Justice We Pursue

Tikkun Olam: First-time Reflections on JRLC's Day on the Hill

In the spirit of “tikkun olam” (a Hebrew phrase which translates to “healing the world”), over 700 people of faith gathered for JRLC’s Day on the Hill at the St. Paul RiverCentre and the Minnesota State Capitol on March 13th, 2014!

Not being originally from Minnesota, my first experience with JRLC’s Day on the Hill was helping to prepare for it. I handled registration: entering names into our database to help generate nametags, getting a food count for vegetarian lunch options, ordering copious amounts of water bottles, accommodating group requests, serving as a point of reference for those who needed guidance through our online registration process, and generally doing the best I could to answer any questions people had without ever having actually participated in the event myself.

I had no idea what a JRLC Day on the Hill would look like, but when the time finally came, I was amazed by what I saw.

JRLC advocates were friendly and engaged, and they filled two big ballrooms at the St. Paul RiverCentre. People from so many different faith backgrounds sat around tables chatting, cheering for the speakers, and discussing important legislative issues as they planned their meetings with their state representatives.

After a Keynote Address at the RiverCentre, given by Rabbi David Saperstein, everyone was filled in on our priority legislative issues. The legislative agenda for the day centered on four main objectives: reforming predatory aspects of the payday lending industry, raising the minimum wage in Minnesota, maintaining an impartial state judiciary system, and advocating for government support for childcare assistance and affordable housing.

The RiverCentre was full of an infectious energy that easily transferred to the Capitol building, where our advocates filled the Rotunda and embarked on meetings with their legislators. Once everyone arrived at the Capitol, the Social Justice Awards were given out (congratulations, students from Al Amal School and Jim Soderberg!). In a moving demonstration of interfaith work, Bishop Peter Rogness of the St. Paul Area Synod, ELCA, led everyone in a prayer for Social Justice.

Groups organized by their legislative districts set off to meet with their legislators and have fruitful conversations about the main issues of the day. After months of bitterly cold weather, the outside temperature reached a balmy 50 degrees Fahrenheit, making it comfortable for people to sit outside on the Capitol steps and enjoy the sunshine while waiting for meetings. iCAN and blank slate theatre’s theatrical collaboration BOTTOM, the original play about human sex-trafficking in Minnesota, was also performed in the Capitol – introduced by Senator Sandy Pappas!

After a busy and full day of advocating, Sister Anna Marie Reha from the Diocese of New Ulm lead a closing prayer on the steps of the Capitol.

JRLC constituents, bound together by a common desire to act through personal faith traditions, showed me and the Minnesota State Legislature just how engaged and powerful the faith community can be. As I joke so often around the office – this definitely was the best JRLC Day on the Hill EVER.

-Emily Shimkus, Advocacy Associate

All photos ©Alison Bents

Theatrical Advocacy: iCAN and blank slate theatre's BOTTOM

Logo design by Eponine diatta

Since before I began my year of service with Lutheran Volunteer Corps and JRLC this past August, the Interfaith Children’s Advocacy Network (iCAN) has been working to produce performances of blank slate theatre’s BOTTOM, an original play about the issue of human trafficking in Minnesota. Until this year, I had only heard of this as an international issue – something harming impoverished children in developing countries. I never suspected the prevalence of sex trafficking within our own state.

Amber Cregg and Detective

 

 BOTTOM tells the story of Amber Cregg, a previously prostituted young woman who cooperates with investigative authorities as they search for Coco, an eleven year-old girl who had been trafficked in northern Minnesota. As the play unfolds, the audience learns about the systemic nature of the sex trafficking industry and witnesses its psychological impact on those who become trapped within it. By citing Minnesota-specific trafficking data and casually mentioning cities where trafficking is known to occur, BOTTOM hits home – sex trafficking is a reality, here and now.

Since its first performance at Dreamland Arts in St. Paul, BOTTOM has traveled throughout Minnesota to raise awareness about this critical issue. Each presentation of BOTTOM has been unique, emphasizing different aspects of the story as it translates to new audiences. 

The panel discussion following BOTTOM’s performance at Luther Theological Seminary in St. Paul highlighted the roles that faith communities and clergy can play in fighting human trafficking, and following BOTTOM’s performance in Duluth, people were able to learn about the history of trafficking right in their city. Most recently, BOTTOM was performed in front of its largest audience in Alexandria, MN. It will be ending its fall/winter run with one last performance at the Capitol for JRLC’s Day on the Hill on Thursday, March 13th.   

BOTTOM in Alexandria

BOTTOM at Trepanier Hall in Duluth

BOTTOM at St. John's Episcopal Church in St. Cloud

 

 

 

 

 

 

It has really been incredible to see how BOTTOM has engaged audiences and confronted an issue that largely remains hidden in most communities. Giving people throughout the state the tools and ideas they need to maintain a dialogue about sex trafficking in Minnesota empowers congregations and communities to work through political and social solutions to this harmful practice.

BOTTOM asks, “If the demand for sex trafficking were to end, would the supply end too?” We hope to see BOTTOM continue performing throughout the summer and fall of 2014.  If you or your congregation might be interested in hosting a production anywhere in the state, please contact me at 612-230-3234! As the momentum from this project continues to build and people find strength in advocacy through each other, Minnesota will be able to take concrete steps to eradicate sex trafficking within the state.      

Cast of BOTTOM

-Emily Shimkus, Advocacy Associate                   

Photos from BOTTOM performances: Paul Udstrand

Logo: Eponine diatta

Photos of Local Productions:  Rev. Alison Killeen

Practically Payday Lending

I'll admit it - I am no financial wizard.

Having just finished school and taken my first steps into the real world, I have remarkably limited practical experience with money.  It takes enough mental energy for me to manage my checking and savings accounts, let alone to consider how to make wise financial investments, budget for a future car or housing, and check up on important medical expenses.

