Tag Archives: Engaged Buddhism

Whose Lives Matter?

By Ven. Bhikkhu Bodhi

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Even though Covid-19 has been taking a heavy toll on workers in the meat industry, late last month President Trump issued an executive order demanding that meat-processing plants must resume operations. The effect of this order is to confront workers with a horrendous choice: either risk losing their jobs or risk losing their lives. With meat-processing plants becoming hot spots for Covid-19, many workers are terrified about going back to work.

The Priority of Profit

The well-known saying of Jesus, “The sabbath was made for man, not man for the sabbath,” might be reformulated with regard to the economy: “The economy should serve the needs of people; people should not be made to serve the economy.” Yet the logic of modern corporate capitalism often dictates just the opposite, that people be subordinated to the demands of the economy, an omnivorous giant that feeds off a steady stream of human sweat, blood, and tears.

With the profit motive as its driving vector, the mammoth corporation directs all the components of its complex operational system toward profit maximization. When profits stagnate or decline, the company may freely adopt whatever measures are needed to change course and push earnings back on an upward curve, often without regard for the physical well-being of its employees. While labor unions earlier formed a bulwark against corporate abuse, the decline of unions has given corporations license to get their way without fear of resistance.

A particularly egregious example of this inversion of ethical priorities came to light at the end of April when President Trump invoked the Defense Production Act to compel meat-processing facilities to resume operations. In March and April, these plants had become hot spots for Covid-19. By the end of April, at least twenty workers had died from the disease and over 5,000 were infected. Since then even more workers have been infected and died, but a shortage of testing equipment prevents us from knowing the exact numbers.

As infections spread, state and local authorities used their power to order some of the most badly contaminated plants to close, a measure considered necessary to protect public health. In sum, during those two months, thirteen meatpacking and food-processing plants shut down, including some of the nation’s biggest. In response, the executives of the giant meat corporations mounted a campaign of opposition, claiming that the closing of the meat plants would endanger the national food supply. John Tyson, chairman of the board of Tyson Foods, the world’s second largest meat processor, published a full-page ad in major newspapers, including the New York Times, warning that “the food supply chain is breaking.”

Enter the Defense Protection Act

This message got through to the president, who invoked the Defense Protection Act to demand that the plants reopen. The DPA was originally adopted to grant the federal government the authority to order private industries to produce materials and equipment needed in times of war. But Trump used it, not for national defense against a hostile military power, but to protect the meat industry from declining profits.

The president’s executive order states that the closure of meat-processing plants by state and local authorities has been “undermining critical infrastructure during the national emergency,” and he called on the Secretary of Agriculture to “take all appropriate action… to ensure that meat and poultry processors continue operations consistent with the guidance for their operations jointly issued by the CDC and OSHA,” that is, by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration.

Trump’s decree puts in jeopardy not only the workers themselves, but their families and communities. Meat-processing workers often live in multi-generational households with scant opportunity for quarantine or social distancing. In such tightly cramped quarters, if a younger worker becomes infected with the virus, even if they remain asymptomatic, they might easily infect other members of the household; for older relatives infection may prove fatal. But for the president, such concerns are subordinate to those about the meat supply. In the words of Stuart Appelbaum, president of the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union: “We only wish that this administration cared as much about the lives of working people as it does about meat, pork and poultry products.”

Despite the rhetoric of “critical infrastructure” and a “national emergency,” a continuous supply of meat is in no way essential to meeting our country’s nutritional needs. Our obsession with meat may actually be harmful to our health. While reduced availability of meat might agonize those who crave the taste of beef, pork, and chicken, it’s not going to undermine their health. The demand to reopen the meatpacking plants is driven primarily by the wish to guarantee that profits from the sale of meat continue to flow into the coffers of the food corporations, sustaining the salaries of executives and the dividends of shareholders. The costs will be borne by those forced to return to work, who will be sacrificing their health and even their lives on the altar of the plant. To step into a processing plant at a time when many workers are carrying the virus, untested and undetected, is to place at risk one’s health and even one’s life.

