Odumase-Krobo, Where Every Child is Our Child

By Tatiana Reis (Women’s Rights Initiative) and Daniel Snyder (Climate Justice Initiative)

UU-UNO Program Interns

“I want to be a nurse,” says Grace, the first in her family to reach high school—a monumental task in regions such as Odumase-Krobo in Ghana—explaining the importance of education and the opportunities ahead. Due to high fees and lack of government subsidies, low-income children in Ghana have limited access to education and rely on private assistance.

The Every Child is Our Child (ECOC) program of the Unitarian Universalist United Nations Office (UU-UNO) helps children like Grace pursue their aspirations to become nurses, pilots, engineers, doctors, soldiers, bank managers. ECOC provides school uniforms, books, school supplies, shoes and access to basic medical healthcare to children made vulnerable by HIV/AIDS.

On November 6, a delegation from the UU-UNO visited Ghana to assess the needs of the schools sponsored by ECOC. The week we spent taught us much about human creativity and finding happiness in harsh circumstances.

Since 2005, the UU-UNO has sponsored 130 children—orphans and children at risk of HIV/AIDS—working towards achieving the United Nation’s Millennium Development Goals of universal primary education, fighting HIV/AIDS, reducing hunger and poverty, and promoting gender equality. Of the 130 children currently in the program, 124 attend three basic and middle schools, and six attend high schools.

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With our trip’s packed itinerary ahead of us—places to see, people to meet, medications to take—the one visit that intimidated us most was meeting the Queen Mothers. Serving as unofficial counsel, mediators and facilitators between the community and the government on regarding health care and education, the name alone commands respect. We also wondered about the children—would they welcome us? Would we feel comfortable? Could we ask honest questions and get honest answers? Was a week enough time to start understanding their reality? We were all preparing for an emotional rollercoaster.

Arriving in Accra

The airport in Accra, Ghana, was busy the night we arrived. Nighttime felt ominous, as if the sky wanted to make us aware of its power. In profound contrast, the daytime exploded into vibrant color, making us aware of a complementary power. Ghana is a place of raw, intricate beauty. Dwellings pepper the dramatic, lush landscape; vivid geometric patterns speckle beads and clothing. Life is everywhere.
Our first stop was a meeting with Manye Esther, a Queen Mother who supervises the program. Queen Mothers, designated by appointment or blood, serve as diplomats to local and international leaders. As such, they receive foreign aid and manage the funds from faith-based organizations for the schools. The Queen Mothers Association, an NGO established to formalize their role in the community, receives international aid. Manye Esther works as a principal collaborator on expanding and improving the project.

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Manye Esther’s acumen, authority, and warm, inclusive approach taught us more about diplomacy and leadership than any scholarly text ever could. She exudes soft-spoken power and candor. We discussed abortion, contraceptives, and sex education. She explained the importance of values that express solidarity and compassion.

“I’m here on this Earth to help girls in need,” she said. “It’s my call to life, it’s why I live, to improve their lives.”

Although she went blind from an infection years ago, her vision of a better future for the girls she nurtures compels her ever forward. She expresses gratitude for collaboration and partnership, making everyone involved feel important.

Her accomplishments do not manifest as plaques of recognition on the walls of her meeting room; they are seen in the respectful eyes and admiring gestures of those around her.

We held hands for a long time: a spiritual experience that will stay with us forever.

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The Schools and Students

Visiting several schools over the following two days shifted our notions about an effective schools’ facilities and organization. Potent learning can take many forms, even in precarious settings. We met students and teachers, powerful beyond measure, who viewed education as a mission and a privilege, an opportunity not taken for granted.

The sweltering heat unsettled and surprised us, but the children’s cascade of smiles bathed our souls and restored our energy.

The teenage girls were polite, welcoming and shy. We had an all too brief 15 minutes to meet each pair of students; although our interviews were fluid, time constraints impeded conversational elaboration, with some answers limited to “yes, please” and others difficult to summarize. Our paper and pens also seemed to lend an unwanted air of gravity.

