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Jessica Atcheson's blog posts
On UUSC’s blog, a range of contributors — from staff members to participants on experiential learning trips — share their thoughts and reflections on UUSC’s work and related topics. The views expressed by individual contributors here do not necessarily reflect the views of UUSC.
Submitted by Jessica Atcheson on Fri, 05/03/2013 - 1:09pm.
Working at an international human rights organization like UUSC makes me no stranger to the daily injustice that takes place at home and abroad. I know there are disasters large and small that happen every day — and many we never hear about. And yet, for me this past month has felt particularly fraught with tragedy. First, the Boston Marathon bombings; then the fertilizer plant fire and explosion in West, Texas, that killed 14. Now, the latest: a garment factory collapse in Dhaka, Bangladesh, that killed at least 446 people, with the death toll expected to rise.
As the New York Times is reporting, this factory collapse is "considered the deadliest accident in the history of the garment industry." And the worst part: the loss of so many precious lives was entirely preventable. Cracks had been discovered in the building, and factory employers were apparently ordered to halt work until further inspection could be done. Yet more than 3,000 employees were at work when it collapsed the next day. "'I wouldn't call it an accident,' the government's information minister, Hasanul Haque Inu, told Bangladeshi journalists. 'I would say it's a murder.'"
Accidents like this aren't new. But they shouldn't be this old. In the United States, the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire in 1911 exposed the dangers that garment workers faced — and this problem hasn't gone away, even if factory locations have changed over the years. As our collaborator the International Labor Rights Forum (ILRF) outlines, unsafe working conditions in Bangladesh garment factories — resulting in fires and building collapses like that of last week — have existed and persisted for years. In November, 112 people were killed in a Bangladesh factory fire, and more than 600 workers have died in preventable sweatshop fires since 2006.
These conditions are the result of a global economy that bolsters corporate profits at the expense of workers' lives. As consumers, we are part of that economy — which means we have the responsibility and the power to change it. In the ruins of the Rana Plaza building, activists found labels for clothes made for J.C. Penney, Cato Fashions, and other clothing brands. In this time of tragedy lies the opportunity for action and the seed for change. Let's get to work — by choosing compassionate consumption, by calling on clothing companies to proactively improve safety at suppliers' factories, and by supporting labor rights and organizing throughout the world.
What you can do
- Sign ILRF's petition calling on Walmart, Gap, and H&M to take proactive steps to improve safety at their suppliers' factories. These brands are the largest buyers of the garments that are manufactured in Bangladesh.
- Deliver ILRF's statement to Gap calling for the company to participate in a comprehensive factory safety program. Print and deliver it to Gap store managers either individually or in groups.
- Learn more about the ongoing
issues in Bangladesh and emerging news and commentary on the building
- "Bangladesh Needs Strong Unions, Not Outside Pressure," New York Times op-ed
- "Sweatshop Fires in Bangladesh," ILRF
- "Bangladesh Factory Disaster: Benetton Paper Trail Discovered in Rana Plaza Rubble," International Business Times
- "Another Preventable Tragedy in Bangladesh," New York Times editorial
- Make use of the SweatFree Communities' "Shop with a Conscience Consumer Guide."
Submitted by Jessica Atcheson on Thu, 04/18/2013 - 9:12am.
In the wake of Monday's Boston Marathon bombings, we're all reeling. I'm lucky, because no one I know or love was directly affected by the blasts. But still I'm horrified, I'm heartsick, I'm in shock. I'm fed up with the mass media. I am holding on to the wisdom of Mr. Rogers:
When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, ‘Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.' To this day, especially in times of ‘disaster,' I remember my mother's words and I am always comforted by realizing that there are still so many helpers — so many caring people in this world.
There were and are so many helpers when we watch the news and hear accounts from Monday's tragic events. But when I read "The Saudi Marathon Man," a piece on the New Yorker website, I was struck with the question: "Who gets the help?" — a question UUSC tries to answer in all of its work.
The article talks about a young man who was injured in the first blast. He was badly hurt and running away from the bomb site, afraid there might another. Many other people were also running away in fear. People rushed in to help those injured by the blasts. But this young man — from Saudi Arabia — was tackled to the ground, because he looked "suspicious." He "smelled like explosives"; I imagine many who were at the site of the bombs might. It appears from media accounts that as he was questioned (and maybe guarded?) in the hospital, his apartment was searched and his roommate was aggressively questioned.
I understand that people are scared. But no one was tackling white men because they looked suspicious, even though one of the most devastating acts of domestic terrorism was committed by Timothy McVeigh. And hearing how this young Saudi Arabian man — who was cleared — was treated after being injured in the bomb blast leaves me searching for even more answers than I was before.
