“Sesame Street” and Autism: An initiative about Inclusion

Sesame Street. Source: Gavin St. Our, Creative Commons.

Sesame Street introduced viewers to the newest “live” Muppet on the block, earlier this month. Her name is Julia and she is on the autism spectrum. Initially introduced in 2015 as part of Sesame Street and Autism: See Amazing in All Children Initiative, Julia’s interaction with the other residents on Sesame Street teach them how to befriend and include individuals who are different, without being afraid. Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) is a developmental disability that can cause substantial social, behavioral and communication challenges. Individuals with ASD communicate, interact, and learn in ways that are different to people without ASD. Dr. Stephen Shore believes that “If you’ve met one person with autism, you’ve met one person with autism.” Every individual diagnosed with ASD has diverse functioning abilities and level of autistic symptoms, making each individual case distinctive. Currently, 1 in 68 children worldwide are diagnosed with ASD. ASD crosses every social and economic sphere. The goal of the Sesame Street and Autism Initiative is to remove the stigma of autism. Julia optimistically reminds viewers that individuals with disabilities have the talent and ability to positively contribute to our society while making the world a more unique and interesting place.

Over the past two decades, the human rights perspective on disability has shifted from viewing people with disabilities as problems towards recognizing them as holders of rights. A universal victory for people and families with disabilities came with the ratification and adoption of the Convention on the Rights of People with Disabilities (CRPD) by the United Nations in 2008. For children who Julia represents, the CRPD guarentees that those children can go grow up and have the same opportunities to achieve their goals just like children without disabilities. The United States has not ratified the CRPD, although there are continuous adjustments to domestic policies, ensuring the protection of the civil and human rights of persons with disabilities. There are currently numerous federal civil rights laws that safeguard people with disabilities so equal opportunities in employment, education, voting without discrimination are made available. The Century Communications and Video Accessibility Act (CVAA) became law under the Obama administration on October 8, 2010. This law increases the access of persons with disabilities to modern communications, and is up to date with 21st century technologies. Technology can revolutionize how people with disabilities interact and live in a society intended for those with no developmental or functional disability. The ratification of CRPD and continued promotion of the general welfare of all citizens should remain the focus of future government administrations.

People with disabilities have been marginalized and excluded from society within all cultures. National and international laws and conventions do not protect from discrimination on an individual level, with common responses of pity or disgust, which reinforced disabled peoples segregation in society. The lack of understanding regarding ASD and other disabilities can make life more stressful and challenging for individuals with developmental differences. The societal treatment towards people with disabilities lead to the phenomenon of invisibility. The phenomenon of invisibility rationalizes that society has the “tendency to construct everyday life with only the able-bodied in mind and the greater the lack of a physical presence of disabled persons in the mainstream, the more “natural” this assumption appeared to be (OHCHR).” As of March 2017, the Office of Disability Employment Policy (ODEP) disclosed that only 20.4% of people with disabilities are employed compared to 68.7% employed individuals without disabilities. Likewise, the unemployment rate for people with disabilities is 10.6% compared to 4.3% for people without disabilities. Furthermore, in 2015, Cornell University approximates 20.1% of non-institutionalized individuals with a disability aged 21 to 64 years in the United States have less than a high school education. The invisibility of people with disabilities has a drastic effect on their enjoyment of civil and human rights because they have been excluded and isolated.

a picture of a child smiling a big grin
Smile for the camera. Source: Arielle Calderon, Creative Commons.

The stigmatization of people with disabilities will persist until society embraces disabilities as adaptable differences, rather than with negative connotations. For example, a study analyzing parental perspectives on the diagnosis of ADS found that parents of non-diagnosed children described the potential diagnosis as scary, dangerous and frightening. The study also found that parents with diagnosed children sometimes go through denial, and try to find other reasons for their child’s behavior because they are reluctant to label their child as having a disability. However after the denial stage, parents elaborated on how they are started to reconstruct their beliefs about ASD, and began to project ASD from a positive perspective. This is why initiatives like “Sesame Street and Autism” are so important; not only do they educate children and adults about ASD, but also normalizes and cultivates respect for people with disabilities such as ASD. In order to communicate, Julia expresses herself in different ways that other characters on Sesame Street, who are not on the ASD. She flaps her arms when she is very bothered or happy, avoids direct eye contact, and repeats words. Even though Julia’s behaviors are different, Elmo, Big Bird and the other characters have learned to adapt, accept through understanding, and intentionally include her in their play dates.

Autism made nation headlines was during the vaccination causing autism controversy, which misinformed millions, and portrayed a diagnosis and prognosis as a hindering, negative characteristic. Julia’s addition to Sesame Street has generated significant discussion about about autism specifically, and disabilities, generally, and the societal stigma surrounding them. Recently appearances on popular network shows such as the “The View” and “60 Minutes” allowed for explanation and clarification as to why “Sesame Street” felt it was finally time to introduce a character like Julia into the show. Stacy Gordon, the women who plays the voice of Julia, very much understands the hardships of autism and inclusion. Stacy’s son is on the autism spectrum. In an interview with 60 Minutes, she admits that her sons classmates did not understand how to react to his breakdowns and social differences. She truly believes that exposing parents and children to Julia is going to help progress our society into a more disability friendly world. Sesame Street‘s leadership and dedication to teaching children love and acceptance continues to pave the way for a brighter and inclusive future. This initiative constructs a conversation about disabilities and autism while it reinforces the positive narrative about differences and inclusion.

A Civil Dialogue on Immigration: Recap

A Civil Dialogue on Immigration, our panel event co-hosted by the UAB Office of Diversity and Inclusion, took place on Monday, March 21. President Watts introduced the evening by acknowledging the diverse community of UAB and the criticism faced by leadership from students and the Birmingham community for the inaction following the executive orders on immigration. The goal of the panel discussions is provide a forum for dialogue as a means of gaining understanding and cultivating empathy. UAB is limited in taking political positions as a public university, yet moderator Suzanne Austin says that UAB, through this panel, wishes to “take a deeper dive into rights of specific populations, demonstrate support for international students, and listen to the concerns of the public.”

A woman at a protest in London holds a sign saying, "I stand with migrants."
“I stand with migrants. Anti-Trump protester in London’s Parliament Square,” by Alisdare Hickson on Flickr.

There are four panelists: Selvum Pillay, Khaula Hadeed, Catherine Crow, and Inocencio Chavez, selected to aid in shedding fact on the misconceptions and misunderstandings surrounding immigration. Pillay, an administrator and international former student from South Africa, begins the conversation. He came to America in October 2001, and faced significant racism created by backlash from the prior month’s infamous attacks. He was told to “go back to Afghanistan,” but today still believes in fostering peace through discussion and the sharing of opinions. Hadeed gives voice to the importance of shutting down misconceptions about immigrants, specifically those of the Muslim faith. She provides statistics about immigrant demographics, including that are majority Christian and most often from Mexico, India, and China. She concludes her introduction with a bold statement that “we will look back and say that these years changed the future, and we must not repeat the horrors of the past.” Crow, is a former immigration attorney, who currently works at UAB as the director of International Scholar & Student Services. She works closely with the international students and faculty at UAB. Chavez is Youth Organizer for Community Engagement and Education Program at The Hispanic Interest Coalition of Alabama. He states that immigration is a human right, particularly for safety. Immigration, he says, is also a benefit to society by diversifying thought and understanding; cities and countries with the most immigrants have been the best and most effective. Chavez says his personal aim is to help Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals students obtain educational help through Hispanic Interest Coalition of Alabama scholarships and non-federal aid programs.

The floor opens for questions. The first audience questioner asks, “Is there a difference between current and past vetting programs?” Hadeed answers by saying that there isn’t substantial knowledge on the new vetting programs, but gives her experience on past vetting programs. She says that there is a two-year vetting process involving numerous levels of qualification checks, and individuals can be turned down for something as inconsequential as inconsistencies in paperwork. Others can go through the entire process, be approved, and yet still be denied entry under executive orders. Hadeed says that she has lived here for almost sixteen years, but only became a citizen last year. Her husband, on the other hand, has been here for even longer and is still waiting on his.

A ripped banner that says, "Legalizacion Ahora!" and then "Legalization Now!"
“International Workers Day march in Minneapolis” by Fibonacci Blue on Flickr.

