On Friday, January 30th, 2015, two interns from the Unitarian Universalist United Nations Office attended the Committee on Teaching About the United Nations at the UN Secretariat. Danning Zhang and Brieanna Scolaro, both who are graduate social work students, were excited to attend the conference and share their thoughts and reflections below with you.
Having interned for five months at the United Nations Church Center, right across the street from the UN Headquarters, I never considered myself well educated about the UN’s history, structure and its functions. When I receive comments like, “The UN is just a bunch of people doing nothing but having meetings all day,” I never knew the most effective response. Sometimes I would say things such as, “We need to come to solutions to the world’s problems by engaging in dialogues”, or “Things take time to change.” However, things have changed since my attendance to the Committee on Teaching about the United Nations on January 30, 2015. I can now give a better, more comprehensive answer to the question, “How does the UN work?”
United Nations is a change agency itself. For developing countries such as Sri Lanka and Palau whose resources and technology may be limited at times to fully promote the social welfare of their citizens, the UN comes to help them implement programs to increase the literacy rate, reduce infant mortality, and provide support for disaster relief. With the collaborative effort of different sectors of the UN and many non-profit organizations that are affiliated with the UN, school lunch programs are implemented so that less school children are hungry; teachers are sent to the most impoverished areas of the world so that children living in poverty can have a brighter future through education; protocols on reducing carbon emission are signed so that people can breathe clearer air.
The United Nations is not only a symbol for peace, but a meaningful message to be carried on from generation to generation. A central theme of the CTAUN conference included the idea that in order to reach peace, we need to teach peace. Many schools and teachers are building peace by carrying the UN’s spirit of peace in their daily curriculum to their young students. Two teachers at the United Nations International School, who won the “Best Practice Award”, implement daily peace and mindfulness activities with their students. Two PS 119 teachers, the other winners of the “Best Practice Award”, create a culture of peace that their students live in, by facilitating peace marches, peace games, and other forms of activities that promote the message of peace – a seed planed early can grow big and wide.
The United Nations is a mission. Kenneth Payumo, Chief of Peacekeeping Operations Support Section in the UN Department of Safety and Security, is a peacekeeper in South Sudan that risked his life to protect thousands of innocent civilians that would have otherwise been harmed by armed forces during political riots. Others, like Pamela Falk, UN Resident Correspondent, fight continuously for freedom of expression and justice for journalists who have been killed. Individuals such as Payumo and Falk continue to inspire individuals in the community, such as myself. Inspired by the CTAUN conference, I now have developed a better idea of who I am and what I want to do with my future peace building career. More importantly, I am certain that regardless of what I do with my life and how I want to achieve my career goals, I will always bare the peace building mission in my mind.
For me, the most intriguing part of the CTAUN conference was the opening discussion of the United Nations history. Bob Clark, Deputy Director of the Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library and Museum in Hyde Park, provided us great insight into how the UN came to be a result of the passion and values of FDR. Similar to Danning, I had never fully understood the roots of the UN – how it relates to the League of Nations, how other presidents have attempted some sort of international diplomacy effort but were not supported by the citizens. I was never aware that only two weeks before the first UN meeting, FDR had passed away, leaving Eleanor Roosevelt to bring FDR’s dream to reality. It is interesting that everyone doubted Eleanor and did not know exactly what to do with her – despite this, she became a champion of change. Eleanor’s efforts and passions are something that we all need to keep in mind when considering and advocating for the role of women in developing a sustainable world.
I felt excited to be in a room full of teachers, current and past, that so directly connect with our youth on a daily basis. I agree that in order to have a peaceful world, we need to teach and practice peace. How can we build peace if we cannot sit with ourselves and find inner peace? The conference reminds us to look inside ourselves, explore ourselves, find similarities with others, and to celebrate diversity in the world. The UN explores issues such as women’s rights, freedom of speech, the role of social media in development, nuclear disarmament – they have been working towards the TheMillennium Development Goals (MDGs) which are the world’s time-bound and quantified targets for addressing extreme poverty in its many dimensions, and are currently developing the next set of goals, the Post 2015 Sustainable Development Goals. I challenge you, the reader, to ask yourself what world you want to live in. What should be at the forefront of our world’s next set of priorities? In addition, I would challenge those of you who already engage in social justice and global human rights to consider how we can continue to act locally but think globally.
UU-UN Office reflections from the historic People’s Climate March Sunday September 20, 2014.
“The People’s Climate March on September 21st, 2014 brought together people of all identities from around the world. What struck me the most about this march was the boundless positive energy throughout the march. We all saw the humanity in one another, we were connected spiritually and emotionally, and we moved as one strong body. The UU-UNO participated in the march held in New York City and thanks to screens set-up throughout the march we were able to see marches in other countries. Many international participants in the NYC march wore the flag of their country proudly. Humans working solidarity around the world as global citizens and participants of this movement. What an energizing and inspirational time in history that will be talked about for years to come! We came together, calling attention climate change and climate justice – we need to take action now. We sang, we danced, we chanted, we meditated, we lifted our voices and we were present in intentional international community for the good of the globe.”
– Kamila Jacob, Envoy Coordinator
“From the powerful signs like “I can’t walk on water!”, to the march and people on the sidewalk cheering, clapping and singing to each other, an incredible force of spiritual empowerment has risen along Central Park West on Sunday, September 21. This is a historic day to be remembered, where over 400,000 people joined the People’s Climate March in New York City.
Inspired by each other, people picked up the yellow sign distributed on the street that writes: Another ___ for people’s climate. So, there we went, another “Buddhist”, another “bike rider”, another “hot lesbian”…The collective empowerment doesn’t stop at people’s creativity in the various ways they identify themselves. The empowerment is tremendously diversified and widely disseminated through collaboration among different people and different groups.
There was one moment when the host asks us to connect our spirit with the ones standing next to us. Our office intern, Kira, reached out to the two people sitting on the ground in front of her, and connected with their hands against hers. Public voices take place in so many different forms that is built on one another’s ideas and power. By gaining affirmation and collaboration from hundreds of thousands of people, we will be able to heal the world like we never have before. After all, this world belongs to all of us!”
