About the Author
Alex Winnett

Goodbyes of all sorts

Yesterday was the first full day after American Troops had ceded power of urban areas to Iraqi troops. While there was some violence, the day was mostly peaceful. This is an important step in the relationship between Iraq and the United States. I am glad to see this day come.

Today marks another “goodbye” for me. Today is my last day working for the UUA. After two years as the Program Associate for Peacemaking at the UUA, my term of service is coming to an end. I think it is a fitting end to my time here, I leave just as American troops leave Iraqi cities.

I have really valued and appreciated my time at the UUA Washington Office. The people I worked with, both here and in Boston, are dedicated to the faith and are examples of grace and humility under pressure. I have learned lots from them and appreciate their mentorship and friendship.

Some highlights for me in the past two years include:

  • Advocacy and Witness’ weekly staff meeting and all the fun ways we would decide the agenda
  • Theological Reflection with the UUA Staff and our office minister, Alida
  • Hearing about all the awesome work people are doing in their congregations
  • Working with the Olive Branch Interfaith Peace Partnership to end the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan
  • Seeing the Tents of Hope on the National Mall
  • Making origami paper cranes with the UUA staff after the Knoxville shooting last year
  • Helping people think of new and innovative ways of thinking about peace.

One blog post could never appropriately capture all the thoughts and feelings I have right now. So, I will just leave it with this: my gratitude is unfathomable. I will always love and charish the time I had with the UUA. It helped me grow into the faithfilled leader I am today.

As for what is next with me, I join the mighty ranks of the “underemployed.” This gives me an opportunity to find another career that fits my passions and skills. It also frees up some time to work on a project I have started with some friends– The UU Volunteer Service Core (UUVSC). It is my hope that the UUVSC will allow me to pass on some of the opportunities I had by working at the UUA by supporting UU Young Adults spiritually while they work for change in their communities. For more information on the UUVSC, you can see our facebook page here. And if you a thing or two about starting up a non-profit, you can get in touch with me at UUVSC(dot)Alex(AT)gmail(dot)com.

Getting Ready for GA with Standing on the Side of Love

Lisa and I caught an early morning flight from National Airport to Salt Lake City, Utah for the annual business meeting of the UUA. I am really excited to be here. If memory serves me correctly, this is my 10th GA (yeow!).

But I don’t ever remember being as excited for a GA as much as this one. Not only are there three history setting votes (including edits to the Principles and Purposes of the UUA, the Peacemaking Statement of Conscience, and the election of a new UUA President), but I am really excited about the launch of the UUA’s new outreach campaign, Standing on the Side of Love.
Standing on the Side of Love is a way UUs can act upon their faith by working along side marginalized and oppressed people in American society.
Adam Gerhardstein (former Legislative Assistant for International Issues and former Acting Director of the Washington Office for Advocacy) is now the campaign director for Standing on the Side of Love. In the video below, you can see Adam overseeing the hanging of our Standing on the Side of Love banners in the Salt Palace Convention Center.
We will be posting videos like this all week long. You can see these videos and receive more updates by going to our companion blog for Standing on the Side of Love at http://www.standingonthesideoflove.org/ or at youtube by subscribing to our feed.
You can also follow the Standing on the Side of love campaign through many different ways.
If you want text messages from GA sent to your cell phone from GA, just text STAND to 41411.
You can follow us on Twitter @SideofLove
And you can become a fan of Standing on the Side of Love on facebook

Dr. Seuss and Social Justice

Yesterday, Lisa sent me an email she had received from one of her immigration listservs. The note links to a blog post called RI4A: Finding the right Dr. Seuss metaphor for our movement. The author of the post, who goes by the “Nom de Blog” Sneetch posed the question: “What is the best Dr. Seuss metaphor for the immigration movement?” The author of the note first proposed Horton Hears a Who!. Lisa excitedly sent me the note because she knows that “Horton…” is my all time favorite book I have ever read.

