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Conference Report:
Democracy and Economic Justice

By Allen Pérez Somarriba
(English translation by David Reich)

July/August 2000

Building the Spirit of Democracy and Economic Justice, a conference held March 2 to March 4 by UUs for a Just Economic Community (UUJEC), drew 122 members and friends of Unitarian Universalist congregations to Chicago, IL, several of whom told me that the message of economic justice hadn't spread far enough among UUs. "UUJEC plays the role of ants at the picnic," said the Rev. Valerie Mapstone Ackerman, minister of the UU Community Church of Park Forest, IL. "The comfortable don't want to hear our voices at all."

"We UUs don't do a very good job of dealing with class issues and understanding the experience of people, particularly working class families and low income families," added Patricia A. Rector, a UU and copresident of the Central New York Religious Labor Coalition.

Whatever the level of consciousness of economic justice issues among UUs generally, inside the conference there seemed to be a broad consensus that the US is seeing a dramatic and growing disparity between the rich and the rest of us. "What not everyone has grasped yet is that the middle and upper middle class have more in common with the poor than with the rich, in terms of real control over what happens in their own lives or in terms of government or corporate policies" is the way UUJEC President Jean Darling put it.

According to Robert Stubbs, one of the conference organizers, the most crucial issue that came up at the event "was the interplay between democracy and economic justice. [The conference] addressed the question ‘Does the operation of our democracy, and others, add to economic justice for people as we would expect it to?'" Stubbs added that the conference aimed "to create another level of awareness and produce more advocates".

Capitalism, Democracy, and the Middle Class

David C. Korten, president of a group called the People-Centered Development Forum and author of the books The Post-Corporate World: Life after Capitalism and When Corporations Rule the World, seemed to have the first of these two goals in mind in a presentation that questioned the rationality of the capitalist system. According to Korten, capitalism--at least as we know it today--is the antithesis of the market economy. Rather than a multitude of businesses competing to serve the market, he said, we have megacorporations that monopolize almost all the benefits accruing to both labor and capital, in the process destroying the environment, exhausting our natural resources, and corrupting our democratic government by buying politicians. In the short term, says Korten, people in the United States have two urgent tasks: to eliminate special corporate privileges (e.g., corporate welfare) and rein in, with campaign finance reform laws, the power of money in political campaigns.

The Rev. Thandeka, associate professor at Meadville/Lombard Theological School, who gave the keynote speech, titled "A Call to Community: Justice, Democracy, and Human Dignity," gave practical suggestions of carrying out the kind of change that Korten is calling for, arguing that the US middle class--mainly white--has the power to lead the fight for the democratic social and political reforms that the country needs. In support of this position, she cited the middle class's education, their sheer numbers, and their special kind of poverty, which is reflected in their in their alarming levels of debt and alienation. The author of Learning to Be White added that this social stratum must liberate itself by its own hand, using methods like reflecting on its own oppression in the context of "base communities"-- a term she borrowed from Latin America's Theology of Liberation movement.

Social Justice Tools

Korten and Thandeka both pointed out that democratization will come to the US only through education and organizing. In this connection, Ron Chew, a veteran UUJEC member from Chicago, commented that "the conference was exceptional in having a mix of economics, theology, and practical tools for effective organizing." A couple of examples to make Chew's point:

  • Steve Wilson--a UU and formerly religious coordinator for the Boston-based social justice group United for a Fair Economy--offered a workshop on economic inequality for people with little background in economics, with the goal of arming participants with enough knowledge to go back home and introduce the subject to their congregations and communities.
  • Kim Bobo, director of the National Interfaith Committee for Worker Justice, led a workshop on social justice strategizing. The golden rule, she said, is "plan, don't improvise." When engaged in a campaign for a social justice cause, groups should have clear goals and a clear understanding of the resources available, of their own capacity to mobilize members and allies, and of the opposition's politics and methods.
  • Taure Mohammed, Public Relations Director of the National Interfaith Committee for Worker Justice, held a workshop on how social activists can make the best use possible of mass media. A few of his suggestions for dealing with the press: never lie, always return phone calls, meet reporters' deadlines, always personalize stories, and appear more reasonable than your opponents.
Small but in the Right Place

For the present UUJEC is a small group (its mailing list contains about 900 names) that needs to invest considerable effort in our congregations, getting more UUs involved--from a faith perspective--in the organized struggle for a just economy. Yet conference participant the Rev. Valerie Ackerman says she doesn't see UUJEC's current small numbers as a reason for pessimism. UUJEC activists' knowledge, skills, and spiritual values have been put to good use by whatever social movement they get involved in. Take the work they've been doing in San Francisco. For two years they've been part of a coalition that has spearheaded the city's living wage campaign. They provide space in UU churches for the coalition's weekly meetings, do community organizing, speak up for their cause at city council meetings, and take the lead in interfaith outreach work.

"We are marginal," sums up Ackerman, "but refusing to be moved off to the sidelines. As bell hooks tells us, the margin is a place of power."

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