About 200 people crowded the Temple Beth El auditorium Sunday, Jan. 8, 2017, for a public forum organized by NCJW on How to Protect Civil Liberties and Equal Justice in Maine. Attendees picked up information and signed up to volunteer at tables set up by NCJW and co-sponsors Bet Ha’am, Etz Chaim, Jewish Community Alliance, Temple Beth El; the organizations represented on the speakers’ panel; and Welcoming the Stranger.
Audience anxiety about the future was eased at the outset by Martin Steingesser and Judy Tierney, who read poems by Father Daniel Berrigan and Jonathan Cohen. NCJW Board Member Barbara Peisner welcomed the crowd and reminded them that “an informed and active citizenry is critical to protecting our rights and compelling our elected representatives to hear us.” She then passed the mic to moderator Barbara Shaw. Shaw, NCJW member and JCA Community Relations Council Chair, explained the concept of tikkun olam, perfecting or repairing the world, which calls on each person to be an active agent for change for the good of all. Then she introduced the panel of officers from four local non-profit agencies which serve vulnerable populations.
Kate Brogan, Vice President for Public Affairs, Maine Family Planning, kicked off the discussion by explaining that, as part of its mission to provide Maine women with access to reproductive healthcare, MFP is one of three abortion providers in Maine. Brogan pointed to threats to reproductive healthcare on the national level – freedom of religion bills that would allow anyone to opt out of providing services – and locally – budget proposals to eliminate state funding for family planning. She urged advocates to email their members of Congress. Better yet, to telephone. And she encouraged participation in the women’s marches (in D.C. and Augusta) on Jan. 21.
Robyn Merrill, Executive Director, Maine Equal Justice Partners, described how her organization advocates on behalf of Maine residents, looking for solutions to poverty. She noted thousands of people in our state have lost access to health care and food benefits in the past eight years, while child poverty has soared. MEJP opposes block grants for Medicaid and SNAP benefits, which would eliminate clients entitlement to those benefits, and supports a voter referendum to expand access to health care for 70,000 people in Maine.
Susan Roche, Executive Director, Immigrant Legal Advocacy Project, outlined ILAP’s work with 2,000 clients a year who are new to Maine. Volunteer attorneys help people meet legal residency requirements, and usher their asylum requests through the thicket of the courts. Her biggest concern is expedited deportation if the new administration adopts more aggressive enforcement policies.
Finally, Zachary Heiden, Legal Director, ACLU of Maine, brought some levity to the event by referencing an optimistic song from the musical “Hamilton.” He also took comfort in Martin Luther King Jr.’s observation that: “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.” Meanwhile, he urged three concrete steps for attendees to take.
- Safeguard your privacy. Encrypt your cell phone. Use a password manager online. Employ two-factor authentication for your email.“But, I don’t do anything worth monitoring,” you say?
- Do something worth monitoring. Advocate. Take action. Organize.
- Support non-profit service organizations with a contribution. Heiden noted, “We’re all lawyers for people who can’t afford to pay us.”
After the panel presentations, the crowd broke for refreshments, then resumed for a brief question and answer session. Panelists pointed to the power of social media to move people. Contributions to Planned Parenthood are distributed nationally, but SafeMaine funds abortions for women in need in Maine only. Several attendees recommended Indivisible as a practical guide to influencing lawmakers.
The remarkable attendance at this event — men, women, and children of all faiths – proved the accuracy of NCJW’s assessment of the need for people to come together. What we didn’t appreciate is their appetites; for the first time, we ran out of refreshments!
WCSH6 covered the forum and ran this report on the News Center 6 News at 6.
Thanks to everyone who helped make this event a resounding success!