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Blockstein Lecture Emphasizes Community Building and Working-Class Support

02/24/2023 10:45:42 AM

Feb24

This year’s speaker for the Liesl M. Blockstein Memorial Lecture on February 12 was State Representative Francesca Hong, who represents an Assembly district in central and northeast Madison. Representative Hong works to build community and support the working class through issues such as housing access, climate justice, labor rights, and educational and racial equity. 

Rep. Hong introduced her family and spoke about her upbringing, the difficulties they faced as immigrants, and the religious and cultural values that inform her work as a legislator. She noted that discussions in the Wisconsin legislature too often come from a mindset of scarcity where people are pitted against each other to divide resources, a mindset that favors the already rich and powerful. Rep. Hong believes there are enough resources in this country for everyone to be housed and educated, and she rejects the mindset that some must be diminished for others to succeed. She hopes to push our politics toward a mindset of abundance, where we work together to fashion lives of goodness and dignity for all people. 

When asked what can be done to support these goals, she urged people to push back through voting and asking others to vote. She also suggested that we talk with our friends and neighbors about our hopes for a more just society and ways public policy can offer concrete solutions. 

Here are her remarks:

Hello everyone, 

Thank you so much for being here and for giving me the opportunity to speak to you today. The Liesl M. Blockstein Memorial Lecture is truly an honor; its legacy of activism and public service a guiding light for our community. I would like to thank Kai Mishlove-Gardner and Rabbi Biatch for inviting me today, and thank my family for friends for being here with me.

My name is Francesca Hong. I’m the daughter of Korean immigrants, a small business owner, a proud mother, and state representative for the 76th assembly district here in Madison. 

My story is not unlike many of yours here today; my parents, deeply devoted, hardworking individuals, instilled in me the importance of resilience and determination at a young age. I grew up watching my father navigate the unrelenting, often impassive world of higher education as an immigrant while my mother made a new home and career in a city and country far away from the familiarity of her homeland. Their struggles and their accomplishments became guidelines by which I swore I’d live my life—their sacrifices an inspiration and their adversity my driving force. 

As many children do, I looked up to them. Begrudgingly at first, of course we all have moments when we think we know better than the people raising us, but eventually it transforms into an immeasurable respect and awe. 

I was intrigued that at the heart of their values was a deep, unrelenting faith that defined their lives and I would come to hope, would define mine. 

As many of you know, faith is a complexity. For my parents, it of course meant church. Devotion to a higher entity at its simplest form is in what you believe and how you believe it. 

But for them, faith also meant comfort, courage and community. I saw that inherent to my parents’ commitment to religion, was a commitment to the collective. My mother is a music teacher, my father is a sociologist and so naturally enough that commitment reached far beyond Sunday services and into their careers. 

They are two people committed to community through faith, a theme that is shared by many in this room and is a defining tenet of the wonderful organizations hosting us today, Jewish Social Services, Temple Beth El, and of course the legacy of Liesl M. Blockstein.

My parents are Catholic, my sister is Jewish, and many in this room hold a similar or different religious background. But no matter what we believe, the sense of responsibility to our community is a common denominator that unites us. 

So today, I hope to talk about that common denominator. What community is and how community can ultimately set us free. 

What makes a community? 

On the near west side of this city near UW–Madison, there’s a little neighborhood called Eagle Heights. There, I spent my formative years in a sort of utopia. University graduate students and their families from all over the world made Eagle Heights home; our playgrounds were diverse and our community safe from the often harsh realities of an America that did not welcome immigrants as openly as this little neighborhood did. 

But as I grew up and moved away further west, the bubble burst. I was no longer sheltered and protected by the diversity of university housing. I made my way into white spaces where I was forced to re-evaluate my value, identity and purpose almost constantly. I had suddenly and unexpectedly discovered segregated Madison, where the color of my skin mattered, but not in any way that was fair. Or maybe in a sense, segregated Madison had discovered me. 

I struggled from grade school through high school with the concepts of identity and belonging brought on by my transition into a mostly white school (where my conflicts too often occurred with other students of color, and I didn't realize until later how deeply white supremacy is engrained to pit those with vulnerable senses of belonging and identity to not be supportive but competitive).

I was missing those playgrounds where every language was spoken and where different fragrant lunches were normal and intriguing. I was missing a place where it seemed there was always someone to listen, empathize, and help. A place where the collective looked out for the individual. 

I was suddenly different and made to reckon with assimilation, privilege, white supremacy and the isolation those bring. And at an early age I understood the absence of community, and the harm its absence does. Community at a foundational level is a place where equity, justice, and inclusivity take priority. 

But it wasn’t until my service in government, did I realize that community is most importantly, a place where abundance replaces the scarcity mindset. 

——

If you tune into politics, or any sort of debate where policy makers are discussing a specific budget proposal, there are usually two sides. A side that argues for a policy on the basis of its value to a constituency, and a side that argues against that policy on the basis of its cost. For many of the issues that come before us legislators like healthcare, childcare, public education, immigration, and the like, we have to make the case, and sometimes beg, that an investment is worth the expenditure it takes. 

In some cases, it’s a way of keeping good governance, a way of making sure that we are responsible stewards of taxpayer money. But in a lot of cases, especially those that regard progressive policy initiatives like racial equity, it’s a way for the powerful and wealthy to maintain their control through a cynical brand of politics that prioritizes austerity over care. 