Yes, my all time favorite book…ever. Not just my favorite children’s book. Not just my favorite Dr. Seuss book. Not just my favorite book about anthropomorphic elephants. My favorite book ever. So much so, that when my peers in my high school Advanced Placement Literature class wrote reports about Dostoevsky, Austen, and Steinbeck, I wrote a report about Horton Hears a Who!

I love Horton… because I really do believe it is a wonderful story about strength, faith, courage, and justice. It is about doing what you think is right even when it is difficult or when you face ridicule or no one believes you.

It has become a staple for UU Religious Educators and it is taught all over the world. I have seen it published in no fewer than four languages. Plus it is a really fun story.

It tells the tale of Horton, a loveable and gentle elephant, who finds a speck of dust while splashing in a jungle pool. As the speck of dust falls through the air, his powerful ears are able to hear the tiny cries of the people who live in the speck of dust–the Whos. Hearing their calls, Horton catches the speck of dust on a clover and swears to protect them. “After all,” says Horton, “a person’s a person, no matter how small.”

As Horton travels around the jungle carrying a speck of dust on a clover, he attracts the attention of other jungle creatures. They don’t believe Horton when he says tiny people live in the speck of dust. They are threatened by his faith. They call him crazy. They ridicule him and put him through many dangerous feats of strength and courage to test his faith and commitment.

Finally, the jungle creatures threaten to drop the speck of dust into a cauldron of boiling oil. Horton insists that every Who in Whoville must lift up their voices and make a great sound to let everyone know that the Whos exist. While every Who does make a sound, it is not until the smallest Who of all adds her voice that the jungle creatures finally hear the Whos and believe Horton. It is then that every creature in the jungle commits to join Horton in protecting the Whos.

It is a very good story that touches on all the themes of social justice–especially from a UU perspective. It shows the inherent worth and dignity of every person (no matter how small). It shows that we should work for justice and equal rights. It shows the importance of every hand and voice being raised for the good of others. And it shows the power of faith and commitment to sustain the long and grueling movement toward justice. And how we can soften the hardest hearts through the power of love.

I love this book. I keep of a copy of it on my desk and read it when I am feeling discouraged. I give it away for birthday, coming of age and transition celebrations. I like reading it to kids using silly voices and encouraging kids to say with me the refrain, “A person’s a person, no matter how small.”

To return to the letter Lisa sent me, Sneetch critiques the Horton frame as being patronizing toward recent immigrants. If we are to follow the Horton theme of the non-profit world as Horton and the immigrants as the Who’s, it shows how non-profits have taken on the role of the protectors of the helpless immigrants. Yet, I believe this is a flawed analysis of the book as it ignores the fact that Horton helps the Whos become moral agents who are able to raise their own voices for justice.

The blog writer Sneetch offers The Sneetches instead. The Sneetches is a great allegory for racism and white supremacy of Dr. Seuss’s time. But I feel that Sneetch missed the point of The Sneeches by focusing on the dangers of materialism that is inherent to the Sneetches story. She compares the modern non-profit sphere to the scam artist McBean in The Sneetches. McBean profits off the pain of those who look for his help. Much as, the author claims, the non-profit world profits from the pain of recent immigrants. But that saddens me. By reading the blogpost, I am sorry to hear the hurt and pain in Sneetch’s words. I know the long journey of justice can be difficult and exhausting. But that is why we need stories like “Horton Hears a Who!” to refresh and inspire us.

Which stories inspire you to keep on the long road to justice? What are your favorite social justice stories, Dr. Seuss or otherwise? Please share in the comments below.

Get Ready to Vote for the Statement of Conscience for Peacemaking

General Assembly (GA), the annual business meeting for the Unitarian Universalist Association is quickly approaching.

At GA, we have a full docket of things to discuss and vote upon. But what I am most excited about is the Statement of Conscience on Peacemaking. This statement is the culmination of three years of study, action and reflection. If passed, this document will help the UUA, congregations and individuals discern future peacemaking opportunities. It will also help with spiritual discernment on peace matters for years to come.

