Archive for the ‘Leader’s Messages’ Category

Leader’s Message – “Rally ‘Round the Gay Pride Flag – Again” – June 2017

June 1, 2017

When the result of the 2016 presidential election sank in, many social justice organizations and community groups gathered their members to assess the impact it would have and to mourn. We held circles here at Ethical with our staff and members. The one that I joined at New York University, where I serve as Humanist Chaplain, was especially painful. Members of the campus LGBTQ community wept uncontrollably. They, like other marginalized Americans, Muslims, and undocumented immigrants, knew that they had a great deal to lose with an unsupportive, indeed an antagonistic, administration. Trump’s daughter Ivanka may count LGBTQ people among her friends, but there was no illusion that she could protect them. His unholy alliance with socially conservative evangelical Christians would drive his agenda, as it has other Republicans.

 

Questions flooded the offices of LGBTQ advocacy groups nationwide following Trump’s victory. GLAAD, the world’s largest LGBTQ media advocacy organization, maintains The Trump Accountability Project (TAP at http://www.glaad.org/trump), a resource for journalists which catalogues the anti-LGBTQ statements and actions of Trump and those in his circle.

 

While Vice President Pence has been unequivocal in his opposition to LGBTQ rights (having once supported the use of federal funding to treat people “seeking to change their sexual behavior” and tried unsuccessfully to amend his home state of Indiana’s state constitution to ban same-sex marriage), Trump’s position on this, as on many other issues, varies. His “religious liberty” executive order wasn’t as discriminatory as LGBTQ advocates had feared. Indeed, the conservative Heritage Foundation called it “woefully inadequate,” and Bryan Fischer, radio host for the American Family Association, angry that the order doesn’t allow bakers, florists and adoption agencies to discriminate, blamed Ivanka who “wore out her red pencil eviscerating the original order, leaving us with [an order] which has very nice language but is virtually entirely lacking in substance.” Nonetheless, he reversed Obama-era protections that allowed transgender students in public schools to use bathrooms and locker room facilities that correspond with their gender identity, reigniting the debate on whether guidance on use is a state or federal rights issue.

 

Here’s some good news. According to Human Rights Campaign Legal Director Sarah Warbelow, “Congress and Trump do not have the power to unilaterally undo marriage equality.” The Supreme Court has deemed same-sex marriage a “fundamental right,” and all five of the judges who ruled in favor of it are still on the bench.

 

There is much that we can do to support LGBTQ rights, from donating to advocacy groups to lobbying our local, state and national representatives. We can also march on Sunday, June 25.

Here’s a reminder of the parade’s history. A year after the police raiding of the Stonewall Inn in Greenwich Village on the morning of June 28, 1969, the first Gay Pride March was held by the Christopher Street Liberation Day Committee to commemorate the riots. In 1984, Heritage of Pride was founded to take over the planning. Last year, the newly-identified NYC Pride held over a dozen events in addition to the march, which included 350 unique contingents. This year’s Grand Marshals are the American Civil Liberties Union; Brooke Guinan, a 29-year old trans-woman firefighter; Krishna Stone, Director of Community Relations at Gay Men’s Health Crisis; and Geng Le, leader in the movement for LGBTQ equality in the People’s Republic of China.

 

When I interned at the NY Society in 2002, I marched in the Gay Pride Parade with a contingent of members that included Meg Chapman and Mo Malekshahi with their toddler Clara. Much has happened since then. Many gains have been realized over the years, and people haven’t felt the need to march. This year it’s time to rally around the pride flag again. Celebrate the gains and fight for the rights that might be lost.

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Leader’s Message – “Remembering Dr. Spetter in the Trump Era” – April 2017

April 21, 2017

Last month I received the following email from Professor Dr. Youri Devuyst from the Institute for European Studies at the Vrije Universiteit Brussel in Belgium.
“I am contacting you regarding the remarkable writings by the late Matthew Ies Spetter. . . My now 86 year old father, a humanist leader in Belgium, who was one of the transatlantic friends of Dr. Spetter and Howard Radest, recently drew my attention to Dr. Spetter’s book Man – The Reluctant Brother: An Exploration of Human Courage.

“Starting with a strong plea for ‘truth,’ the analysis (published in 1967 by Fieldston Press) provides a truly outstanding insight in the Trump era. Few of today’s observations match the depth of pages 157-171 on ‘A homebred fascism?’ and ‘The success of unreason.’ At the same time, the book offers a path for living together in human community, as brothers, based on what Dr. Spetter calls a ‘Passio Humana.’

