Archive for March, 2013

Reflection on Shootings in Newtown, CT: January 2013

March 21, 2013

Our hearts break when children die, and we feel moral outrage when they are killed. The shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School on Friday, December 14, call forth both our love and a commitment to stop such violence. Twenty children and six adults were killed at the school by a deeply disturbed young man, barely more than a child himself, who had at his disposal deadly automatic weapons owned by his mother, whom
he had shot earlier at their home. It came as no great surprise that he ended his barrage of bullets – and his inner torment – by killing himself.

In the midst of shock and mourning came the public analysis, the human impulse to give voice to the unspeakable: a cacophony of words about mental illness, gun control, and a society poisoned by violence. One teacher said, “I can’t imagine who would do this to our poor little babies.” The truth is: We all did it. Every time a tragedy of this nature strikes – and there have been far too many in this country – we hear that it is disrespectful to talk the politics of gun control. Comfort the families, tighten safety procedures in public spaces, and dissect the perpetrator’s personality. But let’s not talk about the proliferation of weapons that rapidly fire multiple rounds and accommodate large magazines. We’re not talking about hunting deer; these weapons, so easily available to disturbed individuals, are instruments of murder.

When he addressed the nation, President Obama said, “We’re going to have to come together and take
meaningful action to prevent more tragedies like this, regardless of the politics.” Saving lives is not “political.” Taking concerted action to control guns is an ethical imperative.

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Leader’s Message – “Lessons From Sandy” – December 2012

March 21, 2013

The superstorm that rocked our world last month brought out the best and the worst in humanity. Even as volunteers from near and far prepared to make their way to ravaged areas in New York and New Jersey, a Staten Island mother of two young sons lost her grip on them as water pounded their car and swept them away from her. No one behind the doors on which she knocked would help her look for them or let her call 911. She spent that storm-tossed night on the front porch of an empty house, and the next day rescuers found her children’s bodies.

What lessons have we learned? And, if we have learned anything, will we actually change our behavior?

Human nature is unlikely to change. Those who rush to the scene of a disaster will continue to do so; those who cower behind closed doors will stay hidden; and those who lose lives and property will always suffer. How can we, as intentionally ethical community, make a difference? Here are three areas that deserve our attention:

• Global climate change

The debate in the scientific community is not over whether humans have changed the climate, but the impact this change has had and what measures can be taken to stop it. Three years ago, the NYC Panel on Climate Change made a prediction in its report: “In the coming decades, our coastal city will most likely face more rapidly rising sea levels and warmer temperatures, as well as potentially more droughts and floods, which will all have impacts on New York City’s critical infrastructure.” While we look to other cities like Venice, London, Rotterdam and Tokyo, where there are sea walls, levees and wetlands, flood plains and floating city blocks, we realize that we are far behind – and paying dearly for it.

Sandy may well be a modest preview of dangers yet to come, especially if we continue to burn fuels that pollute the air with heat-trapping gases. The journal Nature Climate Change suggested that no matter how quickly we cut this pollution, we are unlikely to keep the seas from climbing less than five feet. To see the possible impact on your home, visit SurgingSeas.org which posts maps and analyses for every low-lying coastal community in the contiguous United States.

It is incumbent upon us to learn the facts, to pull others out of their denial, and to promote every effort to reduce our dependence on fossil fuels and use clean energy.

• Occupy Sandy

“Just after [political writer] Thomas Frank declared Occupy [Wall Street] dead, killed by its own fascination with process and language, I walked into St. Jacobi Church in Sunset Park Friday and saw so many familiar faces, not sitting around debating about the revolution, but doing hard, necessary, practical work to feed and clothe and support swathes of the city reeling from the superstorm.” Sarah Jaffe

The National Guard, Red Cross, and FEMA (Federal Emergency Management Agency) raced to storm-ravaged areas and found veterans of the Occupy movement already there, coordinating the delivery of basic necessities and filling a void where these establishment first-responders fell short. Volunteers immediately developed relationships with local neighborhood organizations and got to work. Here’s what you can do to support their ongoing efforts: Donate supplies that people really need through Occupy Sandy’s “Wedding Registries” at http://interoccupy.net/occupysandy/wedding-registries/ where coordinators on the ground post what they need, and you buy the items on Amazon to have them shipped to the various locations.

