An Interview With Rachel Freed, Vice President And Chief Program Officer

Carly Cronon spoke with Rachel Freed about her past work in human rights, what drew her to UUSC, and her most memorable moments with the organization thus far.

When and why did you first become involved in human rights work?

I grew up in a multicultural family and spent a lot of time visiting relatives in Southeast Asia, where I witnessed persistent inequalities and the dehumanization that went with it. It made me eager to develop my own understanding of how different political, social, economic and cultural forces shaped how and why people had certain rights over others.

Years later, a pivotal moment occurred during my junior semester abroad in India. I visited a rural fishing community that had been subject to fly ash pollution from a neighboring Exxon plant. Villagers in the community were mostly illiterate and had been told by the company that the fly ash was not harmful. In response to their concerns, the company-sponsored health clinics told villagers they were fine. This continued until a local nongovernmental organization working with a community member tested the water and found strains of harmful chemicals in the fish and streams.

Through outreach and education, the villagers organized the entire community, mobilized, and successfully demanded accountability. This experience helped me to understand the power of local communities and NGOs to catalyze vibrant and democratic social change movements.

What drew you to UUSC’s human rights work in particular?

My journey to UUSC was inspired by working with a UU congregation and community in a great struggle against injustice. When I graduated from law school, I worked for a civil rights firm in New York City, where the lead attorney humored my request to do pro bono work by connecting me to his UU congregation in Ridgewood, NJ. It was there that I met four passionate women who chose to spend their free time visiting detained asylum-seekers in detention centers. I offered to take one case, but then I started to get calls from the detention center on a daily basis.

There was one rather stark case I can remember – that of a Liberian refugee who escaped rebel forces during the reign of Charles Taylor, the former President and now convicted war criminal. After witnessing her siblings’ deaths, she fled the country and came to the United States. She lived here for almost seven years – just shy of the residency requirement to become a U.S. citizen – when a minor shoplifting incident landed her in detention, facing deportation. She had no representation, she suffered from severe post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and her kids had been taken into child protective services. My UU friends began to visit her each week to connect with her children’s government rep, and to help piece together the documents in her case. Next began our three-year journey together. It was quite a trek from Brooklyn to the middle of New Jersey, but my UU friends never failed to ferry me from the commuter rail, or deliver documents and do a visitation when needed. Eventually, we found the psychologist who had treated this woman in detention; he testified about her PTSD, and we were able to win the case. She was released and reunited with her children after nearly four years of living in the detention center.

I share this story because it is about a few caring individuals and what they accomplished by offering their time and generosity and by organizing their community for a specific cause. This is what drew me, and continues to draw me, to UUSC – it is our collective approach and struggle for justice in this world—as inspired by our founders and continued onwards through the years.

What do you like most about your job?

At UUSC, we are lucky to work with some of the most remarkable human rights activists around the world – people who wake each day not quite sure of what their efforts may bring for their communities, but who continue on anyway because of their deep belief in love, equality, and humanity. We are able to draw tremendous strength and courage from our partners. I also feel incredibly fortunate to work with such talented, passionate, and committed colleagues – I learn so much from all of our staff on a daily basis.

What is one of your most cherished UUSC memories or success stories?

One of my most cherished moments occurred during my trip to Nepal a few months after the 2015 earthquake, while meeting with one of our partners focused on trauma resiliency. They were helping to train a cadre of local teachers working with rural Dalit youth who had received very little support since the earthquake. We were in a small classroom when one of the children began to break down – she had lost her mother during the earthquake and was struggling to take care of her little brother. One of the trainers immediately calmed her down, and they sat for a while, talking and focusing on her breathing and the present moment. She managed to calm down, stop crying, and soon was smiling and sharing with us her dreams for her brother and telling us about her hopes for herself. It was really moving. I felt proud to know that UUSC was able to help bring trauma resiliency skills to teachers serving Dalit children in a remote area that had been overlooked by larger recovery efforts.

What do you and your team look for in finding new UUSC partners?

UUSC’s approach is unique to most Western human rights organizations because we center the voices of communities and their values in our pursuit to advance human rights and transform unjust power structures. Our model focuses not on a community’s helplessness or lack of knowledge, but rather their assets and their solutions. Therefore, we generally look to partner with smaller, lesser-known organizations doing innovative work to transform and empower marginalized populations, often in the face of extreme and adverse circumstances. The process of selecting new partners involves working with those organizations to identify how UUSC’s financial and other resources can be best leveraged to further human rights on the ground. It also includes mapping stakeholders, identifying points of power, and thinking through how UUSC’s voice and prominence as a U.S.-based human rights organization can be used to instigate systemic change.

