Summary from the 2016 National Gathering
Friday, October 7
Participants from out of town arrived Friday in time for a potluck dinner at Jim Wallace's home in Cambridge. The Cambridge and Arlington committees did a wonderful job at coordinating lodging and transportation for everybody who came in from out of town.
Saturday October 8
The morning started off with welcoming words from Emily Dexter of the Cambridge Committee and Carol Murray, president of the USESSC Board, followed by a Salvadoran-style ice breaker called "Rabits and Rabit Holes." Once everybody had loosened up and gotten to know each other a bit, Committee Check-Ins began, including some National Members and representatives from our allied organization, CISPES. Below are some highlights of each committee's check-in and who was present representing them.
Arlington: Elizabeth Dray and Beth Soltzberg shared about how their committee was reborn in 2004 after being defunct for several years. Now their work is concentrated in the Arlington school district, where 4th grade curriculum has integrated El Salvador and their sistered community of Teosinte into the topics they learn about. Now many of those 4th graders are high school seniors, and the Arlington Committee now has a high school intern who joined the gathering on Sunday. The committee itself is small, just a couple of people, even though many parents and students are active volunteers when it comes to helping out at an event or activity. Traveling to El Salvador with their families is difficult given the situation of violence, although they went with their young children in 2014 and had a great experience. Committee members are also closely involved in work supporting young Central American immigrants in the area.
Crystal Lake: Ann Legg and Carlos Leiva represented the Crystal Lake committee, mentioning that Libby could not be there because she was at the SOA Watch event at the Mexico border. Their committee hosts a hugely successful fundraiser event every year called Fiesta Chilama, with freshly made pupusas and live music, and people give generous donations. The committee members are very active locally in climate change initiatives such as promoting the Carbon Free Dividend and also a volunteer group that visits detained immigrants at a nearby detention center.
Bangor:Dennis Chinoy, Donna Gilbert, Jon Falk, Georgia Kosciusko, and Katherine Kates represented the committee that for 22 years has kept up a montly phone call with their sistered community of Carasque, as part of a larger Maine-based organization, PICA. Committee members are "getting older" and it is a challenge to get new people involved. They see trade issues as being at the heart of immigration and their relationship with Caraque helps inform that perspective. They are involved locally in anti-mining work, and are currently working to have a closer relationship with City Council and the Mayor, who met last week with Zulma on her speaking tour visit to Maine.
Concord: Alice Pickett-Hale shared about their experiences selling calendars and crafts to raise funds for Agua Caliente, but that communication with the community has been challenging lately.
Philadelphia: Joanie Brooks, Carol Murray, Lillie Rizack, Delia Landers, Mary Durkin, and Joe Landers represented the Philly committee at the National Gathering. Their committee is part of a local interfaith group with 3 faith communities, and one of their challenges is keeping people focuse on solidairty not charity. They are poised and ready to jump into a campaign around sugar cane whenever CRIPDES is ready for them to do so, their sistered community Las Anonas is deeply affected by the issue, and several lives have already been lost there to kidney disease related to working in the sugar cane fields.
Cambridge: The hosts of this year's Gathering, the committee was represented by Judy, Jim W., Leigh, Emily, Cathy, Alex, Rachel, Barbara, Pat, Susan, and others who participated at different points and in different ways throughout the weekend. They shared that hosting the National Gathering helped to draw in people who hadn't been as active, there are 8-9 members who are most active usually. They sent a delegation to El Salvador in June to celebrate their anniversary and that of their sistered community, San Jose Las Flores. Committee members are active in a wide variety of issues locally, including but not limited to immigration, pipelines, housing, Black Lives Matter, and others.