• Politics

Asked on Fox News whether then presidential candidate Mr. Romney might tour damage of his state, Governor Chris Christie was dismissive: “I have no idea, nor am I the least bit concerned or interested. I have a job to do in New Jersey that is much bigger than presidential politics. “If you think right now I give a damn about presidential politics, then you don’t know me.”

Democracy requires an engaged citizenry; it’s not enough to vote in elections. According to Michael Kimmelman (“Vetoing Business as Usual After the Storm,” NY Times, 11/19/12), the problem we now face “is not technological or, from a long-term cost-benefit perspective, financial. Rather it is the existential challenge to the messy democracy we’ve devised.”

For example, over the years, authorities in New York and New Jersey have allowed heavy development of at-risk coastal areas, and federal flood insurance is a way that taxpayers subsidize building and rebuilding in places destined for future storms. Making changes that will undoubtedly upend lives and restructure communities means not only untangling miles of red tape, but also finding new ways of living together.

Together, as an ethical community, we can learn more, advocate for necessary changes and engage our neighbors in creating a society that meets the needs of everyone.

Leader’s Message – “A Visit to Rikers Island” – February 2013

March 21, 2013

The first impression I had of this island that sits between the boroughs of Queens and the Bronx was one of desolation, but perhaps that was because I went there knowing its purpose as a prison. Watch enough “Law and Order” television shows and you become familiar with Rikers. It sounds ominous, and it is. Studying a map before my trip, it looked like one could leap from the eastern coast of the island onto the tip of a runway at LaGuardia airport, but there’s only one bridge from Queens to Rikers and plenty of barbed wire fences. Sanitary landfill enlarged this once 90-acre island to 400 acres accommodating ten major jails and an average of 15,000 inmates. There are also a bakery, laundry, infirmary, print and tailor shops, maintenance and transportation divisions, and a power plant. The facilities were situated high enough to withstand Super Storm Sandy with neither flooding nor power outage, and no one was evacuated.

So why did I make this trek? I was invited by the Osborne Association to attend a graduation and luncheon on December 4th for the latest class of Fresh Start & Family Works Parenting Program. Osborne was founded in 1933 “to create opportunities for people affected by the criminal justice system to further develop their strengths and lead lives of responsibility and contribution.” Fresh Start and Family Works are two of its many programs, the former offering training in culinary arts, computer literacy, and life skills; the latter teaching men how to better communicate with their children and become better parents. I rode on the bus with the graduates’ families and other guests. The children were dressed up in suits and dresses; most of their mothers said they saw no point in dressing up since they would have to remove all their accessories before entering the social hall. I learned this when I had to deposit my jewelry and scarf in a locker. My wedding ring wouldn’t budge, so I was allowed to wear it through the metal detector and into the room where I was patted down by a prison matron.

The nineteen inmate graduates were decked out in royal blue gowns and black mortarboard caps. They looked resplendent and beamed at the assemblage. What a proud day this was for them! The speakers, including NYC Department of Correction Commissioner Dr. Dora Schriro, Osborne Executive Director Liz Gaynes, and NYC Council Member Danny Dromm, kept their remarks mercifully short to allow more time for families to reconnect. I drifted slowly around the room, taking it all in: correction officers on guard, teachers and board members from Osborne schmoozing with elected officials and their staff, children racing around and babies being passed around, laughter over photographs snapped and shared, the hubbub of human interaction within the walls of a prison. The inevitable “it’s a small world” moment came when I chatted with a deputy warden and discovered that she had interned at the NY Society twenty years ago with the supervised visitation program. Now we are partnering with Osborne to offer supported televisitation between children in an office at our meeting house and their incarcerated parents.

