Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Dramatic Action and the Movement to Close the School of the Americas

The School of the Americas protest and vigil is this coming weekend. I won't be going (it's hard to get to Georgia on a JV stipend), but I will be doing a presentation about the SOA and SOA Watch to a church youth group in the area on Sunday. I was preparing for that presentation and went back to an essay I wrote for Digital Democracy (taught by David Silver). It's a decent paper, so I thought I'd post it up here. If I were less lazy/had more time, I would linkify the references, etc., but I added a video and a couple photos to spice it up. The photos are from when I went in 2006 (shortly after I wrote this paper).

Amber McChesney-Young
Digital Democracy
November 7, 2006

Dramatic Action and the Movement to Close the School of the Americas

In November 1990, Fr. Roy Bourgeois, Charlie Liteky, and Patrick Liteky, accompanied by local media, entered the U.S. Army School of the Americas at the Ft. Benning military base in Georgia. There they placed images of six Jesuit priests and their housekeeper and daughter, who had been killed in El Salvador the previous November, along with a letter calling for the closure of the school. They splashed human blood on the pictures and the floor and the walls, and went outside, where they placed a white cross at the base of the sign marking the School of the Americas. They splashed blood on the sign, then on themselves, and they lay down and waited to be arrested. This was one of the first actions of a movement to shut down the School of the Americas, a U.S. Army-run combat-training school for Latin American soldiers. The movement has grown over the years, but throughout its development the use of dramatic direct action has played a key role in building the movement and advancing its goals.

The U.S. Army School of the Americas (SOA), which was renamed the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation (WHINSEC or WHISC) in 2001, was started in 1946 in the Panama Canal Zone and moved to Ft. Benning, Georgia in 1984. It was created as a Cold War tool to keep Communism out of Latin America, but it still remains open after the fall of Communism, and it continues to train Latin American soldiers. Over 60,000 soldiers have graduated from the school.

Graduates of the School of the Americas have been responsible for major human rights abuses in Latin America. SOA Watch says, "These graduates have consistently used their skills to wage a war against their own people. Among those targeted by SOA graduates are educators, union organizers, religious workers, student leaders, and others who work for the rights of the poor. Hundreds of thousands of Latin Americans have been tortured, raped, assassinated, 'disappeared,' massacred, and forced into refugee by those trained at the School of Assassins" ("What is the SOA?").

Some of the more famous abuses took place in El Salvador. Two of the three people found responsible for assassinating Archbishop Oscar Romero in 1980 were SOA graduates.1 Three of the five responsible for the rape and murder of four U.S. churchwomen (three nuns and a laywoman) were SOA graduates, and ten of the twelve responsible for the massacre at El Mozote in 1981, where over 900 people were killed, and nearly the entire village, along with the surrounding area, was wiped out, were SOA graduates. In 1989, in an action that actually helped bring about the end to El Salvador's civil war because of the outrage it caused, six Jesuit priests, their housekeeper, and her daughter were brutally murdered at the University of Central America in El Salvador. Nineteen of the 26 found responsible were SOA graduates, according to a 1993 United Nations Truth Commission Report. In 1996, in what led to a great uproar, the Pentagon was pressured into releasing manuals that had been used at the school from 1982 to 1991 which taught torture, blackmail, and execution. This was significant in helping build the movement to close the school (Gill 212-213).

To understand the purpose of the SOA, one must look at U.S. foreign political and economic relations. The United States has provided financial and military support to Latin American countries to keep the people it likes in power, and when the people it doesn't like have been in power, the U.S. has backed the insurgency and supported coups. In the 1980's, El Salvador went through a civil war between the right-wing government and the left-wing insurgency, which involved massacres, kidnappings, disappearances, and torture. The U.S. gave significant support to the Salvadoran government throughout the war.

Today many of the conflicts in Latin America have calmed down, but the U.S. continues to train Latin American soldiers, and there continues to be criticism of the school. In the book School of Assassins: Guns, Greed, and Globalization, Jack Nelson-Pallmeyer, Professor of Peace and Justice Studies at St. Thomas University, looks at the school in the larger framework of globalization and economics. He argues that the SOA is training soldiers in order to maintain rule which favors free trade and structural adjustment programs imposed by the IMF and World Bank. Nelson-Pallmeyer says, "U.S. foreign policy generally and the SOA specifically support policies and systems that enrich a powerful minority while leading to widespread poverty, gross inequalities, a strained environment, and constricted or nonexistent democracy" (14). In other words, the issue is not limited to high-profile assassinations. The SOA is a symbol of U.S. foreign relations and imperialism.

It was a background in a different kind of U.S. involvement in Latin America that led a small group of people to found School of the Americas Watch in 1990. Fr. Roy Bourgeois, a Maryknoll priest, had spent five years in Bolivia as a missionary after his ordination in 1972. His experience there taught him about the lives of the poor in Latin America. He saw extreme poverty, and he witnessed people being arrested, tortured, and murdered. His experience in Bolivia was the foundation for his later activism. He traveled to El Salvador after the killings of the four churchwomen, two of whom were friends of his, and upon returning to the U.S. he traveled to churches around the country talking about the horrors in El Salvador which our government was supporting.

In 1983, before the SOA had moved to Ft. Benning, Fr. Bourgeois read a small story in the New York Times saying that about 500 Salvadoran soldiers had arrived at Ft. Benning for combat training (Father Roy). He decided to take action, so he went to Columbus, Georgia, where Ft. Benning is located. After doing community education and organizing, he and two others snuck into the fort dressed as high-ranking military officials, found the barracks where the Salvadorans were staying, climbed a tree, and waited for dark (Father Roy). They had brought with them a boom box with loud speakers, and when the lights in the barracks went out, they blasted the last sermon of Archbishop Oscar Romero (Father Roy). Fr. Bourgeois wanted to "call as much attention as he could to the training and to 'raise enough hell' to stop it" (Hodge and Cooper 92). This was a precursor of the dramatic direct actions used in the movement to shut down the SOA.