Every student expressed gratitude for ECOC’s support, sharing how the program has impacted their lives. Some revealed anxiety about an uncertain future, seeking assurance that the program will continue for years to come.

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We had the students share their stories through short essays. A girl named Mary wrote about a fear of harassment during her long daily walk to school, wishing for a safer learning environment.

Then we met Grace, a high school senior who wants to travel the world and study nursing. College fees in Ghana are steep and the UU-UNO hopes to sponsor her too.

When we asked her what made her strive for an education in a country where education for young women isn’t often supported, she said something incredible:

“I want to finish school because in my family, there are only two girls,” she said. “My older sister put other things first and then it was my turn to choose. But I didn’t want those things. I wanted to show my family and friends that education is just as valuable as anything else. I want to change things. So that’s why I’m here.”

Photo taken by Allison Hess

Like Manye Esther, Grace knows she has a purpose and is pursuing her dreams. She believes nothing can stop her from achieving what she wants.

Our week in Ghana was unforgettable. Although the community we visited endures food insecurity, crime, and unemployment, poverty-alleviation programs that provide access to education and health care greatly improve the chances for youth to build bright futures.

Above all, it was invaluable soul education. There is no stronger testament to the power of the interconnected web of existence than to live in community with partners, to hear their hopes and fears, and to see firsthand the impact of programs like ECOC. We saw it for ourselves.

Your gifts put our faith into action. Please consider making a generous donation to the Every Child is Our Child Program. With your support, we can help more children in Ghana receive the education and medical attention they need to fulfill their true potential.

Uniting to end violence and discrimination against LGBTQI people around the world

By Justin Hashimoto
UU-United Nations Office LGBTQ Human Rights Program Intern

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“My only sin against God is not accepting the person he made me to be for so long”

Garth Zimmerman, a retired teacher from Appleton, Wisconsin, shares his moving account of “coming out at fifty” in the third anthology of Kevin Jennings illuminating book “One Teacher in Ten in the New Millennium,” published by Beacon Press.

Mr. Jennings, founder of the Gay, Lesbian & Straight Education Network (GLSEN), compiled a series of essays shared by LGBTQI educators from across the United States and around the world. The contributors to this anthology speak on their unique experiences as LGBTQI educators, the progress that’s been made, and the challenges that remain.

We recently had the opportunity to interview Mr. Jennings on the development of this book: (more…)

Global Drug Policy – Is a War on Drugs What We Need?

In April 2016 there will be a UN General Assembly Special Session (UNGASS) on global drug policy; the first such conference in 18 years.  This has been promoted by many Latin American countries and other supporting nations that are dissatisfied with the militarized and punitive policies on drugs.  Leading the effort is Portugal which has effectively decriminalized drug use, opting for treatment options over criminal justice to deal with issues relating to drugs.  Samuel DeWitt Proctor Conference (SDPC) plans to hold side-events during this UNGASS and the UU-UNO hopes to be involved as well.  The Special Session will take place around the same time as the UU-UNO’s annual Intergenerational Spring Seminar which this year will focus on economic inequality and Black Lives Matter, and we hope to include SDPC leaders at the seminar.

Samuel DeWitt Proctor ConferenceIn anticipation of the April 2016 UNGASS, I represented the UUA at a meeting of the SDPC at the Open Society offices from October 6-7, 2015 in Washington, D.C. which dealt with state, national, and global drug policies.  The last global drug policies were established at the UNGASS conference in 1998, which called for a “drug free world.”  However, drugs have always been part of society and always will be. Furthermore, the militarized, criminalized, and punishment-oriented “War on Drugs” hasn’t worked. (more…)

Faithful International Partnering – Proceeding Carefully and Intentionally

Here’s an important reminder as the new ‘church year’ begins for many of our congregations.

International engagement is important ministry, and more transformative when its collaborative.  Our organizations look forward to supporting your hopes and dreams.  And, we urge you to be thoughtful and careful even in the midst of exciting opportunities.

