Tragic Killing of a Corporal and the Urgent Need to End Female Genital Mutilation

by Grace Ndanu

The Kenya Girls Guide Association hosted a rally against FGM during 16 Days of Activism in 2011.
The Kenya Girls Guide Association hosted a rally against FGM during 16 Days of Activism in 2011. Source: Yahoo Images

The killing of Corporal Mushote Boma on December 15, 2023, in Elgeyo Marakwet County, Kenya, has brought to light the deeply entrenched issue of female genital mutilation (FGM) and the urgent need for increased awareness and action to eliminate this harmful practice. The tragic incident, where Corporal Boma was stoned to death by a mob of young men after rescuing a group of girls who had been forced to undergo FGM, signifies a significant setback in the fight against this violation of human rights in Kenya.

Female genital mutilation, also known as female genital cutting or female circumcision, is a practice that involves altering or injuring the female genitalia for non-medical reasons. FGM is a harmful practice and a violation of the rights of girls and women. It can lead to severe physical, emotional, and psychological consequences, including but not limited to severe bleeding, infections, complications during childbirth, and long-term psychological trauma. The World Health Organization (WHO) has classified FGM into four types, with type 3 being the most severe, involving the removal of all external genitalia and the stitching of the vaginal opening.

According to reports, the incident involving the Corporal occurred when the police were taking the rescued girls to the hospital after the illegal FGM procedure. It is a grim reminder of the challenges faced by law enforcement officers and activists in combating such deeply rooted harmful practices. Despite the ban on FGM in Kenya, the practice still persists in certain areas, often conducted during school holidays, using crude methods and tools by individuals who continue to defy the law.

It is essential to understand that the practice of FGM is not limited to Kenya but is prevalent in many African countries, as well as in some parts of Asia and the Middle East. The complexity of cultural, social, and traditional beliefs and practices surrounding FGM makes the fight against it particularly challenging.

An infographic on FGM, including information about how many girls and women are impacted by it, practiced in over 30 different countries around the world. Source: Yahoo Images
An infographic on FGM, including information about how many girls and women are impacted by it, is practiced in over 30 different countries around the world. Source: Yahoo Images

In the wake of Corporal Boma’s tragic killing, there is an urgent need for heightened awareness and education about the dangers of FGM. The involvement of communities, religious leaders, and other stakeholders is crucial in effectively addressing and eliminating this harmful practice. There is a pressing need for community-based interventions focused on education, awareness, and empowering women and girls.

Furthermore, it is imperative for the Kenyan government and other relevant authorities to take decisive action and strengthen the enforcement of laws against FGM. Perpetrators of FGM must be brought to justice to send a clear message that this harmful practice will not be tolerated in any form. The government should collaborate closely with local organizations and international partners to develop and implement comprehensive strategies to combat FGM effectively.

The media can play a pivotal role in raising awareness about FGM and shaping public opinion on the issue. Media campaigns and educational programs can provide crucial information on the physical and psychological consequences of FGM, dispel myths and misconceptions, and promote positive social norms around the issue. Additionally, the media can highlight success stories of communities that have abandoned the practice of FGM, inspiring others to follow suit.

At the global level, the international community plays a vital role in supporting efforts to combat FGM. International organizations, including the United Nations and its specialized agencies, as well as non-governmental organizations, have been advocating for the elimination of FGM through various programs and initiatives. These efforts range from providing direct assistance to affected communities, conducting research and data collection, advocating for policy changes, and supporting grassroots organizations working at the local level.

Some resources laid out for community members to learn about the dangers of FGM. It includes pamphlets, brochures, and a 3D model used to teach about different types of FGM.
Some resources are laid out for community members to learn about the dangers of FGM. It includes pamphlets, brochures, and a 3D model used to teach about different types of FGM. Source: Yahoo Images

The killing of Corporal Mushote Boma serves as a stark reminder of the urgent action needed to eliminate the harmful practice of female genital mutilation. It is crucial to work collectively to raise awareness, educate communities, and enforce laws to protect the rights of girls and women. This tragic incident must galvanize individuals, communities, and governments to address FGM comprehensively and put an end to this barbaric practice.

The world must unite to protect the rights and well-being of girls and women globally and ensure that no one else suffers the same fate as Corporal Mushote Boma. By fostering a culture of respect for human rights and gender equality and by promoting positive social norms and behaviors, we can strive to create a world where every girl and woman has the right to live free from the fear and trauma of female genital mutilation. Together, we can work towards a future where every girl and woman can fulfill her potential without being subjected to the physical and emotional pain of FGM.

The tragic killing of Corporal Boma is a solemn call to action, and it must be responded to with determination, compassion, and unwavering commitment to bringing an end to the harmful practice of female genital mutilation once and for all.

Understand the Impact of Poverty on Kenyan Society: Unveiling the Struggles Faced by Vulnerable Communities

By Grace Ndanu

An image of Diani Beach in Kenya to showcase some of the natural beauty of the nation
Diani Beach, Kenya; Source: Yahoo Images

Poverty is a deeply rooted issue that affects countless individuals and communities around the world. In Kenya, it is no different. Despite its natural beauty and richness, Kenya faces significant challenges when it comes to poverty, particularly among vulnerable communities.

The high living standards brought by the new government of Kenya make the poverty issue more pressing. Everything is doubled. Tax is doubled, food is doubled, oil is doubled, women’s products price is now double the initial price.

An image of a Masai market in Kenya
Masai Market in Kenya; Source: Yahoo Images

One issue arising from poverty is limited access to basic necessities such as food, clean water, and health care. According to a United Nations Development Program report, approximately 36% of Kenyans live below the national poverty line. This means that millions of people struggle to afford even one meal a day, leading to malnutrition and adverse health conditions. Additionally, a lack of access to clean water and proper sanitation facilities further intensifies the spread of diseases, resulting in a higher mortality rate.

An image of Kenyans sorting through the food assistance provided by the United Nations World Food Program.
The UN World Food Program (WFP) assists many Kenyans who face food insecurity. Source: Yahoo Images

Another consequence of poverty is the limited educational opportunities available to children coming from disadvantaged backgrounds. Before the current government, a normal student at the university level was paying approximately 38 thousand Kenyan Shilling per year. Today the student pays 122 thousand Kenyan Shillings per year. Many families cannot afford to send their children to school due to financial constraints, resulting in a significant number of young individuals being deprived of basic education. The lack of education perpetuates the cycle of poverty, as individuals without the necessary skills and knowledge struggle to find stable employment opportunities.

The impact of poverty is also evident in the housing conditions experienced by vulnerable communities in Kenya. Slums and informal settlements are common in urban areas, where individuals live in makeshift shelters with little to no access to basic amenities. Unsanitary living conditions in these areas increase health risks and disease vulnerability.

An image of a student in Kenya with school materials. Paying for school in Kenya has become increasingly expensive.
A Student with school materials. Nyeri Primary School, Nyeri County, Kenya; Source: Yahoo Images

These challenges are not insurmountable, however. It’s important to note that while these issues persist, there are numerous organizations, both local and international working alongside the government of Kenya to tackle these issues and improve the overall well-being of the Kenyan people. Efforts such as community-based programs, microfinance initiatives, and educational campaigns have shown promising results in uplifting vulnerable communities and breaking the cycle of poverty.

To bring about lasting change, it is crucial for individuals, governments, and organizations to come together and address the root causes of poverty in Kenya. This includes investing in sustainable agriculture practices, promoting entrepreneurship and job creation, improving access to quality education, and providing support for health care and social welfare systems.

An image of the Parliament of Kenya.
Parliament of Kenya; Source: Yahoo Images

In conclusion, poverty remains a critical issue in Kenyan society, affecting vulnerable communities in various aspects of their lives. By understanding the impact of poverty and actively working towards its eradication, we can create a brighter future for all Kenyans.

Native American Lands and Their Children: A History

An image of two Native American children in their cultural garbs.
Image 1 – Source: Yahoo Images

I would like to start this piece off with a land acknowledgment, where I acknowledge the truth of who the lands of America truly belong to. The land in which I sit to write this article, as well as the ones occupied by those who reside in America once belonged to the many diverse communities that existed long before America got its name. Once prosperous, thriving lands belonging to these various indigenous communities, (to the Creeks and Choctaw, in my case), the lands of America were respected and honored by the relationship that these various tribal communities held sacred between themselves and their environment. It is in honor of their stewardship and resilience that I hope to shed light on some of the more gruesome, nefarious betrayals they have experienced at the hands of colonizers from the time their tribal ancestors witnessed the colonizers’ arrival to their lands in 1492.

Before the European colonizers arrived on this land, there existed a diverse group of tribal communities, over a thousand different ones just in the mainland we call America today. Now, these tribes have been reduced to no more than 574 federally recognized ones, with dwindling tribal membership numbers, a fact that can only be blamed on the federally sanctioned behaviors of the colonists. So much has been stolen from the diverse groups of indigenous people since the colonization of the North American lands first began. The original indigenous peoples had offered the newly-arriving colonists hospitality and taught them how to cultivate the lands of America and brave the New Frontiers. Yet, what they received in gratitude was bloodshed, tears, death, and betrayals. So many treaties and promises were broken. According to Howard Zinn, the famous author of the book, “A People’s History of the United States,” the various indigenous communities that existed in the Americas by the time the famous explorers landed in the Americas were anywhere between 25-75 million individuals. They had moved into these fertile lands 25,000 years ago, long before the explorers “founded” the Americas. For those interested in learning a truthful history of America, please check out his book. The book begins in 1492 and continues to examine historical events until contemporary times and phenomena such as the “War on Terrorism”.

There is so much information to be covered on this topic, and the more I researched, the more I found. I want to do this topic justice, and I cannot do so until the historical context has been put in place. Hence, this will be a two-part deep dive into the Native American lands, their cultural lifestyles, their relationship with the environment, and what this means for their existence in a capitalist, contemporary society. Part one will focus on the history of Native American lands, the process of treaties and loss, and the cruel, scheming ways of the federal government that attempted to indirectly, yet forcibly, steal lands away from Native Americans by targeting the youngest members of their tribes. Part two will focus on the Indian Child Welfare Act, the fight (and entities involved) in support and against it, how the environment plays a role, and the vast consequences of the recent Supreme Court ruling on the matter, both in terms of the welfare of these indigenous children, as well as the issue of tribal sovereignty. There is a lot to unpack here, so without further ado, let’s begin with a deeper understanding of the relationship that indigenous communities share with their lands.

It’s All About the Land; It Always Has Been

An image depicting all the various different indigenous tribes that existed in America before the European Settlers landed
Image 2 – Source: Yahoo Images; An image depicting the various indigenous tribes that were present in America before the European Settlers landed.

The European settlers had a problem with the Native Americans from the moment they landed in America. For one, they thought the indigenous way of life to be “savagery” and believed that the Native Americans needed to be “civilized”, something they believed only Europeans could teach them about. They found the gods and spirituality of the various indigenous cultures to be blasphemous and nonsensical, and many Europeans attempted to convert the Natives to Christianity, a more “proper” religious belief. Most of all, though, the Europeans and the indigenous communities had vastly different concepts of property and land ownership. To the settlers, who came from the feudal systems of Europe, land was a commodity, purchased and sold by individuals, and prosperity (and social status) was determined by who owned the most properties, and the most prosperous lands. They became lords and could employ the less fortunate to work under them, paying them a fraction of their profits, while keeping the rest for themselves. This was how things worked in Europe back home, and this is the system they brought with them when settling in the New World.

Native Americans, however, had a different lifestyle and concept of ownership. To them, the thought of owning a piece of land was bizarre, as they viewed the land to belong to the various energies and life forms that existed in the said land. The tribal lands of an indigenous community not only fed and nurtured the tribal members but also protected the tribe’s history and held the ancestral burials of their people. The indigenous communities had a spiritual and emotional connection with their tribal lands, one that cannot be sold to another, similar to how you cannot sell to someone else the relationship you hold with your family. Many (if not most), Native tribes even practiced animism, a belief system that accepts all living and non-living things (and natural phenomena) as being capable of having a life force (or soul). For Native Americans, land ownership was a foreign concept, and everyone that existed in their community held rights to the land their tribes lived on. In fact, when European settlers began purchasing lands from the Native Americans, the indigenous people believed they were only “leasing” the lands to the settlers, not giving up their rights to them. For the indigenous communities, the land was just as much a right of every human as sunlight, water, or air.

The Native Americans’ relationship with their lands was also threatening to the European lifestyle of land ownership and individualism. This struggle, between an individualistic view of community, versus the collective view of community, is, as they say, a “tale as old as time.” For Europeans, who believed individual merit and hard work to be the true characteristics of a successful individual, their success could only be displayed by the vastness of their empires, figuratively and physically. Hence, land ownership was a symbol of status and in a way, a testament of a person’s character. For Native Americans who focused on collective success rather than individually standing out, the strength of their tribe was a result of the part each individual tribal member played to ensure their success. This meant that everyone had a role, and if they played them right, everyone in the tribe benefited from the success. This was how tribes survived even as they warred against each other.

Treaties and Deals

An image depicting colonial men engaging in treaty making with a Native American tribe
Image 3 – Source: Yahoo Images; Many treaties such as this were brokered between various Indigenous tribes and colonists, yet they were seldom upheld and often violated or broken.

Due to these differences between the indigenous communities and the European settlers, many struggles broke out between the two groups between 1492 and 1700. In an attempt to keep the peace between the settlers and the indigenous communities, the British Crown established the Proclamation of 1763, which awarded the colonists all the lands East of the Appalachian Mountains, and everything West was promised to the various different Native American populations that lived in those regions. This did not make the colonists happy, as they believed the King was preventing them from expanding their population, and it was one of the points they listed in the Declaration of Independence as a wrong that was done by the King. Many scholars claim that the Proclamation of 1793 led colonists to pursue a revolution against the crown. The diverse indigenous populations attempted to stay out of the Revolutionary War, as they believed it to be a family feud between the British King, and his colonial subjects. Yet, when they did take part in the War, their participation was diverse. Some joined the rebelling Americans, while others joined the forces of the monarchy. Still, others chose to remain neutral, not wanting to support either side of the struggle. Upon the loss of the Revolutionary War, as part of the treaty signed between Britain and the newly established United States, Britain had to give up all the lands they lay claim to in America, including many of the lands that were promised to the Native American tribes living West of the Appalachian Mountains. This happened without consent or discussion with the Native Americans who took residence in those parts. When the colonists came to take over much of the lands that were promised to the Native Americans through the Proclamation of 1763, they justified their brutality against the Native Americans by blaming them for supporting the British in the Revolutionary War, and when the Native Americans tried to fight back for their lands, the British were nowhere to be seen. This was yet another episode of betrayal experienced by the indigenous populations at the hands of the settlers and the British Crown. Yet, this was just the beginning; the atrocities and betrayals were far from over.