Other early SOA Watch members had also worked in Latin America in the '70's and '80's and the movement was heavily based on what remained of the U.S. Central America solidarity movement that arose as a result of issues like El Salvador's civil war and U.S. support for the Nicaraguan Contras (Gill 201-202). In The School of the Americas: Military Training and Political Violence in the Americas, Lesley Gill, a Professor of Anthropology at American University, describes the growth and development of the movement to close the SOA. She writes about how the influence of liberation theology; the experience of many priests and nuns working as missionaries in Latin America; and the murders of Romero, the churchwomen, and the Jesuits in El Salvador all created a basis for a movement primarily made up of middle-aged white religious people expressing their outrage at the existence of this institution (Gill 202-203). Because of the work that many had done concerning Latin America, they already had a knowledge base of what the experience was for the people who suffered the most from an institution like the SOA (Gill 202).

The notion of solidarity is important in the movement because unlike most social movements, the members are not the ones being oppressed. Movements like civil rights, women's rights, and gay rights have all been primarily made up of the people who were most affected by the changes they were working for. These movements have involved other people (such as whites in the civil rights movement), but they have been primarily made up of the people experiencing the oppression. The movement to shut down the School of the Americas was started by white people from the United States, and that is where solidarity becomes important. The religious base for the movement helps explain this to an extent. Solidarity is an important value in Catholic social teaching. It is also important to note that the movement is conscious of the fact that its members are the privileged ones. On the SOA Watch web site they say, "We have a lot to learn from our brothers and sisters in Latin America and the Caribbean who have been fighting oppression for the past 510 years. To do so, we must come to grips with our own privilege and recognize how it shapes our assumptions about struggle, organizing and the future" ("Building the Movement").

The church provided ready-made networks, which the movement used to spread the message about the SOA through churches and schools, but it was more the dramatic actions of the movement that grabbed the attention of the public and created the traditions that hold the movement together today. The first actions after the creation of School of the Americas Watch were a 35 day hunger strike at the entrance to Ft. Benning, then the action I described at the beginning of this paper, commemorating the first anniversary of the killings of the Jesuits. That protest started an annual tradition, and every November since there has been a protest at the SOA. Still, these protests did not attract much attention, and the protests remained small until 1995, when a group of thirteen protesters decided to cross the line that marked the boundaries of Fort Benning, risking arrest (Gill 208-9). Their arrest and subsequent jail time of three to six months "stoked the moral outrage of movement veterans and advanced the cause of the movement in a way that neither the judge nor the army anticipated" (Gill 210). After that, as well as the 1996 release of the "torture manuals," the movement grew significantly and crossing the line became a part of the tradition. In 1999, twelve thousand people attended the protest, and five thousand crossed the line (Gill 209).

Crossing the line is one of the forms of dramatic action I will examine here. The movement uses many cultural forms to build itself and to advance its goals, from music to drama to giant puppets, but I have chosen to focus on three particular dramatic actions that take place at the annual November protest and vigil: the funeral march, die-ins, and crossing the line. SOA Watch has combined the dramatic flair of the Black Panthers with the nonviolence and religious component of the civil rights movement. In The Art of Protest, T.V. Reed, Director of American Studies and Professor of English at Washington State University, describes the black power movement saying that much of the movement, "particularly the Black Panther Party, can be understood as a kind of theatrical performance" (42). "All politics involves a theatrical element," he says (42). The dramatic actions at the SOA protest grab the attention of the media and the public, and they attract people to join the movement.

The Sunday morning of the November protest starts with a solemn funeral procession in remembrance of those who have died at the hands of graduates of the SOA. The procession is led by people wearing black cloaks and white faces carrying black coffins. Behind them thousands of people march, many carrying white crosses or other symbols bearing names of the dead. A group of people sing out the names of people who have been killed one by one. After each name, everyone raises their crosses and sings the response: "Presente."

In The Art of Protest, Reed outlines the functions of culture in movements, and the first one applies to this in particular: "Encourage. Individuals should feel the strength of the group. Singing in mass rallies can move a person out of the individual self to feel the strength of the group" (299). As Reed discusses in his chapter on music in the civil rights movement, singing unites people and maintains an atmosphere of calm and nonviolence (29). While the litany of the funeral march is not the same as the songs of the civil rights movement, there are clear similarities in the goals of collective singing. However, this action is not just a mass of people singing together. It is a very dramatic memorial for hundreds of dead people, and the slow solemn march along with the raising of the crosses adds a dimension to it beyond music. The action serves to remind the protesters of their purpose and to convey their purpose to the rest of the world. It is a very visible and striking form of protest, different from most protest marches one encounters. It has become a trademark and tradition of the movement.

As the procession arrives at the gates of Ft. Benning, affinity groups and individuals are invited to participate in direct action ("Call for Direct Action"). For many that means "crossing the line," which, post-9/11, is now a barbed wire-topped fence, and for others it can mean any number of other forms of action. One common form of protest on both sides of the fence is the die-in, where people lay down and pretend to be dead, often with fake (or real) blood, acting out the deaths that result from the military training at the SOA, and helping people understand what it's like to live in a place where you do see people on the ground, shot to death. The die-in is a form of protest that has been used in many other movements, so, unlike the funeral march, which is relatively unique, the die-in links the protest to other movements protesting unjust killings and unnecessary deaths by using the same action. Reed describes how ACT UP, an organization fighting against AIDS, used die-ins for their cause as a way to emphasize that people were being killed, not bringing their deaths upon themselves (195). The anti-SOA die-ins can be looked at similarly. They are directly blaming the SOA for these deaths. One of the first SOA protests was a die-in, as I described in the introduction. Die-ins are very dramatic and theatrical. They can convey very strong emotions and therefore hold a great amount of power for those watching and those participating.

The act of "crossing the line" is very dramatic, and of these dramatic actions, it has probably drawn the most people to the movement. When a group crossed the line the first time in 1995 and were arrested and jailed, the attention raised a lot of awareness which drew more people to the movement (Gill 209). Those first few years, a small number of people came to protest, but it has grown dramatically over the years, and the 2005 estimate by SOA Watch was 19,000 people ("Thirty-one Nonviolent Activists Sentenced"). As Gill says, in 1999 five thousand people, a large proportion of those present, crossed the line (209). However, since 9/11 the number of line-crossers has dropped significantly because of a newly erected fence. It used to be that if you crossed the line there was a relatively slim chance of jail time (because of the sheer magnitude of people), but now it is almost certain. People can spend up to six months in prison.