What is an upcoming UUSC initiative that you are particularly excited about?

I’m in the middle of packing my bags for a trip to Zagreb, Croatia to participate in a convening that brings together our partners in the Balkans who are helping to serve Syrian refugees. At this convening, our partners from Hungary, Serbia, Slovenia, Macedonia, and Croatia will be coming together to exchange information, build relationships, coordinate responses and collectively strategize on how to navigate the increasingly challenging political environments in which they operate. Our Balkans partners work in counties that have become increasingly hostile towards refugees, and their organizations are facing new government restrictions on their work. I’m excited to talk with them about their experiences and strategize ways UUSC can support their collective efforts during this critical time.

Global Compact for Migration Offers a Strong Signal for the Protection of Human Rights

             

L: Representatives from the Mission of Tuvalu to the UN and Palau’s Ministry of Immigration with Salote Soqo, UUSC’s Senior Program Leader R: Civil society groups meeting outside the conference venue

Delegations came together in strength and in unity to improve global governance on migration.

The stocktaking meeting for the Global Compact for Safe, Orderly and Regular Migration which took place in Puerto Vallarta December 4-6, 2017 was “extraordinarily” positive. Extraordinary in the sense that during a time of rising nationalism and xenophobia around the world, there was great convergence amongst delegates to center the global compact on the protection of the rights of all migrants, and that the withdrawal of the United States from the compact did not seem to deter the spirit of the deliberations. What was seen instead was delegations coming together in strength and in unity to improve global governance on migration.

In addition to the unifying call for a human rights-centered compact that respects and empowers all migrants, other messages were loud and clear: the compact should be gender sensitive, respect migrant workers, protect children, counter xenophobia and the criminalization of migrants, encourage data-driven policies, ensure ethical business practices for migrants regardless of their status, uphold existing conventions and treaties, respect national sovereignty and above all else, increase the benchmark for addressing migration.

These are all overlying principles that we must support when it comes to governing all forms of migration, including climate-forced displacement. UUSC hopes that states will adopt these principles in earnest as they develop domestic and regional policies and we encourage states to combine compassion with urgency and diligence as they embark on this historic momentum.

The high number of non-state actors that turned up at the meeting and their engagement since the inception of the global compact has also been encouraging. From faith leaders to labor unions, and other civil society groups, like UUSC – our engagement with state delegations has made this process inclusive. Perhaps it was the scenery that made this meeting so pleasant or probably the fact that we were only a few weeks away from the holidays, but this is the standard that we hope the negotiations will adopt moving forward into 2018 and beyond.

Rights Reading

Our weekly roundup of what we’re reading in human rights and social justice! In celebration of U.S. Independence Day, this week’s Rights Reading includes articles on patriotic resistance, the legacy of Henry David Thoreau, #IStandwithLinda, and moral progress.

What It Means to Be a Patriot in the Trump Era, Katrina vanden Heuvel, The Nation, July 3, 2017

Heuvel provides an important reminder of why patriotic resistance is so important under the Trump administration. Patriotic resistance stems from a love for what this country stands for – the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness – and a moral obligation to protect those ideals. Protesting is not unpatriotic, rather, when it is in the name of human rights, it constitutes the highest act of patriotism. A true patriot is willing to question and resist the injustices of their government “to make sure the country lives up to its highest ideals.”

Across the nation, more and more people have taken action; people who used to be bystanders in our political system are standing up for human and civil rights at risk. We echo Heuvel’s inspiration at seeing an increasing number of communities across the world organizing for change. What makes America “great” is its commitment to a set of values, not to the leader of the moment. UUSC is as committed as ever to work for the rights of the oppressed, and we hope you will continue to join with us.

A Muslim activist referenced jihad and the right freaked out because they don’t know what it means, Jack Jenkins, Think Progress, July 7, 2017

“In these United States of America, if you sit back idly in the face of injustice, if you maintain the current status quo that not only oppresses Muslims, but oppresses black people inside our community and outside our community, undocumented people, other minority groups and oppressed groups, you, my dear sisters and brothers, are then aligned with the oppressor.”

Linda Sarsour, a co-organizer of the Women’s March on Washington, recently drew criticism for a speech she gave at the Islamic Society of North America (ISNA) convention. Here, Jenkins provides the background and context to Sarsour’s words, which were a call to action against oppression at all levels, writing that, “Sarsour was clearly using the term jihad to promote speaking truth to power.”