Adding to the tension between management and the workforce, between capital and labor, is an underlying racial and ethnic dynamic. A large number of workers in the meat-processing industry are Latinos, Asians, and African Americans; many are immigrants or members of immigrant families. Thus the demand that the plants be reopened, and that workers return to their jobs, suggests that an unspoken premise behind the injunction is a judgment that black and brown lives—the lives of the workers—are of less value than the lives of the owners and managers and thus may be sacrificed to ensure the plants remain operative.

In the words of Frank Sharry, executive director of the immigrant organization America’s Voice: “Trump sees business owners as his people and he sees a diverse group of workers as expendable…. For ‘essential workers’ it’s ‘get back to work’ and ‘voluntary’ guidelines at pandemic hot spots. For a CEO class that’s white and wealthy it’s profits and legal liability protections.”

A Terrifying Choice

What the workers want and need is access to the federal stockpile of masks and other protective gear, daily testing, enforced physical distancing, and full paid sick leave during periods of illness. When protective equipment at the plants is in short supply, it’s hardly surprising that workers fear losing the most precious possession they have, their own life. As one local organizer in Iowa told Amy Goodman of Democracy Now!:

I have family working across the board, across the state and into some other states, in the industry. So, you know, it’s very scary for my family, my immediate family, my extended family. I have cousins who now have tested positive because of these plants. My sister and her husband have tested positive here just recently because of these plants. And again, [we’re] just incredibly scared.

The president’s executive order does nothing to allay these fears. It does not make the protective guidelines mandatory, but instead shields the meat companies from legal liability in cases of workplace exposure to the virus. Any company legally challenged can claim that, in reopening during the pandemic, it was merely following a decree issued by the highest authority in the land.

The demand for the continued operation of the plants forces the workers to choose between their jobs and their lives—a terrifying choice that no one should ever have to face. If, from fear of contracting the virus, workers stay back from work, they may well lose their jobs and the income they need to support themselves and their families. If, to maintain their household, they report to work, they risk contracting the virus and losing their lives.

A Crisis of American Democracy

The perilous choice faced by workers in the meat industry represents, in microcosm, the crisis in American democracy, pointing to the big question too often hidden behind discussions of everyday social issues: Who does the government represent—ordinary people or the moneyed interests that contribute to campaigns and flood Congress with lobbyists?

The answer, which is obvious, underscores the need for a radical overhaul of the economic paradigm that currently reigns, that of corporate capitalism grounded upon an ideology of free-market fundamentalism. In the ultimate analysis, to preserve our political democracy, we must institute economic democracy, transitioning to a system that gives workers fuller control over their terms of employment. But such changes are long-term goals. In the short term, with a pandemic raging that has already taken more American lives than the Vietnam war, what is needed is a slate of workplace regulations, rigorously enforced, that ensures workers remain safe at their jobs.

It would certainly be desirable, too, if meat were to be knocked from its place as the centerpiece of the standard American diet in favor of plant-based sources of protein. Apart from its cruel treatment of billions of helpless animals and the merciless death it inflicts at the slaughterhouses, livestock cultivation is a major contributor to greenhouse gas emissions and a leading cause of deforestation, water and air pollution, and biodiversity loss. Raising animals for food requires vast amounts of land, water, and grain, a deplorable waste of food in a world where chronic hunger afflicts close to a billion people. Further, high intake of red meat and processed meats is linked to heart disease, cancer, diabetes, and premature death. Thus a nation-wide shift from a meat-based diet to a plant-based diet would bring manifold benefits. To forestall unemployment, under a federal program workers in the meat industry could be retrained to take up more benign types of livelihood.

