Thursday, May 11, 2017
Morally Speaking: Bringing Civility to Public Discourse
Rev. Traci Blackmon
Pastor Blackmon, the first female pastor in the 106 year history of the United Church of Christ, ministers to the community at Christ the King in Florrisant. She serves as the Acting Executive Director of the UCC Justice and Ministry in Cleveland, Ohio. The praise and the accolades she has earned and accepted are too bountiful to count. But for one night, she was our honored guest and she spoke to a “rowdy” group of women as if she were one of us.
She urged us to continue our work and to join the ranks of the other rowdy women who fight for the same values that we do: Sally Yates, Elizabeth Warren, Stacey Newman, Maxine Clark and so many others as yet unnamed or recognized. We are the curators and narrators of life stories and must use our privilege to tell others’ stories so that they may be heard accurately and faithfully.
She told of initiatives that are being started to work to bring equality and justice to all peoples: Higher Ground Moral Movement in North Carolina, Moral Monday, the beginnings of another Poor People’s Campaign.
Most importantly, we need to remember that we cannot be effective in the resistance if we only protest about a just what matters to us. We need to reach out and push past out comfort zones to be most useful.
All resistance should be designed to “Wear the Administration Out!!” We must not be complacent in silence and speak out with every opportunity and stand up for those who need our help.
For those who would like to hear part of Pastor Blackmon’s talk, go to our Videos page here
Read the Higher Ground Moral Declaration here: highergroundmoraldeclaration. Note that after each section are suggested questions to ask candidates running for public office.
Thursday, April 13, 2017
When Fear Rules, We Lose: How A Gun Obsessed Culture Changes Our Lives
The continued rise of gun violence and its effect on various communities has fostered a rising atmosphere of fear among many in St. Louis and elsewhere. Whether real or perceived, its affect is profound.
Dr. Sean Joe, Professor of Social Development, Brown School, Washington University, has focused his work on suicide, whether by gun or any other method. It is important to note that while many fear violent homicides by guns, of the 32,000 firearm deaths last year, 60% were suicides. His message is that it is more important to focus on CARING than on FEARING. Listen to people, hear what they are trying to say even if the words are hard to express.
There is only a brief window of time available and means matter. If a gun is not available, there is a higher survival rate among those who attempt suicide using other methods. Policies alone will not make a difference. We must reduce access to guns and provide counseling around legal means (CALM).
Dr. Art Silverblatt, professor emeritus, media literacy from Webster University, spoke about the pervasive levels of violence in media and how that has been the norm for a long time. From early Westerns to today’s video games and movies where heroes are applauded for the various creative ways they kill and maim, we are literally assaulted in our culture with the message that violence is not only acceptable but a welcome diversion from the daily grind of the world. The main factor that can decide whether violence is “good” or “bad” is INTENT. Violence can be fun, gratifying and even glamorous, but when the intent changes to the desire to harm, the paradigm shifts.
There are no easy answers or solutions for what surrounds us daily, but the program gave us many ways to frame the questions to hopefully see beyond to find some hope and clarity.
Thursday, March 9, 2017
Community Responses to the Payday Loan Crisis
Lending practices known as “payday lending” do little to help the borrower but much to profit the lender, said Robert Swearingen. He explained the three types of lending: payday, title loans, and installment, none of which provide a usury cap to the amount of interest that can be charged. Typically a payday loan is under $500 for 30 days or less. It is secured by a post-dated check to cover the cost of the loan and the interest charges can reach as high as 460% (APR). The debt trap is caused by the continued need to rollover the debt thus renewing the loan as the interest continues to accrue. It is a cycle that is extremely difficult to break.
Title loans and installment loans work in much the same way, with the title loan being the worst option as the borrower needs to turn over the title to a car as collateral for the loan which often leaves the borrower having the car repossessed in order to satisfy the balance on the loan. The lender really has no interest in whether or not the loan ever gets paid. Rob cited an example of a $900 loan at 521% interest that cost $4391 to repay. Added to the inequality of the system, ProPublica has reported that the majority of this debt is being borrowed and processed in North County and North St. Louis.
