What follows is the text of a "guest sermon" titled "Transforming Yourself and Your Community: Living and Acting Your Values in the Public Sphere," given by Maryam Judar at the Hinsdale Unitarian Church on Sunday September 29, 2013.
Imagine that you plan on going to a meeting held by a government body, say your municipality. And you get there only to find that the seating for the public has been removed, which appears to be a blatant attempt to discourage your attendance. Or how about you plan on speaking during public comment at a government meeting; but before allowing public comment the officials arranged the meeting agenda so that first they meet in closed session, making you and the others wait for three hours in a hallway without chairs, before they will hear you speak? Or imagine that some public problem or issue in your community has gotten you fired up, or riled up, and you use the process available to you to influence the outcome, which is favorable to you and your neighbors, but then the Illinois legislature passes a bill to change the process to diminish that pathway to participation you so relied upon in achieving your goal, so that no one else may use it to achieve a goal favorable to them and the public at large. You don't have to imagine these scenarios, because these are real Illinois scenarios, emblematic of the barriers to public participation in the government decision making process throughout our fair state.
For those not familiar with the Citizen Advocacy Center, please allow me to set the stage. Citizen Advocacy Center, or CAC for short, or the Center, as we are prone to call it, is a non-profit organization, a non-partisan and grassroots organization, and a legal organization. We employ a model of community lawyering, and all our services are free. We do not accept government or corporate funding in order to provide unbiased advice, analysis, and commentary on public issues. We are funded only by contributions by individuals and from grants by private foundations.
We approach the field of democracy and political participation holistically. That means that the clients who come to us for our community lawyering services educate us about the problems they face in the civic political arena. They directly or indirectly inform what solutions to diminished democracy the Citizen Advocacy Center should pursue and support in our mission, which is to build democracy in the 21st century. We do so through direct client community lawyering services, civic education programs for all ages, monitoring public bodies for openness and accountability, public policy advocacy, and litigation as a last resort.
I had the privilege of going to Egypt during January 2013 on the second anniversary of the onset of the revolution there. The U.S. Department of State sponsored a cultural exchange of professionals: so, organizations in the Chicagoland area such as Citizen Advocacy Center, integrated Egyptian democracy workers and promoters of democracy into our organization's daily work life; and in turn I visited with governmental agencies, non-profits, and religious institutions when in Egypt. I met dozens of professionals working in the field of human rights, whether on behalf of children, mothers, people with disabilities, the incarcerated, or others. Some were journalists, some lawyers, others politicians, and all pursued a model of democracy in their nation.
I was humbled by the Egyptians I met. They have played different roles in bringing about social and political change there. Some led chants in Tahrir Square in January 2011, demanding an accountable government. Others stood up for women who were pregnant out of wedlock, and under the threat of death, they stood up. They and others pursued their passions in the public sphere under fears that are truly difficult for me to fully appreciate because I've lived in the United States nearly all my life, and here in the United States, we live under the protection of our U.S. Constitution.
A constitution that many of us are strangers to, a constitution I'm afraid we take for granted. Which brings me to the theme of this presentation: transforming yourself and your community through your participation in the government policy decision-making process, and the central role this participation plays in the demand of accountability from our elected officials.
How does the constitution bear on our role in the public sphere? Many view the constitution as the framework for our government and elected officials. They forget that it implicitly provides for our civic role as well, especially in the First Amendment, which is arguably the backbone of the document. The First Amendment protects us from governments interfering with our thoughts, or interfering with our words; so that we may believe what we like, freely; and speak out on political matters, freely. It prevents government interference into our actions when we petition that very government to achieve policy goals important to us. It prevents interference from the government when we wish to get together with like-minded people, for lots of different reasons, but importantly including the reasons to organize and communicate in the political arena.
These are precious freedoms, the kind that millions of people in the world, in Egypt and Morocco and elsewhere fight for, fought for, and some died for. I practice these freedoms as a community lawyer at the Citizen Advocacy Center, and I educate others in using these freedoms to pursue their passions in the public sphere.
In contrast to Egypt, living in the United States, we do not expect threats of death when we practice our
First Amendment freedoms. Yet, we do have our share of troubles. Many might begin to contemplate our federal government when thinking about problematic government behavior, but I am speaking about barriers to a more robust democracy in our own backyards, in our neighbors' backyards, our families' and relatives' backyards, our friends' backyards. Throughout our backyards lies a layer cake of political bodies, counties, townships, municipalities, school districts, park districts, forest preserves, and lots others totaling nearly 7,000 government units in Illinois. For reference, that's the most of any other state in the union. And, that's the potential for a lot of government interference into our First Amendment freedoms, as well as government interference into our statutory rights, such as the Illinois Freedom of Information Act and the Illinois Open Meetings Act. And when government interference occurs somewhere in this layer cake of government bodies, the effect is much more tangible, palpable, heck, it might be unbreathable.
