“Go Back to Where You Came From!”

Ever since April when Governor Brewer signed SB1070 into law in Arizona, I have been following developments down there with rapt attention – checking the updates of various facebook groups, scanning online news headlines, reading analyses… With each new day the news seemed to get worse and worse. First, there was the passage and signing of SB1070 itself. Before the worst parts of the legislation were suspended in July, SB1070 directed officers of the law to investigate the legal status of people “where there is reasonable suspicion” that they may be undocumented. Then came the news that the state of Arizona had also banned public schools from offering ethnic studies – classes designed to give students of color, predominantly Latin@/Hispanic and Native American students – a sense of self worth in this Euro-dominated culture. At the same time, teachers with noticeable accents were barred from teaching English. Arizona Republican Senate candidate J.D. Hayworth called for a moratorium on LEGAL immigration from Mexico.  And finally, the AZ state senator behind SB1070, Russell Pearce, intends to introduce legislation that ends birthright citizenship, in clear contradiction of the 14th amendment. Taken altogether, it seems obvious that the state of Arizona has declared war on immigrants in general and Latin@/indigenous people in particular.

Luckily, it is my job to keep track of legislation and other developments around immigration or else my obsession with the issue these last few months would have severely affected my work. It was more than just passion, more than compassion, more than the fact that my parents, paternal grandparents and uncle, maternal cousin, and many of the non-biological “aunts” and “uncles” from my childhood are all immigrants. This was personal to me to the point where I felt like it was me who was being attacked.  The reason why became clear one afternoon in May as I sat at home, reading developments as usual, and saw the story of Juan Varela, a third-generation Mexican-American who was shot and killed by a neighbor as he yelled “go back to Mexico!”


What We Accomplished in Phoenix

By Susan Leslie, Congregational Advocacy & Witness Director

Monday, July 26th: After arriving in Phoenix and meeting up with the UU Congregation of Phoenix (UUCP) Immigration Task Force, Rev. Susan Frederick-Gray, the congregation’s minister, invited me to accompany her to Puente’s Monday Assembly meeting.  The open air meeting in front of the bright blue Tonatierra building where Puente is housed had over 100 people seated on folding chairs out in the parking lot surrounded by pink sky and palm trees.  Sal Reza, with his signature grey ponytail was talking to the majority Latino crowd about the political situation heading into the upcoming Day of Non-Compliance on Thursday, July 29th, when the legislation was scheduled to go into affect.  Whatever the ruling, and he said they expected it to be mixed and to not completely overturn SB1070, the day would go forward in order to protest the criminalization and repression of the immigrant community.  There was simultaneous translation provided for us English speakers in one section of the crowd near where a documentary film crew was taping.


Today is International Day of Persons with Disabilities

Today is International Day of Persons with Disabilities. So it was fitting that I started off the day attending the first meeting of the Interfaith Disability Advocacy Coalition (IDAC), organized by the American Association of People with Disabilities (AAPD). As participants got to know each other, discussed legislative priorities, and talked about accessibility as a matter of human rights, I was thankful for this interfaith group, and thankful for the community of Unitarian Universalists – who I had the honor to represent – who are striving to make our congregations and communities ever more accessible to all. Having just visited one such congregation this weekend and seen first hand the love that went into making the sanctuary accessible to everyone, I am very pleased to present the following guest post:


Kevin McGown, a member of the First Unitarian Church of Oakland (in California), shares his perspective on his church’s commitment to accessibility.

I love my church, First Unitarian Church of Oakland. It is a community that encourages its members to grow in awareness, and as a community we work to lead by example. Right actions often teach more than good sermons. We just had a wonderful example of this.

For several months we have been moved out of our sanctuary, instead celebrating worship in the big adjoining social space. This was necessitated by the long-delayed earthquake retrofit of our lovely, but previously unreinforced, masonry sanctuary. The work was finished just before Thanksgiving and we moved back in. There were many reasons for gratitude. First, of course, was the simple fact of being back in our spiritual home. We were also very grateful that so much thought and effort went into making our space as accessible as it can be.

