Category Archives: Front Page

Humanizing the Immigration Debate: A Conversation with United We Dream

Humanizing the Immigration Debate: A Conversation with United We Dream

August 10, 2018

United We Dream, a youth-led organization with hundreds of thousands of members, is one of the strongest voices for immigrant rights in our nation. United We Dream has shaped the immigration debate on Capitol Hill and across the country since it was founded, advocating for Comprehensive Immigration Reform, Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) and Deferred Action for Parents of Americans and Lawful Permanent Residents (DAPA), and other legislation on the national, state, and local levels to improve the lives of immigrants and their families. 

Recently, NETWORK Government Relations Associate, Sana Rizvi, interviewed Juan Manuel Guzman, Community and Government Affairs Manager at United We Dream, to hear more about United We Dream’s history, current advocacy, and vision for a future of just immigration policy. This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Sana: Hi Juan Manuel, thanks for talking with us. Could you give us a brief history of how United We Dream was created and how important it was, in that process, to be an immigrant-led organization?

Juan Manuel: Yes, absolutely. The co-founders of United We Dream, Cristina Jimenez and Julieta Garibay, always tell us how United We Dream  started. As you know in 2001, there was this Dream Act. It was a bill that was introduced by Senator Dick Durbin (D-IL), but it wasn’t up until 2006 or 2007 when immigrant youth, Dreamers, from different parts of the country had the opportunity to meet each other.

One of the catalysts of having United We Dream form is that idea of “Oh my gosh you are undocumented like me, but you live in another state and I didn’t know you existed.” So, United We Dream started as a network, a network of young immigrants who basically shared the same stories or similar stories and lived similar things here in the United States as undocumented immigrants. They decided to say, “Okay, you live in Texas, I live in New York, let’s keep in touch and see how we can move things forward.” So, that’s how it all started.

I think there was a point in the movement in which people, or at least the young people, their input was not as valid because young people making decision for themselves was not that mainstream. So, there was that need of people saying “No, I need to have a say about my life. Not only am I somebody who will tell his or her story, but I also want to be at that table where the decisions happen. I want to be able to influence that.” Because up until then it was other organizations doing the work and immigrant youth just being called to say their stories. More than the photo-op, immigrant youth wanted to have more influence on their own lives. So, they tell us that it all started with one desk. United We Dream only had a desk and a phone and people just trying to make the most out of it. As you know, it went from that desk and now it’s been 10 years.

Sana: We know that one of United We Dream’s guiding principles is “Our Stories are Power.” How do you use the power of stories in both mobilizing supporters and lobbying elected officials?

Juan Manuel: I think when politicians and the media and everyone talks about immigration in particular, it is a very hot issue. Sometimes when you don’t put a face to that, to those reports, when you don’t do that, you don’t humanize. What the stories do is basically put a face, a story, a human being, to what is being discussed. Politicians can talk a lot about policy but it is only when you understand the effect on people when it starts to make sense for you whether that policy is right or it’s wrong. So the stories are very powerful.

I did a lot of advocacy meetings with Republican offices for the DREAM Act campaign, for example. And you know, me, an undocumented immigrant, talking to Republican offices, that is not easy. But when I told them about the sacrifices of our families, for example, I remember telling this to one staffer: I told her, “Our families— our dads, or moms, our cousins— they worked hard for a better future. From dawn to sunset in backbreaking jobs, sometimes being abused, sometimes being treated unfairly, so we can have a better chance” and people would relate to that and say, “My mom worked a lot too and made a lot of sacrifices and you know what, I understand. It makes sense.” That is why our stories are so powerful.

Sana: What do you think is the most significant campaign that United We Dream has worked on in the past?

Juan Manuel: What a question. Probably the one that had the most impact is our DACA campaign. In 2010, right after the failure of the DREAM Act in Congress, United We Dream and other organizations decided to see how we could move into an executive branch strategy. Eventually, after a lot of work, activism, and organizing, immigrant youth were able to force the hand of the president of the United States into signing an executive order. It was the organizing, it was the strategizing, it was everything that made DACA happen. And that had, as you’ve probably seen, a huge impact on the lives of people, of families. It is not just about the DACA recipient who was able to get a work permit and be protected from deportation, but it was also an impact on the families, the economy, and the communities where we live. I think that is one of the most important results from our organizing.

Sana: So, moving onto the current situation which is, unfortunately, attacks on DACA and attacks on the immigrant community. With all of this, how is United We Dream balancing its priorities and what are some of your current campaigns?

Juan Manuel: I have to say the end of DACA [by President Trump] had a huge impact on United We Dream, because we are primarily led by undocumented young people. So the end of DACA took us to a 7-month [legislative] campaign for the Dream Act. That happened until March 5. We fought, we did everything that we could to find a legislative solution, but ultimately, politicians were not able to come up with a solution that provides a pathway to citizenship for immigrant youth but at the same time doesn’t hurt our families. So after March we decided to go back to the drawing board and see what is next.