An audience member asks for opinions on the forty arrests over the last weekend, and how to protect targeted people, to which Chavez responds, stating their rights were violated. ICE may not be targeting innocent people, but innocent undocumented people are undereducated on their rights and tend to get caught up in ICE raids that focus on other targets. Chavez emphasizes the need to educate all immigrants and U.S citizens on their rights to deny entry, the right to silence, and other rights that many may not be aware of.

The third question is, “As an elementary school teacher, what should we teach about immigration?’ All panelists answer this question and their answers vary, but center on acceptance and respect. Pillay answers initially and says that he believes that children should be taught respect for others through the Golden Rule, because respect is the biggest service individuals can do. Crowe adds that she believes inclusion of lonely and unpopular students should be emphasized in schools, because we carry those inclusive attitudes from childhood into civil society. Both Chavez and Hadeed speak on themes of equality though diversity, and acknowledging and celebrating the uniqueness of every student.

A young girl with her hands in the air and tongue stuck out in a silly expression sits beside a sign reading, "No human being is illegal!'
“Rally for immigrant rights,” by Alan Kotok on Flickr.

There are a series of written questions asked by moderator Suzanne Austin to the panelists. All three questions focus on inclusion of immigrants in the workplace, involving economic change, job “stealing,” and the combating of misinformation on this topic. Pillay answers first and quickly says that the question of job stealing is a non-starter, because the question answers itself. UAB has four-hundred nurse vacancies alone; there is a surprisingly large amount of jobs out there. In addition, most immigrants are not taking desirable jobs. Crow adds that getting a job is not an easy process for international students. For domestic students, you can simply walk into a place and find a job easily and quickly. For international students, it is a lengthy process involving many forms, references, and other steps that employers often do not want to deal with. In addition, international students only have a period of ninety days after graduation to find a job. Even in cases where that period is extended up to two years for STEM majors, that period is punctuated with evaluations from the university and constant contact with academic advisors. Additionally, obtaining a work visa is awarded on a lottery system, so there is no guarantee that you will be allowed to work. There are also a number of protections for federal appointments for international students involving a public notice saying that domestic applicants can come to challenge the appointment. In essence, Crow is saying that the steps to getting a job for international students are so intensive that it does not make sense to claim that they are ‘stealing our jobs.’ Chavez has the final response by sharing a personal story. He says that when he grew up in a rural area, he and his parents works in tomato and melon fields. Non-citizens were hired to do this grueling labor intentionally so that the owners could underpay them—sometimes as little as one dollar for hours of hard labor. This is not a job that non-citizens are stealing from the American people, because no one would do that work for so little money. Austin answers the last part of the question about misinformation and says that UAB is doing that through public forums like these.

Two signs are held high against a background of trees. The signs say "Immigrants right are women's rights" and "We are all immigrants."
“”Immigration Rights Are Women’s Rights” & “We Are All Immigrants” Signs At The May Day Immigration Rights Rally (Washington, DC)” by takomabiblot on Flickr.

The final question comes from a man who introduces himself as Ramirez who works for an accounting firm. He says that undocumented immigrants pay taxes into the system but never obtain the benefits that documented taxpayers do. Many do not want to file anymore for fear of arrest and deportation. Ramirez asks, “Will it hurt the economy if immigrants are too afraid to file their taxes? What can we do to minimize being taken advantage of by people who try to underpay us and violate our rights?” Chavez answers and says to do something. Be in local government, host rallies, and organize. He warns that you will face plenty of rejection, but even if you only reach a single person, your message still spreads.

This panel was particularly effective because it magnified the voices of people directly affected by the executive order on immigration. It allowed non-immigrants to more clearly understand the institutional barriers and societal struggles faced by both documented and undocumented immigrants. As a model for civic dialogue, panel discussions are a fantastic tool to spread awareness and challenge prejudice in a civil way.

 

HIV and Human Rights

People and Places. Source: Ted Eytan, Creative Commons

The history of the HIV and AIDS epidemic started in illness, anxiety and mortality as the world encountered and handled a new and unidentified virus. It is commonly believed that HIV begun in Kinshasa, in the Democratic Republic of Congo around 1920 transmitted from chimpanzees to humans. The original earliest case where a blood sample could confirm the infection of HIV was from a blood sample taken in 1959 from a man living in the Kinshasa region.  Available records suggests that the rampant spread of HIV and contemporary epidemic started in the mid- to late 1970s. During the 1980s, the HIV pandemic spread across South America, North America, Australia, Africa and Europe. The progress and efforts made in the last 30 years to prevent the disability and mortality due to HIV have been enormous. Despite the tremendous improvements regarding HIV research and support, progress remains hindered by numerous challenges. Originally, HIV was identified and diagnosed in men who have sex with men, people who inject drugs, and sexually active people such as sex workers. HIV was perceived and declared a disease only deviant people get because they engage in inappropriate behavior; therefore, HIV and people infected with HIV have been subjected to a corresponding negative social image. Research and education has aided in countering the negative association of HIV transmittance. The CDC explains HIV transmittance takes place via “only certain body fluids—blood, semen (cum), pre-seminal fluid (pre-cum), rectal fluids, vaginal fluids, and breast milk—from a person who has HIV can transmit HIV.” People impacted by HIV, regardless of how it was transmitted, withstand constant stigmatization, discrimination and violations of their basic human rights. There is an inseparable link between human rights and HIV is now extensively acknowledged and accepted.

“Protecting, promoting, respecting and fulfilling people’s human rights is essential to ensure that they are able to access these services and enable an effective response to HIV and AIDS.”

-Avert Society

Human rights treaties and laws play an essential role in protecting the rights of HIV positive populations. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR) are all important documents that thoroughly elaborate the rights of all people, which include HIV positive individuals.  Article 25 of the UDHR, Articles 10 – 12, and 14 of the CEDAW, and lastly Article 12 of the ICESCR all secure the human right of healthcare and the prevention, treatment and control of diseases. Finally, the ICESCR and the UDHR secures employment, cultural and community participation rights for individuals regardless of age, disabilities, illness, or any form of discrimination.

Human rights violations in the context of HIV

Access to health care services

In 2015, 36.7 million people are currently living with HIV/AIDS, with the majority of HIV/AIDS positive individuals– 25.5 million – living in sub-Saharan Africa. Today, in 2017, only 46% of HIV positive adults and 49% of HIV positive children worldwide are receiving treatment, with large gaps in access to HIV testing and treatment in Africa and the Middle East. Individuals living in low-middle income locations face constant financial, social and logistical barriers to accessing diagnostic services and treatment. Some of the main obstacles individuals of lower income families’ face include the high costs of medical services, the lack of local and nearby health care facilities, and the inability to leave work to visit the doctor. vert Society asserts that stigma and discrimination from community and family influences the utilization of HIV healthcare services by HIV positive individuals. Additionally, the criminalization of HIV is also significantly affecting the access to HIV health care services. In 2014, 72 countries have implemented laws that allow HIV criminalization. Criminalization laws are usually either HIV specific, or either HIV is just one of the diseases covered by the law. HIV criminalization laws normalize, instigate and allow discrimination and stigma towards HIV positive individuals. HIV criminalization laws and socio-ecological barriers undermine HIV prevention efforts and do not decrease the rates of HIV.

Our Lives Matter !! Anti-LGBTI Laws Stall HIV Prevention. Source: Alsidare Hickson, Creative Commons

Criminalization of men who have sex with men (MSM)

Currently, 76 countries around the world continue to criminalize same-sex conduct. Having these laws set up really discourages MSM and the public to get tested for HIV, transition into treatment, and disclose their information due to possible discrimination and arrest. A comparison between nations with anti-homosexuality laws and nations without such law shows considerably higher HIV prevalence rates among MSM in countries with anti-homosexuality laws compared to nations without such legislation. For example, Jamaica has strict anti-buggery laws but has a prevalence of HIV in over 30% of MSM, compared to Cuba that lacks anti-buggery and has a prevalence of HIV in less than 5% of MSM. These laws also make it particularly problematic for organizations providing sexual health and HIV services to reach men who have sex with men. Further research is needed to clarify the correlation between the criminalization of same-sex conduct and rates of HIV.  The criminalization of MSM ultimately ignores the fact that HIV can be transmitted through various ways such as unintentional exposure, mother-to-child, and non-disclosure of HIV status which results in individuals not seeking health care services due to the fear of people assuming HIV was transmitted through a different route than how it was actually transmitted.