The contrast in how government works and how our communities responded to the Covid crisis really exemplified for me the detriment of scarcity mindsets. 

As an independent restaurant owner, I saw my fellow industry folks jump into action to help each other in a time of great uncertainty. I saw advocacy organizations pool resources to help people trying to keep a roof over their heads or food on the table. I saw a community look after itself when the economic and political safety nets that were supposed to catch us tore because of the pandemic. All of this while the government debated how much help we deserved. 

These individuals didn’t weigh the cost of helping before they extended a hand, they understood the importance of mutual aid and rejected the scarcity mindset. They lived up to what it means to be a community. 

It’s important to always keep in mind that scarcity mindsets have been imposed on us by the white supremacist systems that want us to feel like we can’t have it all. That we can’t have the beauty of Eagle Heights in every corner of our state. That our society must segregate and minimize others in order for a few to rise to the top. 

Mia Birdsong, a Black activist and storyteller in Oakland, describes it like this:
 
“The American Dream’s focus on getting ahead is a race to win so you don’t lose. It plays into our well-developed fear instincts, creating a real and imagined scarcity of resources, time, and money. This fear-based sense of scarcity pits us against one another. It also leaves us with a poorly developed sense of ‘enough,’ both of the material and of love and care.”

So what makes a community? Abundance. The belief that there is always more to give and more to have. The faith and perspective to understand that good can never come with an expense if it is done in the effort to help others. 

I reject the notion that we need to choose between our individual success and doing good. Actually, I think it’s not only possible, but necessary to create another option together.
 
We must pave a path that acknowledges that we are all inextricably bound together—that our success is tied to the well being of one another and our planet—that we are all better off when we work together.

We must strive to recreate Eagle Heights and the community present in this room here, everywhere we are. 

So how can community set us free? 

Birdsong reminds me that when we actually look at the resources in the U.S., there is plenty here for all of us to eat, to be housed, to have a comfortable life, a good education, and quality health care. Any politician who claims otherwise does so from a place of cynicism or self-interest. 

Abundance for everyone is possible, if we as a society—and as leaders—make different choices about what we prioritize, about how we care for each other.

Therefore, in order for us to fight the evils that face our society today we need to truly internalize, politicians especially, that our success and our hurt intertwine. And we can only do that when we commit, unrelentingly to the collective and to care.

There is an African proverb that says, “If you want to go quickly, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.” 

And to this effect, throughout history, there have been many examples of how communities united achieved the impossible and went far in the fight for justice and freedom. 

Here in Wisconsin for example, Senator Gaylord Nelson rallied an estimated 20 million people and thousands of events 53 years ago in the first major environmental protest that lives on to this day as the annual celebration of Earth Day. 

The Stonewall riots, where LGBTQ+ people rebelled against discriminatory policing strategies and violence, lasted five days and later inspired protests across the country and marked the beginning of the modern LGBTQ+ rights movement.

The Battle of Blair Mountain, where 10,000 West Virginia coal miners marched in protest of perilous work conditions, squalid housing and low wages, and other grievances, was the largest labor uprising in American history and its legacy defines the worker rights movement today. 

From these stories and many others, it’s clear that our communities are often the first line of defense to many crises that require institutional, systemic change.

Walter Brueggemann once said (by way of Harvard’s Marshall Ganz) “...prophetic imagination or transformational vision occurs at the intersection of two elements: criticality, a clear vision of the world’s hurt, of its needs, of its pain, coupled with hope, a sense of the world’s promise and possibility.”

Only at the core of our communities do we discover what we need and only with unity and an abundance mindset do we reconcile our shortcomings and build a better, more equitable future. 

Our communities set us free by allowing us that transformational vision. That prophetic imagination, as Brueggemann put it, is hard to come by alone. 

——

I want to round out today’s lecture with an ask of all of you. An ask of those of you, like my parents, who have committed to serving your community through devotion and faith. 

My ask is that you understand your care, your potential, your power. That you recommit to deeply understanding that a group of people, linked together in kindness, in generosity, and in hope can massively impact the world.

Faith communities have always had a unique role to play in changing our American political climate for the better. From the Jewish Tzedakah to the Muslim Zakat, the Christian Stewardship to the Buddhist Dana, the values of good doing and charity are tremendous tools to counteract the scarcity mindset our politics push. 

And now, when it comes to the fight for reproductive health freedom for example, or the fight to protect and affirm our LGBTQ youth, faith communities are uniquely situated to push back on Christofacists or other religious hardliners who are much more interested in dividing us than anything else. There is room enough in this country for us to be who we are, love who we want, and live our lives with agency over our bodies and destinies. To dream and hope how we want.

As we stand in our current political climate, it is true that the road ahead is uncertain, but it is not unfamiliar. There’s suffering and anguish in our communities but as I’ve learned from all of you, they are but a lighthouse to firmly guide us to a better future.

To transform our society, we need your voices to resonate in every corner of this state. We need the inherent goodness and dignity that is foundational to the faith community to guide us forward. And we need it not just as democrats or republicans, but as Americans, as people deeply committed to democracy, progress, and representation. 

Thank you for the belonging you’ve given me today—the kindness and love you’ve extended by inviting me to speak. I am honored to be in community with you and look forward to all that we achieve together. 

June 16, 2024 10 Sivan 5784