Nevertheless, such a pivotal change in the American diet is unlikely to be realized anytime in the near future, and we must therefore focus on protecting the welfare of workers in their present occupation. This requires both ethical commitments and regulatory enforcement. A company must fulfill its moral responsibility to the well-being of its workforce, ensuring that its employees do not jeopardize their health and well-being at the workplace. A company that treats its workers as disposable, as mere instruments of production whose lives can be imperiled to serve the company’s interest, has transgressed against a basic principle of workplace ethics.

Yes, Regulation Is Necessary

In face of the moral recklessness of modern corporate capitalism, the need for regulatory protection is particularly acute. Almost invariably, companies will seek to cut corners whenever they can get away with it. It thus becomes the obligation of the government to step into the fray and come to the defense of the workers, which means that the government must enact laws that safeguard workers and impose regulations that prevent industries from operating in ways that endanger their workforce.

A government that does not protect workers from the ruthless demands of industry has forfeited its responsibility to the people it purportedly represents. Despite their professed good intentions, industries can’t be fully trusted to regulate themselves. Regulation is the job of the government, a job that must be rigorously pursued to protect the well-being of the workers. It is only in this way that we can move, gradually, toward becoming a nation that gives everyone the chance to flourish.

Venerable Bhikkhu Bodhi is an American Buddhist monk and translator of Pali Buddhist texts. He is also the founding chair of Buddhist Global Relief


This essay was originally published on the website of OneEarthSangha.

 

BGR Supports Hunger Relief during Pandemic

By BGR Staff

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Over the past two months BGR has so far donated close to $40,000 to support communities, both globally and nationally, adversely impacted by the coronavirus pandemic.

To assist the international effort, BGR contributed $5,000 to the World Food Program USA to provide food relief to people in other countries afflicted by hunger worsened by the pandemic. While coronavirus is hurting everyone, it is hitting people in crisis zones the hardest. From Syria to Bangladesh, the virus is beginning to spread through crowded refugee camps and people living in extreme poverty. With its logistical and emergency expertise, WFP is ramping up its response to nourish and protect people already living in extremely vulnerable conditions.

We also donated $1,000 to the Karuna Trust in Sri Lanka, which is distributing food to poor families hard hit by the strict curfew currently in place in the country. The Karuna Trust is working together with the the Additional Government Agent of Matale, to assist them in feeding poor children and elders in orphanages and elders’ homes, which have no way now of obtaining food from their regular donors.

Further, BGR gave a donation of $500 to the Bangladesh Buddhist Missionary Society, a BGR partner, to support their efforts to combat the pandemic. The Society is using its spare space as a quarantine center; developing public awareness campaigns; providing hand sanitizer, masks, and other sanitation equipment; arranging for medical teams; and providing emergency food support. And more recently we donated $1,785 to White Lotus Charitable Trust’s Garden of Peace, in Tamil Nadu, India, to help the local community deal with the pandemic.

Here in the U.S., in early April BGR initially donated $7,000 to support food banks providing food relief to poor people affected by the pandemic. Donations of $1,000 each were provided to food banks in seven locations: New York City, San Francisco, Seattle, New Orleans, El Paso, Philadelphia, and central New Jersey. We also donated $500 to provide meals to front-line health care workers on Long Island through a project organized by the Center for Spiritual Imagination at the Cathedral of the Incarnation in Garden City.

In late April and on #Giving Tuesday in May, BGR made additional donations of $12,000 each month to twelve food banks working in New York City, Westchester County, New Jersey, Philadelphia, Detroit, Chicago, South Florida, South Louisiana, Texas, southern Arizona, Los Angeles, and the World Central Kitchen. In each of those two months, donations of $1,000 were given to each of these food distribution centers. We intend to continue offering support to food banks here in the U.S., as well as to affected countries around the world. For a list of U.S. food banks, see Feeding America.

BGR is blessed to be able to contribute to the important work being done by these courageous organizations.