Gender Inequality

HIV disproportionately affects women and young girls because of unequal cultural, social, and economic standing in society. Gender based violence (GBV) is normalized in many societies. GBV such as rape, trafficking and early marriage makes it more difficult for women and adolescent girls to protect themselves against HIV. Women do not have power over sexual intercourse encounters. Women, in many cultures, are economically dependent on their male counterparts, making it increasingly difficult to choose their lifestyle choices. Additionally, due to the imbalanced gender power dynamic, women do not have control over family planning services, sex-based community rituals, or the choice to participate in safe sex. Studies reveal the impact of gender-based discrimination and HIV. According to one study, women living in Sub-Saharan Africa, on average have a 60% higher risk of HIV infection than their male counterparts. Another study analyzed the role of gender power imbalance on women’s ability to discuss self-protection against HIV/AIDS in Botswana and South Africa. Results concluded that “women with partners 10 or more years older than them, abused women, and those economically dependent on their partners who are less likely to suggest condom use to their partners. Gender power imbalance also influences men’s inclination towards refusing to use the suggested condom.” There is a great need to focus on women education, empowerment and self-confidence to suggest condoms, and lastly to educate and encourage men about safe sex. Gender inequalities towards women are addressed in the CEDAW; therefore, publicly and legislatively addressing the issues could significantly reduce HIV.

Millions of people have lost their lives fighting to make sure HIV positive people are able to live a long, healthy and quality filled lives. Even though we live in a country that does provide HIV healthcare services, the prevalence of HIV in the USA is still relatively high. The Human Rights Campaign reported in 2014 that Birmingham, Alabama had one of the highest rate of infection in the nation; however, the latest CDC report Birmingham is presently 12th, citing a myriad of reasons including a lack of sex education. We have and opportunity and need to stand up for each other, advocating for education and equality. There are various ways to get involved in advocating for human rights and HIV in our Birmingham community, including volunteering at local clinics: 1917 Clinic or Birmingham Aids Outreach.  If you’re sexually active, you can help prevent the spread of HIV by knowing your status, getting tested, and talking openly about HIV. Constructive conversations aid in removing the stigma and fear attached to HIV because it becomes a part of the social discourse. An HIV/AIDS prognosis is a life changing event, not a life ending moment.

The Reality of Climate Change and its Effects on Human Rights and the Refugee Crisis

Photo of Earth
Earth: A simple model of Earth using Autodesk Maya. Source: Kevin Gill, Creative Commons

What is climate change? To understand climate change, we must first know what climate is and how it is different from the weather. Weather is what we see change on a day to day basis. We can see and feel the changes in weather: sunny one day, rainy the next, and back to sunny again. Weather also is the change in temperatures: sometimes it is hot, and sometimes it is cold, depending on the time of year or the place that you are in. Climate,  on the other hand, is the usual temperature of a place. For example, a regional climate may be wet and cold in the winter, but warm and dry in the summer. There have been anomalies–extremes where it has snowed year round. Not all climates are the same. The global temperature has been rising each year; however, climate change is much more than just that. In addition to the climates of individual places, there is also Earth’s climate, which is the result of combining all of the climates around the world together. Climate change is often referred to as global warming. Climate change is defined as changes in the usual weather found in a place. This could be a wide range of changes like how much rain a city gets in a year, snowing in places it does not usually snow, or most commonly, changes in a place’s usual temperature. Earth’s climate is also subject to climate change. The planet can experience rising temperatures, or it is possible for rain and snow patterns to shift, causing it to do so in places it would not usually.

Simply put, weather changes in a matter of hours or less, whereas climate takes hundreds of years to change.

In the past 100 years, Earth’s temperature has increased about one degree Fahrenheit. This may not seem detrimental on the surface, but minute changes in Earth’s climate has had massive effects. While Earth’s temperature rises independently, humanity plays a contributing role in speeding up the process of rising temperatures that influence the stasis of the Earth’s atmosphere, at an alarming rate. The Earth’s atmosphere consists layers, made of nitrogen , oxygen, argon, neon, helium, carbon dioxide, and methane. Key components in climate change like greenhouse gases contribute to the dismantling of the atmosphere, a term coined “the greenhouse effect” because of the absorption and transmittance of infrared radiation. Greenhouse gases impact the ozone layer. When it comes to climate change, the ozone layer is a layer in the Earth’s stratosphere that contains high amounts of ozone. Ozone absorbs most of the ultraviolet radiation emitted from the sun, and prevents it from reaching Earth. Since the Industrial Revolution, there has been a 40% increase in carbon dioxide in the Earth’s atmosphere. The largest contributing factor of the emissions of greenhouse gases is the burning of fossil fuels by factories and industries, such as coal, oil, and natural gas. Doing so pollutes the air, and releases these harmful gases into the atmosphere, counteracting the Earth’s natural greenhouse process. As it stands, the Earth’s surface temperature could reach record-breaking temperatures by 2047, which would cause ecosystems to fall apart and the livelihoods of people worldwide would be effected. If humanity continues to emit the amount of greenhouse gases into the air as we currently are, there could be dangerous consequences.

Factory emitting pollution into the air
Factory. Source: タロイモ, Creative Commons.

Man-Made Causes

Natural Causes

Consequences of Climate Change

Emissions of greenhouse gases

Variations in the Earth’s orbital characteristics Higher temperatures

Deforestation

Volcanic eruptions

Droughts

Sulfate aerosols

Variations in solar output

Changing rain and snow patterns

Soot particles – otherwise known as black carbon

Natural aerosols

Wilder weather

Less snowpack

Melting glaciers

Shrinking sea ice

Thawing permafrost

Increases in ocean acidity

Warmer oceans

Rising sea levels

Acid rain

Figure 1

Based on Figure 1 (above), it is easy to see that the causes of climate change are far outweighed by the consequences. There are very few man-made causes, but they each have many effects on Earth’s climate.


The Clean Air Act
is known as the most successful act in place to protect the environment. Passed in 1970 with the purpose of reducing the air pollution in the country  by limiting  the amount of pollution put into the air by industries, like chemical plants and steel mills. Under the Obama Administration, the Clean Air Act was used to help reduce the output of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases into the air. The National Environmental Policy Act requires federal agencies to take into consideration the environment when making important decisions, such as building a highway or deforestation. It requires agencies to prepare an Environment Impact Statement to report how the actions may affect the environment. This act also assembled the Council on Environmental Quality to advise the President on environmental issues. While these laws have been effective in reducing the damages on the Earth’s ozone layer put out by the United States, the integrity of the ozone layer is still at stake. Recent studies have found that the ozone layer shows signs of healing.

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) and its relation to Climate Change

Under Article 22 of the UDHR, everyone has the right to security and economic welfare. The effects of climate change infringe upon this right because it jeopardizes environmental integrity. Climate change effects us all, and is supported by scientific evidence around the globe. It transcends political parties, race, and social class.

Everyone on Earth shares the same climate.

In the wave of executive orders issued out by President Trump, he re-initiated the construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL), a controversial project that was halted by the Obama Administration. The DAPL was originally routed through Bismarck, North Dakota, but after the mostly-white residents refused to allow construction on the grounds of “polluting their water supply”, it was rerouted through Standing Rock. The pipeline’s construction threatens to destroy the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe’s historic, religious, and cultural sites. It also contributes to climate change and may cause untold damage to the environment, such as water pollution–presently acknowledged by the Bismarck community–and explosions. The DAPL effects the health and security of the Sioux Tribe.

Protesters standing up against the DAP
Protesters oppose Dakota Access Pipeline in Music City. by Lee Roberts

Another prime example of climate change infringing upon the health of people is the smog currently plaguing China, which is a result of burning massive amounts of coal. The emissions coming from China’s most industrialized areas were five times the national average in 2016 compared to 2015. Citizens of China are having to wear face masks to combat “serious aggravation of heart or lung disease and premature mortality in persons with cardiopulmonary disease and the elderly; serious risk of respiratory effects in general population.” While measures have been taken to reduce the pollution, such as wind-mill farms, the smog still continues to get worse because of the amount of coal being burned. Schools have been shut down, flights are being cancelled, and people are afraid to leave their homes because of the smog.

There have been many observable effects of climate change on the environment. Endangered species, both animal and plant, across the globe are dwindling in numbers due to the fluctuating temperatures in their habitats. Lakes and rivers are drying up or reaching low levels. The glaciers are melting, ocean levels and temperatures are rising. Here in Alabama, we suffered a drought this past summer and an oil leak this fall. The effects that scientists had predicted would happen due to climate change have started to occur.