Although we had long had some ramp access and some improvised solutions to make almost all of our space accessible, the solutions weren’t all good ones and could sometimes be difficult to manage, or could make one feel like a limited participant. During the design phase interested persons, including wheelchair riders and other experts, were consulted in efforts to improve access. Ramps were redesigned, an entrance was completely redone with a lift installed, and lighting was added for those like me who have low vision issues. One of the last steps was that before the seats were reinstalled and bolted down, they were arranged and then one of our wheelchair riding members went all around the room, checking out all of the corners, the space between rows, and so on, to make sure that the room was all readily maneuverable.

For me the coolest part came from a change that wasn’t actually intended just as an access fix. Part of the floor in the front of the sanctuary was raised for several reasons. One effect was to decrease the grade of the aisle as it climbs toward the back of the room. As I walked it the first time I thought to myself how much easier it will now be for those with mobility limitations of any kind to move up and down that aisle. And the cool part is not just the fix, but the fact that I thought about that. By thinking and talking about access issues, my community instilled this thinking in me. Many of us have a new awareness of the importance of thinking about, and planning for, the details of access in a community and a facility that we want to be open and welcoming to everyone.


Banned Books Week

I was perusing facebook yesterday when I discovered that it is Banned Books Week. Sponsored by the American Library Association and held during the last week of September, the event seeks to celebrate the First Amendment while spotlighting actual and attempted book bans across the U.S. I’m all for reading and against banning books and even expected some of my favorite books to be on the targeted list. I was a little surprised, however, to see my favorite book of all time on the list, the book that has probably influenced me more than any other (aside from Dr. Suess).

To Kill a Mockingbird, by Harper Lee.

I read it for the first time in junior high, and then reread it and reread it. I watched the movie at around the same time and ever since then Atticus Finch has been my ideal of what a man is supposed to be – intelligent, rational, compassionate, willing to do the right thing even at risk to oneself.

Let me acknowledge that I am a vocal critic of Hollywood’s “great white savior” stories, movies where white (usually) men go into communities of color and lead them to a success that they apparently could not accomplish on their own – whether it be inner-city school kids or Native Americans or Japanese samurai. And if “To Kill a Mockingbird” were set in modern times with Atticus cast as such a savior, I would be appalled. But the reality of history is that there was a time when there were no or few black lawyers in this country, and the only legal defense they had was via representation by a white lawyer, whether the lawyer cared about justice or not. And in the end, Atticus was no savior. The fact that Atticus proved Tom Robinson’s innocence beyond any reasonable doubt and yet Tom was still convicted by an all-white jury drove home to me the devastating injustice of racism. It was the lynching of another black man carried out via the orderliness of a court proceeding. Writing this now, it sounds so naive. Of course I know that our court system is riddled with systemic racism. But it was “To Kill a Mockingbird” that first made it real to the 10 year old me.

One cannot think of “To Kill a Mockingbird” without thinking of race. Race is the first thing that comes to mind when thinking of the social justice implications of the book. But the novel deals with many other issues as well. There is Boo Radley, the person in the neighborhood who is “different,” of whom the neighborhood kids tell stories, and who is the subject of childhood pranks and teasing. Scout and Gem are good kids but they spend a fair amount of time engaged in such activities. How amazing is it then when it’s revealed that it is Boo Radley who saves Gem and Scout from harm towards the end? And how interesting it was that the sheriff and Atticus conspire to protect Boo from criminal proceedings, and my 10 yr-old brain agreed with their decision, agreed that the law serves justice, not the other way around.