With a fence topped with barbed-wire, it takes a lot more effort to cross the line than it did when it was a line on the ground, but as people throw cardboard over the top to go over or lift the bottom of the fence to go under, the drama remains. The fact that there are a significant number of priests and nuns and older people crossing adds even more to the act in what Reed refers to as a "transgression of cultural codes" (297). Of the 31 people arrested and sentenced to prison for the 2005 protest, eight were 70 years or older (two of them aged 81), and fifteen were 60 years or older ("Thirty-one Nonviolent Activists Sentenced"). Our culture's regular view of priests and nuns is not that of people who would climb on their knees under a fence, trespassing and therefore breaking the law, cover themselves in fake blood, lay down, and wait to be handcuffed and taken to jail. That is a transgression of cultural codes, which, as Reed argues, has a great impact on the influence of a movement on society by altering people's concepts of cultural codes (297).

The movement to close the School of the Americas has had some success over the years, but the school still remains open. Technically, the SOA did close in December 2000 because of pressure from the public and the bad reputation the SOA had acquired. However, a new school called the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation opened in the same place with the same people in charge and nearly the same curriculum in place in January 2001. It was clear to many that the name change was essentially skin-deep (Nelson-Pallmeyer 120-121), and while it has increased the amount of human rights training, the school remains basically the same. Still, it shows that the movement was exerting enough pressure that something had to be done, though it was not a satisfactory solution for those trying to shut down the school for good. Another sign of success is the growing numbers of people involved in the movement, and the fact that every year legislation in the House to close the school gets closer and closer to passing.

One key aspect of the movement has been that its actions are not just limited to the November protest, but that every spring Representative Jim McGovern (D-MA) regularly introduces legislation to close the school, and SOA Watch organizes lobbying in Washington DC to try to get the legislation to pass. Without the well-known protest which shows that tens of thousands of people support the movement enough to travel to Georgia from around the country, the lobbying would hold much less weight, but without the lobbying and actions in Congress, the protest would have very little actual impact in its goal to shut down the school. These two actions complement each other well in the movement to shut down the school.

One challenge the movement faced was how to frame its goals. Did it just want to shut down the school, or was the real issue U.S. foreign policy, exploitation, and military interventionism? (Gill 227). Closing the school is a feasible goal, but "Doing away with U.S. imperialism was another matter" (Gill 228). However, especially prompted by the growing anti-globalization movement and the 1999 Battle of Seattle, SOA Watch has been framing itself within the larger picture of globalization (Gill 229). If one looks at the SOA Watch web site, there is a page specifically devoted to the SOA in terms of labor and globalization ("SOA, Labor & Globalization"). Still, it is an issue of finding balance, and there are other disputes about methods and attitudes especially as more young, non-religious people join the movement (Gill 230).

Despite some internal disputes, the anti-SOA movement has succeeded in tarnishing the name of the School of the Americas and keeping alive the memories of those who have been killed. It has used dramatic action as an important way to attract attention and members to its cause as well as to build the movement from within, strengthening its resolve and commitment. It has been sure to get the media to cover its actions, and it has produced a number of documentaries about the issue, which highlights the dramatic actions even more. The movement still has a lot of work to do, especially if it is concerned not just with closing the school but changing the structures that create a need for the school. However, the movements used so far have had a significant impact, and the movement is young and still has time to grow and develop.

Works Cited:
"Building the Movement From the Bottom Up." School of the Americas Watch. 7 Nov. 2006 <>.
"Call for Direct Action: November 2006." School of the Americas Watch. 7 Nov. 2006 <>.
Father Roy: Inside the School of the Assassins. Dir. Robert Richter. Narr. Susan Sarandon. Videocassette. Richter Productions, 1997.
Gill, Lesley. The School of the Americas: Military Training and Political Violence in the Americas. Durham: Duke Univ. Press, 2004.
Hodge, James and Linda Cooper. Disturbing the Peace: The Story of Father Roy Bourgeois and the Movement to Close the School of the Americas. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2004.
Nelson-Pallmeyer, Jack. School of Assassins: Guns, Greed, and Globalization. Rev. and exp ed. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2001.
Reed, T.V. The Art of Protest: Culture and Activism from the Civil Rights Movement to the Streets of Seattle Minneapolis: Univ. of Minnesota Press, 2005.
"SOA, Labor & Globalization." School of the Americas Watch. 7 Nov. 2006 <>.
"Thirty-one Nonviolent Activists Sentenced to Prison in Columbus, Georgia." 1 Feb 2006. 7 Nov. 2006 <>.
"What is the SOA?" School of the Americas Watch. 7 Nov. 2006 <>.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

Over the river and through the woods...

... to grandmother's house we go! Well, more like over the ocean and through the mountains, I guess. This weekend my mom and I went to visit my grandma and aunt and uncle near San Diego. I left them with the promise to write more in my blog, so here I am, dispelling the myth that I disappeared after my first day of work.

I've had a great last few months. I love my job, and my community is a lot of fun. It's always daunting to write a blog entry after a long dry spell, so I'm not going to attempt to summarize everything, but I'll try to fill in the gaps in future entries.

This weekend was nice - it's been a while since I've been able to spend a lot of time with my mom, and it's been quite a while since I've seen my relatives. We hung out, went to a crafts fair, saw Amelia, played Scrabble, and went to my aunt and uncle's church.

Here's a picture of me and my grandma (blurry because it's from a cell phone):

Now I'm back in Santa Clara, and I have a very busy week ahead of me, so it's time to go to bed.

Please pray for the people in El Salvador right now. There's terrible rain, with flooding and landslides, and at least 124 people have died. I have friends down there right now.

Monday, August 17, 2009

First Day of Work!

I had my first day of my new job at Catholic Charities in San José today. Things were a little disorganized because JVC had sent them the wrong start date in an email, and most of the people thought I was coming tomorrow rather than today. I spent some time talking to people and reading information about cultural orientation for refugees.

My seven housemates and I moved into our new house on Thursday. It is a former convent, and before that it was a mortuary (fun fact). It is huge, and we all get our own bedrooms! Here are a few photos.

Here's the front of our house:

Here's the inside of my messy room:

Our kitchen:

Our dining room:

I think it will be a great year.