Climate Change Effecting the Refugee Crisis

According to the Global Military Advisory Council on Climate Change (GMACCC), climate change has been noted as the “greatest security threat of the 21st Century”. The council has also said that climate change will cause a refugee crisis of “unimaginable scale”, as the effects of climate change have already pushed many refugees into Europe. There are claims that a lack of natural resources due to climate change may have been a contributing factor in the Syrian War, namely oil. Despite the abundance of oil in the Middle East, the over-excavation of oil brought about a ecosystem collapse, resulting in the dispersion of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. The land began losing its integrity which affected the economic output as Syrians were unable to produce goods due to the ill-suited climate.

If the Earth’s temperature continues to rise causing the glaciers to melt, causing a rise in sea levels, 20% of Bangladesh will flood, creating additional climate refugees. The potential is over 30 million people forced to evacuate and relocate their lives and families as a result of climate change. In light of this potential threat, Bangladesh is asking wealthier countries to be ready to accept millions of displaced families.

“Climate change could lead to a humanitarian crisis of epic proportions. We’re already seeing migration of large numbers of people around the world because of food scarcity, water insecurity and extreme weather, and this is set to become the new normal.” – Brig Gen Stephen Cheney, member of the US Department of State’s foreign affairs policy board and CEO of the American Security Project

The United States’ impact on the Earth’s climate is profound. As an industrial country, we have a notable carbon footprint. In other words, what we do largely impacts those around the globe as it effects Earth’s climate, just as what China does impacts us and others even if they are across the globe. It is important to be aware of the growing concerns stemming from climate change, whether it is down the street or thousands of miles away. As I mentioned, we all share the Earth’s climate, so we are all effected by the changes in some form or another. Lives and families are being torn apart across the world due to changes in the climate. We as humans are responsible for destroying families’ homes, land, and countries. We must prevent the refugee crisis from growing at all costs. Climate change is not a “hoax”, it is a reality, and it is effecting us all. It is killing people directly and indirectly. It is killing our planet. This is why it is very important for us to all take part in slowing the effects of climate change. When the US began to reduce its waste, other countries followed suit.

Climate change is more than an environmental issue. It is a public health issue. It is an economic issue. It is a security issue. It is a racial issue.

Chalkboard reading: "Dare the World to Save the Planet"
“Dare the World to Save the Planet” chalkboard located in Starbucks, photo taken by Tyler Goodwin

There are many ways to reduce our carbon footprints and slow the climate change process; I will focus on four. First, reduce fossil fuel use. this may be something more for factories, it is important to know the effect that burning fossil fuels has on the environment, and the small things we can do to help reduce it. It can be reduced on the domestic level by using less electricity, and using more energy-efficient appliances. Converting from gas-powered appliances to electric can also have a large impact. Second, plant trees. Carbon dioxide is the most important greenhouse gas. Planting trees or any kinds of plants can aide in the conversion of carbon dioxide to oxygen. By planting trees, we are combating the effects of deforestation. Third, reduce your waste by recycling. The decomposition of garbage in landfills produces harmful gases like methane, which absorbs the sun’s heat, and increases the Earth’s temperature. Reducing your consumption habits and reusing or recycling items when possible largely decreases your carbon footprint, as it reduces the need for new items to be made, and prevents items from being placed into landfills. Recycling metals, plastic, glass, and paper helps decrease the greenhouse gasses from being emitted into the air, as it takes less energy to make an item from recycled materials than it does as opposed to making materials from scratch. In Birmingham, you can order a recycling bin by phoning 205-254-6314. Additionally, in Birmingham, the recycling center is located at 4330 1st Avenue South, Birmingham, AL 35222. Lastly, conserve water. The conservation of water is essential to the reduction of climate change. Water purification requires a lot of energy to complete, which in turn increases the mission of greenhouse gasses. By saving water, less energy is used. Turn off water at home when you are not using it, and pay close attention to pipes that may leak to ensure that unnecessary amounts of water are not used.

For more tips on how to reduce your carbon footprint, please visit the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s website at: https://www.epa.gov/

 

Additional resources: 

Naomi Klein

Before the Flood documentary

Wangari Maathai

 

Bringing Regime Change to the Hermit Kingdom North Korea: A Recap

Jung Gwang Il with translator Henry Song.
Jung Gwang Il with translator Henry Song. Photo by Marlee Townsend.

Jung Gwang Il sits in front of a room of twenty people with his translator and colleague, Henry Song. He begins to tell his tale, beginning with his birth in China.

Persecuted for their beliefs in China, Jung’s family fled to North Korea in the 1960’s when he was only seven years old. As an adult, Jung was in the North Korean military for ten years, and then found work with a trade company. The 1990s, when Jung was working as a businessman, was a particularly hard time for North Koreans. Following the death of Kim Il-Sung in 1994, the country experienced four years of famine and despair. Jung recalls seeing “twenty fresh bodies killed by starvation every day,” during this period, known by North Koreans as the Arduous March. Seeking extra revenue in such a difficult time, many traders looked for money in any avenue they could find. These business wanderings ultimately lead to Jung’s arrest and imprisonment, as unapproved foreign dealings were taboo. In 1999, Jung was reported by a colleague for meeting with South Korean businessmen and was subsequently arrested for suspected espionage.

Pigeon torture at Yodok sketched by defector Kim Kwang-Il, part of the report of the commission of inquiry on human rights in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.
Pigeon torture at Yodok sketched by defector Kim Kwang-Il, part of the report of the commission of inquiry on human rights in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.

Jung, following his arrest, underwent a ten-month period of water, electric, and pigeon torture. He went from 170 pounds to 80 pounds during these months and was unable to walk without clutching a wall. After ten months of enduring constant torture, Jung finally falsely confessed to espionage simply so that the torture would stop. He was then sent to an infamous prison camp known as No. 15, or Yodok concentration camp. Jung says that there were around seven-hundred other political prisoners, some imprisoned for offenses as contacting Christianity or criticizing the regime. He recalled one inmate whose offense was accidentally ripping a newspaper with Kim Jong-Il’s face on it—which was reported by his wife to the authorities.

Life at the camps were not very different than the initial months of torture, according to Jung. Inmates were forced to work sixteen hour days with only one daily meal of 600 grams of ground corn (equivalent to around 2.5 cups). This small portion of food was only awarded if an inmate finished their work quota; many did not, and consequently died of starvation. Jung believes he buried as many as three hundred prisoners himself during his three years at Yodok. This comes with a heavy emotional toll— every time Jung speaks of the horrors at Yodok, he says he can never sleep the following night because of the nightmares.

Poster for "Yoduk Story," a musical about North Korean human rights abuses by futureatlas.com
Poster for “Yoduk Story,” a musical about North Korean human rights abuses. Source: futureatlas.com, Creative Commons.

On April 12, 2003, Jung was released. Although he only spent three years in the camp (a relatively light sentence in American prison) Jung says it was “hell on Earth that felt like an eternity.” Twelve days after his release, Jung fled to a series of countries. After swimming to China through the Tumen River, Jung traveled through Vietnam, Cambodia, Thailand, and finally settled in South Korea. It was in South Korea that Jung realized he could never forget the faces of the inmates in Yodok, and vowed to become an activist in their names. He wrote a comprehensive list of everyone and everything he could remember, which was later used as evidence in United Nations resolutions against North Korean human rights violations. His activism did not stop there; he wanted to deliver news and information to the North Koreans to inspire social change and revolt. To achieve this, Jung formed a non-governmental organization entitled No Chain, inspired by the idea of breaking the chain that binds the North Korean people. No Chain specializes in sending information-packed CDs, DVDs, USB flash drives, and micro SD cards to the North Koreans via drones. Predominantly using micro SDs, they are disguised with brand-new packaging but are filled with movies, documentaries, South Korean dramas, k-pop, and other forms of media. No Chain initially used a human network, but now uses drones after Kim Jung-Un ordered guards to shoot civilians crossing the river on sight in 2014. North Korea is trying to cover up their efforts by labeling Jung as a “terrorist” and “human scum,” claiming he uses his helicopter drones to destroy statues of present and past leaders.

statue of kim il sung
Statue of Kim Il-Sung in Pyongyang. Source: Stephan, Creative Commons.