And of course, the entire story is told from Scout Finch’s point of view, a little girl with whom I could very much identify. Scout runs around in jeans, climbs trees, and is entirely unfazed when she is informed that “You’ll have a very unladylike scar on your wedding-ring finger.” She does not consciously try to rebel against prescribed gender roles; she simply is who she is. Moreover, Scout talks to adults as if they are her equals, not her superiors, with neither disrespect nor rebellion. She simply believes in her own inherent worth and dignity. And Scout being who she was told me that it was ok to be who I am.

In so many ways, I cannot imagine who I would be if I had not read “To Kill a Mockingbird” as a child, if it had been banned. Take a look at the list of classics that have been targeted or successfully banned at various times. Chances are good that some of your favorite, life-shaping stories have been deemed unfit for print. What would the world be like, what would you be like, without them?

Reflections from a 12 year old daughter

Meg’s daughter, Jie Wronski-Riley, shares her Inauguration Week impressions.

The Sun was rising, Bright and hopeful,
The people were gathering, light and soulful

As a country, as a nation we have risen to this occasion.

January 16, 2009

From Milwaukee to DC
I was traveling alone which basically meant that I was sat down in a chair and ignored for about two hours. When we finally boarded I was sitting next to a woman who liked solitare and we exchanged small talk. I’ve flown on a plane many times before but this was different from those times, everyone except the stiff-necked businessman used the name Obama in every other sentence and there was an aura of tingling exhilaration that couldn’t be forced down by any number of delays and missed flights. This was a sample of what was to come during my stay in Washington.

January 17, 2009

Today we went to get Obama souvenirs. First we went to the “Official Obama Store.” As we entered the small street shop we were greeted by women, children and men milling around the little tables plucking buttons, pins, and stickers out of metal tubs.

Quilt Show
In the museum of D.C. there was a show of wall hanging quilts from all over the states and world . All of these quilts were inspired by the Obama campaign.

January 19, 2009

Kids Inaugural
My long time friends Lina and Renci have an aunt that was the main commissioner on the obama campaign in the whole state of Michigan. And this aunt just happened to have tickets to the Disney kids inaugural. She had an extra ticket and she insisted that she couldn’t just leave me behind so I went to this Disney concert at the verizon center. It was great! I really admired how all the free tickets went to military families, many whom had a parent overseas. I also liked how they incorporated the inauguration into a kid friendly place.

January 20, 2009

photo by Jie Wronski-Riley

The excitement in the crowd was in-comprehendible we rushed, well as fast as we could which is about as fast as a slug who pulled a muscle. There were long wide masses that muddled along buzzing energetically about where they were from what had brought them here and how long the line was. It was a very bleak, freezing, almost sunless day, this was the day that we had been waiting for. The day which to some was a miracle when Barack H. Obama became our president after 8 long years of the bush reign. We had high hopes and frost-bitten but elated spirits. While we were standing about people were hopping up and down, swaying from side to side, and watching the monitor intently. After about an hour of waiting the jumbo-tron switched from showing pictures of the momentous American flag and high and mighty capitol to the red carpet of the 56th presidential inauguration. There were the powerful house representatives, the mighty senators, the old but noble former presidents and the celebrities. The crowd played a game of guess that big shot and most of the time there was a cry of “An old guy in suit and wearing a tie!”. When the crowd recognized someone other than by the color of their neck garment it was soon accompanied by a unanimous wave of boos or a great mass of encouragement and cheering . Then following hours of waiting in these bone-chilling temperatures and huge face buffeting gusts of wind Barack Obama walks down to his family as rigid as I’ve ever seen him. The mobs go wild! While Joe Biden is sworn in as vice president I wonder aloud what an odd duo Biden and bush would be. Then Obama steps up and places his hand on the bible. Everything is focused on this inspiring man and the oath he is taking. Some of the tension is let out when the jumbo-tron is about ten words behind the speakers and a whole clog of tall people are right in your line of vision, people who have an uncanny knack to sway right when you try to see right and to swing left when you attempt to catch a glimpse left. “So help me god.” repeats Barack Obama, seconds later the picture of Barrack Obama moves his mouth saying “so help me god.” The applause was tremendous! It was like a booming waterfall rushing down and rolling long and deep. There was a small sense of relief, that this actually happened, that Barack Obama is really the president of the United States of America!!!!!!!!!!!!! Now this day we’ve renewed the pride and steadiness that America is famous for.

