by Intern | Jul 10, 2018 | Program Leader, Volunteering
In 2006, I lived in Mexico City for several months and by the end of my time there, I had undeniably fell in love with the largest city in North America. While there, I had spent several months writing, directing, and editing a documentary film which captured the labor rights struggle of gas station attendants part of an independent Mexican service union. Through this process, I was able to hear the stories of more than 50 attendants and better understand the perils of organizing within an environment meant to protect corporatist interests.
While working on this documentary, I watched the 2006 general presidential election unfold. I watched from the sidelines the unsuccessful attempt of Andrés Manuel López Obradaor better known as AMLO, then a PRD (Party of the Democratic Revolution) candidate, to win the election. I witnessed firsthand the confusion and controversy that emerged out of the election and watched as AMLO’s supporters set up encampments inside the Zócalo (the famous main square in the center of Mexico City) for months, in protest of what was believed to be an electoral fraud.
Marissa’s official ID and apparel for observing this year’s election.
It was also during that time I learned about the PRI (Institutional Revolutionary Party), the political party in Mexico that, up until 2000, had maintained political power for 71 years. I listened to countless stories of corruption, and the resulting desire for transparency for a “true democracy” in Mexico.
Twelve years later, I jumped at the opportunity with the UU College of Social Justice* to serve as an election observer for the 2018 general presidential election. According to Aljazeera via the Mexican National Electoral Institute (INE), the election was considered the “biggest election in Mexican history,” with numerous public issues being voted on and with “30 of 32 states [also holding] local elections.” In 2008, I had been an observer for the general Cambodia elections and was interesting in applying the skills I had learned there by participating in this historic election in the country of my ethnic roots.
Upon arriving in the country, I immediately was assigned to Xalapa, Veracruz, the capital of the third largest state within Mexico (four hours outside of Mexico City). I journeyed there together with a team of individuals from Argentina and Uruguay, as well as Mexican nationals. Throughout Mexico, there were dozens of volunteers from several different countries, all coordinated by the Red University and Citizen Network for Democracy (RUCD) and its affiliated networks, such as the Center for International Policy and Center of Human Rights Vitoria. We were tasked to lead a completely impartial observation over the course of three days. We strategized together and came up with a plan to visit as many polling sites as possible within the short time frame. At each site, we filled out forms assigned by RUCD to ensure that each polling site was following the correct procedures, that there were no irregularities at any of the sites, and that each person had access to vote safely and without pressure from any outside forces.
Marissa in her official election observation gear!
The day prior to the election, we visited with several different political party members, local members of human rights organizations, and attempted to visit several political party headquarters. At one of the party headquarters, we saw nearly four hundred individuals line up, with the hopes of receiving some sort of compensation for their political loyalty, a tragic reminder that corruption still lingers.
On the same day, we also participated in a press conference. Within 15 minutes, an array of different press affiliates from all across Veracruz met with us in a café at the center of the city. It was over as quickly as it had begun, and throughout the entire time the Argentina versus France World Cup game could be heard, blaring heavily in the background. [Note: you can see the article featuring Marissa and her team here.]
On the day of the election, we visited a school that had been converted into a tented polling place. At exactly 6PM local time, the sleepy polling site was closed to the public and was transformed by a frenzy of volunteers and polling staff into a frantic place of counting. Volunteers were racing against the clock as each of the votes were counted and recounted by hand. The sun slowly came down, and volunteers attempted to string a makeshift set of lights across the ceiling of the enormous tent. Alongside the authorized political party representatives, we watched as each vote was counted. Several hours later, the final counting of votes became to come in. Our polling site, along with many others across the country, began to input their votes into an electronic application, which showed that AMLO and his party, MORENA (National Regeneration Movement) would win by a landside, gathering nearly 53% of all the votes across the country.
After our long 15 hour day, as we slowly made our way back to our hotel, we soon realized that the hotel was the press conference central for the local MORENA officials. Upon stepping into the hotel, we were greeted by a flash mob of hugs, camera flashes, and loud cheers.
