Inspiration in the Face of Adversity: Partners in the Philippines

On November 8, 2013, Super Typhoon Yolanda devastated the Philippines, impacting the lives of roughly 16 million people. UUSC responded to the disaster immediately, and over the past three-plus years, we’ve supported 17 different partners in their long-term recovery efforts, with a focus on building community resilience to trauma and supporting sustainable livelihoods.

“It was clear to me that UUSC and our partners in the Philippines have achieved some extraordinary successes. I was able to see some of these results first-hand when I traveled to Biliran and Ormoc to see the work PKKK and RDI have been doing in their communities.”

As the country moves forward and UUSC’s support for Yolanda recovery winds down, I traveled to the Philippines last month for a series of impact-assessment meetings and site visits with our local partners. In total, 12 of our partners participated in the meetings, which took place in Cebu City. Following the meetings, I was also able to visit the communities of two of our partners: Pambansang Koalisyon ng Kababaihan sa Kanayunan (National Rural Women Coalition, “PKKK”) in Biliran and the Rural Development Institute (RDI) in Ormoc, as well as the Cebu offices of our partners, Visayas Primary Health Care Services (VPHCS) and PhilACTS.

A group shot with our partners, PhilACTS, RDI, Lihok Pilipina, VPHCS, National Association for Social Work Education, Inc., PROCESS, and the Tacloban Social Workers, on the second day of the impact assessment meetings.

Assessing the impact of a three-year disaster recovery program is not a straightforward task, particularly in the Philippines, where much of the population now lives in fear of President Duterte’s brutal and illegal drug war. Yet, during my time there, as I listened to our fearless partners and met the people in the communities in which they work, it was clear to me that UUSC and our partners in the Philippines have achieved some extraordinary successes.

For the most part, the greatest impacts of UUSC’s Philippines program seem to fall into four broad categories:

  • Engagement with local government units (LGU), resulting in derived real benefits.
  • A demonstrated ability to grow their projects, often in ways that highlight a fundamental sustainability in their approach.
  • Strengthened relationships across the country, as our partners became a community unto themselves.
  • An increase in partner capacity and the capacities of their communities to persevere in the face of great personal and organizational challenges.

I was able to see some of these results first-hand when I traveled to Biliran and Ormoc to see the work PKKK and RDI have been doing in their communities.

Pambansang Koalisyon ng Kababaihan sa Kanayunan

Utilizing a “household-based organizing” model, PKKK has helped women in rural communities organize themselves, strengthen their livelihoods, and advocate for support from LGUs. After the women organize themselves, PKKK helps them establish a revolving loan structure and once the newly-formed organization demonstrates its longer-term viability, PKKK provides it with a capital infusion. The women are then able to borrow money to support individual livelihood projects as PKKK assists them with advocacy to the LGUs for further support.

I met with two of these communities in the barangays (or villages) of San Roque and Enage, in Biliran. In San Roque, roughly 30 women formed the Fisherfolks and Farmers of Barangay San Roque Women’s Association (FFSWA). Organized into six “clusters” by livelihood type, FFSWA has a slate of officers as well as a grievance reporting mechanism.

When I met with FFSWA, we gathered in a meeting space donated by the LGU, and the women told of how the FFSWA (with PKKK’s assistance) had helped them strengthen and grow their livelihoods in the aftermath of Yolanda, as well as how the government has stepped in – a direct result of FFSWA and PKKK’s advocacy – to help. For example, in addition to donating their meeting space, one LGU (the local Department of Environmental & Natural Resources) had recently asked the FFSWA to manage and carryout a mangrove reforestation project in the area.

FFSWA’s meeting space, donated by the LGU.

Walking around San Roque, we stopped into a number of sari-sari (neighborhood variety) stores, which FFSWA members had started or supported using loans from the organization. Though small, these stores are vital to the community. The nearest shopping area outside of the village is a long drive away and the women running these stores seemed appropriately proud of the service they are able to provide and the income they generate for themselves and their families.

After seeing the work of PKKK and FFSWA in San Roque, we traveled with PKKK to barangay Enage, where we met with a women’s organization still in its nascent stages. These women told us both of their initial successes – they had already lobbied the LGU to donate a hand tractor for farming operations – as well as their long-term goals. Ultimately, the women of Enage hoped they could help each other prosper and someday, share their good fortune with neighboring communities. I was struck by how their generosity contrasted with the wave of individualism on the rise in the west.

One of the FFSWA women describing her fishing operation.

Rural Development Institute

Some of the women of Boroc explaining how they process turmeric.