Watertown: Susan, Susan, Dean, and Beth represented the Watertown Committee, close neighbor and ally to the Cambridge committee. This committee has sort of had two sistered communities, since several members of the original community of Nueva Esperanza later created another community near Teosinte. Their main activity is organizing Coffee House Concerts, about 6-10 a year, which is how they raise funds for scholarlships and for the USESSC network and CRIPDES. Both Dean and Susan go to El Salvador every year. They are very concerned about the issues of violence in the rural communities in El Salvador and also in the Boston area.
New Jersey: Esther Chavez and Patricia Santoro represented the New Jersey committee, which is sistered with San Isidro and Los Amates. Their committee members are in different parts of the state, which makes coordination difficult, and they have suffered since the loss of Pat Advidson in 2015. A neighborhood garage sale has been their major fundraiser for years.
Austin: Jeff Baker represented the Austin committee, which began as a Christian social justice group that formed in 1980 working with refugees from El Salvador in Austin, they later took on the Sister Cities project and sistered with Guajoyo. They had a delegation earlier this year that got two new people involved who are still connected, and they are still proud of "finding" Catie!
WERU: Willie Marquart represented the WERU-Radio Sumpul Committee, and says that communications has been difficult with Radio Sumpul but that their stations have similar visions and roles, and it has been a meaningful relationship. Earlier in the week Zulma was able to speak on WERU about USESSC as part of the Speaking Tour.
MOFGA: Jean and Willie represented the MOFGA committee, which is a relatively new committee. They sister with the CCR rather than with a community, and focus on connecting with organic farmers in Maine and El Salvador. They share a lot of common issues and are energized to accompany the sugar campaign when it starts. They have an empty bowl fundraiser each year that is very successful.
Chicago: Sheila Brady represented the committee, which is sistered with Cinquera (where our own Zulma Tobar is from!). They are a small committee, many of them formerly part of CISPES, and they currently support scholarships in Cinquera, although they feel it would be more in line with solidarity to fund a promoter. It is challenging to keep new younger members, young people are very transient. They have a successful bike-a-thon fundraiser each year together with CRLN.
CISPES: David Grosser spoke about what CISPES is working on; they do not do "sistering," but rather focus on no US intervention. They are closely tied to the FMLN and Salvadoran labor movement. Their focus this year is on the so-called "Alliance for Prosperity," and the implications for border militarization. They are keeping a close eye on the new US ambassador in El Salvador who has been very meddlesome already, and are especially concerned about movements toward a soft coup. They are doing lots of work locally to get members of congress to sign a bill to stop military aid to Honduras. They also look at the issue of immigration, specifically at the push factors and that immigration starts in Central America.
Binghamton was not present at the Gathering, but sent a greeting to those present. Madison, Lawrence, Wichita, and Manhattan were also not present in person but were with us in spirit.
Update from El Salvador:
Zulma Tobar, new ES Coordinator, and Catie Munguia, the new US Coordinator, shared updates from El Salvador.
Mining: The decision in the Pacific Rim / Oceana Gold case was supposed to be announced in September 2015, now supposedly they will announce the decision next week. Three possible outcomes: 1) ES has to pay the fine to the company, 2) ES just has to pay the court fees (which are over $13 million at this point), and 3) ES pays nothing, the company has to compensate them for the court fees. Everybody is holding their breath to see the outcome, because this will set the tone for mining all over the world. Sister Cities has accompanied CRIPDES's consultations about mining in 4 municipalities in 2014-2015 with inernational observers from 7 different countries, and we just got news that 3 more consultations have been approved for 2017, so we will need to plan at least one observer delegation for next year. Stay tuned for more news.