A Memo: Connecting with Unitarians and UU’s Around the World, CAREFULLY

To: UUA Ministers and Religious Leaders

From:  Eric Cherry, UUA International Office
Cathy Cordes, UU Partner Church Council
Jill McAllister and Steve Dick, International Council of Unitarians and Universalists

Date: September 14, 2012

Dear Friends,

It is so exciting to see the many ways that our UU faith is connecting around the world – so many congregations and ministers are now making a variety of international connections! We are thrilled that UUA churches and individuals are looking beyond their own doors and even beyond their own geographic communities and connecting. The UUA, ICUU, the UUPCC and other organizations stand ready to support your outreach in a variety of ways. We invite you to contact us at any point where we can be helpful. We are writing today to offer some advice based on our joint experience working with UUs here and in other countries.

Much of this new activity is aided with new communication tools that make contact easier and keeping in touch possible. Social media programs such as Skype and Facebook make it easy to learn of possibilities and to meet people over the internet.

Our UU global community is growing both bigger and smaller! Bigger in the sense that people around the world continue to discover our liberal tradition and establish it in their own countries and regions, and smaller in the sense that it is so easy to connect with each other around the world. This gives us reason to both celebrate and pay close attention, for there are good ways to connect, not-so-good ways to connect, and ways to connect which can cause huge problems.

BE VERY CAREFUL when making connections via Facebook and other social media. Before you respond to a Facebook request from someone claiming to be a UU, or a UU minister, contact one of the offices or organizations listed below which specializes in international UU connections, to get more information! Social media enables one to present information in ways that may not be false but also may not be a complete description of reality. (Anyone can take a picture of themselves with a stole on, or lighting a chalice.) Be careful not to assume that you’ve been contacted because you are special, or especially knowledgeable or gifted or whatever. In general, this kind of “Facebooking” is a process of “blanketing” a target audience, or of fishing, hoping to get someone to bite. Do not consider the list of other colleagues who may be listed as friends as references for or as an endorsement of the person. Many of us respond casually to friend requests without verifying or confirming information about a prospective friend.

FIRST, FIND OUT MORE before you proceed. Definitely consult with one of the following:
The International Council of Unitarians and Universalists (ICUU)
The UUA International Resources Office
The UU Partner Church Council

BE ESPECIALLY CAREFUL ABOUT MONEY Don’t send money unless you have some history of relationship and interactions. We suggest not sending money to any individual, group or organization that is not part of some kind of judicatory or governance structure. You can find this out from one of the organizations listed above. Unless you are working with a group or organization in which there is some kind of shared leadership and decision-making, your support and gifts are almost certainly going to lead to triangulating folks in these countries, and may even stimulate real conflict. (This has happened more than once.) It may be possible to send funds through one of the UU international organizations or to help support existing or new projects sponsored by these organizations. Contact us for information about such possibilities.

LEARN MORE! International relations among U-U’s around the world are more than 100 years old. The UUA, ICUU, and UUPCC have been specifically working in this area together for more than 20 years, and many lessons have been learned along the way. We are only just beginning to understand how much cultural differences affect all of us, and truly, we have done our share of “connecting” which has not only been problematic, but which has been both damaging and destructive. We have also established and been part of many beautiful new relationships which are beneficial all around. It takes time and experience to know the difference.

THERE ARE GREAT OPPORTUNITIES We have much to learn, and it is very exciting. You and your congregation can be enlightened and invigorated through international connections. There are significant differences among Unitarians and UU’s around the world – everyone is not in the UUA, nor is Unitarianism the same as our UUA traditions, all around the world. Many newly emerging U-U groups have very different religious histories and very different social and cultural realities. For some of them, daily survival is a huge challenge.

THERE ARE VIABLE AND SUSTAINABLE WAYS TO CONNECT Some of the groups most in need of support and cooperation may not be reaching out via Facebook – you may never hear about some of these places where you can make the most difference if you don’t ask. There are opportunities to meet international UU’s at conferences and events – this is a great first step. You can be work with and help support emerging UU groups around the world as part of a team or coalition, without needing to manage a relationship wholly on your own.

