World Refugee Day, 2016

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As we celebrate World Refugee Day, let us remember that all of our peoples migrated from somewhere else.  Even indigenous peoples have migrated.  Migration is always difficult, but perhaps it is harder now than it’s been for a long time.  There are some 65 million people who are displaced.

I was the U.S. Government’s Regional Refugee Coordinator for West Africa 2000-2003.  During that time I repeatedly visited refugees in camps, cities and towns all over West Africa.  The first myth that gets exploded is that refugees are different from the rest of us.  They are students, business people, professional people, property owners, farmers, academics and people just like the rest of us.  Assistant Secretary of State for Populations, Refugees and Migration, Donald Steinberg went with me to see refugees in Conakry, Guinea.  He introduced himself to a young refugee from Sierra Leone who said, “I had a science teacher by the name of Donald Steinberg.”  That surprised the Assistant Secretary of State, who hadn’t thought about refugees as students of science.  In fact, I once met a refugee who’d studied at the Paris-Sorbonne University.  These are people just like us who never contemplated they’d lose their homes and have to move someplace else.

Like it or not, it could happen to you, and it’s more likely than you think.  Here in New York City, there are still people who are coping with the loss of their homes due to Hurricane Sandy in 2012.  Others have had to leave New York City due to the high cost of living and jobs that don’t pay the rent.

Conflict, war, climate change, economic collapse, bigotry, oppression and more cause individuals, couples and families to flee looking for a better life.  Often, adults, who might be willing to stick it out a bit longer, will leave when they see their children have no future where they are.  Many families move to ensure their children can have a better future.

These people who are just like us and could be us one day, need welcoming communities that will help them start their lives anew.  Canada, Germany, Turkey and Jordan stand out in the current crisis of Syrian refugees.  The fact of the matter is that while caring for recently arrived refugees can seem like a burden, in the long run these refugees can become the promise of the nation’s future.  Our faith and common humanity and our self-interest call on us to give refugees and the displaced the best welcome we can.

Bolder Ways of Being a Unitarian Universalist Activist

CUC_logoOn May 20th – 22nd, 2016, the Canadian Unitarian Council invited Unitarian Universalists across Canada to explore  Bolder Ways of Being in Vancouver. For their now bi-annual national conference, participants were invited to learn and discuss ways to step out of their comfort zones in their interpersonal relationships, congregational affairs, and collective social action. The Unitarian Universalist United Nations Office (UU-UNO) was glad to be part of the conference once again to shed light upon the potential for international justice action within the Canadian Unitarian community.

The idea of boldness was omnipresent throughout the duration of the conference; it initially hit home for me during Friday night’s Confluence lecture on UU community and loving relationships. Rev. Melora Lynngood spoke about the stress, emotional strain, and interpersonal conflict that can often come with congregational leadership. At the end of her sermon, she invited members of the audience to share their own speed bumps in congregational work and techniques they have used to address it. This activity brought an audience of over one hundred into a single intimate conversation. I was touched by the boldness of the audience members in sharing their ideas and vulnerabilities with the larger group, and inspired by the collective desire to improve congregational affairs and relationships.

As the weekend progressed, conference attendees delved deeper into learning about bolder ways of embracing Unitarian Universalism. On Saturday, each conference attendee selected a workshop stream on a topic of their choice.  I chose to attend a workshop stream entitled Being Bold for Climate Justice, led by Aly Tharp, Program Manager for the UU climate justice movement Commit2Respond and member of the UU Young Adults for Climate Justice staff. During this workshop stream, attendees were presented with success stories of bold climate action and called into large-group discussion of the steps and stakeholders required to successfully take action for climate justice. With increased attention placed on climate justice in the newly adopted Paris Agreement and the UN Sustainable Development Goals, there is no better time than now for Unitarian Universalists and Envoys to be devoting attention and energy toward the topic. Learning peaceful protesting techniques to act against environmental degradation, left attendees with bold ideas for enacting change to bring home to their congregations. The UU-UNO is excited to carry on this energy at the upcoming Unitarian Universalist Association General Assembly where one of  our workshops will address how UUs and other people of faith can take action to support meeting and exceeding the goals set forth in the Paris Agreement.

