Cataclysm: COVID-19 in Brazil

As the number of novel coronavirus (COVID-19) cases continue to grow in the United States (U.S.), another epicenter has been growing in South America. As the sixth most populous country in the world, Brazil has experienced an uptick in COVID-19 cases and deaths alongside an array of national controversies that make the response efforts considerably more difficult. This blog addresses Brazil’s growing importance in the COVID-19 discussion and how it impacts human rights issues concerning indigenous peoples, environmental degradation, favela communities, and good governance.

As of late-June, more than 1.3 million Brazilians have been diagnosed with COVID-19, while over 55,000 have died from the virus. Brazil’s most populated state, São Paulo, is currently the country’s epicenter with nearly 250,000 confirmed cases of COVID-19. The northeastern state of Ceará has the country’s second-largest number of confirmed cases (100,000+), while Pará in the northwest is nearing 100,000 confirmed cases. Additionally, the iconic city of Rio de Janeiro has over 105,000 confirmed cases of COVID-19. Unfortunately, Amazonas has to the highest COVID-19 death rate of any state with 67 deaths per 100,000 cases, compared to Bahia’s 11 deaths per 100,000 cases, which highlights the disproportionate impact of COVID-19 on indigenous communities that have been systematically killed, displaced, and denied access to health care and other preventative services that could help fight the spread of the virus.

Indigenous Peoples of Brazil

As the largest Brazilian state in the Amazon region, Amazonas is known for its indigenous communities who often live in isolated villages and have poor access to health care. In the city of Manaus, which has a population of 2 million+ and is only accessible by aircraft or boat, many recent respiratory-related deaths have resulted in quick burial in mass graves, which has likely led to a severe underestimate the pandemic’s toll on the local population. In the remote community of Betania, the Tikuna tribe has five government medical workers that accommodate an approximate 4,000 inhabitants, but they are not treating the sick due to lack of protective equipment and COVID-19 testing supplies. One considerable threat are the indigenous community members who are not quarantining and are, instead, traveling in and out of town for work.

These unprecedented events compound the colonial legacy that has threatened Brazil’s indigenous peoples for centuries. Centuries ago, indigenous tribes throughout the Amazon were decimated by diseases brought by Europeans. In a way, history is repeating itself because the Brazilian government’s ineffectual response to the crisis have allowed COVID-19 to ravage the surviving indigenous communities and put them on the brink of genocide. Aside from the tribes who have contact with the modern world, the Brazilian Amazon inhabits 103 uncontacted tribes who have virtually no knowledge or resources to protect them from the threat of COVID-19. Signing this petition will help urge Brazilian officials to protect the surviving indigenous communities throughout the Amazon.

Deforestation in the Amazon

Since COVID-19 has reached these Amazonian communities, deforestation in the region has also proliferated. The Amazon is the largest rainforest in the world and is important to the global ecosystem because it absorbs approximately 5% of the world’s carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions. Thus, protecting the Amazon is pivotal for stalling the effects of climate change. However, for years, the Amazon has been ravaged to accommodate the agricultural industry as well as illegal loggers and drug traffickers. As a result, indigenous leaders fear that the COVID-19 pandemic will be used to exacerbate the destruction these industries have already caused.

During the month of April, deforestation in Brazil increased by nearly 64% which resulted in more than 150 square miles of rainforest destruction. In response, 3,000+ Brazilian soldiers were deployed to the region to prevent illegal logging and other criminal activities that contribute to deforestation. Some worry that such activity in the rainforest will lead to outsiders giving indigenous communities infectious diseases, namely COVID-19. Brazil’s Secretariat of Indigenous Health (SESAI) has made efforts to distribute N95 masks, gloves, and goggles to the region, but activists warn that the only way to protect uncontacted tribes is by keeping illegal loggers and miners out of these areas. Despite the Brazilian government establishing three military bases to prevent illegal actors from permeating the region, they are only expected to be present for 30 days. This is because Brazil’s main environmental enforcement agency, Ibama, is expected to take over these efforts but are currently understaffed and underbudgeted.

Favelas in the Age of Social Distancing

More than 11 million Brazilians live in favelas which are shantytowns outside of urban centers. Already hit hard by gun violence, unsanitary conditions, and militaristic police presence, people living in Brazil’s favelas struggle to adhere to social distancing measures. Research has found that people living favela-like conditions spend roughly 50% more time per day with others than people in less-impoverished areas. Often, favelas are composed of two or three rooms with five or six people sharing these spaces. As such, favela conditions enable the spread of COVID-19, and with precious little assistance from the government, Brazil’s most impoverished communities are left to fend for themselves.

With little government help, residents of Paraisopolis in Sao Paulo (population: 100,000) have offered a community-based solution. Due to donations and volunteer work, residents have responded to COVID-19 by organizing distribution of free meals, ambulatory services, and neighborhood watch persons. They even designated one building the quarantine house and repurposed closed schools in self-isolation centers. In Rio, members of the gang City of God drive through the local favelas, blaring a recorded message ordering people to stay home. Other gangs have become knowledgeable about COVID-19 in order to deliver essential goods to favela residents and have even gone as far to enforce social distancing measures by preventing restaurants from putting tables out. These forms of gang vigilantism in Brazil’s favelas demonstrate the lack of government support and tension with local police.

