By Barb Arland-Fye
DAVENPORT — Worker justice advocate Kim Bobo’s animated acceptance speech for the Pacem in Terris Peace and Freedom Award wowed the audience in St. Ambrose University’s Christ the King Chapel.
“It was impressive because it was less about accolades. She drew attention to what needs to be done,” said Kent Ferris, social action director for the Diocese of Davenport, which co-sponsored the Sept. 16 award ceremony. “She noted that ordinary people, when they are persistent, can make a difference.”
Bobo, executive director and founder of the nonprofit Interfaith Worker Justice (IWJ), identified herself as one of those ordinary people. The author of “Wage Theft in America” traveled by bus from Chicago to Davenport and spent her four-day visit encouraging audiences to advocate for just wages and working conditions for all people.
To a group of St. Ambrose students and staff involved in social justice, “She challenged us to create an ethical eating guide for Davenport,” said Stella O’Rourke, director of service and justice for the Campus Ministry Office.
“You have educated a nation about the prevalence of wage theft and injustice that disproportionately affects the poor among us,” Bishop Martin Amos told Bobo when he presented the award to her. “You have likewise tirelessly mobilized people of faith to act with those who have been abused and exploited, including immigrant workers. You embody the words of Pope John XXIII in his encyclical ‘Pacem in Terris’ (Peace on Earth).”
Bobo expressed gratitude, but said she didn’t deserve to be listed among the 41 previous recipients. They include John F. Kennedy (posthumously), Martin Luther King Jr., Dorothy Day, Mother Teresa and Cesar Chavez.
Instead of focusing on her personal accomplishments, Bobo approached the podium as if it were a pulpit and preached a gospel of social justice. Her sermon came from the Parable of the Persistent Widow in Luke’s Gospel. She described the widow as “importuning” because she urged and begged with persistence until the judge gave in. “There are a lot of good lessons in this text, but like any good preacher, I have three,” Bobo said with relish.
Lesson 1: Ordinary folks can make a difference in calling attention to and stopping wage theft. One example: after researching complaints about a restaurant’s wage practices, a young woman with Interfaith Worker Justice used her social media savvy to organize a Facebook campaign that convinced the restaurant to pay up.
Lesson 2: “Persistence and repetition matter,” Bobo said. “Persistence is having a vision that things don’t have to be the way they are.”
Lesson 3: “Decision-makers don’t have to like us or even care about our concerns.” In the parable, the widow got on the judge’s nerves. “This is a classic organizing lesson,” Bobo said. “We stand on a person’s foot until they pay us to go away.”
Bobo practices what she preaches and described her participation in a strategic protest of a Chicago pizza chain’s employment practices. She helped distribute flyers outside one of the chain’s restaurants near her home.The message: “Don’t buy pizzas topped with exploitation.” Again, the employer paid up.
“Interfaith Worker Justice is finding ways to press employers to do the right thing,” she said. “Right now we’re trying to get Walmart to change the way it treats workers.”
Interfaith Worker Justice has organized a protest for Black Friday, the biggest shopping day of the year, during which individuals will adopt a Walmart and either pray outside the store or perform a “flash mob” inside (a sudden, brief performance done by a group of people).
“You can do the flash mob, I’ll do the prayers outside,” she told her St. Ambrose audience. “I assure you, we will get the attention of Walmart. We will be persistent and repetitious.
“Wage theft is alive and well. Six-hundred million dollars is stolen from Iowa workers every year,” she said, citing a new report from the Iowa Policy Project, “which is why we need you in this struggle.
“We need decisions makers who just want to get rid of us. Let’s help them to do the right thing … the ‘importuning’ widow: she’s my model.”
St. Ambrose freshman Michael Byrne thanked Bobo after her talk for an inspiring message that he thinks will help him and his fellow students to be “importune” themselves. Her message applies to individuals as well in their effort to fulfill their dreams, Byrne said.
Leslie Kilgannon, executive director of Quad Cities Interfaith (QCI), which works to bring about justice and human dignity, appreciated Bobo’s emphasis on persistence and stick-to-itiveness. “It’s about sticking with it, and praying truth to power,” the QCI leader said.
St. Ambrose sophomore Jessica Kleitsch was impressed with Bobo’s years-long commitment to worker justice. “I was completely inspired by her. I think she’s the equivalent of the modern Dorothy Day.”
Grad assistant Kaitlyn Koniuszy hopes Bobo’s work “inspires more students on campus.”
“I loved her passion,” St. Ambrose junior Kemper Rusteberg said. “Hopefully it will help students to stand up for what they believe in.”
St. Ambrose junior Molly Gabaldo, president of Ambrosians for Peace and Justice, said Bobo helped her to appreciate that the big picture isn’t insurmountable. “When you take it one step at a time, meeting the needs of those around you,” Gabaldo said, “the big picture becomes much smaller.”
Pacem in Terris award background
The Pacem in Terris Peace and Freedom Award, created in 1964 by the Davenport Catholic Interracial Council, honors Pope John XXIII and commemorates his 1963 encyclical letter, Pacem in Terris. Since 1978, the award has been presented by the Quad-City Pacem in Terris Coalition to honor an individual for his or her achievements in peace and justice, not only in that individual’s own country but in the world.
Award co-sponsors are the Diocese of Davenport, St. Ambrose University, Augustana College, Churches United of the Quad City Area, Pax Christi Quad Cities, The Catholic Messenger, Muslim Community of the Quad Cities, Congregation of the Humility of Mary, Sisters of St. Benedict, Sisters of St. Francis (Dubuque, Iowa), Temple Emanuel, and Sisters of St. Francis (Clinton, Iowa).