The Dimensions of Rotary

Wooden pose puppet sitting on stone, outdoorsThe invoice for my spring Rotary club dues just arrived, which got me thinking about how odd it sometimes seems to me to be a Rotary member and how much I’ve come to enjoy and value my rotary membership.  In case you are unfamiliar, Rotary is an international service organization made up of business and professional leaders who work on projects ranging from worldwide eradication of polio to providing backpacks for disadvantaged schoolchildren in the local community.

I sometimes see myself as a very unlikely Rotary club member, but that’s only when I allow my own preconceived ideas about people to influence my thoughts.  Like many people, I get caught upon labels and reduce people to a single dimension.  I see myself as a Jewish lefty consumer rights lawyer who comes from a working-class background.  My earnings are often at the lowest end of the lawyer pay scale and I’m relatively unknown in the larger legal community.  By contrast, many of my fellow Rotarians are quite accomplished and well known in their respective fields.  In the legal profession, several come from leading law firms, have high level government jobs, or are sitting judges. We have a retired Air Force general and a Navy admiral.  We also have members who are prominent business people who lead major institutions such as hospitals and universities.  Some come from privileged backgrounds and were born with the proverbial silver spoon in their mouths while others, like me, come from very modest or even poor backgrounds.  Politically, my fellow Rotarians span the gambit of persuasions from hard-core conservatives to lefty activists who make me look moderate.

Postage stamp Italy 1970 Rotary EmblemHistorically, Rotary clubs were male only and often segregated (Rotary has been open to all races since its earliest days, but some clubs were segregated at the local level). However, my club is diverse in terms of both gender and ethnicity. Sure, it’s Tallahassee, and mine is the oldest club in the city, so we’ve got an abundance of the white male old guard members, but I’ve found that whatever history may have existed, the club has evolved and grown into a very tolerant and diverse group of men and women who seek to have a positive impact upon the world and find fellowship within our club.

I’ve really come to appreciate and enjoy being a part of an organization made up of so many people who really do represent “the establishment” despite the fact that I see myself as an anti-establishment sort.  It sometimes seems humorous to me that I’m a guy who sues banks and credit unions and I’m in a club with the people who run banks and credit unions. However, this is where I can see the true value of my Rotary membership.

In Rotary, I have the opportunity to see multiple dimensions of people whom I often have a tendency to view as one-dimensional.  It’s very easy for me to view people of wealth and privilege through a very narrow lens. A one-dimensional perspective of any human being isn’t accurate, and it deprives all involved of the opportunity to find connection. Through my Rotary experiences I’ve learned that no matter the differences in our backgrounds, there is always common ground that is much larger than whatever distinguishes us. Such a view is at the very foundation of Rotary.  Consider this quote from Rotary founder, Paul Harris, published in Rotary magazine nearly 80 years ago:

“Man has affinity for his fellowman, regardless of race, creed, or politics, and the greater the variety, the more the zest. All friendliness needs is a sporting chance; it will take care of itself in any company.”   — A Road I Have Travelled, THE ROTARIAN, February 1934.

It often occurs to me when I read the news, or watch the media report on some individual in the news,  that we live in a world that so often reduces human beings to one-dimensional characters.  For example, how many of us see Paris Hilton as anything more than a spoiled heiress, or Glen Beck as more than a right-wing propagandist?  Do you love or hate the President?  Either way, do you see him as having the same struggles and vulnerabilities that you and I do?  Do you see him as the father of two daughters, as a husband, as the child of a single parent? Whatever your feelings about President Obama, or Glen Beck’s politics, or Paris Hilton’s latest tabloid story, there is more to each of them than the one-dimensional characters we are shown in a 15 second news story.

Philosopher Martin Buber, many years ago, considered the way our media reduces people to one dimension and wrote:

“there is a hierarchy of deceptions. Near the bottom of the ladder is journalism: a steady stream of irresponsible distortions that most people find refreshing although on the morning after, or at least within a week, it will be stale and flat.” ― Martin Buber, I and Thou

The truth is, we know nothing about these people other than what someone has chosen to tell us.  Likewise, with most of the people whom we meet in our day to day lives, we often know very little about them, their struggles, their fears, their strengths, and weaknesses.  Accurately seeing the person before us requires that we pause and take the time to listen and to see beyond our initial perception.  Sometimes this is easy to do, but other times it requires patience and the willingness to look past the things that we judge as unfavorable.