– Danning, Intern
“To me, being part of the march meant to explore what it means for me to be a woman. I joined 400,000 other individuals from every part of the world to march in solidarity with mother nature. I find it no coincidence that mother nature is being abused in exploited by what I deem our misogynistic global community.”
– Bri, Intern
“It was truly an amazing experience to be part of something so historic. The collective energy was so invigorating and powerful. I believe the best way to get someone to hear what you have to say is by showing up and saying it, and boy did we. Over 400,000 global citizens came together to get our message across and I don’t see how our world leaders and policy makers can ignore the message shared yesterday. Not only from the people in New York City but from marches all around the world. I felt truly spiritually connected to everyone there, just being people of the earth. One other thing that stuck out to me was the fact that not one arrest was made. I feel like this spoke to the overwhelming positive energy behind the commitment, focus, and message of the people.”
– Kira, Intern
“The empowering and inspiring march united 400,000 people with a message for world leaders on climate change. At the starting point near Columbus Circle, many marchers held signs with a variety of powerful words: “There Is No Planet B”, “Preserve Our Fossil Carbon”, “Solutions Exist”, “Respect for the interdependent Web of All Existence of Which We Are a Part” and “Jobs, Justice, Clean Energy”. Marchers expressed their thoughts and souls in order to let their voices be heard by all the people living on the motherland. Different appeals rising in the demonstrators include clean water and air, green forest, less carbon emission, global warming, new alternative energy instead of fossil fuels, etc, which inspired people on the street to join the march. People hold the same strong faith and beliefs that we need to save the earth and we can do it through the collaboration among diverse organizations, ethnic groups, races and ages. I’m so glad I had the opportunity to get involved in this historic and memorable event with other awesome marchers. I believe every major social movement can be achieved when people get together.”
– Meng, Intern
“Marching in the People’s Climate March was one of the most extraordinary experiences of my life. I have never participated in an event of that magnitude.
I was not only impressed by the sheer volume of people, but our commitment to fighting for a more just and sustainable way of life. That commitment was evidenced in the hours and hours people waited to march. In the miles that people with disabilities covered, despite their physical limitations. In the countless signs people made. And in the myriad other ways we expressed our shared concern for the only place we call home.
I was especially pleased that the Climate March organizers purposely placed Indigenous communities in the front of the march, in order to highlight in the plight of these communities. These peoples are on front lines of climate change now, so it was appropriate for them to lead from the front of the march. They bear the brunt of climate change, as their way of life is threatened by increasing frequency of extreme weather events, rising sea levels, droughts, increasing water shortages, and the spread of tropical-born diseases. Out of all of us marching yesterday, it is these communities whose circumstances are the most dire, and I was grateful that they were front and center.
At the Climate March, I heard calls to action, languages I did not know, chanting, the drums of indigenous tribes, singing, and laughter. I felt proud to be unified with my brothers and sisters for a cause that is bigger than all of us. But I also felt the weight of the issue at hand. As Chris Hedges said recently: “It is both an obligation and a privilege to be around right now.” Indeed, I am inspired by the Climate March. But I also feel the immense obligation to do my part to secure this earth for us and for future generations.”
Abby McBride is a youth representative for the UU-UNO. She attends Lehigh University and is pursuing a a degree in International Relations. She is a blogger and manager for The Assembly.
Religion tends to have a bad rap in the media. When people think of zealous religious figures, terms such as “bigot” or “xenophobe” often come to mind. A group of religious non-governmental organizations met at the United Nations on Friday, August 29th, 2014 to discuss putting an end to this trend. The Unitarian Universalist United Nations Office (UU-UNO) sponsored the interfaith dialogue workshop, entitled “Interfaith Progressive Values Promote Universal Human Rights” as part of the 65th Annual UN DPI/NGO Conference. Co-sponsors included Muslims for Progressive Values, the NGO Committee on Human Rights, the NGO Committee on Disarmament, Peace, and Security, the Tzu Chi Foundation, Soka Gakkai International, Won Buddhism, and Buddha’s Light International Association.
In the workshop, participants emphasized that, while faith is important, it should not stand in the way of basic human rights. Debra Boudreaux, Executive Vice President of the Buddhist Tzu Chi Foundation, spoke of her dedication to Buddhism, but said her foundation will help any kind of person, not only Buddhists. Kamila Jacob, representing the UU-UNO, told the workshop that her drive for social justice is put into action by her faith.
Hiro Sakuri of Soka Gakkai International voiced his regrets that there is no longer an interfaith conference at the United Nations. In 2005 he established an interfaith conference at the UN, with support from 75 member states, 15 UN agencies, and a set of religious non-governmental organizations. Following this development was the first ever General Assembly high-level dialogue on inter-religious communication for peace. However, the interfaith conference no longer occurs since members of certain agencies and organizations have left. Now, he struggles to find committed people to bring this conference back to life.
Ani Zonneveld, President of Muslims for Progressive Values, addressed the conflict that occurs between religion and human rights. She proposes that it is not religion itself that creates tension with human rights, but men’s interpretation of it. Of her own faith, Islam, she said “Sharia law is the interpretation of that divine inspiration [Sharia] by men of patriarchal society.” Zonneveld clarified that Sharia is the spiritual path of Islam. However, Sharia law has been warped by the values of the time (centuries ago) when it was enacted and the cultural issues it conflicts with today.
The UU-UNO affirms the Unitarian Universalist belief that there is inherent worth and dignity in every individual. Humanity is diverse in race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, and religion, and the UU-UNO recognizes and embraces this fact. The UU-UNO wants to foster interfaith dialogue so that no religious groups stand in the way of the rights of individuals. We must be aligned in what is true, what is right, and what is good.
The UU-UNO recognizes that if religious groups are to succeed in protecting human rights, a greater degree of dialogue and cooperation in the future is essential. The workshop cast a look at what such a future might entail. Members attended from a plethora of religious groups – Jewish, Humanist, Catholic, Atheist, and a variety of others. The UU-UNO is hopeful that interfaith dialogue will continue as we need unity to secure fundamental rights around the world, rather than the division that has plagued religious dialogue in the past.
Thank you for joining the Unitarian Universalist United Nations Office during our General Assembly 2014 Events!