Today, the goals of No Chain are to gain help in their efforts to disseminate information to the North Korean people. Jung and Song have been traveling to universities and festivals across the world to share Jung’s story along with No Chain’s platform. Jung urges students to send in personal video messages and any other media they possibly can to send to North Korean youth. In regards to the real threat of North Korea’s nuclear capabilities, Jung advises “not to fear,” because information dissemination is what the regime is most afraid of. If their mission is successful, Jung hopes the North Koreans will be able to wake up and subdue the dictatorial regime and end the nuclear threat. Jung ends the speech with a rallying cry: “UAB, help us!”

To get in contact with No Chain, you can follow their Facebook page or contact their director, Henry Song, at (202) 341-6767 or henry@nknochain.org.

The Death Penalty: Violation of the Right to Life

picture of death penalty protest
Source: Maryland GovPics, Creative Commons.

The most fundamental human right is the right to life as recognized in Article 3 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The denial of the right to life, through the practice of capital punishment, is internationally condemned with nearly two-thirds of countries worldwide banning the death penalty in law or in practice. The United States is a notable outlier as the only member of the G8, one of three members of the G20, and the only Western country to still practice capital punishment. This is deeply problematic for several reasons: the practice does not deter or reduce crime, disproportionately targets poor and disabled minorities, and results in the sentencing of innocent people approximately 4.1% of the time.

The local rate of death penalty cases is alarming. According to Harvard Law’s Fair Punishment Project, 16 counties of the total 3,142 in the nation were listed as outliers, including Jefferson and Mobile counties in Alabama. The study states that Jefferson County “sent more criminal defendants to death row between 2010 and 2015 than almost every other county in the nation.” As one of thirty-one states to still have the death penalty, Alabama is the only one that allows sentencing to capital punishment with a non-unanimous vote. Additionally, Alabama is the only state allowing judges to override a jury’s conclusion to recommend life without parole. Kent Faulk reports defendants in all five Jefferson County death penalty cases are black, received non-unanimous verdicts—two of which were overturned by a judge, and one third of the defendants had “intellectual disability, severe mental illness, or brain damage.”

No Justice without Life
Source: World Coalition Against the Death Penalty, Creative Commons.

Racial discrimination is a continuing problem in America’s criminal justice system, and results in the state-sponsored deaths of minorities. Recent studies have found that courts are more likely to sentence a defendant to death if they murder a white person over any other race. A study in North Carolina found that the likelihood of obtaining the death sentence increased by nearly four times if the victim was white. In Louisiana, the odds of being sentenced to death for the murder of a white victim is 97% higher than for the murder of a black victim. Additionally, a Connecticut study found that minorities who kill whites are given the death penalty at higher rates than minorities who kill minorities. Some of this discrimination may be a consequence of the racial empathy gap—the finding that people automatically assume that African-Americans feel less pain than whites.

Anthony Ray Hinton was sentenced to Alabama’s death row, recently found innocent, and freed from after nearly thirty years. Hinton, released in 2015, gave his testimony of deep racial injustice of Alabama’s criminal justice system: “[The lieutenant] said, ‘I don’t care whether you did it or you don’t… but you gonna be convicted for it. And you know why? … You got a white man. They say you shot him. Gonna have a white D.A. We gonna have a white judge. You gonna have a white jury more than likely. All of that spell conviction, conviction, conviction.’” When new evidence found Hinton innocent, he was released without any compensation, assistance program, or even a bus ticket. This, perhaps, is a more egregious wrong than the decades-long imprisonment itself. Exonerated prisoners find themselves in a changed world with no shelter, no job, and often no family. Former prisoners require mental, physical, and emotional help to successfully adjust to the world outside prison, but never receive it. In a country that declares itself to be a global leader of human rights, violations like these are unacceptable.

a picture of sad jailed prisoners
Jailed prisoners. Source: Ancho, Creative Commons.

American values list freedom, individualism, and equality– yet we simultaneously deny the fundamental rights to life, liberty, and security of person to hundreds of criminal defendants per year. International human rights treaties like the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), the Kyoto Protocol, and the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC) remain unsigned by the United States, despite claims of upholding and honoring them. The US is the only member state of the United Nations other than Somalia that has not ratified the UNCRC, and one of only seven who have not ratified CEDAW. So far, only eighteen US states and the District of Colombia have abolished the death penalty; that number can only increase with action and engagement by citizens. Amnesty International states, “The death penalty is the ultimate, irreversible denial of human rights.”

This week, the Alabama House of Representative will vote on a bill to prohibit judicial override of jury recommendations against the death sentence. This power of judicial override, prohibited in all capital murder cases except in Alabama, has occurred 112 times– 101 of which gave a death sentence. If you feel strongly about this bill, contact your representatives using this link.

 

Additional Resources:

Bryan Stevenson – Just Mercy and Equal Justice Initiative

Michelle Alexander

Ava DuVernay

Angela Davis

National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty

Southern Poverty Law Center

The Controversy of Healthcare Rights

a picture of a sign that reads A Women's Place is in the Resistance
Women’s March. Source: Alan Sandercock, Creative Commons.

The promotion and focus on public health is in some sense evolutionary. As our world continues to globalize, a byproduct is the development and discovery of new technology and information that aid in the improvement of a nation’s health care system. Public health development relies on the accessibility of an efficient and feasible health care system that provides a range from prevention services, like vaccinations and screenings, and treatment services. Therefore, a lack of access to healthcare services and facilities could result in increased illness, disability, and death. Many people do not have access to reliable healthcare, for a variety of reasons, including poverty and high cost of insurance, raising the question of whether or not healthcare can remain simply public health concern, or if it is both a public health and human rights issue. The answer ultimately depends upon the implementation and exercise of a nation’s law.

The international community, through various declarations, recognizes the right to healthcare as a fundamental and universal right for every human being. Article 25 of the United Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) states that “everyone has the right to medical care and necessary social services, and the right to security in the event of unemployment, sickness, disability, widowhood, and old age.” The social, cultural, and economic rights enshrined in the 1952 UDHR coalesced into legally binding responsibilities with the adoption of International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR) in 1966. Article 12 of the ICESCR directly addresses health care stating, “the States Parties to the present Covenant recognize the right of everyone to the enjoyment of the highest attainable standard of physical and mental health. The full realization of this right shall include: The prevention, treatment and control of epidemic, endemic, occupational and other diseases; and the creation of conditions which would assure to all medical service and medical attention in the event of sickness.”  Both of documents thoroughly defend our rights to healthcare. In this blog, I will argue that all individuals have a right to healthcare without discrimination based on desired services.

According to the UDHR and ICESCR, every individual has a right to health care. Unfortunately, the access to healthcare, for women, is often discriminatory and limited. Males and females are biologically different and require dissimilar healthcare services, particularly different preventative screenings and reproductive health necessities, throughout different stages of life. That being said, one statement that really caught my eye during 2017’s presidency election is the possible defunding of Planned Parenthood.

Planned Parenthood (PP) is a non-government organization that provides crucial reproductive health care, sex education, and information to millions of women, men, and young individuals globally. 2.5 million women and men in the United States annually visit Planned Parenthood, and an estimated one in five women in the U.S. has visited a Planned Parenthood health center at least once in her life. Annually, this organization provides 270,000 Pap tests, more than 360,000 breast exams, more than 4.2 million tests and treatments for sexually transmitted infections, and lastly provides educational programs to 1.5 million young adults annually. Consequently, the reason why PP gets funded by the government is because PP provides free services such as pap tests, breast cancer screenings without any co-pay, thus the government is basically reimbursing the organization. From a public health perspective, PP is essential in maintaining and promoting population health due to preventative screening measures, controlling sexually transmitted infections (STI), and educating the community on positive and healthy behavior change.

a pic of a sticker that reads I Stand With Planned Parenthood
I Stand With Planned Parenthood. Source: Women’s News, Creative Commons.

The most controversial service offered by PP is pregnancy contraceptives and abortions. Overall, 80% of PP patients receive services to prevent unintended pregnancy, yet only 3% of PP healthcare services are abortion services. Abortions are controversial, yet regardless of what your personal views on abortion, PP helps millions of people and the general public stay healthy. In fact, in 2015 PP detected breast cancer in 71, 717 women and treated 171, 882 for STI’s, and without these prevention services, rates of cancer, and the spread of STI’s will increase.