Friday, August 7, 2009


It's always easier to feel passionate about something when it directly affects you or someone you care about.

On Wednesday I got an email from my friend saying that her boyfriend, who is from England and has been in the U.S. this last year on a volunteer visa, had his application for another volunteer visa denied. His ties in the U.K. aren't strong enough to convince the U.S. government that he'll want to go back. Their plans for this coming year were torn apart. Now he'll try to get a work permit, and if that doesn't work, they might just get married (the fiance visa can take many months and lots of money, though). If he tries to come as a tourist during this time and they decide not to let him in, he could be banned from the country for 10 years.

This morning I got a text from my now former coworker saying that one of the people whose case I had worked on (someone I had spent quite a bit of time with) just got deported. He had been living here for years, spoke very good English, and held a steady job. He got picked up by county police for outstanding traffic tickets, handed over to ICE, and shipped back to Mexico. All of his belongings are in the U.S. He's staying in a shelter and all he has is the money that was in his pocket. He called to see if we could talk to a lawyer and see if there's a way he can come to the U.S. legally. I know the answer already - no way. He'll probably cross illegally again, which will most likely cost thousands of dollars and/or put him in great danger.

The harshness of the immigration system is much clearer when you know the people whose lives are being disrupted and destroyed by it. When you hear abstract talk of immigration reform, remember that these are real people whose fates are being discussed, and we need to do something so that the human rights and dignity of every person are respected.

Thursday, July 30, 2009

The year is ending

Yesterday was my last day of work! Today we're going off to our end of the year retreat (called Dis-Orientation). I'm in Houston until Tuesday, when I fly home. I'll be in Berkeley till Saturday the 8th, when I drive down to Aptos (near Santa Cruz) for my orientation. After that I'll be moving into my new home in Santa Clara and starting my work at Catholic Charities in San Jose.

I'm going to work on a more comprehensive end-of-the-year reflection, but in the meantime, I wrote a reflection to share at the liturgy at our retreat. One person from each community is supposed to share a brief reflection in the spirit of a homily (sermon) based on one of the daily readings. This is what I wrote:

A reading from Paul's letter to the Ephesians:
Brothers and sisters: I declare and testify in the Lord that you must no longer live as the Gentiles do, in the futility of their minds; that is not how you learned Christ, assuming that you have heard of him and were taught in him, as truth is in Jesus, that you should put away the old self of your former way of life, corrupted through deceitful desires, and be renewed in the spirit of your minds, and put on the new self, created in God's way in righteousness and holiness of truth.

Paul calls us to be renewed in the spirit of our minds, to be transformed so that we reject a lifestyle of deceitful desires and turn toward God's righteousness and truth – God's justice. JVC calls us to be "ruined for life" along similar lines. We leave behind the futile way of thinking of ignorance and blindness with an amazing chance this year to learn Christ in a new way.

Spending 40-plus hours a week working with or for the poor is very different than the occasional service days many of us did before this year. This type of work opens your eyes in a way that you can never fully close them again. We've learned too much to turn our backs on injustice now.

We have learned Christ this year by seeing Christ in front of us every day, not on a crucifix on the wall, but in the eyes of friends and strangers. My community saw Christ in death row inmates, gay men dying of AIDS, Rwandan refugees, Salvadoran survivors of human trafficking, low-wage workers crying because of the bad treatment they have suffered, Mexican immigrants waiting for 10 or more years for a family member to be able to come to this country, and children and parents with HIV and AIDS.

Our ears were opened listening to people's stories and struggles. Abstract concepts of poverty, illness, war, and violence became realities, and we began to see the "other" as "us" instead of "them."

One thing I enjoyed a lot this year was the opportunity to go to rallies and protests as part of my job. On May 1st, my organization helped put on a vigil and rally for immigration reform. We were a mixed group of immigrants with and without papers and non-immigrant allies, standing together calling for justice and human rights. At the end, we gathered around in a circle and sang We Shall Overcome, first in Spanish, then in English. As we sang this beautiful song of hope from the civil rights movement, I felt a profound sense of solidarity with the people around me and privilege that I could be with these immigrants in their struggle. It is small moments of grace like this that teach us truth in Jesus – that we are one human family.

We've been called to conversion by God, by JVC, and most importantly, by every person we have served and accompanied this year. We've been called to an alternative way of living that recognizes Christ in the poor, even when that means we need to forego the cushy lifestyle that many of us grew up with and deal with relatives and friends who don't understand why you won't just get a real job and start earning money.

We were all given a beautiful gift this year. We were given an opportunity to fulfill God's call to all of us to love and to serve one another. Let us go on from this year with our eyes and ears opened by what we have learned of Christ. As Paul says a little after the reading we just heard, "Therefore, be beloved children of God and live in love as Christ loved us."

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

IWJ Leadership Summit

I had a great time at the Interfaith Worker Justice (IWJ) Leadership Summit in New Orleans this weekend. It was my first time in New Orleans, and I love it there! It reminds me of San Francisco in some ways. Definitely a much cooler city than Houston.

The conference was great. It was people from other worker centers, other groups (mainly of faith leaders) involved with IWJ, and members of the National Day Labor Organizing Network (NDLON). It was really inspiring to hear the successes and actions of groups in other places. One resounding conclusion is the best tactic to resolve worker abuses is direct action - organizing protests, employer visits, media events, etc. One group in San Francisco that focuses on restaurant workers often has the worker go to the restaurant (with a group of supporters), pull the manager out in front of the customers, and read a letter denouncing the injustices in front of everyone. We got to hear moving stories from workers, and some hopeful messages of change in the Department of Labor (which currently does a really lousy job).

Everybody needs to familiarize themselves with wage theft. There is a systematic problem in this country of workers not being paid for their work. These are primarily low-wage workers and a huge number are immigrant workers, but the issue affects everyone. Sometimes it is nonpayment of overtime, sometimes it is not receiving a final paycheck, sometimes it's nonpayment of minimum wage, or sometimes, in the case of many day laborers in particular, it's working for weeks, being told you'll get paid the following day, and your employer never showing up. This keeps people from being able to pay their rent and feed their families, but government agencies that are supposed to enforce our wage and hour laws are not doing what they're supposed to. If we send a complaint to the Texas Workforce Commission, the state agency that deals with wage theft, they don't respond for six months. The Government Accountability Office recently did an investigation and report ripping apart the Wage and Hour Division of the DOL.