Small grave onlooking a favela.
At the bottom of this block destined to the burials of COVID-19, is the favela of the Vila Nova Cachoeirinha housing complex. Source: Léu Britto, Creative Commons.

Trump of the Tropics

These criticisms are largely attributed to the leadership of Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro who notoriously dismissed COVID-19 as a “little flu”. Aside from personally ignoring social distancing measures, Bolsonaro has organized large rallies in an effort to confront local governors who have locked down their regions. Recently, after ignoring federal regulation that require wearing a face mask in all public places, a judge ruled that Bolsonaro (and any public official) is not exempt from this policy and should expect a 2,000-reais ($387) fine like anyone else. Bolsonaro even fired his Health Minister, Luiz Mandetta, in April after he supported social distancing measures. His successor has since promoted a reopening of the economy and unproven medical treatments for COVID-19.

Known by many as the “Trump of the Tropics,” Bolsonaro has successfully maintained a strong coalition of supporters such as the agriculture community, evangelical Christians, and the military. Unlike the U.S., Brazil is an emerging economy with a weak social safety net that makes it difficult for government officials to convince people to stay at home. Health care access and the conditions to work from home are also quite limited. Recent cell phone tracking data has revealed that 45-60% of Brazilians are not complying with social distancing measures, likely due to the fact that they have to choose between feeding their families and being exposed to the virus. As such, it is assumed Bolsonaro’s defiance of a public health approach to COVID-19 is an effort to appeal to his core supporters. Bolsonaro has also slashed regulations and enforcement of land grabbing, which exacerbates the deforestation crisis currently impacting the Amazon.

Human Rights in Brazil

As demonstrated, Brazil has an array of chronic human rights problems that have been compounded by the arrival of COVID-19. In 2016, a constitutional amendment was passed that limited public expenditures in Brazil for the next 20 years. As a result, we are now witnessing how these austerity measures have affected access to housing, food, water, and sanitation when Brazilians need it the most, particularly within the most vulnerable groups – women, children, Afro-Brazilians, indigenous peoples, rural communities, and informally-settled persons.

Much like the U.S., Brazil’s COVID-19 response has mostly been subnational social distancing measures and an emergency basic income to placate the masses. However, these efforts are clearly inadequate considering Brazil’s COVID-19 cases are surging alongside another potential Zika outbreak. As a result, Brazil has effectively become the most prominent COVID-19 case study in the Global South, a nation plagued by a deadly virus and an array of human rights issues. Human rights experts suggest fiscal stimulus and social protection packages would only be the beginning of a COVID-19 response because many of these concerns are the consequence of marketization and privatization of public goods and services. As such, the COVID-19 pandemic serves as an opportunity to reverse the market-based ideology that has failed so many countries, especially the Land of the Palms.

Please sign the petition to help urge Brazilian officials to protect the surviving indigenous communities throughout the Amazon.

Pigmented Pandemic: Racial and Ethnic Disparities in COVID-19

Ubiquity of the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) has drastically changed the way we behave in almost every corner of life. One silver lining drawn into these unprecedented times is that many people are more appreciative of their families, friends, and communities. However, the odds of being in a social network that knows someone who has been diagnosed or died from COVID-19 are greater if you are a racial/ethnic minority living in the U.S. As such, this blog focuses on COVID-19’s disproportionate effect on communities of color and how a human rights approach can help address racial/ethnic health disparities.

Racial/ethnic minorities are particularly vulnerable to reduced access of health services and the psychosocial stressors of discrimination which is why some argue that racism is a fundamental cause of health inequalities. These disparities are largely due to the disadvantaged economic and social conditions commonly experienced by many racial/ethnic minorities. Compared to Whites, racial/ethnic minorities are more likely reside in densely populated areas, live further from grocery stores and medical facilities, represent multi-generational homes, and be incarcerated. Additionally, racial/ethnic minorities disproportionately represent essential worker industries and have limited paid sick live. As a result, the living and working conditions for many racial/ethnic minorities put them at odds with threat of COVID-19.

Vestiges: Black American Health Disparities

Black Americans have disproportionate rates of COVID-19-related risk factors such as diabetes, hypertension, and obesity. As such, they are disproportionately dying of COVID-19 in many counties across the U.S. These disparities are even more alarming at the state-level. For example, in Georgia, 83% of all COVID-19 cases linked to a hospitalization were Black patients despite the community only representing a third of the state’s population. Also, in Michigan, Blacks represent 14% of the state’s population but 41% of the COVID-19 deaths. On a national level, Blacks (13% of the total population) represent 33% of all COVID-19 hospitalizations, while Whites (60% of the total population) represent 45% of all COVID-19 hospitalizations.

Not only do Black Americans disproportionately live in many of the U.S.’s early COVID-19 hotspots (e.g., Detroit, New Orleans, and New York), they are also more likely than their White counterparts to experience poverty and have no health insurance. For centuries, the labor of Black Americans has been deemed “essential”, while the COVID-19 pandemic adds insult to injury. In the medical field, Blacks are less likely to be health professionals and more likely to represent personnel that cleans, provides food, or work in inventory. As such, Black essential workers who are not on the frontlines are more likely to acquire COVID-19 in the pernicious form of regularly contacting cardboard, clothing, or stainless steel. Thus, health disparities in the Black community demonstrate how the legacy of slavery and segregation thrive in the social and economic conditions of COVID-19.