The time is Now For the Change We Seek Hope is in the air

For more photos of the Inauguration in DC, visit the Advocacy & Witness facebook page.

My Country Tis of Thee

Taquiena Boston is Director of the UUA’s Identity-Based Ministries and a native resident of Washington, DC. She offers some of her experiences of this week’s inauguration:

“No more bargaining with God,” my mother said after we watched the Inauguration of President Barack Hussein Obama from Station 9, a restaurant on U Street in Washington, DC.  When I asked her what that meant, she said that just as she had prayed to see my sister and me grow up and hit the significant birthdays and benchmarks in our lives — as well as her personal benchmarks, — she prayed that she would live to see Barack Obama inaugurated as president.

My mother turned 81 on January 2, 2009.  She was the youngest daughter, ninth child and first of my grandmother’s 10 children to be born in Washington, DC during segregation and on the brink of the Great Depression. When we researched my mother’s genealogy in Culpeper County, VA, we learned that her matrilineal line dates back to the late 1700s in the United States. We even found the name of the man who “last owned” her great grandfather, Abram. As my sister photocopied the census information from “The Colored People of Culpeper County” that named my mother’s grandmother and the names of her great and great-great grandparents, my mother’s reaction was “I feel like I belong to something.”

In the last several years, walking and crowds have become more challenging for my mother.  So on January 20, 2009, she, my sister and I went to a U Street restaurant reserved by “DC for Obama” for campaign volunteers and friends to watch the Inauguration. I wore my deceased father’s sweater loaded with all my campaign buttons. (Because my father’s ancestry also extended more than 200 years in the Commonwealth of Virginia, I had worn this sweater while canvassing and doing Get Out the Vote in Prince William County, VA to feel the support of my ancestors as I knocked on doors in communities unknown to me.) I gave my mother the Obama-Biden inauguration button purchased the day after the election.

During the election, my mother and I had several conversations about what it was like be a citizen of a country in which you are also treated like the stranger. My own experiences traveling outside the United States brought home to me how much I am a product of “American” culture. But it surprised me to hear my mother say that most often she felt like she was an exile or refugee. So the most moving part of Inauguration Day for me was when Aretha Franklin sang “My Country Tis of Thee.”  The “Queen of Soul” hardly got out “sweet land of liberty” when my mother grabbed the tissues from her purse and started sobbing.  I put my arm around “Mommy” as several tears rolled down my own cheeks.

When the inauguration ceremony was over, I asked my mother what had moved her about “My Country Tis of Thee.”  She said “we used to sing that song in school all the time when I was a girl, but I never believed it was true for me until now.  Today, this is my country, too.”

Why I Work the Polls

Tuesday morning, my alarm clock went off at 5 AM. The sky was still dark as the sun would not rise for another two hours. I made myself a coffee and an english muffin, then walked through my eerily quiet neighborhood at 5:45.

My neighborhood is called Columbia Heights. It is one of the new, “hot”, neighborhoods in DC. A space that was once known as a really “dangerous part of town.” But recently, it has seen an influx of young, white professionals. Columbia Heights was not always that way. In the 1950’s and ’60’s it was a thriving middle class Black community. But after the riots of 1968 and the recession of the ’70’s, Columbia Heights fell apart. The main shopping area for DC’s Black community burnt down during the civil unrest and many of the middle class residents moved out.

But many stayed as well, raising their children and being active members of the community.

