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.

ICE Again Targets the Most Vulnerable

Yessenia Alfaro, Deputy Director of the Chelsea Collaborative, addresses the press at a briefing shortly before Francisco Rodriguez’s ICE appointment.

On Thursday, July 13, members of Love Resists linked arms with friends, family, and supporters of community member and father of two, Francisco Rodriguez, as he walked into the Boston field office of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) for his scheduled appointment. We were there to support the Keep Francisco Home campaign organized by Massachusetts Jobs with Justice. We were there to show up for a neighbor in danger of deportation, and a family at risk of being separated from their beloved son, husband, and father. Within the hour, these fears became a reality. Rodriguez was detained, pending deportation.

Shortly before he entered the office, Rodriguez spoke at a press briefing outside about his fear of returning to El Salvador, a country he fled ten years ago after the murder of his co-worker. Roxana Rivera, the vice president of the local Service Employees International Union (SEIU) chapter to which Rodriguez belongs, spoke tearfully of dropping her own two children off at school that morning and imagining what it would be like to be taken from them against her will, as Francisco is now experiencing. The co-chair of the Sanctuary Committee of First Parish in Bedford UU, Christine Dudley-Marling, quoted words from Love Resists’ Declaration of Conscience, reminding us to live “on the side of love with the most vulnerable among us.”

Francisco was far from alone. In addition to our team, he was also accompanied by Yessenia Alfaro (pictured above), the Deputy Director of the Chelsea Collaborative, of which he is a member. He received letters and statements of support from Senators Elizabeth Warren and Ed Markey, Congressman Mike Capuano, and the president and senior leadership of MIT, where he works as a custodian. ICE itself has previously granted him a stay of removal for years, under their prosecutorial discretion that used to be routine in cases like his. There was nothing to prevent the field office from exercising a modicum of compassion by extending it again.

Another extension is what we still hoped would happen, as Lily Huang, an organizer with Massachusetts Jobs with Justice, led us in a slow march with Francisco to the door of the office, singing “Courage, my friend / You do not walk alone.” Camping out on the ground in front of the office, the support team kept its spirits up with songs like “This Land is Your Land” and “We Shall Not Be Moved.” After hearing from all the supportive voices, we expected to see Francisco emerge from the same door he had just entered, knowing that he was here to stay.

Then, a member of a local media film crew ran past our group, in such a hurry that he left a headset dragging from a cord several feet behind him. A member of our group who had moved off from us returned, saying that ICE had just taken Francisco into detention, loading him into a black van and driving out from behind the office. “Link arms! Link arms!” the organizers urged us, and we moved into the center of the parking lot, trying to block the exit.

Some of us starting singing again, but now with a tremor of alarm in our voices. I was suddenly aware of my own fear of arrest. I thought of what it would be like to be handcuffed in this parking lot and taken someplace against my will, rather than being able to get in my car at the end of the rally and drive home. The incredible violence committed against Francisco and his family was brought home to me. A person who had just been walking freely, a person who had done nothing wrong, was now behind bars, set to be put on a deportation plane sometime in the next 30 days. Our attempt to prevent the van from leaving the office not successful – it drove away by a different route.

ICE’s decision was astonishingly cruel. To those gathered, especially to the friends and family of Francisco, it felt like a breach of civilization. As an announcement from the Keep Francisco Home team put it shortly afterward: “ICE seems to think they operate in a different world than the rest of us, independent of human decency, public opinion, and even the rule of our elected officials.” Matt Cameron, one of Francisco’s attorneys, asked the press with desperation: “Where is the discretion? If not in this case, then what case?”

Sadly, this pattern is not limited to the Boston field office. It is happening all over the country. ICE targets those who are least able to resist or escape; those who are already in its custody or who have voluntarily shown up to an ICE appointment. They have raided the sick and the homeless. They are trying to deport four children from the Berks detention center who have already been granted Special Immigrant Juvenile (SIJ) status due to a history of abuse or neglect, putting their lives in jeopardy. It is targeted long-term Iraqi residents with prior removal orders simply because it knows where they live, and because the Iraqi government has been strong-armed into accepting their return.