Given that women make up more than half of the US population, is it truly just of the government to defund Planned Parenthood just because it provides abortions? The answer is technically no. The laws governing Medicaid prevent states from excluding certain providers solely because of other medical services they provide, like abortions. Specifically, the Freedom of Choice Act which states it is the policy of the United States that every woman has the fundamental right to choose to bear a child, to terminate a pregnancy prior to fetal viability, or to terminate a pregnancy after fetal viability when necessary to protect the life or health of the woman. The act also prohibits the interference of “discriminate against the exercise of the rights set forth in paragraph (1) in the regulation or provision of benefits, facilities, services, or information.” Defunding Planned Parenthood because the organization provide abortion services is technically illegal and defies the act. Another document that supports women rights to family planning health care services in the Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW). According to Article 12 in the Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination against Women, State Parties will ensure women have equal access to health care services, including those related to family planning. In modern times, family planning includes services such as contraceptives like birth control and abortions, and according to CEDAW, access to these services are women rights.

As of right now, there is no alternative health care system or health care facilities in place to provide care for people covered by Planned Parenthood. According to the Congressional Budget Office, if Planned Parenthood were to be defunded, there would be increased direct spending for Medicaid by $20 million in 2016, by $130 million in 2017, and by $650 million over the 2016-2025 period. Also, as little as 5% or as much as 25% of the projected 2.5 million patients aided by Planned Parenthood would face reduced access to care. Ultimately, the Constitution of the United States establishes the government’s responsibility to promote general welfare. The potential lack of access to health care due to defunding Planned Parenthood means a failure to provide basic human rights for women, but also a failure to promote general welfare.

Americans need a health care system that works for all patients and providers. This is a turning point for the women in our nation. Many women are worried we are going back in time. The Women’s March on Washington showed the passion, respect, and trust American women have for their rights, their need for government support, and the gravity of the issue around the world. The Women’s March started in Washington, but inspired women all over the world to march for women rights in their own country, and demand their governments recognize women rights are human rights. Just like the thousands of men and women who marched in Washington and all over the world, don’t forget that the US government works for the people, and we need to start learning how to engage in our democracy to ensure our voices our heard. The Unites States of America is the only developed country who doesn’t offer health care to all citizens, and it is time for a change.

The Claims of Our Common Cause

a portrait of Frederick Douglass
Frederick Douglass. Source: Library of Congress, Public Domain. http://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/2004671911/.

Today is the last day of Black History Month… and what a month it has been. This blog is a nod to Frederick Douglass, who received a mention during a meeting earlier this month.  

Frederick Douglass was born a slave in 1818. In 1848, ten years after his escape to freedom, he penned a letter to his white owner, Thomas Auld, who historians believe to be his father, regarding the reality that the determination to run away arose in him at six years old. In the letter, he vividly describes the moment in which he “attempted to solve the mystery, Why am I a slave?”

“… I was puzzled with this question, till one night, while sitting in the kitchen, I heard some old slaves talking of their parents having been stolen from Africa by white men, and were sold here as slave. The whole mystery was solved at one… From that time, I resolved that I would some day run away. The morality of the act, I dispose as follows: I am myself; you are yourself; we are two distinct persons, equal persons. What you are, I am. You are a man, so am I. God created both, and made us separate beings. I am not by nature bound to you, or you to me. Nature does not make your existence depend on me, or mine to depend upon yours… In leaving you, I took nothing but what belonged to me, and in no way lessened your means for obtaining an honest living…”

Historian Eric Foner writes that although Douglass was a slave, Lucretia Auld–wife of Thomas–taught him to read and write until he forbade her, in accordance with Maryland law at the time. Douglass secretly continued his education with the help of some white children. In the South, the peculiar institution of slavery received elaborate justification from Christians willing to employ and misrepresent the scriptures in order to continue the dehumanizing treatment of African and American blacks, created by God, under the guise of inferiority and barbarianism. De Bow’s Review, published in 1850, states “…a very large part in the United States believe that holding slaves is morally wrong; this party founds its belief upon precepts taught in the Bible, and takes that book as the standard of morality and religion. We, also, look to the same book as out guide in the same matters; yet, we think it right to hold slaves—do hold them and have held and used them from childhood. We find, then, that both the Old and New Testament speak of slavery—that they do not condemn the relation, but, on the contrary, expressly allow it or create it… It cannot, then, be wrong.”

Wolfgang Mieder points out that when his education was taken from him as a child, Douglass “very consciously chose” to study and memorize material that would become useful as an adult. As a statesman, his mastery of the English language and his knowledge of the scriptures became a method of rebuke, persuasion, and a declaration of reversal of fortune. For Douglass, the biblical references provided an added authority and wisdom as morality and religion were one in the same. Mieder summarizes Douglass’ speeches and writings as an identifiable narrative, fought against slavery and injustice through the raising of a powerful voice that argued for the “strength of morality, equality, and democracy.”

Frederick Douglass observed a disconnection between the words of the Declaration of Independence: “we hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights” and the treatment of blacks as a byproduct of slavery. He believed that from a political and personal standpoint, under natural law, every person possesses the same rights as another, and owed the honoring of those rights by another under God. Nicholas Buccola concludes that Douglass’ personal experience as a slave in the South then a free man in the North, shaped his worldview and belief that the promise of liberty has to belong to all or it belongs to none. He states that individualism negates the feeling of and the need for empathy, making it difficult to persuade another about the plight of someone who is not and never considered a neighbor. In other words, the sense of brotherhood is made obsolete because of individualism.

According to Leslie Friedman Goldsmith, Douglass “put his hopes in the press and pulpit for the moral education of America” while believing social reform would take place in politics as those in government became more concerned with the establishment of justice and the advancement of common good, rather than “the greedy quest for the material fruits of public office.” Douglass’ advocacy, as a member of a minority group, grew from a place of mutual understanding that the lack of moral responsibility finds correction in the adaption of moral obligation. Therefore, he focused on the role of the individual as a perpetuator of injustice or protector of human rights. By appealing to the empathic core—the soul–of an individual, Douglass hoped for a synergistic catalyst towards the eradication of slavery, and the humanization of blacks, whether free of enslaved, in America. As a result, under President Abraham Lincoln, the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863 and the abolishment of slavery and involuntary servitude of the 13th amendment brought about a possible future for blacks in America.

Frederick Douglass appealing to President Lincoln and his cabinet to enlist Negroes," mural by William Edouard Scott,
Frederick Douglass appealing to President Lincoln and his cabinet to enlist Negroes,” mural by William Edouard Scott, at the Recorder of Deeds building, built in 1943. 515 D St., NW, Washington, D.C. Source: Library of Congress, Public Domain. http://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/2010641714/

Civil equality was a fundamental platform for Frederick Douglass as he championed for the women’s rights, abolition of slavery, and the right to vote. Despite the victories of 1863, the true freedom of blacks remained his primary mission. Douglass demanded the extinction of racial prejudice and the false belief that the African lineage of black Americans disqualified them from the same rights as white Americans. Daniel Kilbride states that Douglass’ stance on Africa during his lifetime is similar to Countee Cullen’s questioning poem, Heritage during the Harlem Renaissance. He concludes that Frederick Douglass “treasured the values and institutions of the USA and insisted that the free enjoyment of them was a birthright of Americans of African descent.” It is imperative to understand that Douglass did not deny his ancestry; he accepted the discourse as irrelevant given the fact he was born in America.

During the late 1840s, the women’s movement was on the rise due to persistence of Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Susan B. Anthony, and Lucretia Mott, among others. When Stanton formulated and organized the Seneca Falls Convention in 1848, Frederick Douglass was on the platform as a main speaker. More specifically, he was the only male and person of color in support of women rights to equality, including the right to vote. Douglass summarized the convention in an 1848 North Star editorial article: “Many who have at least made the discovery that the Negroes have some rights as well as other members of the human family, have yet to be convinced that women are entitled to any. While it is impossible for us to go into this subject… Our doctrine is that ‘right is of no sex’”. Benjamin Quarles narrates the delicate interplay of Douglass’ personal friendship and political partnership with the women’s movement. Quarles notes the Reconstruction Era as the turning point in Douglass’ partnership with the women’s movement, as the question of what group deserved the right to vote first: blacks or women. “To women the vote is desirable; to the black, it is vital”, he pronounced. For Douglass, blacks as a people before women as a gender. He lamented in 1883, “for no where, outside of the United states, is a man denied civil rights on account of his color.” The recognition of blacks though the casting of votes was an “urgent necessity” post-Emancipation Proclamation.