We talk about change and yet few of us believe it’s possible. Even when we devise programs for organizational change and dedicate ourselves to personal transformation, a small, persistent voice whispers, “People don’t really change. Things stay the same.” But I witnessed hope that day on Rikers, and it was real. Change seems possible because it’s so arduous; it takes time, strength and patience – and unconditional love.

I could only imagine the lives of the families I celebrated with and knew that I was an outsider, someone untouched, but not unmoved, by their tragedies. Life is unfair: an overwhelming majority of inmates on Rikers and in every prison across the country are people of color. Mass incarceration is a racial phenomenon that is a moral outrage calling out for justice. We can make a difference by joining the efforts of our ethical societies and the American Ethical Union to humanize criminal justice.

The last speaker at the ceremony was graduate Michael Raplye, who read his poem, “I am from.”

I am from loneliness, pain and failure
I am from mistakes, misfortune, mis-opportunity
I am from insanity and dismay
I am from drugs, crime and jail
Having brought to light what I am – or was
It’s not where I’m going. Not any more.
I am from change and new beginnings
I am from the future that I’ve painted, my picture
I am from tomorrow, which I live today.

Leader’s Message – “Workers Rising: A New Movement” – March 2013

March 21, 2013

“Pamela Waldron makes $7.75 an hour as a cashier at the KFC in New York’s Penn Station, where she has worked for eight years. That’s just 50 cents above the New York state minimum wage. The 26-year old nursing student, and mother of two, says she has asked for a raise but her pleas have gone unheeded for weeks. Finally, on Thursday, around lunchtime she joined a protest of about 40 fast food workers who walked out of their shifts, carrying placards and shouting slogans to bring attention to their cause of fighting for higher wages and the right to unionize.”- CNN, 11/29/12

Pamela took part in the biggest wave of job actions in the history of America’s fast-food industry, and on March 5 she’ll do it again, along with thousands like her across our city. Under the banner “Fast Food Forward,” workers are demanding a $15 hourly wage and the right to organize for improved conditions free from employer intimidation. I’ll be there to support her. Will you?

When you go into a fast food restaurant or a retail store, do you notice the people who serve you? Do you really see them and talk with them? I do now, but I didn’t so much until I became active in an interfaith clergy coalition for economic justice. Now I know that although the stereotypical fast food employee is a teenager earning some money for an iPhone, the reality is very different. Nationally, the average age of the person behind the counter is 29.5, and among women – who make up two thirds of the industry – the median age is over 32.

And what about retail workers? Again, although the perception is that they are primarily teenagers or students, the truth is that about 78 percent of all retail workers in New York City are 25 years and older, and half are over 35. They contribute 60 percent of their families’ income and over one-third are their families’ sole providers.

Here are some troubling facts about our city: 1) The unemployment rate nearly doubled from 5.3 percent in 2007 to 9.7 percent today*, with an average duration of 42 weeks; 2) the percentage of New Yorkers living in poverty rose from 15 percent in 1970 to 21 percent in 2011; 3) according to The NY Times (9/20/12), “the income gap, already wider than almost anywhere else in the country, rivals disparities in sub-Saharan Africa;” and 4) the growing sectors of the city’s economy feature low-wage, no-benefit jobs with no hope for upward mobility.

At a recent symposium hosted by CUNY’s Murphy Institute Labor Center, I met workers who walk hours to their jobs because they can’t afford public transportation and who are forced into “underemployment” because employers keep their schedules in constant flux, requiring them to call in to find out whether they should come in to work. Long gone is the employer-employee relationship with a social contract; businesses want temporary workers, independent contractors, and “free agents” so that they need not pay workers compensation, health benefits, social security, pension, etc.

