learned from simply listening – we come to better understand what affected communities need for disaster recovery. We also learn what strengths and relationships can and already exist among groups on-the-ground, and whether they can be further cultivated to empower people in their recovery and everyday lives. Knowing these relationships are in place is crucial to ensuring long-term community resilience.

Michael and I returned home with a profound sense of gratitude for incredible partners who recognize their own humanity and help others to do the same, realizing the impact they can have in the world.

Their work brings to mind the Albert Einstein quote, “Everything that counts cannot necessarily be counted.” Whether it’s a leadership training, providing someone with resources when they are in need, or making space for people to gather face-to-face and share stories and strategies, everything our partners in Nepal are doing matters. In fact, the beauty of their full impact won’t likely be fully realized for years to come.

 

Catch up on parts one and two of this series and don’t forget to follow UUSC on Facebook and Twitter for real-time updates on newly published blogs.

Everything that Counts: Learning from our Nepal partners (Part II)

Protecting and Advancing Indigenous Rights in the Face of Industrial Development

On our recent trip to Nepal, my colleague, Michael, and I also met with representatives of several indigenous communities supported by UUSC’s partner the Lawyer’s Association for Human Rights of Nepali Indigenous Peoples (LAHURNIP). After a very bumpy, six-hour ride we found ourselves seated among a group of indigenous community leaders in Dhunche, a remote village in Nepal’s Rasuwa district.

Meeting with LAHURNIP and community members in Dhunche village, Rasuwa district. Everyone is dressed in coats because indoor heating is rare in Nepal.

Many houses in Dhunche were lost to the earthquakes, but it quickly became clear to us that perhaps even greater damage may come from several development projects rapidly unfolding throughout the region. The national government and foreign investors are moving forward on development projects, displacing entire communities, destroying forests, and exacerbating issues of water scarcity and isolation. An Indigenous People’s Human Rights Defender (IPHRD) explained to us that landslides, which at first glance appear to be earthquake damage, are actually the result of road construction and blasting related to nearby hydropower and highway projects planned to connect Kathmandu to the China-Nepal border.

“What is this project giving us in exchange for using our resources and polluting our environment? All of these development projects are not providing facilities or other benefits, and any jobs that could go to local people are being offered to people living outside of here, including from Kathmandu.”

As expressed by one IPHRD, very few public announcements were made about the hydropower project, and those that were made didn’t include details about funding sources or operational plans. Community members have met with project officials to learn more and formally request natural resource protection and job opportunities for local people be included in the planning. As a result, some jobs have been given to local people; however, the community still awaits a response or any action on natural resource protection. One community member asked, “What is this project giving us in exchange for using our resources and polluting our environment? All of these development projects are not providing facilities or other benefits, and any jobs that could go to local people are being offered to people living outside of here, including from Kathmandu.”

Many bravely called out the project developers and made demands, but it was clear to them that they needed clarity on their own rights and any benefits to which they may be entitled. As a pioneer organization of human rights lawyers, LAHURNIP is well-poised to inform and train indigenous communities on how to assert their rights and collectively engage to make their demands.

One approach has been the formation of a 23-member “struggle committee.” This committee provided a platform for the communities to make joint demands of developers. Equipped with more information, some community members were able to negotiate increased compensation to cover home and property loss, as well as better manage the compensation they received.

Karsang, another IPHRD we met, explained his role in organizing a protest for job opportunities at one of the hydropower projects, Upper Trishuli-1. This effort resulted in some jobs being awarded to local indigenous people. The communities are now working to create a stronger dialogue with investors and aim to include profit and resource-sharing in development plans.

Empowered by LAHURNIP’s training and successful negotiations, several men have been pursuing local leadership positions, strikingly similar to the pursuits of the women of Srijanshil Mahila.

Road closure and tractors tearing out trees and other plants as part of new road construction for Trishuli-1 hydropower project.

Read the final installment of the three-part series on our trip to Nepal, and catch up on part one here! Follow us on Facebook and Twitter for real-time updates on newly published blogs.

Everything that Counts: Learning from our Nepal partners

“I can’t explain it in words.” This was a Srijanshil Mahila (Creative Woman) member’s first response when Michael Kourabas, UUSC associate director for program and partner support, and I asked about her experience during the 2015 earthquakes in Nepal. Although two and a half years have passed, it was evident from conversations we had with partners and community members that the effects are still with them today.