“I think it really matters that the wisdom displayed in Dr. Spetter’s book is remembered, especially in the Ethical Culture movement. While I am sure you do, I also wanted to let you know that Dr. Spetter’s writings have not been forgotten on this side of the Atlantic.”

Dr. Spetter’s inspiring life and words have not been forgotten here, but I confess that I needed this reminder to return to him for guidance in these troubling times.
After seeing Nazis throw children into a truck from a Jewish orphanage in his native Holland, he joined the Dutch Resistance at the age of 23 and worked to help Jewish families escape. He later worked with Allied military intelligence before he was captured, tortured and sentenced to death in 1943. “In Holland you were either on the side of the executioners or the victims,” he said. “You had to make an existential choice.” Two years later, weighing 68 pounds, he fled through the woods to escape the Buchenwald concentration camp and later testified as an Allied witness at the International War Crimes Tribunal in Nuremburg, Germany. Dr. Spetter was awarded the Resistance Cross by the government of the Netherlands.

In 1951, Dr. Spetter and his family moved to the United States where he discovered the Ethical Movement and soon became an Ethical Culture Leader, serving the Riverdale-Yonkers Society, The Encampment for Citizenship, and the Ethical Culture Fieldston Schools for several decades. He also founded the Riverdale Mental Health Clinic in 1960, which remains an important community resource today. Among his many written works, Man, the Reluctant Brother remains my favorite. Dr. Devuyst is right: It does indeed provide insight into the Trump era.

This book illustrates what Dr. Spetter called his “militant humanism” and analyzes the impermissible fanaticism that allows the killing of innocents. From his experience as clergy, counselor, and professor of Social Psychology, he called for a nurturing of trust as the fundamental law of life, a nurturing of the fullness of human capacity, without the delusion of perfectionism.

“I need truth,” he wrote, “because I was an eyewitness to the premeditated murder of children. The killers were men and women of a nation much akin to my own. The children were ours. I need truth because my generation allowed the ultimately impermissible and because such killing continues. Men everywhere, while protesting their abhorrence, are still willing to permit the impermissible, still willing to kill as ‘a necessary evil,’ still willing to appease their conscience with justifications which fasten the tyranny of evil upon their souls. . . I have seen this

[atrocities] and speak of it, not with sentimentality but with outrage and I will not permit it to be locked from your heart.”

Today we are witnessing outrageous acts against fellow Americans and immigrants, against our environment and our children’s future. Some can be attributed directly to our new president in the form of his executive orders and his appointment of cabinet officers. Others are performed by domestic terrorists emboldened by his support of their racism, misogyny, and other forms of hatred. We must not allow this behavior to be locked from our hearts. We must stand up and take action, resisting any policy that treats human beings as “others” to be dismissed, derided and deported.

Dr. Spetter ends with a note of hope: “I hold deeply that each life is a gift which the centuries bestow upon the continuity of existence. A Passio Humana, a passion for Man, is what will negate totalitarianism and oppression, it will open the jail-doors of history, provided our mutuality and love outpace our tools.  All of us are constantly close to death and yet we are also in touch with the perpetuation of life through what we create and build.”

 

Dr. Matthew Ies died peacefully at his home on December 30, 2012, surrounded by his family.

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Leader’s Message – “Democracy Is Sacred” – May 2017

April 17, 2017

People who march today in protest of this administration’s policies chant “This is what democracy looks like!” and “This is what democracy sounds like!” It’s a gathering call to witness what is happening and to take action against it. It’s a demonstration of the freedoms of speech and assembly guaranteed us by the First Amendment to the United States Constitution. For most of our lives we have taken these freedoms for granted, but no longer, not when police threaten to arrest activists exercising their civil rights.

 

Learning about and actively participating in democracy was considered a sacred duty by Ethical Culture founder Felix Adler. In his idealistic philosophy, democracy was the practical application of his concept of Ethical Manifold, wherein all beings experience themselves fully in their uniqueness, diversity, and inter-relatedness. Community isn’t complete if it doesn’t include everyone. Indeed, even the universe depends upon everyone’s exertions. (Sadly, although he valued women as “moral teachers,” he did not support women’s suffrage. Other early leaders, including John Lovejoy Elliott did, and the NY Society had an active women’s civics club.)