The Statement of Conscience was written by the Commission on Social Witness (CSW) and aims to be a prophetic and dynamic statement on the role of peace in the UU community and our role as peacemakers. It is the result of three years of work of hundreds of UU activists, theologians and ministers. Congregations had a total of four opportunities to give feedback to the CSW on the topic of peacemaking. The resposes we received were varied and complex. It was the goal of the CSW to reflect the diverse opinions held by members of the larger UU community.

At GA, there will be two mini-assemblies on Thursday for delegates to propose ammendments and edits. Ultimately, there will be a vote on whether or not to pass the statement made by the delegates of the GA. The statements requires a 2/3 majority vote to pass.

In preparation of the mini-assemblies and the final vote, we recommend that congregations discuss the Statement of Conscience with their delegates. To find the final draft of the Statement of Conscience on Peacemaking, please visit our website. For ideas on how to collect feedback, please see this resource from an earlier feedback period. For more information on UUA peacemaking, please visit uua.org/peacemaking.

Thank you for your time and efforts before the event. By coming prepared, we can have a productive and helpful conversation on the statement.

Iranian American Journalist Freed

Last year, Iranian-American journalist Roxana Sebari was arrested in Iran for bringing a bottle of wine into the country. Sebari, who has dual citizenship with Iran and the United States had been living in Iran since 2003 as a freelance journalist for NPR and the BBC. While detained, her charges had been elevated to reporting without a license and espionage for the United State government.

While the Iranian government has arrested foreign reporters in the past, most of them had been deported to their home country. Ms. Sebari, on the other hand, stood trial. She was found guilty of spying and was sentenced to eight years in prison. The United States government immediately called for the release of Ms. Sebari, insisting that she has never worked for the government in any form, especially as a spy. After her trial in January, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmedinejad filed for an appeal–a move unheard of in modern Iranian history.

The appeals court rejected the initial sentence of eight years and called for the immediate deportation of Ms. Saberi. On Monday, she was released from jail to the custody of her parents and will return home to the United States this week.

Analysts say this is an important milestone in Iranian/American relations. President Ahmedinejad is up for re-election next month and his hard line rhetoric of his early administration has fallen away in response to falling approval ratings. The Iranian president has made many gestures to normalize relations with the American government. His election-night call to President Obama was the first call of congratulations an American president has received from Iran since the revolution of the 1970’s. The United States has continued to welcome Iran as a partner in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and their continued participation has helped us stay an accountable partner in the region.

We, at the UUA, applaud the release of Ms. Saberi. We also encourage increased diplomatic negotiations with the Iranian government. We believe the United States can be a good model of religious freedom and tolerance to the Iranian government and they, in turn, can be important allies in ending the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. We hope the US State Department and Iranian Supreme Council will continue to work toward normalized relations.

Recognize Your Mom (Figure) The Right Way

Mother’s Day is this Sunday, and I’ll bet you know many moms who deserve thanks, and an award, for all she does. The UUA and MomsRising.org want to thank all the mothers and mother figures in the world for all the amazing work they do.

Give them an “award” for their years of tireless service by visiting MomsRising.org and watching a video of Hollywood Celebrities, President Obama and grateful folks recognizing the mom in your life.

We look forward to making this a great year for mothers and families together.

To share this video with other folks, please copy and send the following link:

Truth? Yes. But, Reconciliation?

Last week, the White House released memos dating back from the previous administration proving that the government promoted the use of extreme interrogation tactics. These tactics, as described in the memos are easily considered torture. The memos have been read and analyzed by many in the media and you can find many reviews in a lot of places. I will not continue that discussion today.

Instead, I want to touch on a question that a lot of people have been asking: “What next?” How will we respond to this information as a government and a people? How should we punish those responsible? Who is responsible, exactly?