I think at this moment what is important is that there have been a lot of leaders that emerged during the DREAM Act campaign. Even though there is that difficult reality that the future of the DACA program is in limbo, people have this energy, this willingness, to fight, to do something for their communities, to step up. There are many people in the country that we need to be involved at the local level. We have to see how we can protect immigrants at the local level. How do we work with the city council, how do we work with the school districts, how do we work with local organizations so we protect immigrants? Especially for people who are not protected or are losing protections, like TPS recipients or our own family who do not have any protection. How do we push for policies and people who are going to not only support us, but putting a stop to what has been coming from the federal government?

Sana: What keeps you all hopeful during this time? As an organization, I see United We Dream get up after we have a defeat and say, “Okay we are going to keep working, we are going to keep doing this.” What keeps that hope up?

Juan Manuel: I think we were able to see that in the DREAM Act campaign. We worked really long hours. We used to wake up really early, go to bed really late at night. Every day: working, going to Congressional offices, doing visits, doing actions, doing everything. We used all our energy and we were tired and it was difficult and it was cold, but at the same time you could see that people were still hopeful, were still energized and willing to fight. I think when you see that even though you might be tired, you might be burned out, you also have this sense of hope. In the worst times you can get the best out of people and I think that’s what gives me hope. When we didn’t have any certainty about our lives, it became the greatest leadership that we’ve seen. I think that’s what gives me hope that this is not over yet. We are going to keep fighting.

Sana: What is your long-term vision for just immigration policies in our country?

Juan Manuel: I think United We Dream has set it up clearly. It is not just about immigration. It goes beyond immigration. That was one thing we were able to see with President Trump coming to power. It is only not immigrants who are being attacked. It is also women. It is also our Muslim brothers and sisters. It is also the LGBTQ community that is being attacked, the environment. So I think the future for United We Dream and the vision is that we want to build this network of people, of people of conscience that want to work on behalf of these issues.

But most importantly, we want to seek racial justice because immigration is also a racial issue. You are seeing black and brown kids being separated from their families right now. They are not white kids. They are black and brown kids being separated from their families and black and brown people being incarcerated at such high levels. In the case of immigrants in detention centers, immigration detention centers, which are just jails— I can tell you that that is the future. Racial justice for issues that affect black and brown communities.

Sana: Are you hopeful that we will be victorious?

Juan Manuel: I think that sometimes we have to stumble and we have to fall a little bit so we can see the direction of our lives. I think that‘s true on a personal basis but also as a country. I think the country itself is waking up and people are saying, “I don’t agree with separating children, that’s not right. I don’t know what kind of political views you have but that is not a political issue, that’s a moral issue.” And I think people coming from that moral point of view will be able to say, “That is not the direction that we are going to go.” And I think progress, of course, is not linear, sometimes you have to take one step back to get two steps or three steps forward.

Sana: Can you give one word to describe how this movement makes you feel?

Juan Manuel: Wow, that’s a profound question. I think empowered. I joined the movement right around when Donald Trump was about to become the presidential nominee for the Republican Party. Before that, I was in the shadows and I felt very disempowered. That’s how you just feel. You don’t know your future here in the country. All these things being said about you and your community and your people. I had so much frustration and anger inside myself because of all the hateful things I was hearing. It was through the movement in United We Dream that I could feel empowered. I was able to say, “We can have an impact on the direction of our lives.”

Originally published in Connection Magazine. Read the full issue here.

Finding Holiness in the Struggle for Justice

Finding Holiness in the Struggle for Justice

Bearing Witness to the Pain of our Immigrant Family Calls Us to Action

I have shed tears watching the news coverage of ICE raids in work places. I have watched the separation of children, including very young children, from their parents in horror. I have had tears in my eyes as Temporary Protected Status for vulnerable people is ended without regard to the lived realities in these countries. I am shocked as the Republican Party, which always prided itself on being the party of “family values,” sets out with calculated cruelty to tear families apart. In the process, they are tearing the heart out of our nation.

But tears are not enough.

Pope Francis in his recent apostolic exhortation on holiness, Gaudete et Exsultate, challenges us with the insight: “The only proper attitude is to stand in the shoes of those brothers and sisters of ours who risk their lives to offer a future to their children. Can we not realize that this is exactly what Jesus demands of us, when he tells us that in welcoming the stranger we welcome him?” (Paragraph 102).

So how do we stand in the shoes of these immigrants? For some in Chicago it is being part of a prayer ministry for detained immigrants. In New Jersey, just across from New York City, it is providing detained people with basic necessities like stationery, stamps and international phone cards. In southern California, it is in providing parish identification cards and safe havens when Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) is around. In Minnesota, it is state organizing to provide actual protection for undocumented families. On our southern border, it is leaving water along the paths immigrants travel. In schools, colleges and, universities, it is making education accessible for undocumented children and young adults.

Everyone engaged in these and myriad other ministries is putting themselves in the zapatos (shoes) of the immigrant.