Sugar Cane: USESSC has been working with MOPAO in the department of San Vicente, municipality of Tecoluca around the issue. They recently passed a municipal ordinance to regulate sugar cane practices (checmicals used, distance from residential areas and schools, etc.) but are facing difficulties in enforcing and raising awareness about the ordinance. Part of the difficulty is that people fear reporting when the ordinance is being violated, for fear that the owner of the sugar cane field will send the gangs after them. The health impacts of sugar cane production are major; multiple individuals in a single family are often affected by kidney disease and are unable to get the treatment they need. Las Anonas is one community that has already lost several people to the disease, all of them sugar cane workers or people who lived extremely close to sugar cane fields. There is not a clear understanding of what causes this disease -- is it the more than 51 chemicals used in the production? Working conditions? Other factors? More research is needed in this area. We along with Voices on the Border (VOCES) and Joining Hands Network (RUMES) are poised to form a group of international allies, much like what happened with the mining issue. This issue is very complex and less advanced and clear-cut than mining. It is important to emphasize that people do not want to get rid of sugar cane production, they just want to regulate it -- there is actually such a thing as "green sugar cane" (unlike mining, nobody has been able to demonstrate the ability to do "green mining").
Migration: Major migation push factors used to be mainly economic, but now we see that it is more about violence. CRIPDES promotees youth programs that provide constructive alternatives to youth, such as theater and dance groups (which USESSC volunteer Carly Roach has assisted and accompanied this year in La Libertad), but it is very small in comparrison to the very large issue. The United States response to the issue of immigration from Central America (after the summer 2014 "unaccompanied minors immigration crisis") is the Alliance for Prosperity, which militarizes the borders and makes the journey more dangerous, so what we see is fewer people making it to the US because they are stopped in Mexico or Guatemala, and also more human rights violations. We discussed the importance of honest communication in this context of violence in order for people to continue to be able to go to El Salvador on delegations. Sometimes communities are not honest about the situation, because they want us to think everything is ok and they want us to not stop visiting them. But we trust CRIPDES, they continue to provide us with honest information about what's really going on, even if the communities themselves don't, so they let us know if we really shouldn't go to a particular community for safety reasons, or if there are other measures we should take.
30th Anniversary Event Report Back: SHARE, SalvAide, and USESSC worke together on this event, which was 2 years in the making. There were 50 representatives of US organizations and 120-160 Salvadoran participants in the 3-day event in Arcatao. Prior to the big event, three simultaneous delegations explored the issues of 1) Mining and Water, 2) Sugar Cane and Climate Change, and 3) Youth Organizing. Everybody came together in Arcatao to celebrate our history, and then to have a collective conversation about what our currently reality and challenges are. Then the boards of directors of the 4 organizations met together to lay out their common objectives and lines of work, which were discussed later at the Gathering.
Afternoon Breakout Session #1:
After lunch, participants divided up into three groups to discuss the three major issues that had been discussed throughout the morning:
1) Environment (Sugar Cane, Mining, Climate Change)
2) Immigration / Migration
3) Violence in the US and ES (gangs, police brutality)
Afternoon Breakout Session #2:
After the first breakout session, everybody came together briefly to discuss and prioritize te seven lines of work that were established at the Anniversary Event in Arcatao between SHARE, SalvAide, USESSC, and CRIPDES. The seven areas of work were as follows, and those that are in bold were voted on as top priorities for USESSC, and to be discussed in the second breakout session:
- Institutional Sustainability (of CRIPDES nationally, regionally, and of each US organization)
- Strengthening Solidarity Relationships (delegations, good communication, etc)
- Education, Awareness, and Formation (scholarships, leadership and political formation, etc)
- Advocacy (soft coup, US intervention, immigration policy, etc)
- Alliances and Strengthening the Social Movement (especially related to the Environment: sugar cane, mining, climate change)
- Sharing Financial and Human Resources (projects, electoral observers, volunteers)
- Inclusion (of women, youth, Salvadorans in the US...)
A summary of the report back from each of the breakout groups from both sessions:
Immigration: How does / could / should USESSC respond to immigration? It is important to bring our perspective -- and to identify with USESSC -- to other organizations' conversations about immigration, our perspective focuses on push factors, and we could talk about US aid as a concrete contributing factor that people here can advocate around. We are hesitant to ask committee to take on more, adding immigration to all they already do.
