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Posts Tagged ‘social justice’

Sometimes a work trip accidentally has a theme, and my recent trip to Cape Town was one of those. I arrived on Thursday, December 5th to the news that Mandela had passed away. My cab driver was on the phone, telling someone that Friday would be a holiday. He glanced back at me and asked “Do you know who Nelson Mandela is? He’s passed.” I turned on the television when I got to my hotel and watched for a few hours, but it was already after midnight and so there was not a lot of new content.

Screen Shot 2013-12-13 at 7.56.17 AMThe following day I went with a small group to an ecumenical ceremony in the square, but it didn’t feel yet like the news had really hit. I had no idea how to interpret the crowd, the messages, the speakers, the politics. As the news traveled and people began writing about Mandela and his life, I dipped in here and there. The typical conversations happened. Was Mandela and his life going to be sanitized by the mainstream media for political purposes? It was good to see people attempting to show the full man, with all his complexities. It was striking to remember that such a short time ago apartheid was alive and well, and to really think about that, I mean really really think about it, and to be reminded yet again of the fact that social change is not easy, clean, or straightforward. It’s most certainly not a technical problem waiting to be solved with a new device or invention, though clearly international and national political pressure play a huge role.

Mandela and his life became an underlying base for the conference, as I’m sure was true for much of what was happening around the world. Whether he was directly mentioned or not, his life’s work was present. I participated in sessions on ICTs and open development, ICTs and children, ICTs and raising critical consciousness. In all of them, the issues of equity and power came up. How can development processes be more open and is there a role for ICTs there? What world do we want to see in the future? How do we get there? How do we include children and youth so that they are not marginalized? How can we take a critical approach to ourselves and our agendas in development and in ICT4D? Can ICTs play a role in helping people to change existing power structures, achieve more equity and equality, and transform our societies? All these sessions were planned before anyone knew of Mandela’s passing, but talking about issues in light of the recent news and the renewed presence of him and his life made them feel more real.

Fast forward to the flights home. My first flight was the long one, from Cape Town to Amsterdam. My seat mates were two inexperienced flyers in their late 30s or so. They didn’t know where to put their bags or that they could not get up to go to the bathroom while the seatbelt sign was on and the flight was taking off. They were tattooed and looked a little rough around the edges. One of them carried a small, stuffed cheetah and wore hot pink pumps. I fell fast asleep the minute we took off and woke up an hour before we landed. The woman with the pink pumps started a conversation. Almost immediately she told me that she and her friend were returning from 2 months in rehab. They were both struggling with addictions to alcohol and sex, she told me. She was originally from Croatia and had lived in Amsterdam for years. She had recently relapsed and that’s why she went into treatment. She was returning to a safe house now, and it was her daughter’s 10th birthday. She was feeling positive about her life, yet sad that she would spend her daughter’s birthday in a safe house. She had recently revealed her addiction to her boss and received a negative and disempowering response. She was trying to be strong and accept that she was a recovering addict, learning to not feel ashamed, and working on being proud of the fact that she was moving forward. I was struck by her vulnerability and sweetness and left wondering how she would fare in a world where addiction and mental illness are so buried and stigmatized.

I got on my last flight and checked my Facebook while waiting to take off. My friend Subir had posted that two Supreme Court judges had overruled the Delhi high court’s decision and upheld the constitutionality of Section 377 –  essentially ruling that homosexuality is a crime and throwing India back into the dark ages.

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My seatmate on this flight started up a conversation and I mentioned the India decision. I also told him about some of the different work that I do and the various hats I wear, including my involvement as a board member with ICAAD, the International Center for Advocates Against Discrimination. ICAAD’s work is fascinating because they look at discrimination that is embedded into law, and the link between structural and legal discrimination and racial, gender, religious and social discrimination, violence, and hate crimes including those against religious minorities, immigrants, women, the LGBT community, and people of color.

As we talked, I learned that my seat mate’s mother had been a Holocaust survivor and that he was traveling to the US to attend an event in his mother’s honor. Her father survived a concentration camp, and she had been hidden and sheltered by different families for many years until the two were finally reunited and moved to the US.  She spent years dealing with the psychological impacts of the experience, but now works to help children and youth understand and deal with bigotry and hate, to identify it around them even when it’s not directly aimed at them, and to find ways to stop it. She highlights that it can manifest itself in seemingly small ways, like bullying at school.

