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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 Wed, 12/11/2013 - 12:34pm.
The sign above this building in a village on Leyte Island reads, "Roofless, homeless, but not hopeless." View more photos from Wendy Flick's recent field assessment.
Wendy Flick, interim manager of UUSC's Rights in Humanitarian Crises Program, was on the ground in the Philippines last week to assess needs, forge new partnerships, and start strategizing for phase two of the response to Typhoon Haiyan (called Typhoon Yolanda in the Philippines).
Spending time with survivors on Cebu and Leyte Islands, Flick witnessed an enormous amount of damage from the storm, which is being called the strongest storm to make landfall in recorded history. "Some of the villages and towns were just completely wiped out," she reports. "100 percent of the houses lost."
Flick came back to UUSC's offices moved by stories from survivors like Ricardo Ansit. The stories are heart-wrenching but also hold shining signs of hope and strength. Ansit and his neighbors lost their homes, but they also banded together to help each other construct temporary shelters from the debris.
Natural disasters are something people in this part of the Philippines are no stranger to, though the degree of devastation from Typhoon Haiyan is unprecedented. The low-lying areas that were in the storm's path are particularly susceptible to dangerous conditions — more than a dozen typhoons a year, flooding, mudslides, plus residents had just experienced an earthquake three weeks previous. Flick recalls her conversations with people in the villages: "When you say 'disaster,' they're like, 'Which one?'" On top of that, more than 40 percent of the people are below poverty line in an area prone to human trafficking.
At the same time, there are a number of strengths that survivors have to draw on as they rebuild their lives:
- Environmental consciousness
- Agrarian reform and organic agriculture
- Functional government offering some services
- Good public education system
- Strong networks of committed nonprofits serving many sectors
UUSC is considering these strengths as it wraps up phase one of the emergency response and moves into a strategic, longer-term phase two response. During the first three to four weeks after this crisis, phase one included identifying key grassroots partners, distributing emergency grants, identifying an on-the-ground consultant to facilitate UUSC's work, and assessing needs.
As phase two begins, UUSC will be working with partners throughout the region to develop strategic projects that support people who are being overlooked or excluded from traditional aid efforts. Based on her initial assessment, Flick sees important work to be done in the areas of food sovereignty, alternative housing, and the protection of women and children. She is already drawing on work UUSC has done in Haiti — particularly eco-villages, recycled container gardens, and trauma resiliency training — to explore models that could be a perfect fit in the Philippines.
Flick is already in conversation with the Trauma Resource Institute (TRI), a UUSC partner, to address a dire need for trauma treatment. Flick speaks to the trauma she saw: "It's everywhere, and it's huge. People aren't sleeping, kids are acting out. There's a huge need for trauma resiliency and recovery. I described the program that we did in Haiti with TRI, and everyone is very eager to start that as soon as possible." Plans are in development for a January training for 30 strategic partner staff, who will then be equipped to train other in vital skills to lessen the harmful effects of the trauma that survivors have experienced.
Flick is also exploring how UUSC can act as a bridge between two different spheres of the aid efforts. "I went to the protection cluster meeting, which is the 'grasstops' — the United Nations, large international nonprofits. Virtually no grassroots groups came. I find that over and over in disasters, that there's such a disconnect between the two groups — and they really need each other, but they end up working separately. This disconnect really harms both sides."
UUSC's approach to disaster relief prioritizes the voices of survivors in designing relief efforts that will truly meet their needs and ensure that their human rights and dignity are being respected. To that end, UUSC is working in close partnership with grassroots organizations and communities to develop and draw on innovative work that can be easily implemented and replicated.
Submitted by Jessica Atcheson on Mon, 11/25/2013 - 1:33pm.
A woman stands in line with her baby to receive aid. Photo courtesy of the DFID, the UK Department for International Development.
Thanks to the generous outpouring of support, the UUSC-UUA Joint Philippines Typhoon Haiyan Relief Fund has already raised more than $400,000. These funds are already being translated into real on-the-ground relief for survivors of the devastating storm. This week UUSC is deploying Wendy Flick, the interim manager of UUSC's Rights in Humanitarian Crises Program, to the region to develop effective relief strategies.
