The Salem Award

Perhaps the most obvious expression that Salem has moved on from its witch hunting past is that there are at least as many practicing witches in the village of Salem today as there are practicing Christians.

If all we as a civilization have learned from those trials of 300 hundred years ago, however, is not to be afraid of witches, I’m afraid we have many more “witch hunts” in our future.

There’s another interpretation, of course, that has nothing to do with religion, but everything to do with what Christians might recognize as loving our brothers and sisters.  For twenty years, the Salem Award for Human Rights and Social Justice has been keeping this alternative lesson alive by “recogniz[ing] individuals whose commitment to social justice and human rights has alleviated discrimination and promoted tolerance.”

On Friday night, in the Morse auditorium of the Peabody Essex Museum this important award and its $10,000 prize were given to City Life/Vida Urbana which has for 39 years focused on defending tenants rights, exposing discrimination against the poor or minorities, preventing housing displacement, increasing the supply of affordable housing, improving building conditions, conditions, stabilizing rents, providing political advocacy, enhancing citizen knowledge and empowerment, and developing leadership skills in community residents.

Often when we reflect on tragic historic events like the Salem Witch Trials we exclaim “Never again!” as we clearly identify villains and victims, and align ourselves with victors.  The Salem Award reminds us, though, that the trials were as much an abuse of privilege by a fearful majority, as they were specific acts of religious persecution.  What’s more: regardless of how many witches have now set-up shop on Essex Street, most of us remain members of a privileged majority which contributes to the systematic exploitation of vulnerable minorities.

City Life/Vida Urbana is on the front lines of our country’s housing crisis.  Somewhere along the way owning a house became the primary exmplar of the American dream, predatory lenders with the privilege of assets offered hopeful homeowners, many of them immigrants, financing for homes they probably couldn’t afford even without the punitive terms of their loans.

We now know, the lenders made fortunes, even as homes were foreclosed, neighborhoods gutted, and economic indicators tumbled.

One woman Friday night, shared her own story.  She owed $350,000 on her house, which the bank foreclosed.  With the support of City Life/Vida Urbana’s affiliate in the North Shore community of Lynn, she was able to qualify for a new loan and repurchase her home at its market value of $82,000.

That’s not fiscal irresponsibility; it’s immoral and a reminder to not forget that the systems that enrich us and the assets that privilege us often effect our brothers and sisters and in the inverse.

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