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Dignity and Civic Life

Kevan Insko
On Dignity (July 2023)
Healing the World

We can envision a universal parameter of dignity for individuals: Each person is owed fundamental respect simply by virtue of being human. We can also appreciate the importance of ensuring dignified treatment of the myriad of groups that comprise our society, and in particular, those that have been exploited, marginalized, and disempowered. For Friends, the importance of human dignity rests on a strong spiritual basis:

Friends’ testimony on equality is rooted in the holy expectation that there is that of God in everyone, including adversaries and people from widely different stations, life experiences, and religious persuasions. All must therefore be treated with integrity and respect. (Pacific Yearly Meeting, Faith and Practice, 2001)

Can we also speak of a concept of civic dignity? How can a state – California, for example, with its rough and tumble politics – be a place where dignity can be protected, promoted, and woven into the fabric of everyday lives? How do we, as participants in civic life, translate our concerns, values, and spiritual principles into concrete social policies?

Each year in California our legislators introduce and debate thousands of bills, pass scores of new laws, and formulate an enormous state budget. (This is proposed at $306 billion for Fiscal Year 2023-2024). Throughout these processes, activists, lobbyists, constituents, and grassroots organizations weigh in with legislators and play an important role in what gets passed and what is defeated. The results affect every Californian every day, and reform in California often accelerates reform throughout the entire nation. Sometimes this change is fast; sometimes it takes years.

Through both the fast and the slow times, Friends in California have risen to the challenge of bringing their voice of conscience to our Legislature – bearing witness across seven decades of controversial and necessary reforms.

In 1952, when Friends Committee on Legislation of California (FCLCA) was founded, two disturbing propositions were on the state ballot – one to discriminate against those who held certain political beliefs and one to force public employees to sign loyalty oaths. FCLCA’s founders wrote, “Both propositions punish people for advocating an idea, not for committing any act. Friends and many others share a fundamental belief in the essential worth of every individual. To bring dignity to those who have been deprived of it can best be accomplished by the free expression of ideas.”

In the following years, FCLCA activists engaged in the key civil rights struggles of the day – for racial justice in housing and employment, for fair treatment of farmworkers, for the rights of prisoners to be treated as human beings, and for abolishing the death penalty. In the 1980s and 90s, FCLCA was one of the few voices opposing massive increases in prison construction and incarceration. In the past decade, FCLCA has co-sponsored nine bills to mitigate harsh and racially inequitable sentencing practices and to expand possibilities for parole for persons convicted as juveniles.

That work continues today. In 2016, FCLCA co-sponsored a successful bill that deleted language from the state penal code that described the purpose of sentencing as punishment. California’s penal code now describes the purpose of sentencing as public safety, achieved through punishment, restorative justice, and rehabilitative programming. The California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation designed a new mission statement to reflect these principles. Building on these changes, in 2023, FCLCA has joined with Transformative In-Prison Workshop to co-sponsor AB 1104 by Assembly Member Mia Bonta.

AB 1104 further amends the penal code to state that when a sentence includes incarceration, the deprivation of liberty satisfies the punishment purpose of sentencing, and that additional purposes of incarceration are rehabilitation and successful reintegration achieved through education, treatment, and active participation in rehabilitative and restorative justice programs.  The bill also lifts up the importance of community-based organizations, which receive only a small fraction of funding for rehabilitative programming, as an integral part of ensuring that all persons incarcerated in state prisons have access to rehabilitative programming.

FCLCA is also advocating this year for Assembly Constitutional Amendment 8, which would amend the California Constitution to prohibit slavery and involuntary servitude in any form, including forced labor compelled by the use or threat of physical or legal coercion. And we are promoting AB 280, the California Mandela Act, which places significant restrictions on the use of solitary confinement in detention facilities, including a prohibition on terms of solitary confinement longer than fifteen days.

For many years, FCLCA has worked in coalition with organizations dedicated to the welfare of our neighbors who live in poverty. As members of the End Child Poverty in California Campaign, FCLCA has joined partner organizations in promoting a joint vision of California, where children and families are:

Nourished – This year, we support SB 348 to provide high-quality summer meals and school meals for all children; SB 245 to provide CalFresh food benefits to all income-eligible people regardless of immigration status; and SB 600 to raise the CalFresh minimum to $50 a month.

Respected – We are supporting AB 596, SB 380, and budget proposals to provide livable wages for childcare workers, to provide adequate reimbursement for childcare expenses tied to public programs, while ending burdensome family fees for such reimbursement.

Secure – We are lobbying for SB 227 and budget proposals to create a “Safety Net for All,” which includes wage replacement for undocumented workers who currently have no recourse to unemployment benefits, many of them farmworkers who have been hard hit by fires, floods, and storms.

Valued – We support AB 1321, otherwise known as “It Takes a Village Act,” which would provide comprehensive services to families through schools and neighborhood centers, creating a seamless web of “Cradle to Career” services for low-income families.

We believe that access to adequate healthcare and housing are fundamental components of human dignity. Last year, FCLCA supported the expansion of Medi-Cal to all who are income-eligible, regardless of immigration status, and this year we are supporting AB 4 to provide Covered California subsidies to undocumented immigrants.

Further, it’s clear that one of the great issues of our time is how California can adequately provide safe and affordable housing for our population. Thirty percent of people in the U.S. who are homeless – over 115,000 – live in California. FCLCA is advocating for a number of bills and budget proposals this year to address the housing and homelessness crisis in California, including SB 4, which would allow religious institutions to build affordable housing on lands they own.

If you would like more information on FCLCA’s work, we invite you to visit our website, www.fclca.org.

If you would like to sign up for our Action Network to get more involved with your legislators, please contact me at [email protected].

Finally – all of the work of Friends Committee on Legislation of California, past and present, has been made possible by generations of Friends who have believed that “all must be treated with dignity and respect.” We are very grateful for the great love and deep concern for the inherent worth of every person that has sustained our organization and its voice of conscience for seven decades.  ~~~

Kevan Andrea Insko is the director of Friends Committee on Legislation of California (FCLCA) and the FCL Education Fund.  She has worked for FCLCA since 2009. Born and raised in Kentucky, she has lived in California for over forty years and is the proud mother of three young adults.

Friends Committee on Legistlation of California Public policy Social Justice

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