Monday, January 31, 2011

What inspires you to seek justice?

   The four of us who are privileged to work at Workers Interfaith Network all share something in common. And it's something that I bet we share in common with you: a passion for seeking justice.

   As I've gotten to know my co-workers better over the years, I've been continually inspired by their stories of what brings them to this work. What makes them get up every day and do the difficult work of organizing?

  Then I thought, why haven't I shared these stories with you? I hope they will inspire you to continue devoting yourself to the work of justice. And perhaps they will inspire you to share your own story!

   So today, I'll start by sharing some of James Luvene's story. James has worked part-time at WIN since 2005, building relationships with congregations and fundraising. He became connected with WIN while completing his Master of Divinity degree at Memphis Theological Seminary, where's he now completing his Doctorate of Ministry.

   What inspires James to seek justice? James tell this story best himself in the video below. His mother and father's experiences as custodial workers still have a profound impact on him today. When he shared this story about his mother's brave act on the day of Dr. King's assassination, I knew more people needed to hear it:

  What James forgot to mention is that his parents had 13 children to support when she quit her job.
  Faith and social justice: A United Methodist, James points to his church's strong statements for justice in its Social Principles. "For me, I really believe deep in my heart that it's almost impossible for me to say I'm a Christian and not be involved in social justice. It's what Jesus lived out every day; it's what Jesus taught every day, and it's what the Bible teaches," says James.

   The impact you make as a WIN member: When I asked James what the most important experience he's had on the WIN staff, he pointed back to an article that ran in The Commercial Appeal after your hard fight to win a living wage ordinance with the City of Memphis. The article featured a City worker who received a raise because of the living wage ordinance. She shared that she would now be able to buy her children's back to school clothes because of her raise. "That's what this work is all about," James says. "Making sure people who are working every day are treated with dignity in their work."

   James' dream for WIN: James is concerned about the growing emphasis on the prosperity gospel in many churches today. "As an African-American, I'm very concerned that there seems to be this pulling away from the works of justice," James says. "One of my dreams is for WIN to help the majority of churches in Memphis re-connect with their calling to the work of justice. We need to remember that Dr. King died in Memphis. But we also need to remember why he was in Memphis: to stand up with the sanitation workers."

   Share your story: So now you know a little of the journey that brings James to organize with you at Workers Interfaith Network. I want to hear your story too! Tell us what beliefs, people, and experiences inspire you to seek justice. Just share in the comments section below, or post on the WIN Facebook page.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Vigil Shows Growing Momentum for Living Wage at University of Memphis

    "If God was here, how would we act?" Dr. Ande Johnson asked the crowd of 60 University workers, students, and community members gathered for the living wage vigil on January 22nd. Dr. Johnson reminded us that while the world tends to think there's not enough for everyone, we worship a God of abundance. "I want to pray for our eyes to be opened, so that when we get these arguments like 'there's not money in the budget for a living wage,' or 'you should just be glad to have a job,' we can see that's there's already enough there for a living wage."

   Last week's vigil was the second major action in the University of Memphis living wage campaign, following up on a successful speak out in October. Because of the action and generosity of members like you, Workers Interfaith Network is able to join with University of Memphis workers and students in this new living wage campaign.

   All staff and faculty at the University have gone without pay raises for more than three years, but it's been especially tough on workers who are paid poverty wages. Custodial worker Emma Davis says she's had to rely on help from family members to make ends meet. Thelma Rimmer, also a custodial worker, wiped tears from her face as she shared that she can't even afford to live without a roommate at the age of 57 because she's only paid $8 an hour. Ms. Rimmer described co-workers who've worked at the University for more than a decade, but still have to ride the bus to work because they can't afford a car.

   Both workers also spoke of the fear that keeps many of their co-workers from speaking out. "I'm asking you all to do whatever you can to just be with us," Ms. Rimmer said. Reflecting on the fear of some of her co-workers, she added, "God gave me this freedom to stand up here today. I have this freedom of speech to stand here, and I'm not going to be scared."

   Support from other staff and faculty, students, and community members like you is critical to the success of the living wage campaign. And the next few months have great potential to bring workers closer to a living wage, if you and I push the Tennessee legislature to make sure workers receive a fair raise. We'll also be pressing University of Memphis President Shirley Raines to make a plan for implementing a living wage on campus.

    Here are some ways you can help:

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Mississippi Senate passes Arizona-style anti-immigrant bill

"When a foreigner resides with you in your land, you shall not oppress the foreigner. The foreigner who resides with you shall be to you as the citizen among you; you shall love the foreigner as yourself, for you were foreigners in the land of Egypt; I am the Lord your God." - Leviticus 19:33-34

   Yesterday the Mississippi Senate passed an anti-immigrant bill similar to Arizona SB 1070. The bill would authorize local law enforcement officers to check a person's immigration status if "reasonable suspicion" exists that the person may be in the country illegally during any "lawful stop, detention or arrest," according to the Jackson Clarion Ledger.