Also, support the DREAM Act!

Monday, June 8, 2009

Domestic Worker Rights Actions in NY

Just in case anyone in New York is reading this, I wanted to pass along the info for these events, pushing for the passage of the Domestic Worker Bill of Rights in New York:

Many domestic workers, particularly live-in workers, work around the clock without rest. We're asking all New Yorkers who support domestic workers rights, to stand together for 24 hours straight in a symbolic show of support for the passage of the Domestic Workers Bill of Rights - so that domestic workers can receive overtime, job security, basic respect and recognition.

8:00 am - 8:00 am
Press Conference Friday 12:00 noon
City Hall - across from 250 Broadway
Take the N/R to City Hall, or the 4/5/6 to Brooklyn Bridge
RSVP, and sign up for a shift,, or (212) 481-5747

Bring your entire family, community and congregations to this Sunday afternoon, after-church, "march for peace and justice in the home" to show how many people of faith support and are connected to domestic workers. With children leading the march, many generations will march together with one
common message and theme. Let's send a strong message to the NY State Legislature and the Governor that we won't stop until they honor, respect and protect the work that makes all other work possible in New York.

1:00 pm - 4:00 pm
City Hall - across from 250 Broadway
Take the N/R to City Hall, or the 4/5/6 to Brooklyn Bridge
RSVP to or (212) 481-5747

*Monday, June 15 - National Domestic Workers Alliance Regional Congress Public Forum - WOMEN AND WORK*
Join domestic worker organizers, feminist scholars, activists, legislators, and other allies to raise awareness on how to extend protections to all working women. Featuring a video presentation of women leaders from across the country who are raising their voices to support the work being done on behalf of domestic workers in this country.

7:00 - 9:00 pm
Julius Held Auditorium
304 Barnard Hall, Barnard College - Barnard Center for Research on Women
3009 Broadway
New York, NY 10027

Friday, May 29, 2009

Still alive

I meant to blog last weekend but never made it to the internet. Lots of fun and exciting things happening - it's really strange how little time I have left here in Houston. I don't have the time to write much since I'm at work right now (heh), but I just thought I'd check in and let the internet know that I'm still alive.

Here's a photo from the vigil/rally for immigration reform we had here on May 1st:

Saturday, May 2, 2009

Vigil and rally for immigration reform

Yesterday I attended the May Day vigil and rally for immigration reform in front of the Mickey Leland Federal Building in downtown Houston.

We started with a vigil. My amazing coworker Pancho led it, and we melted ice (ICE, get it?). Then there was a rally with music and spoken word, and we ended it with a prayer and by singing We Shall Overcome/Vamos a Vencer. In the last prayer, my coworker Hamilton prayed passionately for the families separated by deportation. Singing We Shall Overcome was especially moving - when I was in El Salvador, my praxis partner Patrick and I taught our young students that song.

It was a small turn-out (some people told us they weren't coming because they were afraid of the swine flu!), but it went very well. I'll try to post my pictures soon! (I forgot to bring my camera to the internet with me...)

Speaking of immigration, here's a good video to watch.

Monday, April 20, 2009


You can kind of see me in the background here...

Hamilton is a coworker of mine, and Sara is an awesome intern at HIWJ.

Please contact your members of Congress and ask them to support the DREAM Act! It gives undocumented students who have been in the U.S. for at least a few years and graduated from a U.S. high school a legal status and path to citizenship if they go to at least 2 years of college or serve in the military. This could make a huge difference in a lot of people's lives.

Friday, April 17, 2009

My future

I know, I know, I'm terrible at blogging. As I believe I've mentioned here, I don't have internet access at home, so fortunately my lack of posting means that I'm not completely neglecting work while I'm in my office, and I'm spending my time at home with people rather than my computer. That's a pretty good reason, I think.

Anyway, I wanted to let the world know that I have decided to do a second year of JVC, and this week my placement was confirmed. I'll be living in Santa Clara and working at Catholic Charities of Santa Clara County in San Jose. My job title will be Refugee Resettlement Case Manager/Volunteer Liaison:

"As a member of the Refugee Resettlement Team, provides case management 'core services' for newly arriving refugees and will work as part of a team to help refugees in finding, retaining, and upgrading their employment. This position will also work as liaison to our network of faith based volunteers and resettlement staff. This is an outstanding opportunity for someone who values other cultures and beliefs and is interested in working with a diverse, dedicated and wonderful team."

Some of my current roommates work with refugees and love it. I'm very excited to be in such a global environment. I currently work mainly with Latin American immigrants, which has been wonderful, but I will be working with people from Iraq, Burma, Bhutan, Burundi, and many other countries. I'm really looking forward to learning about different parts of the world. I'm also excited about the volunteer liaison part of it, because I will be able to build off my work experience as an Advocate for Community Engagement at USF.

One thing I'm a little hesitant about is moving from an organization that does a lot of advocacy and has a goal of social change, not just social services, to an organization and job that really is just about social services. There's a lot of value in social services, as long as they're done in a way that's empowering to the recipient of the services, and not just creating a dependency that perpetuates inequalities in the system. I'll make it work though. :-)

It will also be very weird going from a two-year-old organization with only five people on staff, only three of whom are full time (including me), to a huge, well-established organization with lots of resources. When I was first contacted by someone there to set up an interview, she asked me to email her administrative assistant to set up the time. My first reaction was - they have administrative assistants?!

I'm really happy to be moving back to the Bay Area. I've hardly spent any time in San Jose, so it will be a new city to me, but at the same time I will be close to my family and friends in the East Bay and San Francisco. You all will have to come down and visit me because public transportation will be very pricey on a JVC stipend. I talked to a girl who's a JV there now, and she told me they live about a block away from Santa Clara University in an old convent. I'm excited. :-)

On a side note, I gave in and joined Twitter. If you want to follow me, I'm here.