Audrey Carleton presenting a Blue Ribbon Congregation award to the First Unitarian Congregation of Toronto
Audrey Carleton presenting a Blue Ribbon Congregation award to the First Unitarian Congregation of Toronto

Later that evening, UU-UNO Envoys and supporters gathered at a UU-UNO reception to honor the 2016 Blue Ribbon Congregations and this year’s winner of the Elaine Harvey International Justice Award, Eryl Court. The winners of these awards were recognized by the larger group for taking their own form of bold action by mobilizing their congregations in action toward the UN’s goals for peace in their home congregations. As was emphasized during the reception, the UU-UNO could not do its valuable work as an NGO without the help of our Envoys across North America. It was inspiring to meet and celebrate the efforts of these leaders who work so hard to act locally toward global change.

The following day, attendees of all ages were invited to a  multigenerational lunch. Guests were randomly assigned seating to ensure an even generational distribution at each table, and were instructed to consider and discuss our UU principles and favorite UU hymns and traditions through a group game. My past experience with multigenerational activities at my home congregation and district has typically been limited to my personal interaction with adult advisors during youth group and youth cons, and a Time for All Ages every other Sunday service. I was impressed by the CUC’s organized effort to bring together conference attendees of different generations, and by the innovation and preparation that went into planning this activity. This intergenerational approach is critical to growing our faith and expanding our social justice movements. Multigenerational UU-UNO Envoy Teams in congregations can bring an important new dimension to existing social justice work and stronger bonds in the congregations. The UU-UNO also fosters these relationships in a yearly Intergenerational Spring Seminar where youth and adults come together to tackle issues of global concern such as economic inequality, racism, criminal justice, or climate change.

One Guns or Butter team engaged in a discussion.
One Guns or Butter team engaged in a discussion.

Following lunch on Sunday, another UU-UNO representative and I led a multigenerational workshop, Guns or Butter, during which I was further inspired by the beauty of intergenerational relationships. In this international relations simulation that modeled the work of the UN, participants were split up into five separate nations and each was assigned a leadership role within their own nation. As a nation, they were instructed to establish goals related to their economic growth, human development, and relationships with other countries, and then to engage in trade and develop treaties with other nations. Each team included approximately the same proportion of youth and adults, and over the course of the game, intergenerational teams plotted and planned their route to achieving their goals. As I watched team members interact with one another, I saw youth and adults immersed in dialogue over their next ‘move.’ I was excited to see UUs engaged in the topic of international relations and by the potential for success found in intergenerational work.

By the end of the conference, I felt more connected to the Canadian UU community than ever before. As I hugged and bid farewell to my new Canadian friends after Sunday night’s closing ceremonies, I felt a familiar feeling of sadness to be leaving an environment of warmth that I had not felt since bridging into young adulthood. I left Conference 2016 in Vancouver eager to engage in bold activism for climate justice and international human rights, with new ideas about the power of intergenerational work, and a wave of optimism for the future of the Canadian UU community.


By Audrey Carleton, Envoy Outreach Intern at UU United Nations Office

Inclusive Education for Global Citizenship: UN Conference in Gyeongju, Korea

UU-UNO Director Bruce Knotts (far right) speaks at a roundtable discussion at the 66th UN DPI/NGO Conference.
UU-UNO Director Bruce Knotts (far right) speaks at a roundtable discussion at the 66th UN DPI/NGO Conference.

uuadpingoboothThe 66th Annual United Nations (UN) Department of Public Information/Non-Governmental Organization (DPI/NGO) Conference was held in Gyeongju, Republic of Korea from May 30 through June 1, 2016. This year’s conference was on Education for Global Citizenship: Achieving the Sustainable Development Goals Together. I attended as Director of the Unitarian Universalist United Nations Office (UU-UNO), and as Chair of the UN DPI/NGO Executive Committee. The UU-UNO had a booth at the conference which displayed our materials and also those of both Japanese and Korean LGBTIQ groups who participated in our activism at the conference.

