Blog: Here's what Tom says about that!

Guest Post: Immigrants and Modern-Day Slavery

Posted September 29th, 2010 by Tom

Whenever you have a vulnerable population living amidst a much more powerful one, there’s always the potential for exploitation that at its worst can become a story of modern day slavery. In the United States, we have a vast immigrant population; many of these immigrants come to the U.S. seeking a better income and life. Those who come with shaky English and limited education often end up working in service industries. They pick fruit, they work in hotels, and they bus tables at restaurants. These agricultural and hospitality industries are exactly the type of independent, non-unionized workplaces where human rights abuses can persist unseen.

Just a few days ago in Florida, a disturbing story of modern slavery played out after the owners of a labor contracting agency were arrested for holding 39 Filipino workers against their will. After the workers showed up at a contracting agency in Boca Raton, their passports were confiscated and they were placed in crowded, substandard living space without food or water. They were warned that they would be arrested and deported if they complained about their situation, and were thus coerced into working at local hotels and country clubs for little or no pay. The owners of the labor agency, Sophia Manuel, 41, and Alfonso Baldonado Jr., 45, knew that the workers faced potential harm or jailing upon return to the Philippines because they had significant amounts of debt there. The case is currently being investigated by the FBI, Homeland Security, and the U.S. Department of Labor.

Florida isn’t known, however, for shining the light on labor abuses, even after previous accounts of enslaved workers there. One of the most high-profile cases happened in 2008, when a family-run slave ring was uncovered. Two brothers, Cesar and Geovanni Navarrete kept twelve Mexican and Guatemalan migrant workers enslaved from 2005-2007. The Navarrete’s laborers worked on some of the biggest tomato farms in Florida, including two that were members of the Socially Accountable Farm Employers program, an organization that is meant to keep human rights abuses out of farm work. The workers were forced to live in a semi-truck container; they weren’t even let out to use the bathroom. They endured beatings from their captors. They finally were able to make a hole in the side of the truck to escape.

Politicians and leaders in states like Florida with large, vulnerable migrant populations need to recognize the potential for human rights abuses and speak out against them. The Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW), a Florida organization that supports farm-worker rights, has called on Charlie Crist, Florida’s governor, to take more of a stand against modern slavery. The governor has yet to make a statement regarding the abuses, and he has not made any trips to the Florida tomato fields to see the conditions of the workers there.

Another part of CIW’s campaign, and one that all people can make a difference in, is the effort to boycott food sellers who use tomatoes and other produce that are picked in sub-standard work conditions. The CIW has had wins in convincing Taco Bell, McDonald’s, and Burger King to increase tomato pickers pay by a penny per bucket of tomatoes, something that can increase farm workers wages from $10,000 a year to $16,000. CIW is still trying to convince Trader Joe’s, Kroger, and Stop and Shop to accept the wage increases.

You can download letters at the CIW website to send to these companies, asking them to support worker welfare. Or better, yet, be conscious of where you pick up your produce and what your grocer’s buying practices are. In a global world, where you buy your tomatoes can have an effect on the prevalence of modern day slavery in America. Be conscious of the repercussions of personal buying habits and tell your local politician to take a stand against human rights abuses of the United States’ vulnerable populations.

Joy Paley is a blogger for An Apple A Day and is a writer specializing in radiology technician schools for Guide To Healthcare Schools.

First We Read, Then We Write

Posted September 24th, 2010 by Tom

For anyone who writes, wants to write, or dreams of writing…

I’ve come across some absolute gems by subscribing to Powell’s Books Review-a-Day service. One such book was Robert D. Richardson’s wonderful First We Read, Then We Write: Emerson on the Creative Process.

I first checked this book out from my local library (love, love, love our library!), but within a couple of chapters I knew that I needed this one on my shelf. I needed to mark it up with notes in the margins and yellow highlighting. I needed it next to my bed so I can pick it up and read a few lines whenever I seek inspiration. I needed to write the author and thank him for such an inspirational volume!

Anyone with an interest in writing can meet your muse here. I’ll admit that I haven’t been a huge follower of Ralph Waldo Emerson. I’ve been sort of a “greatest hits” fan of his. With this book that all shifted. Part biography, part history, part advice on writing and the integral role that reading plays, I can’t speak highly enough of how excited I became reading page after page of First We Read.

When the connection is made between writer and reader, the text dissolves into the connection.

If you want to be a writer but you haven’t made the commitment, this little book will light your fire.

The best single bit of practical advice about writing Emerson ever gave–best because it is a cry from the heart, because it focuses on attitude not aptitude, and because it is as stirring as a rebel yell–is this: “The way to write is to throw your body at the mark when your arrows are spent.”

As the dust jacket so accurately states, “Whether a writer by trade or a novice, every reader will find something to treasure in this volume.