 

Imagine what American democracy was like in 1876, when Ethical Culture was founded, and you will understand its importance to the first generation of leaders and members. Until 2000, the election that year between Republican Rutherford B. Hayes and Democrat Samuel Tilden was our nation’s most contentious, with Tilden carrying the popular vote and 184 of the 185 electoral votes needed for a majority. But nineteen votes from three ex-Confederate states controlled by Republicans were in dispute, so Congress created a Federal Electoral Commission (unprecedented and as-yet unreplicated) to sort it out. Voting along party lines, the commission handed victory to Hayes, a decision Democrats called “the Fraud of the Century.”

 

The election of 1876 drew the highest rate of voter turnout in U.S. history: 81.8 percent nationally and over 90 percent in some states. The fifteenth amendment, adopted in 1870, granted former male slaves the right to vote, but by the late 1870s Southern state governments had effectively nullified both this and the 14th amendment that guaranteed citizenship. It wasn’t until the Voting Rights Act of 1965 that these egregious practices were addressed. Today, thanks to a Supreme Court decision (Shelby County v. Holder, 2013) that gutted key provisions of that act, states are again working to disenfranchise African-American voters.

 

The national turnout of eligible voters in 2016 was only 60.2 percent. (During the last NYC mayoral election, voter turnout was only 24 percent.) Democrat Hillary Clinton won the popular vote by close to 2.9 million, and Republican Donald Trump carried the electoral vote by 74. Fortunately, an important backlash to the election of Trump has been an increased interest in civics. Starting in the 1980s, policymakers shifted the focus of public schools’ curriculum from social studies to testable subjects like math and reading. They favored training skilled workers over educating critical thinkers. After all, the previous generation had fueled the civil rights and peace movements, neither of which was deemed good for business. In 2011, all federal funding for civics and social studies was eliminated. State and local funding for these subjects dropped precipitously. According to a recent government study, only 25% of U.S. students reach a proficient standard in civics assessment.

 

And this brings me back to the notion that democracy is sacred in a non-theistic religion of ethics. In March, civil rights attorney Norman Siegel and I co-hosted an event at the NY Society that highlighted and celebrated civics. Our members read key passages from the Declaration of Independence, the U.S. Constitution, and the U.N. Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Esteemed jurists explained their ramifications in today’s political climate, and an a cappella chorus sang the words of the First Amendment. The audience was encouraged to ask questions and given resources for further study.

 

We also co-hosted an event with Indivisible (https://www.indivisibleguide.com/), first an online guide and now a grassroots movement for local activism, conceived by two former congressional staffers who asked, “What do we do now?” Seeing energy building to resist, they laid out a roadmap to save democracy. The response has been overwhelming. Their guide has been viewed over 18 million times by over 3 million unique users from every state, and almost 6,000 groups, with at least two in every congressional district, have registered. An immediate consequence has been increased attendance at town hall meetings, forcing politicians to be responsible. Last month, Colorado Republican Representative Mike Coffman faced angry constituents who told him more than once, “You can side with us or side with the President.”

 

There is more that we can and must do. Alongside the protests and resistance, we must promote civics education. Our democracy will not survive future generations unaware of their rights and responsibilities. Visit the website of the Campaign for the Civic Mission of Schools (http://www.civicmissionofschools.org/) today. There you will find a quotation from John Dewey: “Democracy needs to be re-born in each generation and education is its mid-wife.”

 

Democracy is sacred, and it is entrusted to us.

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Leader’s Message – “Women Making History” – March 2017

March 4, 2017

“Such a nasty woman.”

Donald J. Trump referring to Hillary Clinton during the third presidential debate in Las Vegas on October 19, 2016

 

“She was warned. She was given an explanation. Nevertheless, she persisted.”

Senator Majority Leader Mitch McConnell after sanctioning Senator Elizabeth Warren during the hearing for Attorney General nominee Jeffrey Sessions on February 7, 2017

 

The first quotation is an example of manterruption, the second of mansplaining. Both have been transformed into powerful social media memes – and T-shirts – to further the cause of women’s rights. They have, as the saying goes, “gone viral.” One woman tweeted: “Thanks for the new battle cries!”

 

For the record, during their third and final debate, Clinton interrupted Trump fewer than five times; Trump interrupted her more than forty times, more than in any of the other debates. Ironically, only minutes before, Trump declared (to audience laughter) that “no one has more respect for women than I do.”

 

When Clinton said, “Donald thinks belittling women makes him bigger. He goes after their dignity, their self-worth, and I don’t think there is a woman anywhere who doesn’t know what that feels like,” many of us agreed and shared with one another our harrowing experiences. Janet Jackson’s 1986 hit song “Nasty,” which had become a theme for women dealing with disrespectful men, was played again, capturing the essence of our problem with Trump.