Later that night, myself and a group of the remaining observers went out to the central of Xalapa to see locals’ festivities in the city square. We watched as people cheered in celebration with guitars, car horns, bottles of beer, cups of corn, and hotdogs. One image still stands out to me: a young man pulls out a gigantic Mexican flag and waves it back and forth. I go up to him and ask him if I can take a picture and he cheerfully obliges. I watch the flag drift through the air, fluid against the night sky. Maybe the winds of change have come after all.
The Mexican flag waves in the air after the election.
* The UUCSJ is grateful to the following partner organizations who made this trip possible: the Center for International Policy (CIP), the Americas Program, and the Red Universitaria y Ciudadana por la Democracia (RUCD) [EN: the Red University and Citizen Network for Democracy]
Marissa Gutierrez-Vicario is the Founder and Executive Director of Art and Resistance Through Education (ARTE), an organization that helps young people amplify their voices and organize for human rights change in their communities through the arts. She has been active with UUSC and is currently a program leader and advisory board member for UUCSJ.
by Gina Collignon | Jul 3, 2018 | Honduras, Sanctuary and Solidarity, Volunteering
“Do I call them ‘Sister?’” My co-worker and I were settling our things into our assigned room at the convent. The air was hot and muggy, something I felt acutely as I was still in that heightened state of awareness that you feel your first moments in a new land. I had technically been to Honduras before, but everything felt new. “I dunno,” my colleague answered (she had been raised Catholic as well). “It’s kinda weird one way or the other.”
Two UUSC colleagues and I were in Honduras to be part of an accompaniment trip to support our partners/human rights activists returning to Honduras (written about much more clearly here). I had never been a part of an accompaniment trip before and felt out of my element for so many reasons: I do not consider myself a human rights expert; I am not an expert on Central American history nor international relations; I had never been a part of interfaith circles before; I knew this trip was going to be emotionally intense in ways that I was not prepared for. My background is in experiential education and I am perhaps too comfortable in the role of the facilitator–I get to (too often) lead and direct group emotional processes to a carefully thought out pedagogical question and thus open up a space for cognitive “awakening.” Sweet. But when faced with the personal stories of state-sanctioned torture and terror, what in the hell do you do with that? When faced with the deepest stories of both human hate and resilience, where can you emotively go?
Gina and the interfaith accompaniment delegation she traveled with in Honduras.
Our group was comprised of various human rights activists of various faiths. In particular, there were four nuns that I found myself keenly interested in. Would they be like the nuns of my catholic school childhood? Would they be like the nuns from the pueblo that I lived in during Peace Corps who, try as I might, I couldn’t make friends with (I remember angrily muttering to myself, ‘Doesn’t your religion compel you to be friendly?!’)”
I was standoffish during the delegation’s first morning worship. I am pretty open minded, but I didn’t know if this would be a journey back to the robot-like “praying” of 2nd grade. To my delight, instead of an authoritative dictatorship over my spiritual process (whoa, catholic school, leave your mark much?), Sister Mary Ellen lead us in bodywork. We did Tai-Chi. “Holy shit,” I thought, “this lady is really good at creating a mind-body connection.” Moreover, I could feel that this integrated fully with her deep understanding of her own Catholicism. And it wasn’t just her. When Sister Rosa Maria spoke about her work in Honduras, I could palpably feel both her toughness and love. (“I wouldn’t mess with her,” Jose, our delegation leader would say.) I felt the presence Sister Ann could bring sitting next to someone who was deeply grieving and afraid, I felt the strength that Sister Kathleen emoted as she lead a group of us (after hearing some of the hardest stories I had ever heard) to hold hands. She guided us to reconnect to spirit. She knit something back together. She held us together in community.