This accidental theme of discrimination, violence and hate, whether based on race, poverty, addiction, religious beliefs or sexual orientation was so alive for me this week. I met and learned more about brave individuals and the work of organizations who stand up in the face of injustice to take action at both the personal and the institutional level, raising critical consciousness to push for the changes that the world needs.

Despite our ‘advanced’ societies, our awareness of history, our facts, our data, our evidence, our literary genius, our ICTs, our innovations, we have very far to go, as I was reminded multiple times. But strong and caring individuals, organized communities, and political will can make a dent in structural discrimination and contribute to a more human society. More of us, self included, need to re-focus and work harder toward this end.

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I have issues with the word ‘charity.’ It makes me squirm and wrinkle my nose when I’m introduced or described as working for a ‘charity.’

‘Charity’ conjures up images of wealthy church ladies in Victorian times, assembling baskets of Christmas food for the poor that their husbands maintain working for miserable salaries the rest of the year. ‘Charity’ to me is working at a soup kitchen but never asking why people don’t have enough to eat, and who should be doing something about it and what needs to change. ‘Charity’ is the community members having to kowtow to the big man in the community for some of his left-overs in difficult times.

‘Charity’ is about power. ‘Charity’ is having pity for those that you are ‘helping’ and seeing ‘the poor’ as helpless victims. ‘Charity’ rests on foundations of guilt, privilege and the belief the ‘the poor will always be with us’.

Most everyone understands the act of ‘charity’. I have more than you do, so I give you some of what I have. You feel grateful for my generosity. I feel good about my generosity. Everyone’s momentarily happy. We do it again next season, nothing changes or gets better; and ‘the poor are always with us’ and kept in check by power imbalances.

‘Charity’ is related to a ‘needs-based’ approach, still used by some non-profit organizations, both large and small.

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There’s another approach that is referred to as social justice, related to the ‘rights-based’ approach. This type of approach is a little more complicated, but still not too hard to grasp on the surface.

Needs-based vs. Rights-based

However, social justice or rights-based approaches are not so easy to actually implement, because they imply shifting power, changing systems, demanding that governments and other authorities fulfill their obligations, pushing citizens to take on their civic responsibilities, and getting political. They require those who have power to question why they have it, and they require those who are claiming rights to be empowered and organized. They often require examining one’s own behavior on a broader level. These approaches are not so easy as giving someone some money or your old clothes or a turkey at Thanksgiving. Talk of justice and rights makes a lot of people afraid, both those who hold wealth and power and those that the wealthy and powerful manipulate through the media. However these approaches can lead to long-term and sustainable changes.

This blog post at the Episcopal Cafe (I recommend reading the whole post – it’s short) sums up the difference between charity and social justice quite well. It starts off with this quote:

“Had I but one wish for the churches of America I think it would be that they come to see the difference between charity and justice. Charity is a matter of personal attributes; justice, a matter of public policy. Charity seeks to eliminate the effects of injustice; justice seeks to eliminate the causes of it. Charity in no way affects the status quo, while justice leads inevitably to political confrontation.” – The Rev. William Sloane Coffin, Jr., from his book Credo.

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When I read about some of the initiatives being promoted these days – the #SWEDOW projects of the world and the idea that ‘anyone can do aid or development’ – more than anything, what irks me is that many (not all) of them are coming from a charity mentality. Sure, if all you need to do is hand out some of your old stuff or build something, maybe anyone can do it. But that’s not really helping much in the long term.

It doesn’t matter if it’s a non-profit, a do-it-yourselfer, an innovator, a business person, a religious-based group, a social media guru, or a movie star who wants to help out. And it doesn’t matter if the person is from (or working in) the US or a ‘developing’ country. The first thing that I look at in an initiative is the approach — is it coming from a charity mentality (in which case I will groan and fume) or is it questioning why the problem is happening in the first place and does it work in a non-patronizing, non-romanticized, respectful way with the people who are affected by the issue in an effort to help resolve it? (In which case I’ll then look further to see if the person or organization initiating the project has done their research to find well-documented good practices and avoid repeating mistakes or potentially doing harm or doing something that’s totally unsustainable.)

I recognize that social justice is not nearly as easy to achieve as ‘charity’. And I recognize that sometimes people need to be fed so that they have the strength to question why they are hungry and so that they have the energy to do something about it. And I don’t want to give the impression that solutions come from the outside, because most of the time they don’t.