 

On the evening of Tuesday, February 7, Elizabeth Warren started to read a statement that Coretta Scott King, widow of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., had written 30 years ago opposing the nomination of Jeffrey Sessions for a federal judgeship. Accused of violating Senate rules against impugning another senator, Warren was barred from continuing by a vote down party lines, followed by McConnell using a strategy designed to silence women. One woman tweeted that his words were “every woman’s epitaph.”

 

Unable to finish speaking in the nearly empty Senate chamber, Warren took to Facebook Live (“They can shut me up, but they can’t change the truth,” she said.) where she read the entire statement for an audience of over 7 million by Wednesday afternoon.

 

Here is one paragraph from that statement: “Mr. Sessions has used the awesome power of his office to chill the free exercise of the vote by black citizens in the district he now seeks to serve as a federal judge. This simply cannot be allowed to happen. Mr. Sessions’ conduct as a US Attorney, from his politically-motivated voting fraud prosecutions to his indifference toward criminal violations of civil rights laws, indicated that he lacks the temperament, fairness and judgment to be a federal judge.”

 

In between the dates when the two “manly” quotations were made, on the day after Trump’s poorly attended inauguration, millions of women (and men) around the world, including Antarctica, took to the streets and marched. One woman’s invitation to forty friends to protest a sexual predator making his home in the White House grew to the largest and most peaceful single-day demonstration in U.S. history.

 

The sheer numbers made an impact, but what really made the day special was the sea of pink hats. The Pussyhat Project was launched over Thanksgiving weekend to draw attention to Trump’s caught-on-tape boasts about grabbing unsuspecting women by their genitals. Its mission was to provide people on the marches with a means to make a unique collective visual statement and to provide people unable to physically participate with a way to represent themselves and support women’s rights. What a rousing success it was, as you can see from the photo of Eleanor Roosevelt sporting one.

 

Following the march, the organizers of the Women’s March on Washington posted the “10 Actions for the first 100 Days” campaign for joint activism to keep up the momentum. Last month, an Upper West Side “Huddle” convened in our Meeting House to strategize how to implement those actions. In the coming weeks, months and years, we at Ethical will continue to partner with individuals and groups to fight for human rights and environmental protection.

 

Stay tuned!

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Leader’s Message – The History of Black History Month – and its Importance Today – February 2017

January 31, 2017

Since 1976, every United States president has officially designated February as Black History Month. Here’s hoping President Trump does, too. He, more than any other president since 1976, needs to learn the lessons of Black History Month. A case in point: During the presidential campaign, Trump said there had “never been a worse time to be a black person” in America. President Obama urged him to visit the National Museum of African American History and Culture (https://nmaahc.si.edu/) to brush up on his history. Trump seemed to have “missed that whole civics lesson about slavery and Jim Crow,” he said in a September speech at the Congressional Caucus Foundation in Washington, DC. “We’ve got a museum for him to visit, so he can tune in. We will educate him.” Sadly, Trump cancelled his plans to visit the museum on Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Day. One wonders whether he did so because civil rights leader John Lewis, who chose not to attend his inauguration and questions his legitimacy as president, championed the creation of this museum and is featured in many of its exhibits.

 

In her memoir, Negroland, Margo Jefferson quotes her mother, who, in the 1950’s, was worried that her young daughters were “being naturalized into white culture.” “When I was your age,” she said, “we celebrated Negro History Week. The Association for the Study of Negro Life and History was founded by Carter G. Woodson right here in Chicago. We read The Crisis [official magazine of the NAACP]. We were so proud when we sang “Lift Every Voice and Sing’ at assemblies and church programs.” Jefferson writes, “From that day forward Mother began her own cultural enrichment course with evening and weekend contributions from Daddy.”
Black History Month grew out of Negro History Week, founded by noted historian Carter G. Woodson and launched in 1926 in the second week of February between the birthdays of Frederick Douglass and Abraham Lincoln. Woodson also founded the Association for the Study of Afro-American Life and History (ASALH) in 1915 and the Journal of Negro History in 1916. A prolific writer about the contributions of African-Americans, his best-known work is The Miseducation of the Negro, published in 1933. It focused on the Western indoctrination system and African-American self-empowerment.

 

Born to former slaves in 1875 in Buckingham County, Virginia, Woodson worked in mines and quarries until the age of 20, received his high school diploma at the age of 22 and a master’s degree in history from the University of Chicago. In 1912, Woodson received a doctorate in history from Harvard, but was unable to land a teaching post there because Harvard wasn’t hiring black professors. He taught instead at Howard University, one of the nation’s leading black educational institution.

