Friday, October 15, 2010

Better Together Public Action Meeting

I'm not sure what I expected when I decided to go to the ACTS (Alliance of Communities Transforming Syracuse) Better Together public action meeting last weekend--it was a Sunday, Hendricks Chapel was bustling (yes, bustling), somebody was playing a hymn on the organ (gave me flashbacks), and everyone was more dressed up than me (oops).

Dean Tiffany Steinwert offered an opening, nondenominational prayer, recognizing the 44 community groups present and “united” she said, toward “equal protection.” I was intrigued. School groups, Baptist churches, Catholic churches, Episcopalian churches, Jewish synagogues, Islamic societies, Latino groups, Labor unions—all together? For common goals? With sign language interpreters too? Would there be unicorns later?

I was skeptical, but I was also really, really hopeful.

I was not disappointed (well, maybe about the unicorns, a little).

The meeting was essentially a task force update and rally. The ACTS group is split into many task forces, including Healthcare, Economic Development, and a Youth initiative in collaboration with Say Yes. Three task forces presented at the meeting on Sunday: Civil Rights for Immigrants, Criminal Justice, and Food Access.

The immigration rights task force explained its goals: a viable path to citizenship; enforcement that doesn't criminalize, and doesn't function on racist principles; contextual discretion for every deportation case; and expanded family and worker visas. The chair, Aly Wane, asked a local family to relate their story of an ICE raid in their home earlier in September. With the help of a Spanish translator, (and, it should be noted, also with the immense courage it takes to come forward and speak on these issues), they described the brutish police invasion and destruction of their family unit. This was unacceptable, Wane said. It goes against the ideology of America, and it ought, he noted, go against the moral ideology of the groups present. “The God of our many understandings,” Wane said, “is not a god of apathy.”

This idea, I admit, was somewhat novel to me. As someone who has historically been at odds with religion, because of sexuality, politics, and general disenchantment, I've become accustomed to thinking of religion as an opposition to humanist work—when really, maybe they aren't so irreconcilable after all. And, hey, I know, maybe it shouldn't be such an outlandish thing, but you send an atheist to cover the Faith-Based Initiative, this is what happens, okay? And, I think we could say that in our culture, the media representation of religion is a lot more right-wing and exclusive than many of the actual religions at work out there. Or maybe not? You tell me. Comments section—go at it.

Moving on, though! The next task force was justice-oriented. Their projects lately have been concerned with enabling persons released from prison to get photo identification—something that has been unduly difficult in years past. The task force was instrumental in not only the eased accessibility of birth certificates, but also the initiative to print proof of identity at the prison which would count toward the points needed for a drivers license, or other photo ID. They also demanded change at the Onondaga County Justice Center, citing the needless deaths of Chuniece Patterson and Raul Pinet this August as evidence of the center's racism, neglect and the need to establish “meaningful accountability.”

The last group that presented was the Food Access team, and they had really impressive and specific projects in the works to improve the food situation in urban Syracuse. They reported that no grocery stores had been willing to open up in the area, but that they were working with local farmers and artisans to create a year-round market to make more food available. Moreover, they are working with local officials to reform the corner-markets to provide more healthy options, more food, and at fair prices. Their proposed methods include helping the markets find funding sources and encouraging patrons to frequent stores with healthy selections, or, alternatively, law-enforcement based pressure to oust non-compliant stores. “Every person,” chair Mable Wilson asserted, “should have the right to make sound, healthy choices in their diet.”

They closed with a hymn, and a prayer by Imam Yaser Alkhooly of the Islamic Society of Central New York, who stressed the common goal of “shelter for everyone who needs shelter, care for everyone who needs care,” and asked that we be sheltered from “ignorance, violence, and fear.”

I have to say I was really stunned and impressed and happy about the initiatives I saw in action. What really won me over were the numerous elected officials, or candidates in the upcoming election present—Dan Maffei, Police Chief Frank Fowler, Sheriff candidate Toby Shelley, Dan Young, David Valeski, Kathleen Joy, Sam Roberts, Michael Donnelly, Christina Fadden-Fitch, and Matthew Morgan-- who were asked specifically if they would help to perform specific functions in the projects that ACTS is generating. All present agreed, (the mediators of the event pointed out a few other officials who had declined the invitation to the event).

The tasks set out seem really meaningful, feasible, and organized. So, what can we expect from these folks in the future? What would you like to see happen in the community? What can Syracuse do to help? For my two cents, (and I know it's really a problematic and stressful issue, particularly/traditionally with Faith-based organizations), but I was a little surprised that there was no collaboration with the Q Center or even the University's LGBT Resource Center. Given that Queer youth and teens are at a raised risk of suicide, bullying, and violence, it seems it would be a good problem for the Youth Task Force to tackle.

The ACTS group is doing great work, I just would like to push them to continue to stretch their boundaries and be even more intersectional and transformative.

Guest post from the lovely Savannah!

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