The next day, we traveled to barangay Boroc in Ormoc, where we had the chance to see RDI’s work in action. Like PKKK, RDI’s focus is on organizing rural communities (mostly farmworkers) and helping them strengthen their livelihoods, in part through advocacy to LGUs. Unlike PKKK, however, RDI conducts a needs assessment and then provides startup capital to the community in the form of livelihood materials, such as goats, chickens, or seeds.

One of the most exciting developments in Boroc is an upstart turmeric processing operation supported by RDI. While not a part of RDI’s initial proposal, when RDI’s Executive Director noticed that the farmworkers were simply burning the invasive turmeric root, she helped them learn how to turn it into its more valuable form (powder), lobby the LGU for a blender to help with production, and then ensure that the powder found its way to market.

Before leaving Boroc, we had the opportunity to participate in an inspirational “Passing-On the Gifts” ceremony. Gathered at a nearby school, community members who had received the last round of livelihood materials (in this case a goat, a chicken, and some roots and seeds for planting) passed these items on to the next round of recipients, who would then use these materials to support their own livelihoods before passing them on to the next group of recipients in a few months. To me, this was sustainability in action and it spoke of the promise of RDI’s work and the future of the rural communities in Ormoc. Making the ceremony even more meaningful was the knowledge that UUSC had also attended the first such ceremony in this same location.

“When it seems like we are living in especially dark times here in America, rather than despair, we should look to our partners in the Philippines – and elsewhere in the world – for inspiration and a reminder of what is possible in the face of adversity.”

As UUSC winds down its work in the Philippines, we are confident that we have supported strong partners who have done – and will continue to do – important and impactful work for marginalized communities. From the growth of CRM to the strengthening of disaster-resilient livelihoods, UUSC’s partners have made a real difference in many people’s lives after Yolanda. When it seems like we are living in especially dark times here in America, rather than despair, we should look to our partners in the Philippines – and elsewhere in the world – for inspiration and a reminder of what is possible in the face of adversity.

One of the goats being passed along at the “Passing-On the Gifts” ceremony in Boroc.

Rights Reading

Our weekly roundup of what we’re reading includes a few select articles from the front lines of human rights that we don’t want you to miss. This week’s focus: A Day Without Women.

A Day Without Women strikers in New York City, March 8, 2017
Women and allies join the International Women’s Strike and march to celebrate International Women’s Day, on March 8​, 2017, in New York City.

Below is an excerpt from U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein’s statement on International Women’s Day 2017

Today we honor the human rights struggle of millions of women who have demanded respect for their rights and the rights of others. The women’s movement has brought about tremendous change but we must also recognize that progress has been slow and extremely uneven.

Progress has also brought its own challenges. In too many countries, we are now seeing a backlash against women’s rights, a backlash that hurts us all. We need to be alert – the advances of the last few decades are fragile and should nowhere be taken for granted…

I salute the frequently under-reported and under-funded but absolutely vital work of women’s human rights defenders. These activists are often targeted, even killed, because of their efforts to promote gender equality. My Office has received information from numerous countries about the threats, violence and legal barriers, including criminalization of their work, which these defenders face.

These courageous women, despite many obstacles, stand up for others’ rights, mobilize movements from the grassroots upwards, and potentially have the greatest and most lasting impact on women’s rights and gender equality.

We need to stand beside them and stand up for them, and in so doing we will be standing up for the rights of us all.

Read the full statement here.

Women in More Than 50 Countries Set to Strike Today on International Women’s Day, Democracy Now!, Tithi Bhattacharya, March 8, 2017

Tithi Bhattacharya, associate professor of South Asian history at Purdue University, spoke with Democracy Now!’s Amy Goodman about International Women’s Day and the activities taking place around the world. Bhattarchaya helped to organize, “A Day Without a Woman,” a call for women to strike across the globe.

In what it means to strike, Bhattacharya stated, “It was important to emphasize that women do not just work in the paid labor market, in the employment sector, in the formal sectors of the economy. Women also do the unpaid labor, the care work, the picking up of the children from the school, and the countless hours that women put in. So when we say “Women’s Strike,” [it] also means, “I will not cook today, and I will stand in solidarity with women in 50 countries as I walk out.”

