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On Tuesday, September 16th, I had the special privilege of representing the North Carolina Council of Churches in a meeting of 13 American “faith leaders” with the United States Labor Secretary Thomas Perez.
The meeting, coordinated by the Center for Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships, was to discuss what the US government administration and Department of Labor are doing to protect workers and provide greater economic opportunities for all. This was my first time meeting with someone so senior level in the US government. And I also viewed the discussion through my lens of being a diversity and career management consultant.
I was extremely impressed with Secretary Perez’s heartfelt commitment to addressing poverty and increasing job opportunities in the USA. And he listened with deep intent to all the participants and demonstrated he heard all of our comments when he synthesized the key issues we discussed.
I shared that the NC Council of Churches has a long history of advocating for social justice including economic justice. My points:
• We have provided educational materials and advocacy around “living wage” since minimum wage is far below what people, especially working single parents, need to live.
• That we tie economic discussions to racial justice since it is minorities that are often the hardest hit with economic difficulties
• That given that NC has a large agricultural economic component, I detailed the various projects we have done around farm workers and immigrant rights.
I also noted that I was elected NC Council of Churches President as an out gay man, that the LGBT community often suffers economic hardship and workplace discrimination in states that do not offer legal protection, and that there are a huge number of people of faith who believe LGBT protections are the right thing to do.
Secretary Perez listened intently and took a lot of notes as each of the 13 faith leaders spoke. He consolidated all that he heard and offered the following summary remarks: (a few of these items are from his opening remarks too)
• It is important to provide vocation training for inmates nearing the end of their sentences, providing them a second chance and assisting them of becoming productive members of society instead of returning to prison
• We need to increasing opportunities for women, noting that the USA is the only industrialized nation in the world that does not legislate paid leave for new mothers. In addition, lack of subsidized child care for low income working mothers often force them to make hard choices.
• Need to continue to work on raising minimum wage (link to a blog by meeting attendee Rabbi Jason Kimelman-Block) to provide a living income
• Faith organizations can start “job clubs” for helpful networking and leverage the 2500 American Job Centers across the country. Some of these are even located in prison locations to assist with re-entry.
• There are grants available to faith organizations to assist with skills development, inmate re-entry programs, etc.
• One important role of faith groups are to be a voice for those with no voice and those unable to speak out
• He does understand the LGBT employment issue and supports having a national ENDA (Employment non-discrimination act.) Protection for LGBT people based upon what state they live in is not fair.
• Immigration reform has a strong impact on economic issues, and is one area that all faith groups from conservative to progressive support.
In closing, Secretary Perez asked that we do not leave the meeting as pessimists, that the facts are on our side and we can continue to work for positive progression in these issues. Civil rights is about persistence and we need to diligently persist in these areas. And he expressed deep gratitude for all our work.
In mid-October, I will write a follow on blog to discuss the unfortunate growing culture of poverty in the United States, and what business leaders can do to address it.