I don't blame the man that tackled him so much as I blame the culture at large that enables unfair targeting of people who look different or have different religious beliefs. That's why I think UUSC's work with the Bill of Rights Defense Committee (BORDC) to end racial and religious profiling is so important. Public perception informs laws and policy, which in turn informs public perception — and that all is acted out in very concrete ways, whether it's an injured Saudi man getting tackled in the wake of Monday's bombings or someone who "looks like an immigrant" in Arizona being stopped by police and asked for proof of their citizenship.
We don't know who committed the heinous acts we witnessed on Monday. But when we do, I have hope that we will all work — through the anger and the fear — to remember that the person's acts do not speak for a whole people, whatever their race or religion.
Submitted by Jessica Atcheson on Thu, 03/14/2013 - 10:35am.
Honoring people who struggled for the right to vote
The U.S. Supreme Court is currently considering a case that challenges the Voting Rights Act of 1965, considered a touchstone of civil rights legislation. Proceedings drew more national attention than they might have when, during questioning last month, Justice Antonin Scalia ridiculously asserted that the law is "perpetuation of racial entitlement." It's in this context that I've just finished reading Count Them One by One: Black Mississippians Fighting for the Right to Vote, a valuable book about United States v. Theron Lynd, a 1961 case that paved the way for the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
Theron Lynd was a voting registrar in Forrest County, Miss., who methodically denied the African American residents of his county their right to vote. Count Them One by One — written by Gordon A. Martin, Jr., one of the Justice Department lawyers who interviewed witnesses and helped prepare the case — focuses on the 16 brave black witnesses who testified against Lynd.
Among them were Addie Burger, a school teacher; T. F. Williams, a union worker at a local manufacturing plant; and Vernon Dahmer, a community leader and activist who was later killed in 1966, after the Ku Klux Klan caught wind of his plans to collect poll taxes from would-be voters to turn into local officials.
These individuals and the 13 others who joined them had attempted to register to vote — time and time again. They were told to come back another day. They were expected to jump through hoops while their white counterparts were waved along. They filled out applications that were, without explanation, deemed unfit. They were given bogus reapplication timelines.
Thanks to their testimony, Lynd was eventually convicted for contempt of court, African Americans in Forrest County began to register, and the case made other legal challenges to voter discrimination in the South possible. The Voting Rights Act of 1965 went on to suspend literacy tests, appoint federal examiners and poll watchers, and more.
In the recent Supreme Court hearings, Justice Sonia Sotomayor remarked to one of the lawyers challenging the case, "Do you think that racial discrimination in voting has ended, that there is none anywhere?" I would answer no to that question. And that is why this book is important.
In today's political climate — with voter ID laws, sketchy redistricting plans, mythical "voter fraud," and woefully inadequate polling stations in communities of color where people end up waiting hours on end to cast their ballots — it's vital that we revisit the stories of the people who worked so hard for the right and the reality to vote. United States v. Theron Lynd wasn't that long ago — my mom was already alive during the case — but as a new generation comes of age, these stories and all that they have to teach us are in danger of being forgotten or lost or overlooked.
That's why I'm heartened to read this book highlighting those 16 individuals. And heartened that opportunities like the UU College of Social Justice's Youth Civil Rights Pilgrimage exist. As we work to make sure that civil rights — and human rights — are upheld, we must keep in mind the words of Vernon Dahmer: "If you can't vote, you don't count."
Submitted by Jessica Atcheson on Tue, 02/19/2013 - 9:18am.
I'll admit that sometimes I can be selfish; it can be a natural human impulse, a tendency toward self-preservation. Don't get me wrong, I'm also pretty empathetic, and I'm dedicated to advancing human rights — but I need to be healthy to do that. And in the case of dining out, a little bit of selfishness can be the extra incentive that consumers need to take action on a serious workers' rights issue: lack of paid sick days for restaurant workers.
A few weeks ago, prompted by the rounds of flu that were circling through offices and schools and public transportation in New England, I watched the movie Contagion (I like to freak myself out sometimes). It's a fictional movie, but nevertheless distressing. Images of a person coughing cut to scenes minutes later of seizures and death — then it's another person, then it's millions more.
I think what I found most distressing about it is that it's not altogether that crazy of a concept, especially given the ways that the U.S. restaurant industry has set itself up to be a petri dish for food-borne illness. What am I talking about? As Saru Jayaraman writes in Behind the Kitchen Door, "In ROC's survey of more than 4,000 restaurant workers, we found that 90 percent did not have access to paid sick days, and, with a median wage nationally of $9.02, most cannot afford to take a day off from work. The result? Two-thirds of all restaurant workers reported preparing, cooking, and serving our meals while sick. Two-thirds!"