I spoke at several events throughout the conference, including a speech (available to watch online) at the opening of the proceedings, which was very well received.   I also spoke as part of the first roundtable discussion on inclusive education. Later in the conference, the UU-UNO hosted a workshop on inclusive education for LGBTIQ learners, looking at the issues of bullying and discrimination in learning spaces around the world and in Korea.

Workshop sponsored by the UU-UNO "Inclusive Education and SDGs"
Workshop sponsored by the UU-UNO: “Inclusive Education and SDGs”

In attendance at the conference was an organized homophobic group of advocates. While our message was very well received by the vast majority of the 5,000 attendees from all over the world (representing over 100 countries), this small core of very homophobic Christians was a challenge.  They took many of our materials (in order to destroy them), argued with us at our booth and attended our workshop.  They have a reputation of being disruptive, but as our workshop was lived streamed, they acted with civility and kept quiet.  We were glad for the support of the Rev. Steve Stearman of Metro Baptist Church in NYC and Ricky Wong of the Buddhist Tzu Chi Foundation, both of whom made strong statements in favor of our panelists.  Korea is a majority Buddhist nation with a strong and powerful Christian minority.  Having strong Christian and Buddhist advocates on our side was very helpful.

Workshop sponsored by the NGO Committee on Peace, Disarmament and Security.
Workshop sponsored by the NGO Committee on Disarmament, Peace, and Security.

I also moderated a workshop on global disarmament issues with two Japanese and two Korean panelists who talked about the need for nuclear disarmament and peace on the Korean peninsula.  I moderated this panel in my capacity as chair of the UN NGO Committee on Disarmament, Peace and Security.  This committee was founded in 1970 by UU minister, Rev. Homer Jack.  We continue his work for peace, and ending armed violence will the topic of the UU-UNO’s 2017 Intergenerational Spring Seminar.

The final challenge was in finalizing the conference’s outcome document, the Gyeongju Action Plan.  This document was online and over a million people viewed it and gave us input. Before even going to Korea, we debated the document at length in New York and the final discussions were during several sessions at the conference in Korea. We fought hard for inclusive language and the homophobes fought hard for exclusion. The arguments were heated, with some Korean Christians telling us to leave their country, asking why we were even in their country in the first place. We reminded them that we were at a United Nations Conference and invited guests of the Republic of Korean Government.

There was also a strong push by these same individuals for inclusion of a model of development called “Saemaul Undong” into global plans. Our LGBTQI allies opposed this on the grounds that this Korean model of development was organized by Park Chung-hee, South Korean president, dictator, and military general who led South Korea from 1961 until his assassination in 1979. While Saemaul Undong did develop rural areas, it did so under very centralized authority with little regard for human rights.

The arguments over LGBTIQ inclusion and over Saemaul Undong were the most contentious I’ve ever experienced in my decades of diplomatic work. The result was a strong statement of inclusion within the outcome document: “The importance of universal inclusion, acknowledging that the absence of a particular group or identity in text can lead to the exclusion of that group or identity in policy. We have made a conscious decision not to highlight any particular group or identity to ensure full inclusion and equal treatment of all people – especially those in positions of specific vulnerability and marginalization. It is unacceptable that diverse group memberships and identities have been used to deny the right to learn or otherwise marginalize individuals. In education, as in all things, the basis of non-discrimination is, and ought to be, our common humanity.” Our Korean LGBTIQ allies were disappointed that there was no specific mention of LGBTIQ people, but I was satisfied that this was the best we could get and that it advances the cause of inclusive education. There was also no mention of Saemaul Undong in the outcome document.

Finally, the outcome document calls for: “Support enactment by the United Nations for an International Day of Education that would serve as a means to promote education for global citizenship, learning for civic engagement, and literacy for grassroots empowerment.” We are working with the Missions of the Republic of Korea and Canada to get this enacted at the upcoming UN General Assembly.

Ethical Eating: A Solution to Climate Change

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Brent Kim describes the many benefits of a mostly plant-based diet

As climate change continues on its current course, it becomes an increasing existential threat to human civilization. The Unitarian Universalist United Nations Office’s (UU-UNO’s) Climate Justice Initiative is compelled to acknowledge this threat, and try to find solutions from a theological standpoint. As such, as Unitarian Universalists we are called to discuss the ethical dimensions of Climate Change, and we reflect on our 7th Principle, respect for the interdependent web of all existence, to frame our work.

