Maya Wiley, the nationally recognized President and CEO of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, delivered the 40th annual Everett C. Parker Lecture, the United Church of Christ Media Justice Ministry’s signature annual event, while Jessica J. González, co-CEO of Free Press, received the Parker Award, and Talila “TL” Lewis, co-founder of HEARD, received the Donald H. McGannon Award. Read more about our honorees.

Rev. Amanda Hendler-Voss, Senior Pastor of First United Church of Christ of Washington DC began the program by recounting the work of Rev. Bruce Hanson, an associate pastor of First Church during the 1960s who led activism and training during the freedom summers in that era, and also lecturer Maya Wiley’s stepfather. Rev. Hendler-Voss held up the example of the activists of that time who “sang away their fear and sang into community.”

TL Lewis used the opportunity to lift up the important role of libraries in justice work, noting the event’s location next door to the Washington DC main MLK public library, the location HEARD used for its first community meeting. “In fact,” explained Lewis, “the DC public library system is the only office HEARD has ever had.” Lewis explained libraries provide essential spaces in abolitionist work, “making sure people have spaces to build one another, care for one another and sharpen one another.” Remembering the names of people who had passed on, including Alphonso Taylor and John H.L. Wilson, Jr., whose family were able to attend the event. Lewis poignantly explained, “the gains we have forced arose only out of heartbreaking loss and immense sacrifice.”

Jessica J. Gonzalez remembered attending early Parker Lectures fifteen years ago with Parker in attendance, when she was a fellow at the Georgetown University Law Center and remarked that the UCC was her first client there. She praised the UCC’s work establishing FCC ‘standing’—”the people’s right to have a say in the decisions that shape our media.” That belief, Gonzalez explained, is a foundational tenet of her organization, Free Press. Gonzalez emphasized that she works on media justice because “the media is powerful: it shapes beliefs, opinion and it actually impacts how people act and move about in the world. It can be harnessed for good and for evil.” Gonzalez cited as her inspiration the others doing the work alongside, the ancestors who came before and the importance of achieving a successful, just multi-racial democracy. “I believe we can build something that has never existed before,” said Gonzalez, “it may not be in my lifetime, but I believe that we will win.”

Maya Wiley’s lecture began remembering the last time she was at First Church, in 2019 for her stepfather’s memorial service. She remembered his humility and bravery during freedom summer in 1964. Wiley paid tribute to people like her stepfather who work even when there is good reason to be afraid. People who, as Rev. Hendler-Voss said, sing “in their resolve in the face of their fear.” Focusing on the difficult choices inherent in leadership and in making decisions about the best uses of technology, Wiley acknowledged, “these are really, difficult hard questions about the justice we want, about the danger real people are in, and how the tool can be used for good or ill.” She cited the example of body worn cameras used in police departments. “It is a quandary.” Is additional surveillance a threat to vulnerable community members or is it essential to get sufficient evidence to hold police that violate the law accountable? She cited her daughters attending Black Lives Matter protests in New York City. Although she cautioned against gathering video footage “just to put on your social media feeds for fun,” she recommended making recordings if the police get violent because “if you’re not videotaping, the police will get away with it … it is a chance to get a bad cop off the force.”

Wiley referenced a Bible verse, James 3:5, saying “the tongue is a small member but it is powerful.” She cautioned that “the few small, evil tongues that wag can now wag with much more power thanks to technology.” She lamented the role technology played in radicalizing the shooter in Buffalo, NY last May.

Wiley closed out her remarks by turning to the effort to extend broadband connectivity to everyone. She described how community-based wireless broadband technology stayed up in New York City after hurricane Sandy. She held out a goal of enabling local governments and public housing to be aggregators in providing free or low-cost broadband to public housing residents. She noted that the work to end digital redlining doesn’t mean ending intentional discrimination: “you just have to participate in the underlying system that produces racialized results.”

At the close of the event, Marian Drake performed We Have Tomorrow by the noted African-American composer Florence Price which sets to music the Langston Hughes poem of the same name. Sandy Sorensen, the head of the UCC’s Justice and Local Church Ministries Washington DC Office, finished with a benediction saying, “we have received all the gifts we need for the day: to do justice, to imagine boldly, to dare courageously, that another world is indeed possible. … May it be so.”

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