What can we do??? Paul Woodruff provided a hopeful note. Prosperity Connection provides affordable loans to those who would fall victim to predatory lenders. In addition, the nonprofit organization educates individuals about alternatives. They work with people who do not use traditional banks to provide accessibility, financial products and financial education. Red Dough, a program of Prosperity Connections, provides loans, re-loadable debit cards, money orders and wire transfers, check cashing and bill pay services. Prosperity Connection works closely with the St. Louis Community Credit Union, the first black-owned credit union in St. Louis. For further information, please check www.reddough.com or prosperityconnection.org.
Robert L. Swearingen is a Staff Attorney with Legal Servies of Eastern Missiouri (LSEM) where he specializes in Consumer law including auto fraud, predatory lending, unfair and deceptive business practices and private enforcement of the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act. Mr. Swearingen joined LSEM in 2007. Mr. Swearingen has been employed as a staff attorney for the office of the Missouri Attorney General (1983-1985); Missouri Public Defender (1986-1988); and the United Auto Workers Legal Services, where he managed two offices from 1991 to 2007. Mr. Swearingen is a charter member of the National Association of Consumer Advocates.
Paul Woodruff serves as the Executive Director of Prosperity Connection and Vice President of Community Development for St. Louis Community Credit Union (SLCCU). Paul began his career at SLCCU in 2009 as a teller and has subsequently worked as a business development specialist and manager of community development before transitioning into his role with Prosperity Connection.
He is responsible for developing and maintaining relationships that fund, support, and advance Prosperity Connection’s mission of providing financial capacity-building initiatives to underserved populations throughout St. Louis. These duties include oversight of financial education programs throughout the community and at the Excel Center, management of St. Louis Community’s CDFI status and grant requests, and maintaining relations with community, business, and government leaders. As an active member of the community, Paul also serves as an advisor and board member for several community and national groups, including the National Federation of Community Development Credit Unions.
Thursday, February 9, 2017
Creating Quality Education in our St. Louis Schools: What we learned from the St. Louis Desegregation Plan.
Speaker: Jerome E. Morris, Ph.D, E. Desmond Lee Endowed Professor of Urban Education and Research Fellow with Public Policy Research Center, University of Missouri-St. Louis
Dr. Morris described research on how Brown v. Board of Education’s mandate that all students receive high-quality education has served African American children. The author of Troubling the Waters: Fulfilling the Promise of Quality Public Schooling for Black Children (2009), Dr. Morris is currently leading a study of the outcomes of desegregation programs in St. Louis.*
Dr. Morris cited the experience of one St. Louis City elementary school, as an example of what quality education for African American children living in a poor community would look like. The school’s students outperformed black students who attended county schools. Contributing to the school’s success were several factors, he said: The school reached out to the community, especially through the efforts of a dedicated principal. Most teachers had years of experience, and many had lived in the community. Staff turnover was low, so students had a stable environment.
When Dr. Morris asked the audience, many of whom were educators, parents, or students, how quality schooling should be defined, participants’ answers focused on giving schools, especially in poverty areas, the capacity to address a comprehensive range of needs of both children and families. Besides stable, well-trained teachers, schools must be able to provide many services, including:
- Nutrition services
- On-site health care, mental as well as physical
- Early childhood education so that all children enter kindergarten prepared
- Parent training
- Basic resources such as books and computers
- Child care
Dr. Morris affirmed their answers: “We need radical, sustainable policies to change the conditions of poverty.”
The Elephant in the Room: School Financing
The discussion raised questions about “the elephant in the room,”: how to finance radical reforms. Currently school districts are financed by property taxes collected from their community. Thus districts with higher property values have more money. But St. Louis County municipalities have traditionally resisted changes that would make school financing more equitable. They are not likely to embrace the group’s idea that all districts merge to form one school district that would allocate funds equitably among district schools. As audience member Barbara Finch said, “As long as schools are funded by property tax, there is no way inner city schools can ever compete. Changing the way schools are funded is critical.”
* “The St. Louis Desegregation Plan: Gains, Losses and Community Recommendations for Future Success.”