UU-UNO Director, Bruce Knotts, spoke at LGBTQ and Immigration – An Intersection of Human Rights, hosted byUURISE, on Thursday, June 26th. Bruce discussed the plight of LGBTQ immigrants who seek refuge from persecution, only to find limited or no protection under US immigration law. He explained the current limitations of immigration laws, and how UUs can combine their LGBTQ and immigration reform advocacy efforts.
Beyond Borders: Implementing Intercultural Conversations, hosted by the UU-UNO occurred on Friday, June 27th.
“Think globally, act locally.” Panelists addressed ways to promote cultural and spiritual inclusion and the importance and value of global understanding. We invited participants to look at their strengths in human rights and climate justice to encourage them to strengthen their efforts by extending their passions to a global stage. Teresa Cooley, Bruce Knotts and Kamila Jacob spoke on these issues. Alley Wolff also spoke briefly about the Envoy Program.
The Dana Greeley and Blue Ribbon Awards Reception took place on Saturday, June 28th.
The Dana Greeley Sermon Award winners were announced and honored. This year’s winning submission came from the Morristown Unitarian Fellowship in New Jersey. The intergenerational team (Gabor Kiss, Shari Loe, George Hays, James McMormick, and Sarah Matsushima) put together a United Nations Sunday service that addressed the theme of the 2013 Spring Seminar (LGBTQ Human Rights).
The Unitarian Universalist United Nations Office extended our gratitude to the Blue Ribbon Congregations for their hard work in achieving this status. They have successfully held a UN Sunday service or event, made a congregational donation or committed to an annual “UU UNO” budget line, had 15 members or 5% of their members donate as individuals to the office, and have an envoy or envoy team.
“I only attended two days of the UUA’s 2014 General Assembly, but while I was there was I able to participate in UU-UNO related events. At their Beyond Borders workshop, Kamila and Bruce brought speakers who talked to us about what the UU-UNO does and their various programs, including their efforts to combat LGBTQ inequality; they placed an emphasis on helping those whose voices are not often heard. In the morning I attended the envoy breakfast where current envoys and envoys-to-be met and discussed our past successes and failures when trying to spread the word about the UU-UNO at our respective congregations. It was nice to meet other UUs from all around the country who care and know about what’s going on at the UU-UNO, especially because our ages and backgrounds were all varied.”
– Sarah Matsushima, 17, Morristown, New Jersey
“I’ve been going to GA every year since my freshman year in high school, so I was very excited that this year I wouldn’t have to travel far because it is in my region. General Assembly is always a fun experience; it is great to meet UUs from all over the country, and when you sit in a huge conference center with all the people you realize just how many of us there are. GA is especially fun for the youth because of the Youth Caucus, which provides great programming for youth to get to know each other and do fun things like trivia night and the dance they have every year. The UU-UNO has a presence at GA, they have a booth in the exhibit hall and do workshops throughout the week. There is also the Envoy breakfast, and the reception for the Dana Greeley award and the Blue Ribbon award winners.”
– Corry Sullivan, 17, State College, Pennsylvania
“The UU-UNO reception provided a perfect setting to honor certain congregations for their exceptional collaboration with the UU-UNO. We were treated to an excerpt from the exceptional service that earned the Dana Greeley award, and 33 congregations were honored with the blue ribbon award. Overall this event graced its attendees with food, knowledge, and goodwill towards the incredible action the UU-UNO is working towards.”
Once again, the Unitarian Universalist United Nations Office (UU-UNO) played an active role during the final session of the Open Working Group (OWG) on Sustainable Development. Between the dates of February 3rd and 7th, the OWG8 discussed important topics including Oceans and seas, forests, biodiversity, social and gender equality, peace, and security. We at the UU-UNO are able to attend some of these larger meetings as well as side events.
The Open Working Group on Sustainable Development was formed following the Rio+20 Conference. Recognizing the importance of the environment and its impact on the greater web of existence, member states agreed to develop a set of Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) for the post 2015 agenda. It was decided to have an “inclusive and transparent intergovernmental process open to all stakeholders, with a view to developing global sustainable development goals to be agreed by the General Assembly“.
Ocean and Seas, Forests, and Biodiversity
Day one and two of the OWG discussed the important issues of oceans and seas, forests and biodiversity. While a wealth of information was provided during the high level forms and side events, it can be summarized though a quote made by Dr. Sylvia Earle from National Geographic: “We need to protect our oceans as if our lives depend on it, because they do.”
Our oceans are one of the most of our important assets on this earth. An intricate part of maintaining biodiversity, sustaining life, and eradicating poverty, experts presented important areas to address in the post 2015 agenda. Many needs such as reducing fishing overcapacity, reducing harmful subsidies and reducing illegal unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing, were discussed. If we fail to acknowledge the importance of what covers 70% of our planet, we will all suffer in the long run.
In addition to the importance of oceans for all life on earth, expert panelist discussed the role of forests and biodiversity. We cannot begin to address the well-being of humans without recognizing and protecting the benefits of nature. The role of sustainable agricultural and forests cannot be ignored due to its direct consequences of all life on earth. We must address these important issues, climate change, food insecurity, water security, and the ripple effect produced as a result. Mark Smith of the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) stated during the event that without addressing forests and biodiversity in the post 2015 development goals, we are “building a table with a missing leg.”
Gender Equality and Women’s Empowerment
While women continue to be primary victims of suffering, violence, and conflict, they are also primary actors in peace and democracy. By specifically addressing the role of women in sustainable development, we have the opportunity to empower, protect, and promote these key players for generations to come. The post 2015 agenda must identify the multiple forms of discrimination and the structural inequalities that exist and perpetuate gender inequality in all areas. The inclusion of women’s voices and experiences will lead us to positive development in multiple human rights issues including sustainability.
Women’s empowerment must directly address access to resources, basic services, and decision-making power that many women across the world are denied. Addressing these issues is a prerequisite for poverty eradication. Many topics such as access to land rights, essential surgery, prenatal care, education, employment, and social inclusion are the corner stones of improving our world. Many participants expressed the need for a stand-alone goal on gender equality women’s empowering. As stated during the Achieving Gender Equality and Women’s Empowerment for Sustainable Development side event, “Can anyone run on one foot? No. That is society without women.”