This isn’t saying that I’m returning to Catholicism. I’m not. But I know when I am in the presence of something good, I know when I am in the presence of people who have faced themselves and done their own work. Honduras was hard in a way that I don’t know how to write openly about, because I am afraid that I won’t do it justice–I don’t know where I end and it begins. I feel guilt that it was hard; I felt deep emotions during the journey, and then I got to leave. I feel embarrassed about how unequipped I was to hold it all. I feel anxiety about not knowing about how to move forward. I find myself reexamining my life choices up to now and asking myself, “With all that I know that is unjust in this world, have I done enough?”
But then I breathe and I remember. I think Sister Mary Ellen would say to let my emotions come. They are each a friend and have something to teach me. I think Sister Rosa Maria has her doubts and fears, too. I bet Sister Anne had to learn how to be present amidst pain. I’m sure Sister Kathleen doesn’t always feel strong.
After sitting and listening to a group of men tell their stories of being beaten, imprisoned, terrorized, and caged, we all stood in a circle. Sister Kathleen lead us in what I think was the most powerful prayer I have ever heard. We went around the circle and simply stated a word that gave us hope (or courage or something like that, to be honest I don’t remember the details). And then she lead the group in a song that most people knew the words to and people sang together. After crying, and still afraid, they sang.
We then had our own moment as a delegation to stand in a circle and be. I remember thinking, “I don’t know how to hold this, I don’t know how to hold this.” We gave time so that those of us who wanted to speak could speak. The responses varied from rage to sorrow to silence to everything in between. And as I stood there, I finally realized: I don’t need to know how to hold this. I cannot hold this as one person. We have to hold it together.
During one of our worships we had a chance for silent reflection. I think there was a prompt–I forget what that prompt was. But one of the sisters, at the end of the time, pointer to herself and said, “My body.” She then pointed to the group of us sitting in a circle and said, “My body.” And then she pointed to the greater environment and said, “My body.” I am so grateful to have finally met the nuns that I always wanted to meet. They were not able to give answers or make the horror of the world go away. But by the simple example of their presence and their persistence, they gave me a bit more strength to have faith in what could be, they helped me feel what true community might feel like, and they helped me to stay present in something I didn’t want to stay present in.
Gina Collignon is responsible for planning, developing, and supporting the UU College of Social Justice’s experiential learning programs. As the Senior Associate for Immersion Learning Programs, Collignon designs travel programs that connect participants to activists and change-makers in new environments so that participants can leave inspired to join related social justice campaigns in their home communities.
by Heather Vickery | Apr 30, 2018 | Congregational Trip, Environmental Justice, Houston, Volunteering, Young Adult
“On June 1st, hurricane season starts again.”
She repeated it. We were a tired, overwhelmed group of CSJ participants on a toxic tour run by t.e.j.a.s. (Texas Environmental Justice Advocacy Services). Our group of ten college students and four adult leaders had spent the last week volunteering with Rebuilding Together Houston with their Harvey relief efforts. For four days, our dedicated group worked under the watchful, kind eyes of the Rebuilding crew leaders. We painted, de-molded, deconstructed, constructed and aided in the recovery of homes impacted by Hurricane Harvey. With all of our collective effort of the week, we helped with three houses. On our last day, we left early to join this toxic tour.
“On June 1st, hurricane season starts again.”
It was difficult to imagine hurricane force winds with the mild sun and chilly breezes we had been enjoying. On this day, the skies were clouded over and our guide directed our eyes to the gas flames being emitted above the petrochemical companies. We were standing in a children’s playground as we watched the gas burn. We were surrounded by houses. At a local mural, our guide pointed out the references to the petrochemical companies local children had drawn as a part of their community. This was their normal. These were all communities of color.
“On June 1st, hurricane season starts again.”
As we drove through seemingly endless miles of petrochemical infrastructure, we started to understand scale. As we peered over the edge of what had once been a popular lodge and heard about polluted flood waters and the damage they did to both buildings and human bodies, we started to understand impact. As our guide spoke about history and laws, we thought about historical patterns of abuse. And as we visited communities and heard about local resistance, we began to think about justice.
“On June 1st, hurricane season starts again.”