Thursday, January 12, 2017
What Lies Ahead for the LGBT Community
Are hard-fought gains in jeopardy?
At the dawn of the new administration, it is hard to imagine the arc of our speakers’ lives if they were beginning to live them now. They have fought long and hard for the lives, careers and families that they have… and want others to have the same.
Dr. Gary Behrman is a clinical social worker and assistant Adjunct Professor at Saint Louis University. This was not his original path. As a child, he wanted to be a priest. After attending seminary for 3 years, he began to have questions and left to attend a Catholic High School. In the 1970’s he was granted conscientious objector status from the Vietnam War and served as an EMT.
Yet the seminary still called. He became a priest and served in a large city where he met gay men facing the ravages of AIDS. He realized that as a highly educated white man he easily could have hid his sexuality behind his white privilege. But he took a different path and now serves primarily young African-Americans using his compassion and skills to help those most troubled and at risk.
Dan Dial was raised in Arkansas in a “heavily fundamentalist family.” He attended Covenant College in Georgia and began questioning his sexuality. Hearing a professor tell him “just because you think it’s true doesn’t make it true” only made things more difficult.
While working as a Walmart manager, his supervisor said “your type of people” create a hostile work environment and he was fired. Today he is married and Director of Project Engineering at a technology company in St. Louis. He advocates so that others will not have to experience the troubles and roadblocks that he did.
Elizabeth Fuchs is the Manager of Public Policy for PROMO, doing statewide LGBT advocacy work. Missouri does not have non-discrimination protections; legislation will be introduced for the 17th year, with no expectations of it passing. This session there are 11 anti-LGBT bills filed.
Elizabeth sees her job as building relationships with senators and representatives. She is committed to working in a bi-partisan manner towards getting support for legislation in the future.
Arlene Zarembka is an attorney and long- time advocate for the LBGT community, specializing in adoption for same sex couples. This is important since a birth certificate does not provide a guarantee of parental rights. She also provides wills, trusts and powers-of -attorney for finance and healthcare. Plans to repeal the Affordable Care Act will potentially affect hospital visitation for same sex couples.
Arlene’s advice for advocates: “Get involved. Call, write, march, protest…again and again.”
Thursday, December 8, 2016
U.S. Supreme Court in the Aftermath of the 2016 Elections
Candidate Donald Trump had several items on his Supreme Court wish list were his campaign successful.
· Any appointed justice would have a defined conservative perspective
· Any appointed judge would be pro-life with the goal to move abortion rights back to pre-Roe v. Wade
· Any appointed justice would be in favor of invalidating all restrictions on guns, thus assuring that what is seen as an assault on the Second Amendment would be halted.
Dr. Lee Epstein, the Ethan A H. Shepley Distinguished Professor of Law at Washington University spoke to these items ad more as she addressed the monthly meeting of Women’s Voices Raised for Social Justice
In a data-driven presentation, Dr. Epstein provided the attendees with what some would consider a glimmer of hope. In the short-term, one conservative Trump appointee will not upset the balance on the court. Justice Anthony Kennedy will continue to play a pivotal role. Appointed by President Reagan, he has often been the swing vote on issues, voting with the more liberal judges. Were he to continue to do that, the outcome of major decisions would not change.
The glimmer of hope dims considerably with the second Trump appointee, which given the age of the judges, could happen in the near future. For starters, it places Chief Justice John Roberts into a delicate position that could result in liberal decisions dropping to 41.8% of those made by the Court. They are currently at 48.1% during his tenure. As a comparison, during the Warren Court (1953-1968) those decisions were at 67.1%.
How will these choices affect specific areas of social justice concerns?
Prior to Roe v. Wade (1973) there were 4 states where abortion was legal, 30 states where it was illegal under all circumstances and all other states where there were specific circumstances noted. Post Roe v. Wade: a woman had a fundamental right to choose to terminate a pregnancy and the government could restrict that right only for compelling and excellent reasons. This invalidated every state law on the issue and 7 of the 9 sitting judges agreed.