   It's not clear yet whether the Mississippi House, which defeated a similar bill last year, will pass the legislation.

   The passage of this bill breaks my heart and angers me at the same time. Hebrew and Christian scriptures instruct us over and over again to love immigrants as ourselves, and to treat them as we would our fellow citizens. Both Moses and Jesus lived for a time as refugees in a strange land. Yet whenever anti-immigrant measures are pushed forward, some of their loudest proponents are people who say their Christian faith is more important to them than anything.

   This bill also disturbs me because it's just one more example of a distraction from the real solution to our country's immigration crisis: comprehensive immigration reform that allows hard-working people who have already built lives in the United States to earn a path to becoming citizens.
   Law enforcement should be worried about this bill. Trust between immigrant communities and the police is already very low. If Mississippi follows Arizona's path, we can be certain that many immigrants will be afraid to report crimes that happen to them, which only makes those crimes more likely to happen.

   The Mississippi bill specifically instructs law enforcement that race or national origin can be used as suspicion that someone is undocumented. That may be better than not mentioning racial profiling at all, but how do we imagine officers are going to decide who seems suspicious and who does not? Racial profiling would likely still happen, and then police and sheriff's departments will be facing discrimination lawsuits.

   If you think this sounds like an exaggeration, take a look at this lawsuit filed in Nashville when the city almost had a U.S. citizen deported. He was suspected of being undocumented because he spoke poor English. And by the way, the Mississippi bill passed yesterday says officers can use poor English as grounds for checking someone's immigration status.

   When will people of faith began to take seriously the commandment to love our immigrant neighbors as ourselves? When will we speak up with our brothers and sisters who daily face the fear that they will be torn from their loved ones and deported just because of a traffic violation? When will we turn to the real work of developing immigration reform, instead of playing to people's worst fears and prejudices?

   How long, O Lord, how long?

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Is there a ladder to climb?

   This Saturday, I was privileged to hear green jobs guru Van Jones speak at the anniversary celebration for the Mid-South Peace and Justice Center. Jones began by talking about the lessons his father, a working class man, taught him. His father stressed to him that it was up to Van to make sure he took the steps to climb out of poverty. If he didn't have the mindset to make that climb, and didn't do the hard work it required, nothing else would matter.

   But, his father said, "it's society's job to make sure that you have a ladder to climb." Jones said, and I agree, that this is where we are failing as a country right now.

  Hearing these remarks, I immediately thought of the hard-working people, mostly women, who are paid poverty wages to keep the University of Memphis clean. America has promised them that their hard work will bring rewards. They rise every day while you and I are still asleep to begin work several hours before the sun rises. Many of them have worked at the University for years, putting in the time you'd think it takes to rise to a decent pay rate. But still, they're paid poverty wages.

   Who can make sure workers at the University of Memphis have a ladder to climb out of poverty? There's two groups that can make a living wage a reality for these workers. One is the administration of University President Shirley Raines. That's who we focused on at the speak out for a living wage held in October. But the state legislature also has a big influence on whether these workers will be paid the living wage for their hard work. That's who we're focusing on at our prayer vigil this Saturday.

   At the vigil, we'll pray for the upcoming legislative session. We'll hear from University workers. We'll urge legislators to pass equitable pay raises for workers, who've had no raise at all in three years. We'll call on legislators to reject any attempts to repeal living wage ordinances we've already won in Memphis and Shelby County. And we'll hear from Rep. Jeanne Richardson and other legislators about their plans for the living wage over the next few months of the legislative session.

   Please join us this Saturday - make sure that workers don't stand alone. Be part of sending a strong, clear message to our legislature: now is the time for a living wage.

Vigil for a living wage:
asking our legislators to do their part
Saturday, Jan. 22nd at 1:00 p.m.
Wesley Foundation at University of Memphis
3625 Midland Ave.
Limited parking available behind the Wesley Foundation. Additional parking at St. Luke's United Methodist Church at the corner of S. Highland and Midland.

The vigil is indoors, so there's no need to worry about bad weather.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

King's Words About Labor Ring True Today

    As we approach Dr. Martin Luther King's birthday, I know I'll be hearing a lot of quotes and excerpts of his magnificant speeches. We'll probably also see a lot of stories where various reporters ask people whether they think we have moved closer to achieving Dr. King's dream.

    But most of the news stories and events this weekend will focus only on Dr. King's work to end segregation, while giving little attention to his major emphasis on economic justice, and peace. (One big exception will be the Mid-South Peace and Justice Center's anniversary celebration, which will feature green jobs leader Van Jones. They still have a few tickets left for Saturday night's dinner and program - get them now!)