DO SOME HOMEWORK FIRST The Joint Working Group of the UUA International Office, the International Council of Unitarians and Universalists, and the UU Partner Church Council can help you learn about good ways to connect. Together, we are aiming toward global connections which achieve and model the ideals of our faith community. Please join us in aiming for these ideals and practices, by contacting us before you go forward with new international connections. Begin by reading the aims we have agreed to, listed below.

“Five Guiding Principles of UU International Engagement”

I. Our international engagement must emerge from a place of deep humility and intentionally seek relationships based on equality and mutuality.

Do: Risk for the sake of shared goals that have been established carefully.
Don’t: Assume that you or your partner have all the answers or can predict the future.

II. Our international engagement is most effective when it comprehends the abundance and variety of resources our congregations and international partners already have.

Do: Look within and without your congregation and its partners for resources that are present but perhaps not obvious.
Don’t: Establish a relationship that relies on or creates unhealthy dependency for yourself or your partner.

III. Our international engagement is most transformative when it is grounded in faithful reflection, including understanding the history of our international engagement.

Do: Explore the theological grounding of international relationship and engagement.
Don’t: Repeat common mistakes.

IV. Our international engagement is truest to our highest values when it responds with wisdom and passion to institutional oppression and injustice.

Do: Support partners as they seek to find fish for a day, fishing poles for tomorrow, and establish access to the pond for a lifetime.
Don’t: Ignore long-term justice strategies because they seem harder to achieve than short-term charitable ideas.

V. The Unitarian Universalist universe of international programs is incredibly diverse and highly decentralized. Our international engagement is most comprehensive when we understand and utilize partner organizations well.

Do: Contact an institutional UU partner organization for consultation before agreeing to a project with an international partner, especially if the international partner is UU.
Don’t: Assume a request you receive from an international partner is endorsed by the UUA, ICUU, UUPCC or other UU organization.

We look forward to working with you.
Sincerely,
Jill, Cathy, Steve and Eric

International Council of Unitarians and Universalists:
Rev. Jill McAllister, Program Coordinator – program@icuu.net;
Rev. Steve Dick, Executive Secretary – execsec@icuu.net

UU Partner Church Council:
Cathy Cordes, Executive Director – ccordes@uupcc.org

UUA International Office:
Rev. Eric Cherry, Director – echerry@uua.org

Youth Civic Engagement for a Sustainable Tomorrow

UU-UNO interns Audrey Carleton and Jen Caplan at the International Youth Day event at the UN Headquarters in NYC.

UU-UNO interns Audrey Carleton and Jen Caplan at the International Youth Day event at the UN Headquarters in NYC.

On Wednesday, August 12th, the Unitarian Universalist United Nations Office (UU-UNO) interns participated in the United Nations’ International Youth Day. The theme of this year’s event was Youth Civic Engagement, where youth engagement vis a vis the new Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) was both championed and celebrated.

United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon began the opening session with a call to action for youth worldwide. Referring to the current 15- to 24-year-old demographic as the “SDG generation,” he implored youth to become “torchbearers of sustainable development.” Mr. Ban acknowledged that today’s youth are impacted by all of the new SDGs, speaking about the importance of utilizing them both within and as partners to the UN in advancing these goals to create a better world. (more…)

Climate Change Conference Roundup: Commit2Respond NOW to Mitigate Climate Change

Unitarian Universalist United Nations Office Director Bruce Knotts at Star Island
Unitarian Universalist United Nations Office Director Bruce Knotts at Star Island

I had the privilege of speaking at, leading discussions, and participating in two amazing meetings on Climate Change. The first was the week-long International Affairs Conference on Climate Change on Star Island, NH, featuring several amazing leaders in this field of climate change. The second meeting, “Our Children, Climate, Faith Symposium,” took place the weekend of August 8-9 in Strafford, Vermont.

It is clear from all these speakers and more that participated in the two conferences, that there is much we can do. We need global agreements to lower greenhouse gas emissions, carbon and other pollutants in the atmosphere of our planet.  Learn more at Commit2Respond. (more…)

Potential Government Shut Down Due to Funding Dispute Over Planned Parenthood

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Over the past two weeks, two videos have been released showing Planned Parenthood officials discussing the harvesting of fetal tissue after abortions and even negotiating the prices charged for that tissue. Planned Parenthood condemned the scam for deceptively characterizing its handling fees to cover expenses, which are legal, as illegal profiteering.