When the polls opened at 7 AM, the line out the door was wrapping around the block. For two solid hours, a constant stream of people came to my table to receive their ballots. There was a good mix of voters. Young professionals, older residents, recent immigrants all lined up to vote. But promptly at 10, the young, white professionals disappeared. Elder members of the Black Community exclusively came to cast their votes. Retired women and men in their 70s, 80s and 90s came in and voted through out the mid-day.

All greeted me with smiles. One older woman told me about how the elementary school gym we were in (now closed and being prepared for condos) was her elementary school in the 40s. An elderly man told me about how he lives in the same house he bought with funds from the GI Bill after WWII. Another woman told me about how sad she was since her husband died a month earlier.

But most of all, all of these residents, my neighbors, seemed proud. These were folks who lived through a segregated DC under Jim Crow Laws. These were people who witnessed Dr. King’s march on Washington and his death. They also survived the riots immediately following. They saw the establishment of DC Home Rule. And now, they were able to vote for the man who would become the nation’s first black Presidential. The energy and excitement were palpable. People hugged each other and laughed. Many older men shook my hand firmly and thanked me.

As the day progressed, and the sun began to set, young people replaced the Elders again. Some were professionals, others were students at nearby Howard University. Many of the young voters were voting for the first time. Every time I saw a blank or confused face, I took the time to explain to them how to cast their vote correctly. I slowly went over the ballot and how one fills it out.

Finally, as the sky darkened and the crowd thinned out to a trickle, a young black man in his late twenties showed up with his four year old daughter. He took the ballot and thanked me. I asked his daughter if she would help her dad vote. She shyly said, “No.” But her dad looked at me and said, “Oh, she will.”

He took her over to the booth and quickly scanned the ballot, voting for all the local offices. I noticed he had not filled in the bubble for President. He then bent down. He grabbed his daughter’s hand and gave the pencil to her. Very carefully, he held her hand and they connected the arrow together. They then walked her over to the ballot box and they fed the paper in together. They both received a little “I Voted” sticker and walked out the door as he whispered something in her ear. She nodded.

I am not sure who they voted for together. But I have a pretty good guess. And typing this makes me choke up just as it did ten minutes before the polls closed Tuesday night.

And that is why I work the polls. I work the polls to honor our elders who worked so hard to make this country free. I work the polls to make sure everyone feels confident that their vote was cast correctly. And I work the polls so that our future is protected.

One Nation, Under God

The staff of the Washington Office, Kat, Lisa, Grace, Alex, Alida, and I, met each other at 10:30 this morning in front of the White House for our weekly theological reflection. We all agreed that the White House looked different this morning. It looked more approachable.

We opened with words from Barack Obama’s Springfield speech when he announced his candidacy. A speech which ended with: “Together, starting today, let us finish the work that needs to be done, and usher in a new birth of freedom on this earth.”

We shared what Sen. Obama’s victory meant for us personally, our communities, our nation, and the world. We were all emotional. Alida shared a snippet she had heard a man say on NPR, “Martin walked so Obama could run so our children could fly.”

We all agreed that progressives, especially spiritual progressives, have much work to do. We committed to working in coalition, to having patience, to being welcoming.

We then took the time to dream. We envisioned what our perfect union would look like. We articulated a vision that included excellence in education, access to health care, marriage equality, just immigration reform, reduction in our military expenditures, an end to the Iraq war, a green economy, no border walls, protection of women’s right to choose, and much more.

Knowing that this future will not be handed to us, we each took responsibility for helping build such a future. With this commitment in the forefront of our minds, we closed our theological reflection by reciting the pledge of allegiance while standing directly in front of the White House on Pennsylvania Ave. All of us recited it loudly and proudly as dozens of tourists milled about us.

“I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America, and to the Republic for which it stands: one Nation under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.”

I Voted Today, Did You?