This limited grasp of financial reasoning has made it even harder for me to understand how the practice of payday lending actually works.  So there’s this thing called an APR, and it can be as high as 300%?  And people pay fees to take out money for a short period of time?  And the money can be taken out of their paychecks (sometimes even social security and disability checks)?  And how does that even work?  And how exactly does this hurt people? 

I feel more familiar with the practice of payday lending now, a solid six months after I’d been introduced to the issue, but when I first heard about what payday loans were I felt like I was in way over my head. 

People who go in to take out payday loans don’t have the luxury of spending months wrapping their heads around the fees, calculations, and contracts presented to them at a payday lending institution.  They are there because they need short-term credit.  The way the industry currently exists in Minnesota, however, predatorily takes advantage of people’s financial vulnerability. 

I may not be a financial wizard, but that much is pretty clear to me.

This Saturday, January 18th, JRLC and Minnesotans for Fair Lending will be leading a briefing at Mayflower Church in which attendees can actually get some practical experience navigating the mechanics of payday lending.  The event will include a visit to a nearby payday lending institution and learning how to calculate an APR.  I’m excited about this opportunity.  What better way to finally solidify what I have learned about this issue than to go and experience the practice of payday lending first-hand?

-Emily Shimkus, Advocacy Associate

Original Image Source by James Malone

Greetings from the New JRLC Intern: Breanne Royer!

Greetings, JRLC supporters! My name is Breanne Royer and I just started as an intern here. I’m a Minnesota native who graduated from Hutchinson High School in 2005.  My family has a strong tradition of attending South Dakota State, which is where my twin sister studied.  Naturally, I could not go to the same school as her so I decided on North Dakota State University where I earned my B.S. in Psychology in 2009.

 

During my time at NDSU I was able to study abroad in Hamar, Norway with a diverse group of international students. Our class studied Society and Culture of the Norwegian Welfare State, which covered the history of Norway, Democracy and Development, and Conflict Resolution. As a part of our class we were able to attend the CNN interview with 2008 Nobel Peace Prize laureate Martti Ahtisaari. It was during our class discussion surrounding Mr. Ahtisaari’s work and democracy that sparked my interest in social justice advocacy.

 

That interest was put on hold as I finished my studies and took a call as a Youth Director for an ELCA Lutheran congregation in rural Minnesota. I had always known I would eventually pursue a master’s degree but was unsure what program best suited my interests. After having numerous lunch discussions about seminary with a mentoring pastor I finally recognized God’s call to social work.

 

Currently, I am finishing up my studies at Luther Seminary in St. Paul as I pursue a dual master’s degree in Theology and Social Work. I am excited to start at JRLC to learn about social justice advocacy before beginning my social work studies at Augsburg in the fall of 2014. After graduating I plan to work in gerontology, although the specifics are still in the works.

Hard Work Just Isn't Enough: Raise the Wage!

If you work full time, you should be able to secure basic needs.

Doesn’t that sound like a perfectly reasonable idea?  Something most everyone would be able to agree on?  Having a job should lift people out of poverty - not keep them trapped.

In Minnesota, however, that simple assertion is false. 

Minnesota is one of only five states or territories whose statutory minimum wage is below the federal (which is $7.25/hour).  And the federal minimum seems wholly inadequate after learning that a couple with two children would have to work 155 hours a week at $7.25 an hour in order to meet basic needs.

The more I learn about this issue, the more I discover just how far-reaching its effects really are in Minnesota. A low minimum wage has a devastating impact on the well being of families and inhibits growth in our economy. Hard work at $7.25/hour just simply isn't enough to keep one's children from going hungry, meet individual housing and healthcare costs, or help workers remain invested in their jobs.

People who do not see the positive outcomes of raising the minimum wage argue that a raise will cause employers to lay off workers – it will harm small businesses and raise consumer prices.  The truth is contrary to those objections.  Most often, employers can absorb the costs of a higher wage in increased revenue from local spending and reduced turnover rather than laying-off employees.  A higher minimum wage can also boost sales at retail and service outlets, because those who receive wage increases are likely to spend their money locally.

And those higher consumer prices?  Economists estimate that a wage increase of $1.85 would mean an increase of half a percent or less in living costs for low-income households.

This issue hits home for me in another way.  I recently graduated from college and like many of my peers, I am saddled with student loan debt. There are 284,000 college graduates working in minimum wage jobs. If the minimum wage is not even enough to live on, it is definitely not going to be enough to cover living expenses and student loan payments. 

When the Fair Labor Standards Act was passed in 1938, the federally mandated minimum wage was $0.25/hour. That’s seems laughable now, but in 1968, when the federally mandated minimum wage was $1.60/hour (still a little laughable), it had the same purchasing power as $10.77 would have today. We've lost a lot of ground to inflation.

HF 92 aims to raise the minimum wage in increments, reaching $9.50/hour by 2015, eliminate a tip penalty, index the wage to inflation, and conform Minnesota’s state law to federal standards concerning overtime work and parental leave.  This bill is currently sitting in a conference committee at the State Legislature, and it could improve the quality of life for thousands of people throughout Minnesota.  Though it does not mandate a livable  wage (which would be closer to $15.00/hour) it is a definite step in the right direction. 

As members of the faith community, we are called to engage in work that strives to uphold the dignity of every human being.  Denying workers a fair minimum wage negates the value of their work and personhood. It's important that we continue to support actions that increase the economic security of those who labor, and that we support legislators and leaders who are working towards a higher state minimum wage. This legislative session, Minnesota has an opportunity to help thousands of families throughout the state.  I am hopeful we can make it happen!

     -Emily Shimkus, Advocacy Associate

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