Tuesday, March 31, 2009

El Pueblo Unido Jamás Será Vencido

I wrote this to be published in the Ragweed (the JVC South newsletter), and I've incorporated a few photos:

Katie, Stephanie, and I had the great privilege of traveling to El Salvador last month as International Election Observers for the presidential election on March 15th. The three of us studied abroad there during college and we were excited to have the opportunity to return. Our experiences in El Salvador had a significant impact on each of us and our understanding of and commitment to social justice.

The right-wing ARENA party in El Salvador has been in power for the last 20 years. ARENA was founded by Roberto D'Aubuisson, who also founded the death squads in El Salvador and was responsible for the assassination of Archbishop Oscar Romero. El Salvador's civil war ended with the Peace Accords in 1992, and during ARENA's time in power since the end of the war, the country has seen little improvement. There is still a huge disparity between rich and poor, the economy is extremely dependent on Salvadorans in the United States sending back remittances, and the country is wracked with violence (now from gangs rather than the military).

During the civil war, the FMLN was the organization of guerrillas fighting against the repressive government. At the end of the war, the group became a formal political party. This year the FMLN candidate, Mauricio Funes, was hugely popular in the polls leading up to the election, and we knew there was a good chance he would win, for the first time in the party's history.

We went to a few different polling places (centros de votación) on election day, and when the polls closed we were at a big polling place in the city of Santa Tecla. The voting process involved quite a few safeguards, including having representatives from both parties seated at each table that was checking IDs against lists of names, handing out the ballots, and tinting voters' fingers with ink. If one party tried to do something wrong, the other party was literally sitting next to them. We heard some reports of fraud – mainly people from outside El Salvador coming and voting with false IDs (most likely hired by ARENA) – but everything we saw went smoothly and according to the rules.



At the end of the day, the doors closed, and the vote count began. Each table had 450 ballots and a list of 450 voters. After counting the remaining ballots and comparing that number to the number of signatures of voters (thumbprints for those who could not sign their names), they sorted and counted the ballots at each table. This election was just for president and vice president, so each ballot had the flags of the two parties (only FMLN and ARENA were running), and the voter needed to draw an X on their party of choice.



As tables began finishing their counts, we heard cheer after cheer from the FMLN. It became clear that Funes had won at our polling place. We went out into the parking lot where some staunch FMLN friends were listening to results on the radio. Reports from other locations made it clear that Funes was winning in other places as well.

For the first time in Salvadoran history, the country would have a leftist president. We took off our election observer badges (which required that we be neutral), put on FMLN t-shirts that were handed to us, and went out into the streets where people were celebrating. It was a beautiful sea of red shirts and hats and flags and so much joy. It was moving to hear the chant "El pueblo unido jamás será vencido" – the people united will never be defeated. We were with people who were forced to leave El Salvador during the war because otherwise they would have been killed, people who had fought with the guerrillas for the entire war, and people who had simply suffered greatly under the Salvadoran government. It was clear that it was a bittersweet moment for many people – great joy at an FMLN victory after all those years, but sorrow in remembering all the people who fought to achieve it but never lived to see it.


It was an honor to witness this historic event in solidarity with the people of El Salvador. While it felt like we didn't do much, multiple people expressed their appreciation of us being there and said that our solidarity was very important. After reflecting on all the pain that the United States has caused El Salvador, sending millions of dollars daily to the Salvadoran military that raped, tortured, and massacred people for organizing, speaking out, or simply being poor, the importance of solidarity from the U.S. became clearer to me. The U.S. still has a lot of power over El Salvador, and, just like during the war, our actions and decisions can have a great impact on the country, for good or for bad, which is why it is so important that we stand in solidarity with the people of El Salvador.

It is hard to tell what changes President-elect Funes will bring, and we don't really know if he will be a good president, but we do know that for once the left has been given the opportunity to make changes in the interest of the poor people of El Salvador that ARENA never did. In his acceptance speech, Funes specifically mentioned the preferential option for the poor and his desire to be a president for social justice. When I asked Salvadorans what they thought of Funes, if they thought he would do a good job, they usually just said that they hoped so. They hoped that he would bring about change that they so badly want and need.

After the election, we spent the week meeting with people; visiting places like the University of Central America (UCA), where six Jesuit priests and two women were brutally murdered in 1989 (also where we ran into liberation theologian Jon Sobrino, which almost made Katie faint in excitement), and the Cathedral where Monseñor Romero is buried; and spending time with old and new friends from our study abroad program. It was a great joy to spend this week in El Salvador, and we are very grateful to all those who gave donations and prayers to our cause.

Amber, Katie, and Stephanie

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

We Are Many Parts, We Are All One Body

When I studied abroad in El Salvador, I took a class on liberation theology, and it was up to us to create our own final projects. One of the suggestions was to write (and give) a homily (sermon), and I chose this. I was revisiting my files from El Salvador a couple nights ago and re-read what I had written. I like it a lot, so I wanted to share it. Not everything will make sense since I wrote it for a group that had a shared experience in El Salvador, but I'm hoping it will have some relevance for other people as well.

A reading from the Letter of Paul to the Romans (Chapter 12)

I appeal to you therefore, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect.

For by the grace given to me I say to everyone among you not to think of yourself more highly than you ought to think, but to think with sober judgment, each according to the measure of faith that God has assigned. For as in one body we have many members, and not all the members have the same function, so we, who are many, are one body in Christ, and individually we are members one of another. We have gifts that differ according to the grace given to us: prophecy, in proportion to faith; ministry, in ministering; the teacher, in teaching; the exhorter, in exhortation; the giver, in generosity; the leader, in diligence; the compassionate, in cheerfulness.

Let love be genuine; hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good; love one another with mutual affection; outdo one another in showing honor. Do not lag in zeal, be ardent in spirit, serve the Lord. Rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, persevere in prayer. Contribute to the needs of the saints; extend hospitality to strangers.

Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them. Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep. Live in harmony with one another; do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly; do not claim to be wiser than you are. Do not repay anyone evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all. If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peacably with all. Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave room for the wrath of God, for it is written, "Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord." No, "if your enemies are hungry, feed them; if they are thirsty, give them something to drink; for by doing this you will heap burning coals on their heads." Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.

