Monday, October 17th is the International Day for the Eradication of Poverty; in 2022 we have a lot to acknowledge and a lot of work to be done. The theme for this day of commemoration is dignity, focused on how every human has the right to live with pride for themselves and respect from others. The first line of the Preamble for the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) emphasizes the importance of how the “…recognition of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world,” and that is precisely the ideology behind the founding of this human rights holiday. But why, exactly, is poverty an international human rights issue?
Global poverty is defined as “lacking enough resources to provide the necessities of life—food, clean water, shelter and clothing. But in today’s world, that can be extended to include access to health care, education and even transportation.”
This international day of recognition was adopted by the United Nations in December of 1992 to recognize the structures that cause poverty, to listen to and amplify the needs and desires of impoverished persons, and to place a specific focus on how the international community and global leaders can work to solve this persistent social problem. October 17th was chosen to observe this topic because on this day in 1987 a crowd of over a hundred thousand protesters gathered in the Trocadero Plaza of Paris, France to honor the victims of extreme hunger and poverty. In commemoration, a stone was placed in the Plaza, now renamed the Plaza for Human Rights and Liberties, engraved with the following message from Father Joseph Wresinski, “Wherever men and women are condemned to live in extreme poverty, human rights are violated. To come together to ensure that these rights be respected is our solemn duty”.
The right to live free of poverty is not listed in the UDHR, but our current understanding of poverty constituting a violation of human rights has been developing since before the UDHR was proclaimed by the United Nations General Assembly in 1948. This is because living in extreme poverty is almost always accompanied with a loss of essential human rights that were explicitly enumerated in the UDHR, like the right to health, safe food and water and the right to adequate housing as illustrated in Articles 25 of the UDHR and the Human Right to Water and Sanitation. Even in developed and wealthy nations, citizens living in poverty experience obstacles in their ability to access the right to education, work, and political participation named in Articles 21, 23, and 16 of the UDHR.
While persons living in poverty are often denied many, if not all of those fundamental human rights listed above, this holiday gets its theme from Article One of the UDHR, from which this holiday gets its theme: “All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood.” Those in poverty often lose this right as limited access to the essential requirements of a quality life places them in a position where they rely on the aid of others, who often treat the impoverished as less than equals. They are patronized and degraded in their daily lives, and the social response to an impoverished person exercising their agency to decline charity is typically one of rebuke.
The Current State of Poverty
Global poverty rates have increased since the beginning of the Pandemic in 2020, and World Bank estimates that we have been set back 3-4 years on our path to ending extreme poverty as of October 2021. In addition to climbing unemployment and poverty rates is the leap in inflation, which has climbed globally as supply chains stretch thin. The Pew Research Center has found that the global middle class shrank while the global poor increased as the pandemic progressed, disrupting the progress of developed nations around the world, particularly in Asia and the Middle East.
These economic impacts affect more than immediate financial conditions of those involved. One side-effect has been a loss in education; as the United States and other wealthy countries moved online in response to the pandemic, other nations (particularly in the Global South) had to close schools entirely. Human Rights Watch has noted that, for millions of school-aged children, the pandemic effectively ended their formal education as alternative school options were few and the need for work and additional income rose. The International economic recovery will be challenging, and may take years to accomplish, but it is paramount that we keep the most vulnerable, both their dignity and agency, in mind as we navigate our collective path forward.
International Human Rights holidays are often overlooked due to their focus on what are often perceived to be niche categories outside of major religious or cultural practices. However, observing human rights holidays is a practice that allows for shared positivity and encouragement as we mark progress and victories in the field. They also provide days of unity to focus on pervasive issues that still need attention and work. On this holiday, join me in taking the time to think about how poverty affects your community, how your community has responded, and how it can alter that response to alter the quality of life for its impoverished population.
Over the summer, I had the chance to be part of an amazing program, a program that at first, I believed would be a way for me to serve my community, but instead, I found community within. This program, known as Breakthrough Birmingham, is one of many Breakthroughs located in various cities across the country, serving communities with a mission and vision to bridge the academic gap produced by the pandemic and the larger systemic inequalities that exist in educational systems nationwide. Breakthrough is a nonprofit organization that commits to ensuring that all children, regardless of their socioeconomic status, have a chance to pursue higher education and find a passion for learning along the way. They aim to do this while also mentoring future leaders and teachers to be better prepared for their teaching careers and leadership roles. With 24 different locations around the nation, Breakthrough is slowly trying to bridge the opportunity gap in America while retraining future educators to teach through the lens of inclusion, diversity, equity, and anti-racism. Before diving into Breakthrough and its many accomplishments, it is important to understand the purpose that nonprofit organizations like Breakthrough serve in their communities and why they are necessary in the first place.
Background About the American Education System and Breakthrough as a Whole
So, what is a nonprofit organization, and why are they important to have? Nonprofit organizations are created with a specific goal, or mission in mind, which aims to address a specific need in the community. The public sector (the government and its agencies) aims to address the needs of the majority voters, leaving behind many issues that impact minority voters. The private (business) sector, on the other hand, focuses primarily on its bottom line, which is making a profit. As a result, the private sector caters to those who are deemed customers, leaving behind those who cannot afford their goods and services. This is where nonprofit organizations come into play. Nonprofits stick to a vision, form a mission statement, and have a double-bottom line of staying true to their mission while also making a profit to put back into the organization. While they may be focused on a single issue, each nonprofit organization aims to address a particular issue being neglected by the public sector and left behind by the private sector. Nonprofits are – by law – non partisan and non-political. This means they are inclusive in their services and do not deny service based on the ability to pay. Breakthrough is one such organization addressing the shortcomings of our country’s education system, which provides endless opportunities to those who can afford them, and leaves behind the rest with the equivalent of the bare minimum in education.
This of course has to be looked at through a historical framework, and as we know all too well, Birmingham’s educational system has historically been one of the most segregated and underfunded school systems in the nation. Even when the rest of the nation began desegregating their school systems after Brown v. Board of Education was passed, Birmingham was one of those cities that resisted and refused to comply. As Birmingham finally began desegregating, the school systems had to deal with funding issues, and in response, local officials began to redraw district lines to ensure that certain well-to-do (white) families were positioned inside well-funded school districts. A topic that can be a blog in and of itself, because of racially inspired redlining efforts that were supported by the federal government during the 1930s, to this day, the funding that school systems receive is directly impacted by the housing values in America. As a result, students from lower-income households are zoned to attend schools with low funding, while students from higher-income households attend schools with higher funding. Due to the inequalities brought about by this phenomenon, there exists an educational gap between the students from low-income families and those from high-income families, and this opportunity gap further impacts the students’ decision to pursue higher education or not. To get a better understanding of the legacies of racial segregation on our education system, read this article by Nekole Hannah Jones.
While Breakthrough’s mission was a necessity, to begin with, its need has amplified due to the chaotic school years brought about as a result of the pandemic. The COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated the education gap between low-income students and those who come from high-income families. Many students who didn’t have the resources to access the online modules were neglected as a result of switching to online classrooms. Research showed that by the end of the school year in 2021, many students across the nation were behind on math and reading skills by several months. Additionally, trauma and instability can be discouraging academically and can severely impact the students’ development process.