 

Woodson spent his life investigating, documenting and publishing African-American history.  He died suddenly of a heart attack on April 3, 1950 in Washington, DC, before realizing his ambition of publishing the six-volume Encyclopedia Africana.
The theme for 2017’s Black History month, selected by ASALH, is “The Crisis in Black Education,” a tribute to its founder. It focuses on the crucial role of education and recalls Woodson’s words: “If you teach the Negro that he has accomplished as much good as any other race he will aspire to equality and justice without regard to race.”

 

The crisis, according to ASALH,first began in the days of slavery when it was unlawful for slaves to learn to read and write. . . [C]ontinuing today, the crisis in black education has grown significantly in urban neighborhoods where public schools lack resources, endure overcrowding, exhibit a racial achievement gap, and confront policies that fail to deliver substantive opportunities.”

 

I am finishing this column on Inauguration Day and will travel early tomorrow morning to Washington, DC to march for all that I hold dear about our nation. That includes Black History Month and the lessons we still have to learn.

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Leader’s Message – “The Road Ahead” – January 2017

December 13, 2016

At noon on Friday, the 20th of January 2017, a New York City real estate developer with business interests across the globe, someone who lost the popular vote but garnered enough states to win in the Electoral College, will be sworn in on the West Lawn of The Capitol as the 45th president of the United States.

 

On the following day, I will join women and men from across the country in Washington, DC to protest the direction he has chosen for our nation, down a road far from the values we hold dear. Protests will also be held in other cities, including ours. The lives of many Americans have already been put at risk, some targeted by his late-night tweets; his lies, although challenged, are repeated by his supporters even as he quotes them from known fake news sources; and his reckless policies will endanger our relationships with other nations, as well as the environment we all share.

 

As historian and activist Howard Zinn reminded us, “dissent is the highest form of patriotism. In fact, if patriotism means being true to the principles for which your country is supposed to stand, then certainly the right to dissent is one of those principles. And if we’re exercising that right to dissent, it’s a patriotic act.”

 

There is much to dissent in the appointments Donald J. Trump has announced:

  • a chief counselor who runs a website is lauded by the most virulent racists in America
  • a climate change denier in litigation against the Environmental Protection Agency to run that life-saving department
  • a strong advocate of private schools to run the Education Department
  • someone who opposes minimum wage to run the Labor Department
  • handing the Department of the Interior over to someone who plans to sell public lands
  • nominee for attorney general whom the Senate refused to confirm as a federal judge in 1986 for being too racist
  • a Treasury secretary who foreclosed on thousands of homes during the housing crisis
  • and a nominee for Secretary of State with a financial stake in Exxon, which has operations in more than 50 countries, and who has drawn scrutiny for his close relationship with President Vladimir Putin, whose country has been accused by the CIA of having influence our presidential election.

 

And this was just the news from December, along with a rise in hate crimes perpetrated by those emboldened by his inflammatory rhetoric. There is much more in store for us and the rest of the world. It is no wonder, then, that people are gathering to exercise their right to dissent, to proudly declare themselves as patriots.

 

Among them is Mayor Bill DeBlasio who, during a public address at Cooper Union on November 21, reassured New Yorkers that “The results of an election don’t change who we are. A single office-holder doesn’t change who we are; a law that gets passed in Washington doesn’t change who we are. We are 8.5 million strong, and we ain’t changing. We are always New York. Somos siempre Nueva York.” He went on to say, “We don’t live in perfect harmony, but we’ve found a way to live and let live. And we know how to support each other, and we know how to protect each other, and we know how to have each other’s backs. . . Now, it’s our turn to build a movement – a movement of the majority that believes in respect and dignity for all.”

 

Here’s what lies on the road ahead: Muslim-Jewish alliances, sanctuary sites for undocumented immigrants, activist engagement of a younger generation, training in allyship, and indigenous peoples declaring “a reawakening of the nations of Turtle Island.”

 

Here at Ethical, we recommit ourselves to standing up for human rights and protection of the environment that embraces us all. In this issue of Outlook, you will find programs and activities, a list of ethical action affinity groups, and inspiration to walk down this road together.