Following the Revolutionary War and the as a result of the resilience shown by the many indigenous communities protecting their lands, the United States decided to engage in creating treaties between the various indigenous tribes in an attempt to set boundaries to their lands, and “compensate” them for the lands taken from them. I have “compensate” in quotations because first of all, no amount of money or goods can compensate for lost lives, which is what many tribes experienced. Some tribes became extinct as a result. Second, these treaties were signed by members who did not have signatory authority to give permission to the lands on the side of many indigenous nations, and Congress seldom ratified the treaties that were signed on the part of the United States. This meant that this was more of a theatrical expression than anything else, and the United States continued to steal the lands of indigenous people. Thirdly, as discussed above, many indigenous people who did engage in treaty-making assumed they were simply “leasing” their lands to be used by the colonists, not selling their rights to it outright. So, there was miscommunication and misunderstandings as to what the treaties actually established. Finally, the United States Congress and Supreme Court established that the indigenous tribes were not capable of engaging in treaty-making, and as such, ended the whole process altogether in 1871, claiming that Congress had full control over “Native American Affairs.”

An image depicting the infamous Trail of Tears, where thousands of indigenous people were forcefully driven out of their ancestral homes and marched into Oklahoma.
Image 4 – Source: Yahoo Images; An image depicting the infamous Trail of Tears, where thousands of indigenous people were forcefully driven out of their ancestral homes and marched into Oklahoma.

In an attempt to fasten the process of transferring lands from Native American tribes to the hands of the government, the United States passed the Dawes Act of 1887. Many of the treaties that were made between the US and the various nations included provisions in which tribes were expected to distribute their lands among their members so that lands were held by individuals rather than the tribal entities as a whole. For reasons explained earlier, the settlers were threatened by the communal lifestyles of the Native American tribes and believed that having individual members have rights over smaller portions of lands would make it easier for them to accept the European lifestyles and give up their “backward” ways. The Dawes Act forced these indigenous members to choose a parcel of land for themselves and their families (the size of the parcel of land was determined by the government), and any excess amount of land after this process would be sold to the government to be used by non-native residents and corporations alike. Millions of acres of land were stolen from various indigenous tribes as a result. This essentially acted as a way to separate the individual Native American member from their larger tribe and weaken their sense of community and tribal sovereignty as a whole.

Since the end of the Revolutionary War, the United States government has made about 374 treaties with various indigenous nations across the country. The United States has either violated or fully broken nearly all of these treaties they created as a promise of peacekeeping. Many of these treaties that the United States obtained in the first place were either coerced or done so by forcible means such as threatening starvation on the communities that refused to sign the treaties. Of the various treaties that were violated and broken, one that comes to mind clearly for anyone even slightly familiar with American History is the actions of then president Andrew Jackson and his Indian Removal Act of 1830. Although he negotiated treaties with various tribes in the Southeast in an attempt to get them to move West of the Mississippi River voluntarily, when he became president of the United States, he passed the Indian Removal Act of 1830, forcibly removing almost 50,000 people from their homes. This forcible removal today would be recognized as a forceable deportation of a population, specifically as a crime against humanity. Under the United Nations Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court, this is one of the most heinous systematic crimes that has been committed throughout history. Jackson did this in an attempt to clear lands to cultivate cotton, which would lead to another atrocious event, the revamping of plantation slavery in the South.

History of the Forced Assimilation of Native American Children

An image of indigenous children dressed in military garb posing with an adult at one of the boarding schools set up across the country in efforts to assimilate the children.
Image 5 – Source: Yahoo Images; An image of indigenous children dressed in military garb posing with an adult at one of the boarding schools set up across the country in efforts to assimilate the children.

Another tactic used by the government to acquire lands from the indigenous populations was through further treacherous means. Native American children were forcefully assimilated into American culture in an attempt to beat/torture their culture out of them. The existence of the Federal Indian Boarding School System was proof of this very thing. Recently, an internal investigation was conducted of the United States government’s treatment of Indigenous children following the incident in Canada, where they found over 215 unmarked graves at a school in 2021. This report, led by Deb Halland, the Secretary of Interior, highlighted many nefarious ways in which tribal lands were stolen from different indigenous nations and the atrocities that were forced upon the children from these nations.

To explore some of the details outlined in this report, (specifically from pages 20-40), the plans of forcible assimilation have been put in place since the days of George Washington. This plan to forcefully erase indigenous culture and assimilate the children into Western culture was seen as the “cheapest and safest way” to steal the tribal lands, ensure a less violent relationship between the colonists and the Native Americans, and transform the tribal economy so they would be prepared to live off of lesser and lesser parcels of land. They found a way to weaponize education in order to accomplish this task.

Elaborating on George Washington’s proposal, Thomas Jefferson, the third president of the United States, put forth a 2-step solution to acquire more lands for the colonists. First, he argued that Native Americans could be forcefully assimilated into European culture, where they could be discouraged to live out a nomadic lifestyle (which requires the use of vast areas of land) and to adopt an agricultural lifestyle similar to the colonists (which can be done with a few acres of land that are cultivated). Second, he proposed that the United States place indigenous populations in debt by encouraging their use of credits to purchase their goods. This, he presumed, would make them default on their debts, and when they were unable to pay back their loans, they would be forced to give up their lands as a result. This land acquired by the government would be sold to non-native settlers, and the profits from these land sales would be put back into the education programs for forceful assimilation of native children.

Sanctioned by the United States government, indigenous children were kidnapped from their homes, whether they wanted to go to boarding school or not (with or without parental permission), and placed in these schools that were located far away from their tribal lands. The plan was to erase the relationship these children had with their cultures, communities, and lands, and instead instill individualism in the children who they were attempting to assimilate in the hopes that they could break up the communal lands into individual parcels, making it easier to be ceased by the government and private entities alike. They called it the “Indian Problem”, which was the different lifestyle and relationship tribal members held with their land and their community. Thomas Jefferson’s two-part proposal was seen as a “key solution” to this “Indian problem.” If the Native American children were forced to become dependent on agricultural lifestyles, they assumed, they could be “civilized.” The government believed that if you separate the children from their families and their tribal connections at a very young age, what they were introduced to would be all they knew, and they would become strangers to the indigenous lifestyles. In turn, the government assumed, the children would not want to go back home and live on the reservations, but instead, would be much more likely to assimilate and live amongst the colonists.

As a result, indigenous families were broken apart, and indigenous children were placed with white families as part of the “outing system.” This meant that the children were forbidden to speak in their native languages and were required to speak English to communicate their needs. What’s worse, they were placed with children from other tribes, meaning that their common language of communication was English, and any children they would have would grow up learning English as their first language instead of the tribal languages of their ancestors.

To support the government in this endeavor, many churches were given legal power over reservations by the government. The military was called in to reinforce the orders of these religious institutions. Many times, the government paid these institutions if they operated a boarding school, paying them a sum for each child. The churches went along with it because they believed that the indigenous way of “paganism” kept them from becoming “civilized” and to fully do so, the indigenous children needed to accept Christianity. The government worked with churches from many denominations by funding them to build the Federal Indian Boarding School System.

Treatment of Indigenous children in these boarding school systems

An Image depicting three children before and after the assimilation process at the boarding school. On the left, the three children sit with their cultural garments, proud of their cultural identity. One the right, the same three children have had hair cuts, and been groomed (both physically and psychologically) to appear more Western.
Image 6 – Source: Yahoo Images; An Image depicting three children before and after the assimilation process at the boarding school. On the left, the three children sit in their cultural garments, proud of their cultural identity. On the right, the same three children have had hair cuts, and been groomed (both physically and psychologically) to appear more Western.

 The Federal Indian Boarding School System was problematic in so many ways. Not only did it forcefully assimilate indigenous children, but the system also took a militaristic approach to education, abusing and mistreating these children in the process. The living conditions at these Boarding schools were terrible. There was no access to basic health care needs, and diseases ran rampant across the schools. The children were malnourished, as they were provided with food and water of poor quality. There was an overcrowding issue, with many facilities forcing multiple children to share one bed as a result. There were not enough toilets to serve the number of children at each facility, and the toilets were not properly maintained.

The infrastructure in these facilities was so poor because they were not built specifically to house these children as facilities for education. Rather, these children were placed in abandoned government buildings or military forts to carry out their education. There was also the issue of child labor, where the children were expected to provide all the services required to run the facilities. This included looking after the livestock, chopping wood, making bricks, sewing garments to clothe the other children, working on the railway, cooking, and cleaning for the others in the facility, and so much more.

The children were expected to take care of themselves and the other children at the facilities. They were also tasked with work from various fields like carpentry, plumbing, blacksmithing, fertilizing, helping with the irrigation system, helping make furniture for use in the facilities (such as tables, chairs, and beds), and anything else that involved physical labor. These jobs the children were trained in would forever keep them at a lower socioeconomic level than their White counterparts. Here too they tried to instill the patriarchal norms of Western society, making sure to teach and employ young girls to work as assistants and cooks, while the young boys were expected to be farmers and industrial workers.

The Indigenous children were forcefully assimilated into American culture. They were told to stop practicing their faiths and were stopped from performing any spiritual and/or religious rituals. The children were expected to go by the English names they were given at the boarding school instead of their Native names given to them at birth. They were forced to cut their hair (which was sacred to many indigenous people as it represented their cultural identity), and were forbidden to wear their cultural clothes and instead were put in military garb.

Those who resisted the assimilation or tried to run away were caught and severely abused and punished. They were put in solitary, whipped, slapped, starved, and abused for fighting to retain their culture. Many of the older children at the facilities were forced to punish the younger children, further dividing the children, and destroying any opportunity the children may have had to band together to resist the assimilation forces. As a result of what the Federal Indian Boarding School System put these children through, there were over 50 marked and unmarked burial sites found. These burial sites had found over 500 indigenous children dead and counting, and these numbers are expected to rise to thousands more. Many indigenous children that survived these boarding schools are reported to have long-lasting impacts on their health and their lives. These children that grew up to be adults reported having higher risks for cancer, diabetes, and Tuberculosis. They experienced heightened mental health issues, and many remain in a lower socioeconomic class as a result.

Cultural Genocide

This image depicts the number of indigenous people that exist today in comparison to what we saw before.
Images 7 & 8 – Source: Yahoo Images; This is a map that depicts how many indigenous members exist today, and what is left of their lands.

Many believe this forcible assimilation program conducted by the federal government to be a cultural genocide, in which a state-sanctioned attempt at the erasure of an entire culture took place. The official definition of genocide as established by the Genocide Convention in the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court reads as follows: “…any of the following acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial, or religious group, as such: killing members of the group; causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group; deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part; imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group; forcibly transferring children of the group to another group.” As per this definition, the acts carried out by the United States government against the children of various Native American tribes fulfill most, if not all these categories that define these acts to be considered genocidal. It is not a surprise that Native Americans have been killed by the federal government’s sanctions throughout history. There has been serious bodily harm and mental harm caused to members of these various indigenous groups throughout American history. The government deliberately placed young children in conditions of life that ensured their destruction as a member of the Native American tribe they each belonged to. The children within these facilities were not allowed to mingle with others from their own tribes, making it harder for them to retain and pass down their cultural identities, as well as procreate with members of their own tribe. Finally, they were forcibly taken away from their parents and placed in these facilities and other non-native homes in an attempt to erase their cultural backgrounds. All these actions, as was discovered by the recent report we explored at length in this blog, were done so with the intent to destroy the rich cultures of the various Native American tribes. So, the forcible assimilation of Native American children can, without a doubt, be characterized as cultural genocide.

The main goal of this blog was to establish the historical context of what the various Native American tribes endured, as well as the intentions of the federal government in terms of their dealings with the different native nations present in America. Part two of this conversation will focus on a specific piece of legislation that has gained a lot of attention in recent years, the Indian Child Welfare Act. At face value, this legislation is simply an act that addresses the long, detailed history of Native American children and sets guidelines to ensure that proper regulations are put in place to prevent a repetition of history. Yet, it’s now been challenged, partly with the help of very shady moneyed interest, and its fate (and the overarching consequences as a result) were placed in the hands of the nine Supreme Court justices of the United States. We will explore more about this legislation and the case in the next blog.

Environmental Rights = Human Rights: Air As a Human Right

An image of air pollution coming from industrial usage
Source: Yahoo Images;

Human rights are dependent on the environment, and we can address many environmental rights issues to bring about a better world for all those who live on this green and blue planet that we call home. In this sense, environmental rights ARE human rights, and taking a human rights approach to address these environmental rights can close the gaps of inequality between the Global North and the Global South countries. I am dedicating a series to deep dive into this human rights approach to environmental rights. We began this series by focusing on how issues around food and water can be addressed with a human rights approach. This blog will focus on air, another essential need for all living things, and how issues surrounding access to clean water can be addressed with a human rights approach.

The Right to Clean Air and the Consequences of Air Pollution

Like food and water, the air is another resource that humans and other creatures cannot live without. In fact, the Earth’s atmosphere, along with the water found here, is a special phenomenon that enables the Earth to support life. The atmosphere acts as a barrier between the organisms on Earth and the sun’s harmful ultraviolet (UV) rays, that when consumed in large quantities, can lead to cancer and death. Even the water that exists on Earth depends on the atmospheric pressures, and the layers of the atmosphere allow for warmth to heat up our planet so that life can exist comfortably. While the atmosphere is life-giving, any minute changes to the atmosphere can have drastic impacts on all living creatures on Earth, including humans.

Layers of the Atmosphere 

An image depicting the layers of the atmosphere, along with its temperatures and the objects and phenomenon that are present in those layers.
Source: Yahoo Images

There are many layers of our atmosphere, which are characterized based on their atmospheric temperatures. The four main layers are the troposphere, stratosphere, mesosphere, and thermosphere, in order. Further out is the exosphere, and the outermost layer is the magnetosphere. Understanding the different layers of our atmosphere, and the crucial roles they play to protect life on Earth can help us better appreciate the planet on which we live. The Troposphere is the layer closest to the surface, in which we exist. This is the layer that produces much of our weather patterns and contains 75% of all the atmosphere’s air. The temperatures in this layer grow colder the farther they are from the Earth’s surface, with temperatures varying based on the weather patterns.