As I don’t spend my time doing this direct work, I sometimes wonder how am I putting myself in these sacred shoes? I am lead once again to the crying need for systemic change in our immigration policy. Our nation is being torn apart. Our values are being trampled. Our people are being hurt.

A couple of weeks ago, a mother told me that her first grade son came home extremely worried. He feared that his parents would not be there for him when he came home from school. He and his pals at school were talking about what had happened to one of their pal’s parents. His anxiety was high as he blurted out in tears: “It isn’t fair!”

I know that primal cry. It resonates in my being. I want to stand up and say STOP! This is my part – and yours. Together we are called as the NETWORK community to lobby Congress to change these unjust laws. But it isn’t just our own members of Congress that need to hear from us. We can get our friends around the country to contact their members of Congress too. We need to be missionaries of the common good for our family members who are suffering.

If we are going to reclaim our country, we must act according to our faith values. We will put ourselves in the shoes of those seeking our help and do all in our power to change these unjust laws. I commit to you that I will not step back from the fray even when my heart is broken and I want to flee. Will you act with me in the face of this mounting horror?

It is in this struggle that we might come to know the holiness that Pope Francis talks about. He tells us that it is marked by perseverance, joy, passion and boldness, community and constant prayer. Let us continue our advocacy, knowing that in our time this is the Gospel path. Let us respond together to the invitation: Come Follow Me!

Originally published in Connection Magazine. Read the full issue here.

Promoting the Dignity of Labor in NAFTA Negotiations

Promoting Dignity of Labor in NAFTA Negotiations

Mary Cunningham
July 30, 2018

When the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) was signed in 1994, the United States, Canada, and Mexico hailed it as a groundbreaking deal that would bring job growth, economic vitality and improved living standards to all three countries. Despite these promises, the trade deal failed to live up to the hype and has resulted in stifled wages in Mexico and the U.S., mass migration from Mexico to the U.S., and no improvement in labor and environmental protections.  After the passage of NAFTA, the U.S. flooded the Mexican market with corn, decreasing the value of Mexican corn by 66% which led directly to farmer displacement and migration.  Wages in Mexico have fallen below pre-NAFTA levels as have worker’s wages in the U.S. Likewise, America’s small farmers have been forced to compete with large industrial agricultural corporations against which they don’t stand a chance. NAFTA was negotiated by and for the big corporations and has failed workers on all sides of the table.

This brings us to the current state of NAFTA today. During his campaign and continuing into his presidency, President Trump dismissed NAFTA, declaring it “the worst trade deal.” He believes NAFTA is to blame for the loss of U.S. manufacturing jobs and the exportation of jobs to countries with lower production costs, like Mexico. President Trump’s distaste for NAFTA set the stage for NAFTA renegotiations led by U.S. Trade Representative, Robert Lighthizer. Thus far, there have been 7 rounds of talks, but no conclusive agreement has been reached.  Following the election of the new Mexican president, Andrés Manuel López Obrador (AMLO), negotiators from Mexico, Canada, and the U.S. have a window to try to conclude an agreement; however, the negotiations are more likely to continue into 2019.  As the Wall Street Journal reports, several of Andrés Manuel López Obrador’s priorities align with President Trump’s, increasing the likelihood of reaching a consensus on negotiations. Although there has been tension between President Trump and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau following the G-7 meeting, Canada and the U.S. are important trade partners and it is in both of their country’s interest to continue talks.

The main goals of the negotiations include updating trade practices to reflect new advancements in technology and “fixing” parts of the agreement that haven’t worked.  For the administration, this means eliminating certain investor protections that force federal governments to pay fines to transnational companies. It also means improving Mexican labor laws to combat the low wages and unfair labor standards which the administration argues have led to mass migrations and a precipitous decline in U.S. manufacturing jobs.  Part of the U.S. proposal is to have automobile parts manufactured in work zones with a minimum wage of $15. This would spur manufacturing in the U.S. and simultaneously increase wages in Mexico.  Mexican negotiations have expressed openness to these objectives although the business communities in all three countries vigorously object to provisions that protect workers and end investor courts.

Only by paying attention to the plight of the workers impacted by NAFTA can a comprehensive deal be reached. Although negotiations are complicated, a deal that treats all workers with the respect and dignity they deserve is possible. This means guaranteeing stable wages, the right to unionize, and worker protections. NAFTA has not lived up to its expectations, but these negotiations are a promising step forward.


Attempts to Sabotage the ACA Continue

Attempts to Sabotage the ACA Continue

Kaitlin Brown
July 27, 2018

This month has been particularly rough for the Affordable Care Act (ACA). In two acts of sabotage, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) announced policy decisions that will undermine access to health care for millions of people. (You can see our coverage of previous ACA sabotage from the Trump administration this year here).

