Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Moved with Compassion

Something has been heavy on my heart tonight, and I just have to put it out there, get it off my chest.  It is not meant to offend anyone, it's just coming from my heart, from my experience, and from my perspective.

I occasionally see posts on social media or news articles about welfare and the poor in our country. It's mostly related to politics, which I understand. We're certainly in the midst of a turbulent time politically in our country. It's difficult for working class or middle class person to be frustrated that their tax dollars are going to support someone else, who maybe isn't working or hasn't made the wisest decisions in their life. I get it. Our economy sucks right now, people are struggling. There are many people who have never worried about paying their bills who have now faced foreclosure, bankruptcy, and extreme hardship. My husband was laid of in January, so I get it. It's hard to live on a Social Worker's salary and unemployment. We did, but just barely. I'm thankful that God has provided me with a new position that will help us financially and that Brent is close to starting a new job, but I constantly remind myself that we are blessed.
"Helping the Homeless" - Ed Yourdon (Creative Commons)

Most of my readers are suburban, middle class individuals. Most of us have never received public benefits or have actually gone hungry. Not "oh I haven't eaten since breakfast" hungry, but "I haven't had a full meal in several days" hungry. I've never felt that, and I imagine you haven't either. Maybe you have, but most of us haven't. I couldn't even imagine how it feels as a young child to go without food, how difficult it is as a parent to struggle to provide for your children, or how scary it is to be homeless and not know who may come to help you with food on any given day.

I've met many people who are struggling like this. I'm currently working very closely with a local DFCS (Georgia's public assistance office for you out of state readers) office through my current position, so I've spent time in the waiting room in several locations. The mood inside these public benefits offices is somber. People don't make eye contact. They look sad, depressed, and discouraged. They are humbled down to asking the government for help. They are struggling. Yes, I imagine fraud exists, but for most of us, asking for help is the last resort.  I've worked with refugees for several years. All refugees (legal immigrants) are given public benefits for the first couple of months. Many of them receive food stamps for several years after that time. They cannot find jobs that pay more than minimum wage, so this food supplement keeps them going as they make a new life in our country.

I don't want to get into the health care debate, but I worked at a charity medical clinic for a year during grad school. I was a counselor and spent my days providing therapy to patients at the clinic. Most of our patients were working class individuals who either lost their jobs or their health insurance. Many struggled with chronic health disorders and were not able to pay for their own insurance. I don't know how many times I sat next to a middle aged woman, trying to help her come up with options to pay her bills or find a job. It felt hopeless, and there were a lot of tears, but we still tried.

Before you throw stones or turn public benefits into a purely political conversation, remember the faces of the children who are able to see a doctor because of Medicaid. Remember the new residents of our country who are able to eat as they work to create a new life here. And remember the people in the DFCS office who are lined up to see if anyone can help them. Public benefits do not fully sustain people by any means. TANF benefits max out at 5 years of an adult's life, no more. You can't have more children to extend your benefits, and if you miss a TANF class or do not fulfill the requirements, your benefits get cut. The average Food Stamp benefit is $208 dollars per month for an average sized family of three. Brent and I spend twice that on food per month. Very few adults have medicaid, most medicaid recipients are children, and the benefits are severely limited. I spent three hours one day trying to find a specialist who would see a medicaid client, and the result was a two month waiting list. Section 8 housing vouchers are essentially non existent now, there isn't even a waiting list. Private organizations are essentially tapped out right now, its almost impossible to find a church or organization with the funds to help someone keep their lights on or put food on the table. Its a vicious, painful cycle for so many people. Its a cycle that brings tears to my eyes, because I've seen it, I can give names and faces to this struggle. I'm going on my fourth year of vocational social work and my sixth year in the non profit world, and I have yet to meet someone who enjoys their situation or who is abusing the system. I'm not naive, I know it happens, but I don't think its as prevalent as the media would like us to believe.

I could go on to talk about cycles of poverty and how insecurity in childhood can perpetuate poverty, mental health issues, or substance abuse later in life. But I try to limit my post lengths, so I'll refrain. Ultimately my prayer is that much like Jesus was, we will be moved with compassion towards the people around us. People are watching us online and out in our communities, especially if we claim to be Christians. Let's put aside assumptions about welfare recipients and try to imagine life in their shoes. I would love to see the day when the private sector can care for everyone in our communities, deserving or not. But in the meantime, I hope I can extend grace and love, and do my best to help those in need around me. As Mother Teresa so eloquently put it:

 “Let us touch the dying, the poor, the lonely and the unwanted according to the graces we have received and let us not be ashamed or slow to do the humble work.”

I try to make things positive and give us ways to make a difference through my posts, so if you want to help people in your community and around the world, check out two innovative organizations I've recently learned about. 