The Stratosphere is the next layer, which exists above the troposphere, is 22 miles long and contains the most important element of our atmosphere, the Ozone Layer. The Ozone Layer is the layer within the stratosphere that absorbs the sun’s heat and radiation, filtering the harmful rays to make them safe for consumption by all living beings. In this layer, the air is colder closer to the troposphere, and the air is warmer as it increases in height, a consequence of the sun’s UV rays and their warming effect. In the 1980s, scientists realized that some of the chemicals we were using in refrigerators and in hair sprays (chlorofluorocarbons or CFCs), were causing the Ozone Layer to develop a large opening over Antarctica, exposing all the Earth’s organisms to the harmful UV rays of the sun. There was a global effort to end the use of these chemicals, and the Earth’s Ozone Layer is in the process of healing today. This healing process will take years, as a new UN study predicts that it will take another 43 years for the Ozone Hole to fully heal.

Next is the Mesosphere, which is where all the gases exist in a mixture rather than in specific layers. About 22 miles long, this layer is where the meteors and other objects from space burn up, a phenomenon we are familiar with as “shooting stars.” Above the mesosphere is the thermosphere, which captures much of the X-ray radiation from the sun, and the temperatures in this layer rise with height. This layer exists alongside the ionosphere, where the electrons from the layer’s atoms and molecules are transformed into positive charges due to the sun’s solar radiation. This layer is about 319 miles long, with temperatures reaching as high as 4,500 degrees Fahrenheit. The thermosphere is the layer in which the International Space Station is positioned, and the ionosphere allows radio waves to be reflected and absorbed, allowing us to make use of those radio waves to broadcast around the world.

Beyond the thermosphere is the exosphere, a layer that is 6,200 miles long, and considered to be the Earth’s outermost layer. Home to many gases such as hydrogen and helium, the exosphere does not have any oxygen to breathe. This is the layer that contains the satellites which enable us to use tools like GPS, weather monitoring systems, and other communication networks. As with all the other planets in our solar system, Earth has an outer shell, called the magnetosphere that is responsible for creating a magnetic field around the planet that interacts with the Earth’s iron core and is responsible for protecting our planet from solar flares, cosmic rays, and the impacts of solar winds. Scientists at NASA who study the magnetosphere’s complexity propose that Earth has the strongest magnetosphere than any of the other planets in our solar system and that this magnetic field is largely responsible for making the Earth habitable.

Greenhouse gases, air pollution, and global warming

An infographic explaining the treehouse effect
Source: Yahoo Images

There are many gases that are present in our atmosphere. These gases include Carbon Dioxide, Methane, Nitrogen, and others. While these are gases that are naturally present in the atmosphere, an excessive amount of these gases can cause a greenhouse effect in the atmosphere. The sun warms up the Earth’s surface during the day, and as the sun goes down and cools the Earth’s surface, this heat is released back into the atmosphere. Yet, the greenhouse gases present in the atmosphere trap some of that heat in the atmosphere. This function is actually required for the possibility of life to be sustainable on Earth. Without this effect, the Earth would drop to unbearable temperatures as soon as the sun goes down. Unfortunately, when more and more of these gases are present in the atmosphere, it traps more and more heat on the Earth’s surface. This is exacerbated by the activities of humans, especially following the Industrial Revolution, as the amount of these greenhouse gases present in the atmosphere is increasing by the year.

Sources of Air Pollution and Their Health Impacts

An infographic depicting the various sources of air pollution, both anthropogenic and natural sources
Source: Yahoo Images

Anthropogenic (caused by humans) Source

There are many human activities that cause air pollution, trapping greenhouse gas emissions in the atmosphere. While I will not be able to list them all here, I have comprised a list that includes a few anthropogenic activities that cause air pollution, as well as a few natural occurrences that add to this issue. Some human activities that cause air pollution include various things like transportation, residential use, waste management, and more. Many industries add to the air pollution through the complex processes they use when converting raw materials into usable items to be sold. These processes not only release chemicals from the materials used but also release various gases from the burning of fossil fuels that is converted into energy and heat to be used during these processes. Various forms of transportation can also cause air pollution, from driving gas cars to flying jets. We regularly use large trucks to transport our goods across states, use large cargo ships to transport goods across oceans, and use airplanes to transport goods and people across the globe. All these vehicles release greenhouse gases, including its biggest polluter, Carbon dioxide (CO2), and Nitrogen oxide (NOx), both of which can be harmful to humans in large quantities. In fact, Nitrogen Oxides can cause respiratory issues, and damage the lungs.

Another source of air pollution comes from our personal use and commercial uses. For one, our personal use of motor vehicles adds to this issue, as well as our burning of coal, wood, or other sources of energy conversion that provide us with heat. We also release chemicals into the air with the cleaning products we use, the hair sprays and perfumes we use, and even in the cigarettes that are smoked by many people. In fact, smoking tobacco releases ten times more emissions than what comes out of a diesel engine. Smoking tobacco releases what is known as Particulate Matter (PM), which is made up of minuscule amounts of dust, smoke, soot, or other particles in the air, and is one of the most harmful pollutants to humans. Their microscopic size allows them easy access to our lungs, and sometimes even into our bloodstreams, flaring up respiratory issues, and eye irritation, and could even lead to lung cancer.

An image that shows the toxic air pollution coming from near a landfill, burning electronic waste.
Source: Yahoo Images

Not surprisingly, another source of air pollution comes from our waste management practices, whether it be storing waste in landfills, or waste incineration to convert the trash into energy. Many of us simply use trash pick-up services without thinking too deeply about what happens to the trash we throw away. Much of our trash ends up in landfills, which are most likely to be located in impoverished areas, and near communities of color. These landfills are dumping sites for waste products, and although there are regulations and standards of waste disposal, much of the waste that ends up in landfills contain both hazardous and non-hazardous waste. These landfills not only produce stringent odors but also release greenhouse gases from these piles. Some of the waste that does not end up in landfills will be sent to be incinerated and converted into energy.

While this is better than storing waste in landfills, (as it is being recycled to be used as energy), the process of incinerating the trash releases further toxins and pollutants into the air, adding to the problem, even as it provides a solution. The United States parcels much of its trash to China to be incinerated there, and this is an example of environmental racism. This transaction of waste generated by the exceeding consumer culture in America was being transferred to China to deal with the consequences of eliminating the waste for us. We do not think about these instances, because our problems are shipped away across the oceans for others, who are less fortunate, to deal with it. Only recently has China stopped buying our waste, and as a result, this has caused a global issue of waste disposal.

Natural Sources

There are also many natural sources of air pollution, such as dust, forest fires, volcanoes, and more. I include agriculture in the natural sources even though it is a mixture of both anthropogenic and natural sources of air pollution. Cows, pigs, and other livestock release greenhouse gases, such as CO2, Methane, and Ammonia, through their bodily wastes. Heavy machinery, such as tractors and other farm equipment emit greenhouse gases from their exhausts. The use of pesticides and herbicides further releases toxic chemicals into the air.

An image of the air pollution coming from a volcanic eruption
Source: Yahoo images

Similarly, other natural sources of air pollution include natural disasters, such as volcanoes, forest fires, and tornadoes. When volcanoes erupt, they endanger the surrounding communities of living organisms with the hot-flowing magma. They also release toxins into the air, including volcanic smog and oxides that can cause acid rain. Forest fires also release pollutants into the air. When

You would not think that flooding impacts air quality, but this natural disaster also pollutes the air. Flooding unearths many creatures buried deep in the soil. Along with this, however, flooding causes molding of furniture, buildings, and homes. Many types of molds are harmful to humans, as they can cause respiratory issues such as asthma. These respiratory illnesses due to this natural disaster, as well as all the other anthropogenic sources of air pollution, have been amplified due to the recent pandemic. Coronavirus, a respiratory illness, has exacerbated the impacts of these conditions.

On the other end, severe droughts also can lead to an increase in air pollution. Droughts can lead to soil erosion, which can kick up dust into the surrounding air, increasing the PM amounts in the air. Droughts also dry up surrounding lakes and waterways on which dams are built to sustain the energy needs of local communities nearby. Without the functioning dams, people will likely burn more wood, coal, and charcoal for energy use, further adding to the air pollution. This air pollution can even impact the formation of clouds, and as a result, limit the precipitation coming from the clouds, leading to more droughts. This is a vicious cycle of drier and hotter weather leading to more of the same.

Apart from their cyclical nature, droughts can also lead to forest fires. When temperatures are hot and the land is very dry, this is the perfect environment for wildfires to thrive in. Trees catch on fire due to the surrounding conditions, and when these wooded areas are burning, it has an amplified effect of burning wood at home. This natural disaster releases toxic gases, and large amounts of PM, and the smoke can be very harmful for inhalation. Many areas like California, which suffer from wildfires almost every year, are evacuated during these disasters, as the smoky air is not safe to breathe in. This disaster is capable of uprooting entire communities, and the more it spreads, the more trees it takes with it. These trees, which absorbed much of the CO2 in the area are destroyed, further releasing larger amounts of the gas into the atmosphere.

An image of a forest fire, with black smoke polluting the air
Source: Yahoo Images

Finally, there is a phenomenon known as ocean acidification, that further exacerbates the issue of global warming and air pollution. The ocean absorbs much of the CO2 in the air, and through a complex chemical reaction due to the mixing of this gas with the seawater, the ocean itself becomes more acidic and the levels of carbonate ions found in the ocean decrease. These carbonate ions are an important element for the survival of coral reefs and other structures in the marine ecosystem. This phenomenon also heats up the ocean, further leading to the melting of ice sheets that support arctic wildlife and provide fresh water to the surrounding communities. Instead, these sheets are melting into the ocean, mixing with the saltwater, as a result, becoming unavailable as a source of drinking water. Along with this issue, the changes in the atmosphere, temperature, and environment lead to phenomena such as coral bleaching, which is when coral reefs are naturally bleached white, and become more vulnerable to diseases and death. Many species in the marine ecosystem rely on corals for food and shelter, and even we as humans rely on corals for our medicine and as protection from erosion.   As there are increasingly large amounts of CO2 present in the atmosphere.

Human Rights Approach to Air

An infographic that depicts the various forms of renewable energy, including hydropower, solar, wave, wind, biomass, and other forms of renewable energy sources
Source: Yahoo Images

Humans may not have control over natural disasters, but we do have control over our own actions and the impact they have on our surrounding communities and environment. There are some ways in which we can take a human rights approach to redesign our infrastructure and our society to reflect environmentally conscious lifestyles. Big industries, power plants, and sewage plants need a lot of energy to function, and this energy can be harnessed through renewable sources of energy instead of the current status quo of using fossil fuels. In recent years, solar energy, wind energy, hydropower, and wave energy are just some sources of renewable energy. A renewable source requires that it be both sustainable and self-sufficient, and while some of these sources of energy still have a bit of an environmental impact, it is not nearly as much as fossil fuels and other greenhouse gases do. Using solar energy, for example, requires solar panels that use lithium batteries which have to be mined for, but using solar energy eliminates greenhouse gas emissions from fossil fuel use, reducing air pollutants in the atmosphere, and as a result, improving the air quality. These renewable sources of energy are already available to us; governments need to step in and implement these infrastructures across the board.

When it comes to air pollution from personal use and commercial use, there are a number of ways to eliminate, or at least limit the number of pollutants being released into the air. As with large industries, solar panels can also be installed for use in homes and commercial buildings. Solar energy is abundant, as there is no limitation to the sun’s energy, and as such, provides a free source of electricity and heating that people in impoverished areas could benefit from, financially, as well as the health benefits they can provide. Instead of using harmful chemicals to clean with, we can make use of natural materials, (such as white vinegar) to clean with. Beauty products and hair products can be made with natural materials like rose water instead of harmful chemicals that are not healthy for us to inhale, and unhealthy to be applied on our skin.

An infographic depicting the various forms of clean infrastructure
Source: Yahoo Images

Another anthropogenic source of air pollution, transportation, can also be addressed with new technology. Hybrid cars have been on the market for decades now, which switch back and forth between fuel and electricity to run the vehicle. Newer models are available today that are fully electric vehicles, and as such, run solely on electricity rather than fossil fuels. This prevents the emission of toxic gasses into the atmosphere that is released from traditional car exhausts. The EPA reports that even accounting for the electricity required to charge the electric vehicles, and the manufacturing stages, EVs have lower emissions of greenhouse gases than gasoline and diesel vehicles. We as a society need to transition from these gasoline and diesel vehicles to using electric-powered vehicles for our transportation needs. Also, designing trains and buses that use electric power to run, and constructing the necessary infrastructure to be used broadly can also address the transportation shortages that many people in rural areas and the outskirts of urban areas face.

Finally, we can change some of our habits of waste disposal to be more conscious of our practices. We can be mindful of the waste that we are disposing of, by composting food wastes and recycling cardboard, metals, and plastics properly. We can demand more regulations on single-use plastics, and demand that companies find creative solutions for single-use utensils and tableware. For example, there have been historical practices in many parts of the world that have incorporated single-use tableware with an environmentally conscious framework by making use of leaves to create plates, bowls, and cups, and using coconut shells as scooping spoons. These products are organic, and as such, will be biodegradable, instead of plastics, which are very difficult to break down naturally. We also need to think of innovative ways to transform trash into usable energy without adding more pollutants into the atmosphere.

An infographic focused on thing that can be done at the residential level to incorporate green living
Source: Yahoo Images

If we cut down our activities in these areas, it will reflect on the severity of our natural disasters, and as such, have an indirect impact on reducing the air pollution caused by these natural sources.

In the upcoming blogs, we will focus on how infrastructure, the economy, our healthcare system, and even our technologies are impacted by the environment, and as such, impact our human rights as a whole.