To help BGR continue putting compassion into action, please consider making a generous donation to BGR. We are a distinctive Buddhist organization helping poor and neglected peoples throughout the world.   

BGR Projects Meeting Awards $600,000 in Grants

By Tricia Brick

Buddhist Global Relief’s annual projects meeting, typically held over the last weekend in April, usually brings all of BGR’s board members and staff together for an in-person gathering at Chuang Yen Monastery, in Carmel, New York. Members fly in from as far away as Washington State, California, and Florida, to put their minds and hearts together in the joyful task of approving the projects to sponsor over the next fiscal year. This year, however, because of the restrictions on travel imposed by the national lockdown, BGR held its projects meeting via Zoom. The meeting was divided into three sessions over the weekend of April 24–26. By the time the meeting was over, the BGR board had approved funding for 41 projects, offering more than $600,000 in grants to sponsor projects with our partners around the world.

These projects cover the four areas of our mission. They provide direct food aid to people afflicted by hunger and malnutrition; promote ecologically sustainable agriculture; support the education of children, with an emphasis on education for girls; and give women the opportunity to start right livelihood projects to support their families. The approved funding also included a $5,000 donation to support the construction of a new distribution center for the Sahuarita Food Bank in southeastern Arizona.

A new BGR partner this year is Shraddha Charity Organization, whose project in Sri Lanka will provide food, nutritional supplements, and hygienic supplies to women in need through their pregnancies and postpartum period.

New projects with existing partners include our first projects in Tanzania and Senegal. In Tanzania, BGR partner Action Against Hunger has created a nutrition program for the Dodoma region to address child malnutrition through a combined women’s livelihood and climate-resilient agriculture project. The project will provide agricultural training for smallholder women farmers to increase production of nutrient rich crops such as peppers, kale, cabbage, carrots, spinach, pumpkin, okra, eggplant, and papaya. The project also provides nutrition education for families and health screenings for at-risk children.

In Senegal, a project with Helen Keller International will construct boreholes and wells to supply clean water for drinking and agricultural irrigation. The project also provides seeds and agricultural inputs to improve the nutrition of approximately 900 people in need.

Other projects, renewals or extensions of existing projects, will be implemented in Bangladesh, Brazil, Cambodia, Cameroon, Côte d’Ivoire, Haiti, India, Kenya, Mongolia, Nicaragua, Peru, Sri Lanka, Sudan, Thailand (for Burmese refugees), Uganda, and Vietnam, as well as U.S. projects in Detroit and Easton, Pennsylvania.

At this year’s meeting, BGR was delighted to welcome Raimund Hopf and Karl Wirtz of Mitgefühl in Aktion (MIA), a new Buddhist aid organization based in Germany. MIA, whose German name means “compassion in action,” was established as a “sister” to BGR, with the aim of working alongside us in funding life-saving projects around the world. This year, its first year of operation, MIA will be co-funding three projects with BGR in the current grant cycle.

Learn more about MIA here: https://www.mia.eu.com/ .

BGR would like to express our deepest gratitude to all our supporters wherever they might be. It is through your generosity that these projects will relieve the suffering of thousands of people in need in the U.S. and around the world.

Rice Support for Girl Students in Cambodia

By BGR Staff

Through its partnership with Lotus Outreach International, BGR is helping provide poor girls in Cambodia–and their families–with rice support, thereby enabling them to continue their education through high school and even to pursue university degrees.

Lotus Outreach International (LOI), a trusted BGR partner since 2009, works to improve the lives of women and girls in Cambodia and India through initiatives that increase girls’ access to education, provide counseling and safe havens for victims of trafficking and domestic violence, and support women’s economic empowerment through skills training and other programs.

A foundation of LOI’s education programs is its policy of providing rice to impoverished female students and young children in rural Cambodia. This policy ensures reliable nourishment for people persistently affected by food insecurity while also freeing up limited familial resources for the girls’ education. Without such rice support, many of these young girls would need to work to support their families rather than complete their studies. The rice often feeds the girls’ parents and siblings as well, and the cost savings can benefit entire families, who may be able to invest a greater portion of their earnings into a farm or other business.