I also recognize that ‘people want to do something’. But if ‘doing something’ means ‘charity’ then I am not in favor. It’s important to address the causes, not just treat the symptoms.

Social enterprise with its triple bottom line (people, planet, profit) has come up heavily in the past few years as one way to address poverty. Social entrepreneurship is also a trend that allows people a way to ‘do something’. I’m not as familiar with these approaches as I am with the other approaches, and I admit that I get the two terms confused.

I like that they move away from the charity mentality. But I’m not entirely sure that these approaches do enough on the side of changing power structures and ensuring that those who are marginalized can access their rights. I’m not convinced that the market takes care the people ‘at the bottom’, or balances out society. I’m also concerned that when push comes to shove, the profit motive will always win out over people and planet, and we are back to where we started perhaps… ‘the poor will always be with us’…. The jury is still out on that one for me.

I’m looking forward to seeing what hybrids develop over the next years, and if we will ever finally eliminate poverty and injustice. In any case, I feel pretty confident saying that it’s time to retire the charity mentality.

Some Resources:

Dochas Network’s simple overview of the Rights Based Approach

Bamboo Shoots – a tookit for facilitators working with children using a rights-based approach

Participatory Rural Appraisal (aka Participatory Research and Action) overview

Paulo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed

Anything by Robert Chambers (my development hero!)

Applying a Rights-Based Approach (.pdf)

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On Glenn Beck and ‘rooting out’ liberation theology

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Meeting in the middle

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Mural in the Arcatao community, Chalatenango, El Salvador, reflecting what happened at Rio Sumpul in 1980

When Glenn Beck mentioned Liberation Theology around minute 12.20 of this Fox News video (which I came across courtesy of @Jay_Rosenberg), I literally sat up straighter in my chair, downsized the other 6 tabs I had open, hit rewind, turned up the volume and listened.  And I felt really unsettled.

The amount of time I normally give to Beck and the Tea Baggers is the time it takes to hit delete on an email. You know the ones… they are usually full of misinformation and have a lot of all capital letters, bright red size 64 font, and tell me to fear Obama, Mexicans, Muslim takeovers and universal healthcare.

But Beck’s coloring of Liberation Theology in this video clip “Liberation Theology and the Political Perversion of Christianity” and his take on social justice make me really angry.

In the Liberation Theology clip, Beck paints this vision of people who follow liberation theology. “These are people who, besides blowing stuff up, were also having a sexual revolution, trying to smash monogamy. This isn’t about God to them in any shape or form.”

He talks with Anthony Bradley, a ‘Black Liberation Theology Expert’ from the Acton Institute. Bradley says “One of the odd interpretations of Marxist thought and theology happened in central and south America, right in the church. And it was really the fantastic work of the current pope, who actually rooted out liberation theology from that region.”

Yes, right. Fantastic rooting out. Just fantastic, Bradley.

I’m not a Christian or a Marxist, but I lived and worked in El Salvador in the 90s. That’s right. El Salvador, one of the Central American countries where Liberation Theology was at its strongest.

Here’s what ‘rooting out liberation theology’ meant in El Salvador.

Archbishop Oscar Arnulfo Romero's famous words

It meant assassinating Archbishop Romero in 1980.

“Romero was shot on March 24, 1980, while celebrating Mass at a small chapel located in a hospital called “La Divina Providencia”, one day after a sermon where he had called on Salvadoran soldiers, as Christians, to obey God’s higher order and to stop carrying out the government’s repression and violations of basic human rights. According to an audio-recording of the Mass, he was shot while elevating the chalice at the end of the Eucharistic rite. When he was shot, his blood spilled over the altar along with the sacramental wine.” (Wikipedia)

And assassinating the 6 Jesuit Priests from the University of Central America, cutting open their heads and strewing their brains around the yard.

“Before the end of darkness on the morning of Nov. 16, with unspeakable and barbaric cruelty, armed men burst into the Jesuit residence at the University of Central America in San Salvador and shot six Jesuit priests to death. At the same time, the community’s cook and her daughter were murdered in their beds. According to reliable reports, several of the priests, my brothers, had their brains torn from their heads.” (Washington Post, Nov 19, 1989)

And beating, raping and murdering 4 Maryknoll sisters.

