The Fast for Our Future and the Future of Our Center

December 13th, 2008

I know it has been a full year since you last received a copy of The Burning Bush, and many of our readers may have been wondering just what we at the Center for the Working Poor have been doing. Well, I can assure you that it has not been a year of monastic retreat from the world or leisurely vacation (although at times that sounds appealing).

It has been my calling to experiment with Gandhian non-violence: activism that tries to move people through personal sacrifices like civil disobedience, going to jail, boycotts, or hunger strikes. In 2006, I was one of the key strategists who organized the “largest civil disobedience in Los Angeles history” to demand a living wage and immigrant rights for impoverished hotel workers. My focus in 2007 was to develop the board of directors for the Center for the Working Poor, and expand our food delivery program to workers who were fired for speaking up about abuses on their jobs. After the board met for a retreat at the start of 2008, a decision was made to focus on developing a nonviolent strategy in response to a dramatic increase in raids and deportations conducted by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). We felt compelled to take action to resist the inhumane raids like those in Van Nuys, CA, and Postville, IA, that tore parents from their children and left many immigrant communities paralyzed with fear.

After a year building partnerships with the many different immigrant rights organizations in Los Angeles and conducting numerous non-violence trainings, we were ready for action. On Oct 15th, together with prominent immigrant rights and religious leaders, over one hundred supporters gathered in the historic Placita Olvera of Los Angeles and announced to the press the launch of the “Fast for Our Future” campaign. Under the banner of the RISE Movement, we embarked on a hunger strike calling on over 1 million people to pledge to vote for immigrant rights during the ’08 presidential election. The Placita would be our home for 22 days.

Coordinating the campaign with over 100 fasters and running a tent city day and night of at least 30 people was more challenging than I could have imagined. Despite the difficulties (and there were difficulties), our small group of volunteer organizers working with very little resources fulfilled the Center’s vision for the “Fast for Our Future” campaign. For details, visit our new website: www.therisemovement.org

• In total, more than 400 people fasted throughout the country and hundreds camped out in tents with us. One dozen completed the water only fast for the full 21 days matching Gandhi’s longest fast.

• Solidarity fasts sprung up in other cities, including Santa Cruz, CA; Las Vegas, NV; Cincinnati, OH; Lansing, MI; and Washington, DC.

• The fast was covered in local, national, and even international Spanish- and English-language media ranging from Telemundo to CNN.

• Tens of thousands of people signed the pledge to vote and take action to support immigration rights, which in no small way contributed to the record turnout among Latino, immigrant, and progressive voters.

• Hundreds of people, including many politicians and community leaders like Dolores Huerta and Maria Elena Durazo visited la Placita and joined the fasters in solidarity. Others showed up to play music, dance and pay homage the hunger strikers at the encampment.

Beyond all else, I count as our biggest success the hundreds of students that fasted and camped out with us for this cause. Within the sacred space of the encampment, we assembled into a circle each night to share emotional testimonies of our experience, strength, and hope. I learned about the experiences of many students who came to the United States when they were just infants and now have no country they feel is their own—who now struggle to go to school, to keep a job or drive a car without fear of persecution. The tearful testimonies by the fasters about the horrors of deportation and raids made it clear why it is critical for people of conscience to take radical action to bring about immigration reform.

After 21 days of consuming nothing but water, the fast ended the morning after the election of Barak Obama as president. Our success in this campaign brings with it new challenges within the immigrant rights movement, as well as for the Center. We are now looking to use the energy and signatures gathered from the Fast to put pressure on president-elect Obama to deliver on his calls for change and truly reform our flawed immigration laws. Within the Burning Bush community, we are trying to recuperate and rebuild after a long year devoted to this cause.

When I founded the Center for the Working Poor two years ago, I contributed all my life savings to it. This little amount of money has allowed the center to survive the ups-and-downs of our ongoing fundraising. All of it was invested in this hunger strike – we have spent $20,000 on necessities like port-a-potties, website design, and medical attention for the fasters. Despite the success of the Fast, I worry, “Is the Burning Bush community going to survive this?”

This letter therefore is a plea for support of our cause. After this long vigil, I am asking you to contribute because we are in desperate need of money. Inside this newsletter you will find a donation card and envelope. Please consider sending a donation or signing up to become a monthly sustainer. This Christmas and holiday season please keep in mind all of the work we have done in the past year and all we can do in the future with your support…

May God Bless You,

Paul Engler

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