As such, Breakthrough is an organization that aims to bridge the opportunity gap in vulnerable cities across the nation. After conducting tremendous research and tailoring programs to fit the community’s needs, Breakthrough Birmingham became one of their local branches, serving the Birmingham City Schools (BCS) District and partnering with local universities to empower the future educators of tomorrow with a holistic approach to teaching the next generations. Breakthrough offers year-long academic services to underprivileged scholars in their community, and their summer programs specifically aim to slow the “summer slide,” (which is the tendency of scholars to lose some of their academic skills from the lack of academic practice over the summer). Interestingly, Breakthrough serves a specific age group, mainly middle schoolers, and even employs a specific academic group during the summer, undergraduate students.
Breakthrough as an organization focuses on its middle school age group for many reasons. Middle school can be a very stressful time for a young student, and researchers wanted to understand why. Upon further inspection, scholars at Portland State University found that young adolescents between the ages of 10-15, experience many waves of development during this period of their lives. They develop physically, both externally in terms of height and weight, and internally, in terms of muscular and skeletal structures, but also chemically, in the form of changes in hormone levels. This can lead to a lot of discomfort in body image/self-esteem issues, as well as uncertainty around their sexuality. Additionally, students develop emotionally, meaning that they may need more guidance on processing certain emotions and feelings. Furthermore, students in this age group are developing morally, and as such, are beginning to develop a strong sense of right and wrong. This can have lasting impacts on their ability to ethically judge situations. Students are also developing socially, meaning that they can sometimes be socially awkward until they find a peer group they fit into. While all these developments are taking place, students at this age also undergo developments in their intellect and depending on the guidance they receive, this characteristic can determine their interest in higher learning. This can mean that without proper mentorship, many students will fail to see the importance of higher education, or, students who come from families where they are first-generation scholars, may not even be aware of the opportunities at hand if they are never introduced to them. Recognizing these factors, Breakthrough created a summer program particularly aimed at ensuring middle schoolers in the community can have a safe, fun-filled learning environment that can guide their scholars through the various developments they experience in this age range.
Additionally, Breakthrough employs undergraduate teaching fellows during their summer program to provide their middle school scholars with mentors who are closer in the age group to the middle schoolers than their traditional teachers at school. This helps scholars build meaningful relationships with teaching fellows, and as such, scholars are more receptive to information and direction. Furthermore, representation is key, and employing undergraduate teaching fellows provides middle schoolers with adults who look like them, and who share commonalities with them. Studies show that there is an overwhelming number of teachers who are predominantly from one particular race, and gender, (white, women) teaching primary education. Seeing someone that looks like them in a teaching position is powerful in encouraging younger scholars to pursue their academic dreams. This includes the fact that throughout history, the teaching occupation has been held by mostly women. Being able to see male teachers can additionally empower young boys to perhaps pursue teaching careers in their future. Finally, Breakthrough ensures that teaching fellows approach the scholars from anti-racism, diversity, equity, and inclusion standpoints, making sure to provide weeks-long training sessions to familiarize teaching fellows with the local history and major concepts of anti-racist teachings, as well as introduce teaching fellows to multiple professional speakers for further guidance on such topics. Teaching fellows are also expected to understand the social, economic, political, and environmental context from which their scholars come, so as to be aware of some of the outside forces at play that influences the scholars’ behaviors. Operating under a “high expectations, high support” system, Breakthrough expects nothing but the best from its teaching fellows, while providing resources and a strong support system to teaching fellows to ensure that no scholar is left behind.
The Three Pillars: Exposure, Relationships, and Growth Exposure
One of the three pillars that Breakthrough Birmingham is founded upon is the pillar of Exposure. This exposure piece applies to scholars and teaching fellows alike, and at times, because of the dynamic of the working environment found at Breakthrough Birmingham, it also applies to the staff and administration as well. During the summer program, scholars are exposed to students that come from various parts of the BCS district and meet as one cohort, sharing similar experiences. Having friends from different backgrounds can expose students to different cultures and lifestyles, and as such, can be a healthy addition to their development. This also fosters a sense of belonging among the Breakthrough community, and as such, encourages a safe environment for the scholars to learn and grow.
Additionally, scholars are exposed to information regarding their future, including preparing for high school, visiting college campuses, and even learning about various career fields and interview etiquette at a career day fair. Scholars are also exposed to the community around them, and learn about topics through an inclusive lens, focusing on equity, diversity, and anti-racism. With daily advisory classes that focus on culture building, elective lessons three days a week that give scholars a chance to explore new areas of interest, and all school and/or all-grade meetings held daily in an attempt to strengthen the newly formed friendships and relationships, every activity at Breakthrough is intentionally crafted to expose scholars and teaching fellows alike to new experiences.
Furthermore, teaching fellows also benefit from this exposure pillar in many ways. Teaching fellows (TFs) are hired from all over America, so TFs are provided with the opportunity to work closely with students that come from various backgrounds, and who share a common work environment. TFs go through various training sessions together, where they are exposed to inspiring community leaders, and get the chance to explore the local community’s history together. The TFs are therefore exposed to different ideas, people, and cultures, and are given the opportunity to form friendships that can last a lifetime. TFs are also exposed to roles of leadership and are expected to work in committees that teach teamwork and communication skills.
The working environment at Breakthrough fosters a sense of community, as staff and administration work alongside the TFs on a daily basis to ensure the smooth and effective operation of the day. This model emboldens the relationship between TFs, scholars, and staff, and strengthens the sense of trust within the organization. This, in essence, embodies the second pillar of Breakthrough: Relationships. TFs get to build lifelong connections and relationships with each other and the management team. With a healthy work environment that encourages TFs to “exhale from school” and prioritize self-care, Breakthrough is a workplace with high expectations and high support. Scholars are also able to make meaningful relationships with each other as well as with other TFs. Many scholars find lifelong mentors in teaching fellows, and as a result, can have a positive role model to look up to.
Breakthrough’s third pillar, Growth, provides the results of the hard work exerted by scholars, TFs, and management alike. Breakthrough has some serious results. Not only can scholars improve their academic skills tremendously, but they are also able to weave through various social, emotional, and cultural experiences by learning how to approach situations holistically. These socio-emotional improvements are just as important as the academic ones and can actually have a positive impact on their academic abilities.
From my own experience at Breakthrough Birmingham, my scholars in my writing class were able to improve their writing skills from novice to proficient, and some were even distinguished. This was determined by providing pre-assessments before the start of the summer program and post-assessments towards the end and comparing the results from the two assessments. While many of my eighth-grade scholars came into my class with a bare-minimum understanding of what an essay was, by the time they took their post-assessments almost a month later, they were able to demonstrate their knowledge of the different parts of an essay, were able to write decent thesis statements, and many were even able to craft a standard five paragraph essay, even though they were only required to write three. As for the socio-emotional improvements, I witnessed the scholars growing more confident in their self-image and in their ability to present the knowledge they had gained. I witnessed their improvements in maturity and helped them exercise their patience. Even though the program lasted a month, I could see measurable improvements from my scholars.
I also witnessed some growth within myself. Breakthrough’s structure emphasizes the importance of reflection, and this is practiced starting from the pre-work that TFs are required to complete as part of the orientation process and continues to the very last day of closing. From daily reflections to interpretations of norms, to admin check-ins periodically, to the end-of-summer presentations of learning, reflection and review are a big part of Breakthrough’s culture. This practice ensures that ideas and actions remain mindful and intentional, and places importance on the growth mindset. TFs can truly see for themselves just how much they have grown over the summer. Also, Breakthrough introduces a network of resources and opportunities for TFs to pursue, including opportunities to be employed by Teach For America for those pursuing a future in education.