BGR has funded rice support for Lotus Outreach’s GATE scholarship program since we first made contact in 2009, and for the CATALYST program since it was introduced as a sequel to the GATE program. GATE (an acronym meaning “Girls Access To Education”) offers educational scholarships to girls in primary and secondary school. CATALYST, also supported by a grant from BGR, builds on this foundation by helping girls pursue higher education at universities and vocational training institutes across Cambodia. All participants in these programs commit to attending school for the duration of the year.

Last year, the BGR grant was expanded to support not only the female students in the GATE and CATALYST scholarship programs but also the families of 301 kindergarten students.

The distribution of rice is implemented through local organizations. The kindergarten students’ rice-support program is carried out in partnership with Khemara, Cambodia’s first locally founded and operated NGO, which works to support the health, education, and welfare of Cambodian women and children. The GATE rice-support program is carried out through the Cambodian Women’s Crisis Center in cooperation with Local Education Working Groups in the students’ villages. These groups, consisting of teachers, parents, government officials, and other community volunteers, then deliver the rice directly to the recipients. The CATALYST program’s rice distribution is carried out by LOI staff.

In all, in the 2018–19 grant cycle, the rice support program distributed nearly 60 tons of rice to 464 students and their families, feeding a total of 1,067 people.

Younger students in class

Twenty-year-old Hao Pheara is the oldest of six children in an impoverished family in Soth Nikum district in Siem Reap. Her mother, who is herself illiterate, prioritized her daughter’s education, and so Pheara helped the family make ends meet. Working as a laborer, carrying and transporting bricks, in addition to her schooling, she struggled academically and considered dropping out.

After joining the GATE scholarship program Pheara was able to focus her attention on her schooling. In addition to rice support, the scholarship also provided her with a new bike, school uniforms, shoes, school supplies and other necessities, and a monthly stipend. Her grades improved and she has begun to imagine a hopeful future in business. “My family is very happy because of the support from the program, which is crucially important to reduce the financial burden of my education and livelihood,” she said.

Lunh Chainey is a twelfth-grade student in LOI’s GATE program and a recipient of BGR-funded rice support. Her father is a food vendor and her mother raises small livestock at home. Before she joined the scholarship and rice-support programs, the costs of education meant that her family often ate only two meals a day. “Our life is difficult; we have to devote everything to the children to secure their future, so they don’t have to suffer as we have,” her mother, Khim Keng, said. The rice-support program ensured that the entire family would have three daily meals.

In a conversation during her twelfth-grade year, Chainey told an interviewer, “In terms of academics, I am between fifth and eighth in my class of 50 students, and I’m 80 percent confident of passing my year 12.” Indeed, a few months later she reported that she had not only successfully graduated but had also secured a coveted seat at a premier IT institute in Phnom Penh, a pathway to a career in the high-growth technology sector.

Hong Rina is 17 and a tenth-grader. The second of seven children, she lives with her mother and five of her siblings in a small room on the outskirts of Phnom Penh City. Her father and older brother live elsewhere as they work to support the family and send the younger children to school. “Previously, it was hard for me to stay in school. I always wanted to leave school to work like my brother, but my parents didn’t allow me to drop out,” she said. She attended extra classes, but couldn’t concentrate well because she was always worried about her family’s struggles.

Since the sixth grade Rina has participated in LOI’s GATE scholarship and rice-support programs. She said, “The monthly rice support is a big support for my family as a whole. It helps to cover the daily consumption of every member of my household. Staff from the scholarship program and teachers often visit my home, to meet with my mother and encourage her to follow up on my study. They also check on my study performance and motivate me to go to school.”

