Archive for June, 2013

New York City Council Committee on Civil Service and Labor Hearing on Wage Theft Testimony: 6/27/13

June 27, 2013

My name is Anne Klaeysen, and I am Leader of the New York Society for Ethical Culture, a congregation that has long fought for social and economic justice. I am here today to cry out on behalf of workers across this city for a living wage. Our founder, Felix Adler, back in 1880, proposed a “maximum,” not a “minimum” wage to remedy the gross disparity between the haves and the have-nots. Tragically, we face an economy today not unlike that in 1880.

Fast food companies are some of the wealthiest corporations in America, yet many fast food workers are forced to rely on public assistance to keep the roof over their families’ heads and food on the table. I have broken bread with workers who walk to their jobs because they cannot afford public transportation: an hour and more on foot to a job that pays $7.25 an hour and perpetuates harsh conditions.

It is unethical for giant fast food multinational corporations to make billions while their employees are dependent on food stamps and Medicaid. The workers know this, and they are standing up to do something about it. I stand with them, and so should every New Yorker. We have always pulled together in times of crisis, and this time is no different.

Our neighbors need us! Together we can make a difference in their lives and our communities. Stand together today and every day for what is right and just, not just for the few, but for every one of us.

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NOTE: I read this statement at a press conference on the steps of City Hall, and it was entered into the record at the City Council hearing.

Leader Message – “Bearing Witness to Homelessness” – Summer 2013

June 24, 2013

On Thursday evening, May 30, I participated in an interfaith service at St. Paul’s Chapel in lower Manhattan, then joined a candlelight procession to City Hall Park where I invoked the words of Ethical Culture Leader Algernon Black: “This is the call to the living, to those who refuse to make peace with evil, with the suffering and waste of the world.” When the gates to the park were locked by the police at midnight, I rolled out my sleeping bag on the sidewalk and nestled alongside my fellow witnesses to homelessness, marking the 25th anniversary of the overnight vigil that became a 200-day encampment calling itself “Homeward Bound Community Services,” but dubbed by the media “Kochville.” A book documenting its story, Sleeping with the Mayor by John Jiles, is the Ethics in Literature selection for August 4th.

I wondered whether I would be able to sleep. The sidewalk, even with a cushion was hard, and the traffic on Broadway ceaseless. New York truly is a city that never sleeps – and never turns out the lights. Some of my companions sang, played instruments, danced, read, told stories, ate and drank. I looked around me at this great city I call home, knowing that if it became too hard to bear, I could take the subway back to Brooklyn and crawl into my own bed. I could wake up refreshed in the morning, take a shower and get dressed, and still make it back to the steps of City Hall by 9 am the next morning for the press conference.

But I didn’t. I stayed. And I must have slept because I awoke to the shrill call of a bird overhead and remembered what my father once said when he visited: “I’ll take a barnyard rooster any day over the racket of NYC birds.” I had “slept rough” on a Broadway sidewalk and was now waiting for the Starbucks across the street to open so that I could avail myself of its bathroom and purchase a skim cappuccino. Later, we who remained gathered in to share our reflections, and I gave a “humanist blessing” while we held hands, passing a squeeze from person to person around the circle. The press conference was anti-climatic: few mayoral candidates and fewer media – just another ordinary day.

Here is a snapshot of a day in March 2013 among New York City’s Homeless Shelter Population:

• Total number of homeless people in municipal shelters: 50,748
• Number of homeless families: 12,121
• Number of homeless children: 21,219
• Number of homeless adults in families: 18,490
• Number of homeless single adults: 11,039
• Number of homeless single men: 8,244
• Number of homeless single women: 2,795

The latest Census Bureau figures show the city’s poverty rate catapulted to 20.1% last year, its highest point in more than 10 years. Anti-poverty groups say working-class people are increasingly falling to the bottom of the economic food chain – those whose hours are cut back or lose the second job that paid for clothes and food.

Mayor Michael Bloomberg pledged to slash homelessness by two-thirds by 2009. However, according to the Coalition for the Homeless, the shelter population has risen 61 percent while Mr. Bloomberg has been mayor, propelled by a 73 percent increase in homeless families. His administration is meeting its legal obligation by filling the city’s shelters to bursting. But, by ending housing subsidies, the city has no transitional housing support for the homeless. “The Department of Homeless Services seems to be operating in a time warp,” said Steven Banks, the attorney in chief for the Legal Aid Society and lead lawyer in homeless family litigation against the city since the 1980s. “Its policies fly in the face of everything we’ve learned in the last 30 years.”