What do I mean by unbreathable? A couple of years ago, nearby, an international multi-billion dollar company wanted to move its headquarters down the road from Warrenville to Lisle. The company intended to build a pollution making engine testing facility in the midst of residential communities. People spoke out against the proposal for obvious environmental and health reasons. They used the means available to them through our legal infrastructure for public participation. Others told those who were speaking out that they were wasting their time, that they would never achieve their goal because they were up against an international, multi-million dollar company. They were stymied every step of the way and were even publicly described by an elected official as being “misinformed and paranoid.” Well, if the group was misinformed, it was because of the difficulty it encountered in gathering information. Not-for-private economic development corporations, which perform traditional government functions, are not covered by our Illinois FOIA laws, and hence even so-called cooperation from such entities doesn’t mean anything if they are not accountable to the Illinois Attorney General’s office through the mechanisms of FOIA. We can remedy this through legislative amendments to the law.
Former Executive Director of the CAC Terry Pastika wrote a letter to the editor in 2011 entitled “How to quash citizen involvement,” in which she describes the roller coaster ride the public took in the reception they got from local elected officials, and that ultimately the State of Illinois stepped in and took the public’s concerns seriously. The group continues to monitor the company’s activities and dealings with government bodies to ensure that promises made are kept.
That same letter to the editor sets forth a tongue-in-cheek three step process in how to quash citizen engagement. The first step to weaken democracy, according to the letter, is through removing civic education from the schools, so that the public has little skill, knowledge, and confidence to participate in the democratic process. These civic tools help people keep their governments and elected officials accountable. Illinois has weak government and civic learning standards. Illinois can’t afford to have such weak standards.
The good news is that former attorney general Jim Ryan was appalled by the low level of knowledge of government that his students at Benedictine University demonstrated. Through his work, as well as the work of the Center and interested legislators, Illinois now has convened a Task Force on Civic Education that will hear testimony at public hearing across the state so as to comprehensively recommend best practices and legislative changes in Illinois to improve our civic education standards, such that our youth will get hands-on training on how to solve public problems in their own communities.
I’d like to use an experience the Center recently had to illustrate the direness of the problem of having poor civic education standards. CAC sponsors a speaker for availability at local high schools to speak to students on the anniversary of the signing of our Constitution, each year. In September 2012, CAC brought a young person who fought for one of the precious freedoms in the First Amendment at the level of her school district. Specifically, she wanted her school to abide by the Establishment Clause of the Constitution, as interpreted for 50 years by our United States Supreme Court. Her story illustrated how pursuing a First Amendment freedom is not without peril; and in fact, she suffered death threats and rape threats, not by her government, but by her peers and the public.
During her visit, the public response evidenced an alarming theme—an emphasis that some put on the young women’s belief system (she happened to be atheist), and not on the constitutional principle that her story portrayed and the civic lessons that can be garnered from it. I believe this is a failing of our school system to not educate our youth from a young age about their Constitution and its important principles that help keep a society intact and hopefully living in peace. The controversy evidenced by Elmhurst’s reaction to that young person’s visit should give us pause to remember that the Establishment Clause is a relatively simple Constitutional principle that was forged based on the experiences of those who penned it, who saw with their own eyes people practicing minority religions who were jailed for their beliefs by their government.
By the way, we always emphasize to the students that they may not agree with the speaker, but there is probably something each young person is passionate about and might use every legal means available to fight for, and to think about the risks they are willing to take for it, risks that reveal themselves through the living examples in the Constitution Week series.
The Constitution doesn’t guarantee that our involvement in the government policy decision making process is an easy road. It doesn’t guarantee that demanding accountability from the governments that are meant to serve the public will result in immediate responses. But it gives us our freedoms for improving our communities for the benefit of all, and the state legislature has given us a helping hand through our sunshine laws that support public participation. And the Citizen Advocacy Center is available to lend a hand! So when you go to a meeting and you find the seating for the public has been removed, when you are faced with a three hour wait in a hallway before your elected officials will hear you speak, when cynical legislation is passed to bar your participation in the political process, you will have the knowledge and skills to stand up to prevent government abuse of its power for the benefit of the public interest.