First, the administration and the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services sent out a notice that funding for the navigator program would be cut to $10 million for the 2018-2019 enrollment period. Navigators work on the ground to help people navigate the online Insurance Marketplace and choose a plan that is right for them. Most navigators work for non-profit companies, and are present in congregations, public libraries, and other spaces to meet the needs of their community. Navigators also provide internet access to low-income and elderly people who might not have access to a computer find affordable health insurance. In 2016, the program was funded at $62 million, and only $36 million last year.

CMS also announced that it would be ending the risk adjustment program for insurance companies on the marketplace after a narrow ruling in New Mexico. The risk adjustment program is one of the main ways people with pre-existing and complex medical conditions can gain access to healthcare. The program uses premium money from healthy people in the individual market to pay for sicker people. It doesn’t cost anything, and is one of the main ways insurance works. Without this, however, costs could skyrocket for people with pre-existing conditions. This comes as rates and markets are being set for 2019, and without the ability to spread around risk between healthy and sick patients, premium rates could increase dramatically.

However, this decision was based on one case in New Mexico, where the judge ruled that the program in the state could not continue. Previous to this, a judge in Massachusetts had found the rule legal. However, CMS decided that the New Mexico ruling applied to all twenty-three states that have their own individual marketplace programs. Additionally, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services could have done a few things, including starting the appeals process or asking if the court meant for the ruling to apply to markets outside of New Mexico, that they chose not to do.

The reduction in funding for the popular navigator program, combined with the ending of the risk adjustment program, are two more acts of sabotage against the Affordable Care Act. We are seeing time and again that what the administration cannot do through the legislative process, they are doing through the administrative one.

Choosing Magis

Choosing Magis

Jeremiah Pennebaker
July 25, 2018

I am a proud two-time graduate of Xavier University in Cincinnati, Ohio, both with a B.A. and a Master’s degree. Like many, college was a very formative time in my life. I met great people and made close friends. While Jesuit ideals and values were something completely foreign to me a few years ago, it was something that had been instilled within me since the first day I stepped on campus. My Jesuit education at Xavier has pushed me to be more reflective and better discern where my talents and efforts are most needed. It was at Xavier where I learned to walk alongside those who I struggle with and those with different struggles. I built relationships with people in multiple marginalized communities and if it weren’t for them I wouldn’t have the depth and understanding of injustices that they face.

It was at Xavier that I learned the values of engaging the uniqueness and wholeness of each person. I realized that I couldn’t just acknowledge the part of my friends that I relate to. I needed to be able to accept them for their entire identity. Because of my relationships with them, I recognized how they had often hid or toned-down parts of themselves when they stepped out in public. But because of my education and immersion into Jesuit values I realized that this was not the greatest good God had intended for them. There was more of themselves that was being unjustly hidden from the world, and that my alma mater needed to do more work to better live up to its own ideals.

For me to invest time, energy, and finances to this institution for 4+ years and not hold it accountable to the values that it taught me would be reckless and irresponsible on my part. So I knew that I had to push it to do more, to live up to its values of cura personalis: of caring for the whole person mind, body, and spirit. My Xavier experience wasn’t terrible; It wasn’t filled with discrimination, I didn’t have teachers who refused to help me, and I wasn’t forced to use segregated facilities. But that doesn’t mean that my experience wasn’t without hardship—particularly related to my identity. And it doesn’t mean that I should settle for the standard of “at least you get to go to a good school.” So we pushed for our alma mater to do more work around racial justice on campus, we asked for it to recognize and grapple with its history of human bondage, we pushed for a more comprehensive effort to create a culture of racial equity on campus.

As my time here at NETWORK comes to a close, I’m once again in a space of reflection and discernment. I’m trying to figure out my next steps and trying to figure out if I took the right ones while I was here. I’m once again asking myself if I pushed NETWORK enough, if I did my part in asking them to do more and holding them to the standards they set for themselves. How can we become an anti-racist institution? How can we move away from tokenization of people of color and towards empowerment of people of color? What is the more that we need to do to not be complacent as another White-ally organization? I would hope that I did my part in pushing this organization to do and be more.

Asking and pushing for more than what’s been afforded to us is what is needed in this complacent and complicit country. As a Black person I need more than good white people who wear pussy hats and safety pins, and who can recite Ta-Nehisi Coates quotes. I need people who are serious about dismantling white supremacy and racist institutions. I need people who are willing to fully grapple with what it means to divest from white supremacy and invest (physically, mentally, and financially) in full reparative practices. As a tax-paying American citizen, I need more than politicians who simply identify as democrats. I need more than representatives who justify their political affiliation by claiming at least they’re not a Nazi. I need Members of Congress who are willing to push for real policy solutions that will protect the most vulnerable in our society. This means validating those who are undocumented. Aiding those who work 40+ hours a week and can’t make ends meet. It means reinstating those who’ve had their rights stripped away because of racist, sexist, homophobic etc. laws. It means protecting those who face state violence on a daily basis. As a country we need more than just equality, we need full comprehensive equity.

