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Karen Freeman-Wilson Addresses the Crisis Plenary

Karen Freeman-Wilson addressed the Crisis Plenary at the 2023 Parliament of the World’s Religions in Chicago, USA.

Good afternoon. I am humbled to join this wonderful assembly and bring you greetings on behalf of the Chicago Urban League. The league was established in 1916 to help southern blacks who are migrating to the north and large numbers become settled into their new communities. These men and women fled the brutality and limited economic opportunities of the segregated South to seek a better life for themselves and their families.

There are countless tales of Chicagoans whose roots are in Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, and many points south. My own father was born in rural Louisiana and was sent to the neighboring city of Gary, Indiana because my grandmother feared that his protest of double standards would get him killed. 

From the first day we opened our doors 107 years ago, the Chicago League has fought to ensure that black Chicagoans have access to jobs, housing, and education through programming and advocacy. Over the years, we added business opportunities and leadership development. You might say that the team at the Chicago Urban League lives out the conference theme of fighting to protect human rights every day.

I know that many of you are engaged in this work as well. As I thought about the theme and the context of our collective work, I thought about the fact that the existence of the need to defend something implies that there is a force working against us on the other side. Our fight for freedom is a direct challenge to those who fight to deny freedom. 

The reason that we at the Chicago Urban League are engaged in the same work after over a century is that there are people all over the world who are committed to ensuring that our work does not succeed. And that is why the work that each of you do is so important. Today we’re joined by many freedom fighters, including my friend that you just heard, David Goldenberg from ADL. We are allies because we understand that those who castigate Jewish people are just as likely to spew hatred against Blacks, Latinos, Muslims, Asians, and anyone else who may be different. It is this allyship, this cooperation that can bring us the progress that we desperately need. If ADL, or the Urban League, or some other well-intentioned organization simply works to protect the rights of our group alone, then those who are looking to deny those rights will simply engage us in a tug-of-war. But when we have allies who will strategize and fight with us, we can overcome those who are the enemies of good. 

As a little girl growing up in Gary, Indiana, I learned an early lesson that I would venture to say that many of you learned as well. Whenever a group decision had to be made, the majority ruled whether it was what book would be read to us at story hour or the game that we would play at recess. Every kindergartner had a voice. There are too many of us who have forgotten that lesson. We stand silently by while a small group of vocal people single out some people and oppose their right to life of dignity and worth.

So the call to conscience today is not to change the minds of that vocal minority who fight against freedom, but to ensure that the silent majority will stand up and speak up. Those of us who know better must insist that we all do better. That is the Chicago Urban League’s superpower, not just speaking truth to power, but insisting that each of us must declare that we are a part of the solution and not a part of the problem.

In May 2020, after the murder of George Floyd, triggered a global reckoning with 400 years of racism exacerbated by the inequities laid bare by a global pandemic. Many of us made a pledge to do more to end the racial wealth gap and institutional racism. Most of us who made this commitment were already engaged in that fight.

If we are to live up to the true meaning of our nation’s pledge that all men are created equal, notwithstanding the fact that my ancestors were explicitly excluded from that promise, we must recognize and embrace our collective role in making world equality a reality. Our organizational missions must be ancillary to the fight for justice for all because the truth is that if I engage in that fight on behalf of everyone, then we all win and we will all in the end see that discrimination in any form is eradicated.

Thank you and God bless each and every one of you.

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