We Are Many Parts, We Are All One Body
by Amber McChesney-Young
Liberation Theology
May 4, 2007

A recurring theme for me, and I think for many of us, throughout this semester has been dealing with our privilege. Why do I have so much and they don't? Why do they have to work so hard and I don't? What do I do with the money, education, opportunities, and so many other advantages that I have and they don't? My privilege made me feel distant from the people here. I felt guilty and confused and angry. I kept asking myself what is my role? How can I help the poor when I, with my U.S. middle-class white upbringing, am so limited in my ability to understand their reality? But, as Paul says, we are many different parts of one body. We each play different roles with our different gifts, but we must work to support each other because we are one in the body of Christ. It's important to recognize the limitations of our contexts, but we cannot change where we were born or who are our families. What we can do is choose what we do with the situations and gifts we are given. We can recognize that our inequalities are unjust, and that our privilege over others is not right, but unfortunately change does not happen with a snap of the fingers or a click of the heels. We have to recognize where we are in our lives, what are our contexts, what are our gifts, and then what we can do from there. Maybe we don't have to completely understand each other to support one another anyway. The lung can never truly understand what the heart does, and vice versa, but that doesn't mean that they aren't each essential to the other. The fact is that we are all connected, and when one part of the body hurts, it affects the rest of the body. To me, this is what solidarity means. We recognize our oneness and live our lives according to this.

The key to solidarity, I believe, is humanizing everyone. We recognize the inherent value of every member. We understand that everyone is a child of God with equal dignity. This is easier said than done. Our U.S. society and culture are not based in soldarity. They are based on individualism and self-advancement, including, and usually, at the expense of others. We dehumanize people who are distant from us—geographically, socially, or economically. An Iraqi citizen is far less human to us than a college student in Virginia. An old homeless man dying on the street is far less human to us than a child from a wealthy family suffering from cancer. Paul says "Do not be conformed to this world." Our experience in El Salvador has helped unconform us by turning the Salvadoran poor into our friends. It has humanized them. They're not just poor people, they are Joselin, Angelica, and Teresita. They are very real people. Paul says, "be transformed by the renewing of your minds." Now that we are preparing to return to the U.S., this message is especially important. When we return, we must remember the humanity of the Salvadoran people and all the peoples of the world. We have to remember that an undocumented immigrant is not just an immigrant but could be Lupita's sister, Amilcar's father, or someone we stayed with in the campo.

It's easy to get caught up in thinking about what divides us, but in reality we are incredibly connected. Remember how a couple weeks ago Sr. Peggy told us that we inhale approximately 30,000,000,000,000,000,000 atoms of argon every time we breath, and that's the same argon that Ghandi breathed, that Romero breathed, and that Jesus breathed. We are constantly breathing each other in. We depend on each other for sustenance and life. We laugh and cry and sing, just like people all around the world. We are one body in Christ.

Finally, I want to touch on the last sentence of the reading: "Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good." We've seen a lot of evil in El Salvador, and when we return to the U.S., we will see a lot more. It's really frustrating, and I've found myself feeling hopeless a lot of the time. But we can't give up, because if we don't do anything there's no chance of making any progress towards justice. We need to respond to evil with love. You can't overcome evil with more evil. We must remember that we are all sisters and brothers, and if we live our lives in consideration of every person's dignity, we can make a tremendous impact. We have to use our gifts to serve the body as a whole, always remembering every person's humanity.

Sunday, March 1, 2009

The Ultimate Distraction When You're Hungry

My sister recently introduced me to foodgawker, a delightful website that highlights beautiful photos of food from many different blogs and websites (my roommate Katie calls it food porn). When you click the photo it leads you to the recipe. So far I've only made one recipe from the site, Baked Tofu Indian Style (which I highly recommend!), but I've saved many more recipes that I hope to make in the future.

Here's my photo of the tofu dish I made:

Sunday, February 22, 2009

El Salvador Trip

Two of my roommates and I will be traveling to El Salvador next month! There's a Salvadoran man who regularly takes down delegations of JVs, and he's organizing the trip. We're fundraising now, so if you feel able to donate, we would greatly appreciate it. This is a letter we mailed out to people that explains why we're going:

We are three Jesuit Volunteers currently serving in Houston, Texas. This March, we will have the privilege of traveling to El Salvador to act as international election observers, meet with community leaders, and learn about the social, political, and economic reality of this small Central American country. In the context of our experiences as JVs working with immigrant and refugee populations, this trip is an opportunity to walk in solidarity with the people we serve.
From 1980 to 1992 the country of El Salvador was embroiled in a brutal civil war. More than 80,000 people were killed and more than two million people were forced to flee their homeland. A negotiated peace was declared on February 1, 1992 in a lengthy peace process mediated by the United Nations. Since that time, the reconstruction of El Salvador and the implementation of the peace accords have moved forward, though often with great difficulty. In spite of the successes in the peace process, there is still a long road ahead for El Salvador. As postwar crime, violence, and poverty plague the country, the 2009 Presidential Election offers the possibility of change and hope for the future.

By serving as election observers we will be assigned to polling places to monitor the voting process and ensure that free and fair elections take place. It is our hope that our presence will deter voter fraud and intimidation at the polls so that the voices of the people can be heard. In addition to this, we will visit local communities and organizations that are working for social justice and the human rights of the people of El Salvador. By learning more about the reality of the people living in El Salvador, we hope to better understand the struggle of the immigrants in the United States with whom we work.

The three of us were lucky enough to have each spent a semester studying abroad in El Salvador, and the experience was a spiritual wake-up call and played a huge role in shaping our understanding of social justice and of living out the Gospels. Returning to that environment as Jesuit Volunteers, with a clearer understanding of how we can turn this experience and knowledge into action, will continue to broaden our global perspectives and guide us in our individual ministries.

In order to make this trip happen, we are fundraising money for the cost of travel expenses and to contribute to programs that assist the Salvadoran people. Each of us is responsible for raising $1000. We understand that times are hard, but we are asking that you consider making a donation to our group. This trip means a lot to us, and any contributions are greatly appreciated. If you do not feel able to give money, we ask for your prayers and encouraging words. Thank you very much for your support and generosity.

Please contact me (Amber) if you are interested in donating, and I will give you our address. Our trip is from March 13-22, and we will be posting photos and reflections on the trip on our blog. Thank you once again for your generosity.

Does anyone know of a free way to accept online donations?