Colorado Aspen Trees in AutumnEach of us is a complex collection of strengths, weaknesses, fears, bravery, cowardice, goodness, evil, selfishness, and generosity. We are not one-dimensional creatures.  We’re dynamic beings, constantly evolving, becoming more than we were before and less than we will be at some point in the future.  We experience the world and discover ourselves and each other in the process.  To reduce any of us to one-dimension, no matter how unique or flattering that dimension may be, diminishes us all.

I recently heard a sermon by Sharon Brous, one of my favorite Rabbis, in which she discussed the Aspen tree as a metaphor for the connection between human beings.  I didn’t know this, but aspen trees aren’t really individual trees, but part of a larger colony with a common root system.  The trees themselves might only live 150 years, but the root systems can live for thousands of years.  In fact, one root system is estimated to be approximately 80,000 years old, making it one of the oldest living organisms on the planet.  Like human beings, the single individual aspect of the aspen tree is what is first apparent, but if you look a little closer, take some time to examine the aspen tree, or the human, you’ll see that there is a much larger and longer-lasting connection just below the surface.

Vulnerability In An Age of Fear

The story of the terror attacks in Paris dominates the news here in the United States. Not only are we told of the horror of the attacks that have already occurred, but we are also warned of threats of future attacks directed against American public places. There exists a great sense of urgency to these news stories that unless we embrace the calls for fear and alarm and pay close attention to the continuing news feed we are somehow putting ourselves at risk. It’s not clear to me exactly what it is we’re supposed to do other than become alarmed and soak up every bit of detailed information we can from the news media. I know some state governors have answered the calls for action by declaring that they will not allow Syrian refugees to find a safe haven in their states. I’m not sure where the Constitutional authority for such a decision comes from, but I am confident that many tax dollars will be spent finding out. Fear is the business of terrorists and politicians.

I’m reminded of another blog post that I wrote on my law practice website almost exactly a year ago when a gunman entered Strozier library at Florida State. I’ve decided to resurrect that post to share with you now in hopes that it might provide you some peace of mind as we endure the media blitz:

This morning, like the rest of Tallahassee, I awoke to the news of the shootings at the Strozier Library on the Florida State University Campus. I thought about this, and other recent events of violence this morning as I walked along Monroe Street through the middle of downtown Tallahassee. It’s a beautiful crisp fall day in Tallahassee. The sunlight being reflected off the buildings in downtown absolutely shimmers. People are friendly with me as I pass them on the street and the cold fall air is invigorating to me as I walk along.  Observing my surroundings I was reminded that, despite all the problems, there remains great beauty in the world if we take time to notice it.

I thought about Stozier and the many other libraries where I’ve so many hours of my life. For me, libraries were so much more than just a place of knowledge; there were places of refuge. In high school the library was a place where I could find escape the hoodlums and social nonsense that are part of a public school education. In the books and periodicals I found glimpses of a future I wanted to build for myself. I still remember the book with the red cover that I found and used to teach myself to play guitar. Libraries are places of escape where I can put together my dreams.

However, it occurs to me that this week my other places of refuge have also been violated by gun violence. The synagogue attack in Jerusalem resonates in my mind as being yet another senseless act of indiscriminate violence in a place where I have often looked to find refuge from the world and direction in life.

As I was walking I thought about how does one go forward from these types of events? For me the answer is that I’m going forward with a willingness to be vulnerable. I am not going to arm myself or live in fear. I don’t think the solution is reprisal, increased security, or more guns. Besides, I don’t really have the power to control any of those things. I’m not politically powerful, so I know others will shape that public policy along their own interests. Other people decide security issues. I don’t own or intend to purchase a handgun. However, I can go out into the world and work to bring light and justice into the lives of others. I can do my best to help others find their dignity and self-worth such that they won’t feel compelled to turn to guns or violence to feel respected. I can remember that all lives matter and no human being is disposable. I can do my best, as Father Greg Boyle reminds us, to create a circle of compassion where nobody stands outside the circle and the margins that separate people are erased.