Visiting the most severely affected areas, Flick will gather firsthand information on what needs are most pressing, who is being left out of relief efforts, and how UUSC can put the relief funds to most effective use. As we've seen in previous natural disasters, existing inequalities are only deepened in the wake of such crises.
Flick will meet with our on-the-ground consultant to develop plans for how we can best provide assistance to affected people, especially those not being served by mainstream aid. She will be working closely with current partners and other nongovernmental organizations to identify gaps in the current relief efforts.
In the immediate aftermath of the storm, UUSC has already provided financial support to the following grassroots organizations to make sure that people living in society's margins aren't excluded from assistance:
- The Unitarian Universalist Church of the Philippines, which is doing direct relief work in communities where people have lost crops, homes, and livelihoods
- IBON International, a long-term UUSC partner, which is working with the Citizen's Disaster Response Center to identify and bring much-needed support to people most marginalized by the mainstream relief efforts
- The National Rural Women Coalition, which, with a wide network of community-based organizations of farmers and fisherpeople throughout the islands, is exceptionally well positioned to identify needs and assist survivors in recuperation of food security and livelihoods
While in the Philippines and in the follow-up to her trip, Flick will forge new partnerships in addition to those above, especially in the areas of child protection, trafficking, and gender-based violence.
Check out our 2010 video "When a Disaster Happens" for more on UUSC's approach to advancing rights during humanitarian crises:
Submitted by Jessica Atcheson on Wed, 10/16/2013 - 6:24am.
Courtesy of: blogactionday.org
I recently read a Black Girl Dangerous post, "No More 'Allies,'" and it really stuck with me. It talks about problematic dynamics that too often accompany use of the term "ally" and gets at the core of what it really means to act like an ally. This question — how to take action as a true ally — is an essential part of our work to advance human rights. This year, with Blog Action Day's focus on human rights, I think it's important to underscore a key concept essential to human rights work: listening.
Listening shows up twice on the Black Girl Dangerous list of what being an ally is supposed to mean — and with good reason. How can anyone advance human rights without listening? It seems to me that doing so would just lead to ineffective solutions and reinforcement or deepening of oppressive dynamics — not the empowering social change we're looking for that honors the dignity and worth of all people. That's why our collaboration with grassroots organizations throughout the world is so important to our approach here at UUSC.
How does listening come into our work? First, we need to listen to people on the ground to know what the problems are — who is being denied rights and how is it affecting them? Then, we need to keep listening. We don't assume that we know what's best for our partners and the people we work to serve. Solutions that work for one country or population don't necessarily make sense for another country or population (and sometimes they do), but we won't know unless we start by listening.
When we worked in Uganda with Acholi people who had been displaced by the war with the Lord's Resistance Army, we first listened to community members' concerns about returning to their villages. We found out that in order for them to feel in any way comfortable returning, they needed support in carrying out ceremonies to lay their dead to rest. We found out they needed the means to reconnect to their traditions of music and dance. So that's where we started in our work to help them return home.
It's not our job to swoop in and tell people what's best for them — we want to work with them in true partnership to figure out achievable ways to transform their human rights into realities. So this Blog Action Day, in service of challenging injustice, I say we all recommit to actively operating in solidarity with the people throughout the world whose human rights are being denied. We can all start by listening. Who will you take time to listen to this week as part of your social justice work?
Submitted by Jessica Atcheson on Fri, 06/28/2013 - 11:06am.
The federal minimum wage has stagnated for years, leaving millions of workers throughout the country unable to feed their families and meet other basic needs. A full-time worker making minimum wage ends up $3,000 below the poverty line for a family of three after a year's wages. This is morally unacceptable; we must raise the minimum wage to a living wage.
Better wages mean a better world. A broad coalition, including UUSC, is coming together on July 24 for the National Day of Action to Raise the Minimum Wage — and we need you to join us!
Why July 24? It marks the date when the federal minimum wage was last raised four years ago — to a measly $7.25 per hour. That has less buying power than the minimum wage did in 1968, when Martin Luther King Jr. spoke these powerful words:
"It is criminal to have people working on a full-time basis and a full-time job getting part-time income. . . . We are tired of working our hands off and laboring every day and not even making a wage adequate with daily basic necessities of life."