Thoughts on the International Women’s Strike and What It Meant, New York Magazine: The Cut, Dayna Evans, March 9, 2017

New York Magazine staff joined in Wednesday’s strike and offered their takeaways and reflections. Some of our favorites:

  • Protesting felt important because I think there is something rooted and energizing about bodies organizing together for the same cause, and it felt even better because I was with the women I work with, who were also striking — including our boss and her family.”
  • I thought a lot yesterday about the varying degrees of powerlessness for women. Not even women in other countries who can’t go to school or can’t even get a driver’s license, but women right next to me.”
Other articles we recommend:
  • Enviro groups blast Trump plan to gut EPA’s environmental justice office as a ‘racist slap in the face,‘ Fusion, Lucas Isakowitz, March 9, 2017.
    Proposed cuts to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) under the Trump administration will slash programs that help address pollution problems disproportionately faced by communities of color across the country; in response, environmental groups have condemned the cuts as racist and called for Congress to intervene. This article features work done by UUSC’s partner, the Alabama Center for Rural Enterprise.

Rights Reading

Our weekly roundup of what we’re reading: a few select articles from the front lines of human rights that we don’t want you to miss.

The Resistance Prevented Puzder From Becoming Labor Secretary, The Nation, John Nicols, February 15, 2017

Last Wednesday, Andrew Puzder, Trump’s nominee for Secretary of Labor, withdrew his nomination due to mounting public pressure, opposition, criticism, and most of all, resistance. Puzder, the CEO of CKE Restaurants, a parent company to many fast-food chains, has a bad reputation when it comes to worker’s rights. He has never advocated for increasing the minimum wage despite increasing overtime hours, has a history of sexist behavior, and allegations of 30 years of domestic abuse from his ex-wife. Trump’s nomination of Puzder was a disappointing blow to many workers across the country, especially after a campaign full of promises to increase wages. He is, as Elizabeth Warren stated, “the opposite of what we need in a labor secretary.”

Puzder’s reputation, opposition from republicans, but mainly resistance movements, were the perfect combination to put pressure on Puzder to step down. Labor activists and worker’s rights groups rallied and continued to gain momentum and build support for the worker’s right movement.

If you’re passionate about worker’s rights, join our partner, the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW), on their Return to Human Rights Tour. The march begins March 16 in Gainesville, Florida and will go through 12 cities, ending in Columbus, Ohio at the headquarters of Wendy’s on March 29.

This is What a Day Without Immigrants Looks Like, Colorlines, Kenrya Rankin, February 16, 2017

Photo of immigrants and allies at a protestIn response to the administration’s executive orders, “Muslim bans” and increasing ICE raids, immigrants and allies organized “A Day Without Immigrants” as an act of resistance and solidarity. Restaurants, businesses, and immigrant workers across the country stayed home from work and some even kept their children home from school. The main goal for this day was to show Americans the many ways in which immigrants contribute to society. Convenience stories to high end restaurants across the country closed their doors to show solidarity with their workers and the immigrant community.

Check out the rest of the article to see some amazing photos that captured this day.

Federal immigration raids net many without criminal records, sowing fear, The Washington Post, February 16, 2017

Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (ICE) officers are disregarding long-held rules and standards on who to arrest and where. Immigrants have been victims of racial profiling and arrested outside churches where they are seeking sanctuary; leaving domestic violence proceedings; outside of supermarkets, and arrested without having a criminal record.

Last week, nearly 700 immigrants were rounded up in a series of ICE raids that took place all over the country, inciting a new degree of fear in immigrant communities. Families are refusing to leave their homes and some have stopped sending their children to school for fear of being picked up. Despite ICE’s claims that they are only arresting those with dangerous criminal records, close to 200 of those that were arrested last week had no criminal record whatsoever.

Read more about the Muslim ban, ICE raids, and other events in our blog Rights, Rulings, and Raids: Unpacking recent events.

Economic Justice under a Trump Administration

In this 2017 inauguration series, UUSC will reflect on how the incoming administration’s actions will likely impact our focus areas: economic justice, rights at risk, and climate change. The first of this series will take a look at the role of the economy in justifying Trump’s rhetoric and campaign promises.

white house

The famous quip “It’s the economy, stupid,” coined by former President Bill Clinton advisor James Carville, can be just as helpful in understanding Trump’s rhetoric, as it was in understanding Clinton’s win in 1992. Many of the Trump campaign’s promises, proposed policies, and much of its inflammatory rhetoric drew upon a particular view of the economy. In fact, it seems that Donald Trump’s claims about the economy were instrumental in both propelling him to victory as well as providing the justification for his more hateful campaign promises and rhetoric.

One need look no further than Trump’s stance on immigration to find a clear example of relationship between his promises and his view of the economy. From day one of his campaign, Trump made it clear that a hostile stance towards immigration, including ramping up deportations, would become a core tenet of his platform.