Segmented: Latino American Health Disparities

Many Latinos in the U.S. have immigrant status and work in high-risk essential industries such as agriculture, food service, and health care. This largely explains why Latinos are up to three times more likely than Whites to be infected and hospitalized by COVID-19. These striking outcomes are compounded when considering that Latinos face other disproportionate hurdles such as inadequate communication resources and language barriers. Also, Latinos often socialize in “mixed status” immigrant networks which means those who are undocumented are not eligible for COVID-19 stimulus funding.

A recent Pew poll found that Latinos are almost 50% more likely than the average American to have been laid off or lost a job due to the pandemic. This is particularly salient to Latinos with a high school education or less and those ages 18-29. However, immigrant Latinos were less likely to lose their jobs but more likely to take a pay cut. As a result, the Latino experience during the COVID-19 pandemic is not only fraught with social and economic drawbacks, much like other communities of color, but complicated by the fact that their large immigrant population is ineligible for needed resources and often relied on in the essential workforce. These outcomes suggest the social and economic consequences of COVID-19 are uniquely challenging to Latinos, namely immigrants with limited access to resources that are often afforded to citizens.

Overlooked: Native American, Native Hawaiian, and Pacific Islander Health Disparities

Often overlooked in the racial health disparities conversation are outcomes for Native Americans. Some state health departments (e.g., Texas) classify Native American COVID-19 statistics as “other” which ultimately dismisses the unique health profile of this underserved population. However, early statistics from Arizona and New Mexico suggest Native Americans represent a disproportionate number of COVID-19-related deaths and cases, respectively. Reports from health authorities in Navajo Nation, which is comprised of areas in Arizona, Utah, and New Mexico, indicate this community’s confirmed COVID-19 prevalence rate is the highest in the country, although they have a test rate higher than most U.S. states.

In March, the Seattle Indian Health Board requested medical supplies from local health authorities but instead received body bags and toe tags. This callous response demonstrates that local authorities in Washington state have actively devalued the lives of Native Americans during these trying times. The Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe in South Dakota have responded to their state’s negligence by refusing to end COVID-19 highways checkpoints across tribal land. Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe Chairman Harold Frazier argues that the checkpoints are the best thing the tribe has to prevent the spread of COVID-19 because they are only equipped with an eight-bed facility for its 12,000 inhabitants. The nearest critical care facility is three hours away.

Also overlooked are COVID-19 outcomes among Native Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders (NHPI). Early reports from California, Hawaii, Oregon, Utah, and Washington indicate that NHPI have higher rates of COVID-19 when compared to other ethnic groups. A precursor to these outcomes is that NHPI have some of the highest rates of chronic disease which puts this demographic at higher risk of COVID-19. Much like other racial/ethnic minority groups, NHPI are more likely to work in the essential workforce and live in multi-generational households. Thus, these conditions allow COVID-19 to proliferate among NHPI enclaves.

Person with a protective mask preparing food with a front door sign that reads "No Mask, No Entry".
Thank you essential workers! Source: spurekar, Creative Commons

Health and Human Rights

Health is argued to be a fundamental human right. Ways this can be achieved is through creating greater access to safe drinking water, functioning sanitation, nutritious foods, adequate housing, and safe conditions in the workplace and schools. As such, health exists well outside the confines of the typical health care setting. However, the U.S. has yet to officially ratify the Universal Declaration of Human Rights which ultimately prevents the government from being held accountable for the socioecological influences that generate health disparities across racial/ethnic minority groups.

These health disparities are not debatable and even acknowledged by the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights. In response, national efforts, state-level policies, and public health programs have successfully reduced these disparities but have only made modest progress. Thus, comprehensive, systemic, and coordinated strategies must be implemented to achieve health equity. Although solving this daunting task cannot achieved by the U.S. government alone. It must also incorporate non-profit and philanthropic on-the-ground efforts already seeking this goal as well as greater public awareness about the impact social and economic policies have on racial/ethnic health disparities.

Despite these discrepancies, the COVID-19 pandemic serves as an opportunity for social change. More specifically, these unprecedented events bring greater light to issues such as poverty, homelessness, unemployment, and migration, all of which disproportionately affect communities of color. As a result, the ubiquity of COVID-19 has gathered people from every corner of the justice community to declare that health is a human right, thus bringing us one step closer to true equity and inclusion.

Outside the Frame: Where is the Native Story in American Art?

Painting of a green landscape with the sun shining down.
Wyoming Valley, Pennsylvania. Source: The Met, Creative Commons

On Monday, March 9th, the Institute for Human Rights co-sponsored an event alongside College of Arts & Sciences and Abroms-Engel Institute for the Visual Arts (AEIVA) to present a panel discussion with Dr. Deidra Suwanee (Director/Tribal Archivist – Poarch Band of Creek Indians), Dr. Tina Kempin Reuter (Director – Institute for Human Rights, UAB), Oakleigh Pinson (Guest Co-Curator – Focus IV Exhibition, AEIVA), and moderator John Fields (Senior Director – AEIVA). During their discussion, they addressed the Native erasure from American art and pathways to greater representation.