One of the most difficult parts of the toxic tour happened for me once it was over. Our rental van was running on empty. I plugged directions into my GPS and gratefully pulled into a gas station. Once there, I raised my eyes to see the name of the same petrochemical company that we had heard about during our tour—Valero. I put gas in the car and I cringed. How to confront the enormity of this? How to understand not only our society’s dependence on fossil fuels, but also the effects that this has on the environment? How to understand that Hurricane Harvey was the third “500 year flood” (1/500 chance in happening per year) in five years? How to understand that connection of environmental justice with our country’s ongoing legacy of white supremacy?
“On June 1st, hurricane season starts again.”
I don’t know. But after that tour where we used our vehicle’s gas to drive from petrochemical plant to petrochemical plant, where we looked out our windows at the passing miles of petrochemical infrastructure as if we were on some sort of convoluted Texas safari, I was left mainly with a sense of scale. It’s a big problem. It’s gonna take a big solution. The beauty of both the toxic tour and our time with Rebuilding Houston was that we learned not only about the effects of the hurricane and environmental pollution, but also the power of communities coming together. People in strong networks create a web of support that might be the only thing that can keep us all floating with the rising tides. We will need those life rafts in the days to come. As we were reminded over and over,
“On June 1st, hurricane season starts again.”
by Heather Vickery | Jan 2, 2018 | Environmental Justice, Immigration, Racial Justice, Sanctuary and Solidarity, Volunteering
In early December, our Director, Kathleen McTigue, and UUSC consultant, Syma Mirza met with four grassroots groups in Houston, Texas: the Fe y Justicia Worker Justice Center, the Texas Environmental Justice Advocacy Services (TEJAS), and the Living Hope Wheelchair Association, as well as the local Houston organizer for RAICES. Kathleen also met with members of four area UU congregations.
Visiting Houston earlier this month was an eye-opening experience for me. Traveling with UUSC consultant Syma Mirza, I met some of the UUSC partner groups in Houston to learn about their post-Harvey work. One of them, the Texas Environmental Justice Advocacy Network (TEJAS), took us on their “toxic tour” so we could see for ourselves how vast and poisonous the industrial complexes on the Gulf really are. These immense industrial campuses that produce (and often release) toxic chemicals are located right next to homes, schools, and playgrounds. Even with the car windows rolled up, the air smells of chemicals. The populations closest to the toxins are, predictably, lower income and often communities of color, including those who are undocumented and live doubly in the shadows.
We also gained insight into a particularly vicious dimension of intersectional oppression. As in so many other cities, Houston’s construction industry relies heavily on undocumented workers, especially in the more dangerous jobs. These workers are routinely subject to wage theft and workplace harassment, and post-Harvey are often sent into clean-up and demolition jobs without the proper protective equipment. When they become ill or are injured, they do not have recourse to the support and protections that most of us assume are available by law. And if they are disabled due to workplace injury, none of the standard support – from counseling to the proper kind of wheelchairs – are within their reach.
The Living Hope Wheelchair Association is a scrappy, grassroots organization working for the rights and dignity of people with spinal cord injuries, especially those who are undocumented.
Long before Harvey struck, Living Hope was providing life-saving services and equipment to its members, and building grassroots power to advocate for housing, employment, and transportation. But in the wake of Harvey’s destruction, and with their constituents profoundly vulnerable to the flood waters, the Association gained sudden new visibility.
We sat in their small office and listened to Board members tell their stories; all of them are living in wheelchairs, all are undocumented, and all devote countless volunteer hours to Living Hope. As I listened, one question kept arising for me: doesn’t their new visibility bring with it a new level of personal danger for these leaders, for arrest and deportation? One Board member responded, “Visibility brings more fear, but it won’t hold us back. To be honest, with Jeff Sessions as Attorney General we know they’ll come for whoever they want. We can’t control that, but we can control our commitment, our solidarity. That’s ours.”