We need to push for more, and not just accept what has been placed in front of us. Complacency and complicity have brought us to where we are now.  We have a government filled with white supremacists. Children are being stripped from parents and placed in detention camps. State officials are raiding communities and dragging people from their homes. I don’t believe in being either complacent or complicit in that. Especially in a country that I was taught is built on the ideals of liberty and justice for all. For me to invest my time, energy, and finances into this country, it would be reckless and irresponsible for me to accept anything less than what I was told I would receive – and same thing goes for you, too.

Encountering the Reality of the Southern Border

Encountering the Reality of the Southern Border

Mary Cunningham
July 20, 2018

Ciudad Juárez, Mexico, and El Paso, Texas are just miles apart and yet they are worlds away. As you explore both, you notice the cities blend into one another: people living on one side, working on the other, Spanish and English spoken in both, and a shared industrial vibe. And yet, the cities remain two distinct realities – divided by a large border wall, 18 feet high in some places. People on one side are trapped by low wages, poor working conditions, violence, and persecution, and on the other trapped by their own minds and biases. But there is a deep inequality between the two countries, and, in the United States, an explicit denial of the experiences of people living south of the border – people most of us have never even met. It baffles me how a barrier can create not only physical separation, but a separation that is strongly emotional and visceral.

In early July I went to the U.S.-Mexico border for the first time. Working at a federal advocacy organization in Washington, D.C., I am constantly reading news about what’s happening at the border: people fleeing violence in countries such as El Salvador and Honduras, debates on funding for the border wall, family separation, the list goes on. Despite this, I always felt a desire to go the border – to meet people and hear their stories. D.C. is geared towards engaging with immigration on a policy level, but it often feels disconnected from what’s happening on the ground. This trip was a chance to immerse myself in the reality of the border—learning about the working conditions for people on both sides, the process for seeking asylum, the experience of migrants, the conditions in detention centers, Customs and Border Protection, and more. It was a chance to learn, but also a chance to feel the impact of the border and the precise division it creates.

At the beginning of the week we helped serve dinner at Nazareth Hall, a shelter for migrants recently released from U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and detention centers. Although there was a language barrier, the stories of the people we served food to were written all over their faces. We noticed the timidity of the group as they entered the dining hall and the slight relaxation that took over as they realized they were finally in a safe place. One woman came up to us after dinner with tears in her eyes, holding each of our hands for a few brief moments, as she repeated, “thank you.” We also got a tour of Annunciation House, a shelter for undocumented immigrants started by Ruben Garcia. (This is one of the only shelters available for migrants who are undocumented.) Interacting with migrants who had just been released from detention was a grounding experience. I spoke with one man from Cameroon who had been detained for 18 months. When I asked how that was, he just shook his head despairingly, claiming, “horrible.” It was evident that the conditions in detention centers are deplorable. Many local advocates we met with told us “make no mistake: these are prisons.”

In addition to helping at local shelters, we met immigration advocates and attorneys such as Anna Hey, Deputy Director of the Diocesan Migrant and Refugee Services (DMRS). Anna gave us an overview of the particular barriers facing migrants coming to the United States, explaining the snares they often get caught up in the legal process. Among all the things Anna shared with us, what stood out to me the most were the discrepancies between the number of people granted asylum from state to state, depending on where their case is heard. (In New York, New York the grant rate is 85%, while in El Paso the grant rate is a mere 6%.) Additionally, Anna noted how the whole “wait in line” argument is complete bologna. Some people applying for immigrant visas or Legal Permanent Residency (LPR) may have to wait over 20 years! Hearing about this and the lived experience of the clients Anna works with exposed the undeniable reality of our dysfunctional immigration system.

Towards the end of the week we crossed the border into Ciudad Juárez, Mexico. While there, we visited the Bibloteca Infantil, “El Buen Pastor,” a children’s library started by Cristina Estrada. Cristina explained how the limited economic opportunity in Juárez dissuades many people from finishing their education. Maquiladoras (foreign-owned and run factories) are common in Juárez and many Mexicans – often multiple members of the same family– end up working in them. We talked to a representative from Foxconn (an electronics manufacturing company), who told us that the starting wage is around $60 a week. Broken down, that means that at least three members of a family would have to work to make ends meet. Recognizing that many Mexican young people see factories like this as their only path, Cristina’s mission at the children’s library is to provide a space for young people to learn, study, and grow. She provides books for students and helps tutor them so they are able to recognize the value of education and where it can lead them. When one of our group members asked Cristina what she hoped to accomplish, she replied with tears in her eyes, saying her dreams had already been fulfilled. Seeing so many kids achieve their educational goals over the years is her greatest accomplishment.

This immersion trip brought me many things, but perhaps among the most important was that nothing is more powerful than the power of experience. Some elected officials choose to paint the immigrant population with broad strokes, calling them criminals, drug traffickers, or burdens to our country. But how fair is that, when these are people just like us, who each carry their own pain, struggles, and joys? There are so many stories that simply don’t get heard, because we don’t have enough time or space to tell them. While I know this immersion trip and these stories won’t change immigration policy overnight, they certainly changed me. I find hope at the individual level, where the stories of each individual person we meet transform our hearts and minds and push us in subtle ways to see anew. As the Columban motto goes, “A life unlike your own can be your teacher.”