The discussion began with mention of Manifest Destiny, which were the events that led to the removal of Natives throughout North America. This effort was influenced by the ‘doctrine of discovery’ that painted non-Christians as pagans and, thus, targets of oppression. The Indian Removal Act of 1830 affected tribes throughout the Southeast, namely the Poarch Creek Indians who are the only federally recognized Native tribe in the state of Alabama.

Thus, many works of art in U.S. museums do not include depictions of Natives. In contrast, many paintings of the American frontier include landscapes without people, although sometimes incorporating wildlife, which conveys the message that this land was simply there for the taking. These portrayals also hide behind the altered and destroyed scared sites that were once home to millions of Natives.

Woman with a ceremonial indigenous dress presents artwork as onlookers listen.
Dr. Suwanee presenting art to the audience. Source: UAB Institute for Human Rights

Such treatment has resulted in harsh living conditions where nearly a quarter of the U.S. Native population reside on tribal lands riddled with unemployment, inadequate housing, and limited facilities. These conditions serve as a harvest ground for poor access to resources that translate to health disparities related to heart disease, suicide, tuberculosis, etc. Native women are particularly at-risk in these harsh conditions because thousands every year go missing or are found murdered, thus inspiring the #AmINext awareness campaign in Canada.

During the Q&A segment, an audience member asked if this type of art could be considered propaganda. Dr. Suwanee suggested that suppression of art is a red flag because it limits expression, although she then claimed that art can also be created to facilitate social change. The conversation then evolved into a discussion about film depictions of Natives and the involvement of indigenous peoples in the United Nations. These sentiments centered on the general theme that Native representation is not only missing in art but also popular culture and politics.

Ultimately, the erasure of Native perspectives whitewashes what is to be told and understood. As such, it is imperative these wrongs are corrected through fair representation of Natives in the media and political arena. Recognizing the rights of indigenous peoples not only brings us closer to the full realization of human rights but also prevents history from painting with a broad brush.

Breathing Lessons: Disability Rights in the Wake of COVID-19

The novel coronavirus (COVID-19) has provoked an unprecedented reality for much of the global population by streamlining widespread bureaucratic frustration, health anxiety, and social distancing. Most people know that older adults and people with underlying health conditions are disproportionately affected by COVID-19, although many people fall under both these categories and identify with a disability. Also, due to the limited resources available to treat people with COVID-19, concerns have emerged about who receives what type of care. This would force health providers with the grim task of dictating whose lives are worth saving. This blog addresses concerns about rationing care amid the influx of COVID-19 patients and how this might affect the largest minority group in the United States (26%) and world (15%), people with disabilities.

Word Health Organization suggests COVID-19 is particularly threatening to people with disabilities for a list of reasons: (1) barriers to implementing proper hygienic measures, (2) difficulty in social distancing, (3) the need to touch things for physical support (e.g. assistance devices; railings), (4) barriers to accessing public health information, and (5) the potential exacerbation of existing health issues. These issues add insult to injury because, even without COVID-19, people with disabilities by-and-large receive inadequate access to health care services. This is largely due to the competitive nature of health systems which value profit maximization and, thus, disadvantage people with disabilities as consumers in the health care market.

Recently, select states and hospitals have issued guidelines for health providers that would potentially deny people with disabilities treatment for COVID-19. Two entities, Alabama Department of Public Health (ADPH) and Washington State Department of Public Health (WSDPH), have recently come under scrutiny because of their efforts to fulfill such guidelines.

ADPH’s Emergency Operations Plan suggests that ventilator support would be denied to patients with “severe of profound mental retardation”, “moderate to severe dementia”, and “severe traumatic brain injury”. This controversial protocol has recently grabbed the attention of Alabama Disability Advocacy Program and The Arc thus leading to a complaint with U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Office for Civil Rights (OCR) regarding discrimination toward people with intellectual and cognitive disabilities.

With Washington notoriously being one of the first COVID-19 hotspots, WSDPH and the University of Washington Medical Center have come under fire for their plans to develop a protocol that would allow health providers to access a patient’s age, health status, and chances of survival to determine treatment and comfort care. These efforts have been confronted by Disabilities Rights Washington with their own complaint to OCR that declares any medical plan that discriminates against people with disabilities effectively violates the their rights and is, therefore, unlawful.

OCR swiftly responded to these concerns, as well as those from Kansas and Tennessee, by stating that, even in the case of pandemics, hospitals and doctors cannot undermine the care of people with disabilities and older adults. OCR Director Roger Severino exclaimed, “We’re concerned that crisis standards of care may start relying on value judgments as to the relative worth of one human being versus another, based on the presence or absence of disability,” and “…that stereotypes about what life is like living with a disability can be improperly used to exclude people from needed care.”

Also, with New York currently having most of the U.S.’s confirmed COVID-19 cases, they may very well be the first state to face the imbalance of available ventilators and patient demand. Disability advocates have recently decried verbiage in New York’s Public Readiness and Emergency Preparedness (PREP) Act that could provide immunity from civil rights for some patients. Thus, U.S. state and federal powers are playing tug-of-war with the status of disability rights during the COVID-19 crisis.