Juneteenth – What It Is and Why We Should Celebrate It

Alt text: A sign that reads “July 4th” with a line through it, scratching it out, and instead, with “JUNETEENTH is my independence day” written on it to bring attention to the inequality that continued to exist in America and the hypocrisy of the “freedom for all” phrase in the Constitution during its conception, when it did not apply to everyone.
Image 1 – Source: Yahoo Images

Juneteenth has been historically celebrated by many Americans since the late 1860s, yet it is only recently that it has become mainstream. Today we focus on why that is, what Juneteenth celebrates, and how we can do a better job incorporating this holiday into our lives.  Although it has been around for so long, Juneteenth was only recognized as a federal holiday on June 19th, 2021, following the summer protests of the Black Lives Matter movement in response to the brutality experienced by George Floyd at the hands of the law enforcement system.  June 19th, or Juneteenth as it is known widely by those who have celebrated it since its founding, is the day we commemorate the abolition of slavery in America, freeing enslaved African Americans through the passage of the Emancipation Proclamation and the Thirteenth Amendment.

History of Juneteenth, The Emancipation Proclamation, and The Thirteenth Amendment

Alt text: An illustration depicting a chain that has been sliced in half, with the words, “JUNETEENTH, June 19, 1865 – Galveston, Texas” written between the two halves of the broken chain, representing freedom for all enslaved people.
Image 2 – Source: Yahoo Images

The Civil War was one of the bloodiest wars that Americans have ever fought, and it lasted four long years. The war was between the Union, which was made up of much of the northern states above the Mason-Dixon Line, and anyone below that line seceded from the main country and swore loyalty to the Confederacy. The Mason-Dixon line, which was passed in 1861, was designed to be a compromise that allowed Southern states to continue to use slave labor in the South in their fields and farms, while the Northern states were moving to abolish slavery within their boundaries. While the North depended on their seaports and industries, the South primarily produced the cash crops like cotton, rice, and indigo, that were being shipped across the oceans and transported by railroads across the lands. There were a few border states in the middle that did not want to give up slavery in their states. Lincoln, recognizing that he needed those states in the Union to have a chance to win the Civil War, permitted them to continue to use slavery while being a part of the Union.

In an attempt to change the course of the Civil War and keep the nation from breaking into two parts, President Abraham Lincoln wanted to weaken the Confederate forces so the Union forces could be victorious. This, he assumed, could be done by targeting the Confederacy’s economy and economic infrastructure, which at that time, was primarily dependent on slave labor. President Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863 as an executive order, freeing all the enslaved individuals in all Confederate states that did not yield to the Union troops. With the passage of this document, the South could no longer rely on unpaid labor, leaving them in financial turmoil and giving them no other option but to surrender to the Union troops. The document is largely believed to have abolished slavery entirely in America, but the reality is that this was a political move during a war by the President to ensure that the Southern economy would be devastated. This proclamation did not include the border states which were already part of the Union but were employing slavery in their states. This meant that the enslaved individuals in those border states continued to be enslaved. This proclamation also excluded those who lived in the southern states which had already surrendered to the Union, meaning that those who did not rebel against the Union were allowed to continue to use slavery as their economic system. What the Proclamation did, however, was transform the morality and cause for fighting the Civil War. The Civil War began over the question of whether slavery should exist or not, with the Vice President of the Confederacy delivering a speech declaring the sole purpose of secession to be the disagreement on slavery between the Union and the Confederacy.  However, to President Lincoln, being victorious meant keeping the nation intact, and the abolition of slavery was an aftermath. Once the Proclamation was passed, many Americans were convinced that the war was being fought for the abolition of slavery in its entirety in the United States. The Proclamation even gave way for newly freed African Americans to join the Union army and help liberate their brothers and sisters in the Confederate states.

While the Union’s victory was generally a good thing for the progress of America toward equality among all people as it was first outlined in the Constitution, the Emancipation Proclamation was not the document to achieve this goal. Although it changed the trajectory of the Civil War, transforming the initial cause to keep the nation united, into a moral cause of abolishing slavery, it was not until the Thirteenth Amendment was passed that slavery was truly abolished in all the states of the nation. This Amendment, which had followed the proper channels of the Legislative branch, was passed right after the Civil War ended, and right before the rebellious states were admitted back into the Union. On December 6, 1865, the Thirteenth Amendment was officially ratified into the Constitution of the United States. Along with the Thirteenth Amendment, the passage of the Fourteenth Amendment, which granted citizenship to all formerly enslaved individuals, and the Fifteenth Amendment, which granted suffrage rights to African American men, altogether addressed the Civil War’s conflicts, providing a final Constitutional solution to the issue of slavery in America.

So, where does the term “Juneteenth” come from? Although the Emancipation Proclamation had passed in 1863 and the Thirteenth Amendment had passed in 1864, it was not until two months after the Civil War had ended, that many of the enslaved individuals in most Southern states had been made aware of their free status. On June 19th, 1865, two thousand Union soldiers arrived in Galveston, Texas to announce the freedom of all who were enslaved there, and the newly freed African Americans coined the term “Juneteenth” to commemorate the day they received independence and could be truly free.

The Continued Struggle for Freedom and Equality

Alt text: An image with an American flag in black and white with an African American person walking across it in black and white stripes, with the words, “FROM SLAVE TO CRIMINAL WITH ONE AMENDMENT” reading across the top.
Image 3 – Source: Yahoo Images

The end of the Civil War, the passage of the Emancipation Proclamation, and the Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth Amendments, were supposed to be the official end to slavery in America, but many scholars have pointed out that slavery only transformed into a modified system. These scholars highlight issues with the wording of the Thirteenth Amendment, which states that “Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.” The amendment abolished slavery in all instances, except as a punishment for crimes, and the Reconstruction Era, which followed the end of the Civil War, took advantage of the loophole in the Thirteenth Amendment. In the 1890s, legalized segregation became the new normal. The South had faced a lot of loss, both to its infrastructure as a result of the war, as well as its economy (primarily held up by slavery), due to the freeing of their enslaved laborers. Additionally, many white southerners also were not ready to accept the newly freed African Americans, who they did not view as equals.

The infamous Jim Crow laws were proposed as a solution to all of the White Southerners’ problems with the outcome of the war. These laws were made to criminalize as many newly freed individuals as possible, to re-enslave them in the prison systems, and force them to help rebuild the nation, as they had once done under slavery following the Revolutionary War. The Jim Crow laws criminalized such things as being unemployed, not bowing to white people while walking on the streets, drinking from a “Whites Only” water fountain, and many other harmless, everyday actions that displeased any white residents of the area. Many times, lies were told about African Americans simply to land them in prisons and put them to work. These laws were designed to be a criminalization of blackness.

Alt text: An image of the historical marker found at Sloss Furnaces regarding the racial terrorism and convict leasing that took place at the facility. It reads, “Thousands of black people were the victims of lynching and racial violence in the United States between 1877 and 1950. Lynching was a form of racial terrorism that went beyond only hanging, often including death by gunshot, burning, or mutilation. After the Civil War, violent resistance to equal rights for black people led to decades of racial subordination. Alabama’s mining industry, which relied on enslaved people’s labor since the 1840s, continued such abuse and exploitation after slaver was abolished. Southern legislators used a loophole in the 13th Amendment to pass laws to criminalize free black people as vagrants and loiterers. Local governments then sold incarcerated individuals to private and government entities for labor. Sloss-Sheffield Steel and Iron Company used this practice of ‘Convict Leasing’ in Jefferson County, leasing predominantly black laborers to work at the Brookside and Coalburg mines died while working there. Without legal protections, black laborers, and black leaders of labor movements, were often terrorized to prevent them from challenging unjust and dangerous employment conditions. Although the names of many victims of racial terror are unknown, over 300 documented lynchings took place in Alabama, with at least 30 victims in Jefferson county.”
Image 4 – Source: Kala Bhattar; An image taken at Sloss Furnaces in Birmingham, Alabama

This was also the time when Convict Leasing systems began, where imprisoned individuals would be leased to businesses and the state to work as laborers for whatever positions they needed to be filled. This could be working on farmlands, working with heavy machinery, or even in coal mines. Our own Sloss Furnaces, the famous Steel and Iron plant that transformed Birmingham from a small town into the large city it is today, made use of Convict Leasing as well. To read more about the history of the prison systems in America and in Birmingham, as well as details about the convict leasing programs, click here.

The exception in the Thirteenth Amendment has today led America to have the highest rate of mass incarceration in the world and has given way to the Prison Industrial Complex. America houses only about 5% of the world’s population, yet the mass incarceration rate is so large that 20% of the world’s prison population is made up of Americans alone. This is not only unjust, costly, and inefficient, it also shares its roots in the racist history of America’s founding. Many of those who end up in prison are disproportionately people of color, which speaks to the systemic racism present within our institutions. What’s worse, many of the people held in local jails have not even been charged with any crimes. They are awaiting their trial, too poor to post the high bail amounts. Still, others have lived out sentences for crimes they have never committed. This atrocious list goes on and on with injustices, yet a simple solution is to cut down on our incarceration rates. One reason why this is more than an issue of criminality can be determined by looking at the Angola Prison in Louisiana, a plantation farm that operates as a state penitentiary, with their prisoners in chains (like enslaved individuals of the past), officers on horseback (like overseers on the plantations), and the farmland that they are expected to till, harvest and package food for the rest of the community. Until white supremacy and racist ideology continue to exist in America, so too will these unjust forms of oppression, clouded by the legal cover provided to them by the justice system.

Alt text: An image depicting a line of inmates, all who look like they are people of color, each holding a shovel in hand walking in a line inside the penitentiary, as a white man rides on a horse away from them.
Image 5 – Source: Yahoo Images

These facts are bleak but necessary for everyone to understand, so as to be conscious of the continued struggle for true equality in this country for African Americans, and others who have dealt with oppression throughout the history of this nation. Many people think that slavery died following the Civil War, or that it was “more than 200 years ago, so what can we do about it?” Yet, the reality remains that slavery never died, but only transformed into a modern, industrialized version of the same system, which now incorporates a wider umbrella of people to oppress. Juneteenth is not only a celebration of the resistance, courage, and triumphs over oppression by people of our past, but also a day to come together and address the new forms of oppression we face in society today. It is a continuation of the legacy of freedom, equality, and justice started by those before us.

Importance of Juneteenth

Alt text: A collage of various African American historical figures, from Fredrick Douglass, W.E.B. DuBois, Muhammad Ali and Louis Armstrong, Dr. King, Malcom X, to modern-day influencers such as Sidney Poitier, President Obama, Michelle Obama, and Oprah Winfrey. Juneteenth is a celebration of freedom, culture, heritage, ancestry, and the progress towards peace, equality, and justice.
Image 6 – Source: Yahoo Images

Juneteenth was officially recognized as a holiday in Texas, which was the first state to do so in 1979. It has recently been recognized as a federal holiday since 2021 after President Joe Biden signed the Juneteenth National Independence Day Act. Juneteenth is a day to celebrate the shared history of African Americans, but also the progress towards peace, freedom, equality, and justice. Fredrick Douglass, a famous orator, author, and abolitionist, in 1852, had famously asked his audience in a speech he delivered on July 4th, what Independence Day meant for those who were enslaved in America. Juneteenth is the true Independence Day for many people who recognize the hypocrisy of the Founding Fathers, who fought the Revolutionary War for “freedom” while enslaving African Americans and stealing lands from the Native Americans. Juneteenth is a time for the rejuvenation of culture among a group of people whose cultures were stolen from them, and all that they were left behind with are their shared ancestry and shared histories. This day is a day to instill a sense of community despite those hardships and losses. Juneteenth is also a time to reflect on the past, rejoice in the resilience and solidarity of those who fought for this freedom, and discuss current events and how to best approach them moving forward. Juneteenth is a day to learn from the past, live gratefully in the present, and prepare for the future.

How Is It Celebrated and Who Can Celebrate It?

Alt text: An image depicting a Juneteenth celebration with song and dance, in a celebration of cultural heritage.
Image 7 – Source: Yahoo Images

There are many ways to celebrate Juneteenth. Many cities hold parades and festivals, with local black-owned businesses and food trucks as vendors for the event. These events might include prominent guest speakers and workshops on various topics each year, based on the community’s needs and wants. Others celebrate the holiday by holding potlucks, family gatherings, and backyard barbecues for a more intimate celebration with family and friends. If you want to celebrate Juneteenth but are not comfortable engaging in community activities, there are many things you can do in the comforts of your home, or with friends and family members as well to honor this day. For one, you could learn about the history of Juneteenth. If you are reading this article, then good job, you are already celebrating it!

You can educate yourself about the history of slavery, the Civil War, the Emancipation Proclamation, the Thirteenth Amendment, and any other topic that you might not be too sure about as it pertains to Juneteenth and why it is important to celebrate it. You can do this by going to a museum near you, like the Legacy Museum in Huntsville, which is a great historical walkthrough from the times of slavery to mass incarceration today, or the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute, which focuses on a detailed history of the Civil Rights movement that took place in the heart of Birmingham. You can watch a documentary about these topics, including “The 13th” on Netflix, which takes a deep dive into the loophole of the Thirteenth Amendment that gave rise to the mass incarceration crisis we face today. You can listen to a podcast, like “Deliberate Indifference“, a podcast by Mary Scott Hodgins that focuses on the local Birmingham history of policing and provides details about convict leasing practices in Alabama. You could read literature written by Black authors, whether they be informational, like “Medical Apartheid” by Harriet A. Washington, or fictional like the short story, “Recitatif” by Tony Morrison. You could support Black-owned businesses, locally or online, such as buying your books from a Black-owned bookstore or going out to eat at a Black-owned restaurant. You could educate others about the importance of Juneteenth, including your friends, family members, and even co-workers. As an ally, you can maybe pick up a shift for your Black friend who may want to celebrate Juneteenth with their family, or if you are someone in a supervisory position, you could give a Black co-worker the day off to celebrate Juneteenth. Encourage and empower your Black friends, family members, or co-workers, to feel comfortable to share their opinions and voice their concerns. You could even volunteer at any local Juneteenth event to help make the events successful!

