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An Opportunity Story

By Misi Pouena Tagaloa, Ph.D., Second Samoan Congregational Church UCC, Long Beach, CA

     This opportunity story dates back to the mid 60s when a young boy was born into a family at the top 1% of all earners in American Samoa.  The boy’s father was the pastor of a large Congregational church and his mother was a full time homemaker.  While the average village kid was burdened with survival issues, the boy was spared the day to day grind and given an opportunity to get a good education.  The boy’s brother and sisters all attended private elementary schools.  They went on to free public high schools where the student-teacher ratio was 20 to 1.  After high school, those who wanted to further their education were given scholarship opportunities that paid for tuition, room, board and all of their school expenses.  Many children who grew up in that environment were offered additional opportunities to attend stateside universities.  It was my sister and I who were given those opportunities.

     This was not unlike the opportunities available to many in the continental United States (veterans, for example, who used the GI Bill to secure a good education and to purchase property) – good job opportunities; workers having to spend no more than a third of their income on housing and tax laws which allowed those with resources to pay their fair share of the community upkeep.  Needless to say, people were hopeful.  Many, dreaming the American Dream, migrated to the United States in search of these opportunities.  This led to the greatest social invention of our time:  The American Middle Class.  Afforded the opportunities, they worked hard and garnered meaningful rewards.

     Today, many think these opportunities are no longer available and that reduced opportunities burden the middle class with work while withholding meaningful rewards.  This new stage in the American Dream is seen as pitting the rich against the poor; the haves against the have-nots; the consumers against the producers.  It is causing a rift in our communities and slowly tearing us apart.  The Church now finds itself in an unique position to re-purpose its mission in the world.

     The PICO* National Network (formerly Pacific Institute for Community Organizations)’s clergy gathering in New Orleans this past November is a data point along the trajectory of this re-purposing.  The conference invited clergy to look at opportunities that were once available and to help craft a plan for a new land of opportunity where similar, different, more and better opportunities are available to the next generation of Americans.  There were over 500 clergy from a dozen denominations and at least 5 different faith traditions in attendance.  Clergy were invited to help put together plans that will encourage the 2012 presidential candidates to talk about populist economic reforms; economic reforms that go beyond political parties and that touch all of us regardless of faith traditions.  “We’re populist in the sense we believe the little guy matters,” said Gordon Whitman, PICO’s policy director, “but we find both parties influenced by campaign dollars.”  The issues covered included raising the minimum wage, preserving and perfecting health care reform, examining mass incarceration and holding the nation’s largest banks accountable for the national economic crash of 2008.

     I found PICO’s orientation slanted towards the needs of lower-middle class Americans.  PICO’s agenda can be characterized as neither Republican nor fully Democratic.  And while the slant was towards the lower-middle class, there was an acknowledgement of the upper middle class folks who expressed a genuine concern about populist issues.  One of the goals PICO set for itself, for example, is urging congregations and businesses to remove deposits from Bank of America, the nation’s largest bank, because their foreclosure practices were seen as misleading, non-responsive and frustrating.

     One issue I found intriguing was the nation’s high incarceration rate, and more recently the emergence of a private, for-profit prison management industry that PICO says puts lobbying muscle behind new laws that encourage the use of prisons.  Once you are incarcerated, you are “branded” a member of a caste that does not have access to any opportunities.  In the words of one of the presenters, Michele Alexander, “mass incarceration is the new Jim Crow, in this age of colorblindness.”  One of the accomplishments from the PICO clergy gathering was we were able to get New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu to commit to re-thinking prison policy.

     A personal note:  My heartfelt faafetai (thanks) to the Make a Difference Fund and the Southern California Nevada Conference for the opportunity to attend this important clergy conference and to our local PICO director who got us rooms on Bourbon Street at the French Quarter seven blocks from the conference hotel.  The walk back to the hotel, the site visits and the resulting community interactions proved equally educational and thought provoking. 
*PICO is a national organizing effort of faith based community organizations working to create solutions to problems facing communities.  With more than 1,000 member institutions representing one million families in 150 cities and 17 states, PICO is one of the largest community-based efforts in the United States.  PICO provides an opportunity for people and congregations to put their faith into action.


One Response to “An Opportunity Story”
  1. sepulona tanuvasa says:

    I am proud of my friend Misi and I am also proud to the member of 99% of the commons of Samoa.

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