Not Today #COVID19 Sign Resting on a Wooden Stool.
Not Today COVID-19 Sign on Wooden Stool. Source: Pexels, Creative Commons.

However, these concerns are not limited to the U.S. In the developing world, many people with disabilities are segregated from their communities in overcrowded facilities, while thousands of others are shackled and incarcerated. This weak enforcement of disability rights positions people with disabilities, in countries such as Brazil, Croatia, Ghana, India, Indonesia, and Russia, at-risk of further inhumane treatment by receiving limited or no appropriate care related to COVID-19. As a result, Human Rights Watch urges state and local authorities to return these populations to their families and demand they provide needed support and services within their communities.

Nearly every country in the world has ratified the United Nations’ Convention on Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD) which aims to fulfill the human rights and fundamental freedoms of people with disabilities. More specifically, Article 25 of CRPD suggests people with disabilities have the right to non-discriminatory health care and population-based public health programs. Thus, nearly every person with a disability around the globe is associated with a governmental power that claims to be dedicated to fulfilling the promise of CRPD. However, in the wake of COVID-19, will these words be put into action?

These unprecedented events are a turning point for how we view our bodies, health, and communities. This is also an opportunity to view the world through the perspective of those in your community such as people with disabilities who represent an array of impairments, challenges, and experiences. Despite boredom and apathy being at the forefront of many people’s isolation, images of life versus death surround others, and for a good reason. In these decisive weeks, and likely months, there has never been a greater time for people in the U.S. and abroad to acknowledge that disability rights are human rights.

Community and Conservation in Maasai Mara

On Thursday, January 23rd, the Institute for Human Rights co-sponsored an event alongside Sparkman Center for Global Health to present Nelson Ole Reiya (CEO/Founder) and Maggy Reiya (Education and Gender Coordinator) of Nashulai Maasai Conservancy. During their lecture and discussion with the audience, they addressed their remarkable mission to protect wildlife, preserve culture, and reverse poverty within their community in Maasai Mara, Kenya.

Nelson began with the admission that, amid farming and development efforts in the region, a group of Maasai elders convened under a tree and decided to start a conservancy. In response, Nashulai began in 2015 after a meeting with landowners resulted in the leasing of their land for conservation.

Most Maasai face severe poverty by living on less than one dollar a day, while girls and women are particularly vulnerable. More specifically, many girls are subjected to the practice of female genital mutilation (FGM) which is to prepare them for marriage. Additionally, young women who menstruate without pads are prevented from attending school. In addition to these social issues, because 68% of Kenya’s wildlife lives outside of parks and reserves, the country has lost nearly 70% of its wildlife over the past thirty years. These social and ecological issues demonstrate the need for a ground-up approach that advocates for the Maasai’s people, wildlife, and environment, hence Nashulai.

This is a picture from the event with the speakers facing the attentive audience.
Nelson Ole speaking to the audience. Source: UAB Institute for Human Rights

Nashulai means, “a place that unites all of use people, wildlife, and livestock in common hope for a better world, today and in the future”. Nashulai offers an array of social projects that benefit the Maasai community. Among those projects are: 1.) Nashulai Academy – subsidized education for adolescent girls and a safe house for girls avoiding FGM and early marriage, 2.) Community Water Project –  clean water retrieval system from the spring which reduces the distance to fetch water and incidences of waterborne diseases, 3.) Tourism for Social Change – two safari camps where many proceeds support community projects, 4.) Sekenani River Restoration Project – rejuvenation of the main river that support the Maasai community, 5.) Nashulai Cultural Training Centre – knowledge center to preserve indigenous practices of the Maasai, and 6.) Cattle Breeding Project – ecologically sustainable project to support the Boran and Zebu herds of the region, and 7.) Stories Café – upcoming facility where Maasai elders can manage and pass on local culture to the youth.

This is a picture from the event with an audience member asking the speakers a question.
Audience member engaging with the Reiyas. Source: UAB Institute for Human Rights

Particularly within these remarkable endeavors are the Women Empowerment Projects which address anti-FGM, creating lady pads, education, an ambulance for expecting mothers, soap making, and a drama theater club. These efforts highlight the human rights fundamentals to support the education and autonomy of girls and women. Additionally, Nashulai’s ecological efforts demonstrate the need to protect vulnerable environments that threatened by habitat destruction and wildlife depopulation. In sum, Nashulai’s community-based conservation model conveys the importance of ground-up human rights approaches that reject external influence and place community first.

If you would like to support Nashulai Maasai Conservancy, please follow this link.

Golf and Life Lessons: The Dennis Walters Story

On Wednesday, February 5th, the Institute for Human Rights co-sponsored an event alongside College of Arts and Sciences and Lakeshore Foundation to present World Golf Hall of Fame inductee Dennis Walters. During his lecture, he addressed his passion for golf, experience with disability, and journey of perseverance.

Raised in New Jersey and playing college golf at the University of North Texas, Walters had dreams of being on the PGA Tour. Amid his burgeoning career as a professional golfer, Walters experienced a golf cart accident that left him paralyzed from the waist-down. Following the accident, Walters underwent four months of excruciating rehabilitation, peering at the golf course across the street with a desire to drive a ball across the green. Although his doctor claimed he would no longer play golf, but Walters’ vision suggested otherwise.