Local Juneteenth Celebrations to Attend

Alt text: An image of the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute, where they host a Juneteenth celebration every year, and spread the festivities to all in the Birmingham community. On their Juneteenth celebration day, admissions to the museum are free so that people in the community (and visitors from other places) can learn and appreciate the local Civil Rights history that took place in the heart of Birmingham.
Image 8 – Source: Yahoo Images; An image of the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute, where they host a Juneteenth celebration every year, and spread the festivities to all in the Birmingham community. On their Juneteenth celebration day, admissions to the museum are free so that people in the community (and visitors from other places) can learn and appreciate the local Civil Rights history that took place in the heart of Birmingham

There are many local events that you can attend to celebrate Juneteenth in Birmingham, Alabama. Here are a few that might be of interest:

  • Juneteenth: The Cookout, hosted by the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute on June 17, from 10 am-4 pm. There will be food trucks, live entertainment, a children’s village, tournaments, food competitions, genealogy workshops, and even a free tour of the museum!
  • Juneteenth Social is hosted by the UAB Black Alumni network at the Southern Kitchen Roof Top Bar on June 17th from 7 pm to 11 pm. Tickets are $25 each, and the proceeds go to the Kappa Delta Omega Psi Phi memorial scholarship for incoming African American Male students.
  • Second Annual Juneteenth Freedom Celebration, hosted by The Lifting As We Climb Foundation on June 18th, from 2 pm-9 pm at the Arlington Historic House in Birmingham. There will be food, fun, education, entertainment, and fireworks, and the tickets start at $20 for early bird tickets and $25 for general admissions. Bring small tents and lawn chairs, and be ready to eat from the food trucks on site.
  • Juneteenth in the Magic City 2023, hosted by Simone’s Kitchen ATL, on June 18, from 4 pm-10 pm at the Club M Compound. There will be food trucks, vendors, live bands, fireworks, African dances, and various other entertainment. Tickets start at $15 for Early Bird tickets and $20 for general admissions.
  • Juneteenth Pop Up Art Exhibit, hosted by Studio 2500 on June 16, at 6 pm for all the artistic, creative folks. Admissions start at $10 per person, children under 13 are free, and tickets can be purchased online at their website. They will have food, music, and an open mic, so bring lawn chairs and your own beverages, and take in the creations of our fellow Birmingham local artists and performers.
  • Juneteenth Open Mic is a virtual event being held on June 19th to highlight musicians, poets, hip-hop artists, and other Black artists who would like to participate. If you are a local artist and you would like to increase your followers, this is the event for you. If you just want to show up virtually to support local artists, you can do that to buy going to their website and purchasing tickets to vote. Tickets start at $10, whether you are performing, a part of the audience, or even a vendor. Again, this is a virtual event, so all you need is your laptop and internet!

However you choose to spend the day, make sure to be conscious of what Juneteenth represents to you and to those around you, and together we can actively, and intentionally work to make our world a better place for future generations!

 

Environmental Rights = Human Rights: Water As a Human Right

An image of waterfalls, an important water system that helps filter the waterways.
Source: Yahoo Images; An image of waterfalls, an important water system that helps filter the waterways.

Human rights are dependent on the environment, and we can address many environmental rights issues to bring about a better world for all those who live on this green and blue planet that we call home. In this sense, environmental rights ARE human rights, and taking a human rights approach to addressing these environmental rights can close the gaps of inequality between the Global North and the Global South countries. I am dedicating a series to deep dive into this human rights approach to environmental rights. We began this series by focusing on how issues around food can be addressed with a human rights approach. This blog will focus on water, another essential need for all living things, and how issues surrounding access to clean water can be addressed with a human rights approach.

Uses of Water

A pie chart showcasing how much freshwater and saltwater there is on Earth.
Source: Yahoo Images; A pie chart showcasing how much freshwater and saltwater there is on Earth.

Similar to food, water is also another resource necessary for all living creatures, including humans. Organisms need water to survive and function, even in the driest places on Earth. Humans need water for survival, not just to quench our thirst, but also to cook our food, and clean ourselves and our spaces. To maintain this modern civilization we live in, humans also require water for various industrial purposes, including watering the crops we consume, providing water for the livestock that we make use of, hygienic purposes, and even washing the clothes we wear. In fact, water is required for industrial use as well, including in the clothing and textile industries, mining industries, the process of oil drilling, and many more. Not having access to clean water can cause illnesses, rashes, and even death, both to humans and the organisms that live in areas with unclean water.

Although this planet is made up largely of water, it is a natural resource that is limited. Its limitations come from the fact that 97% of the water found on Earth is contained in the oceans, which are made up of salt water. Saltwater is unsafe for consumption because our kidneys are not capable of filtering all the salt out of the water, and as a result, drinking it can have the opposite effect you want to achieve, including dehydration and eventual death. Only 3% of the water found on Earth is freshwater and safe for consumption. This 3%, therefore, is what is used for all of our personal, industrial, and agricultural needs, and this same 3% also has to be shared with the many creatures we live alongside on this planet. Even still, much of that 3% of fresh water is also frozen in the form of ice caps and glaciers or contained in the atmosphere and soils. So, in reality, we only have about 0.5% of the Earth’s water source for all of our needs and those of our fellow Earth dwellers.

Consequences of Using Unclean Water

The current way we treat our water supplies and our environment can have drastic impacts on our lives, the lives of other organisms, as well as the future of this planet. We have seen what happened in Flint Michigan and Jackson, Mississippi, and the struggles the individuals in those places are going through just to be able to have clean drinking water. For those who are not familiar with these incidents, from 2014 to around 2016, residents in Flint, Michigan were consuming water that was polluted with lead. This occurred due to the negligence and carelessness of the local government, which failed to treat and test the river water. The Flint River, which was the major source of drinking water, was polluted due to the high industrial usage along its coasts and was also polluted by agricultural usage, sewage from the waste plants, and even pollutants from the nearby landfills. This incident caused health issues among the residents, and incredible levels of lead were found in consumers, including the city’s children. Something similar occurred in Jackson, Mississippi, and this issue is ongoing even today. The issues of busted pipes during cold-winter days, and the leakage of sewage among other things, were listed as the cause of the Jackson water crisis. In both these cities, many of the residents are people of color, and this has larger racial implications for the issues of access to clean and fresh water (which will be covered in later parts of this series).

Average Water Consumption

An infographic depicting the various household uses of water, how much it is costing us, and some best practices of conservation.
Source: Yahoo Images

All this does not even include the wasteful nature of water consumption that we in the Western nations have normalized. To put things into perspective, for each minute we spend showering, we are using 2.5 gallons of water. So, for a 10-minute shower, that is 25 gallons of water that are used. Each time we flush the toilet, we use 1.6 gallons of water, with older toilets taking as much as 3.5 gallons a flush (or even 5-7 gallons a flush for toilets made before 1985). When washing clothes in the washer, Americans use over 40 gallons of water per load. Washing dishes by hand uses another 20 gallons of water per load while washing dishes in an efficient dishwasher uses around 4 gallons. This does not include the water that is used to water the lawn, household plants, or other uses like cooking food and cleaning the house.

Negligent Water Practices – Sewage Systems, Bottled Water, and Environmental Water Disasters

Our waterways are not only impacted by chemical leaks and our water consumption but also by the way we process our human wastes and that of our livestock. Agricultural runoffs happen when sediments containing chemicals, bacteria, and manure runoff into the nearby waterways from heavy rains and flooding, causing an increase of nitrogen and phosphorous in the waters. Too much nitrogen and phosphorous in the waters can be very harmful to marine life because these elements cause an increase in algae growth, a process known as eutrophication. This may not seem so bad, but too many algae in the water can block the sunlight and oxygen from reaching the organisms on the bottom layer of the water. This in turn leads to hypoxia, a condition where the oxygen levels in the water decrease and can cause the death of many marine organisms. Similar to agricultural runoffs, human sewage also has high levels of nitrogen and phosphorous, and any leaks from sewage treatment facilities and other industrial factories that use similar chemicals can further threaten marine biology. For more information about water insecurity in America and how the sewage system exacerbates this issue, click here.

Another wasteful practice we engage in as humans are our production and consumption of bottled water. For one, the process used to make single-use plastic water bottles releases over 2.5 million tons of carbon dioxide into the environment every year. Additionally, the process uses 17 million barrels of oil to meet the consumer demands for these plastic bottles. After consumption, the water bottles are rarely recycled, resulting in the addition of 38 billion water bottles to landfills. 10% of all discarded plastics end up in the ocean, a threat to aquatic life. Furthermore, consuming water from plastic bottles comes with its own health consequences, including the bioaccumulation of microplastics in our systems. Many companies also use a type of plastic (#7) that contains bisphenol A (BPA), which has many health concerns associated with them, including diabetes, heart conditions, developmental issues, and fertility issues, and can even lead to cancer. This type of plastic is actually banned in many nations around the world but is still allowed in the US.

In addition to all these issues, the water bottle industry is also a perpetrator of human rights violations, with Aquafina, Dasani, and Nestle, being the largest water bottling companies in the world. Bottling companies transform a free, naturally available resource, into a profit-making commodity. In the process, they are actually harming the water sources in the locations in which their manufacturing and bottling occur, forcing the people that live in those areas to consume bottled water, not as a choice, but as the only source of clean water available to them. For those who cannot afford water bottles, water insecurity becomes a daily reality from which they cannot escape. The insidious part of this issue is the fact that many of these bottling factories exist outside of Western nations, in countries such as India, Fiji, and other underdeveloped nations in which the residents cannot (or do not have the resources) to fight back against these corporations, an approach that can only be characterized as environmental racism. For those factories that do exist within Western nations, they are predominantly located near neighborhoods of color. The CEO of Nestlé faced backlash in 2013 for announcing that water is not a human right, but a product to be privatized and sold. This privatization of water denies these local communities the right to use the resource for their own residential, industrial, and infrastructural use, and further exacerbates their conditions of poverty and water insecurity.

Anthropogenic (caused by humans) activities have caused many of our ecosystem services to be polluted, including our water sources. We as humans have allowed many chemicals to leak into the waterways, sewage, and other waste products to run off into the streams and have done a poor job taking care of our groundwater, aqueducts, and aquafers. There has been recent news of chemicals from the train derailment in Ohio entering the waterways and causing local residents to become sick. Last year, there was a story about the US military leaking jet fuel, contaminating the waterways in Hawaii. Much of the nuclear waste we produce gets stored in containers underground, and these containers cannot hold radioactive waste for too long. At times the contents seep out, polluting the groundwater. The Ogallala Aquifer, one of the world’s largest aquifers that serves much of Central America, has been threatened by the installment of the Keystone XL pipeline, which is an oil pipeline, that if it bursts, can pollute the entire aquifer, contaminating the water used by people across eight states. These are just some of many incidents in that we as humanity have failed to protect our naturally occurring ecosystem services, which, if we had to recreate, would cost us trillions and trillions of dollars.

Water is a Human Right

An image of the water cycle
Source: Yahoo Images; An image of the water cycle

Along with food, water is also listed as a human right in Article 25 of the UDHR. Although water is considered a renewable resource, it is a limited one. The reason water is considered a renewable resource is because of the water cycle, which is the various steps of a cycle the water goes through, (evaporation, transpiration, condensation, precipitation, and runoff) that recycle the water that we use. Evaporation happens from the major bodies of water, when the heat transforms the liquid water into a gaseous form. Transpiration happens in forests and plants, when water moves through the plant into the atmosphere, to move nutrients and cool the parts of the plants that are exposed to the sun. Condensation occurs when the water evaporated into the air ends up filling up the clouds, changing the water vapors into a liquid form again. Precipitation is what comes next when the collected vapors fall back onto the ground, such as rain, snow, or ice. This precipitation is dispersed in many ways, from the waterways to the land. Finally, runoff refers to the water flow on the surface level, below the surface level, or even into the depths of the Earth. Simply put, runoff is water that has not been soaked into the soil. Yet, while on paper, water seems to be a renewable resource, in practice, water is polluted in many ways. Due to the current human lifestyles, clean water has become a limited resource, and our continued negligence on this subject will only exacerbate this issue.

The Threat of Water Wars and Water as a Human Right

An image of a child in Kenya trying to find some clean water to drink.

Climate change is impacting everyone around the world, but disproportionately. The Global North benefits from an abundance of resources while the Global South, in many ways due to the history of imperialism, suffers the consequences of the Global North’s actions. Many people in the Global South face water insecurity on a daily basis, and this will only get worse as the Earth continues to warm up. By 2030, many countries in the warmest parts of the world will be uninhabitable. Apart from this, due to the rising temperatures, many of the bodies of water on Earth are drying up, further exacerbating the water issues already present. There are already feuds between China and India over the Brahmaputra River, one of the largest rivers in Asia.

One way to personally address this issue is to be mindful of our water usage. Yet, this alone will not be enough to address this problem on such a large scale. Countries around the world have to come together and find creative solutions to ensure that clean water is made accessible to everyone equally. This can be done through strategies that incorporate green infrastructure. In doing so, the strategies used to address these issues need to be inclusive of everyone, including being respectful of Native Americans and their many uses of water. Additionally, access to clean water does not just mean the ability to have clean water but it should also be affordable, regardless of where you live. In fact, water is one of those essential needs for every human being, and as a result, should be free, or nearly free to everyone. Finally, everyone should be educated on the various uses of water, and the need to maintain its cleanliness.

Environmental Rights = Human Rights: Food As a Human Right

An image of Earth from space.
Source: Yahoo Images; An image of Earth from space.

There is a common misconception among people that environmental rights are necessary, but they have nothing to do with human rights. Some consider environmental rights as something that is another genre of human rights, not recognizing that without the environment, we as humans seize to exist. Human rights are dependent on the environment, and we can address many environmental rights issues to bring about a better world for all those who live on this green and blue planet that we call home. In this sense, environmental rights ARE human rights, and taking a human rights approach to addressing these environmental rights can close the gaps of inequality between the Global North and the Global South countries. I am dedicating a series to deep dive into this human rights approach to environmental rights, starting with how food, water, and air, the essential needs for all living things, can be transformed with a human rights approach to address some of the most egregious practices in these fields.

Food insecurity, food shortages, and healthy food consumption in general

An image of a few community youth working together at a community garden.
Source: Yahoo Images; Community gardens are a great way to grow food locally, teach young kids how to grow their own food, and respect nature, but also a great way to strengthen the community.

Food Insecurity

The issue of food insecurity is widespread in many nations worldwide, and it has only increased due to the supply-chain issues that were experienced during the pandemic. While many of the nations that face food insecurity are from the Global South, it is just as prevalent in America, one of the richest nations in the world. For more on food insecurity in America, check out this blog.

Community Gardens

One way to address this issue with a human rights approach would be to encourage the cultivation of community gardens locally to avoid supply chain issues. This would alleviate the issue of transporting the necessary products to and from places (reducing the carbon emissions in the process), provide jobs to local community members, and even cut down costs for the produce. Furthermore, members in charge of taking care of the community gardens would be trained on how to avoid the use of harmful pesticides that are known to cause health issues in humans. These chemicals are not only harmful to humans, but they are also causing bees and other pollinators to go extinct. These pollinators are largely responsible for producing crops around the world, and without them, we would have to engineer mechanical pollinators or manually perform the pollination process, both of which would cost a lot of time, energy, and money.