How to get involved
For those of you who may be interested in the scholar programs at Breakthrough Birmingham, they offer various year-round programs for 7th-10th grade scholars, and during the summer, they offer a six-week summer program for rising 7th, 8th, and 9th graders. Additionally, those who want to support the organization can do so through donations, volunteer work, or simply spreading awareness of the program to others who may benefit from a program like Breakthrough, both scholars and teaching fellows alike. The right to an education is one of the fundamental rights outlined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and one that should apply to all children everywhere. Furthermore, education can be a powerful tool for ending oppression. Students’ ability to think critically and ask questions empowers them with the necessary tools to question unlawful or immoral behavior, recognize corruption, lies, and deceit, and provide holistic solutions to complex problems. Without these tools, students will continue to live in poverty and under oppressive conditions, not knowing how to change the world around them for the better.
While discussing various human rights violations and crises, it is important to also be mindful of the special groups such violations affect. On August 19th, 1982, the United Nations announced that June 4th of each year will be declared the International Day of Innocent Children Victims of Aggression. According to this article from OC Human Relations, the day’s purpose is to acknowledge the pain suffered specifically by children throughout the world who are the victims of physical, mental, and emotional abuse. The day also affirms the UN’s commitment to protect the rights of children. According to Children’s Advocacy Centers of Tennessee, nearly 700,000 children are abused annually in the US alone. In addition, rates of child abuse and neglect are five times higher for children in families with low socio-economic status compared to children in families with higher socio-economic status. A child’s right to be free from aggression and abuse is violated globally across many spectrums with crises such as domestic abuse and gun violence.
Child Domestic Abuse and Covid-19
Domestic abuse is an international issue that can affect people of every age, race, gender, and background. Also referred to as ‘domestic violence,’ domestic abuse can directly or indirectly affect children due to bullying, harassment, and endangerment from those who reside in their homes with them. Some signs of domestic abuse in a physically or emotionally abusive relationship include the following fromThe Children’s Society:
Kicking, punching, hitting
Threatening to kill someone or hurt them
Controlling someone’s finances by withholding money or stopping someone going to work
making someone feel guilty, criticizing them or making them feel small and stopping them from standing up for themselves
Unfortunately, the 2020 outbreak of the Covid-19 virus led to an increase in child victims of domestic abuse due to stay-at-home orders and lockdowns. These lockdowns decreased a child’s ability to find a safe place through school counselors or churches and seek guidance from trusted adults. Without being able to find an escape from unsafe home lives, many children suffered an increased risk of domestic violence. Although exact numbers cannot be known of how many additional cases were caused by the pandemic, one study analyzed data on more than 39,000 children treated at nine pediatric trauma centers. When researchers analyzed the group of children aged 5 and older, the number of child abuse victims tripled compared to a similar period before the pandemic. “The most common injury identified was head injury, followed by a mix of chest, abdomen, extremity and burn injuries,” said senior study author Dr. Katherine Flynn-O’Brien, associate trauma medical director at Children’s Wisconsin in Milwaukee. Dr. Andrea Asnes, a leader of the AAP Council on Child Abuse and Neglect and director of Yale Programs for Safety, Advocacy and Healing in New Haven, Connecticut, went on to explain that daycares for younger children were deemed essential and remained open, while school-aged children were stuck at home.
Today, and every year on June 4th, it is important to remember this human rights holiday in honoring Innocent Children Victims of Aggression across the world. Progress can be made by further educating yourself on the many acts of aggression that violate a child’s human rights and by spreading the word to others. Click here to learn more: International Day of Innocent Children Victims of Aggression.
As an immigrant from India who has become an American citizen, food insecurity is something that I have witnessed a lot in my short lifetime. As a kid, I remember seeing people on the streets of India, both young and old, begging for mere scraps, and felt guilty for not being able to do anything to help. Yet, little did I know that I would come to experience similar food insecurities, but in America, a land supposedly filled with life, liberty, and happiness. It was in America that I first became aware of the realities of being poor, and it was here that I learned how to live off of $20 a week.
Among other things that have come into the limelight due to the pandemic, people are starting to pay more attention to the growing food insecurities in America. The United States is one of the most affluent nations in the entire world, yet it is also home to some of the largest food deserts in the world. This phenomenon, which is an incomprehensible reality in one of the richest nations in the world, has only become worse over the past few years, mainly due to the increasing inflation coupled with stagnant wages, which have only been exacerbated due to the pandemic. Food insecurity has become a reality to many Americans who live paycheck to paycheck and struggle to make ends meet, even with working multiple jobs.
So, what are food deserts and why should we care about them? Well, according to the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), food deserts are areas in which access to healthy food and groceries is limited due to a number of reasons, including distance, individual abilities, and even the location of the neighborhood someone resides in. Distance becomes an issue for those who live far away from stores that sell fresh produce, including those who live in rural areas as well as those who live on the outskirts of urban areas.
Distance can be an even greater challenge if the person or family does not have reliable transportation. This is especially true in rural areas where public transportation does not extend to. Even with public transportation being available, the bus routes in most cities run on scheduled times and have limited hours of service. This means that anyone that works odd hours may not have access to the public transportation system. Furthermore, people that live farther away from grocery stores and that don’t have reliable transportation may have to be able to walk home, meaning that they can only purchase the amount of food they can carry in their hands. This also means that they have to make frequent trips to the grocery store to be able to have their nutritional needs met.
Similarly, individual abilities, such as family income, can greatly impact the food choices a person has access to. Purchasing healthy food is expensive, and if you want something that is free of pesticides or harmful chemicals (organic produce), it’s going to cost you even more money, money that you may not have. Additionally, eating healthy is not always a choice that people with low income have; the choices they are usually presented with are eating something (even if it is unhealthy) or starving for the next few days. You still have to have the energy to go to work and make money to pay your other bills. Roughly half of the American population made less than $35,000 annually, according to the Social Security Administration’s wage reports from 2019. These statistics have only increased as a consequence of the ongoing pandemic.
The neighborhood that a person lives in has a direct impact on their access to fresh food as well. Due to racist policies such as gerrymandering and gentrification, neighborhoods are separated based on the average income of their residents, and this usually means that the poor, (which are made up disproportionately of Black and Brown people), are pushed into underdeveloped areas and away from the up-and-coming neighborhoods in the urban centers. As a result, businesses are more reluctant to open up in impoverished areas, fearing that they won’t make much profit, and this extends to stores that sell fresh produce.
Food Insecurity: Some Hard Facts
If the USDA definition of food deserts is applied in the United States, at least 19 million people live in food deserts. Looking closer to home, in Alabama, as of 2017, over 16% of its residents are facing food insecurities. Even right here in our own backyard, Birmingham Times reported in 2019 that around 69% of Birmingham residents live in food deserts. That is over half of the Birmingham population! As I have learned as recently as this semester during a Social Justice Café event, (a weekly event sponsored by the Institute of Human Rights at UAB that focuses on social justice issues), around 25% of UAB students are cutting meals, close to half of our UAB student population can’t afford to eat healthily, and over 35% of UAB students experience chronic food insecurity! I am one of these students; I am not ashamed to admit it. Despite how much I conserve and try to budget, I still cut meals constantly, I continue to not be able to afford to eat healthily, and I have been experiencing chronic food insecurity since before the pandemic. The reasons behind my struggles are no fault of my own; they are a domino effect of the various systemic failures that continue to plunge millions of hard-working Americans into poverty and as a result, food insecurity.