Faces of our Spirit-Filled Network: Fr. Terry Moran

Faces of our Spirit-Filled Network: Fr. Terry Moran

Fr. Terry Moran
July 10, 2018

Tell us a little about yourself and the work you do.

I am a Catholic priest, an associate of the Sisters of Saint Joseph of Peace, and currently minister as the Director of the Office of Peace, Justice, and Ecological Integrity for the Sisters of Charity of Saint Elizabeth, a congregation of women religious, mostly in New Jersey, with some sisters in other states and in Haiti and El Salvador.

How did you first learn about NETWORK and what inspired you to get involved?

I remember when NETWORK was founded and the excitement it generated in sisters who were friends of mine.  NETWORK incarnated what we were talking about in theology after Vatican II – that the gospel compelled us to become involved in the political process, to build on our history of direct service by engaging in structural change.

What issue area are you most passionate about?

Climate change and learning how to foster a healthier human/Earth relationship is my greatest passion. Any other social issue is contingent on us facing the climate crisis. There can be no just human society on a dying planet.

How are you engaging your community on important social justice issues?

In as many ways as possible: I send out regular action alerts on issues that are important to us; a monthly e-newsletter called JustLove; two ecospirituality groups that meet monthly; regular workshops and talks; a Facebook page; recently I distributed a refrigerator magnet with a graphic of our Justice, Peace and the Integrity of Creation (JPIC) priority issues so that the sisters think about them as they get their morning orange juice.

How has your advocacy for social justice shaped your view of the world?

I come from a family in which political engagement was an important value so there’s a restlessness in my genes for a world that is more just, peaceful, and verdant.

How does your faith inspire you to work for justice?

My religious formation was in the early post-Vatican II days when “a faith that does justice” was shaking our sleepy 1950’s Catholicism. I’m very happy that Pope Francis is putting the social agenda of the gospel front and center again. I think his encyclical Laudato Si’ is the most compelling program available today for where the world needs to go.

Who is your role model?

Two people that are daily inspirations for me: Margaret Anna Cusack, the founder of the Sisters of Saint Joseph of Peace –the community of which I’m an associate. She was a 19th century Irish social justice advocate and prolific writer who drove bishops crazy.  Her book Women’s Work in Modern Society (1875) was among the first to explore the role of women in economic life. I love her quote, “People make a lot of the sufferings of the Desert Fathers but they were nothing compared to the sufferings of the mothers of the 19th century.”

Another is Daniel Berrigan, SJ, who has been a mentor for me since I first met him on his release from prison in my hometown, Danbury, CT in 1972. His contemplative searching of the scriptures that led to a life of resistance to war has been a life-long model for me.

Right now, I am most inspired by my seven friends of the Kings Bay Plowshares action who entered the largest Trident submarine base in the world on April 4, 2018 and enacted the prophecy of Isaiah 2 by hammering and pouring blood on these instruments of mass destruction.  I have their photo on my desk and often turn to it in the course of the day in gratitude and prayer. Their willingness to put their own lives and plans on hold and to risk prison for the sake of the gospel of non-violent resistance is tremendously inspiring to me.

Is there a quote that motivates or nourishes you that you would like to share?

“The world is violent and mercurial–it will have its way with you. We are saved only by love–love for each other and the love that we pour into the art we feel compelled to share: being a parent; being a writer; being a painter; being a friend. We live in a perpetually burning building, and what we must save from it, all the time, is love.”– Tennessee Williams

What social movement has inspired you?

Growing up in the 60’s, I’ve been deeply formed by my involvement in the peace movement and the women’s movement. I remember participating in the first Earth Day in 1970.  Most recently I’m very inspired by Black Lives Matter, the leadership taken by young people against gun violence, and the work of an organization of Dreamers called Cosecha who are risking their own safety for dignity for all the undocumented.

What was your biggest accomplishment as an activist in the past year?

That I haven’t lost my mind and have been able to keep going in the vile political climate in which we live.

What are you looking forward to working on in the coming months?

Starting an organic garden on our motherhouse property. There is something healing about getting your hands in the dirt. Also working with a local organization to welcome a third refugee family.

Choosing Engagement over Alienation

Choosing Engagement over Alienation

Sister Mary Ellen Lacy
July 6, 2018

The other day, my NETWORK colleagues, sisters and other women of faith attended a prayer vigil in front of the Customs and Border Patrol Building in Washington, D.C.  We were there to pray for a conversion of hearts for those who peel crying children from their mothers in the name of justice, or worse, in the name of God. There were stirring testimonies, prayers and songs sent to heaven on behalf of the little ones. I cannot think about this situation without fighting back my own tears of pain and anger.