There has been a chipping away of the blanket rights through various court decisions since 1973. What we have now are TRAP (Targeted Regulation of Abortion Provider Laws) in various states:
· Required admitting privileges for physicians at hospitals within 30 miles of clinics
· Clinics must meet same requirements as ambulatory surgical centers
· 72 hour waiting periods
· Other restrictions imposed as state legislatures see fit
A second Trump appointee will undoubtedly uphold these TRAP laws and send abortion decisions back to the states. “Tomorrow may become our yesterday” according to Dr. Epstein.
Historically most of the Supreme Court decisions involving the Second Amendment have focused on the part of the language that gives the states the right to form a militia, not the individual’s right to bear arms. This changed with two cases (2008, 2010) that switched course and changed the focus by invalidating restrictions on guns.
Over the course of the next 2-3 years, Dr. Epstein predicts that all restrictions in purchasing and owning guns will be gone based on the right to bear arms reading of the amendment.
WHAT CAN WE AS INDIVIDUALS AND AS AN ORGANIZATION DO??
We need to organize, express our views often and loudly and make sure that our representatives are aware of our concerns. Write letters, demonstrate and protest in all ways possible.
Remember that the Senate must confirm all appointees. Let your voice be heard. Justices listen too.
Decision 2016: Election Wrap-Up from the Experts
November 10, 2016
Denise Lieberman, a Senior Attorney for the Advancement Project in the Voter Protection Program; Rachel Lippmann, St. Louis Public Radio host, moderated the discussion; Dave Robertson, Chairperson of the Political Science Department, and political analyst for KSDK Television; Jo Mannies, political journalist with St. Louis Public Radio, has been covering Missouri politics and government for almost four decades
Sponsoring groups: American Association of University Women (AAUW); League of Women Voters; National Council of Jewish Women; National Women’s Political Caucus of Metro St. Louis; Women’s Voices Raised for Social Justice
The screen at the front of the room had this message “The 2016 Presidential Election: History in the Making.” Indeed history had been made. The unexpected outcome of the presidential election (based on the inaccuracy of the polls) left the standing-room only audience of 220 with many questions. Following is a summary of the panelists’ remarks.
David Robertson stated that voters wanted a change and would have wanted it even if a Republican had been in the White House. There was record distaste for both candidates. The gains for the Republicans in rural America were substantial and not offset by the gains that Clinton made among minorities. The divide in America right now is supported by the percentage of votes in 3 Missouri areas: Jefferson County voted 65% for Donald Trump; St. Louis County voted 80% for Hillary Clinton; St. Louis City voted 56% for Hillary Clinton.
Jo Mannies said voter turnout was down in urban areas by over 50,000. Jason Kander, who many felt had the best chance of beating Republican candidate came up short by 87,000 votes. Rural communities, tired of being ignored, banded together to look for a way to better themselves as they have become more and more frustrated with an economy that does not account for their poverty and inability to find jobs. “Make America Great Again” spoke to them. Democrats need to acknowledge this discrepancy and find ways to address these concerns, Mannies said.
Denise Lieberman addressed voter turnout, problems at the polls and the 2013 Supreme Court decision that stripped the Voting Rights Act of the pre-clearance provision that allowed the Department of Justice to preemptively monitor any potential voting suppression issues. 45% of eligible voters nationwide did not vote in this election. She said some of this was caused by the perception that voting would be difficult or challenged, causing a large number of voters to not even try. With the passage of Constitutional Amendment 6, Missouri is the first state to remove a constitutionally protected right to vote from its Constitution.
Beyond Shelter: A Holistic Approach to Homelessness
Thursday, October 13, 2016
When faced with the reality of homelessness in our area, many of us turn away – literally. The speakers at the October meeting opened our eyes to a different, and hopeful, approach to the situation. Eddie Roth, Director of the St. Louis Department of Human Services , spoke about the August opening of the Biddle House Opportunities Center (BHOC). The Center is on N. Tucker in a building built and owned by the city of St. Louis. It is a 24-‐hour shelter and service center for men, women and families during the day. At night it is available to sleep up to 100 men.
