12/21/2011 11:06 am ET | Updated Feb 20, 2012

Give the Gift of Voice

While walking to my train yesterday, I happened upon a group of churchgoers who were dropping off canned goods and other foodstuffs for a Christmas food drive sponsored by the local parrish. It was wonderful to see people taking a moment at the end of the year to help those with less. But there are simply too many people in need. Food drives can help individuals, but they can't bring about fundamental changes to make our system more just, equitable and fair. For that, we need to look more deeply at why our society fails so often and what we can do to change the way our world operates.

This holiday season we need to give the gift of voice to those who have survived the worst abuses of our system, and are using their experiences to develop bold ideas to improve it.

We need to give the gift of voice to people like Carole Eady, one of the leaders of Women on the Rise Telling Her Story (WORTH). WORTH is a growing association of currently and formerly incarcerated women that transform the lives of women affected by the criminal justice system. In 1988, Carole was arrested on a non-violent charge and sent to Rikers Island, New York City's main jail complex. She was six-and-one-half months pregnant at the time. When she went into labor, the prison guards shackled her in the van that carried her to the hospital, where she was shackled again to her hospital bed while giving birth, and then shackled yet again in the recovery room, unable to hold her own child. Thanks to Carole and the other activists at WORTH, Governor Paterson signed a bill that stops the practice of shackling in the New York State prison system.

We also need to give the gift of voice to people like Raymundo Lara Molina, who emigrated to the U.S. from Mexico. He ended up in one of New York City's "food sweat shops" where an estimated 44,000 largely undocumented immigrant workers face subpar wages and dangerous workplaces. He was grateful for the job, but he was forced to work long hours without overtime pay. The factory owners neglected to provide protective gear to combat the harsh chemicals and cold temperatures of the shop floor where Raymundo processed seafood for high-end restaurants. Eventually, he and some of the other workers connected with a group called Brandworkers International.

Brandworkers connects, trains, and mobilizes food employees to assert their rights and to make their voices heard in the public arena. After months of handing out flyers in front of fancy New York restaurants, Raymundo and his colleagues pressured their employer, Wild Edibles, to pay out hundreds of thousands of dollars in unpaid wages, to change overtime policies, and to provide safer working conditions.

New Yorkers like Carol and Raymundo are using their experiences and their voices to challenge unjust systems. But they, and their organizations, need our help to succeed. I've seen firsthand how valuable this help can be. North Star Fund grants provided Carol and her colleagues at WORTH with funding to quickly organize a demonstration when Governor Patterson was waffling about whether to sign the anti-shackling bill. And when Raymundo and his colleagues needed a lawyer to help them with negotiations with their employer, a North Star Fund grant provided cash.

If you are reading this, you can make a real difference this holiday season. Take a moment to help make our city more just and equitable. Give the gift of voice.


North Star Fund is New York City's community foundation supporting grassroots groups leading the movement for equality, economic justice and peace. Since our founding in 1979, North Star Fund has distributed over 29 million dollars to 1,600 groups working to create a more equitable and democratic city for all New Yorkers. For more information please visit

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