Following his rehabilitation, Walters moved back home with his parents in New Jersey while he became accustomed to his new way of life. One day, he finally mustered the courage to swing a golf club. With help from his father, they had a makeshift system that included a pillow, waist strap, rope, and a tree to assist with Walters’ swing. As a result, Walters was hitting golf balls as he did before which kept his golfs dreams alive. The first time Walters played on a course after his accident, he received cheering support from fellow golfers and, soon after, a re-purposed bar stool for his golf cart. Thus, The Dennis Walters Golf Show was born.

However, not everyone was originally thrilled about Walters’ show. After his father wrote a letter to Jack Nicklaus and told him of his son’s ambition, Walters’ career took off. Although Walter’s show is not just any golf exhibition, it’s a performance! His show includes golf shots with a three-headed club, fishing rod, radiator hose, gavel, left-handed club, crooked club, and tall tee as well some bad jokes and a four-legged sidekick. After more than 40 years, Walters has traveled over 3 million miles and done over 3,000 golf shows for fans near and far.

Walters exclaimed, “There’s no expiration date on your dreams” and offered the crowd his five P’s for success:

    1. Preparation (establish a plan)
    2. Perspiration (hard work pays off)
    3. Precision (stay focused)
    4. Passion (live what you do)
    5. Perseverance (stay on the path or else the other four don’t matter)
This is a picture of Walters posing with members of UAB Men's and Women's Golf teams.
Walters with members UAB Men’s and Women’s Golf teams. Source: UAB Institute for Human Rights

Walters asked himself, “Why have this dream?”. At times, he felt entirely hopeless about golfing again. However, golf was like therapy to him, both mentally and physically, which he claimed was better than medicine. He then closed by expressing, “The good about golf is the people you know”, which highlights the importance of inclusion and acceptance of people with disabilities on and off the green.

Cleaved and Clamored: The Crisis in Cameroon

On Tuesday, November 5th, the Institute for Human Rights co-sponsored an event alongside Cameroon Humanitarian Relief Initiative to present Herman Cohen (former United States Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs) and Dr. Fontem Neba  (Secretary General of Cameroon Anglophone Civil Society Consortium). During their panel discussion, Cohen and Neba discussed the history of Cameroon, ongoing Anglophone discrimination, and potential resolutions to end the conflict.

As one of the most prominent voices advocating for Anglophone rights, Dr. Neba spoke directly about the atrocities taking place in Cameroon because he was recently detained for nine months after being charged with terrorism. Followed by its establishment as a federation in 1961 and an illegal referendum in 1972 that unified the Francophone majority (~80%) in the north and Anglophone minority (~20%) in the south, Cameroon has endured significant conflict. With political power most harbored in the north, Anglophone Cameroonians have experienced pressure to assimilate and prevention to secede, which led to a civil war in 2016 that has been riddled with human rights violations. More specifically, the Cameroonian military has permeated the south with their influence by committing heinous acts such as destroying Anglophone schools, burning crops, and murdering separatists. As a result, these acts have led to famine, homelessness, and institutional instability throughout the south. Additionally, thousands have been jailed for speaking out against the Franchophone government, while approximately a half-million are internally displaced and another 40,000 have sought refuge in Nigeria.

Neba describing Cameroon’s geographic division. Source: UAB Institute for Human Rights

Cohen then spoke about the crisis in Cameroon by drawing parallels with Eritrea which Ethiopia turned  a province before it eventually became an independent country. Although, the international community has been passive about the events unfolding in Cameroon. One exception is none other than the Trump Administration, which signed an executive order last month that effectively removed Cameroon from the African Growth and Opportunity Act. As a result, this action prevents Cameroon from profiting off duty free sales to the U.S. Additionally, south Cameroonians have found an Anglophone ally in Nigeria, making the prior impervious to defeat, while north Cameroonians have been increasingly critical of their government because they are not benefiting from the country’s strong economy. Thus, Cohen argues the U.S. is in the unique position to mediate a resolution. However, the Trump Administration has adopted an isolationist position, which currently places the U.S. distant from potential negotiations. Following, he suggested that the Cameroonian diaspora in U.S. should write letters to their local representatives and urge a cease-fire agreement.

After their presentations, Cohen and Neba took questions from an appalled audience. Addressing a question about the realistic options in our current political environment, Cohen insisted the United Nations Security Council must initiate negotiations and that it must be settled between warring factions; his personal suggestion is that they return to a federation relationship. Additionally, Cohen responded to a question that mentioned the role of former colonial powers, where he mentioned that Great Britain is currently distracted by Brexit, while France, despite reluctance from southern Cameroonians, is taking initiative to mediate the conflict. When asked how geopolitics, namely natural resources, influence this conflict, Neba claimed south Cameroon is rich in cocoa and timber as well as a fevered, educated populace. Although, he argued the region cannot become economically independent because their oil supply, which is on the border, is property of the government. In response, a passionate audience member, and Cameroon native, insisted south Cameroon, much like other small countries, can be independent without an oil industry.