To adequately address the ethics of climate change, it is crucial to examine issues relating to food. Although not a widely discussed topic, the consumption choices that humans make, both in food choices and in food sourcing, are an enormous contributor to climate change. The UU-UNO has begun collaboration with the Tzu Chi Buddhist Foundation around the topic of Ethical Eating. This is a topic that some Unitarian Universalists have been engaged with for many years: in 2011, the Unitarian Universalist Association adopted a Statement of Conscience about ethical eating, urging UUs to be mindful of their relationship with food as part of respecting and acting compassionately towards all life on the planet. On May 19, 2016 the UU-UNO and Tzu Chi held a joint panel discussion “Ethical Eating: A Solution to Climate Change” at the United Nations Church Center in New York City.

This panel spoke broadly on the environmental and moral impacts of food, and more pointedly on the implications of meat consumption.  As one panelist explained, “Ethical Eating is to eat to minimize adverse impacts and maximize positive impacts on the environment and yourself.”  Our four panelists delved deeply into an analysis of the scientific and ethical problems created by climate change and what individuals can do to in the journey towards living a more climate-friendly lifestyle.

The first of the four esteemed panelists was Brent Kim, who serves as the Program Officer for the Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future.  Kim addressed the current dogma that a shift from fossil fuels to renewable energy is paramount to solving the issue.  Noted was the Paris Agreement, so far signed by 177 countries, in which nations agreed to to keep global temperature rise to less than 2 degrees Celsius.  Kim argued that even this value, which will still contribute to over 15 feet of sea level rise, will be impossible to achieve through a switch to renewable energy unless we significantly modify our eating habits towards foods with lower GHG impact.  This means consuming largely plant based foods – a 75% reduction of meat, dairy and eggs would be the equivalent of closing 94 coal- fired plants and opening over 100, 000 wind turbines.

 

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Gidon Eshel presenting research

Gidon Eshel, a Research Professor at Bard College followed, and discussed the specifics of the caloric differences in food, as related to their calories in fossil fuels.  Eshel explained that approximately 31 calories of fossil fuels are needed to produce every one calorie of meat, as opposed to 1.5 calories of fossil fuels to every one calorie of plants.  He emphasized that a plant-based diet not only mitigates the progression of climate change, but can also feed more of the world’s population.  Growing vegetables takes up less land than livestock, and the land used for livestock grazing could be diverted towards other vegetable crops.  It is important to note that neither Kim nor Eshel advocated for the complete elimination of meat products from the diet, as some land is soil poor and only appropriate for grazing purposes.

To add a new dimension into this panel discussion, the theological and social justice dimensions of food were introduced by our next panelist, the Rev. Peggy Clarke. Clarke led us through a philosophical reasoning on how humans have allowed for climate change to occur, and why we have been ineffective in its mitigation.  She introduced to participants the paradigm in which we reside, in which we as humans see all other life as being in service of human life, and the earth is both the supplier and sewer for our lives. She emphasized that in order to actually address climate change, we must address this paradigm.  Humanity is experiencing a great need for reverence not just for all life, but for the earth itself.

 

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Ali Hard explaining food policy

A theological underpinning in hand, we then turned to food policy – what is being done and what can we do to address current food policy which influences how so many of us eat. Participants heard from Ali Hard, a Tisch Scholar at the Laurie M. Tisch Center for Food, Education & Policy at Teachers College in Columbia University. Hard emphasized the need for sustainability standards in the dietary guidelines, and how such a policy would promote more responsible sourcing in school food programs, including a reduction in meat based meals. She explained that the way to achieve healthy sustainable diets is to create policy that promotes increased access to healthy sustainably grown and sourced foods, that encourages education about the value of a plant-based diet, and that provides supportive communities that inspire sustainable eating and living.

