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MN2020 - Faith-based Activism Gaining Steam
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Faith-based Activism Gaining Steam

April 21, 2014 By Lee Egerstrom, Economic Development Fellow

Many organizations helped lead Minnesota's successful $9.50 minimum wage drive, including the state's faith community, which played a strong role influencing lawmakers and their congregations.

These faith leaders are part of a growing international movement that have joined other activists, labor organizations and nonprofits against a well-financed opposition of corporate interests seeking to exploit workers, communities and natural resources. Over the weekend, I joined a deep discussion on this topic hosted by the Harvard Divinity School Episcopal/Anglican Fellowship, in a conference titled "Christianity and Capitalism." 

In addition to Minnesota there are several other Midwestern examples of faith leaders joining other advocates in action to improve lives and working conditions. Across our southwestern border, South Dakota faith leaders played a key role in getting that state's $8.50 minimum wage initiative on November's ballot. The Interfaith Coalition for Worker Justice of South Central Wisconsin developed a just dining guide to inform Madison customers and workers about the wages and benefits of people who cook, prepare, and serve food.  

America is rapidly building an organizational infrastructure to connect local groups with resources, insisted Bob Massie, president of the nationally-focused New Economy Coalition in Boston. He's also an Episcopal minister with a Harvard Business School doctorate.

Minnesota 2020 contributed to the conference by urging groups to expand on socially responsible investing (SRI) and encourage more socially responsible purchasing (SRP) behavior. As the paper Marshaling Market Power Among Communities of Faith, Labor and Nonprofit Advocacy Groups shows, faith communities have enormous purchasing power, whether it be through investing their employee's retirement funds or buying goods for church functions. By only shopping or investing with companies that have workers and the general welfare at heart, faith-based organizations can shape better corporate practices.

This presentation advanced research initially done for Minnesota 2020's 2013 Made in Minnesota report, which aimed to take large scale socially responsible investing and socially responsible purchasing behaviors down to the household and consumer level. Organizing individuals to do this in a global market is difficult, but faith communities and other organizing groups can share information in smaller group settings or even peer-to-peer to help encourage socially responsible purchasing.

Others at the conference helped advanced this type of activism. Colin Yuckman of Duke Divinity School looked at theological arguments for public policy in “The Inheritance of the Saints: Christ, Caesar, and the Federal Estate Tax.” On an action front, Sewanee, the University of the South divinity student Katie Bradshaw, an attorney and former Mississippi public defender, supported use of social investing screens against the for-profit prison industry – a movement where Methodists and Presbyterians are leading the way.

Hunger, homelessness, health care accessibility, and threats to pension and safety net programs for all ages hang over the U.S. and Minnesota economies. Minnesota lawmakers bucked the trends in raising the minimum wage and were applauded at the Harvard conference for doing so. They need continued support from faith-based groups, nonprofits and labor to continue the struggle for social and economic justice.

As Eric Kardas, a graduate student in political science at the University of Albany said after the conference, “This is no time for Minnesotans to declare victory and go home.”

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