Earlier this month I wrote about Carolyn Latino, a college student and a Worcester native who spent her Thanksgiving break at Standing Rock, North Dakota, in support of the Sioux and their fight against a proposed oil pipeline that the tribe said threatened their water source and ancestral lands.
Shortly after her visit to Standing Rock, the federal government announced it would look for an alternative route for the pipeline. The decision, a victory for those opposing the pipeline, could be short-lived. President-elect Donald Trump owns stock in the company seeking to build the pipeline and he could quite likely reverse the feds’ decision after he is sworn in as president in January.
Still, the feds’ decision underscores the power of social activism, and particularly the potential of the individual American to make a difference in the lives of their countrymen.
This should be of comfort to those worried about the future under a president whose ascent to the highest office in the land was fueled by racist, misogynistic, anti-Muslim and anti-immigrant rhetoric.
Frank Kartheiser, the lead organizer for Worcester Interfaith, was among those who became concerned when Bill Breault, chairman of the Main South Alliance for Public Safety, appeared to be singling out refugees and undocumented immigrants in an information request to the City Council.
Among other things, Mr. Breault wanted to know how much the city was spending to resettle refugees, and where the refugees were living. He also wanted to know the criminal records of refugees and undocumented residents.
Mr. Kartheiser, noting that Worcester is the largest refugee resettlement destination in the Northeast, said while it is important to ask how well the resettlement process is working and how the families are adjusting, the tenor of Mr. Breault’s request mirrored the anti-immigrant backlash that Mr. Trump has helped fan across the country.
And in the wake of Mr. Breault’s request, it was important that Worcester Interfaith rallied the community and the City Council to take a public stance in assuring refugees and undocumented residents that “we have their backs,” Mr. Kartheiser said.
He wasn’t the only one. One of the city’s newest activist groups, Showing Up for Racial Justice, also went to bat for the refugee community. SURJ, as the group is commonly called, is part of a national network of organizations and individuals mobilizing white people in the fight for racial justice.
“When a particular group is targeted, not knowing come January what is going to happen to them, and when things like that (Mr. Breault’s targeting refugees and undocumented immigrants) come up, our job is to interrupt that and to call out those who are inciting fear,” Etel Capacchione, an organizer of the Worcester chapter, said.
Ms. Capacchione, an Albanian immigrant and the mother of two boys, has long been active in social justice work in the city. She is currently a case manager supervisor at the Central Massachusetts Housing Alliance, but previously served as the program director of the Youth Academy at YOU Inc. and as peer mediation coordinator in the Worcester and Boston public schools.
She is a YWCA board member and is co-founder and co-chair of the organization’s Racial Justice standing committee.
She harbors no illusions about the difficulty in “educating other white people about systematic racism; to help them become aware of the policies and institutional practices that perpetuate racism,” she said.
“When you meet like-minded people, it is easy to have a conversation about this, but when folks who never had this conversation, or the opportunity to investigate their own bias, or their complicity in the oppression of others, they can get defensive,” she said.
“But racism doesn’t just hurt people of color. It hurts everybody. We will receive pushback, but we will continue to appeal to people’s heart and their empathy on a human level.”
Community activist Kevin Ksen said the rise in social activism is healthy for our democracy. In addition to championing a just community, social activism is the training ground for many who have gone on to take influential positions our community, he said.
“Look at the heads of many of our nonprofits, whether it is Linda Cavaioli at the YWCA, Grace Carmark at Central Massachusetts Housing Alliance, or Gordon Hargrove at Friendly House. They were all active in social justice work earlier in their lives.
“Social activism is reminding ourselves of the rights we have and the things we think are important. It is the crucible in which change is created.”