Environment: There is a variety of issues being faced in ES: water, heat, health, sugar cane, mining, etc. Cambridge was excite to learn about a bamboo initiative in San Jose Las Flores, which responds to the realities of climate changes and provides some economic and ecological alternatives. On the issue of sugar cane, we need more information and collaboration with other groups and places. What about Cuba and their sugar cane production?
Violence: What do we know about the gangs and their origins -- do we know that they originated in the US? The group discussed if we as USESSC can make a bigger impact in El Salvador or with the gangs issue here in the United States. People wondered what are good, healthy ways to talk about this with our communities and committees? Honest communication is difficult but very important.
Institutional Sustainability: One idea was to make the US position full time to provide more support nationally to committees. We also need to promote people in committees joining national structures, such as Personnel Committee, Finance Committee, Communications Committee, or the Board. Also it is important that more people become sustainers, committees should promote that within their committees! There is a need for more communication between committees -- how do we facilitate and participate in that? We also discussed projects (things like scholarships, gardens, infrastructure projects, etc) and how, even though we never say they are our priority as an organization, we end up putting a LOT of staff and committee time into them. Need to establish clearer expectations and systems with CRIPDES -- we are supposed to be supporting existing CRIPDES projects, which CRIPDES promoters oversee and provide reports on, but our ES staff end up spending too much of their time doing that. We need to clarify our mission and model.
Advocacy: Committees need more guidance from the national level about what our USESSC agenda is, and then updates and information about those issues so that committees can be actively working around them. Many people did not know about some of these major issues, especially the soft coup.
Allliances and Strengthening the Social Movement: It seems that environmental issues are now at the core of what we are doing. Alliances will be very important on the work with food sovereignty, water, and sugar cane. We need to be facilitating lots of conversations among committees, communities, and allies, and we need to communicate to the whole network that environmental issues are taking center stage with our network's work.
What were common threads from this conversation?
- More connections within the network
- Working with Salvadorans in the US
- Human Rights still the center of our work, but now in the arena of Environment
- The need to pull together and find greater unity as a network
Sunday, October 9
Delia Landers, from Philly and on the Board as the designated "young person" facilitated a dicussion about bringing new ideas, but basing them in what is and has been the "essential sister cities experience." People in small groups discussed that personal connections and delegations are at the core of what is good and motivating about USESSC, as well as how the solidarity model, while more difficult, is more satisfying and productive than a charity model. Some specific ideas of new models included:
- Themed delegations
- Re-thinking speaking tours to be more like trainings or workshops and less like presentations
- Stronger national USESSC identity
- Make ourselves known
- Keep the Head and Heart at the core of what we do (not a new idea, but important to emphasize!)
- Creating tools such as videos to promote USESSC
- Regional Delegations
New Proposal: Themed Committees and Popular Education
Jon Falk and Catie Munguia made two proposals:
1)Thematic Committees -- not everybody fits into our current geographically-based committee model -- what about all our National Members who are all over the US? We could have people all over the US connecting around issues like popular education, sugar cane, the arts, and much more. One proposal we have as to a way to start a thematic committee is with regards to popular education...
2) Popular Education
There is a need to provide "formation" to get new people involved, and to provide something constructive and appealing in the US. CRIPDES prioritizes formation in their work, so we should be mirroring that here too. The popular education proposal aims to build a sort of curriculum for a social justice training for anybody, but particularly people who are active in local social justice organizations / movements, to go to El Salvador and learn from and with Salvadoran organizers, and come away with really practical tools to be better, more effective organizers. This model gets replicated over and over as the trainees become trainers. We envision a three-part approach: A) establish a group of people who can work on creating the actual curriculum for this training, maybe sending them to El Salvador in 2017 to meet with Equipo Maiz and other groups to gather ideas about how to build the curriculum. The important part is that this cannot be a staff-led initiative. Then B) recruit people, with a focus on youth (18-35) to participate in the training delegation in El Salvador, and then C) engaging those participants in a national Popular Education themed committee to work on providing similiar trainings and workshops around the country. There was a great deal of interest in this idea, and people also suggested thinking of ways to organize regional workshops to recruit people for the delegation, this initiative can reach out to National Members but can also strengthen existing committees.