We are proud to support the work of Living Hope through the UUSC disaster relief grants. As we enter the new year, UUCSJ will continue our conversations with these and other UUSC partners to discern when and how volunteers from outside the region might usefully support their work.
Sign up to join the volunteer list if you’re available to travel to Texas or Florida to support relief efforts and would like to hear more detailed information as it becomes available.
by Heather Vickery | Oct 27, 2017 | Economic Justice, Environmental Justice, First Nations, Florida, General Assembly, Haiti, Immigration, India, Internship, Nicaragua, Racial Justice, RAICES, Religious Professionals, Sanctuary and Solidarity, Volunteering, West Virginia, Young Adult, Youth
The UU College of Social Justice was jointly founded in the summer of 2012 by the UUA and UUSC, so this year we are celebrating a big anniversary. We are grateful for all of our alumni and supporters who have made our work possible!
In honor of of all of you and our anniversary, here is CSJ by the numbers (as of October 2017).
UUCSJ has been inspiring and sustaining faith based action for social justice for 5 years!
During our 5 years, we have run 39 immersion journeys for adults, with a total of 470 participants (78 of whom were ministers, DREs or seminary students).
Through 18 week-long youth focused immersion learning journeys and training programs as well as three one-day offerings during General Assembly, 392 youth have experienced how Unitarian Universalism can inform their work for justice.
We have placed 65 interns in summer-long immersion internships in over 15 different grassroots justice organizations.
We have sent 53 skilled volunteers to placements with partner organizations for between one to 8 weeks. Most of those placements were lawyers and Spanish speakers working with RAICES in San Antonio Texas to help the women and children detained in Karnes.
Total participants across our programs totals 1,063. This number does not include collaborative training programs like the UU-UNO Spring Seminar and the Goldmine Youth Leadership program which extend our reach even further!
Of the participants who have completed an impact assessment form, 88% said that, as a result of their journey, they have a deeper sense of the connection between their faith and the role it can play in social justice.
Participants – both those who came as individuals and those traveling in a congregational delegation – came from 260 congregations representing nearly every state in the country.
by Heather Vickery | Aug 30, 2017 | Immigration, RAICES, Sanctuary and Solidarity, Volunteering
In June 2017, Nancy Jacobsen volunteered with the Refugee and Immigration Center for Education and Legal Services (RAICES) through the UU College of Social Justice. Hear about their experiences below. If you, or someone you know, are interested in volunteering and are either fluent in Spanish or have legal expertise, learn more and sign up at https://uucsj.org/raices/
In early June, I learned first hand about one of the very harsh sides of our immigration process. I was part of a group of five volunteers who went to Karnes County Residential Center in Texas.
We were organized by the Unitarian Universalist College of Social Justice. They solicit Spanish-speaking volunteers to do support work with the detainees through a partnership with RAICES, a non-profit that offers pro bono legal assistance.
The detainees in Karnes are women and children from Central America who have crossed, usually fled, into the US without a visa. The only viable method they have to stay in this country is through the asylum process.
Part of our work was to hear their stories and help prepare them for their “Credible Fear Interview.” A positive outcome is necessary for them to be released, often with an ankle bracelet, and to pass to the next phase where they will have a court hearing with an asylum judge.
Most of the women cried, some uncontrollably, during the preparation when they told any one of us their very painful stories. The most common reasons they fled were:
- gang violence which inevitably involves taking life or threatening to and
- domestic abuse. (My explanation to myself is that poverty and gangs seems to go hand in hand with men needing to take control of some aspect of their life and often that is “their” woman.)
These women must convince the asylum official and later the judge that their fear was credible, that the police wouldn’t help them, and there was nowhere else for them to go in their country. If they are not able to articulate this, they will be deported to the horrors they escaped.
Also heartbreaking were the stories of women who came without a realistic asylum case. There had not been a specific danger in their lives except their inability to feed their children and themselves. They took what little they had and made a dangerous and rough journey to the US with a dream that, they would soon find out, there was no hope of achieving. For that they are imprisoned and deported.
There has to be a better way.