When it was over, we decided to take an Uber home. The Uber driver was an affable older man who sported a leather cowboy hat and greeted us with a heartfelt smile. After we were loaded up, we had to wait because the President’s motorcade was driving by. The Uber driver then shared with us that he was a ‘Trump Supporter’ and that children have been taken at the border for 12 years.  He wondered aloud, “why do people blame ‘the poor guy’ [Trump] for everything when he only does the same as all the rest before him?”

In these scary times, people who have opposing opinions may seem evil and perhaps we see them as an enemy to our basic notion of being a Christian or American. Often, out of anger and fear, we marginalize them and deport them from our hearts.

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. taught us that, in order to love your enemies, you must begin by analyzing self. There may be something within you that arouses a tragic hate response to the other individual. So, we must examine ourselves.  Once we remove the plank from our own eye, as needed, we should remember that even the person who hates us most has some good in him, some of God in him. Thirdly, if we get the opportunity to devour our enemy, we should not take it.

My instinct was to scream when I heard the oft repeated ‘Somebody else did it too’ defense.  Instead, I offered that in the past it was not done for the same reasons or to the degree it is being done today. He seemed a little unnerved and his voice became strained and louder. Clearly, I had struck a chord. He repeatedly told me to ‘check the facts’ as he defended the new policy. I offered my personal experience at the border to counter his impression to no avail. It occurred to me, although we did, indeed, have the facts,  that was not going to change his heart. We did not need to embarrass him or prove him wrong because that was equally unhelpful.  At this point, one of my companions awkwardly tried to change the subject.

We got quiet for a moment. I questioned whether I had unnecessarily provoked the angry response.  However, the need for engagement, speaking up in our daily lives and transformational conversations with those of differing opinions beckoned me to attempt communion with this man. Protests and vigils have impact but real transformation calls us to remain in the uncomfortable conversation. Besides, this was a nice man who merely thought differently than I did. I should be able to talk with him. If we want the suffering of our sisters and brothers to end, we must be able to talk with each other. After all, God made me and God made him. We always have that much in common with another person.

So, allowing for the possibility that he had a piece of the truth, I asked him what he had hoped would happen in this situation? He relaxed his delivery but he still believed that immigrants should ‘go home’ and come back legally. His heart softened as he entered into a dialog with us and released the angry rhetoric he first presented to us. A few minutes into this more humble exchange, he came to admit that separating kids from their parents is a bad thing. By the end of the ride, he shared other political views that we could own, too. He even conceded a tax/budget issue to my companion and said he enjoyed our conversation.

When faced with the opportunity to deport this man from our hearts and devour him with facts, we chose to welcome the God within him and he responded in kind. I was grateful for our conversation because it reinforces to me that, if we can be generous to each other on the ground, and we elect leaders who mirror our values, then we have a chance of changing Congress.

Let us model the community and courageousness we hope to see in the halls of Congress.

Sister Mary Ellen Lacy, DC, is a NETWORK Grassroots Mobilization Fellow.

People of Faith Working for Access to Affordable Medicine

People of Faith Working for Access to Affordable Medicine

Fran Quigley
July 5, 2018

Last June, 26 year-old Alec Smith of Minnesota died because he could not afford to treat his Type 1 diabetes with insulin that has risen in price over 1,000% since the late 1990s.  One out of every five Americans does not fill a prescription each year because they can’t afford it—and risk strokes, heart attacks and unrelenting pain as a result.

Tobeka Daki of South Africa, the mother of two sons, died in 2016 because she could not afford a monopoly-protected cancer medicine priced at 193 times its manufacturing cost. The United Nations estimates that 10 million people each year die because they cannot afford the medicine to treat them.

The tragic stories of Alec Smith and Tobeka Daki could be repeated many times over in every community, and they could be told about vaccines, mental health medicines, asthma medication and nearly every other treatment. Many of us heard about the Epi-Pen 450% price increases or “Pharma Bro” Martin Shkreli’s 5,000% overnight spike in the price of the HIV medicine Daraprim. But these high-profile controversies are only the most visible symptoms of a deeply entrenched problem.

In stark contrast to Jesus bringing healing to the poorest of the poor, today’s lifesaving treatments have increasingly become a luxury that only the world’s wealthy can afford. Protected from market competition by monopoly patents, medicines are routinely priced at levels hundreds of times their manufacturing costs. The companies that sell the medicines make record-breaking profits yet still routinely raise prices by double-digit margins each year.

These companies tout their research investments, but they actually spend far more on advertising, executive salaries as high as $78 million per year, stock buybacks that enrich the top shareholders, and political campaign donations. In the meantime, our sisters and brothers are splitting their pills, maxing out credit cards just to go to the pharmacy, or simply going without their medication.

For people of faith, this status quo is unacceptable. All major religious and moral traditions embrace a clear responsibility to care for those who are poor and the sick. And that obligation goes beyond direct care to use our voices to ensure that our systems and laws do not lock out those in desperate need of medicines.