The Washington Post explains further, “Jihad is a central concept in Islam, and the Arabic word literally translates as “struggle” or “striving.” While the word is indeed used by some to refer to a physical military struggle to defend Islam, most Muslims use it to refer to a personal, spiritual effort to follow God, live out one’s faith and strive to be a better person.”

Last month during the UUA General Assembly, UUSC awarded Sarsour with the 2017 Eleanor Roosevelt Human Rights Leadership Award at the UUSC Awards Gala in recognition of her activism and intersectional organizing work which has bridged communities and issues to build powerful movements. During her remarks, Sarsour urged Unitarian Universalists and people who share our values to be a beacon of light and courage to stand up to injustice, and, like Heuvel in The Nation article above, reminded us that “dissent is the highest form of patriotism.” We hope that you will continue to join us in resisting and expressing dissent to policies that undermine human rights throughout the world, including in the United States.

Henry David Thoreau, the original none, Richard Higgins, UU World, July 10, 2017

Higgins celebrates transcendentalist writer Henry David Thoreau, widely recognized as the founder of American environmentalism and champion of individualism. Thoreau’s political writings and actions are the embodiment of the idea of patriotic resistance as a mechanism of progress. This article is a sweeping look at how Thoreau’s philosophy, and, more importantly, his dedication to live by it, has transcended his era and continues to be essential to human rights activism, including for Unitarian Universalists.

Thoreau was baptized a Unitarian, but formally cut his ties to the church and denounced organized religion, though he remained “religious to the bone.” Ironically, today’s Unitarian Universalism is heavily influenced by Thoreau’s philosophy. In fact, as Higgins points out, Love Resists’ “Declaration of Conscience” echoes “Thoreau’s defense of the inviolability of the human conscience” in his famous essay “Resistance to Civil Government,” more commonly known as “Civil Disobedience.”

This year marks the 200th anniversary of Thoreau’s birth, and yet his legacy has never been more relevant: “His influence is . . . palpable in the post-Trump surge in political activism in America, which is indebted to his eloquent defense of the individual’s right to resist immoral laws.” We encourage you to read Thoreau’s writings and be inspired.

Progress Never Just Happens—We Must Always Fight for It, Sara Pevar, The Establishment, January 20, 2017

While this article is a throwback to Trump’s inauguration, it remains a powerful reminder that we cannot be complacent if we want to see change. If we are, the result may be immoral leadership that perpetuates fear and hate.

Pevar does more than to call us to action in this article. She makes us take a hard look at how we view history and progress. She criticizes the naive assumption that people today are more moral, progressive, and accepting than the people of the past. This perception is not only false, but also dangerous, because it can lead people to assume that their problems will be solved by the natural progression of time, rather than through their work and participation.

Although progress is natural, it is not inevitable, and it definitely “does not move in a straight line.” Pevar provides the struggles for racial and gender equality as examples—both have gone through periods of forward momentum and experienced extreme push back for centuries. Pevar argues that, instead of people naturally improving, progress is actually the result of individuals’ continued resistance to the status quo and their struggle to defend rights they see being violated, and of individuals inspiring others into action, generating movements. “If we assume that social problems solve themselves when society is ‘ready,’ then we erase from history all the people and movements who dragged society kicking and screaming into readiness whether it liked it or not,” she writes.

UUSC Condemns Shameful Raid on Migrant Desert Camp

UUSC is extremely disturbed by last week’s raid on the humanitarian aid camp operated by No More Deaths (NMD), a Tucson, Ariz.-based group with whom we partner. NMD provides life-saving food, water and medical care for people making the dangerous journey through remote parts of the Arizona desert on foot, and the raid on their camp represents a reprehensible disregard for the lives of migrants and refugees by the current administration.

On a day when temperatures surged over 100 degrees, U.S. Border Patrol descended on NMD’s aid camp with a helicopter, fifteen trucks and thirty armed agents in an unprecedented show of force. Four patients receiving medical care were arrested, and countless others in need of aid were prevented from doing so by a mobile checkpoint that had been set up at the entrance to the camp.

Since its founding in 2003, NMD has had a good working relationship with the Tucson Sector of Border Patrol. In 2013 the groups agreed in writing that their camp would be respected as a medical facility. The raid marks a disturbing shift in U.S. government policy and violates not only this agreement but international humanitarian law and International Red Cross standards that prohibit government interference with aid centers.