CONFLICT PREVENTION, POST-CONFLICT PEACE BUILDING
Sustainable development plays a key role in peace building and ending violence. Building economies though environmentally conscience development is a key component of ensuring safety for generations to come. Mary Robinson, Chair of The Mary Robinson Foundation stated that peace, security, human rights, and development, are both interconnected and interdependent.
The side event, “Peace and Sustainable Development: A Two-Way Relationship” addressed the inherit connection between environmentally conscious economic development and durable peace. Poverty, refugees, climate change, forced migration, war and conflict, and human rights transgressions have the potential to be meaningfully addressed though sustainable development.
This important side event addressed the dichotomy between development, governmental aide, and economic gains in peace building. It was noted that while many benefits can come as a result of development, if not strategically used, can inevitably lead to greater conflict. Examples given illustrated how many countries use additional revenue on military spending. Panelists went on to elaborate how many countries stress the importance of being “ready for war” yet devote little funding towards prevention and peace building. This important point was in line with statements made earlier during the high level forum by Zambian delegate on behalf of South African Countries. He stressed the importance of addressing conflict prevention, post-conflict support, and the pursuit of lasting peace as key components of the Post 2015 agenda.
A Message of Hope
The OWG8 reiterated its commitment to address all aspects of sustainable development in the post 2015 agenda. This final session concluded the 11 months of work at the United Nations from experts and stakeholders on these and other important issues. Addressing these issues has grown in importance among the international community over this time. Beginning with only 30 Member State representatives, there were 70 representatives active in the final group. These representatives not only represent their countries, they spoke on behalf of a collection of countries thus the majority of countries were represented in these important high level forms.
All sessions of the Open Working Group On Sustainable Development grappled with some of the most cross-cutting and challenging issues faced by the world today. With Economic Social and Cultural Committee (ECOSOC) consultative status at the United Nations, the UU-UNO was able to actively participant in these important talks and represent the values and principals of the larger UU movement. The UU-UNO was able to fulfill its mission of promoting a world community of peace, liberty and justice for all. We encourage all UUs to be a part of this work by becoming an envoy, interning, volunteering, galvanizing your congregation, and donating. We lay the bricks that build our future, be sure to leave your mark.
Our esteemed colleague and beloved friend Eleanor Mason passed January 29th, 2014, peacefully in her daughter’s arms at the age of 94. A founding member of the Morristown Unitarian Fellowship (MUF), Eleanor was the UU-UNO volunteer Envoy Coordinator for many years, succeeded by Peggy Montgomery. Eleanor remained the UU-UNO Envoy at MUF before turning the position over to Shari Loe. Eleanor remained dedicated to and closely involved with the UU-UNO to the very last. We were always happy to listen to her informed and experienced views, which she shared with us liberally. She was a strong pillar of the UU-UNO. She served on our Board of Directors for several terms, participated in Annual Intergenerational Seminars, and always represented us at General Assembly. Her devotion to the United Nations NGO community grew out of her passion for world peace and her work with Peace Women. We mourn her passing and will miss her support, advice and spirit beyond measure. Here are some remarks received after the notification of Eleanor’s passing:
I was saddened to hear of the passing of Eleanor Mason. I recall her enthusiasm and positivity during the time I served on the UU-UNO board. She and many others were so encouraging to me in my role of envoy. Eleanor and I shared a special experience when we took the elevator up the Gateway Arch in St. Louis, Missouri – so fearless! May her legacy live on. - Janet Hillen, Ontario Canada
We honor Eleanor for her lifelong leadership and strong power of example as an educator, traveler, athlete, mother/ grandmother, sailor, humanist, peace activist, treasured friend, and one of the best organizers we’ve ever known. Chair of the Department of Physical Education at Drew University, founding member and 50+ year leader of the Morristown Unitarian Fellowship, and longtime United Nations promoter through your steady involvement with Peace Action and the Unitarian Universalist United Nations Office, she worked tirelessly with spirit and creativity. - Peggy Montgomery, succeeded Eleanor in her role as Volunteer Envoy Coordinator
Dear Friends, Thank you for letting us know about Eleanor. It was always an honor and an inspiration to work with her…please convey our sympathy to her daughter and the rest of her family. Sincerely yours, Sue and Vernon Nichols
Thank You for sharing, our blessings are sent to her family. With joy, Janet and Marlowe Nortrom
I worked with Eleanor on the Board and on committees of the UU-UNO for more than a decade. I always admired her dedication and service both to UUs and the UN community. She was dedicated to fostering the work of Envoys, which was and is so important to the work of the Office. - Richard Kopp, Envoy emeritus, UU Fellowship of Huntington, NY
I was minister of the Morristown Unitarian Fellowship from 1968-78, and remained a member until moving to the UUA in 1986. I simply wish to add my words of praise for Eleanor Mason. She was an active member of MUF and I remember her passion for the UN office. Sincerely, Clark Olsen
She was so valued by me and many envoys as well as young and older attendees at the seminars. I’m sorry that I can’t let her know that at long last, through no specific efforts of my own this year, a group of members of our High School group are planning to attend the UU UNO Seminars. Her family no doubt knows what an extraordinary person she was and how many people have benefited from her knowledge and easy, encouraging manner. - Marge Owens, Envoy, Paint Branch UU Church in Adelphi, MD
She was the first envoy coordinator and established the program! What impressed me was her dedication – she may have had some trouble getting around, but that didn’t stop her from zipping around the conference center asking people to sign her AIW and telling them about the UU-UNO and inviting people to get involved! - Holly Sarkissian, former UU-UNO Envoy Coordinator
We are thankful to have had a Eleanor Mason touch our lives. It is clear with these positive remarks about her influence, she has touched lives beyond those she met. We can reflect on her life and her dedication to the UU-UNO and global family – a lifetime dedicated to international human rights. She will be dearly missed and yet she lives on in each of our hearts, making the world a better place with each day of life.
A Review of the LGBT-Faith and Asylum Network Retreat
January 8-January 10, 2014
The trip from New York City to Washington, D.C., daunting as it may seem for a first-timer, is quite easy and comfortable. As a native New Yorker, born and raised, I had never embarked on a trip to D.C. via public transportation, but after learning about this retreat, I knew it was an opportunity I couldn’t miss despite my New York state of mind.