 

Modern Slavery – Yes, it happens in Tallahassee

Few things are more precious to us Americans than freedom. However, it may surprise you to know that not everyone in our nation is free and that slavery is a growing problem in our country. At this past week’s meeting of my Rotary club, Terry Coonan, director of the Florida State University Center for the Advancement of Human Rights, gave an especially compelling presentation on Human Trafficking. I was looking forward to his talk because I gave a sermon at my synagogue a few years ago on the Tomato on the Seder Plate initiative of Rabbis For Human Rights of North America which focused on the problem of slavery in Florida’s agricultural industry.

Modern slavery, which includes both worker and sex trafficking, is a worldwide problem. According to a 2013 White House report, it is estimated that there are 21 million people who are being held in bondage in the modern world. This is the largest number of people living as slaves in human history. One might think that modern slavery is relegated to the third world countries and remote areas of the world, but modern day slavery is happening throughout the world, including the United States, in both our urban and rural communities. It is especially pervasive in the sex, agricultural, and the hospitality industries. In modern slavery people are not kept captive with chains. Instead, traffickers use force, fraud, and coercion to keep people enslaved.  A huge industry, modern slavery generates between $9-12 billion annually in the United States alone. It is said to currently be the second largest criminal industry behind the drug trade.

Even relatively tranquil communities such as Tallahassee are not immune from this problem. One of the major sex trafficking prosecutions in the past 10 years, the Melchor case, began when two women being held captive in a private home in the Killearn neighborhood of Tallahassee escaped and ran door to door seeking help. The women, who had come to the United States based upon the promise of jobs, were forced into prostitution utilizing a mobile brothel model where they were driven to apartments and mobile homes on the outskirts of Tallahassee and forced to perform 25-35 sex acts per night.  An ensuing two-year investigation revealed an international conspiracy that trafficked women from South America into multiple Florida cities for the purpose of forcing them into prostitution.

Melchor is not the only case to arise in the Florida panhandle. The Destin King labor trafficking case involved workers at the Sandestin Hilton and other hotels along the Gulf Coast. The workers were young women aged 19 -23 from eastern Europe who came to the United States upon the promise of employment at Disney. When they arrived in the United States they were told that the promised Disney jobs weren’t available, but that they could work at hotels in the Florida panhandle. They found themselves living 15-20 people in a single condo, while working for less than minimum wage.  As if paying less than a living wage wasn’t enough, their employers charged them for things such as rent, job placement fees, transportation fees, and $1500 – $2000 for visa processing fees. The young women were not employed directly by the hotels, but they worked for subcontractor corporations that negotiated contracts to supply the workers to the hotels. The subcontractor corporations were able to submit low bids for the contracts due to their failure to pay even a minimum wage to the workers. The hotels were able to claim ignorance of the situation because the women weren’t employed directly by the hotel, although one has to question whether or not the hotels were simply turning a blind eye to the exploitation when they unquestioningly accepted such extremely low bids from the contractors.

You can do something to help!
You can do something to help!

As individuals there are some things we can do to help combat modern slavery. There are a number of websites that list possible signs of Human Trafficking such as the National Human Trafficking Resource Center. I’m not going to reproduce the list here, but I do encourage you to make yourself familiar with the possible signs. One thing that I will say is that it is absolutely necessary that we slow down, recognize, and engage with people who are often invisible in our society. We have to take time to notice the hotel maid, the streetwalker, the runaway youth, the homeless, and the agricultural worker and report instances where we suspect involuntary servitude may be happening to the toll free human trafficking number 1-888-373-7888. We need to support businesses that are willing to join Fair Food and Fair Trade programs and to encourage other businesses to join through our purchasing decisions. I also would suggest that supporting businesses that allow their employees to join unions and engage in collective bargaining is yet another way of combating human trafficking.

I hope that this post will inspire you to want to learn more about this huge injustice. I believe that the more attention that can be brought to this subject, the better. As I think about this topic, I can’t help but recall that the Hebrew Bible, at least 36 times, more than any other commandment, repeatedly reminds us that we must treat the stranger kindly because of the Jewish people’s own experience with slavery in Egypt. This is not an issue we can afford to ignore.