Horrifying reports are emerging of ICE using unaccompanied refugee children as “bait” to arrest their relatives and charge them with “smuggling” for bringing the kids to safety (thereby putting into effect the worst threats of the DHS memos released in February). ICE is even punishing immigrants who, like Francisco, follow its own rules.

ICE justifies its outrageous actions always by an appeal to “the law,” just as this administration, in general, seeks to portray the communities most impacted by its policies as “criminal.” In a statement following the detention, ICE asserted simply that Francisco Rodriguez is an “unlawfully present citizen of El Salvador” with a prior removal order. In the face of such rhetoric, the words of Rev. Peter Morales that Christine Dudley-Marling shared at the rally are particularly apt: “[W]e must never make the mistake of confusing a legal right with a moral right. The forced removal of Native Americans from their land and onto reservations was legal. The importation and sale of African slaves was legal. South African apartheid was legal…The powerful have always used the legal system to oppress the powerless.”

As a human rights organization, UUSC declares that there is a law of humanity higher than the law of any government. As Clarence Darrow once wrote: “I do not believe in the law of hate. I believe in the law of love.” When the law of the land becomes a law of hate, then love must fight back. Love resists.

 

August 4, 2017 update: ICE has held Francisco since July 13, even preventing him from being with his family when his wife gave birth to their third child and underwent an emergency C-section. His attorneys continue to explore legal options to halt his deportation. Hope remains that the Board of Immigrant Appeals will grant Francisco a stay of removal, or that the government will abandon its cruel and unnecessary action against him. The violence that has already been done to this family, however, cannot be taken back. Lily Huang of the Keep Francisco Home team has compiled a list of action steps to support the family at this difficult time.  

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 Congratulates Rev. Frederick-Gray

The Unitarian Universalist Service Committee (UUSC) congratulates Rev. Susan Frederick-Gray on her election and new position as President of the Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA). We are excited to work with her and to continue our relationship with the UUA, in particular, through Love Resists. We also congratulate Rev. Jeanne Pupke and the Rev. Alison Miller on their campaigns and wish them best in their continuing success.

Frederick-Gray’s commitment to global justice and human dignity and rights has been apparent over her career. UUSC looks forward to collaborating during this critical moment to address global inequality brought on by the impacts of climate change, systemic human rights abuses, and the criminalization of our neighbors in communities across the United States, among other issues. As UUSC President and CEO Tom Andrews remarked during Saturday’s General Session in New Orleans, “If there was ever a time for Unitarian Universalists to unite and act, it is now.” We look forward to working closely with Frederick-Gray, and all UUA staff and partners, to continue transforming our shared values into political and social action.

Post-Detention Support for the LGBTQI Immigrant Community

In honor Pride Month, we celebrate our partnership with the Queer Detainee Empowerment Project (QDEP), one of UUSC’s newest partners. With the launch of Love Resists, our joint campaign with the UUA, UUSC sought out partnerships with groups who are particularly vulnerable under the new administration, namely the LGBTQI community, immigrants, and people of color. The New York-based QDEP is representative of these three populations. They work to oppose the criminalization of the LGBTQI immigrant community and provide post-detention support.

QDEP’s message is clear: Immigrant detention is unsafe for all people, especially LGBTQI individuals, many of whom are also people of color. They are working with over 100 organizations that specialize in human and civil rights throughout the country and share the goals of closing down detention centers and holding Immigration Customs Enforcement (ICE) accountable for the death and violence that occurs in their facilities. QDEP works to secure the freedom of detainees by raising funds to pay their legal bonds, advocating on their behalf, providing direct legal services, and organizing a number of support services within detention centers, including a Pen Pal Program, visitation, and bond support. Once people have secured their freedom, QDEP provides case management to assist reintegration.

Through our partnership with QDEP and the work of Love Resists, UUSC is continuing to advocate for expanded sanctuary as a means of combating criminalization.  In line with UUSC’s values and eye-to-eye partnership model, QDEP is led by and for the communities it serves. Members of their staff and volunteer networks have experienced detention themselves. Once released, many return to join their communities in the struggle for freedom.

The poem, "First they came" by Martin Niemoller

When I think of times I have hesitated to stand by my values and put words into actions, I remember the famous poem by the German anti-Nazi theologian and Lutheran pastor Martin Niemöller. Beneath the rumination on the selfishness of the human condition lies a message of interconnectedness.