UPDATE: The Scott Sisters: double life sentences for $11 robbery

Posted September 19th, 2010 by Tom

Earlier this year I wrote about an American tragedy; a travesty of so-called justice involving two black women: sisters Jamie and Gladys Scott. For those who didn’t see it, in 1993 these two women left a mini-mart near their home in Mississippi. When their car broke down, they hitched a ride from two young men. Later that evening the two men were robbed at gunpoint by three teenagers in another car. The robbers took an estimated $11 from the two young men. No one was hurt. Police accused the Scott sisters of setting the victims up.

The women, with no criminal record, denied any involvement. They were found guilty of armed robbery and were sentenced to double-life sentences in the Central Mississippi Correctional Facility, where they remain today. The young men who admitted their guilt in the crime served 10-month sentences. Though they testified against the Scott sisters, they later recanted their testimony claiming it was given under police pressure.

As I wrote last March, one thing I believe with absolute certainty is that this situation has nothing to do with justice. It has a lot to do with race.

I learned this week that there may be reason for hope in this case. NAACP president Ben Jealous has spoken with Mississippi Governor Haley Barbour on behalf of the Scott sisters. The Mississippi Pardons and Parole Board will consider their case. There have been stories recently on MSNBC and in USA Today. This is apparently the most national publicity the Scott sisters case has received in 16 years.

I pray that the injustice ends soon for Jamie, Gladys, and their family.

Fall for the Book to feature Kathryn Stockett, Greg Mortenson, Tom DeWolf

Posted September 17th, 2010 by Tom

Fall for the Book is a week-long, multiple venue, regional literary festival that takes place next week at George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia and other locations throughout Northern Virginia, D.C., and Maryland.

Okay, okay, so the title of this post is your basic, straight-forward, attention-grabber. There are actually more than 130 author/participants in the festival. And, it’s true that Kathryn Stockett, author of The Help, and Greg Mortenson, author of Three Cups of Tea, and yours truly, author of Inheriting the Trade will all be presenting. Though my book isn’t as well known as theirs I’m honored to have been selected to participate in this prestigious festival.

Kathryn Stockett will speak Tuesday, September 21 at 8:00pm (sorry, the free tickets have all been reserved). Greg Mortenson will receive the 2010 Mason Award (that recognizes authors who have made extraordinary contributions to bringing literature to a wide reading public) on Friday, September 24 at 7:00pm (sorry, no tickets left for this one either). I’ll lead a discussion following a screening of Traces of the Trade on Wednesday, September 22 at 1:00pm at the Johnson Center Cinema on the GMU campus. That same evening at 7:00pm at Pohick Regional Library in Burke, VA, I’ll do a presentation about Inheriting the Trade and our family journey. They didn’t need to issue advance tickets for my events so anyone who lives in the area, come on over!

Sam Clay, the director of Fairfax County Library System interviewed me in advance of my appearance next week. You can listen to the brief podcast here.

You can view the complete Fall for the Book festival schedule here.

For my complete schedule, that will take me to Virginia, Washington, California, Bermuda, New York, and Ohio over the next eight weeks, click here.

UPDATE: see photos from Fall for the Book here.

Obama re-nominates Goodwin Liu for 9th Circuit Court

Posted September 14th, 2010 by Tom

My cousin James DeWolf Perry has a new post today at his blog The Living Consequences about the ongoing saga of law professor Goodwin Liu’s nomination to the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals by President Obama.

I first wrote in March about the controversy surrounding Liu’s nomination AND his connection to our family journey as documented in the film Traces of the Trade. The controversy began in June 2008 at a Council on Foundations conference of all places. I wrote this update in April and discussed how Senate Republicans blocked Liu’s nomination just last month.

We’ll continue to follow this saga as long as it drags out. I encourage you to also take this opportunity to spend some time at The Living Consequences. James maintains a terrific blog with many thought-provoking subjects and comments.

Burn the Qur’an? What would Jesus do?

Posted September 9th, 2010 by Tom

Most people have, by now, heard about Reverend Terry Jones. He’s the pastor of a small church in Gainesville, Florida who plans to burn copies of the Qur’an this Saturday evening September 11, the 9th anniversary of the attack on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon by Muslim extremists. If you haven’t heard about it, here’s the story.

Reverend Jones and his congregants appear to be unwavering in their commitment to carry out the burning.

Condemnation of his congregation’s proposed act has been swift, strong, and quite universal. General David Petraeus, the commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan and U.S. Ambassador to Iraq James F. Jeffrey warn of the reaction of extremists that will likely incite violence in places around the world. The Vatican called the plan “an outrageous and grave gesture against a book considered sacred by a religious community.” Attorney General Eric Holder, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, and presidential adviser David Axelrod joined in the chorus of condemnation. President Obama calls the church’s plans a “destructive act” that may have a dangerous fallout.

Situations like this tend to stiffen the resolve of both opponents and supporters. The result is typically further separation, alienation, and misunderstanding among opposing sides.