The point is not for all humans to immediately put down their bacon burgers and cheese omelets and become vegan right away, but to be mindful of the impact their food choices have on the environment. Try changing one meal per week to be entirely plant-based. As Unitarian Universalists, we recognize that many food decisions will require us to make trade- offs between competing priorities.  Ethical Eating is a change we can each make to help the environment, and of course there is no single answer for how to mitigate climate change; food is but one factor in a multidimensional conversation.  The UU-UNO’s work collaborating with Tzu Chi on ethical eating will continue in the upcoming months, building up to Ethical Eating Day on January 11, 2017, where we ask those interested to adopt a plant based diet for the day.


By Mara Moss, UU-UNO Climate Justice Initiative Intern

United Nations Reform: Slow, patient work to make the UN better

Bruce Knotts is Director of the Unitarian Universalist Association United Nations Office. He also serves as Chair of the NGO Committee on Disarmament, Peace, and Security and Co-Chair of the NGO Committee on Human Rights.


Bruce Knotts addresses participants at an event at UN Headquarters.
Bruce Knotts, Director of UU-UNO

As President and CEO of the NGO Committee on Disarmament, Peace and Security, I also serve on the NGO Security Council Working Group. This working group meets with the ambassadors of those nations currently serving on the UN Security Council and with high ranking officials and missions working on Security Council issues. The most interesting of these meetings are with the member state ambassadors of the Accountability, Coherence and Transparency (ACT) group. This group of small and medium sized member states meets at the Swiss mission to the UN to work on improving how the UN Security Council works and increasing transparency in the election of a new UN Secretary General.

In July 2015, the Accountability, Coherence and Transparency Group proposed a “Code of Conduct regarding Security Council action against genocide, crimes against humanity or war crimes,” which calls upon all members of the Security Council (both permanent and elected) to not vote against any credible draft resolution intended to prevent or halt mass atrocities.  As of a meeting I had with the ACT Group on March 22, 2016, 111 member states of the United Nations have signed on to this code of conduct.  Canada and the United States are not among those 111 nations. (more…)

Behind the scenes at COP21

This guest post is by Ahti Tolvanen. Ahti is a UU-UNO Envoy for Lakehead Unitarian Fellowship in Thunder Bay, Ontario. Here he writes about his experience as a participant in the 21st Conference of Parties (COP21) international climate change conference in Paris, which took place in December 2015. 


COP21

After the news of the deadly November terrorist attacks in Paris, I was about to cancel my travel plans. This was despite two invitations: one to join Al Gore’s Climate Reality Leadership Corps at the Climate Summit, the other from a relative who lived in the French capital. She was troubled about how to explain what had happened to her two pre-teen children. I suddenly saw myself as the awkward visitor.

The manhunt was still on for the terrorists involved and public rallies were cancelled by the authorities. The possibilities for networking with other NGOs there seemed diminished and I heard that many people were cancelling their trips.

Then came the message from Stuart Scott, director of United Planet: Faith and Science Initiative. They needed me to research and write media releases for prominent scientists and faith leaders speaking at the Summit. I decided to accept. My years as a journalist put this right up my alley. To refuse, it seemed to me, would be to give in to the terrorists – to open the gates of civilization to barbarians – at a time when it was critical to humanity to have a successful outcome in Paris.

I reconfirmed meetings I had tentatively set up with other contacts including the UUA delegation and friends at the Paris Fellowship, one of the few UUA member groups outside of North America.

Ahti Tolvanen at the le Bourget venue for the COP21 conference.

At the end of the first week of COP21, I flew into Charles de Gaulle airport and once through customs, noticed signs directing me to the trains to the le Bourget conference site. The conference venue was a set of large, prefabricated wooden buildings and an adjoining old airfield hangar. The prefab venue had a temporary appearance about it – like a large circus encampment. I hoped we’d be spared a severe cold spell or windstorm, lest the COP21 be the latest casualty of the climate crisis it was trying to address. (more…)

70th Anniversary of the First UN Resolution to Eliminate Nuclear Weapons

Protesters advocate for the elimination of nuclear weaponsOn January 24th, 1946, the United Nations General Assembly unanimously passed its first resolution, which called for the establishment a commission to monitor nuclear energy around the world, and for the elimination of atomic weapons and other weapons of mass destruction. This January 24th, 2016, we commemorate the 70th anniversary of the first resolution as we continue to advocate for nuclear disarmament.