Alternate forms of Agriculture – Hydroponics

Benefits of Hydroponics are listed on this infographic. These benefits propose that this method does not require soil, saves water, produces higher yields and faster growth, produces less disease, and requires less pesticide use.
Source: Yahoo Images; Benefits of Hydroponics are listed on this infographic. These benefits propose that this method does not require soil, saves water, produces higher yields and faster growth, produces less disease, and requires less pesticide use.

For those communities that do not have rich soil, they can use the technology of greenhouses and other indoor cultivation technology to meet their needs. In fact, there are three types of indoor farming that are currently common in the agricultural industry – aquaponics, aeroponics, and hydroponics. Hydroponics eliminates the need for rich soils by making use of water and a mixture of liquid nutrients to supplement the plants’ needs as they grow. This technique can be used for everyday households and industrial-level agriculture, and it has quite a lot of benefits for the environment as well. For one, it uses less water than traditional agricultural practices, and it does not require soil, so it is not impacted by conditions of soil erosion. It also yields greater produce and eliminates the need for pesticides and herbicides which in turn make the crops safer for consumption and reduces the risk of health issues as a result. Also, plants can grow almost twice as fast as the ones that are grown in soil.

Alternate forms of Agriculture – Aeroponics

An image of an aeroponics system that makes use of an air pump and the laws of gravity to produce crops.
Source: Yahoo Images; An image of an aeroponics system that makes use of an air pump and the laws of gravity to produce crops.

Another indoor cultivation system is Aeroponics. Aeroponics uses water and a mixture of liquid nutrients like hydroponics, but in this technique, the roots are suspended in the air and are misted on a timer to keep them from drying out. This requires a lot of technical precision and uses a lot of energy. While it is a technique that utilizes a lot of energy, according to NASA, it also reduces the use of water (similar to hydroponics) by 98%, and pesticide use by 100%, and still maximizes the yields these crops produce. Additionally, plants grown using this technique have added health benefits, as they absorb more minerals and vitamins. Some setbacks to this method are the fact that this technique needs experts who can monitor the plants and the pH levels of the air. This method is also vulnerable to electrical shortages and requires a lot of advanced technologies to perform successfully, and yield crops. As a result, it is very expensive to initially set it up.

Alternate forms of Agriculture – Aquaponics

An image depicting how fishes are incorporated into the aquaponics method. The fish waste is used to fertilize the plants, as the waste is broken down using microbes and worms.
Source: Yahoo Images; An image depicting how fishes are incorporated into the aquaponics method. Fish waste is used to fertilize plants, as the waste is broken down using microbes and worms.

Finally, Aquaponics is another indoor cultivation technique that has become popular today. Similar to hydroponics, aquaponics also has a reservoir where the plants are stored, yet in aquaponics, the reservoir also contains fish. Instead of using a mixture of liquid nutrients, the fishes provide those nutrients naturally to the plants. This may sound a bit strange, but the ammonia that is released by the fishes (particularly their feces) gets converted into nitrates which provide nutrition for the plants. One thing to be careful of when using this method is to constantly check on the ammonia levels, because really high levels of ammonia will actually end up killing the fish. Other than that, the whole process takes about 6 months for the plants and fishes to form their own ecosystem that can operate without much maintenance or monitoring. There are also many benefits to using this system, including the fact that you are able to cultivate plants and fish, two food sources instead of one. Due to the fact that the water is recycled through natural processes, this method does not waste any water, and there is no need for chemicals to upkeep the plants either. The fishes provide all the nutrients that the plants need, so there is no need to top off any liquid nutrients like in the other two methods, saving a lot of money in the long run. This method is great for the environment, and because it has its own ecosystem, it is also sustainable on its own. Of course, with this method, in the winter, the reservoir needs to be kept warm, so that the water and all the fish and plants do not die off from the cold. It also requires the monitoring of pH levels like the aeroponics method does, and since this method uses fish, it requires that you know how to take care of the fish for the greatest success.

These are just some ways to address the need for better food-producing systems, as well as the elimination of harmful chemicals within our produce. As an added bonus, these systems use less water than traditional farming techniques, produce greater yields, and are healthier for consumption, all while taking up less space than farming on a field.

Wasteful Practices – GMOs and Food Waste

An image of a food waste mountain at a landfill.
Source: Yahoo Images; So much food is wasted due to uneaten food, or excess yields of crops, and ends up being thrown out into landfills.

Additionally, a wasteful practice that the current agricultural companies invest in is the selling of genetically modified seeds known as “terminator seeds“. These are seeds that are genetically modified to yield crops for only a single generation. This means that the seed cannot reproduce again, and the farmers have to continue to buy new seeds every year. This is an attempt by Big Agricultural companies like Monsanto to increase their profit margins. This greedy practice on the part of Monsanto and other Agricultural companies, replace the natural, sustainable regrowth of crops to ensure that the farmers have to continue to purchase new seeds from the companies instead of using the seeds that are yielded with their crop. This practice is egregious, and addressing this is yet another way to ensure that we promote the natural functions of our environment.

Food waste is another major issue that we face in today’s society. As discussed above, food insecurity is an issue that impacts over 34 million Americans today. Hence, it is unfortunate to find out how much food is wasted in this nation, whether it is unused food, crops left unharvested due to price drops or abundance of crops in the market, or even supply chain issues. Residential consumers in homes and those in restaurants and other stores that sell produce may not be able to sell all the products they have available, especially if the produce does not appear to be picture-perfect. Farmers may not harvest many of their crops if there is an abundance of the crop they have grown in the market that season, wasting the produce that was grown but never made it to the market. As we saw during the pandemic, supply chain issues can cause a lot of food waste as well. Many farmers had to waste their crop yields as they had no way to transport these products to the local grocery stores. Many industries halted during the pandemic, making the products they produced go to waste. Every year, 40% of the food available to Americans ends up being wasted. This is painfully wasteful, especially when we consider how many people across the world, including children, go hungry every day.

Conditions in Meat and Dairy Farms

An image of a farmer in a dairy farm. Cows are packed into cages, with machines hooked up to their udders, milking them.
Source: Yahoo Images; Dairy farms are a cruel way to treat animals, and many of the animals live under unsanitary conditions.

For those who are meat eaters, having a few local farms provide the meat you consume (with regulations of course) can ensure that your meat is not contaminated and that the livestock was treated in ethical ways. Currently, the meat industry produces in bulk, and their practices are cruel and inhumane toward their livestock. Chickens and pigs are forcibly held in cages barely enough for them to stand in, and they live their lives inside these cages stacked on top of each other to save space. This means that they are urinating and defecating on top of each other, which is not only unsanitary and inhumane, but it can also cause the animals to develop diseases and illnesses. Additionally, cows that are not raised on grazing land are usually held in large factory farms, where they are used as dairy cows until they can no longer produce milk, in which case, they are sent to be slaughtered for meat. Certain practices used today, like genetically modifying cows to produce more milk outside of their normal milk-production periods, can lead to an increase in health risks for these animals as well.

These practices are cruel and inhumane, and they are also very bad for the environment. Not only do these farm animals add to the increasing amounts of greenhouse gases present in our atmosphere, but their wastes are also polluting the nearby waterways, making the water unsafe for the locals who live near these factory farms. All this cruelty and unsanitary conditions also carry over when these animals are slaughtered and distributed for mass consumption by companies like Tyson. During the pandemic, there were many reports about the unsafe and unsanitary conditions for the workers inside these meat distribution companies, and stories went viral of contaminated meat with fingernails and other disturbing elements found inside the meat packages. Many of the workers within these meat packaging factories actually lost their lives due to the companies’ negligence regarding their workers’ safety during the pandemic.

Food is a Human Right

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights
Source: Yahoo Images

Food is a necessity for all human beings, regardless of who you are, or where you live. The type of cuisine you prefer may vary from region to region, from culture to culture, and from one environment to the next, but the fact still remains that every human being needs to eat to survive. By definition, food is a human right, and this is indicated in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) under Article 25. Though this article does not specify this detail, it should be the right to healthy and nutritious food, rather than the generalized term food. This minor change in language would ensure that higher regulations are maintained on food and agricultural industries and eliminate harmful chemicals and ingredients within our food sources. There is an unequal distribution of food just like there is an unequal distribution of wealth and wages across the world. These food shortages can be addressed using these various techniques of indoor farming and community gardens, while safer produce can be cultivated by avoiding the use of pesticides and herbicides. Livestock can be treated more humanely instead of being stuffed in factory farms, and there needs to be a shift from a mindset of profit to a mindset of proficiency within these food industries.

This is one blog out of a series of blogs that will focus on how environmental rights are human rights. The next installation of this series will focus on how water is a human right, and how issues surrounding access to clean water can be addressed with a human rights approach.

Some Resources for individuals with disabilities in the Central Alabama region

A word cloud around the word "disability" that includes the various positions that people with disabilities hold in their lives. Some are brothers and sisters, others are homeowners, still some are politicians and lawyers, while others are business owners and firefighters. Disability is only one part of the identity.
Source: Yahoo Images

These past few weeks, we have focused on the broader struggles that people with disabilities face in America. We also looked into the American Education system and explored the many obstacles children with disabilities face within it. This was a much-needed topic to explore, yet I recognize the heaviness and feelings of despair that can follow after reading such a blog series. So, in order to provide some hope, as well as meaningful resources to those struggling with these issues, I have compiled a list of local non-profit organizations that focus on providing services to children (and adults) with disabilities and their families. These organizations provide various services, including places to destress and socialize, and range from serving individuals with both physical disabilities and invisible disabilities. Please take a few minutes to look through this blog and find the resources that you or someone you know might benefit from.

Intellectual Disabilities and Neurodivergence

Oftentimes, people with invisible disabilities can be overlooked by their teachers, peers, and community members because their disability is not “obvious”. Many people with intellectual or learning disabilities struggle to have their needs met because people are either dismissive of them or completely refuse their lived experiences altogether. Navigating through life with an invisible disability can be difficult, especially for younger children, but there are resources in the local Birmingham area that can help children with invisible disabilities as well as their caregivers better prepare for their future. Some of the resources below address developmental needs, and workplace readiness, and offer a sense of community for both children and adults with intellectual and learning disabilities, while others focus on people with a range of disabilities of all ages.

An image that reads, "Invisible Disabilities: They don't all look the same"
Source: Yahoo Images

Mitchell’s Place

Located in two locations, (Southside, and Birmingham), Mitchell’s Place is a non-profit organization that works with children who may be on the autism spectrum. They provide research-based resources for children with disabilities and their family members. For parents and caregivers of children with disabilities, Mitchell’s Place provides education and resources on how to provide the best care for those under their care. They also provide many resources for children, such as helping them develop social skills, helping with feeding, speech, and occupational therapy, providing both psychological and psychiatric resources, and also early learning opportunities for preschool-aged children. Established in 2005 by parents who were unable to find resources for their child with autism, Mitchell’s Place has served over 2500 families and prides itself on being a supporter of diversity, equity, and inclusion. For those interested, their Southside location can be found at 2305 Arlington Rd. Birmingham AL, 35204, and the other one is located at 4778 Overton Rd. Birmingham, AL 35210.

The Arc of Central Alabama

The Arc of Central Alabama (ACA) is another great resource for people of all ages with intellectual and learning disabilities (IDD). Supporting individuals throughout Jefferson County and Blount County, the ACA is Alabama’s largest provider of disability services and prides itself on being the only non-reject program in the state. This means that as long as referrals follow the proper channel, no individual is rejected from being part of the program. A local chapter of The Arc of Alabama and the larger Arc of the United States, the ACA also serves as a crisis center for individuals with IDD, providing a safe space for individuals and their families in times of need. The ACA caters to individuals of all ages, and its various programs focus on these different age groups. Their early intervention programs provide support for infants and toddlers with IDD, along with education and resources for their caretakers and families. Their employment support program trains high school-age students with IDD to help them find better employment opportunities when they are ready to enter the job market. The residential programs focus on providing a safe space for adults of all ages, and a newer adolescent unit has also been created to address the growing needs within the Central Alabama region. Finally, their Community Day programs cater to adults of all ages, providing them with opportunities to socialize and engage with others within their community and develop daily living skills, from balancing their finances to helping with hygienic needs. These programs are tailored to each individual based on their needs, necessities, abilities, and interests. In addition to all these programs, the ACA also empowers its members by providing them with training in advocacy work, focusing on educating the public, following state and federal policies (and funding), and providing them avenues to advocate for their needs and rights. With four locations across Central Alabama – Birmingham, Blountsville, Cleveland, and Irondale – and lifelong opportunities for care and support, the ACA is an accessible and reliable resource for many across this region.

An image of two individuals with disabilities smiling at the camera in front of a microphone.
Source: Yahoo Images

The HANDS program/ the Alabama Autism Assistance Program (AAAP)

            Another resource for children with neurodivergent disabilities is the HANDS program, or the Alabama Autism Assistance Program (AAAP). This non-profit organization provides many services, including therapy (both clinical and home sessions), school services, summer programs for early childhood development, and also seasonal services. Their therapy services are individually catered based on assessments of the child’s needs, in which they provide two-hour, one on one sessions by licensed therapists that track the child’s progress to provide the best resources. Their school services provide additional support during the school year in both academics and behavioral areas. Their summer programs provide a structured environment for children to socialize, learn and play with peers and their seasonal services offer support for children interested in sports. For children with disabilities, socializing with peers can be stressful, so having a safe environment to be able to socialize and make friends can help them become more confident individuals in the future.

Alabama Easterseals Society

With over 50 facilities nationwide and 12 facilities throughout Alabama, the Easterseals Society was founded in 1934 to raise funds to provide services to people with disabilities and advocate for their “right to live a normal life.”  The organization challenges the narrative around disability as a burden and instead focuses on empowering individuals with disabilities with skills and resources. They have services for pediatric rehabilitation, which include speech therapy, feeding therapy, occupational therapy, and physical therapy. They provide services for workforce development, such as career classes which provide training for specific careers, and summer internships to prepare high schoolers for the job market. They also have recreational opportunities, with an emphasis on camping, which can be very therapeutic and great for your mental health. As with the ACA, the Easterseals also have an advocacy element, which spreads awareness about disability rights, supports the passage of legislation centered around disability rights, and provides the space to conduct solution-based workshops within their local communities. They provide additional assistance for elderly people with disabilities, veterans, and caregivers, with both resources and recreational opportunities. Some locations (such as the one in Tuscaloosa) even provide transportation services for those who are unable to drive themselves to work and other places.

