By Andy Feeney
It was standing room only on Oct. 20 at the annual “I’ll Be There” awards ceremony and fundraiser for the DC chapter of Jobs with Justice (JwJ), an event held at the historic All Souls Unitarian Universalist church on 16th Street in the District. From the looks of the thing, there were more supporters in attendance than at previous JwJ fundraising events I’ve attended, and people of color were a bigger proportion of the crowd.
JwJ — an “alt-labor” group (as some supporters label them) that coalesces the efforts of regular labor unions and community activists and organizations—says it works to raise consciousness of all workers so that they see the way clear to organize themselves for justice as part of the community. Many workers that the DC chapter of JwJ attempts to organize are low-income, sometimes undocumented workers, who are especially subject to exploitation by their employers.
DSA members Dave Richardson, on JwJ’s executive committee, and Kurt Stand, a DSA rep to the JwJ steering committee, were at the event. However, attendance by DSA members in general was lower than in recent years, possibly because local DSA activists have been tapped out physically and financially by the Bernie Sanders campaign. For readers of the Socialist who missed the awards ceremony but would still like to help, JWJ donations are always welcome here.
In the past, “I’ll Be There” awards ceremonies as I remember them have generally focused on recognizing the work of individuals important to the local labor movement, but two of the four awardees this year were a striking departure from that pattern. One was C.H.O.I.C.E., the Community Hub for Opportunities in Construction Employment, an organizing project of LIUNA, the Laborers International Union of North America.
A half-dozen construction laborers active in C.H.O.I.C.E. took the podium to accept the award, which was for work their group has done to fight against wage theft and other labor abuses committed by employers involved in this area’s ongoing construction boom. There were no prolonged speeches by or about the awardees, just a recognition of how they’ve worked to correct abuses in the local construction field, chiefly through working to enforce the DC Wage Theft Act.
The second group honored by DC JwJ this year was El Comité de Apoyo Laboral y Poder Obrero, aka The Committee for Labor Solidarity and Worker Power, in association with the immigrant rights organization Many Languages One Voice (MLOV), which is providing the Committee with an institutional home. More than half a dozen activists in the Committee spoke in Spanish about the work for immigrant labor rights that their group has done, with one of the younger men going on at great length and a great speed, while a bilingual translator struggled to keep up with the flow.
Pastor Marvin J. Owens, Jr., senior pastor of Michigan Park Christian Church, received the third “I’ll Be There” award. A member of the Homeland Ministries Board of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) and a former minister with Disciples of Christ churches in Brooklyn and in Euclid, Ohio. Rev. Owens is active at a national level in marriage support and couples counseling, and serves with his wife Barbara Owens as co-leaders in the denomination’s “Kingdom Couples” ministry. He spoke briefly to the “I’ll Be There” attendees about the central role in the Jewish and Christian scriptures accorded to working people and the importance of justice and compassion toward the poor in the Bible. In working for the rights of poor and working people, Rev. Owens said, JwJ supporters should recognize that “God is truly on our side.”
The fourth recipient of an “I’ll Be There” award this year, Adam Graubart, is a sophomore at George Washington University who currently interns with Jews United for Justice (JUJ). He is pursuing a major in Human Services-Social Justice and minoring in Judaic Studies in hopes of becoming a Reform rabbi in a large urban synagogue and there working to connect Jewish values to relationship building, community organizing and social change.
Through volunteer and intern work he has done with JUJ and GWU’s Roosevelt Institute, Graubart has been highly active in the DC Paid Family Leave Campaign, rallying support for it among students and university administrators and doing research on the possible economic effects of paid family leave. JwJ this year also honored him for presenting the case for Paid Family Leave to seven DC council members and for doggedly attending repeated sessions of the District Council to follow discussions on the issue.
In addition to honoring the awardees mentioned above, this year’s “I’ll Be There” awards featured two masters of ceremonies. One, Diʼa Bὐi, was described in the program as a Vietnamese queer woman of color and has 10 years of experience in working on issues such as LGBT equality, women’s rights, immigrant rights and racial justice. She serves locally on the board of MLOV and is a member of the national advisory council of the Queer Undocumented Immigrant Project (QUIP) of United We Dream.
The second master of ceremonies, Darakshan Raja, is a Pakistani Muslim immigrant woman and a co-founder of the Muslim American Women’s Policy Forum, as well as an advisory board member of the Asian Pacific Immigrant Domestic Violence Resource Project in DC. She also has recently worked with the Urban Institute’s Justice Policy Center on a number of issues relating to gang violence, violence against women, juvenile justice and victims’ rights, among other areas.
Entertainment at this event was provided by Nfinity, an alternative pop group led by singer-song writer Nardie Strowbridge, a senior at Bell Multicultural High School, and managed by Kelly Henderson; and also by Tarica June, whose 2010 mixtape “Moonlight Revolution” has been acclaimed for confronting issues of empowerment and misogyny in hip-hop from a woman’s perspective.
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