Throughout our week-long visit, we were granted many opportunities to listen and learn not only about the earthquakes’ destruction and injustices exposed but also the ways in which individuals, families, and entire communities tapped into their resilience and power to support one another.

Srijanshil Mahila member describes the value of Tewa livelihood trainings at their meeting space in Dharmasthali village.

Recovery and Resilience: The women of Srijanshil Mahila

Srijanshil Mahila is based in the Dharmasthali village of Kathmandu and made up of women from several districts. Although these women were working to help themselves and their communities as soon as the earthquake hit, the group officially came together about a year ago with support from UUSC’s partner, Tewa.

Shelter, waste disposal, and water scarcity are a few of the immediate issues that arose in earthquakes’ aftermath. Aftershocks and rumors of theft made people uneasy about returning to their homes, so families pitched tents and tarps outside or, when this was not an option, stayed together under the open sky. In Dharmasthali, forty women worked together, traveling to a nearby development to retrieve water for others. In an effort to create more sanitary conditions, some of the women also helped dig holes to dispose of human waste. Several women worked together with Tewa to improve this situation.

Like UUSC, Tewa strives to follow the lead of the communities it supports. In this spirit, they listened to and delivered on women’s requests for trainings relating to livelihood skills and sustainable income sources, such as sewing and soap-making, as well as leadership development, and sexual and reproductive health advocacy.

Srijanshil Mahila members were adamant that other women from the community be invited to participate in trainings, and many were able to combine what they gained from skill-building and leadership trainings to start their own businesses. Several women now run a tailoring shop, and another member runs a beauty parlor.

Fabrics and tailored clothing at sewing/tailoring shop

 

32-year-old Gauri Basnet (left) and 29 year-old Kabita Khatri learned sewing through Tewa and now run this tailoring shop

When UUSC assesses impact, we’re curious to learn about any unanticipated benefits resulting from our partner’s work. For example, have community members taken on any unexpected leadership roles? Exploring the unexpected benefits is often how we come to understand the compounding effects of our partnership. It illustrates how our support can expand over time.

“This was so fruitful for me,” explained a preschool teacher about her participation in Tewa’s leadership training. “I used to make the rules myself for my classes, but now we are working together to do this. There is a relationship between me and the staff that was not there before. I’m learning from them.”

“Politics are typically set up where women are expected to take the supporting roles, like treasurer or secretary. Now, we can fight for lead roles.”

With newfound supportive relationships and a greater sense of personal agency, some women have felt empowered to seek leadership enhancement trainings from Tewa, positioning themselves to run for office. One Srijanshil Mahila member remarked, “Politics are typically set up where women are expected to take the supporting roles, like treasurer or secretary. Now, we can fight for lead roles.”

Men feel the positive effects of these changes as well. Although initially some men were critical of the time and energy women devoted to the Tewa trainings and each other, several have begun asking how they can also receive trainings.

Read parts two and three of the series on our trip to Nepal, and follow us on Facebook and Twitter for real-time updates on newly published blogs and news from UUSC.

UUSC Joins the Call to #PressforProgress this International Women’s Day!

On International Women’s Day, we are reflecting on what each of us at UUSC can do in our daily lives to “Press for Progress,” dedicating our energy to global activism on women’s rights.

As we reflect on our role in advocating for women’s equality, we need look no further than our amazing partners for inspiration. Here are just a few among many our amazing partner organizations who are leading the way:

  • Tewa is supporting initiatives that bring Nepali women together to advocate for policy and system changes, as well as transformations in norms and practices that contribute to social injustice.
  • Stateside, Food Chain Workers Alliance, and Rural Community Workers Alliance are organizing labor forces to demand respect for gender and racial justice, and worker rights, including helping coordinate a strike of hundreds of thousands on International Workers Day.
  • Small farmer co-operatives, like Fundación Entre Mujeres, in Central America are building sustainable livelihoods and passing along their wisdom to other cooperatives in an effort to advance human rights, particularly the rights of women, youth and indigenous people.

Join the conversation!

A common strategy in each partner’s efforts is the uniting of people to amplify their voices in support of women and their contributions. In recognition of the power of collective action, we invite you to come together with us and share your commitment to “Press for Progress.” You can print your own sign here, and share and image of yourself with it on social media, encouraging your friends and family to do the same and help spur momentum for gender parity.