The release of these videos has stirred a renewed argument from Republican and Conservative parties who are aiming to stop all funding for Planned Parenthood. The argument for defunding is that tax dollars should not go towards an organization that engages in criminal activity. The opposing argument is that Planned Parenthood has not engaged in any criminal activity, nor does it receive federal money for performing abortions.

The videos’ time of release coincides with Congress’ final work on developing the spending budget for the next fiscal year. Conservative members, led by Senator Ted Cruz, are calling this a “line in the sand” issue. They are willing to do whatever it takes to not have this organization be funded, including having the government shut down. However, all Republican members do not support this idea.
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Rand Paul, a republican presidential candidate, stated, “”I support any legislation that will defund Planned Parenthood. But I don’t think you start out with your objective to shut down government.” There are several consequences for a government shutdown. The last time the government faced this issue, in fall of 2013, the following occurred:

  • Federal employees were furloughed for a combined total of 6.6 million days – At its peak, about 850,000 individuals per day were furloughed
  • The shutdown cost the Federal government billions of dollars – The payroll cost of furloughed employee salaries alone – that is, the lost productivity of furloughed workers – was $2.0 billion.
  • The shutdown had significant negative effects on the economy – The Council of Economic Advisers has estimated that the combination of the shutdown and debt limit brinksmanship resulted in 120,000 fewer private sector jobs created during the first two weeks of October.
  • The shutdown impacted millions of Americans who rely on critical programs and services – Hundreds of patients were prevented from enrolling in clinical trials at the National Institutes of Health, almost $4 billion in tax refunds were delayed, and critical government-sponsored scientific research was put on hold.

As Unitarian Universalists, we are called by our principles to affirm and promote justice, equality, and compassion, especially for those in our communities who are voiceless and vulnerable. With the UU United Nations Office’s focus on Sexual and Reproductive Health and Rights (SRHR), the Planned Parenthood debate is an extremely important one.

Defunding Planned Parenthood would leave a lot of women without access to proper healthcare and human rights to their own bodies. Our office is creating a multi-faith coalition to fight for these exact rights. The coalition will focus on advocating for women’s human rights to SRHR, and educating on the benefit this has for society.

While it does not seem likely that Congress will shut down the government this time, it is clear that the funding of Planned Parenthood and their practices are a highly controversial issue. This will be of great importance during the 2016 presidential election.

Women in a Changing Cuba: a discussion with Reverend Dr. Ofelia Ortega Suárez

IMG_0958“Vivir en la esparanza; Live in Hope”. This quote comes from Reverend Dr. Ofelia Ortega Suárez. She spoke at the UN Church Center Friday, July 17, 2015, on the topic of “Women in a Changing Cuba”. You could not ask for a better person to speak on this topic than Dr. Suárez. She was the first woman to be ordained in a reform church in Latin America. Furthermore, she has worked closely with Christian Institute for Gender Studies, as well as been extremely active on the World Council of Churches at the UN. She was able to give some background information on the situation in Cuba, and how it is a growing and changing country.

The discussion began by providing some background on the history of Cuba, then engaged in focusing on the issues surrounding Cuban women. Listed below are some major points shared during the conversation.

  • Unfavorable demographics: Since people are living longer, and having fewer children, there is a growing population. This means that there are fewer people in the workforce, as well as fewer people to take care of the elderly.
  • Migration: A lot of young women are leaving the country, which leaves this population lacking.
  • The Glass Ceiling: As an issue that women all over the world face, the glass ceiling can be described as, ‘unseen, yet unbreakable barrier that keeps minorities and women from rising to the upper rungs of the corporate ladder, regardless of their qualifications or achievements.’
  • A Disadvantage in the Church Setting: They are often kept from holding positions, and being ordained: a topic that Dr. Suárez is clearly well versed in.

Following the lecture and discussion, a question and answer portion began. Many of the questions shared are written below.

  • Question: What does Cuba do to address issues with Sexual and Reproductive Health and Rights?