After being brought on board the Unitarian Universalist United Nations Office (UU-UNO) as an intern this past September, I have been charged with exploring the needs of LGBTQI asylum seekers and refugees to the United States. It had become apparent to the Director, a retired Foreign Service Officer, that the needs of this group are not currently being met. Given the two-fold mission of the UU-UNO to engage in the work of the UN to promote a peaceful, just, sustainable, and pluralistic world, as well as to inspire Unitarian Universalists and others to support such work, it became clear that the UU-UNO should join forces in meeting this unfulfilled need. (www.uua.org/un)
LGBT Faith Asylum Network (LGBT-FAN) is a newly assembled group made up of faith leaders, asylum-seekers, asylees, activists, LGBT community center staff, policy experts, and refugee resettlement workers dedicated to helping people who flee to North America because of persecution in their home country based on their sexual orientation and/or gender identity. More information about LGBT-FAN can be found at the website, www.lgbt-fan.org.
For some readers, this may raise questions, maybe even for most. It’s fairly complex, but in its simplest form- at least 76 countries of the world currently criminalize same-sex relations. Meaning, it is a punishable crime to be gay or to engage in homosexual acts. An accused person may be arrested (or in some cases illegally seized) and tortured. Among these countries are Uganda, Nigeria, Ethiopia, Iran, Jamaica, and more recently Russia and Ukraine, just to name a few, and in some countries, even face the death penalty (www.ilga.org) The 1951 Refugee Convention states that a refugee is someone who “owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion, is outside the country of his nationality, and is unable to, or owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country.” In order to become a refugee, a person must have a national identity outside of the United States and receive a referral from the U.S. Refugee Admissions Program (USRAP.) This is especially complicated considering that one’s safety depends on their ability to remain secretive. For this reason, among others, such individuals are forced to flee their country and begin the process of seeking asylum when they are at the United States border. This person, unlike a refugee who comes to the United States through a refugee resettlement process, is considered an “asylum seeker” and there are few services currently available for such a person. As a result, they are often detained in less than humane conditions for extended periods of time, face abuse in detention centers, and ultimately may be deported back to their country of origin. Individuals who are not deported and allowed to stay are not allowed to work. This begs the question: How can one survive in a foreign country where they may not speak the language, have no family, and do not qualify to receive services or find work?
How can we as a nation and its members at all levels of awareness of this issue begin to take steps to end the perpetuation of abuse of human rights within our borders? In an effort to share the tremendous wealth of information on this issue I obtained while at the LGBT-FAN Retreat with dedicated professionals from all over the United States and Canada (which as a nation has already adopted progressive policies on this matter), I present this retreat review.
I traveled with the Director of the UU-UNO, Bruce Knotts, as well as Elizabeth Cormier of the First Unitarian Universalist Society of San Francisco. Our first stop after arriving in D.C. was Senator Feinstein’s office to speak with Counsel Emily Hyams. She was very open to hearing what we had to say and seemed interested in the issues surrounding the LGBTQI refugee and asylum seeking communities, particularly because Senator Feinstein has a reputation of being a supporter of LGBTQI rights. The trouble we ran into was around answering her questions about exactly what happens when an asylum seeker comes to the US. The truth is it depends. There is no formal network for asylees until after they have been given asylum status. This deficit is exactly what LGBT-FAN and the collaborative member retreat aimed to address.
Wednesday afternoon, before the Retreat began, at Capitol Hill was a briefing on “Asylum as LGBT Persecution Escalates.” The briefing sought to provide information on the needs of LGBTQI asylum seekers, specifically three major focuses for policy change. Among them are the one-year filing deadline for asylum applications, alternatives to immigration detention, and the “bed quota” which requires that 34,000 detention facility beds be filled each night.
Professionals spoke with passion and conviction to a crowded room of people about how the one-year filing deadline for asylum applications does not meet the needs of the applicants. Panelists mentioned considerations such as the mental health obstacles after facing trauma and the journey toward self-identification. Research done by the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society (HIAS) identified a high rate of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) in the asylum and refugee sexual minority community. This report, “Invisible in the City” can be read at: http://www.hias.org/uploaded/file/Invisible-in-the-City_full-report.pdf. A one year deadline does not respect the process of “coming out,” especially for someone without a support system and who has likely spent a significant portion of their life hiding this part of themselves. In the event that the individual is comfortable coming out, how will they feel about their need to prove their sexual identity to the U.S. Government when their very reason for fleeing to the U.S. is to escape an intolerant government in their country of origin? Furthermore, how will they prove this without access to paperwork, legal documents, photos, and “witnesses” from back home? The representative from the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society drew a parallel between LGBTQI asylum seekers to Soviet Jews, who had to hide their Jewish heritage for decades in the Soviet Union and then when they came to America, had to demonstrate persecution based on their religion. Similarly, LGBTQI asylum seekers strive to hide their sexual orientation and/or gender identity to survive, only to be required to effectively articulate their identity upon arrival to the U.S. Like the Soviet Jews, peeling back the layers to find one’s true self while effectively describing the oppression one has spent a lifetime trying to escape may take more than the required year to happen.
Issues around detention facilities were also discussed. Detainees have limited access to communicative methods, thus they have little chance of accessing an attorney, forcing them to figure things out for themselves. If an individual is identified as LGBTQI, they are placed in solitary confinement. Though this is for “protective” purposes, solitary confinement is a form of punishment used in prisons. Sexual abuse is also happening in detention centers and allegations of abuse are not adequately investigated. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) released a recent report on this matter. The note can be viewed at http://www.refworld.org/docid/3ae6b32d4.html. Panelists also discussed the immigration bed quota that requires ICE to fill 34,000 detention facility beds nightly. Surely, panelists argue, we can come up with a more humane way of addressing immigration control concerns.
Other obstacles that the refugee and asylum seeking community face were also discussed. The process of seeking asylum “takes a long time and is very difficult”, one asylum-seeking panelist who wishes to remain anonymous pointed out. Having no health insurance, money, food, shelter, clothing, or social and emotional support is aggravated by language barriers, heavy accents, and a general lack of awareness of United States laws and culture. This gap in foundational support has been addressed by some faith based organizations in the United States, including the members of LGBT-FAN.