    Maybe we tend to focus on Dr. King's work on integration more than economic justice because it seems like we can point to more signs of progress in the breaking down of racial barriers. But Dr. King's goals for racial justice were broader than a mere end to segregation, and he understood that racial and economic justice are intertwined. I think he would point to the continuing racial disparity in unemployment rates as an issue of both racial and economic oppression.

   It's up to us to remind our community that Dr. King came to Memphis to support a labor struggle. If we want to continue Dr. King's legacy, we must listen not only to the "I Have a Dream" speech, but also speeches like the one he gave in Memphis on March 18, 1968 to the sanitation workers. (Unfortunately there aren't copies of this speech online, but you can read it in the new book All Labor Has Dignity).

   A few memorable lines from this Memphis speech that have relevance for us today:
  • "You are reminding, not only Memphis, but you are reminding the nation that it is a crime for people to live in this rich nation and receive starvation wages."
  • "Do you know that most of the poor people in our country are working every day? And they are making wages so low that they cannot begin to function in the mainstream of the economic life of our nation. These are facts which must be seen, and it is criminal to have people working on a full-time basis and a full-time job getting part-time income."
  • "We can all get more together than we can apart; we can get more organized together than we can apart. And this is the way we gain power. Power is the ability to achieve purpose, power is the ability to effect change. And we need power."
  • "Never forget that freedom is not something that is voluntarily given by the oppressor. It is something that must be demanded by the oppressed."
   Dr. King laid out our work for us. Let's just make sure we remember the breadth and depth of his work when we talk about how to continue his legacy.

Thursday, January 6, 2011

Is this your year to volunteer?

   Maybe you've heard the stories of Mid-South workers getting their wages stolen by employers. Or you want more workers, like those working at the University of Memphis, to be paid a living wage. Or perhaps you're troubled by workers being fired just for trying to establish a union. But what can you do about it? The problems are big, and you're just one person, right?

   There's not doubt these are big problems. But the good news is that there are simple things that you can do. Things that will have a big impact on whether workers are treated fairly, because you won't be doing these things alone. You know what makes big huge difference in whether WIN can achieve worker rights victories? Our volunteers.

   Volunteering with WIN is a rewarding experience, as veteran volunteer Earline Duncan can attest. Earline shares that she's "stayed active in WIN because there's nothing like seeing the faces of workers light up when they benefit from the work you and I do through WIN. After we won the City of Memphis living wage ordinance, I remember being hugged by a city worker at a senior center. She was so happy to be getting a living wage, because now she earned enough to meet her basic needs."

   Volunteers Mario Mercado and Cristina Condori also have great volunteer stories to share. Cristina says "it's very satisfying to teach workers about their rights. We still remember a worker from Guatemala who seemed so timid during one of the worker rights workshops Mario led. He wouldn't even speak that night. But then later, we saw him handing out WIN's worker rights flyers to workers waiting outside a temporary agency. Being part of experiences like those is why we're members of WIN."

   As you make your plans for 2011, why not become a WIN volunteer? Some volunteers help out on a weekly or monthly basis, while others volunteer just a few times a year. Some of our volunteers help out in the office preparing mailing. Some help with phone banks to make sure people show up for important rallies and actions. Other volunteers join us on the picket lines and at prayer vigils. Some Spanish-speaking volunteers train workers on their rights at our Thursday night worker rights meeting.

   If you're interested in volunteering, please fill out our online form to let me know what types of volunteer work you're most interested in. You can also let me know whether weekdays, weeknights, or weekends are best, and how often you'd like to be asked to volunteer.

   Then we'll contact you about opportunities that match your interest and availability. And the next victory WIN achieves for living wages or worker rights, you'll be able to say "I was part of that!"

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Thanks for Funding the First 42 Days of WIN's 2011 Work

    When I sent out our year end appeals by mail and email in November, I let you know that as Workers Interfaith Network prepared for 2011, we needed your help. After adding up the donations and grants we were sure that we could count on, we still needed to raise $149 to fully fund each day of WIN's work for 2011. I asked if you would consider funding a day, a half day, or an hour or two of WIN's work.

    Your generous response was amazing, and has given WIN a strong start for this year. Fifty seven of you responded with a generous year end gift, fully funding the first 42 days of this year! Thank you to everyone who made a gift.

   Today, you made it possible for me to begin recruiting folks for our living wage vigil with University of Memphis workers that will take place this month. Today, you made it possible for Alfredo to design new trainings for immigrant workers on how to stay safe on the job. You made it possible for Kyle to answer questions from workers who've experienced wage theft about what to do next.

   And because of your generosity, we've now met the matching gift challenge that was extended to us by the Community Foundation of Greater Memphis!

   You're showing already that 2011 is going to be a great year to stand up for justice with workers!