Who I Am

A close friend suggested that I write in my blog about who I am. I feel uncomfortable writing about myself. Is this like a job resume or is it a personal inventory, like I have done in the past as a part of being in AlAnon? Maybe somewhere in between. The reason my friend suggested this is so people who question my motives of why I do social justice volunteer work at age 76 have a better understanding.

In a nutshell, it is who I am. As a pastor said about me years ago, social justice issues are my children. As a parent of social justice concerns, I do not always get it right. But I am confident that I know more than I did fifty years ago. At the same time, I know that I must continue learning by reading, listening, discussing, and studying to figure out how to do it better.

My earliest recollection of social justice work on my part was when I was in the fourth grade. At recess, some boys were throwing rocks at another boy. I walked up to them and told them to stop. They did. When the boy thanked me, I was embarrassed. I did not do it for him so much as I just knew that what my classmates were doing was wrong and they needed to stop it.

I think ever since when I see something wrong, my inclination is to go to the perpetrators and say, “Stop it.” Unfortunately, ending most injustices is not that simple. In the 1950’s and early 60’s, I watched the evening news on TV and saw police with dogs and water hoses torturing peaceful protestors seeking to end segregation. I went to the March on Washington in 1963 and heard Martin Luther King, Jr., speak. I came back home to white people saying King was a Communist and black people saying that he was only making things worse for them.

I worked my way through college majoring in sociology to try to understand how society functions, I attended graduate school with a focus on community development, and later went to night law school while working full time. I followed the teachings of Saul Alinsky, a community organizer, as a means for getting meaningful change. I worked on welfare reform, tenant rights, helped start a community credit union and helped blacks to buy their own homes. After law school, I was a public defender. Later, for the ACLU I represented a woman in jail who wanted an abortion, but the District Attorney would not let her. We went to federal court and won the right for her to have an abortion. I successfully represented a young black couple who had been discriminated against in rental housing. I successfully represented a single woman who was a dairy farmer who had her cows repossessed by the seller in collusion with the bank.

I have worked in victim advocacy and services programs. I founded two domestic violence shelter programs, one of the first in the nation in Cincinnati, Ohio, and one in a rural area of Western Wisconsin. I led the effort to expand services in Douglas, Wyoming to include a shelter. I volunteered at the women’s prison in Lusk through alternatives to violence training and book groups. I started Jubilee House in Douglas, Wyoming for women transitioning out of prison.

I have also worked in the areas of environmental and natural resources issues, both as a volunteer and as the director of the Powder River Basin Resource Council. These efforts were always through grassroots organizing, which I believe is the most productive way to address injustices, although it takes much work. My having been a lawyer was a plus side in terms of discipline, but the judicial system is primarily set up to benefit the oppressors and money interests.

When I moved to Riverton over eight years ago for my position with the Wyoming Association of Churches to implement a resolution to connect with, listen to, and to stand with Native Americans in Wyoming, I had no idea where that might lead me personally. But when the shooting happened at the Center of Hope in 2015, I made a commitment to devote the rest of my life to ending racism. From learning about the horrific histories of land theft, massacres, pitting tribes against each other, theft of children, removing food sources, health and wealth disparities, language, cultural and spiritual degradation, murdered and missing indigenous people, prejudice, and police brutality, I am convinced that the only way we will see change is to talk about it and to organize to rise boldly together for justice.

I may be retired from paid work, but I am not done yet.

Fear not. Be bold. Build relationships. Be humble. Do justice.

Blessings,

Chesie Lee

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