Relevance for 2017

Frederick Douglass died in1895, yet his life, words, and legacy are still relevant for today. Earlier this month, Donald Trump mentioned Frederick Douglass as “an example of somebody who’s done an amazing job and is being recognized more and more.” Interestingly enough: if Douglass were alive, the recognition could come in both positive and negative forms as he questioned and challenged slavery, prison reform, women’s rights, and all lives matter. The employment of the Scriptures as a justification for the present value and identity crisis taking place in America, given the values forfeiture of liberty and justice for all, in exchange for individualism, isolation, and rhetoric would undergird his critique.

First, human trafficking, in the form of sex and labor, is a new form of an old method. Kevin Bales suggests slavery failed to disappear in the 1860s because trade of people, through means of exploitation, has increased with modernization and globalization. He elucidates the subject of disposable people by informing that human trafficking is not a long-term cost investment due to high supply and high demands. The benefits of “ownership” have waned while the profits from slave trade dramatically increases because whether it is sex in Thailand or Brazil, tomatoes in Florida or chocolate from Ivory Coast, or the FIFA World Cup stadium in Qatar, slave laborers will be exploited in order to ensure the needs of consumer are met. Second, America has the highest incarceration population in the world. According to Bryan Stevenson, there is something missing from the judicial system, specifically in our treatment of the condemned, incarcerated, and those judged unfairly. The American prison system, as means to dehumanize human beings, particularly black Americans in 13th by Ava DuVernay and The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander, systemically removes human rights and destroys families. Former President Barack Obama implemented some justice reform, resulting in the commutation of thousands of non-violent offenders. Third, Frederick Douglass would be an advocate for HeForShe. As a feminist, Douglass would question why men have consumed the decision making power about women, from pay to maternity leave and healthcare rights, without consulting them, or at the very least, having them present when signing laws about their personhood. Finally, America’s treatment of her citizens—the marginalized because of race, ethnicity, sexual orientation or identity, and ability—the blatant denial of human rights while championing all lives matter and pro-life. The plight of marginalized Americans remains trapped under the thumb of the majority, whereas the words of Douglass’ The Claims of Our Common Cause apply:

“…A heavy and cruel hand has been laid upon us. As a people, we feel ourselves to be not only deeply injured, but grossly misunderstood. Our white country-men do not know us. They are strangers to our character, ignorant of our capacity, oblivious to our history and progress, and are misinformed as to the principles and ideas that control and guide us as a people. The great mass of American citizens estimates us as being a characterless and purposeless people; and hence we hold up our heads, if at all, against the withering influence of a nation’s scorn and contempt. It will not be surprising that we are so misunderstood and misused when the motives for misrepresenting us and for degrading us are duly considered.”

In 1853, our common cause stood as a pronouncement, emphasizing the misunderstanding and misrepresentation of the marginalized, specifically blacks. Today, our common cause stands as a banner to those in power and opposed to change because of prejudice. The banner signifies the past while embracing the fullness offered in those presently dismissed–doctors, farmers, merchants, teachers, ministers, lawyers, editors, etc.–American citizens who, through unity and belief in the foundational values of this country, fought and fight against every perpetuation of injustice “with pride and hope”.

 

 

Additional resources:

Louise Shelly

Kevin Bales and Ron Soodalter

Rhonda Callaway & Julie Harrleson-Stephens

Bryan Stevenson

Jeff Guo

Empowering Marginalized Voices in Birmingham – a Recap

a picture of the panelists
StandAsOne Panelists. Source: Tyler Goodwin.

On February 16th, Stand As One Alabama partnered with the University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB) Institute for Human Rights, and several other organizations to put on an event titled: Empowering Marginalized Voices in Birmingham. The event was held on UAB’s campus, and was live-streamed throughout the world. You can see the event in its entirety here.

“This is to fight hate, tyranny, and fear mongering principles….this is the way forward,”

– speaker Ashfaq Taufique proudly announced as he opened the event.

The event featured nine panelists from marginalized communities: Jillisa Milton, representing the Birmingham Chapter of Black Lives Matter; Angel Aldana, representing the Alabama Coalition for Immigrant Justice; Halah Zein-Sabatto, representing the Birmingham Islamic Society; Dan Kessler, representing Disability Rights and Resources; Isabel Rubio, representing the Hispanic Interest Coalition of Alabama; Lauren Jacobs, the Youth Outreach Chair of the Magic City Acceptance Center, a center devoted to the LGBTQ+ youth of Birmingham; Tai Hicks, president of the National Organization of Women; Rabbi Barry Left, from Temple Beth-El; Reverend Angie Right, of Greater Birmingham Ministries.

The discussion began with the premiere of a film produced by McKenzie Greer, a UAB film student and intern for the Institute for Human Rights, showcasing the struggles of fellow UAB students who are a part of marginalized communities. The emotional video gave a small bit of insight into the pain that those featured in the film have felt and still feel today. Watch the video by Greer here:

[vimeo 204448381 w=640 h=360]
<p><a href=”https://vimeo.com/204448381″>Stand As One Alabama by Kenzie Greer</a> from <a href=”https://vimeo.com/mediastudies”>UAB Media Studies</a> on <a href=”https://vimeo.com”>Vimeo</a>.</p>

“I feel hurt and angry. Hurt by a country that I consider my home, that I now have to prove my loyalty to. Angry that I have to constantly prove my normalcy to other people to prove I am not dangerous.”

“I was scared to get off the bus each morning, and thankful to get back on in the afternoon.”

“Being a part of a marginalized community is a full-time job.”

“She’s pregnant? That’s what she gets for having sex. She must’ve been stupid about it.”

“You have to be the best at whatever you decide to do, because people will automatically think of you as incompetent and unqualified, simply because you’re black.”

“She felt blatantly racially profiled, and that he thought she was a maid.”

“Just because someone is slower at learning and retaining does not mean they are stupid.”

Emotions filled the room as the production came to a close. Prior to the event, the panelists were asked to answer three questions as part of the discussion:

What are the challenges that you and your organization face?

What have you done to adjust those challenges?

How do you see the future if we do stand as one?

“It would be impossible to talk about the challenges we face in four minutes,” Milton said. She further discussed how “We have to challenge our allies all the time,” meaning members of the Black Lives Matter movement must go through greater lengths to rally their allies who do not identify as Black, as it does not affect them. She mentioned how it was difficult to obtain a sense of unity with their allies for this reason. “We are skeptical about other people’s support of our movement as a whole (we don’t typically see the same passion as shown with other movements), but continue to challenge others to address the barriers and to step outside of their comfort zones.”

As Aldana spoke, he described that the Hispanics almost seemed invisible. “With the Alabama Coalition of Immigrant Justice, we would like to work with our allies, so that we can identify ourselves as allies…as an Immigrant, and as a Mexican citizen of Birmingham, we want to protect and defend our identity just as you do.”

Zein-Sabatto proclaimed, “it comes down to systematic hate…Islamophobia is actually a billion-dollar industry…there are people who are assimilating xenophobia.” She explained how she told her family overseas how much she enjoyed America, and how that it is no longer the “rainbows and roses” that she once thought. “We must reclaim our narrative,” she said, reflecting on how one member of the Muslim community is asked by society to represent the 1.6 billion Muslims around the world, losing their individuality. “You will find us with our headscarves and beards in the grocery store, on the streets, as your neighbors, doctors, colleagues, students, and teachers.” Moving forward, she explained that she has hope. “History repeats itself, and it is just repeating itself with another group.”

“If we look over the past hundred years, we see oppression and segregation against people with disabilities,” Kessler began, “while we have seen gains since the passing of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), we still have a long way to go…we still hear such language as ‘cripple’, ‘special’, ‘wheelchair bound’, and ‘handicapped’.” He gave us insight on the challenges the community faces in the workplace: “Unemployment of anyone with disabilities is the highest of any marginalized group in the nation.” Kessler then brought to light the issue of segregation in the education system against those with disabilities, and how there are bills in motion trying to limit their education rights. He also spoke of how the turmoil of the disabled community does not end after their schooling in grade school, he told of the institutional bias in the long-term care services. “Have you ever tried to use Uber?” he asked, as he then put perspective into what is like to be disabled and unable to receive the same services as those who are not, “try being disabled and having an Uber driver have to turn you away because they are ill-equipped.”

