Archive for May, 2010

Leader’s Lunch Discussion – Domestic Issues -June 2010

May 19, 2010

In June we return to the state of Domestic Affairs and discuss terrorism, economics, politics, and racism. Join us from noon to 1:30 PM on Thursdays in the Elliott Library (room 507) of the NY Society for Ethical Culture.

6/3 – Terrorism in the Big Apple – various articles

6/10 – “Building a Green Economy” by Paul Krugman, NY Times Magazine, 4/5/10

6/17 – “Race in the South in the Age of Obama” by Nicholas Dawidoff, NY Times Magazine, 2/28/10

6/24 – Tea Party Movement – various articles

Leader’s Message – “A Woman of Grace” – June 2010

May 19, 2010

She approached me at lunch during the Justice for Juveniles Conference on April 24 with tears in her eyes and asked if she could gather the handouts that would be distributed in the afternoon sessions because she was unable to stay. She and her husband had to leave to catch a bus to visit their son, the youngest of six children, at Spofford (recently renamed Bridges) Juvenile Center in the Bronx.

All morning she had listened to speakers recounting the atrocities committed in youth detention centers – staff responding to minor incidents with excessive force, resulting in serious injuries to inmates – and now she was on her way to the worst of these.

All morning she heard about the financial and human waste in the juvenile justice system – $240,000 per incarcerated child per year with a recidivism rate of 89 percent while funds to keep youth out of detention are being slashed – and now she wept for her son’s future.

All morning she was confronted with blatant racism – African-Americans and Latinos make up than less a third of the city’s youth population and more than 90 percent of its confined youth – and now she was thanking me, a white woman of privilege, for hosting an event that gave her only a glimmer of hope.

I wondered how she could be so gracious. Throughout the process of preparing for this conference, I experienced persistent outrage born out of moral incredulity. Professionals in the field have long been aware of the violations to children’s rights endemic to the juvenile justice system. If no longer outraged, they were also not hardened, and seemed relieved to share the burden of their knowledge with others. Perhaps there was hope, after all, if so many people came to spend a Saturday together to find a better way to serve our children in trouble.

We will meet again, this coalition of individuals and organizations, on Wednesday, July 21, at the NY Society to delve deeper into the problems that beset this broken system and to target our efforts in support of alternatives to incarceration, programs to keep at-risk youth engaged in creative activities, and protection for youth in detention centers. Join us and bring others with you. Be prepared to take a stand and make a difference.

You can start now by signing a petition at to close Spofford. If the city’s community-based alternatives to detention were used correctly, the city would not need to operate three juvenile detention complexes. It is time for the city to honor its longstanding commitment to close this troubled youth jail and consolidate its secure detention population within the two new facilities—Horizons and Crossroads.

My work moving forward now has someone to inspire it – a gracious woman who loves her son and wants him back home with his family.

Leader’s Message – “Moral Injury” – May 2010

May 19, 2010

On Sunday, March 21, a public hearing of the Truth Commission on Conscience in War was held at Riverside Church in Manhattan. It was inspired by the documentary film “Soldiers of Conscience” ( and brought together testifiers, including veterans and conscientious objectors of the Iraq War, who talked about their brutal experiences; expert witnesses on religious and legal understandings of war who discussed its impact on society; and almost eighty commissioners from across the country and from many faith traditions who listened.

I was fortunate enough to serve as a commissioner, representing the NY Society for Ethical Culture and the American Ethical Union, both of which co-sponsored this historic event. On Monday the commissioners met to deliberate over the testimony we had heard and to start the process of writing a report on our findings. The most important concept I learned was “moral injury.” Veterans said they could no longer hide the truth of what they had witnessed and done; they had become disclosers and teachers. Many, including Tyler E. Bourdeau, author of the memoir Packing Inferno: The Unmaking of a Marine, spoke of post-traumatic stress in terms of moral injury, not a psychological disorder, and longed for a community of conversation where they could speak and be heard.

To my dismay, none of the students in the freshman seminar I teach at Adelphi University had ever heard about conscientious objection until I screened “Soldiers of Conscience,” and most of them were adamantly against it. “If someone volunteers for the military,” one student said, “then it’s a commitment. I wouldn’t want to serve with anyone who decided one day not to fight.” Somehow volunteering, as opposed to being drafted, made a difference; although there wasn’t much sympathy for CO’s from past wars either.

How times have changed, I thought. When I was a college freshman, my campus, with countless others across the country, was engaged in peace activism from the classroom to the interfaith chapel house. We rallied and marched, burned draft cards and offered sanctuary to conscientious objectors. My students seemed impervious to the plight of a soldier who, perhaps after relentless recruitment or economic need, signed a contract at the age of seventeen and later realized he just couldn’t kill another person. How, I wondered, would they console the Gold Star mother of a Pennsylvania National Guardsman who was killed in Baghdad searching for weapons of mass destruction? The courage I recognized in people who took a stand against violence they saw as cowardice.

So I talked about the moral injury that one suffers in war, the “crystallization of conscience,” as the military guidelines phrase it, that one can experience, and drew their attention to the epidemic of suicides and domestic abuse among returning soldiers. I recommended that they read Mr. Bourdeau’s book, and I close this message with his wise words: “While counselors strive diligently to never ask about the morality of war, there will be a great many veterans who cannot stop asking: ‘Is this war just?’ . . . For a veteran, sharing war stories is part of the process of reintegration into his community. . .

War stories also have a moral value. . . The ethical problem of war is no small issue and demands the attention of all people.”

To learn more about the Truth Commission and to follow its work, visit the website at