Eating Healthy: Why it’s a problem especially if you are poor
If a person has access to $20 for a week’s worth of groceries, spending it all on a couple of fruits and vegetables will not ensure that they can feed themselves and their loved ones for the next few days. What will help them make it through the week are spending on canned goods and processed food items that have a longer shelf life and cut down the time of food preparation. This means buying dollar menu items at fast-food restaurants or shopping at dollar stores for cheap snacks and pre-cooked meals. Low-income families who have experienced food insecurity for generations may not have acquired the knowledge to cook healthy food in a timely manner. They may not have had the resources to learn how to cook, or never had anyone to learn from.
Additionally, eating healthy requires that people cook with fresh, raw ingredients to avoid the preservatives and chemicals used in processed foods for a longer shelf-life. This also means cooking with items that may go to waste if not cooked in a timely manner. Most Americans struggling with food insecurity work low-income jobs, sometimes multiple jobs at a time, and the last thing they want to do is go home after a hard day of work and prepare meals for their family. Fast food is an easy, convenient alternative, and it is this convenience that has made them successful despite the unhealthy, low-nutritious food they sell.
Furthermore, this consumption of unhealthy foods with little nutritional value leads to chronic health issues, such as diabetes and heart disease. Even eating fruits and vegetables that have been grown with the use of pesticides and herbicides has been proven to expose those consuming them to toxic chemicals known to cause cancer. Therefore, to truly enjoy healthy produce, people have to purchase organic foods, which doubles the costs of groceries. Additionally, having adequate access to healthcare is another major challenge for those that live below the poverty line, and generally targets households that are already marginalized. These disparities have only been exacerbated due to the pandemic. As a consequence of the way that American healthcare is set up, most people living in poverty tend to avoid going to the doctor unless they absolutely have to, which further perpetuates the cycle of reactionary medical care rather than a precautionary one. Food insecurity is also surrounded by stigmatization, blaming the starving people for failing to put food on the table for themselves and their families instead of focusing on why this trend is common amongst almost half of the country’s hard-working citizens.
Non-Government Food Aid and Government Food Aid
Well, what about the government? Doesn’t it help those that are facing food insecurities? Government food aid comes in the form of SNAP/EBT benefits, commonly known as “food stamps,” and while it has helped many people struggling with food insecurity, this program has a lot of issues with it (too many to discuss in this blog). For today, however, let’s just examine some of the eligibility requirements to even qualify for food assistance. For one, Congress sets a threshold, requiring that people applying for the program must prove to the government that their income and expenses together show that they are living over 100% below the poverty line.
Furthermore, states can also add additional requirements such as passing a drug test or passing a background check. Some states disqualify applicants that have a criminal history from receiving assistance. If you’ve read my previous blogs about the realities of re-entering society after being imprisoned, you know why this is problematic.
Additionally, if the applicant is an immigrant, legal or illegal, qualifying for food assistance is almost impossible. Those who think that citizenship should be a requirement for food assistance don’t understand what human rights are. Food is a necessary resource that ALL humans have to have, and any person struggling to eat deserves to be helped, regardless of their citizenship status. There is also a requirement that people applying for assistance should have a job working at least 20 hours a week. This means that if you are unemployed, you cannot qualify for food assistance. That is exactly when you need the most help when you have no income or are transitioning from one job to another. On top of all these extensive eligibility requirements, if you are on strike, expressing your right to protest, something secured to you by the Constitution of the United States of America, you will not be able to qualify for food assistance. These conditions that require the people struggling with poverty to prove they are poor enough to receive assistance are demeaning, insulting, and undignifying to those who require the aid.
There are local non-profit groups and state institutions that provide food banks and food pantries where people can go to access food, but these places are usually located in more populated areas, meaning that people who live in rural areas or on the outskirts of cities face additional struggles accessing these food aid institutions. Transportation again becomes an issue for people living far from food banks and further limits their accessibility. Additionally, due to the stigma that surrounds food insecurity, people are made to feel guilty about their situation, and as a result, many avoid going to the food banks altogether.
How COVID has Made Food Insecurity Worse
The recent pandemic has changed many aspects of day-to-day life for people around the world. It has intensified the struggles of many Americans who were barely making it through life before the virus took hold. This same trend holds true when analyzing the pandemic’s impact on people experiencing food insecurity in America. The number of people struggling to feed themselves and their families has increased from 19 million in 2017 to over 50 million people in 2020. This is understandable, as many Americans lost their jobs during the shutdown of the economy, and many did not qualify for unemployment benefits.
Furthermore, due to the unhealthy nature of cheap foods, many Americans are experiencing malnutrition, dealing with obesity, diabetes, and heart problems, among other health issues. These health conditions have made them more vulnerable to catching the virus, and without an income, paying for healthcare becomes a major issue. Additionally, health insurance in America is tied to employment, and many Americans lost their jobs due to the economic shutdown, and as a result, also lost their health insurance coverage. All these factors have collectively worsened the lives of the poor and marginalized communities, adding to the growing financial instability and food insecurities these families face.
What Can We Do About It?
There are a lot of systemic issues to unpack that either leads to or exacerbates food insecurities. These issues need to be addressed through public policies that would help those struggling to eat by putting more money back into their pockets. These measures include pressuring our local policymakers to support legislation that would increase wages, lower eligibility requirements to access federal food aid, make healthy food more affordable and accessible, provide better public transportation, make healthcare affordable and accessible, and regulate businesses that exploit people to meet profit margins. All these things could help destigmatize food insecurity in our society and empower people to help themselves.
While food insecurity is a systemic issue that needs greater attention from our policymakers, there are still things that we can do ourselves. First, for those who are experiencing food insecurity here on campus, a resource called Blazer Kitchen is available for students and staff members, and their families to take advantage of. Blazer Kitchen is an onsite food pantry for those experiencing food insecurity. I’ve used Blazer Kitchen before, and while it is still a newly growing program, I have been grateful to have this resource at hand.
Second, for those who want to help reduce food waste, those who wish to shop at home, or those that have transportation limitations, Imperfect Foods is an online delivery service that has partnered with Feeding America (an organization aimed at ending food insecurity) to find a sustainable way to cut down food waste while simultaneously providing access to healthy foods for people who are food insecure. So much food gets wasted due to issues of over-harvested crops, changes in packaging, or even due to cosmetic imperfections that don’t always pass the scrutiny of the retail buyers. Instead of letting all this food go to waste, imperfect foods, and other such companies, strive to make use of these goods. This service also addresses the issue of transportation by having these imperfect goods delivered to your house.
Finally, only people who live on properties with land can have access to personal produce gardens right now. Sponsoring local community gardens around the country can help educate people on how to grow their own food, can provide jobs for people to maintain these gardens, and provide access to healthy food options within walking distance. Localized community gardens can also decrease the carbon footprint left behind by massive corporate grocery stores that have to transport goods across states and can cut down on food waste as well. Also, share your experiences with food insecurity; let others know that you are experiencing it too. This helps start the process of destigmatizing this issue while educating others about the realities and complexities tied into your experiences. If you have the means to, donate to food banks and other such nonprofit organizations that provide help for those who desperately need it. Even if you never get to meet the people you are helping, know that they still greatly appreciate it. I know I do.
The Abroms-Engel Institute for the Visual Arts (AEIVA) has welcomed a new exhibit, “Marking Time: Art in the Age of Mass Incarceration”. The exhibit explores the United States’ criminal justice system, mass incarceration, discrimination and the very concept of justice with works from more than 70 different artists. Many of the pieces on display come from artists who are or were incarcerated, who used art as an essential outlet and form of expression within prison. Nonincarcerated artists are also featured, influenced by the damages of mass incarceration within their families and neighborhoods. The entire exhibit creates a critique of mass incarceration from a human right’s perspective, representing the voices of incarcerated persons that are typically silenced or ignored. “Marking Time” boasts three galleries of moving pieces that speak to the gravity and scale at which the human rights violations within our punitive justice system disenfranchise impoverished and minority communities throughout the United States, and features data and interviews that discuss ways these glaring problems should be addressed and combatted.
