Economic Justice

Divest!

This is an introduction to five-part series in Sojourner's June 2015 issue about divestment; to read the rest, click here.

IT WASN'T A HUGE surprise last year when Union Seminary announced that it would become the first seminary in the world to divest from fossil fuels. Union, after all, has long been a leader in progressive causes, and President Serene Jones said that “divestment of our endowment from fossil-fuel companies is one small step” toward stopping the catastrophic threat—the “sin”—of climate change.

But a few months later, the divestment movement reached an altogether different level when the Rockefeller Brothers Fund announced that it was moving its money from fossil fuels, starting with the worst carbon polluters, coal and tar sands. The Rockefeller money, of course, came from oil—patriarch John D. Rockefeller was the co-founder of Standard Oil—and the Rockefeller Brothers Fund controls $860 million in assets. All in all, 180 institutions have pledged to divest more than $50 billion to defund climate change—and, as they say, with billions in assets moved, pretty soon you’re talking real money.

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Seeing Through 'Right-to-Work' Laws

WHAT’S NOT TO like about a law called “right to work”?

It is a label that invokes the best of our U.S. national persona: a dedication both to individual freedom and to the important role that our labors play in developing personal character and community prosperity. When Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker signed a so-called right-to-work law in early March, making his state the 25th in the country to adopt such legislation, he did so on a desk emblazoned with a bold sign saying “Freedom to Work.”

The problem with right-to-work laws is that they are a lie.

For generations, legislation drafted under this label has been promoted by people and organizations whose priorities are not to enhance the autonomy and welfare of our nation’s workers, but to crush them. Aimed at weakening collective bargaining rights, these laws trace their origins beyond the 1980s union attacks led by Ronald Reagan, past the 1940s Southern strategy to beat blacks out of the labor force, to a 19th century “Northern strategy” that equated “collective bargaining with the enslavement of free white men,” according to sociologist Cedric de Leon.

Right-to-work laws prohibit a company and its workers from agreeing that workers who benefit from a union-negotiated contract should pay fees to that union. The only “right” protected is the privilege of workers to benefit from union advocacy without paying for its cost. The goal is to drain the resources of those unions, smothering workers’ ability to collectively bargain for better wages and working conditions.

In addition to the pitch for “individual worker freedom,” right-to-work laws are sold as providing a boost to local economies. “We now have given one more big thing on that checklist to say that Wisconsin is open for business,” Walker said before signing the new law.

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A Matter of Degrees

THREE DECADES AGO I did a four-year stint behind bars. I wasn’t incarcerated—I worked as a correctional officer at the maximum security jail for the Pinellas County Sheriff’s Office in Clearwater, Fla. It wasn’t a career I planned on pursuing.

After high school, I couldn’t afford higher education. I earned an associate’s degree from the local community college, working initially at a video game arcade, then at a factory my dad owned. At the time, I was thinking about a career in law, so my mother and stepfather, both of whom were patrol deputies, suggested that I apply for a job at local law enforcement agencies in order to pay my way through school; the sheriff’s department where they worked ended up hiring me. That’s how I earned my bachelor’s degree while working full time as one of the youngest correctional officers at the jail.

During the semesters I worked the night shift at the jail, I took classes during the day; when I worked the day shift, I took night classes. The contrast between the classrooms and the battleship gray corridors lined with steel-barred cells was striking. At the time, I did not like the jail job; I couldn’t wait until I could “escape” to graduate school.

THAT WAS A long time ago. I did make it to graduate school, though I wound up studying theological ethics, not law, and eventually became a professor. But those four years in a Florida jail were a formative time for me—a time that continues to inform my teaching and writing.

Those memories grew especially vivid last year while I was teaching an ethics course for corrections officers and staff at the Eastern Reception, Diagnostic, and Correctional Center. The maximum security facility, located 60 miles south of St. Louis in the small town of Bonne Terre, is Missouri’s largest state prison, holding more than 2,600 inmates.

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'They Saved My Life'

FOR YEARS, Dee Curry thrived in her job as a community-based outreach specialist, coordinating and connecting local residents to Washington, D.C.’s health services. “I never intended to become homeless,” Curry said. “My job meant everything to me. But, being empowered as a transgender woman, I encountered a lot of adversity and eventually suffered burnout.”

That burnout led to substance abuse, then incarceration, then homelessness. By the time she arrived at a hospital six years ago, Curry was suicidal. Diagnosed with bipolar disorder, she had been flitting between different places for temporary shelter. “People were not good to me. I was mistrustful of everyone,” she said.

The hospital psychiatrist finally persuaded Curry to contact Pathways to Housing DC, a nonprofit in Washington, D.C., that implements the Housing First model among those with severe mental illness. Housing First offers the most vulnerable, chronically homeless people permanent housing and the supportive services to address mental and physical health, substance abuse, employment, education, and family reunification so that people can get back on their feet. Other models to alleviate homelessness may require program participants to be sober or eligible for employment in order to qualify for housing. The Housing First model reverses this logic.

“We provide housing first because we made a commitment to listen to the people we serve. We asked them what they wanted and needed. They almost always said ‘I need the housing, first, before I can work on other issues,” said Pathways to Housing DC executive director Christy Respress.

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Nepal and Why Americans Need to Stop Complaining About U.S. Foreign Aid

think4photop / Shutterstock.com

Durbar Square, which was severly damaged after the major earthquake, in Kathmandu, Nepal. think4photop / Shutterstock.com

The tragedy caused by the recent 7.8-magnitude earthquake will increase as time wears on: the death toll now exceeds 7,500; injuries and damage are widespread; and some 8 million people need humanitarian aid. The Nepalese government reports that up to 90 percent of health facilities are partially damaged in the worst hit areas, and one of the largest private hospitals in the capital city of Kathmandu is inoperable. Some 1.7 million children are in need of food assistance. This crisis is only going to get worse.

In comes foreign aid.

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