Hungry for a Day www.h4ad.com

HopeMob www.hopemob.org

Sunday, July 8, 2012

{SCS} Is it legit?

A question I often get asked is "How do you know if the company you are supporting is actually fair trade?" This is an excellent question, so I thought I'd share with you a few ways that I check into the products I buy.

1. Check the Label: This is pretty self explanatory. If there is a fair trade certification label on the product, then the company has invested time and money into being certified. Third party groups verify these companies' policies and practices.

2. Read the policies: I was in Ireland and went into a store called "Penny's". The store had a sign by the register stating their ethical policies and that they were committed to providing a fair wage and good working conditions to the people who made their products. It made me feel better about shopping there. And I was able to go back and read, in detail, their policies. And call me naive, but I tend to believe that if a company goes to all that effort to display their ethics and makes it a priority, they're trying to make things better. I certainly think its better than a company having NO ethical policy.

3. Ask them about the people who make the products. If the organization is invested in the people who make their products, they'll have stories, examples, and even names of the artisans. I used to work at a shop called "Go Fish" on the Marietta Square. We had pictures, names, and stories of artisans all around our shop, and could explain how our model worked to curious customers.

4. Do some research. If you come across some companies, research them online. Many times you can find news articles, reviews and opinions about the company or organization. That takes a bit of time but information is fairly easy to find.

5. Write a letter: If you're still curious and haven't been able to find information, write a letter to the customer service section of the store or company. My new friend Kristi recently did this with the grocery stores she shops at. Check out her blog to read the responses.

6. Check their grade. I posted about Free2Work last week. Check out Free2Work to see if the company has a grade. They've done a bunch of the legwork for you. And if the company doesn't have a grade, tweet Free2Work to see if they know anything. 

So there you have it. Six simple ways to do some investigating. And this summer, I'm going to do some of the investigating for you. I'll be using these methods before I post any organization on this blog. I've found some great organizations, and I'm excited to share them with you. Lots of good stuff coming soon!

Monday, July 2, 2012

{SCS} Free2Work

Good evening friends! I hope you are having a fantastic start to your fourth of July holiday week. I love this week, its an incredible reminder of how blessed and lucky we are to live in the United States. We are free to do so many different things. Freedom is one of the key values of our country. We are free to eat what we want, go where we want, do what we want. We are free to travel, free to make choices, and free to work to make a living.

Some people in our world, however, are not free to work. They are trapped in debt bondage or forced labor to make the products we use every day. Forgive me if I sound like a broken record, but this is the foundational reason for the {SCS} series this summer. People are in bondage, and we indirectly perpetuate that with our purchases. But we can do something to end it. We can do numerous things to end it.We have power in our purchasing. We have the choice, the freedom, to choose where we shop. And it is a lot easier to make positive choices that help end slavery than you may think.
Photo credit: www.free2work.org

Do you have an iPhone? Android phone? Then you can end slavery with your purchases by downloading an app:


Free2Work is a program from Not for Sale that grades companies based on four ethical principles. Its a way to reward companies who are attempting eradicate slavery from their supply chains and products. It also provides a way for us to know what companies don't pay attention to or don't care about the people who make the products. You can read in detail how the organization rates companies on their website, but they have a thorough, detailed process to get the most accurate information possible in order to provide the grades. Just like the awesome people at Slavery Map, the people at Free2Work are really smart.

I've been able to make purchasing decisions based on Free2Work that have been easy and practical. I feel pretty good about shopping at Gap or Old Navy now, because they earned a B. I also saw a tweet from Not for Sale (NFS) the other day that Gap has been meeting with NFS to discuss supply chains, so I know Gap working hard to be ethical. I know that Adidas and Champion are great companies to buy my running gear from, because they scored a B+ and A-, respectively. And I know that if I'm going to buy chocolate, Hershey's probably isn't the way to go, they got a D.

There are many more brands on Free2Work, I'd encourage you to check it out. You can search for brands, scan products at the store, or browse via category. They have been expanding it to include more brands as well, so its becoming an even better tool. And ultimately, it is another small way you can make a big difference.

Friday, June 29, 2012

{SCS} Getting Started: The Book

I probably should have started the whole {SCS} series with this post, but instead it'll be the last post of the first full week. I've been hearing so much negativity lately on Facebook and other social media. There is so much anger in the area of politics and theology, it can be a major turn off. And I know I can be guilty of being negative or coming across as an angry activist, shaking my fist at the sky. So I thought today it would be beneficial for all of us to just take a deep breath and reflect on what "The Book" tells us about Justice.