Cohen answering an audience question. Source: UAB Institute for Human Rights

Cohen argued this crisis has potential to become a “Rwanda situation”, but, thankfully, a potential resolution doesn’t require money or soldiers. However, the current trajectory of this crisis primarily lays in the hands of Cameroon (who is persistent on military intimidation), Nigeria (who has enabled separatists in the south), and the U.S. (who has implemented economic sanctions). Thus, these conflicting narratives put human rights advocates in the position to highlight this pressing issue whether it be mentioning it on social media, writing to your local representative, or donating to humanitarian relief.

Under Pressure: How Court Debts Inform Racial and Wealth Inequality

On Thursday, November 7th, the Institute for Human Rights co-sponsored an event alongside Students for Human Rights at UAB to present representatives from Alabama Appleseed Center for Law & Justice. During their lecture and discussion with audience members, they addressed how racial inequality and systemic poverty influence court debts as well as what we can do to change the status quo.

Alabama Appleseed, and its 17 other offices across North America, work at the intersection of the legal system and systemic poverty. Helping to confront a system that harms impoverished and minority communities by placing them in an endless cycle of punishment, Alabama Appleseed employs a research and policy reform approach to highlight such inequalities.

They first addressed this issue by covering the racial wealth gap which can be told through the legacy of slavery, convict labor, redlining, school segregation, and hiring discrimination that has economically disadvantaged many communities of color, namely Black Americans. Thus, in present day, the poorest 20% of Whites have an average $15,000 in wealth, while the poorest 20% of Blacks have a mere average $100 in wealth.  As a result, receiving a fine can increase existing household costs, develop exorbitant interest rates, and even land one in jail if unpaid, meaning Black Americans are disproportionately affected by the looming threat of court debts.

In response, Alabama Appleseed sought to give this issue greater context by employing a statewide study, titled Under Pressure, which includes personal experiences with court debts from 980 Alabamians representing 41 counties  (56% of respondents were Black). Some of the main findings were:

  • 83% gave up necessities like rent, food, medical bills, car payments, and child support, in order to pay down their court debt
  • 50% had been jailed for failure to pay court debt
  • 44% had used payday loans to cover court debt
  • 80% borrowed money from a friend or family member to cover their court debt
  • Almost 2/3 received money or food assistance from a faith-based charity or church that they would not have had to request if it were not for their court debt
Alabama Appleseed presenting Under Pressure. Source: UAB Institute for Human Rights

They went on to address some anecdotal accounts such as people paying someone else’s court debt even though having their own and missing court dates that were scheduled while incarcerated. These findings suggest that impoverished and minority communities in Alabama must maneuver around isolated court systems that don’t communicate with one another, which further places them into a cycle of poverty and looming punishment. Furthermore, Alabama has the 5th highest incarceration rate in the world and is currently facing a 33% rate of employment in the prison system. This means that our criminal justice system not only disadvantages poor and Black Alabamians, but they are the ones funding these inequalities through a shadow tax system.

Thus, Alabama Appleseed offered a handful of recommendations for state lawmakers to address this system of injustice:

  • Eliminate court costs and fees, and scale fines to each person’s ability to pay
  • Fully fund courts from Alabama’s state budget
  • Send revenue from all court debt to the state General Fund
  • Create a mechanism for appeal and ensure folks have access to counsel throughout the process
  • Prohibit the suspension of drivers’ licenses except in instances of unsafe driving
  • Eliminate Failure to Appear warrants when the individual is incarcerated
  • Change the law that currently denies voting rights to people who are too poor to pay their court debt
  • Reclassify the possession of small amounts of marijuana as a civil infraction with fines connected to the defendant’s ability to pay

As demonstrated, Alabama’s criminal justice system is a harvest ground for racial and wealth inequality. However, addressing such concerns at the community-level is one way that you can participate in real change. You can do so by communicating with your local representative about overturning the “Three Strikes Law”, pressuring Regions Bank to divest from the private prison industry, and joining Alabama Appleseed to be informed about pending legislation.

Facing the threat of missing rent, losing meals, and even being incarcerated is no way to live, particularly for those who already experience a list of other disadvantages. For this reason, it’s about time we put our lawmakers and local businesses under pressure.

From the Ashes to the Stage: Indigenous Culture in the Performing Arts

On Tuesday, October 29th, the Institute for Human Rights co-sponsored an event alongside UAB’s College of Arts & Sciences and Department of Theatre to present indigenous actor, choreographer, director, and educator Michael Greyeyes. During his lecture and discussion with audience members, Greyeyes addressed issues such as the realities of being a stage performer, becoming a director, and indigenous representation in the media.

Greyeyes prefaced his lecture by acknowledging the original caretakers of the Birmingham area, namely the Chickasaw and Muscogee tribes. Following, Greyeyes began to mention a meeting he attended about “conflict”. He emphasized that conflict could elicit an array of emotions such as anger, frustration, and fear. However, he claimed that conflict is necessary, much like fire, because it burns away what is unnecessary.

Born and raised in Saskatchewan, a province of West Canada, Greyeyes moved to Toronto as a young man to work for The National Ballet of Canada. During this time, the company was resurging from its own series of ashes by elevating new leadership and young dancers. After his 4-year apprenticeship that took him around the world and back, Greyeyes had residencies as a performer in New York City, Pittsburgh, and Los Angeles. “Ever the migrant”, he exclaimed.