Answer: There is preventative work done within the country in regards to AIDS- they have officially stopped the transference of AIDS from women to their children. They have also partnered with UNICEF to help with children development. Finally, they have done a lot of work to take care of people with disabilities.

  •  Question: How does a patriarchal society negatively affect men?

Answer: Dr. Suárez’s church has been teaching that expectations of masculinity oppress men. They use Jesus as an example of masculinity that embraces tenderness and love. She cited that they are not aiming for a matriarchal society, but instead a community of people that work together.

  • Question: How can you use your religious background to educate on SRHR?

Answer: There is an issue with a high abortion rate in their country. They choose to combat this issue with education on family planning, in order to prevent unwanted pregnancies. She also discussed domestic violence, and that through giving women education, they can work and support themselves in order to escape a bad situation.

When asked what she learned from the revolution, she responded, “dignity. The ability to look at someone else and say, you are, but I am. Ubunto: I am because you are.” Reverend Dr. Ofelia Ortega Suárez is truly an inspirational woman. She works to better the society in which she lives, and embodies the idea that women empowerment needs to be a priority in any society that wishes to progress.

Human Rights Roundtable: Civil Society Engages with Permanent Mission of China for the First Time

On Thursday, July 2nd, the Non-Governmental Organization’s (NGO) Committee on Human Rights hosted a roundtable discussion with the Permanent Mission of People’s Republic of China to the United Nations. With the help of keynote guest speaker Yao Shaojun, counsellor of the Chinese Permanent Mission, representatives from various NGOs engaged in constructive dialogue with the Chinese Mission, as a first step of many in a developing relationship between the Chinese mission and civil society.

Counsellor Shaojun has an extensive history of defending human rights at the UN.  In keeping with these values, Shaojun introduced himself at the roundtable by stating the importance China, as a nation, and its position on human rights. Shaojun also urged that NGOs play a key role in mobilizing human rights issues at the UN. We were excited by this opportunity to work with him because our Unitarian Universalist faith urges us to fight for universal human rights, in keeping with the view of Counsellor Shaojun.

Representatives of UN NGOs brought up queries ranging from the freedom to form social groups in China, and the hardships NGOs in many countries face in prioritizing human rights, without consultative status at the UN. Other topics discussed include Chinese NGO presence at the UN, and LGBT rights activism in China and at the UN.

Shaojun highlighted the pillars of development that China has undertaken over the past several decades. The Chinese Permanent Mission has created initiatives to develop its Economic, Social, Cultural, Environmental, and Political sectors. Through these actions, the People’s Republic of China hopes to embody civil society into its mission to the UN as well as inviting Chinese NGOs to be accredited at the UN.

Thank you to Counsellor Shaojun and the Chinese Permanent Mission for joining us in a conversation with civil society. We look forward to work with him and furthering our human rights activism at the UN.

To support our continued access to the highest levels of the United Nations and to the Canadian and American governments, please donate generously to the UU-UNO.

Emergency Burma Meeting – Raising Awareness About Violence Against Religious and Ethnic Burmese Minorities

Blog Photo FINALOn June 2nd, the Unitarian Universalist United Nations Office co-sponsored the meeting, ‘Burma Refugee Emergency Roundtable: Democracy or Demonizations?’ with Burma Task Force USA and the Amnesty International United Nations Office.

Stakeholders such as Amnesty International, Open Society Foundation Burma Project, American Jewish World Service, the United States Permanent Mission to the United Nations, and Physicians for Human Rights attended the meeting, discussing the human rights violations of Non-Buddhist religious and ethnic minorities in Burma.

In particular, thousands of Rohingya, a Muslim group in Burma, are being exiled and forced to military patrolled displacement camps because they are not Buddhists. Philanthropist George Soros compared the plight of the Rohingya people in Burma to his experiences in the Nazi-created ghettos of Budapest, Hungary in a short film clip presented at the meeting.

In recognizing the inherent worth and dignity of every person, regardless of religious or ethnic background, we cannot stand idly by while the Rohingya face these injustices daily. (more…)