"A righteous care about justice for the poor, but the wicked have no such concern" - Proverbs 29:7

"I know the Lord secures justice for the poor and upholds the cause of the needy." - Psalm 140:12

"Learn to do right; seek justice, defend the oppressed. Take up the cause of the fatherless; plead the case of the widow" - Issiah 1:17

"The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because He has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free, to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor." Luke 4:18-19

"He has shown you, O mortal, what is good. And what does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God." - Micah 6:8

"Rejoice with those who rejoice; mourn with those who mourn. Live in harmony with one another. Do not be proud, but be willing to associate with people of low position. Do not be conceited. Do not repay anyone for evil. Be careful to do what is right in the eyes of everyone. If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone." Romans 12:15-18

Creative Commons Photo Credit: Incase (Flikr)
I could keep going. This is just a snapshot of all the verses in the Bible about caring for the poor and proclaiming justice. There are hundreds of verses like these. Its a cornerstone of the faith and life of the follower of Jesus. My prayer is we set aside the negativity and focus on what we can do together. Buying 'slave free' isn't about being altruistic or trendy, its about justice. We can make a difference, but we have to work together. And for those of you who follow Jesus or have a moderate amount of respect of the Bible, there's a plethora of verses to spur you on towards justice. And there are millions of people waiting for us to proclaim justice.  Read them, reflect on them, and then act on them. It doesn't get much simpler than that.

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

{SCS} Getting Started: Community Trade

The picture above is of my favorite spot in Atlanta. Its one of the city's best kept secrets, in my humble opinion. I took this picture on the porch of Land of a Thousand Hills Coffee Shop. Its just inside the perimeter, nestled on the Chattahoochee River inside an apartment complex. Its my favorite place to write, dream, and socialize. I was just there planning strategy for an awareness event on Monday night. I've already been there twice this month with plans to go at least two more times.... so I guess you could say I'm a frequent patron.

But Land of a Thousand Hills on the Chattahoochee is more than a coffee shop with good coffee and a great view. It is a place you can go to take part in changing the world. This company, founded by a local Atlana guy Jonathan, is changing the way we drink coffee, one cup at a time. Land of a Thousand Hills and their three coffee shops (Cumming, Roswell and Atlanta/Vinings) start their coffee process from the moment the beans are harvested through a model they call "Community Trade". They work directly with the coffee farmers, ensuring they receive a fair wage and that their community is taken care of. This company's hope is that through this business model, people will be taken care of and communities can build peace. You can read all about them on their website. (And you can order coffee too!)

There are other organizations that participate in models like Land of a Thousand Hills. The Go Fish Clothing and Jewelry Company was created out of its founder's frequent mission trips around the world. They work directly with artisans to ensure there is a fair price being paid for all products the company sells. I met the founders of Kanzi Crafts last year at a festival. They work with East African artisans to provide sustainable employment, and even give back an additional portion of the proceeds to support ministries in the region.
There are many more organizations who participate in direct trade or community type trading as a business model. Many of these organizations are faith based or attached to a ministry. They may not be fair trade certified (I have been told certification can be expensive for a small business) but they are working to end poverty through sustainable business models. And in many ways, these models work deeper than some fair trade models. They are about direct partnership, truly building a lasting relationship that hollistically helps the community. It's about relationships, which can be a lost art in modern business practices in the western world. And they are driven by people whose passions are for the people they serve, which is a mission I can get behind one hundred percent.

Monday, June 25, 2012

{SCS} Getting Started: Fair Trade Basics

You probably have heard the term 'fair trade'. (not to be confused with 'Free trade' which I hear a lot) If you spend any time with me you probably have heard the term so many times you're sick of it. (I apologize for that.... my only excuse is that I'm a talker and I'm passionate)

But what does 'Fair Trade' really mean? What are the basics of this interesting business sector that is growing exponentially in our nation? I wasn't fully able to explain it myself, so I did some research.

Photo credit: Fair Trade USA
At its core, the definition of fair trade is pretty self explanatory: it means that the product has been traded fairly. The producers, suppliers and companies all were active participants in the product's journey to the store shelf. For example, the coffee grower in Rwanda that harvested the beans for your Green Mountain fair trade coffee was included in the trading process and was paid a fair price for his beans. The little logo you see on some products (note the picture) at the grocery store is regulated by Fair Trade USA. Fair Trade USA is a third party entity that certifies companies' products and ethics. Fair Trade USA has nine guiding principles that help them determine if a product is, in fact, traded fairly. You can check out their website for the nine principles.