In Los Angeles, consumed by a restless artistic interest, Greyeyes took up acting. However, as a person of indigenous heritage, he often found himself disillusioned by being typecasted into roles such as “Native doctor” or “Indian lawyer”. Greyeyes then chose to continue his “re-education” by pursuing a Master’s in Fine Arts at Kent State University. Following, he was asked to take on a new role in the performing arts as a director. As a result, Greyeyes has found himself in the position to refine what it means to be a director at his non-profit, Signal Theatre, where he spends considerable time on development and training performers. Thus, the end-product becomes an intimate performance that is suited to resonate better with its audience.

Greyeyes closed his lecture by alluding to our political landscape with the Talking Head’s lyric “Same as it ever was” and suggested that, in times such as this, artistic creativity has the opportunity to challenge new conflicts by rising old memories from the ashes and expressing what we hold dear.

Greyeyes engaging with an audience member. Source: UAB Institute for Human Rights

 

After his lecture, Greyeyes took questions and comments from the inspired audience. One person mentioned that conflict in their parent’s native land of Egypt raised parallels with what indigenous communities have endured through colonialism. Greyeyes responded by mentioning there are high numbers of indigenous soldiers in the armed forces and that he has even played this role on the big screen. Although, the families of these soldiers are the ones who must pick up the pieces. In response, Greyeyes created A Soldier’s Tale which is a passionate dance performance about veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

He stressed that when non-indigenous people “write us” into the script, their perceptions come out and it generally doesn’t sound right. Thus, he expressed his most acclaimed role by the indigenous community was his True Detective performance as a solider shattered by the Vietnam War. Although, this character was not written in the storyline as a “Native solider” rather an everyday veteran that was given an indigenous perspective by Greyeyes himself. From the ashes to the stage.

“Who Are You?” Yusef Salaam of the Exonerated Five Shares His Story

On Tuesday, October 8th, the Institute for Human Rights co-sponsored an event alongside UAB’s Office of Diversity, Equity, & Inclusion, Student Multicultural & Diversity Programs, and College of Arts & Sciences to present criminal justice advocate Dr. Yusef Salaam of the Exonerated 5 (formerly known as the Central Park 5). During his conversation with UAB’s Dr. Paulette Patterson Dilworth, they discussed his time incarcerated, race in the 21st century, and the recent Netflix special When They See Us, among other related topics.

In April 1989, following the sexual assault of a white woman in New York City’s Central Park, five young Black and Hispanic youth were convicted for this heinous crime despite inconsistencies in DNA evidence. In the process of weathering the media storm and pressure from local authorities, Salaam claims he had a “spiritual awakening” that was being shaped by the hands of God. About six months into his bid, Salaam was debating if he was doing time or if time was doing him, when an officer approached him and asked, “Who are you?”. After giving the officer his full name, the officer replied, “I know that. You’re not supposed to be here. Who are you?”. This moment changed his entire trajectory because Salaam realized he was born with a purpose. As a result, Salaam earned a college degree while in prison and suggested this accomplishment means he could do anything. He argues that many in the public eye were looking at him with hatred because they saw his future self, an educated Black man fighting for racial and criminal justice.

After serving nearly seven years for a crime he did not commit, a confession and DNA match from Matias Reyes in 2002 allowed the release and exoneration of Salaam as well as Antron McCray, Kevin Richardson, Raymond Santana, and Korey Wise. Aside from Salaam and Wise’s acquaintanceship, the Exonerated Five did not know each other. Due to police profiling, they were rounded up by NYPD, interrogated, and pressured to confess to false narratives about one another, thus having to fight individually for themselves as well as their families. The Exonerated Five never discussed these events among each other because they assumed everyone had the same experience. However, upon a pre-release screening of When They See Us, which Salaam claimed was a “traumatic experience”, the Exonerated Five had the opportunity to process the series of events that would bind them together forever.

 

Dr. Salaam speaking with Dr. Dilworth. Source: UAB Institute for Human Rights
Dr. Salaam speaking with Dr. Dilworth. Source: UAB Institute for Human Rights

 

Although, the story does not end here. As fate would have it, then future U.S. President Donald Trump actively participated in promoting the execution of the Exonerated Five through an ad in local newspapers. Furthermore, Salaam’s claim that President Trump is responsible for “cosigning folks in Charlottesville” suggests our current cultural, social, and political environment encourages racial and criminal injustice. In response, echoing Carter G. Woodson’s treatise “The Mis-Education of the Negro,” Salaam exclaimed that history is trained and taught into a people. As a result, people of color, namely Black Americans, can become so destroyed by a system that they don’t want to participate. Although, Salaam said such a position suggests, “Non-participation is participation.” Thus, we, ourselves, are the answer.

This brings us to how we, particularly white folks who have orchestrated institutions to disadvantage people of color, can be the change we want to see. As Salaam suggests, “The system is working the way it was designed.” Thus, systemic issues disproportionately affecting people of color, such as police profiling, generational poverty, underfunded schools, and weakened voting rights, must immediately be addressed and reformed. Eradicating these injustices will unlikely be in in our lifetime, although current efforts by Black Lives Matter, Innocence Project, The Sentencing Project, and Woke Vote, among many others, shine a light on what we have, and can, accomplish.

Who are you?