Trump’s vision for immigration, as laid out on his campaign website, is comprised of three points, all of which relate to the economy. And, although much of his 10-point plan for immigration revolves around national security, two points in the 10-point plan relate to the link between immigrant workers and a lack of jobs for American citizens. Of course, all of this completely neglects the anticipated damage that his deportation plans would do to the U.S. economy, and the fact that the evidence suggests that immigrants not only contribute to the economy, but also aren’t really taking jobs from Americans. While some of his views on immigration are couched in terms of national security, there is no denying the links Trump draws between immigration and the state of the economy

However, the impact of Trump’s economic view are not limited to immigration. For example when it comes to climate change, undoubtedly the most pressing issue facing the world today, Trump’s position is heavy in its emphasis on jobs. As he promised in state after state on the campaign trail, he wants to bring back jobs in the coal industry; repeal environmental regulations on oil, natural gas, and fracking; and as a result, he will “unleash America’s energy potential.” Conspicuous in its absence on the issue is any reference to the climate change at all. Once again referring to his campaign website, Trump has a policy position on the issue of “Energy” (read, repealing regulations) but does not have a policy position on climate change.

What does all of this mean? Well, as many have pointed out, Trump has framed himself as a friend of the blue-collar worker, those who are out of work, and those who feel forgotten all while providing a convenient scapegoat: immigrants and regulations. With this in mind, his cabinet choices are troubling.

Secretary of State nominee and former CEO of Exxon Mobile, Rex Tillerson, for example, headed a company that sought to deny the impacts of climate change, even while its own research showed the dangers. Andrew Puzder, the former CEO of CKE Restaurants which owns Carl’s Jr. and Hardee’s, and Trump’s nominee for Labor Secretary, mused on the benefits of automating labor in his restaurants. In his own words: “[machines are] always polite, they always upsell, they never take a vacation, they never show up late, there’s never a slip-and-fall, or an age, sex, or race discrimination case.”

Worker-led movements and organizing will undoubtedly be critical in challenging Trump’s distorted and divisive views of the economy.

Given Trump’s views of the economy, it is as important now as ever to stand with workers around the country to ensure that their human rights are respected and that Trump’s views of the economy do not become the justification for the harassment of immigrants and low-income workers, or the degradation of the environment. Worker-led movements and organizing will undoubtedly be critical in challenging Trump’s distorted and divisive views of the economy.

So, as Trump assembles not only the wealthiest cabinet in modern history, but also the whitest and most male cabinet since Ronald Reagan, it is time to come together and find our moral courage to stand up for the human rights of all Americans, and to remember that, while Trump frames his economic narrative in terms of “us vs. them”, the only way we can truly achieve a more inclusive and just economy is by coming together under a shared vision of human rights.


In response to concerns about how the Trump administration is likely to proceed, UUSC has joined with the Unitarian Universalist Association on an unprecedented course of action to align ourselves together, united in purpose to protect the values of our democracy and those vulnerable populations among us.

As a first step, we have prepared a Declaration of Conscience stating in the strongest possible terms our commitment in these troubling times. By signing the declaration, you join us in affirming our core values and declaring our willingness to put them into action. We encourage you to read the full declaration here, and add your name.



The Inescapability of Informality in Zimbabwe: A Crisis in Context

The informal economy is everything in Zimbabwe. Earning a stable income is beyond the reach for far too many Zimbabweans, and it is estimated that 94.5% of Zimbabweans are engaged in the informal economy, leaving them vulnerable to harassment from local authorities, prone to highly variable incomes and poverty, and without a voice at the table in the policy decisions that impact their lives and work.

informal vendors selling their goods on a sidewalk in Zimbabwe

This is precisely the problem that UUSC’s Economic Justice Program partner, Zimbabwe Chamber of Informal Economy Associations (ZCIEA) strives to address. Through trainings and advocacy, ZCIEA aims to organize and empower Zimbabwe’s massive informal economy and to ensure that Zimbabwe’s leaders hear the voices of the country’s informal workers.

Through this partnership, UUSC’s support to ZCIEA has centered on training informal workers in human rights, as enshrined in the UN human rights treaties, and International Labour Organization recommendations on the informal economy. The overall goal is to ensure that informal workers in Zimbabwe are aware of their rights and are able, and empowered, to engage in advocacy to ensure that their rights and their work is respected.