“Marking Time” was organized by curator Dr. Nicole R. Fleetwood, who has spent a decade researching the importance and development of visual arts and creative practices for incarcerated persons. Dr. Fleetwood deliberately removed any mention of charges or reasons for conviction for the incarcerated artists featured in the exhibit, forcing viewers to remove a layer of prejudice or thought regarding whether or not the artist is inherently a “good” or “bad” person, or deserving of their incarceration. As I progressed through the galleries of “Marking Time ”, one of the first things I noticed was exactly that; how I continuously perceived the artworks as being the creations of a fellow artist, not a criminal or prisoner. This intentional shift in perception creates an environment of thoughtfulness, analysis and depth that may not have been achieved otherwise, and makes the exhibit an excellent ignition for thought, conversation and activism.
When analyzing the works themselves, I was surprised to see how many were masterfully created from hair gel, sheets, uniforms, newspapers and contraband items when traditional art supplies were not accessible. Incarcerated artists are often limited in the tools they have to create art from, but countless works within “Marking Time” reveal the true resilience of an artist’s spirit, and how artistic expression can prevail above the smothering limitations of prison.
As this exhibit has been analyzed and discussed through its many travels from MoMA to AEIVA, I wanted to highlight a few of the pieces and discuss their particular significance to the conversation of human rights within the United States punitive justice system and mass incarceration.
Pyrrhic Defeat: A Visual Study of Mass Incarceration by Mark Loughney
Loughney’s series, Pyrrhic Defeat, is named for a theory within criminal justice studies that explores how a failing criminal justice system that discriminates in its criminalization of certain groups substantially benefits certain elites. Mark Loughney has created over 750 portraits of his incarcerated peers in order to mark the passage of time within his own sentence, as well as provide fellow inmates with a positive alternative to the dehumanization caused by mugshots and prison IDs. His pieces provide the individuals with a level of personalization, dignity, and respect that is often forgotten and ignored within the prison system. Loughney spends 20 minutes on each sketch, and has to carve a creative, open atmosphere for each session out of the typical chaos and disruptions within a prison environment.
Untitled by Gilberto Rivera
This Triptych by Gilberto Rivera places a spotlight on how mismanagement of the Covid-19 pandemic negatively impacted vulnerable communities throughout the artists’ hometown of New York. Rivera was a graffiti artist prior to his incarceration, and this piece truly reveals the artist’s emotions and style in a brilliant display of keywords, colors and figures. Rivera’s triptych incorporates newspaper clippings that highlight his disgust for how minority and immigrant essential workers were neglected as well as the fear incarcerated people experienced throughout the public health crisis. Prisoners across the globe were put into lockdowns to prevent the spread of Covid-19, and the result of this is an experience extremely similar to that of solitary confinement; a punitive mechanism proven to have extreme mental and physical health consequences. Despite these sweeping lockdowns, extreme overcrowding lead prisons to host the majority of the largest single-site outbreaks since the start of the pandemic. Despite these major outbreaks and casualties, prisoners fell to the bottom of priority lists for treatment and aid when medical equipment and essential items faced shortages. Rivera’s piece displays frustration and criticism of these issues that have hardly received the mainstream coverage they deserve.
Ellapsium: master & Helm by Jared Owens
With Ellapsium, Jared Owens addresses the racism of the criminal justice system as well as hierarchies and power struggles within Fairton, the correctional institution where Owens was imprisoned. This complex work features symbolism as a form of rebellion and disapproval, and bears an immediately recognizable resemblance to the infamous map of the Brookes Slave Ship from 1788 that displays how slaves were forced to live through their passage to America. This intentionally chosen symbol represents the violence, dehumanization, and other atrocities that slaves faced in early American history. The second and less known image present in this work is a blueprint of the Fairton prison; Owens’ combining of the two blatantly compares the horrors of the historical institution of slavery to the atrocities and discrimination committed by the United States’ current carceral state. Owens also utilizes color symbolically throughout his piece, and all of the colors used correlate to the artist’s daily life within a federal institution. The green of the institutional walls represents restriction and being subdued, blue represents the uniforms worn by prison guards, and brown represents the uniforms of those imprisoned. Orange, the most used color within the piece, was used within Fairfield to indicate areas that were off limits and unavailable to incarcerated persons, so Owens deliberately used that color for the boundary between the blueprint of the slave ship, of Fairfield, and the world outside of the two.
Owens is open about how his pursuit of art posed a legitimate threat to him within the Fairfield facility. Being caught with planks of wood to paint on or stretch canvas could have resulted in solitary confinement, extension of his sentence, or complete confiscation of personal possessions and art supplies. While these overwhelming restrictions greatly limited Owens while he was in prison, he has chosen to use his experience to create, raise awareness, and call for change- like so many artists featured alongside him in “Marking Time”.
Peace, Love, Harmony by Susan Lee-Chun
Women on the Rise! (WOTR) was a feminist art project founded by Dr. Jillian Hernandez to provide girls in juvenile detention facilities with a platform for self-expression and dialogue. Inspired by her participation in this project, Susan Lee-Chun worked with a group of girls in juvenile detention to explore the politics of fashion, and asked her participants to “Think about who you are, what words, images or symbols define you or your beliefs. Use them to create a fabric design”. The resulting hoodies on display conform to detention center uniforms on their exterior, and on the inside feature patterns with rainbows, checkers, and the word “Love”. Upon completion of this project, Lee-Chun attempted to give the girls she worked with the resulting hoodies of their creation; and was denied that request. None of the girls involved were allowed to wear the hoodies. In public defiance, Lee-Chun’s hoodies now hang among the many artworks of “Marking Time”, criticizing a system that would prioritize conformity and uniform over the individuality, creativity and expression of a child.
How To See “Marking Time”
If you would like to see “Marking Time” and any of the artworks or artists featured above first hand, the exhibit is free and available to the public until December 11. Reserve your free ticket to view the exhibition here. Spaces per time slot are limited to 10 for a one-hour long visit. If you cannot make your time slot for any reason, please cancel the booking or call 205-975-6436. If you have any issues with booking your ticket or would like to reserve a group tour, contact AEIVA at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Visitors must wear a mask at all times inside the AEIVA building and keep socially distanced. Free and metered parking is available along the streets surrounding AEIVA. Safety is UAB’s priority. The pandemic is a fluid situation that UAB is monitoring, in consultation with infectious disease and public health experts; events will be subject to change based on the latest COVID-19 safety guidelines.
All upcoming “Marking Time” programs are designed as hybrid events, with both in-person and virtual components. AEIVA is prepared to move any of the events entirely virtual at a moment’s notice. Visit AEIVA on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook for the latest updated information.
In retaliation to a day celebrating the world’s best-known colonizer, the infamous Christopher Columbus, on October 11th, Indigenous People’s Day highlights the culture, struggles, and history of America’s indigenous population. A silent struggle, however, persists: disease.
Native Health Disparities in COVID
The early 1600s brought to America the infamous two Gs—guns and germs—the latter proving the most deadly as bouts of influenza took a toll on Native American populations across what is now the United States. In the age of modern medicine, it comes as a surprise that disease still wreaks havoc on America’s indigenous population. The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic is no exception.