 

 

Leader’s Message – “The Gift of Despair” – December 2016

November 14, 2016

Oft hope is born when all is forlorn. – J.R.R. Tolkien

 

Having grown up in rural western New York State, I wasn’t as surprised by the presidential election result as many of you were. Trump lawn signs were prominently planted in the front lawns of my hometown, and many of the people I knew from school watch only Fox News. Nonetheless, I was disturbed that an antiquated Electoral College once again put someone into office who had lost the popular vote. (Previous beneficiaries were Bush in 2000, Harrison in 1888, and Hayes in 1876.)

 

We held sharing circles for our staff on the afternoon after the election and for members that evening. There were tears and anguish, fear and anger. The growing and deepening division between our two Americas was painfully clear, and many doubted that the union could hold.

 

In the days that followed, we assessed the danger that awaits us when Trump takes office. As I write this, we have learned about the appointments to his White House staff and cabinet. We can expect assaults on human rights and environmental protections. We are already experiencing a campaign of disinformation that promotes heinous positions taken by alt-right media.

 

A colleague, Jone Johnson Lewis, shared a colloquy called “The Gift of Despair” that I led last month. Founder Felix Adler wrote and spoke about learning from failure; it is when we realize that, despite our best efforts to achieve an ideal, we have failed that we also realize what it was that we most wanted. It is similar to mourning for someone who has died. We recognize how much we valued that person and despair over our loss.

 

This colloquy includes a quotation from historian Howard Zinn, author of A People’s History of the United States: “[H]uman history is a history not only of cruelty, but also of compassion, sacrifice, courage, kindness. What we choose to emphasize in this complex history will determine our lives. If we see only the worst, it destroys our capacity to do something. If we remember those times and places — and there are so many — where people have behaved magnificently, this gives us the energy to act, and at least the possibility of sending this spinning top of a world in a different direction. And if we do act, in however small a way, we don’t have to wait for some grand utopian future. The future is an infinite succession of presents, and to live now as we think human beings should live, in defiance of all that is bad around us, is itself a marvelous victory.”

 

Here is my ethical dilemma: How do I attribute worth and dignity to people who deny human rights to others? Trump’s election gives license to every racist, misogynist, homophobe, xenophobe, etc., and the attacks are increasing. These incidents must be meticulously documented and reported. Visit the Southern Poverty Law Center for details: https://www.splcenter.org. We who still have privilege must be allies and accomplices to those who do not, and we must do so with humility, following the lead of organizers for their respective groups.

 

My Ethical Culture faith has been sorely tested as I try to stay in relationship with people whose values are diametrically opposed to mine, people who accuse me of condescension when I bring to their attention the suffering of marginalized Americans and the disinformation promulgated by hateful social media sources. I don’t want to pay lip service to our ethical rule of eliciting the goodness in others and thereby in ourselves by engaging in the “toxic niceness” of simply accepting that they hold different opinions. This election is a tragic reminder that rights are never given; we must fight for them every day of our lives. It is time to roll up our sleeves and take to the streets; to employ every legal means available and every civil disobedience tool in our kits to right the wrongs that have already, and will continue to be, unleashed.

 

The time calls for action. Up, then, and let us do our part faithfully and well. And oh, friends, our children’s children will hold our memories dearer for the work which we begin this hour.

Felix Adler, Founding Address, May 15, 1876

 

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Leader’s Message – “Democracy, an Ideal Still Unrealized in the United States” – November 2016

October 15, 2016

You will read this column before the 2016 presidential election season ends. I am weary and imagine that you are, too. This “ultramarathon” – from the forming of exploratory committees to the inauguration – can last two years, far longer than any other country’s campaigns. Canadians were perturbed that their recent election season lasted eleven weeks. The average length in the UK is less than 20 weeks and in France two weeks. In Australia, the average length is eleven weeks, and voting is compulsory.

 

We rank near the bottom in terms of voter registration because we make it so difficult; strategies include cutting back on early voting, making absentee voting more difficult, and imposing photo-ID requirements at the polls. Even when federal courts rule that their voting processes are unconstitutional, some states (Ohio, NC, Texas and Wisconsin) continue to defiantly suppress votes. New York State does not allow early voting, and requires voters to register at least 25 days before Election Day. Absentee voting requires “snail” mail between the voter and local Board of Elections.

 

The Founding Fathers were divided on the issue of voting rights. In 1776 John Adams was unwilling to extend voting rights beyond white men who owned property and warned, “There will be no end of it. New claims will arise. Women will demand a vote. Lads from 12 to 21 will think their rights not enough attended to, and every man, who has not a farthing, will demand an equal voice with any other in all acts of state.” Poor Abigail!