Operating in conjunction with St. Patrick Center, Biddle House’s goals are much broader than providing overnight and/or emergency shelter. Laurie Phillips, CEO of St. Patrick Center, elaborated on the mission. Bringing a background from the corporate world, and Masters Degrees from Washington University (Business Administration and Social Work), Laurie sees the Center as having the broadest reach and resources of any other organization in the area with a stated strategic goal to end homelessness in the St. Louis region.
To this end, the model of “Housing First” takes a 3-‐pronged approach: housing, support services, and behavioral help. Each new applicant is viewed through the lens of Continuum of Care – a process by which interviews and assessments are conducted to determine the level of housing needed, the level of services necessary for support and what housing is available. While Laurie is proud of what is being accomplished, she stated that there is still so much work to be done, not the least of which is to build a coordinated regional approach for providing services so that each city, county and municipality is not facing these issues alone.
Kathy Acre is most certainly one who does not look away from homelessness. As founder of BACKatYOU.org, she began her organization with the firm belief that each individual matters and deserves warmth, both literally and figuratively. After a career managing Section 8 housing, she took a break from the workplace but not the need. In 2014 she bought and filled 20 backpacks for her homeless neighbors in St. Louis and crocheted 20 scarves to provide the needed warmth. She has worked tirelessly to make sure that the homeless are not invisible – without names – and this year, with the help of Eddie Roth, volunteers from her organization will distribute 400 backpacks filled with supplies for those who live on the streets. As part of her organization’s mission statement states, “We see the homeless and we’ve got their backs.”
Follow Up November 29: City of St. Louis given 1 million grant to help house homeless. Read more
Helping Former Prisoners Gain Productive Lives Focus of Sept Program
Thursday, September 8 , 2016
First: identify the problem. Then look for the reasons. Then formulate the solution. That is exactly what speakers did at our Sept 8 program. Carrie Pettus-Davis, PhD, Founding Executive Director, Concordance Institute and Jeff Smith, PhD, Executive Vice President, Concordance Academy spoke about an innovative new program designed to reduce the high rate of prison recidivism.
Dr. Pettus-Davis said the skyrocketing incarceration rates in the US are higher than in any other country and disproportionally higher among black and Hispanic men than white men. These rates are not a result of any differences in behavior or criminal activity, but rather the result of long-standing systemic bias. Of the over 10,000 prisoners who are released each week in the US, 77% are rearrested within 5 years. Prison itself is a crime-producing environment, with little or no mental health care, and inmates whose incomes have been reduced to poverty levels or below.
Pettus-Davis addresses these issues with evidence driven research and a study of over 17,500 programs and articles. What worked? What didn’t? Why? Realizing that this is a unique moment when people are motivated morally, politically, and fiscally to work to solve these issues, the result was the formation of the Concordance Academy Reentry Program. Smith, a former MO state senator and former prisoner, explained that the program recruits prisoners in Missouri who are within 8 months of their release and who are returning to St. Louis City and County or St. Charles County. Prior to their release, program staff begin services, such as counseling, to reintegrate individuals to the community. Upon release, prisoners receive services in: education and job readiness; employment; substance abuse and mental health; cognitive and relationship skills; housing; and community life.
Smith said volunteers work with individual prisoners to help them readjust to community life. For more information, contact Smith at email@example.com
Volunteer Opportunities with Prisoner Re-entry Program
There are three possible avenues for volunteer participation. They are:
- Tutor/mentor –In this role, you’d meet with those who have recently left prison and help them get “job-ready” – helping with resumes, tutoring in literacy and numeracy, mock job interviewing, etc.
- Team leader/member –Team leaders will join and/or help create a 3-6 member team that will serve as a safety net for Academy participants. Those who were previously incarcerated need numerous resources upon their release, many of which they will need help accessing. By joining a team, volunteers will provide emotional support for participants and help them navigate any difficulties they encounter – and will help foster participants’ personal growth.
- Industry Insights – Do you have unique professional skills/industry expertise that might benefit Academy participants? If so, you may be able to offer an hourlong seminar offering guidance to Academy participants seeking to go into the same field in which the volunteer works.
Please reply to Patrice Brown (firstname.lastname@example.org) if you are interested in volunteering.