Rochelle Fortier-Nwadibia, an attorney on the panel who has worked on asylum cases, eloquently stated that, “This country serves as a beacon of hope for many being persecuted.” If we continue to criminalize, convict and isolate, how are we any different here than they are there? A briefing attendee stated that, “In order for change to happen, there has to be support, a constituency, and political pressure.” One can sign a petition to members of Congress on these issues at: http://www.change.org/petitions/honor-the-human-rights-of-lgbt-asylum-seekers-in-the-u-s. An appropriation bill is rapidly approaching, remind Congress to keep these issues in mind!
The issues previously mentioned would permeate the conversations of the entire retreat and will become fruitful in ways not immediately evident, even to participants. LGBT-FAN members from Washington, D.C. to Chicago, San Francisco, Worcester, MA, New York City, Toronto and New Orleans convened to discuss the group’s role in doing this work including motivation, coordination, strengths and opportunities, leadership, mission, governance, and service gaps that service providers and those newly informed could take on.
The final day’s activities consisted of debriefing, implications, and reflection. I left the retreat with an enormous respect for the people who have dedicated so much of themselves to others, especially when no one else will; for that is the true definition of activism. I left the retreat with a renewed awe for the courage of the individuals who have endured such a terrible pain of the world- hate perpetrated by others, and have survived and thrived despite the seemingly endless forces working against them. I left the retreat with a new state of mind. I no longer feel like the disconnected lone pioneer I once did, but a part of network, a team bound together by an unrelenting passion for human rights and social justice.
Since 1995, The United Nations Climate Change Conference has been held annually at different locations around the world. This year, the conference was held in Warsaw, Poland from November 11th through the 23rd. We were fortunate enough to have Elena Rahona represent the Unitarian Universalist United Nations Office at the conference this year. During this time, she blogged about her thoughts and reactions to the events. Below you will find posts about the ups and downs of these critical negotiations.
Elena Rahona, MS is the Program Manager for Mount Sinai Global Health. She earned her Master’s Degree in International Relations from NYU. Prior to joining the Global Health Team she worked with the Mount Sinai Queens Vanguard Site of the National Children’s Study and spent five years at Mount Sinai’s Adolescent Health Center with the Adolescent Medicine Trials Network, a multicenter research network devoted to the health and well-being of aHIV-infected and at-risk adolescents and young adults.
Message #1: 11/19/13 Greetings from Warsaw
Day two for me and I’ve not yet shaken the grin off my face. Discussing land degradation and desertification over breakfast is a far cry from clinging to a metal subway pole while focusing intently on not spilling my coffee down the freshly pressed shirt of my neighbor. This is what I was hoping for in Warsaw, the chance to be surrounded by like-minded people all fighting the good fight in this world.
I’ve managed to make it to a number of side events where I’ve noticed a distinct rift between those who have faith in the negotiations, and those who are not so convinced in the international community’s ability to come to any sort of meaningful agreements. Regardless, however, the sense of urgency is universal, as is the will to make a difference, in whatever small way possible.
Two things have resonated most with me so far.
Yesterday, one particularly impassioned speaker reiterated over and over again that the knowledge is out there, but the understanding is lacking. Our role is to translate the findings and make them meaningful across sectors. Only then will we see action.
And secondly, I went to another presentation where we learned that in less than a hundred years, the ocean’s pH is expected to drop by .3 to .4 units due to increased CO2 levels. Consider that a mere pH change of .03 units causes extreme health consequences in the human body. Life works within extremely defined and sensitive parameters, and we are destroying it.
The numbers throughout this event are sobering, and so far the experience of being here has made me reflect on the delicacy of our world. It’s something that living in a big city can dull for you, despite thinking about the climate nearly every day.
So I am grateful to be here, and grateful to see such passion, will, and energy. I am grateful to get the chance to engage with people who are trying to make a difference and trying to give us ways to translate facts into action.
I am excited for the next few days to get the chance to talk to more people and to hear about new ideas, new opportunities, and new perspectives.
So thank you to you both. I am very happy to be here!!!!
Program Manager, Mount Sinai Global Health,
Mount Sinai School of Medecine, New York, NY
Message #2: 11/20/13
I’m sitting in the hallway on the little red cushions scattered on the floor, and across from me a government rep from the UK is sweeping his arms around the room and watching everyone grossly engaged in conversations, blogging away on their computers, and all looking terribly important. “This is utter disfunction. No one wants to say it, sitting here giving the illusion of progressing toward something….but I’m tired and hungry, and I’m saying it. Nothing is getting done. It’s actually rather hilarious,” he is saying.
I have to say, despite my unflagging happiness to be here, that I cannot disagree with him. Today has been a day of watching the mounting frustrations. There is much talk of this morning’s walkouts in the negotiations and walkouts even from side events by panelists who are fed up with talking when there is no practical solution in sight for saving their island homelands from the rising tides.
Youth delegations have been kicked out for protesting and voices have been raised during presentations over the Polish government’s denial of visas to large numbers of Africans who were looking to be a part of this event. Do the people really have a voice? Add to this the leaked memo to the US delegation expressing State Department concern about the emerging “destruction and loss” theme and the frustration only intensifies [The memo revealed how US negotiators fear this language will lead to "blame and liability" and that poor nations will thus seek "redress for climate damages." It is a refusal to take any responsibility or change in any significant way.].
The meetings I have gone to today have all asked the question that we all think we are answering in our lives by the plain fact of being here. “What can I do [to make this world a better place]?” There were a lot of answers, but also an inherent understanding that if we really did know, we wouldn’t need to be here.
So it’s frustrating. It almost feels like people here in the bubble of the stadium are separating themselves from those out there. How is it that we know what is happening in this world; that we see a fast moving train to chaos, but that others see no urgency, no real danger apart from some minor inconveniences? This includes some of the delegates who are out on the floor refusing to concede anything. HOW DO THEY NOT GET IT?
The sessions have mostly ended with a resounding pledge to reconvene at next year’s COP with some solid responses. And so it’s back to the man with the sweeping arm, at his sixth COP and counting. “At what point do we all just cash in on our retirement accounts and spend the last days of a still beautiful planet enjoying what it has to offer before it is all taken away?”