This vast gap is a reflection of poor medical and public health services for Native Americans. Health disparities that plague the Native population include diabetes, heart disease, and rates of addiction to harmful substances. These follow a similar pattern of COVID-19 with Natives being more likely to experience these chronic conditions compared to all other racial categories. These disparities could potentially be alleviated by greater equity in access to medical and public health services, but a fundamental issue in providing this care lies in Native sovereignty. As determined by Worcester v. Georgia, 31 U.S. 515, Native American land, or reservations, are considered sovereign land. While at face value this seems to be a win empowering Natives and acknowledging their right to the land that was once theirs, it creates a vacuum of public services.
Encapsulated by possessors of what was once their land, Native health and well-being are bound by the constraints of the state. A lack of widespread taxes, natural resources, and human resources leaves the reservations reliant upon the ‘external’ state of America for support and sustenance. Most money generated on reservations largely consists of gambling and casino money—practices usually outlawed in the surrounding states. This money only goes so far in providing for the tribe as money often stays within certain families, leaving the rest of the reservation in high rates of poverty. Thus, the main provider of health care for nearly 2.2 million members of the tribal communities, the Indian Health Service, is funded by American tax dollars. And yet, the IHS’s hospital system is severely underfunded and understaffed. The main mechanism created to fight disease seems designed to fail. In this sense, disease continues to persist as a remnant of colonialism, which directly violates the fundamental human rights to accessible health care and to acceptable standards of living.
Vaccination Rates on the Reservation
The only light at the end of the tunnel is the rapid rate of Native American vaccination against COVID-19. While co-morbidities and co-mortalities make it such that if COVID is contracted, Natives will be more susceptible to death, the COVID-19 vaccine acts as an equalizer. Once vaccinated, the likelihood of death by COVID-19 significantly decreases.
Native American tribes have been able to boast proud levels of herd immunity with large tribes like the Navajo Nation at roughly 70% fully vaccinated as of May 2021. This commendable statistic is a result of rallied community effort. Cultural values of supporting the elderly and a strong sense of family and allegiance to the tribe—values typically highlighted in Indigenous People’s Day—worked in favor of creating a climate in strong support of vaccination and vaccine acquisition.
While the tide has turned in favor of Native Americans, preventing them from being labelled as another health disparity statistic in COVID-19, it is important to remember and to look towards long-term health care equity and solutions for Natives. While increasing funding for the IHS is certainly a good starting point, robust public health interventions and funding for community programs is necessary. Funding dollars from the top could in theory trickle down, but grassroot rallying and support for public health interventions in a community where cultural values of togetherness and unity already exist could prove to be the needed impetus for transforming not only health care access and quality for the Native American population but also general standard of living that leads to health baselines which are robust to disease.
The homeless population in America tends to be neglected by the society they live in. They are among the most vulnerable, belonging to already marginalized communities that struggle to meet their day to day needs. As a result, the unhoused have little to no power or influence on social norms and affairs. As someone who has experienced homelessness both in India and in America, I have come to distinguish some of the common misconceptions society holds about the unhoused population. There are a lot of stereotypes and social stigma that surrounds the discussions around homelessness, which often blames the victims of systemic issues, instead of restructuring the conversation around how we as society can best help these marginalized groups realize their basic human rights to shelter. In order to do so, we must first understand what it really means to be homeless in America.
History of Homelessness in America
Homelessness is not an issue unique to the United States, as it can be found in countries all over the world. While homelessness in America can be found as early as the colonial times, modern homelessness rose as a response to the Great Depression, where people experienced high levels of unemployment and poverty. Especially interesting is the relationship between the growth of urban cities and the rise in homelessness. Coupled with low-wages and higher costs of living, people found it more expensive to find places to live in urban centers, such as New York and California. The aftermath of the Great Depression put a lot of people in desperate need of employment, and as the economy took to the service industry, more and more undereducated, impoverished people had no other choice but to turn to these low-income jobs. The country’s shift to a service economy meant that laborers were now being paid lower wages, leaving service industry employees unable to afford the rising costs of housing. Coupled with higher housing costs and lower wages, when people turned to social welfare programs, they found these programs to be lacking in funds as well.
Additionally, there was a campaign to “Deinstitutionalize” people held in mental asylums. While the campaign itself was well-intended, its applications were lacking in structure, and instead of providing patients with proper access to mental health resources, people with mental disabilities were released to fend for themselves. The neglect of these institutions led to the increasing numbers of mental health patients facing housing insecurity. To make matters worse, gentrification policies (made to bring in wealthy real-estate investors and high-income residents to underdeveloped parts of the city) led to the displacement of many low-income families, putting them out of their homes. These policies disproportionately affect people of color, something that has forced many marginalized communities to fall prey to an endless cycle of poverty and degradation.
Unfortunately, one of the most concerning additions to the homeless population is the disproportionate number of youths that identify as being part of the LGBTQ+ community. According to a recent study conducted by Chapin Hall at the University of Chicago, LGBTQ+ youth had a 120% higher risk of experiencing homelessness. These members who already belong to an ostracized community can become more vulnerable to harassment, violence and hate crimes.
Additionally, unable to find jobs after returning home from military service, many veterans end up homeless with nowhere else to go. Although places do exist to support veterans who experience homelessness, many are either unaware of the resources at hand, or too ashamed to use these resources. As a result of the social stigma surrounding the topic, people experiencing homelessness often become withdrawn from society.
Society’s Attitudes Toward the Homeless
Homelessness is received with wildly different attitudes among different cultures. America is a very diverse country, with people that share hundreds of different cultures and traditions, and these cultural attitudes can carry over in the way they respond to contemporary social issues. Different cultures share a varying definition of what a “home” means, and even more distinctions in their approach toward people experiencing homelessness. What the dominant White culture might consider to be a home, (an individual unit of space for nuclear families), might not be what someone who belongs to the Indigenous population believes. They might argue that a home is where you can interact with your community, a place to feel safe and share with friends and family. Even the attitudes toward helping people who are unhoused have strict cultural implications. As described in Islam, it is part of the every-day religious ritual of a Muslim to give alms and help the poor in their community. In Hinduism, while helping the poor with food and shelter is allowed, certain castes are not allowed to eat alongside with or sit beside people of lower castes. People experiencing homelessness have their own unique culture, where certain skills or strategies for survival on the streets are shared amongst each other.
Along with all these complexities, the unhoused also undergo various types of stigmas, including social stigma, and cultural stigma. Social stigma can be discrimination and harassment directed toward the homeless population by the institutions, systems and people that make up society. Cultural stigma can refer to the stigma expressed by friends and family members or other religious or cultural institutions that may shame and blame the victims for being homeless.
Unhoused people also have a hard time finding employment. This is partly due to the fact that the job application requires a home address for the application process to be completed. As a result, people who are dispossessed also experience difficulties when finding housing. The applications for apartments include a proof of income/employment section and applying for government housing takes months to be processed and reviewed. Many states have long and complicated application processes, and even then, it is not a guaranteed housing option. Nevertheless, applicants can be denied, and they would still need a place to stay while awaiting their application to be approved.
Adding to these difficulties, people in the homeless community are constantly harassed with wild stares or abuse, (both verbal and physical), from members of society. The law enforcement agency, an institution designed to serve and protect people of the community, may make matters worse by deteriorating the situation further. Without proper training, police approach the homeless defensively, ready to attack at the slightest “abnormal” reactions. What they haven’t been trained to realize is that many people experiencing homelessness are also at high-risk of developing mental health issues due to the stress and realities of being homeless. These altercations can turn deadly, and unfortunately, many people of the homeless community have either been locked up or even killed by officers of the law. Many of these instances were even caught on camera, yet these officers faced little to no accountability or legal punishment.