And what does Mayor Bloomberg say? On the day when the above statistical snapshot was taken, he fumed that New York State’s guarantee to shelter the homeless means “you can arrive in your private jet at Kennedy Airport, take a private limousine and go straight to the shelter system, and walk in the door and we’ve got to give you shelter.” It costs taxpayers an average of $36,799 a year to shelter a family, according to city data, far more than it would to simply subsidize its rent.

I knew all of this before sleeping outside City Hall Park on May 30th. After all, the NY Society has run a shelter since 1982, and I serve on the clergy advisory council of the interfaith Emergency Shelter Network. But until that night my empathy was theoretical. The next morning I literally felt it in my bones. We have now joined another coalition: United to End Homelessness. It includes advocates, homeless and formerly homeless individuals, service providers, faith leaders, and experts on the issue of homelessness in New York City. Our goal is to highlight New York City’s homelessness crisis during the 2013 mayoral election. Our next mayor must do better, and we will make sure that she or he does.

Leader message – “Juneteenth: A Reflection on Race” – June 2013

June 24, 2013

Years ago an Africa-American friend who grew up in Texas told me about Juneteenth, a holiday also known as Freedom Day or Emancipation Day, that commemorates the announcement of the abolition of slavery in Texas. President Abraham Lincoln issued the final version of the Emancipation Proclamation on January 1, 1863, but it took more than two years – on June 19, 1865 – for Union soldiers to deliver the news to Texas.

The proclamation declared “that all persons held as slaves” within the rebellious states “are, and henceforward shall be free.” Thus, it was limited in many ways. It applied only to states that had seceded from the Union, leaving slavery untouched in loyal border states. It also expressly exempted parts of the Confederacy that had already come under Northern control. Most important, the freedom it promised depended upon Union military victory.

Upon hearing the news, finally-freed slaves celebrated, and Juneteenth was informally celebrated every year since 1865, until Texas made it an official Emancipation Day in 1979. Juneteenth, a day for African-Americans to celebrate their freedom, culture, and achievements, is now observed in 42 states. It’s a time for barbecues and parties, as well as soul-searching and reflection.

In an age when, with the click of a button, news from around the world is accessible within seconds, it is hard to imagine such life-changing news taking so long to arrive. And perhaps some people had heard sooner, but it required the presence of Union soldiers to make it real – and enforceable.

A century and a half later we are still dealing with that news and how to enforce equality in a country still ailing from racism. Can we ever truly heal? I wonder when I read about the “scandal” of “Umbrella-Gate”: racists furious that a U.S. Marine held an umbrella over the head of a black U.S. President. Some, like Glenn Beck and Rush Limbaugh, choose direct racial assault; others deny that a black president actually exists, claiming that Barack Obama was not born in this country and thus is not legitimate.

Ta-Nehisi Coates, senior editor of The Atlantic, writes, “The irony of Barack Obama is this: he has become the most successful black politician in American history by avoiding the radioactive racial issues of yesteryear, by being “clean” (as Joe Biden once labeled him) – and yet his indelible blackness irradiates everything he touches.” After the 2008 election, Cornell Belcher, a pollster for Obama, said, “The thing is, a black man can’t be president in America, given the racial aversion and history that’s still out there. However, an extraordinary, gifted, and talented young man who happens to be black can be president.”

I was perhaps naïve to believe that Obama’s election meant that America had turned that proverbial corner and was ready to embrace a true son of a multicultural society. I felt proud to be an American, something that, having grown up in the turbulent 60’s, I had never before experienced. Then I read about the surge in gun sales, the death threats, the Republican strategy to oppose everything Obama proposed, and I despaired. Being “twice as good,” as African-Americans are still admonished to be, wasn’t nearly enough. Racism intensified, and the Tea Party was spawned with slogans like “Obama Plans White Slavery.”

I don’t agree with all of Obama’s policies: he is more conservative than I, and far from the left-wing liberal Republicans paint him. I deplore the drones, Guantanamo, and his frequent calls for god to bless us. He gives lip service to feminism but does not call for revival of the Equal Rights Amendment. The poor barely receive lip service.

But he is my president. I admire and respect him; I trust him. It is downright treasonous to try to delegitimize Obama’s presidency. Let us take the occasion of Juneteenth to wrap our minds around Coates’s statement that “Barack Obama governs a nation enlightened enough to send an African American to the White House, but not enlightened enough to accept a black man as its president.” I hadn’t understood that before, and it breaks my heart that it might be true.