Monthly Archives: April 2012

My Spiritual Passion for Social Justice: Speech at the Washington Ethical Society

This is a transcript of a speech I recently gave at the Washingtion Ethical Society (WES).  WES is a part of Ethical Culture which is basically a religious humanist community.  This means that people are humanist -their worldview is generally nontheistic; focused on human experience and human relationships and not so much on god.  But WES differs from secular humanism in that people have regular gathering times, religious services, and form a religious community which in many ways operates similarly to theistic congregations.  I was asked to give the following speech about my personal passion for social justice.  Enjoy!

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When I think about social justice at WES, what really resonates with me is the spiritual underpinning behind my passion.  I grew up not raised in a religion.  There were no holy books, no Sunday services, no community of faith.  Yet I had a lot of what are called “mystical experiences.”  I frequently felt a sense of oneness with the universe, a sense of sacred interconnectivity and higher truths.  This was a sense of love and beauty.  The world was beautiful and deserving of love.  I suppose that is my fundamental spiritual belief, which also translates into a belief in the inherent worth and dignity of all people.

My beliefs, my faith, my background, became a commitment to social justice once I realized that society as a whole did not follow loving principles, and all of us are hurt because of this.  I remember being a student in elementary school who was eager to learn about so many things, but I was continuously struck by the fact that the adults who oversaw me never thought to ask what I was truly curious about and what I truly cared for.  I became an anti-war activist when I saw that the invasion of Iraq was manufactured from dubious reasons, and it cost the lives of hundreds of thousands of people who I believed deserved love and dignity.  In the working world I noticed a repeated tendency for people to be treated with respect or abuse depending on their pecking order in the hierarchy.  To me, all people deserved respect.  It wasn’t something you earned with your status or were denied because you failed to pull yourself up by the nonexistent proverbial bootstraps.

There are a lot of things I could talk about.  In the end I saw a dissonance between the world I lived in and what I knew in my heart was right –my spiritual commitment to love and dignity.  The beautiful thing about WES; it is one of the places where I can feel safe to live according to my heart.  We are all here to seek the highest.  Even better, we can seek the highest while not forcing ourselves to follow one version of what that means.

My passion is nurtured by the people and places where compassion, connection, love, respect, honesty, humility, listening, and generosity are valued.  Real community is built by the things we do for each other that make life worth living.  A commitment to social justice is a desire to nurture, protect, and expand such community.  It also means resisting the parts of the world which destroy what is worth preserving.  It means occupying wall street, desegregating lunch counters, protecting the natural environment, putting our voices and bodies on the line for the right to vote, putting our voices and bodies on the line for all our rights and the rights of our neighbors.

There is a cost to such passion.  The abusive world knows how to strike back.  I have been arrested, assaulted, kicked out of class, and fired because my passion for social justice would not allow me to quietly accept the hurt I saw people putting onto each other.  Despite the costs, every day I find myself feeling more free, powerful, and whole.   I suppose it is the sense of growing wholeness that most fuels my social justice passion.  I get something out of it.  I have something to live for which is consistent with human dignity and seeking the highest.

Ironically however, the more whole I feel the more meaningless my wholeness seems.  My life is sacred, but it is very short and very small.  I have spent a lot of time meditating on my own personal growth and liberation.  Now I have come to want something more.  It is collective liberation I care about; it is the healing of all who have been hurt; it is the transformation of society.  This to me represents a deeper vision of social justice which is constructed by all the loving people in all their safe spaces.  It says a lot that WES has been the safest religious community for me.  My hope is that we can still do more to engage with the world in a healing way, and strengthen the life-affirming bonds which hold us all together.

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High School Students Changing the World

Life has been very busy recently and I haven’t posted in a while.  One of the things I have been busy with involves lending support and encouragement to the students at Northwestern High School in Prince George’s County Maryland (usually called “PG County”).  PG County has a very large immigrant population.  The schools are majority black and Latino.  It is not a rich county and many schools are underfunded, which creates problems for students, teachers, and everyone involved.  A group of Northwestern students got together to plan a walkout on March 1st this year, protesting large class sizes (frequently over 40 students to a class), the firing of Phillippino ESL teachers (who were then deported because they lost their work visas), and unsanitary conditions (one student said he found a tooth in his food).  300 students agreed they would leave during the last period of the school day on March 1st.  The school found out about the plan, kept 4 organizers in the office all day, threatened them with expulsion and ultimately suspended them, and prevented many students from walking out.  Police where there, including dogs.  I and others did some activities of support for the students.  I wrote the letter below which I thought I’d post on this blog

Dear Northwestern students,

When I was in high school, I remember my elders talking about how kids now a days don’t believe in anything.  I knew this perception was false back then.  You, students at Northwestern, have proven this perception false today

For 20 years I have struggled with the educational system, and over those 20 years I have seen it getting worse.  In school I learned reading and math.  I also learned how to follow the rules, even when they didn’t make sense, how to compete with my fellow classmates, even when I didn’t want to, how to value myself and others based on our racially and socio-economically biased grades, even when I could see this wasn’t fair, and how to survive in a world which didn’t give a damn about what I thought or cared for -it wasn’t until college when I was first actually asked what I wanted to learn.  With the passage and continuance of No Child Left Behind, the authoritarian tendencies of school have gotten worse as teachers, students, and schools are all rigidly judged by standardized tests which rarely measure the actual retention of meaningful learning.

My experience in higher education was much better than my schooling up to that point, but it came with a steep cost which will probably require many years of servitude to pay off.  And the cost of higher education is rising, making it increasingly exclusive.  In general, educational funding is being cut.  This is happening at Northwestern.  It is happening across the country.  Teachers are fewer.  Class sizes are larger.  There are also many efforts to remove the teachers with more experience (who cost more) and replace them with newer teachers who cost less.  Northwestern, your struggles are national struggles.

Many are aware of the problems I am outlining.  Few are willing to do anything about it.  You at Northwestern have done something, and I hope you feel proud of it.  I feel grateful for you.  You have done what many are scared to do.  You have stood up for your rights.  You are practicing real democracy.  I would love to see teachers, students, and staff across the nation stand up in protest of this broken system.  Perhaps you will be trendsetters.  Know at least that I support you, and that there is a community of people who support you.  Whatever ridicule, punishment, or fear you face, keep your head held high.  Many have been trained by the authoritarian world to fear that which represents real hope and possibility.  The resistance you faced is only proof that you represent something powerful.

With Deepest Love and Appreciation,
Andrew Batcher
Writer, Activist, Educator

After the walkout people sent letters like mine to both the students and the administration.  We also called the administration, and there was an open community meeting that supporters could come to.  At first the administration was saying they “would not discuss alleged disciplinary actions,” seeming to deny that the suspensions even took place.  But students made sure they got their voices heard and supporters were there to encourage them.  This week, the students planned a day of silence for Trayvon Martin and the principle decided to revoke their suspensions.  It was a victory with a complex web of players.  I think there is a lot to learn from this, and I hope there can be many more victories after this.