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Casa de la Solidaridad - Study Abroad in El Salvador

As many of you know, I spent my spring semester of my junior year in El Salvador, doing a program called Casa de la Solidaridad. The application deadline for fall 2009 is coming up on March 31st, and I wanted to put the word out for anyone who might be considering studying abroad or who knows people who are thinking of studying abroad: Go to El Salvador!

It is not your traditional study abroad experience. You will not go out drinking every night and play the tourist traveling around Europe. You will have a life-changing experience and learn about the lives of people living in poverty in the beautiful country of El Salvador. You spend two days a week in a placement in or near San Salvador, accompanying the community, spending time with people, and sometimes teaching English or participating in other activities. You take amazing classes at the University of Central America, the Jesuit University in San Salvador. You live in community with other American students and Salvadoran scholarship students. It is a time to learn and explore the themes of social justice, simple living, spirituality, and community. (The Casa program was based on the Jesuit Volunteers International program, so there are a lot of similarities between it and what I am doing now with JVC.)

The Casa program had a huge influence on my understanding of the world, of social justice, of people, and of my calling in life. I've never met anyone who did it and was not transformed in some way. You can read my blog for more about my experiences, and check out the program's website for a lot of details and descriptions.

Friday, February 6, 2009

Monday, February 2, 2009

Challenging heteronormativity

This is how you know I'm from the Bay Area:

Our house (landline) phone rang, and my roommate Stephanie answered. The person was doing a survey or something and asked for my roommate Emily. Stephanie responded that she no longer lives here (a graceful lie). They then asked to speak to the man or woman of the house (apparently Stephanie sounds young over the phone), and Stephanie said they weren't home, which ended the phone call. I suggested that next time she say that she doesn't identify as either a man or a woman and would appreciate some sensitivity.

It's always good to take opportunities to challenge heteronormativity.

Friday, January 30, 2009

brief update

For some reason when it's an inappropriate time to blog (such as in the middle of the work day), I feel inspired and motivated to write in here, but when it's an acceptable time (such as after work or over the weekend), I lose my motivation. There are so many things to write about - work has been a roller coaster of emotions for me. Encouragement and disappointment, a lot of challenges and frustration. The domestic worker project that I've been in charge of is going to switch over to one of my coworkers and I'll be focusing more on casework (mostly wage recovery). It makes the most sense in terms of our skill sets (approaching strangers on the streets does not come naturally to me) and continuity (my coworker will be here long after I leave in August). I think this change is going to relieve some of my stress and allow me to keep a slightly better schedule (yesterday I worked 12 and a half hours!). Tomorrow is our workers' assembly, and we're having our first domestic worker meeting right after. I'm crossing my fingers that people will come.

Last weekend we had an incredible JVC retreat that focused on social justice. I took pages and pages of notes, and I'd like to turn them into a blog entry sometime soon. The retreat was led primarily by Fr. Fred Kammer, former president of Catholic Charities USA, who is absolutely amazing.

If anybody has job leads or ideas for what I should do with my life after August, please let me know. I'm thinking of a second year of JVC, but in the Bay Area. I'm still not sure if that's what I want though...

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Article: Workers on Edge Need the Most Stimulus Aid

This is a good article focusing on women in low-wage work and how they're suffering in the current economic situation:

(WOMENSENEWS)--While Washington lawmakers are debating President-elect Barack Obama's economic stimulus proposal, Blanca is cleaning houses.

We, however, are listening closely, ready to respond to any package that does not include several easy steps, outlined below, to ensure that low-wage working women are also assisted by an economic stimulus plan that could swell to $850 billion. Otherwise we will continue to put forward old solutions to new problems.

Blanca is the parent of four children ranging in age from 5 to 13. She has no health insurance, and if she misses a day of work she also misses a day's pay. She juggles child care to keep her cleaning jobs. Her sister helps with the children during the day before going to her restaurant job at night. Blanca makes about $1,000 per month.

Blanca is a low-wage worker. She is one of 30 million U.S. residents who are heading families that include 20 million children.

Sixty-eight percent of low-wage workers are women. Nearly one-third of women in the work force have low-wage employment compared with one-fifth of male workers. Women bring home at least one-third of all family income, a significant contribution to the stability of the U.S. economy. Any plans for stabilizing the economy will need to consider the larger effects that job loss and women's declining wages have on communities.

Read more here.

Saturday, January 10, 2009

The day it snowed

Here's a photo of my roommates and me when it snowed in Houston last month. :-)

Please pray for my cousin's daughter, Maya, as she struggles with cancer.

Friday, January 9, 2009

My day

It has been a terribly long time since I've written, so it seems like this post should be a really good one, but since I'm supposed to be working right now (ssshhh), it will have to be brief/quickly written. A quick overview of my day:

Went out into West University Place, a little enclave of Houston that has its own mini-city government and is full of rich people and beautiful houses. I walked around parks in the neighborhood looking for domestic workers (blatant racial profiling, looking for non-white women with white children). I saw a whole lot of domestic workers inside the parks, but there were also a lot of moms there, and I'm always concerned about 1) possibly getting a worker in trouble for talking to me and 2) looking like a creep when I go into a park with no child (these parks are fenced off - you can't really casually wander through). I did talk to a few workers around the parks though, giving them our flyer, asking them what their work is like, letting them know about us as a resource for any worker who has issues, and inviting them to our next meeting. I do this pretty much every morning.

Went to meet with a woman from Christian Community Service Center in Houston. They have a training course in housekeeping for recent immigrants, so I'm hoping to talk to their class about workers' rights. We left a bunch of Workers' Rights Manuals with them to give to anyone who passes through their center and mentions workplace issues.

Came to the office and began avoiding work (checking emails, blogging, etc.). For the rest of the day I'll be working on wage theft cases and pulling together the documentation for what I've done so far on the domestic worker project. There's a new intern coming in on Monday who's interested in helping with this project, so I need to get myself organized.

This evening after work I'm going to do some grocery shopping for the house (I've acquired a car since the last time I wrote in here), be at home briefly, then head out to some bar near Rice University (supposedly with 85 cent beers, which I won't be drinking), where a couple roommates and I will meet with a man named Francisco who may be taking us to El Salvador in March.

A good day today. And hooray for the weekend!