 

According to Michael Waldman, president of the Brennan Center for Justice and author of The Fight to Vote (Simon & Schuster, 2016), a history of the struggle to win voting rights for all citizens, “Often groups fearful of change are most determined to change the rules – to make it harder for others to vote.” Still, he is optimistic about our future. I wish I were.

 

Instead, I harken back to a time long ago when the Great Law of Peace guaranteed equal rights to men and women in the Six Nation Confederacy of the Iroquois. The impact upon our Constitution of this oldest participatory democracy has been well researched and documented. Senate resolution 331 from the 100th Congress in 1988 “acknowledges the contribution made by the Iroquois Confederacy and other Indian Nations to the formation and development of the United States.” Tragically, our Founding Fathers, even George Washington and Benjamin Franklin, who were “known to have greatly admired the concepts of the Six Nations,” failed to include women. And it took a Civil War to include men born in slavery; Native Americans would wait much longer.

 

Our Founding Mothers, however, those who met in Seneca Falls, NY in July 1848 to issue The Declaration of Sentiments asserting the equality of women and men, were well aware of the differences in women’s roles between the Iroquois and Americans. For example, Iroquois women selected their chiefs. Elizabeth Cady Stanton described their rights “as proof that the subordinate position of white women was neither natural nor divinely inspired,” said Sally Roesch Wagner, who curated an exhibit in Seneca Falls called “Sisters in Spirit: Celebrating the Iroquois Influence on the Early Women’s Rights Movement.”

 

So here we are in November 2016, centuries removed from that ideal.

 

I knew that Hilary Clinton’s run for president would challenge those uncomfortable with women holding positions of power. What I didn’t anticipate was the depth of her opponent’s misogyny. Perhaps I was naïve, and yet I don’t know any woman, including myself, who hasn’t experienced sexual harassment. Trump may epitomize that behavior, but far too many men practice it. In the weeks leading up to this election, we have been subjected to explicit evidence of a presidential candidate’s utter contempt for women.

 

Susan B. Anthony was thrown to the ground when she tried to cast a ballot in November 1872. Women won suffrage in 1920 after generations of hard-fought battles. We are still fighting for an Equal Rights Amendment. Among all the issues calling for our attention in this election, and there are myriad, in these final days we are being thrown to the ground again. Misogyny is alive and kicking. But so is the ideal of fully participatory democracy. Once upon a time, it thrived in this land. It can again if we don’t lose hope and work together.

Leader’s Message – “Native Americans Rising! – October 2016

October 15, 2016

“In fourteen hundred and ninety-two
Columbus sailed the ocean blue.”

 

Do you remember reciting this verse in elementary school when preparing to celebrate Columbus Day? In two-line rhyming stanzas we learned about his voyage from Spain with three ships and ninety sailors to what he thought would be India. It mentions encountering the “Arawak natives” and concludes with “The first American?  No, not quite. But Columbus was brave, and he was bright.” For the quincentennial of his “discovery,” Nancy Schimmel wrote a different song for children – “1492” (http://www.sisterschoice.com/1492.mp3) – with the refrain “someone was already there.”

 

Indeed someone was! The benign poem I learned didn’t mention the nations of indigenous peoples living in the Americas for millennia before the European invasion. It neither told their stories nor sang their praises. It taught us a myth and hid the devastating truth from us.

 

In North America alone, between 1776 and the present, our government seized an estimated 1.5 billion acres from Native peoples. Claudio Saunt, associate director of the Institute of Native American Studies at the University of Georgia, created an interactive time-lapse map that can be viewed at http://invasionofamerica.ehistory.org/, to visualize this dispossession. In 1848, gold was discovered in California’s Central Valley, and three years later, in his State of the State address, governor Peter Burnett said, “That a war of extermination will continue to be waged between the races, until the Indian race becomes extinct, must be expected.” For more than a century (1860-1978), Native children were ripped from their families and sent to boarding schools far from their homes. Between 1947 and 2000, an estimated 40,000 children from 60 tribes were placed in Mormon homes.

 

Many Americans have heard about the Trail of Tears and Wounded Knee, but a vast majority know little about the extent of the atrocities committed against our hosts. It is high time we learned. It is time for a reckoning about the U.S. conquest of sovereign indigenous nations and a serious engagement with people who lost their homelands and future generations of children. Some progress has been made in the truthful teaching of our history and filing of lawsuits to reclaim land, but it is an arduous struggle.

