Organizing

Flobots Singer: Why We're Writing Songs for Today's Protest Movements

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There we were, a group of political musicians, arm in arm, leading the populace. And we didn’t really know what to sing. The irony of the situation stuck with me. The power of our songs had gathered the people. But once the people gathered, where were the songs for that day's movements?

2008 was the year that most people got to know my group Flobots and our music, especially through the national release of Fight With Tools. 2008 was also a historic election year. Eight years later, as we prepare to release our album in 2016, the country is gearing up for another decisive election. And as division grows, some artists are singing out, and some movements are finding their refrains. This timing is significant.

When we look at the movements happening today, we see everyday people seeking to resist violence, racism, and destruction. We see raised voices crying out for transformation. It is critically important that they succeed. 

How Religious Institutions Act as Forces for Progress

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Religious institutions have, at times, been at the forefront of progress by engaging society with forceful spiritual leadership. The engagement of Cesar Chavez and the United Farm Workers grape boycott in the 1960s, for example, was part phenomenal leadership, part righteous struggle.

And while most Americans know the pivotal impact of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference in the Civil Rights Movement, there were many other leaders who held prominent roles in similar religiously-inspired movements. Rev. Dr. Anna Howard Shaw (1847-1919), for example, overcame enormous discrimination and was not only ordained as a minister, but also earned a medical degree from Boston University.

Shaw was a formidable speaker, and lectured throughout the United States and Europe in favor of women’s suffrage, temperance, and progressive causes she believed would relieve the exploitation of women.

The New Creation: How Science Fiction Deepens My Theology

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I recently picked up a fascinating book called Octavia's Brood co-edited by Walidah Imarisha and adrienne maree brown.

In a discussion about the book, Walidah Imarisha said, "All organizing is science fiction. What does a world without poverty look like? What does a world without prisons look like? What does a world with everyone having enough food and clothing look like? We don't know. It's science fiction, and it is as foreign to us as the Klingon homeworld."

I had never heard of organizing being discussed in such a way, and it led me to reflect on the importance of envisioning and dreaming of the kind of society we fight to create. I also found myself reflecting on this statement in a different light: All organizing is also theological and spiritual. A simple explanation of this is that organizing and activism is faith in action.

What You Can Do

Illustration by Ken Davis

Organizing around military testing and student privacy has the capacity to produce a rare commodity in social activism: concrete, measurable results. Activists are able to view data on how many students take the ASVAB from year to year and track progress.

1. The National Coalition to Protect Student Privacy’s website provides the most up-to-date data on ASVAB testing in every state and territory, including how many students in each state are taking the test and which “release option” schools have chosen.

2. Civil liberties groups are natural allies in this work, but it is just as important to reach out to parent-teacher associations and teachers’ unions.

3. Talk directly to school principals and guidance counselors, educating them on Option 8 and urging them to select it for their school.

4. After securing local victories, move on to statewide efforts. Some states have found legislators willing to sponsor an ASVAB Option 8 bill, similar to those passed in Hawaii and Maryland.

—Patrick Elder and Seth Kershner

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A Handbook for Justice

FAITH-ROOTED Organizing: Mobilizing the Church in Service to the World outlines a theological cartography of social change. In this critical intervention, Alexia Salvatierra and Peter Heltzel reimagine—and as a necessary consequence, rechart—the landscape of vision, action, and strategic planning needed for social change.

Full disclosure: I have attended several trainings conducted by the co-authors. Indeed, the dual authorship of the text is a principal strength. Faith-Rooted Organizing blends the voice of an evangelical-activist theologian in Heltzel with the homespun profundity of a seasoned pastor and campaign organizer in Salvatierra. The authors delight readers with complementary writing styles: Heltzel speaks through theological propositions, interpolated intermittently with jazz references and theological punch lines; Salvatierra communicates through proverbs, organizing anecdotes, poignant biblical passages, and narrative side notes.

The result is a well-argued and accessible text that should resonate from the seminary to the sanctuary. Their driving thesis is that faith communities, especially Christian ones, should organize for social change in a way that is rooted and guided by the stories, symbols, sayings, and scriptures of our faith. Faith-Rooted Organizing functions as an instruction manual on effective advocacy while providing a theological rationale and vocabulary for a vocation marked by tremendous victories and colossal failures, breakthrough partnerships and fragmented coalitions, glimpses of beloved community and portraits of democracy stillborn.

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Beauty in Battered Places

Denise Giardina

“THE CHURCH radicalized me,” celebrated author and ordained Episcopal deacon Denise Giardina once said, describing how she sees herself as both social activist and servant minister. “The phrase in the prayer book is ‘Interpret the world to the church and the church to the world.’ It’s a totally different way to advocate, with a spiritual point of view.”