Today Rina attends extra classes and volunteers in her community as leader of a Red Cross group at her school. She said, “I want to pursue my study to university. In the future, I want to become a doctor or have a good job that can help my family and support my six siblings.”

This article is based on reporting by Lotus Outreach staff.

Educating the Children of Backpack Medics from Myanmar Conflict Zones

By BGR Staff

The oppression and persecution of religious and ethnic minorities by military forces in Myanmar (Burma) has a long and violent history. According to the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre, an estimated 401,000 people are internally displaced, living in isolated villages or in IDP camps, without access to sufficient medical care.

Since 1999, the U.S.–based Burma Humanitarian Mission (BHM) has partnered with the Back Pack Health Worker Team to provide health care to members of the country’s oppressed and persecuted ethnic minorities. In 2019, BHM supported 30 teams of backpack medics from the ethnic minority Karen, Kachin, Shan, Pa’laung, Mon, Chin, and Rohingya communities. The teams of five medics each travel to between nine and twelve villages each month, working with local village health volunteers and midwives to provide health care to people from their respective communities. Serving the most vulnerable areas of Myanmar, each team provides care to an estimated 2,000 people each year. Continue reading

Dr. King’s Radical Revolution Of Values

By Richard Eskow

Martin Luther King Jr. addresses a crowd from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial where he delivered his famous, “I Have a Dream,” speech during the Aug. 28, 1963, march on Washington, D.C. http://www.marines.mil/unit/mcasiwakuni/PublishingImages/2010/01/KingPhoto.jpg

Today, January 20th, the nation celebrates Martin Luther King, Jr. Day. If Dr. King hadn’t been murdered, he would be 91 years old. How would he view today’s activists?

The words to his “I Have a Dream” speech will be repeated from podiums and in classrooms across the country. But many of the people repeating these words have never heard other King quotes, like this one:

“I am convinced that if we are to get on to the right side of the world revolution, we as a nation must undergo a radical revolution of values.”

King’s Answer

To those who condemn idealism, who preach the quiet cynicism of self-limiting “pragmatism” and insist it’s “how the world works,” Dr. King had an answer: He was, in his own words, “maladjusted.”

In a 1963 speech at Western Michigan University, he said:

There are certain things in our nation and in the world (about) which I am proud to be maladjusted… I say very honestly that I never intend to become adjusted to segregation and discrimination. I never intend to become adjusted to religious bigotry. I never intend to adjust myself to economic conditions that will take necessities from the many to give luxuries to the few. I never intend to adjust myself to the madness of militarism, to self-defeating effects of physical violence.

But in a day when sputniks and explorers are dashing through outer space and guided ballistic missiles are carving highways of death through the stratosphere, no nation can win a war. It is no longer the choice between violence and nonviolence. It is either nonviolence or nonexistence…

Dr. King also said: “This is no time to engage in the luxury of cooling off or to take the tranquilizing drug of gradualism. Now is the time to make real the promises of democracy.”

“We must… realize,” he continued, “that the problems of racial injustice and economic injustice cannot be solved without a radical redistribution of political and economic power.”

A Radical Spirit

In other words, Dr. King was a radical.
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Promoting a Food-Sovereign City in Detroit

By Patricia Brick

This year Buddhist Global Relief’s partner Keep Growing Detroit (KGD) celebrated its sixth anniversary of supporting gardeners and creating food distribution pathways to ensure as many Detroit residents as possible have access to nutritious locally grown fruits and vegetables.

With a median household income below $31,000, nearly 38 percent of Detroit residents live below the poverty line, and 42 percent of households rely on food assistance programs to feed their families. KGD was founded to promote a food-sovereign city, in which all Detroit residents have access to healthy, sustainably cultivated food grown by Detroiters within the city limits. Through the long-standing Garden Resource Program, founded in 2003, KGD provides seeds, transplants, and resources to support Detroiters in growing their own food gardens and securing access to fresh, low-cost vegetables.
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