Transportation Help

An image of an individual in a wheelchair being hoisted onto the bus, with the assistance of the driver.
Source: Yahoo Images

Of the many challenges that people with disabilities face, transportation is a key issue. Many people with disabilities who can drive require specially tailored vehicles to fit their needs, while others who are unable to drive have to depend on family members, friends, or community volunteers to help them get from one place to another. Due to the fact that many people with disabilities have to visit their healthcare professionals regularly, this can be especially challenging. ClasTrans, (which stands for Central Alabama’s Specialized Transit) serves people with disabilities within Jefferson and Shelby counties who require transportation to various places, including medical appointments, grocery stores, entertainment venues, and so much more. This service is available for those living in urban and rural areas, and they can plan their trips ahead of time to know exactly what they can expect for the day. ClasTrans drivers also provide riders with assistance during the ride, including boarding the vehicle and transferring into their seats. ClasTrans is available for elderly members and those who are able to verify their disability status. While the services are not for free, their rates are affordable, with one-way trips starting at $4. Regular riders can also purchase fare credits, which they can pay ahead of time to avoid carrying exact change on their person each time they use the service.

Therapeutic and Recreational Opportunities

An image of a person in a wheelchair taking care of their horse.
Source: Yahoo Images

Red Barn

An organization focused on incorporating Equine Assisted Services for low-income children with disabilities, Red Barn was founded in 2012 to serve the children in their local community. Equine Assisted Services (EAS) is a professional field of collaborative services that incorporate interaction with horses into therapy, learning, and development for children with disabilities. EAS has three areas of focus: Horsemanship, Therapy, and Learning. Horsemanship deals with activities such as learning how to ride a horse, taking care of the horses, and participating in other equine-related sports and activities. These services are conducted by specially trained individuals who are licensed to provide this training. The second focus of EAS, therapy, deals with counseling services, occupational therapy, physical therapy, psychotherapy, and speech-language pathology. All these therapy options are equine-based, incorporating interaction with horses and equine discipline within these sessions, which are led by licensed therapists. Finally, their third focus, learning, centers on equine-assisted learning in education (such as learning life skills, academic skills, and character development), organization (such as learning team-building skills, leadership skills, and participating in group activities), and development (such as learning skills pertaining to problem-solving, decision making, critical thinking, and communication). For children with disabilities, learning and developing while caring for horses can be a powerful, healthy way to become strong, independent members of their community. It can help encourage them to explore new avenues of interest and expand their opportunities for employment and life fulfillment.  

Exceptional Foundation

Founded in 1999, the Exceptional Foundation provides children (and adults) with disabilities with social and recreational opportunities that allow individuals in the Greater Birmingham region to engage with others on a socio-emotional level. At first, the Exceptional Foundation began meeting at the Homewood Park and Recreation Center but later grew to include a gym, office space, youth center, and other spaces to provide recreational opportunities for their members. Today, the Exceptional Foundation has branched out to include much of Alabama and even parts of Georgia, following the same foundations laid out by the Birmingham facility. They offer many afterschool and summer programs for their youth, including sports events (to both participate in and attend), clubs, and other activities to provide enrichment such as art and music lessons. For adults, there are a variety of daily activities that are offered, including cooking classes, dancing lessons, music classes, gym time, art classes, field trips, and many more. While many of the resources listed above focus on advocacy, education, and support, this organization provides the space for entertainment and enjoyment, encouraging a fulfilling lifestyle for its members. For many people with disabilities, recreational activities can be stressful, and opportunities can be rare. Having the space to engage with others and learn together can help improve social skills and life skills, and can foster a sense of community.

Resources for people with multiple disabilities and or sensory disabilities

An image of a visually-impaired child reading in Braille
Source: Yahoo Images

United Ability

Established in 1948 by concerned citizens, United Ability began as a place to offer help and resources for people with cerebral palsy. As it grew and expanded, United Ability became a place that offers a full spectrum of services for all people with various disabilities and prides itself as being the place that connects people with disabilities to their larger community.

They provide early learning and early intervention programs for children, that focus on encouraging children to learn, grow, and develop alongside other children, while also providing their families with the help and resources they may need. Additionally, United Ability provides a clinic that focuses on meeting the medical needs of individuals with disabilities, which includes various forms of therapy, evaluations, assessments, and any technical assistance they may need. Furthermore, they also provide adult programs for recreation and enrichment and even offer employment services to adults with disabilities. This includes their United Ability Enterprise, a large umbrella under which many people with physical, developmental, and intellectual disabilities are employed. The businesses under this umbrella include Gone for Good, an off-site paper shredding company, as well as Outsource Solutions, a company that offers a variety of projects, including sorting items, housekeeping needs, mailroom needs, and more. It is located in Birmingham for those who are interested in the organization.

Alabama Institute for Deaf and Blind

One of the most respected institutions in the world for its all-inclusive approach, the Alabama Institute for Deaf and Blind (AIDB) spans all over Alabama, with campuses in Talladega, Birmingham, Mobile, Huntsville, Decatur, Montgomery, Opelika, and more. It was founded in 1858, by Dr. Joseph Henry Johnson, and his brother was among the first 21 hearing-impaired students he served that year. In 1932, AIDB was responsible for a project that employed 10 visually impaired seamstresses, a project that laid the foundations for the Alabama Industries for the Blind, Alabama’s largest employer of visually impaired individuals. Similarly, in 1968, a trade school for visually impaired individuals and audio-impaired individuals was created to provide adults who did not want to (or could not) attend college with the necessary skills to enter the job market. The AIDB provides services for visually impaired individuals, audio-impaired individuals, and those with multiple disabilities. AIDB serves children, as young as infants and toddlers, to adults of all ages, including seniors with sensory disabilities. Among the many services they offer is aiding children with sensory disabilities in schools. They focus on education and rehabilitation and provide a variety of services, including early intervention for children, and counseling, interpretation, and transportation for individuals of all ages.

Finally, students with disabilities that attend the University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB) are provided with support through the Disability Support Services (DSS) program. Some of the services provided are note-takers, sign-language interpreters, transportation around campus for mobility-impaired individuals, and specifically catered support such as time extensions on tests and assignments. UAB also provides ramps and sidewalk cuts for easy access to those using a wheelchair or walkers, and many accessible parking spots at the Hill Center for visitors. UAB empowers its students to advocate for themselves and provides the necessary support they need to have a pleasant educational experience.

Part Three: The Different Approaches to Disabilities and the Future of Disability Rights

An image of a woman with disability in a sunflower field with a banner that reads, "nothing about us without us!"

This blog is part three of the conversation around disability rights, especially as it applies to children within the American school system. If you have not read the first two blogs in this series, I suggest you do so. The first blog focused on the historical view of disability and the American school system’s approach to children with disabilities. The second part mainly focused on the struggles that children with disabilities face within the school system, and how these struggles have been exacerbated due to the recent pandemic. This final part will focus on some of the approaches that have been taken in the past to address people with disabilities, and how they differ from a human rights approach. We will also examine how we can help on various levels, whether we want to focus on our personal abilities or advocate for a larger movement.

The Rights of Children with Disabilities

What rights are protected?

An image depicting five children holding signs that read, "the right to be heard", "the right to a childhood," "the right to be educated," "the right to be healthy," and "the right to be treated fairly."
Source: Yahoo Images

Much of what we have established in modern society in terms of children’s rights comes from decades of struggles, from implementing child labor laws to fighting for the right to an education. Similarly, the fight to pass the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) was one sure way to protect individuals with disabilities from discrimination. These rights and more are protected under the United Nations, both in terms of people with disabilities, (Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, CRPD), and with children’s rights (Convention on the Rights of the Child, CRC). Yet, these developments have only occurred in recent years; the ADA and the CRC were passed in America and the UN respectively, in 1990, and the CRPD was not adopted internationally until 2006.

The ADA, passed in the United States, protected the rights of people with disabilities from being discriminated against in all aspects of society. This was the first major legislation that protected people with disabilities from being denied employment, discriminated against in places of business, or even denied housing. In addition to these protections, the ADA required industries to be inclusive of those with disabilities through (among other things) taking measures such as building ramps and elevators for easy access to upper-level floors and building housing units with people with disabilities in mind. While America had passed the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act or IDEA (originally passed in 1975, and renamed in 1990) by this time, the initial form of this legislation allowed schools to place certain students with disabilities in special programs for no more than 45 days at a time. It was not until its improved form was passed in 2004 that provided the necessary financial and social infrastructure for its successful implementation.

The passage of the CRC, which applies to all individuals under the age of 18, focuses on non-discrimination, the right to life, survival and development, the State’s responsibility to ensure that the child’s best interests are being pursued, including ensuring that the child has adequate parental guidance. Additionally, it focuses on the child’s right to free expression, free thought, freedom to preserve their identity, protection from being abused or neglected, adequate healthcare and education, and includes certain protections the State is required to offer the children, including protection from trafficking, child labor, and torture. Article 23 of this Convention specifically focuses on the rights of children with disabilities, adding that these children have the right to the care, education, and training they need to lead a life of fulfillment and dignity. It also stresses the responsibility of the State to ensure that children with disabilities can live a life of independence and protect them from being socially isolated. Even though the UN passed this Convention in 2004, America is the only nation that has yet to ratify this treaty. This is why certain realities continue to exist, such as what is happening in Illinois.

Finally, we have the CRPD, which entered into force in 2008, only 15 years ago. Influenced by the ADA, the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities was passed to ensure that people with disabilities were fully protected under the law, including from discrimination, with the ability to function as fully pontificating citizens of their societies, with equal opportunities and the right to accessibility in order for them to lead a life with the dignity and respect afforded to their able-bodied counterparts. This convention had massive support and draws from both a human rights focus and an international development focus. What makes this convention unique is the implementation and monitoring abilities embedded within the treaty itself, and it includes non-traditional actors from communities (usually those with disabilities) with specific roles in charge of monitoring the implementation of this treaty. Unfortunately, the United States, while Obama signed the treaty and passed it to the Senate for their approval in 2009, has yet to fully ratify the CRPD treaty as well.

Some Approaches to Disability Rights

Upon understanding the various nuances of this conversation, we can now explore the three different approaches to defining disability in society. These approaches examine the issues that people with disabilities face and provide models influenced by differing fields of expertise. Many within society view disability as a medical issue and their solutions to the struggles faced by people with disabilities are medically focused. Similarly, others believe that disability is an issue of how society is structured, and their proposals for solving these issues lie within the realms of reshaping society to be more accessible to people with disabilities. Still, another approach built upon the foundations of human rights, focuses on the individual first, and the disability as an extension of their individuality. We will explore these three approaches and their pros and cons.

Approach 1: Medical Model of Disability

An infographic depicting what the medical model of disability stands for. At the center is an individual with arrows pointing to them to place the full responsibility of being disabled on the individual itself.
Source: Yahoo Images

            As mentioned above, some people view disability as a medical issue, and this approach can be categorized as the medical model of disability. This means that they believe that the “problem” of disability belongs to the individual experiencing it and that disability comes from the direct impairment of the person. The focus of this approach is to look for medical “cures” for disability, which can only be provided by medical “experts” based on the specific diagnosis. While it may be true that individuals with disabilities require medical help from time to time, their entire existence does not revolve around this notion of viewing disability as an illness. The focus here is to “fix” the person with disabilities, so they can become “normal” again. This approach also makes use of the “special needs” rhetoric, which can result in the isolation and marginalization of people with disabilities.  Media plays a big part in portraying people with disabilities as weak or ashamed of their disability, which can invoke fear or pity for people with disabilities within the larger society.

Approach 2: Social Model of Disability

A cartoon image to represent the social model of disability. In the image, there are many circular characters attempting to enter a square entrance, and cannot fit in. The gatekeeper informs them to change in order to fit into the system, and they reply back that the system could be changed instead to accommodate them.
Source: Yahoo Images

            Another approach that has been proposed is what is known as the Social Model of Disability. In this approach, the “problem” of disability is seen as a result of the physical and social barriers within society that exclude people with disabilities from fully participating in their society. Disability is seen as a political and social issue, and the goal of this model is to be more inclusive and recognize the prevalence of disability within our societies. This means looking closely at the ableist social institutions and infrastructures present within society and attempting to address these manmade challenges posed by people with disabilities. This model recognizes the social stigma around disabilities and recognizes people with disabilities as differently abled rather than viewing them as incapable of living an independent lifestyle. This approach places individuals with disabilities on a spectrum rather than the two categories of disabled and able-bodied. The goal of this approach is to be socially inclusive of all individuals, regardless of their disabilities.

Approach 3: The Human Rights Model of Disability

An image depicting various individuals with the saying, "Nothing about us, without us, is for us" around them.
Source: Yahoo Images

Finally, there is the Human Rights Model of Disability, which builds upon the foundations laid out by the Social Model of Disability and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR). In this approach, the focus is on viewing the individual with a disability as a human first, recognizing that disability is a natural part of humanity that has existed as long as humans have been around. While it shares a lot of similarities with the social model, the human rights approach emphasizes not only the right of every individual to be treated equally before the law but also stresses that a person’s impairment should not be used as an excuse for denying them rights. This is essentially what the CRPD centers around, and the main goal of this approach is to ensure that people with disabilities have equal opportunities and protect their right to fully participate in society, politically, civilly, socially, culturally, and economically.

How Can We Help?

A cartoon image with EQUAL on the top, and many characters lined up with shirts that have individual letters on them that spell out "RIGHTS" below it. Below them is the phrase, "human beings are born free and equal - Universal Declaration of Human Rights 1947" on the bottom of the image.
Source: Yahoo Images

On the Internation Level

While the United Nations has a convention that focuses on protecting children’s rights, it is highly debated whether these treaties are being enforced around the world. Child labor is still common in various places around the world, including right here in Alabama. While it can be argued that the US has not ratified the treaty and that is why the UN cannot do anything about this issue, there are other places that have ratified the treaty that still places children in dangerous working conditions and face no real repercussions from these decisions from the UN. In 2019, many tech companies were sued for their use of child labor in other countries to mine the precious minerals they require to produce their devices. Many textile companies within the fashion industry use child labor in nations that have ratified the children’s rights treaty. While the United Nations is trying its best to protect and promote the rights of vulnerable communities, it has not been able to enforce these treaties and regulations, and as a result, atrocities against those vulnerable communities, (including children), continue to occur. How can we as human beings, ensure that all children are protected from harm, not just those able-bodied, living in wealthier nations? This is something that needs to be addressed, and it requires the cooperation of many different nations willing to put their differences aside and work together to find a solution.