I was born and raised in the Christian Church. I’m a graduate of both a Christian high school and college. I left the church three decades ago in large part because of self-proclaimed Christians who quoted scripture to justify actions that I believed were unjust and un-Christian. I considered such people crackpots that often caused more harm than good.

The easy thing to do is to condemn Reverend Jones; to call him a crackpot or worse. Incidents like this often make the news because they are fascinating. But watching Reverend Jones being interviewed was an eerie reminder to me of another Reverend Jones who was responsible for the deaths of 900 followers in Guyana in 1978.

No sane person would follow such paths, right? Wrong. It happens far too often. And the likelihood that burning 200 copies of the Qur’an will lead to violent reprisals elsewhere, leading to injury or death of other people, seems likely. Causing harm leads to more harm.

So what would Jesus do?

Reverend Jones claims that Jesus would burn the Qur’an. He’s wrong. Jones asks, “When do we stop backing down?” The answer can be found in Matthew 15:21-22.

Then Peter came up and said to him, “Lord, how often shall my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? As many as seven times?” Jesus said to him, “I do not say to you seven times, but seventy times seven.”

I realize, of course, that this assumes that the Muslim religion has somehow “sinned” against Reverend Jones, his congregants, or Christianity in general. That is not the case. But Reverend Jones appears to believe this. He appears to see Christianity as the one true religion and Islam is thus a threat to the truth. He may be adamantly opposed to the building of a mosque in Manhattan. I have no idea. What seems clear to me is that he’s being quite selective in his choice of which scriptures to follow. By taking the actions he says he and his followers will take on September 11–and will do so while being armed with guns–he pays no heed to Luke 6:31

Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.

What’s really troubling for Reverend Jones is what comes just before that verse…

But I tell you who hear me: Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you. If someone strikes you on one cheek, turn to him the other also. If someone takes your cloak, do not stop him from taking your tunic. Give to everyone who asks you, and if anyone takes what belongs to you, do not demand it back.

Reverend Jones seems to clearly see Muslims as his enemy. Is burning their holy book doing good? Blessing them? Turning the other cheek? He also pays no attention to the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 5

Blessed are the peacemakers for they shall be called the sons of God.

Blessed are you when men revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for so men persecuted the prophets who were before you.

Nowhere does Jesus bless the warmongers, the inciters, or the violent. Reverend Jones says he and his followers “are prepared to give our lives for this particular message and cause.”

So what can we do?

Recognize that Reverend Jones isn’t just a crackpot. He’s our fellow traveler in this life. That’s often a hard pill to swallow. We may be appalled by his choices but we are children of the same human family. I believe he has been deeply damaged. That damage has led him to harm himself and others. It’s easy to dismiss him, to hate him, to attack him.

What’s hard is to love him. What’s hard is to engage him in a conversation about the true, radical, peace-building, loving-at-all-costs message of Jesus that he is ignoring by strapping a revolver to his waist while striking a match to holy books on a Saturday night. I hope that someone in Gainesville, Florida will do the hard thing with Reverend Jones and try to reach out to him as a neighbor.

When a lawyer asked Jesus how to achieve eternal life Jesus said in Luke 10 that he should love God with all his heart and to love his neighbor as himself. When the lawyer asked Jesus to explain who he should consider his neighbor Jesus told the parable of The Good Samaritan.

A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, when he fell into the hands of robbers. They stripped him of his clothes, beat him and went away, leaving him half dead. A priest happened to be going down the same road, and when he saw the man, he passed by on the other side. So too, a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. But a Samaritan, as he traveled, came where the man was; and when he saw him, he took pity on him. He went to him and bandaged his wounds, pouring on oil and wine. Then he put the man on his own donkey, took him to an inn and took care of him. The next day he took out two silver coins and gave them to the innkeeper. ‘Look after him,’ he said, ‘and when I return, I will reimburse you for any extra expense you may have.’

Which of these three do you think was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of robbers?”

The expert in the law replied, “The one who had mercy on him.”

Jesus told him, “Go and do likewise.”

The Samaritan in this story is the Muslim of Reverend Jones’s.

Reverend Jones, if you are a true follower of Jesus the radical act is not burning the Qur’an. The radical act is to put down your weapons and love your Muslim neighbor. That’s what Jesus would do. Go and do likewise.

Reverend Jones, follow the Jesus-like examples of Susan Retik and Patti Quigley, whose husbands died in the 9/11 attack. They have invested their lives in overcoming poverty and illiteracy in Afghanistan. Go and do likewise.

As I suspect is the case with you, Reverend Jones, I don’t know enough about Islam. So I’m going to join a growing movement of people around the United States who oppose what you are planning to do on Saturday in Gainesville. I’m going to pick up a copy of the Qur’an this weekend. I’m not going to burn it. I’m going to read it. I’m going to learn more about my Muslim sisters and brothers.

I’m pretty sure that’s what Jesus would do. I encourage you to go and do likewise.

Copyright 2012 by Thomas Norman DeWolf | Website: James DeW. Perry