On top of that, don't forget that the tipped minimum wage, which is only $2.13 per hour, hasn't been raised since 1991!
Thanks to former Secretary of Labor Frances Perkins (one of my heroines!), last month marked a milestone for the minimum wage: the 75th anniversary of the Fair Labor Standards Act. This month, we need to focus on that last word — act — to continue her legacy and honor the hard work of millions of U.S. workers.
The first action step to prepare for July 24 is spreading the word. Tell your loved ones, your neighbors, your congregation members. Tell your kids, your community groups, your coworkers. Tell all your social networks — and not just once! Make sure you use the hashtag #RaisetheWage (even on Facebook). Not sure what to say? Check out some sample Tweets and Facebook posts below.
- Order up: living wages! When workers can't survive on #minimumwage, it's time to #RaisetheWage: uusc.org/minwage. Take action July 24!
- Food workers who can't afford to feed their families? Not right. Sign @UUSC statement: uusc.org/minwage; act on July 24. #RaisetheWage
- A job should keep you out of poverty, not keep you in it. Sign @UUSC statement: uusc.org/minwage; take action July 24 to #RaisetheWage
- Average CEO of largest 500 U.S. companies makes before lunch what minimum wage worker makes all year. #RaisetheWage uusc.org/minwage
Sample Facebook posts
- U.S. income inequality is off the charts — literally. A recent report by the U.N. International Labor Organization noted that U.S. income inequality is so high that it could not fit on the same chart as 25 other industrialized nations. I'd say it's time to #RaisetheWage! Mark your calendars: July 24, the National Day of Action to Raise the Minimum Wage. Sign UUSC's moral statement: uusc.org/minwage.
- The average CEO of one of the largest 500 U.S. companies makes as much money before lunch as a minimum wage worker makes in a whole year. Get ready for July 24, the National Day of Action to Raise the Minimum Wage. Sign UUSC's moral statement: uusc.org/minwage. #RaisetheWage
- There are millions of full-time workers in the United States who can't afford to feed their families — it's time to #RaisetheWage! Mark your calendars: July 24, the National Day of Action to Raise the Minimum Wage. Sign UUSC's moral statement: uusc.org/minwage.
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."
Bangladesh Garment Factory Collapse
UPDATE: July 11, 2013
UUSC joined with a group of 200 organizations and investors in a letter coordinated by the Interfaith Center on Corporate Responsibility. The letter called on garment industry leaders to implement systemic reforms that will ensure worker safety and welfare, and to adopt zero-tolerance policies on global supply chain abuses. UUSC also joined with 112 groups in a letter to U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry coordinated by the International Labor Rights Forum (ILRF); that letter asked the U.S. government to publicly support the Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh.
Now Walmart and Gap have joined other corporations in a group calling itself the Alliance for Bangladesh Worker Safety. These retailers have refused to join the Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh, a binding agreement, and instead are developing their own weaker action plan, which labor rights watchdogs are calling a sham. The ILRF, a UUSC partner, is calling on Gap, Walmart, and other retailers to take responsibility and ensure accountability by joining the binding, enforceable safety accord.
What you can do now
- Sign a new ILRF petition to Gap and Walmart, urging them to join the more than 70 other companies that have signed on to the Bangladesh Safety Accord.
- Donate to ILRF's Bangladesh Solidarity Fund to assist workers affected by the recent tragedies in Bangladesh; the fund supports ILRF's partnership with the Bangladesh Center for Worker Solidarity.
- "GSP Suspension for Bangladesh: A Step Forward for Workers' Rights and Public Health," International Labor Rights Forum
- "U.S. Raps Bangladesh Over Worker Safety," ABC News
- "Obama to Suspend Trade Privileges with Bangladesh," New York Times
- "U.S. Retailers Announce New Factory Safety Plan," New York Times (note that this is a weaker safety plan with than the Bangladesh Safety Accord)
- "Unions Press to End Special Trade Status for Bangladesh," New York Times
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."