Jayaraman tells us how in 2011, nearly 3,000 people in Fayetteville, N.C., had to be vaccinated against hepatitis after they were exposed to it at a restaurant where a server couldn't take a day off work without losing his job. And she reminds us that Mary Mallon (also known as "Typhoid Mary"), who was identified as the first carrier of typhoid in the United States, was a cook who likely infected 53 people between 1900 and 1907.
As Jayaraman wrote in a CNN op-ed, "One in six Americans gets sick from a food-borne illness every year, and when those instances can be traced to a single cause, in more than half of cases it's a restaurant. Specifically, research shows that somewhere between 48% to 93% of all food-borne norovirus outbreaks may be tracked back to sick food service workers."
Of all the egregious practices of the restaurant industry — ridiculously low wages, blatant discrimination, little respect — the lack of paid sick days is one that consumers can't simply ignore and pretend to be immune to its effects. If you go out to eat and get sick because the chef or the server is working with a cold or worse, it's going to affect you — and probably your family and coworkers and friends, too.
So it's time to get paid sick days for restaurant workers on the books. For the sake of workers who deserve to take care of themselves and for the sake of our own health. The Restaurant Opportunities Centers United, a UUSC partner organization cofounded by Jayaraman, is working at the local, state, and federal levels to get laws that ensure paid sick days passed.
You can take action on this issue and help change the national conversation about restaurant workers' rights. Start here:
- Buy and read Behind the Kitchen Door. In it, you'll find compelling stories about what happens when restaurant workers don't have access to paid sick days.
- Tell us you bought the book. We're working to get Behind the Kitchen Door on the bestseller lists so that this issue gets the national attention it deserves and vital discussion and action follow.
Submitted by Jessica Atcheson on Fri, 02/15/2013 - 3:04pm.
A friend of mine from high school worked as a waitress in a pub-style restaurant for years. Once she was in an accident outside of work that left her severely burned. Though her hands were wrapped in so much gauze that only the tips of her index fingers and thumbs were visible and usable, she had to go back to work after a week, because she had no paid sick days and couldn't afford to miss more work or risk losing her job. So she served food and poured beers with bandaged hands as they slowly healed. Her boss said nothing.
After reading Behind the Kitchen Door, by Saru Jayaraman, I realized that stories like my friend's aren't a crazy exception; they're really just the tip of the iceberg. Most importantly, I learned what we — people who love to eat out — can do about it.
In Behind the Kitchen Door, Jayaraman highlights the plethora of injustices that the restaurant industry perpetuates day in and day out. And she is in a position to know: as cofounder and codirector of the Restaurant Opportunities Centers United (ROC-United), a UUSC partner, she has worked with restaurant workers for more than 10 years. She outlines the major industry offenses:
No paid sick days
And this in an industry where we should especially want the people cooking our food and serving us to be healthy!
A ridiculously low tipped minimum wage of $2.13 an hour
See why I always tip 20 percent minimum? Because otherwise servers might not be able to feed themselves.
Stats prove there's often a racial disparity between front-of-house workers and workers behind the kitchen door. People of color are being denied opportunities for advancement.
Women face a particular set of challenges in the industry, from a pay gap that benefits male servers over female servers to rampant sexual harassment.
Jayaraman also explores the popular interest in sustainable food — and how much it is at odds with the labor practices of a restaurant industry that is trying to cash in on that interest. She writes: "Food can't really be healthy, ethically consumed, or sustainable if it's prepared and served in an environment that permits abuse, exploitations, and discrimination. It's definitely not sustainable to eat food served by workers who cannot afford to feed their families and face the added burden of having their wages and tips stolen. Sustainable food, by definition, must include sustainable labor practices."
Behind the Kitchen Door offers lots of shocking statistics culled from years of on-the-ground research by ROC-United. But most movingly, Jayaraman introduces you to the people behind the statistics. Claudia, a server who had to flirt with cooks for food, since she couldn't otherwise afford to eat on her meager pay. Oscar, a superb busser denied the chance to become a waiter because he wasn't white. Alicia, a former pastry chef and woman of color who quickly hit the industry's glass ceiling and both endured and witnessed blatant sexual harassment by an abusive executive chef.
As I read their stories, I thought of another friend of mine who worked at a café where she had to repeatedly worry about whether her paycheck would bounce. Even if your restaurant is unsuccessful, you have a responsibility to pay people for their work in a timely manner (or face the legal consequences, which in Massachusetts include paying triple the original amount). When the owner suggested he pay people under the table (at a lower rate than before, claiming that it was essentially the same since taxes wouldn't get deducted), my friend got in trouble for bringing up state labor and wage laws.