I don’t mean to be negative. People will often criticize climate activists for being too negative, too pessimistic. But it is hard not to be. This is the state we are in. You can’t sugar coat it and call it a candy cane.
Will there be any resolution in the next two days? We will know very soon. But in the meantime, we can continue to exchange ideas, meet new people, and work to do our parts. For one outcome is very clear. Giving up is not the answer.
Message #3: 11/21/13: Volveremos, we will return.
A large group of civil society reps have just left the building. As the hours wind down, they have reached their despondency tipping point and staged a walkout. The corporate agenda and backtracking nations (notably Australia, Canada, and Japan) have clouded over any chance of being heard, they feel.
Walking down a corridor I stumbled on an interview Amy Goodman (my absolute hero!) was conducting for Democracy Now! with one of the youth leaders of the mass exodus. “We have not given up hope,” said the representative. On the contrary, they are planning to take this time to regroup and come back stronger than ever at COP 20 in Lima. Civil society must have a voice. The poor, marginalized, and most vulnerable have the most to lose, and yet they have been systematically overlooked here.
As I wrote about yesterday, there has been a lot of emphasis on communications and messaging over the course of the last few days. How can we effectively convince the world that inaction can no longer be tolerated?
I decided to forgo lunchtime meetings today and instead sit in the cafeteria with a beer. I wanted to ask those around me (this is where the beer helps) what they personally felt was going wrong with getting people to pay attention. Frustration once again ruled the conversations.
Everyone realizes that people respond much more eagerly if a positive spin is somehow tacked onto any type of call to action. But as we careen towards a 4 degree hike in temperature (as revealed to us yesterday from results of a new study), it is ever more difficult to have anything remotely flowery to say.
One woman, a Spaniard (they tend to talk with their hands a lot) flailed her arms about and said she was ready to stockpile on beer and retire to her apartment. A US delegate likewise commented that he was at a loss.
“Nature does not negotiate,” was the line making its way around the halls yesterday in the wake of the NGO walkout.
Nature does not compromise. This is the intended message of the activists.
I was thinking about this message last night as a speaker from a panel on the ethical and moral obligations to fight climate injustice begged “scrap the damn lines about saving the planet!” This argument has not worked, he says. This argument is not correct. The planet does not need saving. Regardless of how much we warm, shatter, and abuse, its existence is not threatened. The great earth will keep on spinning for millions of years to come, with or without us.
It’s life, pure and simple, that is in dire need of a rescue. And though the polar bears, and dolphins, and trees are as crucial to our world as any other living creature, in defiance of Poland’s own national hero [Copernicus], this is not the time to suppress our solipsistic urges.
Climate Change is about people. This is the angle that will get the attention.
I found this sentence in a recent article from the Guardian talking about the growing gap in the climate talks between the pledge to keep global warming below 2C and the extent of the current policies to make good on this promise. “When I say gap, I really mean a chasm. And when I say chasm, I mean a huge, gaping, canyon-like hole big enough to either eat a planet or at least lose an Earth or a carbon dioxide swamped Venus down there for a while.”
The gaps are formidable. They are overwhelming to say the least. The gaps in the policies, the gaps in the messages, the gaps in the answers. Mercifully, however there are some gaps that are beginning to close (see, I am capable of positive messages). Two in particular have emerged on top over the course of the week, both fundamentally orbiting around people.
Climate change is, at its core, a human rights issue. There is no dignified life without a safe environment. Period. The poor and marginalized are the most vulnerable to climate change outcomes. Period. We cannot allow violations to mount. We have a moral imperative to end the injustice.
It’s surprising that the human rights lens was so late to the climate change dialogue. But it has arrived in force and there is much work being done to make rights-based advocacy central to climate change negotiations. It is a gap with sizable space to fill and ample room to make a substantial impact.
Climate change action manifests via climate change data. This has been made equally clear over the course of the week, along with the other gap that the world is quickly looking to fill. For the numbers that are beginning to perk the policy maker’s attention are the numbers that relate to human health. Consider that China’s latest move to curb emissions was driven in large part by the numbers released regarding air pollution and mortality.
It should be so obvious that breathing pollution is as deadly as inhaling cigarette smoke. But no one cared to make the link until the scientists began to crunch the numbers. It was a sobering day when statistics revealed that while malaria is responsible for around 900,000 deaths annually, pollution (indoor and outdoor) kills upwards of 7,000,000. That’s seven million. Every year.
Someone needed to collect the data and do the math. But once they did, people paid attention. There are vast chasms of health data that still must be generated, but as noted, focusing on climate change’s direct effects on people above all else is proving to be a very powerful call to action.
Thus, as we wait to hear what progress has been made here in Warsaw, the urgency to DO SOMETHING becomes ever stronger. What can we do? We can remind the world that when one person suffers, we all suffer, and that climate change is the ultimate indignity. We can also focus more attention on producing meaningful data. Linking climate change to human health is a growing field. The more we understand just how profound the consequences are to our living healthy, productive lives, the more the world will listen. Or so we can hope.
The sound of laughter, smooth jazz, and the clink of champagne glasses rose out of Reidy Hall, located in the lower level of All Souls in New York City, on Friday evening, November 8th, 2013. Old friends were gathered around tables adorned with elegant flowing table cloths, felt snow, and glorious candlelight. Some had come from Boston, some from New York, some even from as far away as California, all to gather and celebrate the Unitarian Universalist United Nations Office and raise funds for the continued realization of its mission.
Intern and aspirant for Unitarian Universalist Ministry, Dylan Debelis, welcomed people into the space, lighting the chalice while reflecting on a meditation written by late All Souls minister, Reverend Forrest Church. This welcome was followed with a warm greeting by UU-UNO Director, Bruce Knotts.
Bruce recounted the necessary Human Rights work the UU-UNO participates in and explored the incredible journey the UU-UNO has been on over its past fifty-one years of service. He then introduced Dr. Holly Atkinson who in turn introduced Ken Roth, the Executive Director of Human Rights Watch, and the UU-UNO’s Humanitarian of the Year. Ken Roth’s speech highlighted heart wrenching human rights atrocities taking place around the world and stressed the role of Human Rights Watch, the UU-UNO, and other human rights organizations’ in fighting these atrocities.