On the Domestic Level

As we explored in the human rights model of disability rights, it is the responsibility of society to provide equal access to all its citizens. This includes its citizens who have disabilities, and not doing so would discriminate against those who have disabilities and violate the Americans with Disabilities Act. This means that both on a national and local level, our infrastructure needs to be updated with an inclusive mindset that makes the roads safer and more accessible to all the citizens using them. As a state, Alabama could not only fix the infrastructure, but also pass bills to ensure that people with disabilities receive the care they need, including employment opportunities, medical assistance, food assistance, and any financial help they may require. Furthermore, on a national level, the police (or another department focused on social work) can be better trained to recognize the various disabilities, both visible and invisible, so people with disabilities are not wrongfully imprisoned for “behavioral” issues. This training would help erode the school-to-prison pipeline that has replaced disciplinary standards in American schools and make way for a brighter future for children with disabilities. Finally, the United States can, at the bare minimum, ratify the Convention on the Rights of the Child, signed into existence in 1990 by member states of the United Nation. As we mentioned earlier, the United States is the only nation in the world that has yet to ratify this treaty.

On the Individual Level

We can all be more mindful of our actions and our ableist mindsets. Next time you walk down the street, pay attention to the roads and sidewalks. Are there any sidewalks for people with disabilities to use safely? Are there curb cuts, and are those curb cuts freely accessible or are they blocked? How accessible are public buildings such as restaurants, storefronts, or even the DMV? Are there enough parking spots allotted to people with disabilities, and are those spots easily accessible, or blocked off by other vehicles? Thinking outside of an ableist mind frame is the first step toward being more inclusive of people with disabilities. It might seem like a powerless and pointless step to take, but the more you start to notice the ableist structures within society, the more you will want to speak up about these issues the next time you have the opportunity. You will also be more mindful of your own ableist actions and how they may have unintended consequences. If you are a parent, you have the ability to question your school’s practices concerning children with disabilities and offer support to the children and their parents. As an individual, you can also contact your representatives to pass legislation that would empower people with disabilities to live independently. As a society, we need to get past the stigmatization of this group and normalize disability being an innate part of being human.

 

 

Disabilities and the American Education System: From the Past to the Present

A cartoon image depicting students of various backgrounds and disabilities grouped together around the phrase, "We are all wonderfully made"
Source: Yahoo Images

In the last blog, we covered the contextual history of the American Education System, primarily, who was allowed education, who was not, and even the differences in the quality of education that children in America received. We also explored the historical treatment of people with disabilities, both in the larger society, as well as in children with disabilities within the school system. Understanding the past is crucial to analyzing why certain events occur as they do in the future. That is what we set out to do in this continuation of the conversation about disabilities and the American education system. In this second part, we will focus on the realities children with disabilities witness within the education system, including the challenges they face, the school-to-prison pipeline that exists, and how this impacts their development (both mentally and physically). We will then explore how the recent pandemic exacerbated these conditions, and what sort of rights the children possess in this post-pandemic world.

Children with Disabilities in the Education System Today

An image depicting a child sitting with his head in his hands, next to a pile of books, with various phrases listing different learning disabilities.
Source: Yahoo Images

The many challenges faced by students with disabilities in the classroom

Children with disabilities today face many challenges within the classroom even without taking the pandemic into account. These challenges vary from physical barriers to socio-emotional ones. One thing that needs to be recognized is that not all disabilities are alike, and with various disabilities come various challenges. I don’t want to appear to be generalizing the struggles that children with disabilities face in the school system, because each individual’s experiences vary, even between different places. Some states within the United States may be very inclusive, while others may place the responsibility of accessibility on the people with disabilities themselves. Regardless of which state you live in, my goal here is to spread awareness of the various challenges that children with one or multiple disabilities face as they maneuver through their primary academic journey.

With that being said, one of the most common barriers that children with disabilities face is on the social level. Throughout history, children with disabilities have been separated from the rest of the able-bodied society, and this is also true within the school system. Many schools, when they began to accept children with disabilities into the school system, would educate them separately (in the basement or another room) from the other children. Even today, many children with learning and speech disabilities require additional help from trained professionals, which requires these children to spend extra time on their academics, and less time socializing with their peers. This naturally distances them from able-bodied children their age and can lead children with disabilities to become victims of many instances of bullying and harassment. A crucial element to consider is that while many children their age are dealing with the various emotions that come from development, children with disabilities have to deal with additional fears and insecurities surrounding their disabilities, as they learn to accept and adapt to life with disabilities. This can be challenging in and of itself, without having to deal with the social pressures from peers.

Additionally, while schools receive federal funding to meet the required measures for the children with disabilities within their institutions, this funding is limited, covering less than a quarter of the expenses needed to fulfill the required services for each student. The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) we covered in the previous blog allows Congress to allocate up to 40% of the average funding per student, but unfortunately, this has never been exercised by Congress, and funding for special education programs continues to be miserly. Schools receive  15% of the funding they are allocated, but they are still required to fulfill all the mandated regulations simply for receiving federal funding. This means that they have to come up with the remaining 85% of the expenditures on their own, in place of the 55% they would be responsible for covering if Congress secured the full 40%. This can place additional strains on these schools that are already struggling for funds.

Furthermore, children with learning disabilities require trained professionals to provide them with additional support throughout their academic journey. Someone who is hearing impaired may require additional resources to combat the auditory issues they face, or someone who is visually impaired may require additional lessons on how to read in Braille. Others with learning disabilities such as dyslexia (which is a disorder in which someone has difficulty reading and processing language), may need additional patience and support to process the information they are learning. Public schools, by law, are required to provide assistance to children with disabilities and those who have been through traumatic experiences. Licensed professionals that focus on educational needs for children with learning disabilities can be hard to find, and this has only worsened due to the pandemic. As many as 44 states experienced this shortage even before the pandemic, and this number continues to grow due to the issues of limited funding discussed earlier. Without the necessary help that students with learning disabilities require, they continue to fall behind their peers academically.

Many of these challenges can be addressed with more funding allotted to the education system as a whole, and professions within the field of special education can be incentivized by the government (by for example, making the training programs free and accessible to those who are interested) to address the shortage of licensed professionals. The education being taught in the schools can be more inclusive of children with disabilities, with opportunities for the children to share their experiences with their peers and help remove the stigma associated with disabilities by normalizing helpful conversations around disabilities. While these challenges can have a great impact on the learning abilities of children with disabilities, there are some challenges that can have drastic impacts on their futures as a whole.

The school-to-prison pipeline

A cartoon image showing the relationship between schools and the legal system, showcasing the school-to-prison pipeline that has become so prominent in the American School System.
Source: Yahoo Images;

Unfortunately, along with an increase in school shootings within the educational system, another phenomenon that has become all too common is the use of law enforcement to discipline children. More and more stories have been reported regarding children with disabilities and children of color being subjected to drastic disciplinary measures by school systems. When a child “acts out” or showcases any behavior not supported by the schools, the educators have resorted to involving the law instead of following disciplinary protocols within the schools (such as contacting parents, placing students in detention, or for more serious issues, using suspensions). Police are called on these students, and educators watch as young children are punished for their misdeeds by being harassed by the police. In many instances, these incidents have turned deadly, as police officers have used full force on young children, to force them into complying, at times jeopardizing the children’s well-being. Children as young as 7 years of age have been placed in handcuffs and threatened jail time, for childish behavior such as spitting or throwing tantrums. This can be especially dangerous when children with disabilities are involved because they are accused of “misbehaving” when they are simply reacting differently to situations than their able-bodied peers. The police, with little to no training on the different ways to approach people with disabilities, only escalate the already tense situations.

According to a CBS News analysis of data from the Education Department in 2017-2018, children with disabilities are four times more likely to be arrested than their able-bodied counterparts. Another research conducted by Cornell University reports that 55% of Black men with disabilities have been detained before they reach the age of 28. Young African American children with disabilities, therefore, are the most at-risk demographic to face legal repercussions for “behavioral” issues common among most children their age. This phenomenon, known as the school-to-prison pipeline, which disproportionately targets students of color, (and children with disabilities), involves the use of the criminal and justice systems as a tool to discipline children. Unfortunately, these disciplinary attempts remain on the permanent records of the targeted children and can have lifelong implications that determine their future.

An example of this school-to-prison pipeline is clear when looking into some of the instances where law enforcement is used to discipline children. Jacksonville, Illinois is home to a particular school that makes use of its law enforcement officers for behavioral issues. Garrison School, a public school where children with disabilities in that region attend, has been in the news recently for the staggering number of arrests made within a single school year. Although the population of this school is an average of 60-70 children, the police, who are located less than 5 miles from the school, have been called over 100 times for “behavioral” issues, such as throwing tantrums and spraying water. An investigation into this school found that in the school year 2017-2018 alone, more than half of the entire student body was arrested. As the only public school for children with disabilities in that region of Illinois, caregivers are limited in choices of schools for their children. In addition to having disabilities, the children at this particular school have also experienced immense trauma and violence in their past. Arresting these children for their “behaviors” continues to place these children in traumatic situations, further impacting their development.

Impacts on children with disabilities’ development

An infographic depicting the prevalence of mental health issues among the youth. In this infographic, it states that 13% of youth face mood disorders or depression, 32% deal with anxiety disorders, 9% with ADHD, and 3% with eating/feeding disorders.
Source: Yahoo Images

Using the criminal and justice systems to punish or “discipline” children with disabilities can have lasting impressions on the children’s futures. For one, especially children such as those from Garrison School, who deal with personal trauma and violence from their past, experiences with law enforcement can deteriorate their mental health even further. Even those without previous trauma can have lasting impressions on their academic success, meaning that children who have been disciplined with the use of law enforcement are even more isolated from their peers and can experience breaks in their educational journeys. Studies have shown that children who have their needs met are more likely to outperform those students who do not have their needs met. Linking back to the school-to-prison pipeline, those students who have been arrested and imprisoned as young adults are more likely to continue down this path of criminality. Additionally, students with disabilities that have been imprisoned have to face the added struggles of maneuvering the prison system with disabilities, and these struggles are increased with multiple disabilities, especially with invisible disabilities, in which case, many people may not even believe the existence of these disabilities. Studies have shown how incarceration can worsen issues of mental illness within the prison population, and when translated to the impact imprisonment has on people with disabilities, these conditions are exponentially worse.

How it impacts children with disabilities’ professional futures

In addition to the harm this causes to the development of children with disabilities, the practice of using law enforcement to discipline school children has far-reaching consequences. For one, the children who are constantly “othered,” bullied, or harassed by both students and teachers can internalize their experiences and react to them, increasing their chances of being disciplined again for behavioral issues. In addition to that, being imprisoned, even for a few days, can be a traumatic experience that can shape your worldview, and as a result, your future. For young, developing children, these experiences can be impressionable, and coupled with the isolation that many children with disabilities experience, this can be a devastating combination, resulting in the deterioration of the children’s physical and mental well-being. Furthermore, many of these zero-tolerance policies that end in the arrests of children happen due to the faculty members pressing charges against the children. These charges, though they can be sealed for juvenile offenses, can lead to more charges in these children’s future into their adulthood. A criminal history into your adulthood can result in slim educational and employment options. Research conducted more broadly on this subject has been reported by the Prison Policy, and it showcases how increasingly difficult it is to find decent employment upon exiting the prison system. The report adds that even when formerly incarcerated people do find employment, they are often paid fewer wages than their co-workers.

Applying this research to children with disabilities who are disciplined through the legal system, can be an even bigger challenge for their futures. People with disabilities experience many barriers to obtaining employment even without imprisonment on their records. Studies have shown how incarcerating children does not deter them from engaging in criminal behavior in the future; it might actually have the opposite impact. Finally, children who are incarcerated experience large gaps in their education, and this can impact their ability to successfully enter the job market. This issue is exponentially worse among children with disabilities because they are more likely to be imprisoned for “behavioral issues”, and expands the academic gap felt by so many children with learning disabilities who are already facing many social and learning barriers.

How did COVID make things worse for children with disabilities?

An image of a child sitting in front of a computer trying to learn virtually during COVID-19.
Source: Yahoo Images

The pandemic was a time of uncertainty, and many of us were scrambling around not knowing what to do. Even as more and more information came out about the virus itself and how to safeguard it, there was a lot of anxiety and misinformation being spread around. Children with disabilities had to navigate not only their personal lives with their unique experiences but also the larger society that was falling apart around them in the face of a virus. Many businesses and schools shut down in the beginning, which meant that children had to adjust to different learning styles, something that may have been easier for some, but widened the academic gap for others. Children with disabilities as a whole had to be mindful of the threat that the virus posed on their lives. This virus was especially deadly to those with pre-existing conditions and for those who were immunocompromised, both of which apply to many children and adults with disabilities. So, constantly having to live with the anxiety of whether or not they might contract the virus would have been stressful enough without the masking and vaccine debates that have politicized this medical crisis. What is worse, COVID-19 vaccines for children were not available for over a year after the pandemic first began, leaving this population vulnerable to infections with no way to protect themselves against them.

Additionally, along with their children, parents, and caregivers of children with disabilities faced new challenges as everyone attempted to adapt to the “new normal”. While the mandated quarantine helped with transportation issues for some, it opened up a whole new set of issues for many. Children with learning disabilities who received additional help from professionals either had to go without it or transition to seeking their help through zoom. For some, accessing help through Zoom and Telehealth was extremely helpful in addressing the medical needs of people, and this had a positive impact on people with disabilities as a whole. However, accessing Zoom and Telehealth was a challenge on its own for many who lived in rural areas or marginalized areas where internet services were very minimal or nonexistent, or simply unaffordable. The pandemic was a time when many people also lost jobs, so children faced additional financial repercussions from the pandemic. These instances further widened the academic gap among children with disabilities.

This blog mainly focused on the struggles that children face within the American school system. Part three of this series will focus on some of the approaches that have been taken historically when addressing disabilities, and some ways in which we can take action, on a personal level, on a local or national level, and even on an international level.