Reading the book's stories of struggle can be intense — but the book provides the antidote, too: Workers who win significant victories. "High-road" employers who run successful businesses while respecting their workers. Nikki and Woong, who organized creative "Carrot Mob" events to show support for high-road restaurants and won paid sick leave for more than 500 workers.
And then there's the best part: chapter 7, "Recipes for Change," in which Jayaraman gives us road map to use our consumer power for good. She lays out concrete actions we can take to help make the restaurant industry truly sustainable.
Here's how you can start:
- Buy Behind the Kitchen Door. You can help put it on the bestseller lists and change the national conversation about this issue.
- Tell us that you ordered the book. If you're one of the first 100 people, you'll get a gift packet from UUSC.
This book is essential reading for all people who care about workers' rights and their own health and enjoyment while dining out, and I look forward to hearing what you think about it. And I'm even more excited to see the changes that I know we can help make in the restaurant industry.
Submitted by Jessica Atcheson on Fri, 10/12/2012 - 10:06am.
UUSC works in more than 20 countries, doing our best to make this world a place where everyone can realize their full human rights. With such a task, we obviously can't do it alone — local partners at the grassroots level are essential in this struggle. We can't create effective change in the world without truly involving the people whose lives are being changed. In the process, we learn as much from our partners and members as they might learn from us. These ideas are at the core of UUSC's eye-to-eye partnership model. In essence, our approach is about "the power of we" — which happens to be the theme of today's Blog Action Day.
When you're working to end oppression in the world, the last thing you want to do is re-create it — that's why I think eye-to-eye partnerships are so important. One of our goals is to foster an exchange, a true meeting of equals, because we believe that we all are equal and we want to make sure that we come into partnership treating people with the dignity and respect that everyone deserves. When we start working with a partner, we don't assume to know what the best course of action on a given issue is — we ask questions, we listen, we discuss, and together we forge the best solution. We offer the expertise of our staff while recognizing and honoring the expertise of the people on the ground.
The other day, Dalia Ziada, an Egyptian human rights activist and executive director of the Ibn Khaldun Center for Development, a UUSC partner, was visiting UUSC's offices in Cambridge, and I had the privilege to sit down with her for an interview. I asked her what it's like to work with UUSC. "What I most like about UUSC, first of all, is the teamwork approach. . . . this sense of communication and involvement — real involvement — from the team here at UUSC with the people working on the ground is what makes it so special and so influential as well."
Collaborating with our partners makes the work of social justice deeper and richer, and it is also the only way to make the work effective. We can't do this — make human rights an honest reality for all — without doing it with others, and most especially with the people we're hoping to serve. "Nothing about us without us," the saying goes — and we take that deeply to heart in all of our work.
Submitted by Jessica Atcheson on Tue, 03/27/2012 - 10:43am.
This image has been spreading over social media in the days following the murder of Shaima Alawadi. #justiceforshaima
On Saturday night in El Cajon, Calif., Iraqi-born Shaima Alawadi was beaten to death in what appears to be a clear hate crime. The perpetrator left a note reportedly reading: "Go back to your own country. You're a terrorist." Such a vicious crime is already horrific enough; the hateful, ignorant motivations that seem to be behind it make it even worse.
My heart and thoughts go out to Alawadi's family and community, who are surely reeling with shock and grief. And honestly, we all should be. While it's clear we live in a country where harmful stereotypes of Muslims abound and create a culture in which events like this seem on some level unsurprising, it is simply unacceptable. And we all need to stand up, speak up, and do everything that we can to stop this from happening.
Commentary on this horrific murder is all over social media, a fact which seems to garner more New York Times coverage than the murder itself. I saw a tweet the other day that poignantly drew a parallel between the murder of Alawadi and that of Trayvon Martin:
Stereotypes and profiling engender a dangerous thought process: Alawadi was a Muslim who wore a head scarf, so she must be a terrorist; Martin was a black youth who wore a hoodie, so he must be a criminal. Among other things, these attitudes distance people as "other" and dehumanize them.
The damage and pain caused by such attitudes is obvious, as we see in these recent headlines. But it's even more insidious than first glance reveals. The prevalence of individuals who engage in this kind of profiling and "othering" makes it possible to pass legislation that does the same, like the recent anti-immigrant laws in Arizona. In effect, this creates a feedback loop in which those laws bolster the individual attitudes, which further reinforce discriminatory laws, ad infinitum. Stereotyping and profiling create a culture of fear that reaches all levels of our culture, from individual interactions to broad government policy. And we must break this cycle.
We can start on an individual level. In the midst of these tragic murders, I hope that people will band together against hate and start truly building bridges of understanding among the many people and cultures our country is home to. UUSC works every day against hateful racial and religious profiling, and we want you to join us. There is no place for Islamophobia, for racism, or for oppression of any kind in the world we are trying to create.