A Mind to Work: Faith Leaders Act against Unjust Working Conditions in New Orleans

Alaina Beverly
Date Published: 
April 13, 2007


Although racial and community justice advocates may not first consider churches natural partners for addressing discrimination and barriers to equality, African-American faith leaders and congregations have historically been among the strongest voices and most committed activists for social justice.  The Samuel DeWitt Proctor Conference, Inc. (SDPC) provides a powerful example of the commitment of churches nationwide to partner with community justice advocates and speak out against the exploitation of communities of color. 

Based in Chicago, Ill., the Samuel DeWitt Proctor Conference, Inc. is the nation’s fastest–growing, ecumenical, social justice organization.  In the aftermath of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, SDPC has worked tirelessly to galvanize Black Churches in a unified demand for the restoration of New Orleans.  In 2006, SDPC convened a National Katrina Justice Commission with hearings in Washington, D.C., New Orleans, and Houston, which recorded and published Katrina survivor stories of suffering, human compassion, and perseverance in a report entitled, The Breach: Bearing Witness

In February 2007, the Samuel DeWitt Proctor Conference hosted their 4th annual conference in New Orleans and invited participants from across the nation to bear witness to the paralysis of New Orleans, to place national attention on the government inactions that have degraded and excluded the poor and minority residents of New Orleans, and to renew their individual commitment to combating injustice.  More than 1,000 faith leaders, including several prominent clergy who partnered with Advancement Project in carrying out the Voter Revival Program last fall, participated in the four days of learning and working during the conference.  Social justice ministers and dedicated congregation members formed synergies with participating community activists and racial justice lawyers to be a positive force for change in Louisiana, the nation, and the world.

As part of the conference, Advancement Project partnered with community organizer Saket Soni to facilitate a Day Labor Field Workshop. Soni is co-author of And Injustice for All: Workers Lives in the Reconstruction of New Orleans, a report on Black and Brown labor conditions in New Orleans that raises the voices of individual workers in an effort to highlight government inaction and the contribution of structural racism to unjust labor conditions in the city. He guided a busload of 35 workshop participants—including pastors, ministers, seminarians, organizers, and other advocates, through an oral history of the ways in which the devastation wreaked by Hurricane Katrina has been used to exploit Latino immigrants and to pit the guestworker community against the African-American community in the quest for profit.  Soni emphasized the importance of working with the church to address the discriminatory treatment of Black and Brown laborers in New Orleans.

“Faith leaders,” Soni explained, “have a prophetic role to play in ushering us toward justice … whether we are immigrants on a journey to a new home, or now, after Hurricane Katrina, survivors on a long journey to return home, it is impossible to undertake that journey without faith.  Faith is the basis for stepping out and undertaking these journeys.”

The first stop of the SDPC Field Workshop was the New Orleans’ historic Astor Hotel where Rosanna, a 20-something young activist recounted her experience with employment brokers who came to her country with promises of a better life.  She paid between $3,500 and $5,000 to participate in the H-2B Visa Program and traveled to New Orleans, only to work 14 hour days at the Astor Hotel living four people to a single room.  Rosanna explained to the workshop participants that she joined forces with the Alliance of Guest Workers for Dignity, under the umbrella of the New Orleans Workers Center for Racial Justice, to fight for fair working conditions in coalition with other Black and Brown people who have been abused by this “guest worker” system.

Workshop participants traveled by bus from the Astor Hotel to Lee Circle, where a 60-foot monument of Robert E. Lee stands over the city’s largest market for day labor pick-ups. On the way, workshop participants shared stories of worker exploitation in their home cities—from Chicago, Ill., to Gulf Port, Miss.  “We wanted to have this workshop,” explained SDPC organizer Mary Creighton, “because labor conditions—from the right to a living wage, to safe working conditions, to the right to organize—are part of the landscape of every city. How society treats workers is evidence of how we treat ‘the least of these.’”

The Day Labor Field Workshop culminated at the Hope House, where social justice activist and community organizer, Curtis Mohammed, drew parallels between African-American workers who are locked out of a fair system of employment and migrant workers who are locked into a system of indentured servitude in New Orleans. Mohammed reminded the audience that the New Orleans employers are cutting workers off from each other, from their families, and from the world, but that the church, as the center of our communities, can be a part of that reconnection across racial lines and industry lines. 

Before the workshop was over, participants committed to taking action in response to what they saw and learned in New Orleans.  Some of the faith leaders committed to giving financial support to the New Orleans Workers’ Center for Racial Justice; others said they would share the New Orleans story through their ministries and encourage the labor movement in their own cities to step out on faith; all of the participants vowed to keep in close contact with the movement to bring the human debasement of vulnerable workers, in New Orleans and in cities across the county, to light.