This philosophy has shown up in her bestselling novels, published over her long career, such as Storming Heaven (1987) and The Unquiet Earth (1992), which chronicle the history and social impacts of coal mining in Giardina’s native Appalachia; Saints and Villains (1999), which tells the story of Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s resistance against Hitler and the Nazis; and, most recently, Emily’s Ghost (2010), a reimagining of Emily Brontë’s story and how her life was changed by her encounter with an ardent member of the clergy.

Shortly before her recent retirement from teaching creative writing at a West Virginia college, Giardina talked with Jason Howard, author of A Few Honest Words and coauthor of Something’s Rising, about her literary career, social justice activism, and her time in the late 1970s in Washington, D.C., as a member of Sojourners community (the intentional Christian community that founded Sojourners magazine and other ministries).

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Pittsfield: 'Counter-recruitment' Program Offered

Kershner, a researcher and journalist who has written for publications such as Rethinking Schools and Sojourners, will draw on several years of research on the subject. Local counter-recruitment activists from the Berkshires and the Pioneer Valley will also attend to share their experiences. This free event is sponsored by Berkshire Citizens for Peace and Justice.

On Earth As In Heaven

Baldemar Velasquez

A RECENT ONLINE profile referred to farm worker labor union leader Baldemar Velasquez as both "militant" and "genius." It's hard to argue with either of those designations for the 66-year-old founder of the dynamic Farm Labor Organizing Committee (FLOC). The Toledo, Ohio-based union has used a David-vs.-Goliath style to bring corporate giants to the collective bargaining table, thereby improving the living and working conditions of perhaps the least powerful worker group in the nation.

Velasquez, an ordained evangelical Christian who received a MacArthur Fellowship in 1989, simply sees FLOC's work as God's work, and his opponents might consider following the wisdom of the Pharisee Gamaliel, who said of the apostles, "I tell you, keep away from these men and let them alone ... You might even be found opposing God!"

Velasquez, who founded FLOC in 1967, has yet to lose a battle. A 1967 strike Velasquez led against Ohio tomato growers resulted in two dozen growers signing union contracts. A national FLOC boycott of Campbell's Soup in the 1980s resulted in a three-way collective bargaining agreement that raised wages and improved working conditions for tomato workers. A six-year campaign in North Carolina resulted in another three-way deal between FLOC, cucumber growers, and the Mt. Olive Pickle Company. Today, FLOC is going after another giant, Reynolds American, the second-largest U.S. producer of tobacco products.

While perseverance and cunning strategies are FLOC's organizing hallmarks, Velasquez also brings his deep faith to FLOC's campaigns. He insists on loving his enemy, and on his followers doing the same.

"Everything that we do, everything that we say, and everything that we work around is based on loving your neighbor as yourself—including the grower, including the manufacturer, including the company," Velasquez told Sojourners . "And you learn to hate the sin and love the sinner.

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Come With Me Into the Fields

BREAKTHROUGHS ON immigration reform will make life easier for some Latino immigrants, but in the sweltering, often-toxic fields where farm workers toil each summer from Maine to California, conditions can still be dehumanizing and dangerous. There is a silver lining, however. With the burgeoning growth of the nation's Latino population, there are more advocates than ever working to improve the plight of the men, women, and often children who do hard labor on our nation's farms.

With a mostly young, deeply committed staff, the Florida-based Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW) is doing solid grassroots work to make life better for workers in the state's tomato industry. With cooperation from 11 food retail and food service corporations, CIW has implemented the Campaign for Fair Food, which has brought modest wage increases, worker protections, and grievance procedures to farms that produce 90 percent of the state's tomato crop.

Using a worker-led administrative structure and significant public pressure, CIW has brought companies such as McDonald's, Burger King, Pizza Hut, and KFC into its program that asks corporate partners to kick in an extra penny per pound for the tomatoes they buy. That premium is passed on to growers to increase worker pay.

Elbin Perez, 23, a farm worker from Guatemala, has been working in the U.S. for six years, sending part of his wages back home to his parents and five siblings. As a CIW member, Perez leads "worker-to-worker education programs." Those trainings educate workers about CIW's code of conduct, which growers have agreed to uphold. Reforms include use of time clocks, guaranteed minimum wage, and water and shade breaks.

Perez said prior to the implementation of CIW's reforms, he witnessed many hardships in the fields, including wage theft, unsafe conditions, and sexual harassment of women workers. Perez told Sojourners it has "made an enormous difference to be part of the coalition."

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