I was immediately struck by the importance of ZCIEA’s work during my visit to Zimbabwe this past July. Everywhere you go in Zimbabwe, you are certain to stumble upon an ad hoc marketplace or to encounter a vendor or hawker selling their wares in order to make ends meet. For many in Zimbabwe, the informal economy is inescapable. The country largely lacks industry, and due to the country’s political instability, foreign sanctions against the country’s leadership, and the country’s controversial indigenization policy, has received hardly any foreign investment, which would support stronger infrastructure.

Given the state of the country’s economy, and the massive size of the informal economy, stability and change in Zimbabwe are impossible without the inclusion of Zimbabwe’s informal workers. Unless Zimbabwe begins to recognize the importance of the informal economy, and to listen to the demands of the informal workers and their representatives, then Zimbabwe’s economy will continue to leave most workers behind, contributing to future climatic and political instability.

ZCIEA President Lorraine Sibanda with informal traders at a UUSC-funded training on human rights in Victoria Falls

Through ZCIEA, the informal economy in Zimbabwe has found a voice. Now, it is time for the government of Zimbabwe to listen, and to put the country on a path to stability.

A look at the crises facing Zimbabwe

To make matters worse, and in part as a result of the lack of a formal economy, the country has been mired in economic crisis after economic crisis. Most notably, in 2008, the country hit astronomical levels of inflation which required the government to print 100 trillion dollar notes. More recently, the country is currently being rocked by yet another bout of economic instability resulting from a crippling cash shortage. Across the country there is not enough currency to meet people’s needs. The result: ATMs that do not contain enough money, resulting in long lines outside banks as people try to withdraw their money to buy essential goods.

The cash shortage, combined with the government’s announcement of a ban on certain imports, has led many Zimbabweans to take to the streets in protest. Zimbabwe is also simultaneously caught in the in the midst of environmental and political crises, with each crisis amplifying and feeding into the next, resulting in near constant political and economic instability.

A particularly strong El Niño has hit the region, resulting in an estimated four million people who are food insecure. This is due, in no small part, to a drought impacting the country. When I visited Zimbabwe in July 2016, every river we passed as we drove around the country was bone dry.

And then there is Robert Mugabe. Mugabe is currently 92-years-old, making him the oldest leader in the world. Yet, there is an internal struggle for succession both within Mugabe’s party, ZANU-PF, and amongst Zimbabwe’s weakened opposition parties. However, just weeks ago, ZANU-PF decided that Mugabe would run as the party’s candidate in the 2018 elections. If Mugabe were to win the 2018 election, he would be in office until he turns 99-years-old. As a result of the political instability, the Early Warning Project at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum’s Simon-Skjodt Center for the Prevention of Genocide, which identifies countries at risk of new mass atrocities, released a report in November 2016 which noted that Zimbabwe was at high risk for violence and further collapse.

While any one of the three crises would, on their own, be enough to create a situation in which human rights are at-risk, the emergence of all three, and the ways in which they are interconnected, has created a dire situation for many of the country’s citizens.

Rights Reading

Our weekly roundup of what we’re reading: a few select articles from the front lines of human rights that we don’t want you to miss. This week’s Rights Readings highlights focus on our partners the Coalition of Immokalee Workers and the effect of climate change in Alaska.


In Downtown Crossing, a picket line of fifth-graders, Cristela Guerra, The Boston Globe, December 12, 2016.

Earlier this week, fifth-graders from the Boston Workmen’s Circle Center for Jewish Culture and Social Justice in Brookline, Mass. proved that you’re never too young to protest. Chanting, “Hold the burgers, hold the shakes. A penny more is all it takes!” these students showed solidarity with UUSC partners, the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW). “I believe in justice for everyone,” 11-year-old Jasper Milstein said.

Wendy’s is the last of the major U.S. fast food chains to refuse to join the Fair Food Program. This program improves pay and working conditions for farmworkers in the tomato fields. It also supports partnerships between businesses, growers, and farmworkers to ensure that the people who supply their produce are treated with dignity and respect. CIW has organized a boycott of the restaurant that is over 75,000 strong. Join them here!


A Wrenching Choice for Alaska Towns in the Path of Climate Change, Erica Goode, The New York Times, November 29, 2016.

Shaktoolik, a village of 250 people in Alaska, is facing an imminent threat from increased flooding and erosion, due to climate change. The state is warming about twice as fast as the rest of the United States, and many indigenous communities are increasingly vulnerable to rising seas.

The United States has identified at least 31 Alaskan towns and cities at risk of destruction.

The choice these communities face is between a costly, decades-long relocation and the risk of staying and losing everything. As the effects of climate change continue, the situation is likely to only worsen.