QDEP works directly at the intersection of multiple sources of oppression; however, the struggle for greater recognition and expansion of human rights does not just affect those who are experiencing the direct effects of persecution. The United States is not so different from Germany, the country Niemöller lived in less than 80 years ago.

Niemöller’s words are an important reminder of our shared humanity and the need to speak up for those who don’t have a voice. As we celebrate Pride, we are proud to partner with QDEP, an organization at the front lines fighting to stop the detention of immigrant LGBTQI people of color.

Rights Reading

Our weekly roundup of what we’re reading in human rights and social justice! This week’s wrap-up includes select articles from the front lines of human rights that we don’t want you to miss: Iraqi Christians facing deportation, the growing religious left movement, and the Standing Rock Sioux’s continued fight against the Dakota Access Pipeline.

ICE arrested dozens of Iraqi Christians in Detroit, Gabriela Del Valle, The Outline, June 12, 2017

Forty Iraqi Christians were rounded up in Detroit, Michigan on Sunday, June 11 by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and are now being held in a detention center in Ohio. ICE raids and deportations are nothing new, especially under the Trump administration, but this case stands out because of how blatantly it is driven by political and economic negotiations between the United States and Iraq. It appears that Iraq was removed from Trump’s travel ban list – a ban that has been ruled illegal multiple times in court – after agreeing to accept deportees from the United States.

Many of the Iraqi Christians now facing deportation feel betrayed by Trump and his administration (and rightly so). Christians are a heavily persecuted minority in Iraq, and as Del Valle reports, “the House of Representatives unanimously voted in favor of a resolution declaring that ISIS’s persecution of religious minorities in Iraq and Syria, including Christians, constitutes genocide.” Many of the detained immigrants came to the United States to escape violence; to send them back to Iraq is knowingly putting them in mortal danger.

Read our statement condemning these deportations for their abject callousness.

Religious Liberals Sat Out of Politics for 40 Years. Now They Want in the Game, Laurie Goodstein, The New York Times, June 10, 2017

The Rev. William J. Barber II, organizer of the “Moral Mondays” protests in North Carolina, in April at Riverside Church in Manhattan, where he preached on building a national movement.

Over the past 40 years, the Christian conservatives have been the dominant religious presence in the U.S. political sphere. That’s finally starting to change. In response to Trump’s election, religious progressives are getting involved in grassroots movements across the country, “hungry to break the right’s grip on setting the nation’s moral agenda.”

As Goodstein points out, the religious left hasn’t been heavily involved in politics since protesting the Vietnam War. Now, the religious left is a much more diverse group – represented by many religions, by women, by people of color, by members of the LGBTQI community – and they want to turn the religious-political conversation back towards “fundamental biblical imperatives — caring for the poor, welcoming strangers and protecting the earth — and maybe even change some minds about what it means to be a believer.”

However, one of their biggest obstacles to really creating a political movement is other liberals. The standing policy of the Democratic Party is to distance itself from religion, whereas the Republican party has tied itself with Christian conservatism, which has generated them an important voter base in the past few decades.

In the wake of Trump’s election, one thing is certain: U.S. politics are changing. Goodstein’s article is an important look at the intersection between religion and politics.

UUSC has joined with the UUA for Love Resists, a joint campaign aimed at activating people of faith and conscience to resist the harm inflicted by criminalization by creating safer, more just, welcoming, and sustainable communities. Join us!

The Standing Rock Sioux Claim ‘Victory and Vindication’ in Court, Robinson Meyer, The Atlantic, June 14, 2017

On Wednesday, the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe won their first court victory, but it wasn’t all they deserve. The court ruled that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ initial study of the Dakota Access Pipeline’s (DAPL) environmental impact was not extensive enough and ordered for a new one to be conducted. However, the DAPL will still remain active in the meantime and perhaps even after the new study is complete.

It is unclear yet whether true justice will come to Standing Rock, but as Meyer states, “the ruling may establish some important precedents, particularly around environmental justice and treaty rights.” Although months of protests may not change the outcome of DAPL and its threat to Standing Rock drinking water, it may change the outcome of future cases.