With all this uncertainty and murkiness, it seems like a truth and reconciliation commission similar to what happened in post-apartheid South Africa should occur. Through that process, we can find who is truly culpable and create closure on this gruesome period in our history. It makes sense for the Unitarian Universalist Association to call for truth, reconciliation, and repair since we are attempting to use that model in concerns of our racial history.

However, this model may not be the correct one in this case of a government sponsoring and endorsing torture of their prisoners. Traditionally, truth and reconciliation (T&R) commissions are reserved for societies where there is no government able to investigate, try or prosecute those responsible. In cases of failed democracies, such as South Africa, or in non-nation state-based communities, such as religious bodies, T&R allows a community to admit wrongs, forgive or punish as they see fit. An important element of T&R procedures is restorative justice where the suspected perpetrator is allowed to admit their deeds and apologize to the offended parties. By apologizing and receiving forgiveness, they receive amnesty and immunity from a prison sentence. It is a process that is long, grueling, and spiritually draining, but ultimately healing. It allows a community to admit their communal mistakes and receive a “do-over” with everything out in the open.

In the case of the Bush-era torture, the culpability is easily investigated. There is already a short list of people who could be caught red handed. Just off the top of my head, I would personally send to the witness stand: President Bush; Vice- President Cheney; CIA Director George Tennet; Secretaries of State Rice and Powell; Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld; White House Counselors Yoo and Meirs; and Attorneys General Gonzales and Ashcroft. In this case, we still have a justice system that works. The DOJ and courts still function and Congress still sits. A truth commission followed by a trial can be completed easily.

The ultimate question at hand is: “Can we reconcile torture?” Is this a time in which we can just forgive heinous and murderous actions endorsed by our government? When I read about actions inflicted on prisoners and the way these techniques affect the performers of the actions, and considering what could have been accomplished without these techniques, I think that we cannot just forgive it away. There seems to be no reconciling this–as long as we can really punish those responsible. It is important here to note that reconciliation and forgiveness are not always the same thing. One can reconcile differences without forgiving and vice versa. And even proponents of T&R would admit that the process is not for every one or for every situation.

What we have here resembles the Nuremburg Trials of the 1940’s. Now, I am not one to fall into populist rage and I consider myself pretty even handed. I am also not one to compare folks to the Nazis unless they have been responsible for the attempted annihilation of an entire race of people. That being said, we have a clear chain of command responsible for a specific action that has a concrete set of documents proving their intention. If that is not worth investigating and punishing, I am not sure what is. And so, by calling for a truth commission and a war crimes trial, we use the systems in place to resolve the problem at hand. That is why we at the UUA, along with our partners at UUSC, TASSC and NRCAT, are calling for a truth commission and justice for the victims—including the soldiers who were ordered to inflict these deeds. It is the very least we can do. To learn more and join our call for a truth commission please visit our partners at NRCAT.org.

Random Acts of Kindness

Working in peace and social justice can be incredibly exhausting. To work for peace is an exercise in making what Reinhold Niebuhr called the “impossible possibility.” To trudge chest deep in pain, suffering, war, genocide, and famine can lead to fatigue and burnout.

There are always those inspiring stories, that seem too far and in between: people overcoming violence to do great and heroic things. And those stories are important. Then there are the stories of people who stand up in the face of injustice and work to right past wrongs. Those stories are important as well.

But sometimes, what really makes me most hopeful are random acts of kindness. To see people stand up and make a gesture to help a stranger with no need of recognition or compensation. Rather, they just help because they can.

There is a short video going around in the Do It Yourself community about Tweenbots. These little robots travel in a straight line at a constant speed with a flag asking for a push in the right direction. They rely on the kindness of strangers to get to where they are going.

The creator then follows the robot with a hidden camera. And the footage is pretty amazing. Perfect strangers in midtown Manhattan stopping to point a little robot in the right direction.

It warms my heart.

I think we need more stories of random acts of kindness in our daily lives.

President Obama Takes a Long View on Military Policy.