The Unitarian Universalist Association has been active in seeking nuclear abolition as a part of its respect for the inherent worth and dignity of every person, and for the interdependent web of life. The UUA released a Statement of Conscience in its 2010 General Assembly stating: “We support international efforts to curtail the vast world trade in armaments and call for nuclear disarmament and abolition of other weapons of mass destruction… In an interdependent world, true peace requires the cooperation of all nations and peoples.” The UUA strongly stands against nuclear proliferation and mobilizes cooperation for the abolition of nuclear weapons. In 2014, a number of representatives from varying faith-based organizations signed the Statement of Conscience Concerning Nuclear Weapons. The statement condemned as “inherently immoral” the enormous loss of life and environmental destruction which the use of nuclear weapons would cause, and called for their elimination.

The devastation a nuclear war would cause could have irreversible effects on humanity and nature to the point of threatening the extinction of the human race. The use of nuclear weapons in a region could ensure the death of millions from burns and radiation poisoning, and provoke a global famine putting billions at risk. A global nuclear war would cause severe climate change due to smoke, soot, and nuclear firestorms resulting in a drastic lowering of the global temperature. It would ultimately leave our planet uninhabitable.

The signatories of the 2014 Statement of Conscience Concerning Nuclear Weapons called for action by the United States Government to abolish nuclear testing, weapons, and nuclear armament, urging government officials, for example, to:

  • Seek the commencement of serious multilateral negotiations, aiming at the prohibition and elimination of nuclear weapons, on a mutual and verifiable basis;
  • Reaffirm support for the Non-proliferation Treaty; and
  • Seek ratification of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty,

The 2014 Statement of Conscience declares that the use of nuclear weapons is inherently immoral because of the “horrific and indiscriminate effects it has on civilians and the environment.” There is no moral justification for the continuation of subjecting people and the planet to this extremity of danger. The obliteration of human life and food resources affected by nuclear weapons makes an indefinite delay morally unacceptable.

Currently, many organizations and bodies affiliated with the United Nations are dedicated to advocating and working for a nuclear-free future, including the UN Office of Disarmament Affairs, non-governmental organizations, and committees. Monitoring the Iran Nuclear Deal and North Korea’s nuclear test on January 6th are vital cases in which the United Nations is working to disarm the world of nuclear weapons. On December 7, 2015, the UN General Assembly adopted Resolution 70/48, “Humanitarian pledge for the prohibition and elimination of nuclear weapons,” with the support of 139 nations.


Learn more:

 

A Monumental Achievement: Unitarian Universalists at COP21

COP21 panel on equity and INDCs
This UUA co-sponsored panel addressed How Nations Have and Should Consider Equity and Justice in Setting INDCs

Climate change has become a huge focus in the last couple years, politically and socially. Some of us have been working on it much longer, but it’s inspiring to see the commitment spread to more people and gather more support.

Even Beyoncé is involved, having starred in the Global Citizen’s Festival in New York City last summer, which highlighted the effect we all can have on the achievement of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

French President Francois Hollande addresses an assembly at COP21.
French President Francois Hollande addresses an assembly at COP21.

This momentum is not without cause, as this past December, the United Nations hosted the 21st Session of the Conference of the Parties (COP21) to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, in Paris, France.

Over 38,000 delegates from 196 nations convened in Paris to discuss our collective environmental future.

This gathering aimed to establish better accountability for the many different nations of the world who commit to the goals that they’ve signed on to. The document that concluded COP21, the Paris Agreement, was agreed upon by all 196 nations and is widely considered to be a huge milestone on the road to a sustainable, low-carbon future.

The Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA) was proud to send six credentialed observers to this year’s climate talks through the Unitarian Universalist United Nations Office (UU-UNO).

UUA representatives Rev. Peggy Clarke, Jan Dash, Lynn Dash, Doris Marlin, Bill McPherson, and David Tucker attended the conference to network, witness, and participate in the conference events. Here is their official statement: (more…)

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…)