Delia proposed an idea that would be engaging to young people especially, and that is connecting people involved in the arts in the US and ES. She was on the anniversary Youth delegation this summer, and was inspired by meeting some theater and dance groups in communities in El Salvador. Art can be a venue for political formation and social change, we can think about repeating the same itinerary/content of the Youth delegation from this summer to involve some new people, maybe they could form a Arts thematic national committee.
Challenges in Our Model
We already discussed some challenges, but we made a space to discuss challenges people find in the way we do our work:
- Some committees have a life span, that doesn't mean failure, but means that they have succeeded at what they needed to do. We need to recognize the work of committees that have already ceased and others that in the near future may decide to stop. We need to celebrate those groups, and also be working on creating NEW things so the life cycle of the organization can continue.
- How do we stay true to the solidarity model and not fall into charity model, we have to continuously communicate this, especially with our communities in El Salvador. Maybe we need to show them some of the fruits of the USESSC work here in the US, like all the young people who have come through USESSC and are now going great organizing work.
- Keeping our focus from being totally on projects. Staff spend too much time on projects, committees have to be sensitive to how we spend our time and what our priorities really are.
- Communications -- there are major communications barriers, both as a result of limited tools, but also because it is not bulit into the organization's structures. Committees know nothing or very little about the board and what they are up to, committees don't communicate much amongst themselves, and it is sometimes difficult to get information from our community in ES. Many people agree, there are major communications needs, people seem motivated to work on the issue.
Transforming Our Model
Emily Carpenter facilitated a conversation about concrete things that people as committee members can and want to do. People shared concrete ideas for the network that they would be interested and motivated to work on. People broke up into groups based on the following ideas to discuss:
- Food Sovereignty and Sugar Cane: people who participated in the food sovereignty delegation this summer want to organize a webinar to share about what they learned, and also work on pulling together research so that our network is informed and engaged in the issue. Contact person: Joanie Brooks
- Arts: They will work on reaching out to university art departments and other artists who are politically engaged to see if there is interest in the idea of an arts social justice delegation in ES. Contact person: Delia Landers
- Historic Memory: wants to have our organization's history documented and accessible, ultimately with a website where people can see photos, maps, timelines, etc. They will begin reaching out to different committees about collecting their archives and documenting their history. Contact person: Molly Todd
- Popular Education: This group will work on pursuing the popular education proposed by Jon and Catie. They discussed how to make sure it benefits committees and national members, perhaps organizing regional trainings/workshops as a way to generate interests and to recruit. Contact person: Jon Falk
- Communications Group: discussed the needs -- both in terms of resources and practices -- related to our internal communication with Board, staff, committees, and communities. We need people from within the network to support work on upgrading our website, putting together a blog, newsletter, and building back up our database that was lost in 2013. Contact People: Dennis Chinoy and Lillie Rizak
- Sister Cities Bed and Breakfast: a fundraising idea, create a network of USESSC people with a guest bedroom who would be willing to let other USESSC folks stay with them, like AirBNB. Charge people something like $75 and donate that to USESSC. Contact People: Jeff Baker and Mary Durkin
2017 Operative Plan
- Organizational Sustainability
- Improve communications
- Build Thematic Approaches:
- popular education proposal
- themed delegations
- Build local alliances
- Record and Preserve our History
- Sugar Cane (ex: research)
- Mining (ex: observers for Community Consultations)
- Climate Change (ex: Build alliances)
- US Government Threats to Human Rights
- Immigration push factors (ex: build alliances to bring our ES perspective)
- Soft Coup / Sovereignty (ex: alliances for advocacy actions)