Government, at all levels, has a critical role to play in securing justice and opportunity for people in poverty or otherwise at risk. So as Congress remains highly polarized and gridlocked, it is important to take advantage of opportunities for progre…
The following spoken-word essay was delivered at the opening of the Shriver Center’s 2016 benefit on June 14, 2016, by Michelle Mbekeani-Wiley, Community Justice Staff Attorney at the Shriver Center.
I would like to start this evening with words from a hero, who but not for his fearless compassion for humanity, we would not be here tonight celebrating the work of his legacy.
The most important thing that I know about living is love. Nothing surpasses the benefits received by a human being who makes compassion and love the objective of his or her life. For it is only by compassion and love that anyone fulfills successfully their own life’s journey. Nothing equals love.—Sargent Shriver
Decades later the Sargent Shriver National Center on Poverty Law has found something that does equate to love — JUSTICE. That is to say, when we as human beings make compassion and love the objective of our lives, we fight for justice. Justice not just for those who look like us, live near us, or share our same struggle, but for society as a whole. Because, in the words of Sargent Shriver, “the War on Poverty asks everyone to get in the fight.”
So we must ALL fight for justice when victims of trafficking do not have access to public benefits.
We must ALL fight for justice when there are barriers to quality and affordable housing.
We must ALL fight for justice when women are still denied equal pay, and WE MUST ALL fight for justice when race, gender and LGBT status become the basis of hate.
Here at the Shriver Center we fight for all of these things because we believe that justice is not a limited fund account and love is not a budgeted expense.
The only thing that limits our access to the bank of justice in this country is hate, greed, and apathy, they are the bank tellers. That is why when we collectively fight for justice and equality, we are not crying for a handout for the people we help, instead we are demanding the funds in their account, the account of basic human rights. And that is why we fight with them.
We fight with them because fighting with them is fighting for society.
Fighting with them is fighting for the creed of our constitution, though not crafted with many of us in mind; we are all nonetheless entitled to its promises.
We fight with them because fighting with them is fighting for Love, the foundation of humanity, without which we cannot stand.
So tonight I hope we can all revel in the power of love and the work it inspires us to do! We must remember that gender and racial justice do not belong to one side of the aisle; instead it should be the aisle, the area of space that we share and have in common because love does not have a political party. Love is what transcribed the document that consummated the marriage of this country’s union. All men are created equal. Those are our vows to each other. We must continuously strive to live by those vows. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said to, “Stick with love, because hate is too great a burden to bear.”
So tonight I ask you all to do two very important things:
- Stick with love, because it is the path to justice, and
- Walk this path, with this organization, this country, and most importantly humanity.
More than 500 supporters gathered at the Shriver Center’s 2016 annual benefit to celebrate the impact we’ve had on policies that create better opportunities for people living in poverty. We were proud to honor John G. Levi and Martha Minow with the Sargent Shriver Equal Justice Award for their outstanding contributions to social justice. Watch our video to learn more about our work and how you can join us in the movement to create a just society.
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The story of Laquan McDonald’s death is unfolding here in Chicago, with many egregious, but familiar, details: an African-American teenager was killed, by a police officer who fired 16 shots without provocation, his fellow officers became complicit by aggressively covering it up, the police brass and City Hall and State’s Attorney knew for months and dithered, the city had to be forced by a court to release the footage of the killing, and the prosecutor was driven by the impending publicity to hurry up an indictment that was already delayed too long.
This tragedy, one more in a string of police killings of African-Americans across the country, is a continuing affront to all of us, not just the people in Black and brown communities who are the immediate victims. It casts a shadow over the whole national project, where all of us enjoy equal rights and opportunities, including public safety.
It is evidence that people of color live under a different and far less protective Constitution, experiencing overt racial bias, less police protection, less presumption of innocence, and more danger of affirmative abuse of power from police, with no plausible explanation other than race. These things do not happen in white communities. Laquan McDonald was killed because he was Black.
Racial bias takes many forms and infects all systems in our society. The killing of racial minorities by police is but one violent example of racial injustice. But there are thousands of other examples of racial injustice that slowly and systemically deprive racial minorities of their rights, their opportunity, and of their belief in a free and just society.
Take poverty, for example, something the Shriver Center knows well. In our decades’ long fight against poverty, we have seen safety net programs, which help families escape poverty, ensure there is enough food in the home, and aid people in gaining employment, slowly dismantled under the guise that these programs promote a “welfare society.” This stereotype is indelibly linked with the image of an African-American single mother with children.
Or take the ongoing fact of residential racial segregation; the dramatic racial impact of the war on drugs that imprisons or burdens with criminal records astonishingly disparate percentages of African-American youths; or the stark racial wealth gap multiplied exponentially through the draining of net worth in the massive foreclosure crisis. On and on.
The fight against racism is at the heart of the fight against poverty in America at this time. Poverty and race are inextricable in this country. Although there are many racial disparities that must be addressed to fight poverty effectively, among the most important are disparities in public safety and in the police role in exacerbating rather than ameliorating that disparity.
Opportunity and justice for all people living in poverty, but especially African-Americans and Latinos, are connected intrinsically with public safety. Public safety is one of the core requisites for personal happiness and upward mobility through full engagement in family life, school, work, community, religious activity and other relationships.
We need to be able to trust the police to provide service that is effective, the same in all communities regardless of racial composition, and respectful of the rights guaranteed in our Constitution and laws. For too long, the members of communities of color have not been able to have that trust. In this sense, Laquan McDonald’s death is not unusual; it is extreme but symptomatic. We will not effectively address poverty or racial justice until we have trustworthy policing and the public safety to which it is indispensable.
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