Coming back from a quick break where final bids were placed on a cornucopia of fabulous items at the silent auction Dylan again took the stage to share a poetic reflection on human rights. Bringing in experiences from his time studying in India, Tanzania, and Mexico Dylan underlined the necessity of Unitarian Universalists to fight social injustice on both a global and local level. This period of reflection was ended with a moment of silence to stand in solidarity with all those who suffer daily all around the globe and to reaffirm the Unitarian Universalist calling to work tirelessly for peace.
Dylan then introduced Dr. Marilyn Meher, UU-UNO Advisory Board Member, who presented the first award for outstanding volunteer efforts to Frank Patton. Frank was the pro-bono lawyer who worked ceaselessly to make the merger process between the UU-UNO and the UUA as seamless as possible. UU-UNO Envoy Coordinator, Kamila Jacob and UU-UNO Office and Intern Coordinator, Nickie Tiedeman then introduced a second volunteer award for the flawless filming and editing of the 2013 Intergenerational Spring Seminar to Janice Keuhnelian. This was followed by a 2 minute clip of the Spring Seminar video followed by an uproariously round of applause. Watch the video here!
The event concluded with a fabulous live auction led by experienced auctioneer, Armand Paganelli. Armand engaged the audience from the start, starting the auction by graciously raffling off a hundred dollar bill from his pocket. The audience began bidding immediately and a sense of friendly competiveness filled the room. Guests began bidding higher and higher. All inclusive vacations, private fitness classes, artwork, and other items were sold to the highest bidder.
The last item to be bid on, a chance to sponsor the UU-UNO’s 2014 Intergenerational Spring Seminar, was by far the most successful. Collectively, people came together to raise over twelve thousand dollars for the cause. Bruce, nearly speechless at the generosity of his friends and colleagues, concluded the night by reciting moving words of appreciation and camaraderie.
Bellies full of food, drink, and gratitude, each person smiled wide as they left through the church doors into the cool autumn air. Many claimed that this would be an annual event they would certainly not miss anytime soon.
Get excited for UN Sunday! To celebrate UN Day (October 24th), the UU-UNO posted readings to be used for a UN Sunday service or event. We invited our UU-UNO Envoys (and any passionate congregants) to host UN Sunday service or event and focus on this year’s topic: Sex, Love and Violence: Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity in a Globalized World. A 2013 UN Sunday resource packet is available for download at www.uua.org/unsunday.
Our final featured contribution in this years UN Sunday Readings blog is by Annette Marquis. Annette Marquis serves as LGBTQ and Multicultural Programs Director for the Unitarian Universalist Association. She is the author of Resistance: A Memoir of Civil Disobedience in Maricopa County from Skinner House Books. Learn more about multicultural programming by getting involved in the Ministries Sharing Project and take the survey now: www.uua.org/sharingproject.
The Wonder of Us All
Nothing is more sacred than the human body. It is the essence of life. From the glint in our eyes to the formation of our toes, the assembly of molecules that make up each individual human being is as unique as a flame rising from a lighted chalice. None is us is exactly alike – none of the 7.2 billion people on our planet today or the billions that have come before us is exactly alike. The mystery and wonder of that reality is beyond human comprehension. It is what makes life sacred.
Because holding this degree of diversity is so challenging, over the centuries, we have created categories in which to place people: gender, skin color, size, nationality, ability, points of view, belief. These categories help us to organize the world, to simplify the complexities that life offers, to make sense of what can overwhelm us. We find comfort in people who look like us, act like us, have customs we understand, believe in issues that are consistent with our own.
None of these categories has been as simply defined as gender identity and the expectation of sexual/affectional orientation. Is it a boy or a girl? Male or female. Man or woman. However, we say it, the meaning is clear. You are one or the other. There have only been two choices available to us – no in-betweens, no exceptions. Which one you are assigned at birth defines what is expected of you, the gender roles you are assigned. If you’re a boy, you’re expected to be strong, to fight, to lead. And, if you’re a girl, you are expected to be soft, gentle, and submissive. Boys grow up to marry women. A girl’s job is to find a good husband.
In the 21st century of the common era, in what has been called the third wave of feminism, we have begun to recognize, and in some cases, even accept that not all people fit neatly into this binary definition of what it means to be human. Our bodies might not be clearly defined with male or female organs, or in some cases, might be inconsistent with our psychological identity. And who we find attractive, who we come to love, is not limited to the so-called “opposite sex.”
For every person to be fully honored in the unique and sacred package that makes them human, we are challenged to let go of the categories that have brought us comfort in the past. Our deepest, most spiritual task is to open our minds and our hearts to the beauty that lives in the differences between us.
For some of us, this opens up the world and increases our understanding of the challenges that people face. Through this, we develop empathy for and feel a connection to their mutual humanity that would never have been possible before.
For others of us, letting go of the binary categories of gender identity and sexual orientation is discomforting, even scary. We experience the differences as threatening, and in some cases, even immoral. Rather than reach out to develop better understanding, we retreat further into the safety of our own limited lives.
As some places in the world have become more accepting, other places are passing new laws to force people back into the categories they have determined to be acceptable. As a result, people who are perceived to be different are bullied, beaten, fired, thrown out of their homes, driven to suicide, jailed, and, in way too many instances, even killed.
Which type of person are you? Is your world constantly open to new discoveries, to being transformed by what you learn from others, to the unique and wondrous differences between us? Or is it shut down, walled off, fearful of change?
The choice you make matters. How you live your daily life within your own family, with your children, and your grandchildren, your colleagues at work, the people in your congregation matters. Your advocacy for just laws and equal treatment matters. Your witness to what it means to be uniquely, divinely, sacredly human matters.
If you’re worried about knowing all the terminology, all the definitions, all the new categories that people of today are claiming for themselves, it’s OK to let that go. Sure, it’s great to feel informed, to be knowledgeable, but all you really have to do is be open to the differences.
“Tell me about your life and let me tell you about mine.”
Our contribution this week is a poem written by Lucas Ryan. Lucas Ryan is a junior at Topeka High School in Topeka, Kansas. He is president of the debate and forensics program at Topeka High. He loves attending youth CONs and the UU-UNO Intergenerational Spring Seminar. This piece was written for the poetry slam at the 2013 Intergenerational Spring Seminar on gloabl LGBTQ human rights.