 

Today we have an opportunity to support Native Americans taking a stand to stop construction of the proposed $3.8 billion Dakota Access pipeline, from North Dakota to Illinois, that threatens to contaminate the Missouri River. Thousands of indigenous activists from dozens of tribes across the country have traveled to the Sacred Stone Spirit Camp (http://sacredstonecamp.org/) launched on April 1 by the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe to protest this violation of the National Historic Preservation Act. A delegation from Black Lives Matters also participated. Many of us joined a rally in Washington Square Park last month (September 9) and continue to support the tribe’s efforts.

 

News of this protest and the lawsuits filed by the tribe has been slow reaching the general public. It was carried primarily by the daily independent news program Democracy Now! and through social media. Yet again, it is evident that mainstream news media care little about Native Americans. One notable exception was Lawrence O’Donnell of MSNBC at the end of the August 25th edition of his nightly news show, “The Last Word.” Here is a quotation:

 

“The original sin of this country is that we invaders shot and murdered our way across the land killing every Native American we could, and making treaties with the rest. This country was founded on genocide before the word genocide was invented, before there was a war crimes tribunal in The Hague. . . [Standing Rock reminds us of] The people who have always known what is truly sacred in this world.”
So this Columbus Day weekend, please make time to consider our country from a different perspective. Imagine what might have been had the European invaders respected the cultures and valued the lives of the people who preceded them. We have much to learn.

 

 

Leader’s Message – “Back to School” – September 2016

August 13, 2016

Turn on your television today and you will see commercials for school supplies. They started early last month and often feature parents gleefully singing and dancing as they push shopping carts down aisles loaded with backpacks, notebooks and snacks. In others, children spin around to show off their new school apparel. Yes, it’s that time of year again. Parents may feel relieved, but students and teachers often feel anxious. So much is at stake. Education is perceived as the key to success. Without a good education, students won’t get good jobs, meet the right people, or live in the best neighborhoods.

 

Public school teachers bemoan that they can do little more than “teach to the test.” All their training and creativity are stifled by an education reform movement, starting in the 1980s, that emphasizes national Common Core standards, having abandoned the progressive pedagogy of John Dewey that many of us experienced. Remember the field trips, school plays and festivals, and the thrill of “learning by doing”? Parents wanting that for their children today shell out tens of thousands of dollars in annual tuition to private schools or compete for scholarships.

 

Why does our nation have this dichotomy? And why do our students continue to fall “in the middle of the pack” compared to other industrialized nations? Since 1969, the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) has tracked what our students know and can do in various subject areas. It issues what is known as “the Nation’s Report Card,” and several institutions analyze these data looking for answers and solutions.

 

In his article, “In Praise of Dewey” (Aeon 7/28/16), Nicholas Tampio holds the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the Charles Koch-funded conservative think tank the Heartland Institute responsible. “For both the business community and traditional-values conservatives, Dewey’s pedagogy fails to train workers, and inculcates liberal, even socialistic values.” This year is the centennial of Dewey’s ground-breaking tome, Democracy and Education: An Introduction to the Philosophy of EducationTampio notes that “his pedagogy has been under assault for at least a generation.”

 

https://en.wikisource.org/wiki/Democracy_and_Education

This should be of great concern to Ethical Culture because, in many ways, Dewey took Felix Adler’s place as the philosopher of our movement. When I attended my first National Leaders Council retreat, I heard one leader heatedly say to another, “You have forsaken your father Felix Adler for your stepfather John Dewey.” Nonetheless, Adler would never have endorsed teaching to Common Core standards and preparing students to get better jobs. Both he and Dewey believed that education was essential to moral development and participatory democracy.

Children should be encouraged to pursue their own interests, find their own voices, and fight for a world where everyone can learn, grow and develop. To be a fully participating member of a democracy means far more than voting on Election Day. It requires a deep understanding of humanity and the ways in which we organize ourselves, an appreciation of history and cultures, and a commitment to the common good. It’s about putting democratic theory into practice every day in all of our relationships.

Tragically, as we can observe from this year’s election process, our national educational system has failed to teach even basic civics. One of our presidential nominees says he will uphold an article of the constitution that doesn’t exist, but his followers neither know nor care enough to correct him. People who expect opinions and policies to be based upon facts are called “intellectual elites” and dismissed by those who feel they are losing their social and economic status to immigrants and people of color. We all live in “bubbles” of different values and influences.

Let us, too, go back to school this fall. Let us learn what education can and should be. Celebrate the centennial of Dewey’s guide to progressive education by reading and discussing it. Then put it into practice. We owe it to ourselves and the future of our democracy.