But 2013 will be a turning point for New York City. Inspired by the Occupy Wall Street movement that drew attention to stark income/wealth inequality and challenged the dominant logic of social organizing, workers are creating new campaigns demanding an end to employment violations and standing up for a living wage. Below are four sets of actions that NYC government could take to improve life for low-wage workers. You can read the entire report at the following links: Workers Rising: Organizing Service Jobs for Shared Prosperity in New York City, at http://unitedny.org/files/2012/07/UNY-Workers-Rising-Report-part-1.pdf and http://unitedny.org/files/2012/07/UNY-Workers-Rising-Report-Part-2.pdf

I plan to stand together with my fellow New Yorkers on March 5, and I hope you will join me. This is an ethical movement not only for economic justice but also for dignity and respect on the job.

* 14.4 percent among blacks, 12.8 percent among Hispanics, over 10 percent among people without a college degree, and 17 percent among adults aged 18-24.

* * * * *
First, the City should raise standards for low wage work by passing legislation to guarantee at least five days of paid sick leave for workers – such as the Earned Sick Leave Act – and to protect workers from erratic and unpredictable scheduling that keeps them in poverty – such as the Predictable Scheduling Act.
Second, New York should regulate high-violation industries where wages are low and labor abuses are rampant by passing laws like the Car Wash Accountability Act and establishing an enhanced privilege permitting system at Port Authority airports. Such policies should impose new licensing or permitting requirements, tighten environmental and safety standards, and implement other tailored policies that increase oversight of the lowest-wage, highest-violation industries.
Third, in order to ensure that these new rights make a meaningful difference in workers’ lives, the City should establish a Mayor’s Office of Labor Standards to educate employers about their obligations, investigate complaints by workers that employers are violating the law, and bring enforcement actions in particularly egregious cases.
Fourth, New York City should pass a resolution urging the State to modify the City’s home rule authority so that the City can set a minimum wage that is higher than the state minimum, reflecting the high cost of living here

Leader’s Message – “Steubenville Ethics” – April 2013

March 21, 2013

In addition to being a pastor and ethicist, I’m also married and the mother of a son and daughter in their late 20’s. Why reveal this? Because of the thousands of words I have read about the tragedy that has unfolded in Steubenville, Ohio, few mentioned the families involved. From August 2012 when a 16-year old girl was raped to last month when two teenage boys were convicted of that crime, we have learned the names of all the individuals involved and have been treated to analyses of their adolescent behavior. The ethos of a community that makes heroes of its athletes, and places them on pedestals above social scrutiny, has also been discussed at length. But what of the families that nurtured these children and, one hopes, gave them their first lessons in morality?

My children remember a colorful sign I posted on the refrigerator when they were very young: “Use Words!” It was a reminder to think before hitting – and then not to hit. (As their vocabulary grew, I inserted the adjective “kind.”) At the dinner table, we would review the day and discuss behavior in terms of what was kind and fair, understanding that often one couldn’t be both at the same time. What parent hasn’t heard a child exclaim, “She hit me for no good reason!” and then talk about what a good reason might be and how conflict might be handled? Children experience injury at a young age and can distinguish right from wrong long before their frontal lobes – the part of the brain that asks “What is the consequence of this action?” – are fully connected. Society is right to take brain development into consideration when sentencing youthful offenders, but wrong to believe that they don’t recognize the harm they have done.

The “poor boys,” as some have described the Steubenville rapists, knew they were hurting someone. The other teenagers who witnessed their crime also knew it and were wrong in exploiting it for social media pleasure. Their collective depravity is a moral outrage that cannot be excused by “They didn’t know any better.” They knew and they chose. They may be sorry now – or not, but we, as a moral society, must hold them responsible for their behavior.

My family has discussed this moral tragedy since it first appeared in the news. We are by no means naïve about human behavior, and yet this shocked us. From the abuse of alcohol and drugs to the physical abuse of rape and the emotional abuse of posting on social media, we asked, “Where are their families?” This case has not been resolved with court sentences; it never will be. It calls for restorative justice, a process that focuses on the needs of victims, offenders and the community. Some abstract legal principle may have been satisfied, but there is much work still to be done. Let us hope that this story does not end here and that ethical leaders come forward to encourage everyone involved to take responsibility for their actions and lack of action, to make amends to the victim, and to repair a community that lost its moral compass.