“In December 1980, Jean Donovan and three nuns joined the more than 75,000 people who were killed in the Salvadoran Civil War. In the afternoon of December 2, Donovan and Dorothy Kazel picked up two Maryknoll missionary sisters, Maura Clarke and Ita Ford, from the airport after the pair arrived from attending a Maryknoll conference in Managua, Nicaragua. They were under surveillance by a National Guardsman at the time, who phoned his commander for orders. Acting on orders from their commander, five National Guard members changed into plainclothes and continued to stake out the airport. The five members of the National Guard of El Salvador, out of uniform, stopped the vehicle they were driving after they left the airport in San Salvador. Donovan and the three sisters were taken to a relatively isolated spot where they were beaten, raped, and murdered by the soldiers.

The [1993] U.N.-sponsored report of the Commission on the Truth for El Salvador concluded that the abductions were planned in advance and the men responsible had carried out the murders on orders from above. It further stated that the head of the National Guard and two officers assigned to investigate the case had concealed the facts to harm the judicial process. The murder of the women, along with attempts by the Salvadoran military and some American officials to cover it up, generated a grass-roots opposition in the U.S., as well as ignited intense debate over the Administration’s policy in El Salvador. In 1984, the defendants were found guilty and sentenced to 30 years in prison. The Truth Commission noted that this was the first time in Salvadoran history that a judge had found a member of the military guilty of assassination. ” (Wikipedia)”

Rooting out liberation theology meant massacring almost 800 peasants in El Mozote in Morazan

“In a small rectangular plot among the overgrown ruins of a village here, a team of forensic archeologists has opened a window on El Salvador’s nightmarish past. Nearly 11 years after American-trained soldiers were said to have torn through El Mozote and surrounding hamlets on a rampage in which at least 794 people were killed, the bones have emerged as stark evidence that the claims of peasant survivors and the reports of a couple of American journalists were true.” (New York Times, 1992)

and another 300 people at Rio Sumpul, on the border with Honduras

“On 14 May 1980, units of Military Detachment No. 1, the National Guard and the paramilitary Organización Nacional Democrática (ORDEN) deliberately killed at least 300 non-combatants, including women and children, who were trying to flee to Honduras across the Sumpul river beside the hamlet of Las Aradas, Department of Chalatenango. The massacre was made possible by the cooperation of the Honduran armed forces, who prevented the Salvadorian villagers from landing on the other side.” (UN Truth Commission Report, 1993)

It meant assassinating, disappearing and torturing thousands who belonged to Christian Base Communities. And that was just in El Salvador.

Rev. James Martin in his Huffington Post article explains why he follows liberation theology. I encourage you to read his full post:

“Liberation theology is easy to be against. For one thing, most people don’t have the foggiest idea what you’re talking about. It’s also easier to ignore the concerns of the poor, particularly overseas, than it is to actually get to know them as individuals who make a claim on us. There are also plenty of overheated websites that facilely link it to Marxism. My response to that last critique is to read the Gospels and count how many times Jesus tells us that we should help the poor and even be poor. In the Gospel of Matthew, he tells us that the ones who will enter the Kingdom of heaven are those who help “the least of my brothers and sisters,” i.e., the poor. After that, read the Acts of the Apostles, especially the part about the apostles “sharing everything in common.” Then let me know if helping the poor is communist or simply Christian….

It’s hard to ignore the fact that Jesus chose to be born poor; he worked as what many scholars now say was not simply a carpenter, but what could be called a day laborer; he spent his days and nights with the poor; he and his disciples lived with few if any possessions; he advocated tirelessly for the poor in a time when poverty was considered to be a curse; he consistently placed the poor in his parables over and above the rich; and he died an utterly poor man, with only a single seamless garment to his name. Jesus lived and died as a poor man. Why is this so hard for modern-day Christians to see? Liberation theology is not Marxism disguised as religion. It is Christianity presented in all its disturbing fullness.”

So, Glenn Beck. Really. Really?

Let me get this straight. The people above are or were about “blowing stuff up, sexual revolutions and trying to smash monogamy.”  And this is “not about God to them in any way shape or form” so they need to be “rooted out”?

Glenn Beck, you make me sick.

Update: posts I like on this topic:

Roger Ebert in Chicago Sun Times: Put Up or Shut Up.

Matt Taibbi in Rolling Stone: Tea Party Rocks Primaries

Timothy Egan in New York Times: Building a Nation of Know Nothings

Other El Salvador related posts on Wait… What?

Orgasmatron moments

On trust and disempowerment

18 years

It’s not a black and white photo

The real story involves anti-social entrepreneurs and anthropology

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