So it is not surprising that a significant majority of Americans are demanding drug pricing reform. And we have an opportunity to make it happen. Bipartisan proposals to change the system are pending in dozens of states and Congress.

Those proposals include allowing Medicare to negotiate drug prices the same way other countries do now, and speeding the process for drugs  to be available at far cheaper generic prices. The corporations setting record prices can do so only because our government has chosen to grant them private monopolies on selling taxpayer-funded developed medicines, even though nonprofit models for research and development have proven to be effective.

Advocates for affordable medicines have won before. In the HIV/AIDS treatment campaign of the turn of the century, much of  the faith community joined a global moral movement that successfully overcame monopolies and reduced antiretroviral medicine prices by more than 90%, saving millions of lives in the process.

The faith community can play this role again. We start with the foundation, set out in both our sacred texts and global human rights treaties, that people who are suffering should be able to access the medicines they need. The fact that Alec Smith, Tobeka Daki and millions of others cannot access the medicine they need to live is a moral failing.

But we can fix this, and people of faith can help lead the way.

Fran Quigley is a NETWORK advocate based in Indiana and the coordinator of People of Faith for Access to Medicines (PFAM).

To the NETWORK Community:

Do you have a personal story about drug prices that you’d like to share with NETWORK as we advocate for affordable medicine? Submit your story below. Thank you!

Freedom for Some, But Not for All

Freedom for Some, But Not for All

Mary Cunningham
July 4, 2018

July 4, 1776: the day the Declaration of Independence was adopted. Since then, each July 4th we celebrate our nation’s freedom from an overbearing colonial rule and our fervent patriotism. We dress in red, white, and blue, enjoy cookouts with neighbors in our backyards, and watch from picnic blankets as fireworks erupt across the sky. Yes, the day has become commercialized, but the words of the Declaration of Independence remain as pertinent in our current political climate as they were when they were first written.

The document written by our founding fathers clearly declares our commitment to “unalienable Rights” defined as “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” It even goes so far as to say that when a government fails to protect these rights, it is the duty of the people to alter or abolish it, and that a leader whose actions resemble a tyrant cannot be trusted to rule and uphold the freedom of the people. Thus, we see the intricate and fragile relationship that exists between the government and the governed.

Take a snapshot of the United States at this exact moment, and you will realize that we have do not have good governance, and that many in our country still lack the rights which the Declaration of Independence deems “inalienable.” In his “I Have a Dream” speech, Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. talked about what was meant by this term: “This note was a promise that all men, yes, black men as well as white men, would be guaranteed the unalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. It is obvious today that America has defaulted on this promissory note insofar as her citizens of color are concerned.”

The default on the promise of “inalienable rights” was evident during Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s time and it is still evident today for people of color and all on the economic margins seeking to live freely in the United States. We see this in the recent decision by the Supreme Court to uphold the Trump administration’s travel ban, Congress’s failure to pass a Dream Act to protect DACA recipients, and state and federal attempts to impose work requirements on human needs programs that help our nation’s most vulnerable families and individuals. How do these political decisions enhance the life, liberty, or happiness of the people they impact? They don’t.

On a more personal level, we have begun to fail one another, as violent discrimination and exclusion continue to reign. Our nation has endured countless acts of police brutality and racial profiling. I am astonished on a daily basis by the attacks on communities of color, like the recent shooting of high school student Antwon Rose. If we set a standard that “all men are created equal,” shouldn’t we hold all people to that standard, regardless of race, gender, or religious beliefs?

A few days ago, one of my coworkers sent around a video from the show, Dear White People, to our staff. In the video, the character Reggie reads a poem he wrote for an open mic night—his rendition of the Declaration of Independence:

We hold these truths to be self-evident
that all men are created equal
that they are endowed by their creator
with certain inalienable rights
Among these life, liberty and
the pursuit of happiness
unless you’re loud and black
and possess an opinion
then all you get is a bullet
A bullet that held me at bay
A bullet that can puncture my skin
take all my dreams away
A bullet that can silence
the words I speak to my mother
just because I’m
A bullet – held me captive
gun in my face
your hate misplaced
White skin, light skin
but for me not the
right skin
Judging me with no crime committed
reckless trigger finger itching to
prove your worth by disproving mine
My life in your hands
My life on the line
Fred Hampton
Tamir Rice. Rekia Boyd
Reggie Green
Spared by a piece of paper
a student ID
that you had to see before
you could identify
and set me supposedly
and the pursuit of happiness
for some of us maybe
There’s nothing
about it

The Declaration of Independence pronounced the individual rights that cannot be taken away. In 1776, that only included white, male landowners. After much hard work and sacrifice, we know that all people deserve these same unalienable rights. But, we see that as a nation today, we fall despairingly short of this. The words of the Declaration of Independence should not be an ideal or something that we aspire to. They must be the law of the land, the fabric which knits our country together. For if we cannot claim our freedom, what do we have left?