People experiencing homelessness are also easy targets to getting their possessions robbed, and many times, police will raid their camps and confiscate what few belongings they might acquire, including sleeping tents and toiletries. Society also treats the homeless population as a burden and blames them for being “lazy” or “druggies” or “criminals/suspicious,” without any provocation from the homeless community. It can be especially insulting for the people experiencing homelessness to be judged for their situation while society simultaneously fails to criticize the state’s inability to protect peoples’ fundamental human rights to food, shelter, and other basic needs.
The Legal Response to Homelessness in America
The legal response to the homelessness crisis in America has not been a heartwarming one either. Urban cities all over the United States have put in place anti-homelessness measures, otherwise known as hostile architecture. These include slanted benches, benches divided by armrests, spiked and rocky pavements to prevent people from sleeping there, and even boulders under bridges. Not only are these measures inhumane, they also cost the tax-payers a lot of money. These atrocious tactics are put in place to discourage homelessness, attempting to connect rising numbers of homelessness to increased crime rates. As recently as July of this year, Los Angeles even went so far as to make homelessness downright illegal, restricting homeless encampments in majority of the city. The city has even prohibited the homeless from sitting, sleeping, or laying in public. Due to the fact that homelessness overwhelmingly affects people who belong to already marginalized communities, a rights-based approach is necessary, one that addresses the existing systemic issues which need to be fixed first.
Covid-19 and How it Continues to Impact the Homeless Population
The Covid-19 pandemic continues to impact many different communities in a variety of ways. The pandemic hit especially hard among the homeless population, where access to hygienic products are often slim, if not non-existent. People experiencing homelessness may not have the ability to continuously wash and sanitize their hands, with limited access to clean water and soap products. They also been experience complications with social distancing measures, forced to be in crowded spaces like homeless shelters, which has only increased their risks of getting infected. Furthermore, even when infected, or exposed to the disease, the homeless population has very limited ability to quarantine, further allowing the spread of the disease to others in close proximity. The unhoused population has limited access to healthcare and medicinal treatments, and many are already immunocompromised or have pre-existing conditions, which increases their vulnerability of catching the disease. Stereotypes geared toward the homeless population labeling them as “junkies” or “druggies” has influenced the care they receive, leading to many cases of misdiagnoses or mistreatment as a result of biases held by healthcare professionals and others in the health care industry. Due to the rise in unemployment numbers during the economic shutdown as a response to the pandemic, millions of people who did not qualify for unemployment benefits, and could not make ends meet, also became homeless as a result.
Some Successful Approaches to Ending Homelessness
There have been some successful attempts at ending homelessness in America as well as in other nations. Utah attempted to decrease its rates of homelessness back in 2015, which successfully reduced its homelessness by 91%. They executed a policy known as “Housing First,” which gave their chronically homeless populations free housing, a decision that cost the state less money than alternative anti-homelessness measures. This program unfortunately has not been a complete success, as people experiencing homelessness in other states have been migrating to Utah, making it too expensive for Utah alone to pay for the country’s increasing homelessness crisis. A national policy, on the other hand, that could implement the Housing First approach taken by Utah, may be the easiest, and essentially cheapest option to ending the homelessness crisis in America. This is essentially what Finland did. In 2019, Finland approached the homelessness issue with the most obvious of answers, by providing housing for all those who are unhoused. Like Utah, they applied the “Housing First” policy, (which came with no strings attached), recognizing that housing is an essential human right that should be protected and promoted. They also understand that in the long run, providing the homeless population with housing is the cheaper option to society. Also, as examined earlier, if applied in America, this Housing First policy will inevitably save more lives, with fewer interactions between the homeless and the police.
While homelessness is not something people are normally born into, the unhoused face discrimination, stigmatization, and marginalization from society just as much as any other group. Although people’s socioeconomic status is a major factor in determining who is most vulnerable to experiencing homelessness, as we’ve seen in the case of the LGBTQ+ youth, and older veterans as well, homelessness can impact people of any and all races, at various age levels, and at any given time. The pandemic itself has expanded the homeless population as people are unable to pay their backed-up rent or mortgage payments. While alternative approaches can assist to eradicate levels of homelessness in our society as implemented in Finland and Utah, it is crucial that we also continue to destigmatize being homeless in American society and take a rights-based approach to finding long-term solutions to end their suffering.
In the past year, there has been a drastic rise in hate crimes against Asians across the globe. This was fueled by inflammatory language and anti-Asian rhetoric surrounding the COVID-19 pandemic. Recent hate crimes and acts of discrimination against people of Asian descent are not isolated to the past year. Anti-Asian language and rhetoric is beginning to garner widespread media attention in light of the Atlanta shootings during which six Asian women were killed. It’s incredibly sad and concerning that it took this instance to gain media attention for the injustices that have been plaguing Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) communities. Asian American communities face a unique reality regarding racism and racial violence that’s not often seen in other racialized communities. On one hand, Asians are praised and encouraged to be the perfect minority, and on the other they are still placed in the racial hierarchy that seeks to oppress them via harmful stereotypes and nationalist ideals.
While some of the hate crimes are due to overt racist attitudes, others are due covert cultural stereotypes about Asian Americans that are reinforced in the media and pop culture. These stereotypes present Asians as submissive and hardworking. “People don’t think that Asians will fight back” so they are more easily targeted by others who don’t fear the consequences. As a result, the elders in the Asian community have had to bear this burden of violence. Asian American stereotypes are a direct result of this community being portrayed as the model minority.
What Is the Model Minority Myth?
The model minority term was coined by William Petersen in 1966, a white male who argued that Japanese Americans could not experience racism because they were capitalistically and socially performing better than other groups of color. This is incredibly ironic because of the Japanese concentration camps that were built by the US government during World War II. This model minority myth stereotypes Asians as studious, successful, hardworking, and smart. It is this population that despite being a minority has challenged the odds and accomplished the “American Dream.” Even though this stereotype has seemingly positive overtones, it is especially damaging for Asian Americans and other minorities. The model minority myth pits minorities against each other, while also simultaneous ignoring the systemic racism that plagues Asian Americans. It also takes a huge toll on the mental health of Asian populations, because of this burden to succeed and compete against other minorities in a distinctly white dominated country. Asian Americans that don’t fit this model minority mold, who are of lower socioeconomic status, and work in low-wage industries are more susceptible to experiencing hate crimes and racial violence. Asian women encounter even more difficult odds. Asian women are fetishized, sexualized, and marginalized. Asian women are also in an extremely precarious position and vulnerable to facing violence.
Gregg Orton, national director of the National Council of Asian Pacific Americans, says that there is a narrative that says we are alright, that we don’t have problems and so we should not complain. Rewriting the challenge of this narrative speaks for itself, especially since it emphasizes the type of work that needs to be done to combat this notion and these harmful stereotypes. While not every act of discrimination or crime that takes places against Asian Americans is a hate crime or racially motivated, these repetitive and familiar acts of violence and complacency are certainly something to address.
The model minority myth contributes to the oppression Olympics and damages the unified front that people of color are attempting to uphold against individual and systemic acts of racism. This myth has been weaponized against the Black community and against Asian forms of resistance. Illustrating Asian Americans as the epitome of the “American Dream” damages the lives of Pacific Islanders, Native Hawaiians, and Southeast Asian Americans. Their needs, struggles, and harms they face are made invisible. This does not mean that Asian Americans do not benefit from the oppressive nature of the model minority narrative. This is not an excuse to discount the racial violence and discrimination that the AAPI community faces every day. To move beyond this myth and fight it, there needs to be solidarity between AAPI groups and other marginalized communities. We have already seen this in action in light of the Black Lives Matter protests this past summer and especially this past month.
