Monday, August 25, 2008

Two Weeks in Texas

Things are going well as I end my second week in Texas! Last Sunday we moved into Casa Rutilio Grande. It's a three bedroom house in a predominantly Mexican neighborhood just a bit southeast of downtown Houston. Since there are seven of us, we're all sharing rooms (one room has three people), but our living room, dining room, and kitchen are all big, so I think there'll be enough space. On Monday and Tuesday of last week we all visited the organizations we're working with. On Monday we visited Catholic Charities Houston and YMCA International. On Tuesday we visited Bering Omega, which has an AIDS hospice, a dental clinic for people with HIV and AIDS, and an adult "daycare" center for people with AIDS. We visited a transitional housing project run by AIDS Foundation Houston, and we visited the Gulf Region Advocacy Center (GRACE), which basically (as far as I can tell) tries to get criminals sentences of life in prison without parole rather than the death penalty. This county executes more people than any state (except Texas, obviously). We also visited my organization, the Houston Interfaith Worker Justice Center.

My first day of work on Wednesday was nice and easy - I went to a workshop on Globalization, Free Trade, Migration, and Local Organizing. A lot of the information was pretty familiar (thanks Prof. Zunes!). The effects of globalization and free trade push people into such poverty that many migrate for survival and to care for their families. The workshop was structured using a popular education model, which I recognized almost immediately (thanks to Mike Duffy and Dave Batstone for assigning Pedagogy of the Oppressed). The whole organization uses popular education as its model for worker organizing.

On Thursday and Friday I spent time in the office, mainly preparing for a brief presentation I was asked to do on Sunday (and at the same time learning about what I'm doing for my job). We were subcontracted by an organization called Houston Rescue and Restore, which does human trafficking victim identification, to do outreach to domestic workers (this will be a good chunk of my job). Many trafficking victims are held in domestic servitude, but they're very hard to identify. I'll be doing direct outreach to domestic workers, and we'll be holding workers' rights workshops specifically for them, with a component on how to identify a trafficking situation and what to do if you do. The idea is that domestic workers will know the domestic worker community best and be the best people to spread the word. We'll train them to train others, and the hope is that this will raise the number of victims identified and rescued.

On Sunday I traveled to Austin for the first statewide Anti-Human Trafficking Coalition meeting. I learned a lot about human trafficking, and a lot went over my head (they love to use acronyms!). Houston Rescue and Restore organized the meeting, and since my project is one of their projects, I spoke briefly about what we're doing. Here are a few things I learned at the meeting: When the government decides they wouldn't be able to win a trafficking case, usually because there's not enough evidence backing up the victim's testimony, they don't prosecute and the victim doesn't get classified as a trafficking victim, can't receive services or funding, and may be deported. Everybody seems to want the state to step in because there's a state statute against trafficking, but state law enforcement is really ignorant about human trafficking, so they don't take cases either. Overall, the system is messed up in a lot of ways.

Here's your quote of the day: "Hay que cambiar de raíz todo el sistema." - Monseñor Oscar Romero. (My translation: "One must change the whole system from its roots.")

Monday, August 18, 2008

I'm in Texas!

Hi friends,

I'm happily settling into a lovely house in Houston right now. We don't have internet access at our house, so I'm sitting in a nearby cafe using wireless. I should have regular access at work, but be aware that my internet time will be much more limited than it used to be, and I may be slow to respond.

Here's an entry I wrote a few days ago:

Saturday, August 16, 2008

As I write this, I'm at a retreat center in Pinehurst, TX, a.k.a. in the middle of the woods about an hour away from Houston. There's no internet here, so I'm typing this on my computer and posting it when I get the chance.

I arrived successfully at the George Bush Intercontinental Airport in Houston on Tuesday. When I was flying in, looking out the window, I was amazed at how green it was and how many trees there were. When we landed, I quickly found the other JVC people. As soon as I stepped out of the air conditioned airport, I knew I was facing my first challenge of the year: heat and humidity. We rode together in a school bus (not air conditioned) to the Circle Lake Retreat Center, which is far more beautiful and amazing than I ever would have expected. With the humidity, it feels like we're in the rainforest. We were warned not to swim in the lake because there are water moccasins (for ignorant people like me, those are snakes), and I discovered some large and colorful varieties of bugs. We've had sporadic rain and thunder (fun!).

During our orientation we focused on the four pillars of JVC: social justice, simple living, spirituality, and community. Each day we focused on one. Someone gave a presentation in the morning, we had a chance for reflection, and in the afternoons we had meetings with our community members to discuss how we'll carry out these principles in our communities.

I'll be living with six lovely young women this year: Stephanie (from Knoxville, Tennessee), Katie (from Cleveland, Ohio), Robin (from New Orleans), Emily (from Santa Cruz, CA), Mary (from St. Louis, Missouri), and Vicky (from near Dallas, TX). We're getting along very well, and I'm excited about spending the year with them. We have a mix of personalities, but a lot of similarities as well (including Catholicism, a dislike of cockroaches, and a desire for clean common areas), and we're all committed to making the community work.

The JVC program is based on the four pillars I mentioned above. When we signed up to do JVC, we signed the JVC South Covenant, which we've revisited throughout the orientation. To give you a better sense of the program, here are sections from the covenant:

Social Justice: In order to work for justice we must become aware of our role in society. We are called to change the attitudes and structures, both personal and societal, which create poverty and oppression.

Simplicity of Lifestyle: Honoring simplicity allows us to value relationships over objects. Living simply brings us closer to awareness of God and Creation, our humanity, and our lifestyle's effects on others.

Community: Communal life allows for mutual support and encouragement in the difficult work we choose to do as volunteers. It challenges us to be open, compassionate and willing to grow. We learn that our lives are interconnected and we have responsibility towards all members, as they do to us.

Spirituality: Spirituality is both the awareness of and our reaction to God's presence in the world. It is in realizing God's love for us that we can then turn to others with love. As Christians, we recognize the responsibility we have to each other and follow the Ignatian tradition of reflection and action.