When President Obama left Istanbul on Tuesday, he hosted a town hall meeting with Turkish students. He was asked a lot questions about the U.S.’s relationship with the world. One student asked the President how he was different than his predecessor, George W. Bush.

That is a question a lot of folks in the United States are asking these days with Obama as Commander in Chief.

Since the President entered the Oval Office, we have seen him taking a firmer stand on Afghanistan. He has committed to an increase of 51,000 American troops as well as 5,000 NATO troops to the region. We have also seen several bombings of Al Qeada camps in Pakistan, with more scheduled soon. This should not come to any one as a surprise as the President campaigned with a platform that was tough on Pakistan and Afghanistan.

The President also issued a 19 month plan to bring an end to the war in Iraq. But the plan includes 50,000 troops to stay in the region as peacekeepers for an additional two years. For many who want to see an immediate end to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, these plans have us stay in these lands for far too long.

But the President told the Turkish student that he is looking to the long term on military policy and people of the United States and the world should do the same.

While in Prague, in the Czech Republic, the President pledged the United States to be the moral example in ridding the world from nuclear weapons. He promised the United States and Russia would enter negotiations by the end of the year to reduce their nuclear arsenals.

Many people note that the President has increased the military spending budget by over $20 billion compared to last year’s Bush Administration budget (from $513 billion in FY09 to $534 billion in FY10). I would agree this is a disturbing trend that should be reversed. But I take pause and rethink this when I find this spending increase would help give benefits to soldiers and vets and would include improvements in the lagging Veteran’s Affairs and hospitals.

In fact, the President has told Secretary of Defense Robert Gates to cut out costly and unnecessary weapons systems. Secretary Gates passed the message to the Pentagon and told Congress to resist the urge to increase military spending in the budget. Many Republican Congress Members, including Saxby Chamblis (R-GA) expressed their dismay that the Pentagon would no longer be buying F-22 stealth jets (a plane never used in combat).

In January of this year, Secretary Gates said, “…the spigot of defense spending opened after 9/11 is closing.”

In the short run, I am extremely disappointed by the President’s military policy. I think the troops should come home and a surge of diplomats, engineers, and educators should help secure Afghanistan and Iraq. But in the long term, I am thrilled.

I hate knowing that my tax dollars are wasted on useless missles systems, jets and nuclear warheads. I think these changes are crucial steps to reversing the out of control spiraling military budgets.

U.S. and Iran Share Table at Afghanistan Meeting

This week The Hague, Netherlands, hosted a meeting to discuss the future of Afghanistan. Attendees included representatives from 73 nations, 11 international organizations and several observers from non-governmental organizations.

This meeting was very important and we at the UUA applaud the use of multi-lateral discussions and diplomacy to find a speedy and responsible end to the war in Afghanistan.

The UUA also approves of the United States and Iran joining together in dialogue over this cause. Iran has become an important ally in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. At this meeting, Iran has agreed to strengthen its control of the Afghani/Iranian border to prevent the opiate and heroin trade.

Reports indicate that the U.S. Envoy to South Asia, Richard Holbrooke, shared a short conversation with the Iranian Deputy Foreign Minister, Mehdi Akhundzadeh. If this is true, this would signal a monumental shift in U.S. foreign policy with Iran. In previous years, Iranian and American officials never spoke with one another. A mending of relations between the United States and Iran after a thirty year rift is crucial to the progress and security of the Middle East. Secretary of State Hilary Clinton said the meeting between Akhundzadeh and Holbrooke was “cordial” but “unsubstantive.”

However, today the Iranian government denied any such meeting happened. While Iran is committed to working alongside the United States to bring peace to Iraq and Afghanistan, Iranian officials refuse to meet directly with American officials.

We encourage the Obama Administration to continue working with Iran and opening up relations between the two countries. As one of its legislative objectives for the 111th Congress and the Obama Administration, the UUA calls on the government to “…prevent armed conflict with Iran, through multilateral diplomatic engagement.”