Unlike most of my friends and colleagues, I am not out working in an election-related capacity today. I am not volunteering to work in the polls, as is Alex, to make sure that the process runs smoother. I’m a slacker depending on the volunteer time of others. I am not out getting out the vote, or last-minute canvassing, or other activities that would increase my voice by convincing like-minded people to vote. As such, my voice will be but one of an estimated 153 million possible (registered) voters today. All I did was walk over to my neighborhood polling place, wait in line, cast my ballot, and go to work. My part in this great democratic process is small.

But I left the polling place with a huge smile on my face that has not receded yet. First of all, the atmosphere at the polling place (my neighborhood junior high school) was festive. Colorful banners for different candidates decorated the chain link fence leading into the gymnasium from all sides. People, positioned well away from the actual polling place, handed out fliers and chatted with us as we walked up. Cardboard cutouts of candidates of choice, also well away from the polling place, stood on the sidewalk, as if to shake your hand. The impression that I got was that of a party.

Inside the actual polling place, courteous volunteers showed me which line to stand in and where to go next. Everyone was smiling. It was contagious.

As I stood in the booth – just me, my ballot and a number two pencil – the momentousness of the occasion hit me. I don’t mean that regardless of the outcome, this election will have made history. Of course there is that. I don’t mean that the choice between men who want to take this country in very different directions will determine our future. Yes, there is that too. But what I felt in the polling place was simply the awe of getting to make a choice.

Each one of us who is a citizen of this country (and not a felon in some states, but that’s for a different blog post) gets to make this choice. We get to participate in this sacred process of self-determination. On equal footing with each other. Standing in that booth, I felt empowered, and a part of something much bigger than myself.

I left the polling place with a huge smile on my face, and it hasn’t dimmed yet. And so I’m saying to you out there, “I voted today, did you?” I’m not going to lecture you on how it is your duty and responsibility (even though that’s true). I am telling you to get out there and vote, because it will make your day.

Still Undecided?

For five of the past six weekends, I have been going door-to-door for my candidate of choice. When I knock on voters’ doors, the first question I ask is, “Have you decided who you will be supporting on November 4th?” To my surprise, many voters remain undecided. As late as Saturday, two of the 25 voters I spoke with were undecided. For those of us who are out knocking on doors, emptying our wallets, and losing sleep, this may seem unbelievable. But it is real.

Some of you may be wondering, “How can anyone be undecided at this point?” The undecided voters I have spoken with have given many reasons. Here are a few that I have heard multiple times.

  • Cynicism – Some voters see the choice between candidates as the lesser of two evils. These voters often mention how many campaign promises end up being broken. They tend not to trust politicians in general.
  • Political identity is shifting – I have most often seen this among traditionally Republican voters who are upset with the way the Republican Party has been running this country for the past eight years. The economic crisis, two ongoing wars, and record deficit spending are on these voters’ minds. These voters have supported a political party that they are increasingly convinced is undermining our beloved country
  • Legitimate concerns about both candidates – Many voters I have spoken with have expressed misgivings about both candidates that many die-hard supporters conveniently overlook. Whether some people want to admit it or not, all of the candidates running for President are real people with real flaws. These voters are different from the cynical voters because they genuinely believe that their vote matters and that politics can be positive; they just are not satisfied with their choices.

In addition to these perspectives, I have heard undecided voters speak about the limitations of the two party system, issues overlooked by the candidates, and the potential imbalance of power between Congress and the Administration.

In my opinion, all of these concerns are legitimate reasons to deliberate. But in the end, you either vote for someone or you do not vote at all. After patiently listening to undecided voters for the past six weeks, I am relieved that their time is up. By the end of tomorrow there will be no such thing as an undecided voter.

Tomorrow, each of the persons I spoke with, and millions more, will all be using that great equalizer: our one vote. It is a little terrifying, a little exciting, and completely real. I know many of you may have trouble sleeping tonight. Maybe this will help you rest: Of the hundreds of voters I have spoken to, only one said they have not really been following this election. This country is engaged. This country cares. This country is weighing its choices… carefully.