Many of those who make the unauthorized crossings through the Mexico-U.S. border in Arizona are refugees escaping extreme violence and instability in Central America. When people are fleeing for their lives, the merciless desert terrain and the threat of arrest will not deter them from seeking safety in the United States. The aid camp is an essential tool to prevent loss of life—human remains are found on average once every three days in this area—and the raid is a targeted attack on the migrants and refugees who seek its services.

UUSC been in solidarity with NMD since 2015 and is currently funding a series of reports that exposes Border Patrol’s anti-humanitarian policies and practices which have created a crisis of migrant death in the desert. We continue to support NMD in their mission, and we call on the Trump administration to direct Border Patrol to immediately comply with the law and stop obstructing humanitarian aid.

Deportations to Iraq Reflect “New Low of Cynicism and Immorality”

Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) launched raids earlier this week targeting Iraqi communities in Tennessee and Michigan, resulting in over 200 arrests of immigrants with prior deportation orders, many of whom are members of Iraq’s Chaldean Christian and Kurdish minorities. While attorneys and advocates race to secure emergency relief, these individuals are now at imminent risk of deportation to ongoing conflict, humanitarian crisis, and the threat of persecution in Iraq.

UUSC strongly condemns any forced returns to Iraq while the country is still at war and the government cannot or will not ensure the safety of its citizens. Not only do such returns violate the obligations of the U.S. under international law, but it is a particularly callous move in light of its own contributions to conflict, instability, civilian casualties, and human rights violations in Iraq over the past fifteen years.

The way in which the resumed deportations to Iraq were negotiated likewise reflects a new low of cynicism and immorality for this administration. Iraq was one of seven Muslim-majority countries included in the original version of Trump’s notorious “travel ban.” Its removal from the list in the second version of the ban is believed to be due in part to Iraq agreeing to resume receiving deportees again from the United States.

In short, despite the fact that Trump’s Muslim Ban has been repeatedly halted in the courts for being flagrantly discriminatory, it is still being used as political blackmail to coerce other governments to process removals to some of the most dangerous places in the world. 

The specific targeting of Christian and Kurdish Iraqi communities by ICE shows that everyone is endangered by this administration’s reckless xenophobia and Islamophobia, whether they are Muslim or not. Trump defended his Muslim Ban when it was first announced as a sign of his support for Christians in Iraq and Syria, who have faced genocidal violence from the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL). Now that same ban is leading to the deportation of Iraqi Christians directly into the hands of their persecutors.

Threats to the human rights and civil liberties of our Christian, Arab, and Muslim neighbors are unacceptable. UUSC opposes any and all deportations to active conflict zones or ongoing sites of persecution and stands in solidarity with the Iraqi immigrant communities in this moment of peril.

The Philippines Face Martial Law and Threat of Rape

On May 23, 2017, President Duterte declared martial law on the Philippines’ island of Mindanao, in response to an escalation in hostilities between government forces and the Maute group, a terrorist organization allied with the Islamic State. Shortly after the declaration, Duterte suspended habeas corpus, which requires a person be released from police custody unless lawful grounds are shown for their continued detention. He also warned that he may expand martial law to the Visayas, the region hardest hit by 2013’s Typhoon Haiyan and home to most of UUSC’s grassroots partners in the Philippines, if not nationwide.

In the days following the declaration, Duterte reassured the military that “he alone” would be responsible for the consequences of martial law, going so far as to tell them, “If you have committed rape, I’ll take responsibility for it.” He also reminded troops in Mindanao that, under martial law they can arrest anyone and enter anyone’s home without a warrant and he ordered the use of lethal force against anyone who resists. Warrantless arrests have already begun at checkpoints in Mindanao and there are reports of escalating human rights violations in the region.

There are good reasons to be especially concerned about the return of martial law in the Philippines. During the ten-year imposition of martial law under former President Ferdinand Marcos, there were thousands of human rights violations, including arbitrary detentions, torture, disappearances, and extrajudicial killings. Duterte has already promised that his version of martial law would mirror Marcos’. Given the extent to which Duterte has previously disregarded human rights and overseen the degradation of the rule of law in the Philippines, there is no reason why we should not take him at his word.

An anti-martial law protest on May 24, 2017.

Human rights groups in the Philippines, including a number of UUSC’s partners, have been outspoken in their opposition to the return of martial law despite the risk that such resistance entails. Shortly after the declaration, there were anti-martial law protests across the country, and on May 30, JustPeacePH, an international platform for peace in the Philippines, issued a statement renouncing martial law in Mindanao. UUSC joins our Philippines partners and allies in opposing the return of martial law to the Philippines and the continued erosion of the rule of law and respect for human rights under President Duterte.