Every significant economic market in the world has a large reliance on the global supply chain, or globalization. These supply chains rely on canals to connect one side of the world to the other, including the Panama Canal and the Suez Canal. On Tuesday March 22nd, one ship single handedly disrupted the entire global supply chain. The Ever Given, one of the largest container ships in the world, ran aground in the middle of the Suez Canal. This event blocked any other container ships from crossing the Suez Canal in either direction, effectively cutting off a major link between Asian markets and European markets.
According to an analysis by Bloomberg, the Suez Canal blockage created by the Ever Given is holding up $9.6 billion of goods. Some blocked ships are carrying oil, others are carrying items from electronics to clothes. Should the blockade in the Canal last for two weeks, nearly one-fourth of the container ships that would normally be in European ports will be blocked. Normally, approximately 12% of global trade passes through the Suez Canal. Every day, the canal is able to move about 106 large shipping containers between Asia and Europe. To put this in perspective, before it was released, it is estimated that the Ever Given was holding up about $400 million an hour.
The world has recently been relying on markets that reduce the need for stockpiling items and instead provide products “just in time.” The internet and the current system of global shipping allow companies and consumers to buy and receive products right when they need them, instead of stockpiling. The COVID-19 pandemic provided a fantastic example of how “just in time” manufacturing has major flaws. From toilet paper to essential medical protective gear, certain products were in very high demand around the world. There was the assumption that these products could be delivered quickly and dependently to those who needed them at the start of the pandemic. However, this calculation was severely flawed and the high demand from all corners of the world for the same products caused months of delays in manufacturing leading to deadly consequences.
The Suez Canal runs through Egypt, connecting the Mediterranean Sea to the Indian Ocean. The canal was initially owned by French investors when it was conceived in the mid-1800s. The construction of the canal began in 1859 and took 10 years and 1.5 million workers. These workers were drafted from Egyptian peasants, approximately 20,000 peasants every 10 months, for extremely difficult work that was very poorly compensated. Many of these workers died of various diseases, including cholera, during their time working on the canal. Throughout the World Wars, Britain controlled the canal. However in 1956, British powers withdrew after many years of negotiating with Egypt. At that point, the Egyptian government led by President Gamal Abdel Nasser had control of the canal. The Suez Crisis began in 1956. Nasser had decided to nationalize the canal once the British forces departed. Israeli, British, and French forces decided to stage a military intervention after deciding the Egyptian response to the canal could be seen as a security threat. The crisis ended in 1957 due to the first-ever United Nations’ peacekeeping force.
The Suez Canal blockage created by the Ever Given has brought to light how much the world relies on cargo ships. 90% of the global trade is carried out within maritime supply chains. As the COVID-19 pandemic has continued, thousands of workers on ships have been stranded due to COVID-19 restrictions, unable to return to home countries and unable to be relieved. This has become a humanitarian crisis. Seafarers are the ones providing the world with food, essential supplies, and any other items purchased by consumers. However, they have been unable to leave their ships and go home to their families.
Crews on the ships are supposed to rotate on and off the vessels every 11 months. However due to the pandemic, many seafarers have long surpassed this 11 month marker and still have no notice as to when they can return home. Even before the pandemic, seafaring is a difficult job. The shifts are long, sleeping quarters are tight, and there is very little contact with those off of the ship. At the beginning of the pandemic, the situation was even described as bordering on forced labor. A major problem is the growing levels of fatigue experienced by the crew on ships. The number of reported suicides within this population has doubled, with this statistic not including the cases that were deemed accidents or missing at sea.
While the blockage of the Suez Canal by the massive ship, the Ever Given, has prompted memes and jokes around the world, it has brought more attention to the world’s reliance on shipping industries and to the lack of welfare experienced by seafarers. The Ever Given rendered the Suez Canal virtually useless for many days and the ramifications of this will fall primarily on the backs of shipping industry workers. It is important to recognize how COVID-19 has impacted the global economy as well as seafarers and to work towards achieving fair rights for these workers.
In light of the COVID-19 pandemic which originated in China, xenophobic attitudes towards Asian Americans have spiked and resulted in a communal fear among Asian Americans. The STOP AAPI (Asian American and Pacific Islander) Hate reporting center formed in San Francisco on March 19, 2020, in hopes of keeping a record for hate crimes towards Asian Americans. Since last spring, Stop AAPI Hate has reported more than 2,800 incidents, ranging from “verbal abuse and workplace discrimination to storefront vandalism and physical violence,” several of which have been fueled by xenophobic sentiment. The sentiment seeks to scapegoat Asian Americans for coronavirus, and the sentiment has only propelled further by former President Donald Trump’s use of racist terms to describe the virus.
Some examples of this anti-Asian sentiment include violence towards elderly members of the AAPI community. In San Francisco, 84-year old Vicha Ratanapakdee died after getting shoved to the ground. A 91-year old in Oakland, CA, was brutally pushed from behind. In San Jose, a 64-year old woman was robbed in the middle of the afternoon. These attacks have had devastating impacts, as Cynthia Choi, a co-founder of Stop AAPI Hate, said in a press call. She elaborated that the AAPI community is “fearful of being in public alone, simply going for a walk and living our daily lives.” Activists have been trying to draw attention to these instances of violence and are putting forth their best effort in pressuring local governments to provide more financial support for victims. The activists also have emphasized the necessity for communities of color to stand in solidarity and focus on cross-racial education and healing in order to “raise awareness about the discrimination that different groups experience.”
Another horrific incidentoccurred in Atlanta, Georgia, on March 16, 2021 which resulted in the deaths of six Asian women and two others who were shot in their workspace by Robert Aaron Long. Long claims he was not racially motivated, but he did target Asian-owned spas. The shooting has not only shaken up the Georgia Asian community but the entire nation, and the event has received immense backlash from all communities. It is unfortunate that a shooting is bringing attention to this ongoing issue.
Asian American lawmakers are also taking a stance to respond to the anti-Asian racism. They want Congress to pass the No Hate Act, which boosts local government funding for tracking hate incidents, along with a meeting with the U.S. Department of Justice and a hearing about recent attacks. These efforts are led by the Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus, chaired by Rep. Judy Chu (D-CA), and has gained support from House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and lawmakers in the Congressional Black and Hispanic Caucuses. Previously passed in the House of Representatives as part of the Heroes Act, the No Hate Act aims to establish regional hotlines for people to report hate crimes, provide resources for local governments to investigate the reported crimes, and focus on the rehabilitation of offenders through community service. The lawmakers in favor of this act claim that AAPI hatred and bigotry is not a new concept in America, quoting the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 which framed the Asian American population as “forever foreigners” in the United States. Having such a xenophobic attitude dating from so long ago is something that must be dug deeper into for it to be eradicated from the American mindset.
The severe disrespect and violence that members of the AAPI community are enduring for a pandemic that has affected the entire global population is unfair and inappropriate. In any community, the elderly are valued as wise people who have enlightening advice to pass onto their successors. The act of even pushing someone who is a senior citizen is a very lowly act that should not go unobserved or unchallenged, especially by the federal government. And the shooting of 8 people, 6 of which are Asian, is not as coincidental as Robert Aaron Long may claim. Xenophobia is a very damaging concept that is unfortunately part of American history, but that does not mean it should be repeated, especially in a time of dire need for unity against a global pandemic.
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