Rubio began her answer with a powerful statement: “Discrimination is legalized toward immigrants.” She spoke of the laws against immigrants at the state and federal levels. “Immigration laws are currently weighted to favor immigrants from northern Europe, therefore tacitly enforcing an ideology of white supremacy in the US.” Speaking more on the bias against immigrants, she told us how there are places in Alabama where immigrants cannot get water services. The Hispanic Interest Coalition of Alabama helped to register 1,000 voters this past year, and for that reason among others, Rubio says, “The future is hopeful. There is something going on and we have to do something about it…we can’t stand for where we are now.”

Jacobs, whose organization works specifically with the LGBTQ+ youth at the Magic City Acceptance Center, enlightened us on how the LGBTQ+ youth faces challenges such as being unable to find friendly and competent educators and healthcare providers, and lacking family support. She also educated us on the statistics surrounding the community: “Three in four trans students are not allowed to use the bathroom in Alabama; four in five are not identified properly…The average life expectancy for a trans woman of color is 35 years…Trans students are targeted by peers, family, and teachers.” She implored that we must be the ones who say something if we see something, and that “Standing as one would be a commitment to staying in struggle with each other.”

“Whenever you do anything in your life, your gender is a factor.” Hicks said, as she explained the issues that women face in today’s society. She and her organization, Greater Birmingham National Organization for Women, have been working to achieve social justice for women and other minority groups as well in Birmingham. She spoke on how people think that women in the US have it good compared to other countries, and that they should all just “shut up.” Reflecting back on the marches that happened earlier this year, and earlier in the century, “They have no idea how long we have been fighting,” she said. “You should have the right to raise a child, and feel safe that a government official is not going to gun them down.”

Left began saying , “Speaking on a panel like this to a group of people like this was not something I thought I would be doing in Birmingham.” To relate to the different ethnicities, identities and religions in the room, he said, “The same people who hate Blacks, Mexicans, and Muslims, often hate Jews.” He spoke of how a family recently withdrew their child from his religious school at the Temple Beth-El, in fear of being attacked. “People don’t feel safe anymore.” He gave his history on how he was once evacuated from Iran 38 years ago, saying he felt a connection to refugees. “Many communities feel under attack; anyone who isn’t a straight, white, heterosexual, Christian male, and even they feel threatened by losing their dominance.” He ended on a note to rally the communities in the room: “We are much stronger as one community instead of several separate communities.”

a picture of two people touching hands in unity
Unity. Source: Phillip Taylor, Creative Commons.

After the panelists gave their written answers, the audience was given the opportunity to ask them their own questions.

  • What are the next steps for someone who wants to stand with you?
    • Think before you post. There is a lot of fake information out there.
    • Build a personal relationship with someone in another marginalized community. Your efforts will go farther when you have a connection.
    • If you see something, say something.
    • Contact your elected officials.
    • Plan for accessibility at each event (contact Disability Rights and Resources to figure out how to accommodate).
    • Support immigrant businesses.
    • Fund the resistance.
    • Educate yourself on human rights. Find out where to go when your rights are violated.

Here are some ways to get involved with the organizations represented at this event:

  • If you identify as Black, connect with the Black Lives Matter Chapter of Birmingham on Facebook, or email birminghamblm@gmail.com. If you would like to get involved with Black Lives Matter, but do not identify as Black, SURJE (Showing Up for Racial Justice) meets every month at Beloved Community Church, and you can also connect with them on Facebook.
  • The Birmingham Islamic Society is having an open house on February 26th from 2 – 5 at the Hoover Islamic Center. All religions are welcome. You can also email them by going to the “Contact us” page on their website: bisweb.org
  • You can contact the ACIJ by going to their website: acij.net, or connect with them on Facebook.
  • You can contact the Disabilities Rights and Resources by going to their website: drradvocates.org
  • The Magic City Acceptance Center holds Drop-In Hours every Tuesday and Thursday from 3:30pm to 7pm. You can also visit their website: magiccityacceptancecenter.org
  • You can connect with the National Organization for Women on their website: org/chapter/greater-birmingham-now/ or on their Facebook.
  • The Temple Beth-El’s website is: templebeth-el.net/
  • To join the Stand As One text alert for when any Human Rights Issue is threatened at your local or national level, text “STANDASONE” to 313131

Women’s March: An Evolution in Global Solidarity

picture of Washington, DC Women's March 2017
DC Women’s March. Source: Liz Lemon, Creative Commons.

On January 21, 2017, over five million people marched–on all seven continents–in solidarity for women’s issues. In Washington D.C, one million marchers made their voices heard, nearly three times the size of the crowd at the inauguration, according to crowd scientists. The Birmingham, Alabama march numbered nearly five thousand, to the surprise of organizers who expected closer to several hundred. The official Women’s March website states the platform and approach is committed to equality, diversity, and inclusion. While initially, the Trump administration may have been the fuel for this rise, the movement presently signifies an international protest against the growing threat of a dishonest narrative about women’s rights and unjust treatment of them.

The sheer numbers of attendees at the march inspired and infused hope into the hearts of many deeply opposed to the injustices within the context of women’s rights. Critics of the march seem to misinterpret the intentions of marchers by claiming that the cause was American-centric, thus ignoring the subjugation of women globally. There is some validity to this, in that, the focus of many marchers remained centered in American political issues, and often excluded some key actors from the discussion like transgender people. However, many critics used these potentially valid grounds to deny the existence of oppression in America. Blogger Stephanie Dolce, after listing a series of wrongs against women in other countries, writes, “So when women get together in America and whine they don’t have equal rights and march in their clean clothes, after eating a hearty breakfast, it’s like a vacation away that they have paid for to get there.” This critical narrative reveals the false impression that many Americans have about women’s rights, the nature of protests, and the human right to participate in protest.

picture of girl holding signs at Birmingham Alabama Women's march 2017
Women’s March in Birmingham, AL January 2017. Source: Ajanet Rountree.

Dolce mentioned the issues of rape, limited education access, gender violence, and denial of bodily autonomy through legislation, infanticide, and female genital mutilation (FGM). She then suggests that American women do not experience these acts of violence and oppression. To believe that these issues are absent in America is to remain blinded by privilege. Dolce’s argument, supported and shared many times across social media, is rooted in privilege—a privilege that often undermines the nature of exploitation and oppression of another because distance rather than proximity and a lack of knowledge discredit the acknowledgement of an experience.

Marchers in cities around the world reflected the microcosm of the global civic society. It is highly unlikely that Dolce, who is vocally critical of the march, attended a protest based on her blog writing. Conversely, I have been an advocate for human rights for years and decided to experience the Birmingham march firsthand. I found myself deeply moved by the variety of issues and identities represented; therefore, I can bear witness to a crowd of people marching for a diverse set of causes, each inherently political but not as a political reaction. Protest signs held high regarding immigration, environmental issues, racism, disability rights, and more, dotted the landscape of Kelly Ingram Park. The diversity of the city was visible in the composition of marchers and their causes. The harsh, judgmental “anti-Trump” rhetoric is an insult to social justice, as this march and subsequent protests, are not about him or any one person.

The highly divisive stage in American politics provides a vehicle of change through shock and outrage; fortunately, the movement is not limited to the American arena. This activism is not a backlash to the election or simply a march about women’s issues. This is not, as some may see it, a petty protest against the shift in ideology represented in our new president. This is the beginning of a global movement to protect rights presently impacted by global structural violence targeted towards women specifically, and humanity generally.

picture of Women's March in London 2017
Women’s March London. Source: Garry Knight, Creative Commons

The Women’s March website has listed steps to transform the vigorous energy seen on January 21 into a long-term international movement. Given the millions of marchers who came out, it is hard to imagine that the momentum and awareness for women’s rights will simply fade away. The evolution of the movement is already underway. They currently have two “global action steps” listed and a third still developing. First, communicate concerns for women’s rights by contacting representatives, using postcards or letters with a picture of the march. Second, organize local “next up huddles” which are intended to foster support and community. The goal is that each area brainstorm a “set of actions and strategies our group will pursue in the coming weeks and months”, mobilizing the community through grassroots activism and people power.  The grassroots approach, fueled by people power, is essential because it empowers leadership and change from the bottom-up rather than top-down. People power initiates the quicker and more effective change across nations.

With an enormous base of supporters and power of grassroots change, it is clear that the spirit behind the Women’s March is thriving and quickly evolving into a transnational platform.