Another organization that certifies fair trade companies is The World Fair Trade Organization. They are similar to Fair Trade USA, but are a global entity and have been around a lot longer. The awesome Fair Trade store Ten Thousand Villages is one of the founding members of this organization. All participants agree to adhere to ten principles of fair trade, which are the following (commentary is mine):

1. Creating opportunities for economically disadvantaged producers: ie: identify people who are in poverty, create opportunity for them.
2. Transparency and Honesty: tell the truth about your supplies
3. Fair Trading practices: don't increase your profit at the expense of the actual producers of the product. Don't take advantage. 
4. Payment of a fair price: don't cheat people. Pay a living wage price for the products.
5. Ensuring no child labor or forced labor: This one is really self explanatory. Don't use children or slaves to make your products. 
6. Commitment to non discrimination, gender equality and freedom of association: also self explanatory. Don't discriminate. Treat everyone equally. 
7. Ensure good working conditions: No sweatshops. No unsanitary conditions. Adhere to local and international laws relating to safety in working environments. 
8. Promote capacity building: give your workers opportunities, see that they grow professionally. Help them succeed. 
9. Promote Fair Trade: use your business as a platform to encourage others to participate in fair trade practices. 
10. Respect for the environment: Don't intentionally and knowingly deplete our world of natural resources. Conserve when you can. 

The funny thing to me after reading all these principles is that they are common sense. Most people I know would agree that they would want those principles applied to their workplace. The sad thing is that this is not the case in US owned companies around the world. Fair Trade has risen from the desire to include all participants in trade. Its designed to avoid exploitation of the vulnerable. Its a great model. It's not perfect, but a third party regulation helps consumers feel confident that they are purchasing products that help people.

When you purchase fair trade coffee, that extra couple dollars you spend helps send that coffee farmer's child to school. When you put down the Hershey's and spend an extra 75 cents on a fair trade chocolate bar, you could be helping a single mom buy medicine for her children. It certainly makes my chocolate taste much sweeter.

Do you know of a fair trade company or supplier? I'm making a list of fair trade products and companies and would love your input. Leave your comments below, I'd love to hear from you.

Sunday, June 24, 2012

To be continued...

So, last week I posted about my 'prayer problems'. You can read the original post here for the background. To summarize, I was challenged by my terrible prayer life and decided to use my long commute to really focus on prayer. I specifically asked for two things throughout the week: a job for Brent and then an 'unspoken' that I can't write about on the blog. So I did it. I prayed daily, crying out to the Lord, asking Him to come through for us. And guess what?

Nothing happened. 

By Wednesday, I was discouraged. I was heading to a meeting and I found myself feeling extremely sad. What was going on? Why hadn't anything happened? I didn't want to give up on God, and to lose faith that He would come through for us, but it was discouraging. I had hoped that this week would be 'the week' that God swept through and 'fixed' everything for us.

I finished off my week focusing on prayer with church this morning and evening. I was listening to Louie talk about the last night of Jesus' life and the events that occurred after he prayed to the Lord before his arrest and death. Louie re-caped the chapter before and said something that hit me like a ton of bricks. He reminded us that Jesus prayed to His Father: 'Not my will, but your will be done'.

Whoa. Jesus, the creator of the universe, turned over his desires and plans to God, his Father, and surrendered his will. 

Jesus, who commands the Angels, and is seated at the right hand of God, gave up his will. He begged God to take the cup from him, but he surrendered his desires. Jesus took on our sin, our shame. All the intense pain I have ever experienced, every nasty word I have said about someone else- He took it.  All the murders, lies, cheating and scandals that caused pain- Jesus took it all on. And He did it without complaining. Louie went on to say that praying for something "if it's God's will" is not a cop out. I think that was a hang up of mine, that maybe my faith wasn't strong enough if I was always leaning on God's will. But if Jesus said it, it certainly can't be a cop out. He is God, after all.

Jesus painted this sunset, but humbled himself to die for our sins.
I was immediately humbled as the reality of those words sank in. I had devoted my week to being in God's presence as much as possible. I prayed a lot, I focused on God a lot. But even though in my prayers I half heartedly said "Your will God, of course", I don't think I really meant it. And because I was so fixated on asking God for specific things, I didn't notice the little ways God provided and answered prayer. Throughout this past week, my conversations about Jesus quadrupled over previous weeks. God extended me a 'deadline' of sorts on something that I was dreading. And Brent got several job leads.

So my prayer week is evolving into a prayer journey. My prayer focus is "to be continued" as this week, I'm praying some more, every morning on my way to work, and the theme is "Your will, not mine". I have so little faith, so I think I need to repeat to God constantly that I want His will. Hopefully the consistency will allow me to better live it out.

 Most of you reading this probably don't struggle with faith and prayer like I do. But maybe you do, and I hope I can encourage you. You are not alone, you are never alone. God is listening to us, even when we can't feel it. He loves us so much that He died a horrific and humiliating death for our sins. And He just wants us to trust Him and walk with Him. Nothing you can say is too much for God. He already knows what you're feeling, so just tell Him. Even if there are tears or anger, just tell Him. He knows, and He cares. Its way easier said than done, but I'm going to do my best to live out the grace I don't deserve, one prayer and one action at a time.