Inclusivity in Education: Cooperative Learning with Special Education

Students sitting in a classroom.
“classroom.” Source: Lead Beyond. Creative Commons.

In 1954, the United States Supreme Court overruled the “separate but equal” clause of Plessy v. Ferguson with the case of Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, declaring that “separate” educational facilities are inherently unequal. While Brown v. Board was aimed at addressing racial segregation, it is worth noting the implications of this view of separate educations because students with learning disabilities are often educated separately from their peers.  Our current education system divides students into different categories and programs based on their perceived levels of academic ability under the assumption that this is the best way to help students reach their fullest potential.  This is problematic and leads to students’ missing the benefits of an inclusive classroom.  Though it would not be a simple task, students who have learning disabilities should be educated alongside students who do not, using cooperative classwork, where students work together to complete an assignment or task, whenever possible.

The Americans with Disabilities Act defines a person with a disability as “a person who has a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activity.” For this blog, I will be focusing on learning disabilities, particularly those that do not completely inhibit functions that are vital in a traditional classroom, such as communication. However, I do recognize that the line that I am drawing between which disabilities/experiences of disabilities my proposal would apply to and those it would not is not completely clear, as no two people with the same disability have the same experience. The degree to which a person is able to participate in inclusive and cooperative learning would have to be determined on a case by case basis.

Article 26 of the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) states that everyone has a right to an education.  Article 24 of the UN’s Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD) states that all people with disabilities have the right to “an inclusive education system at all levels and lifelong learning.”  The use of cooperative classwork among students with and without disabilities would hopefully help more effectively access these rights for both parties.  Additionally, by helping the members of each group become more accustomed to interacting and being part of a common social group, this can also help individuals with the types of disabilities that are focused on in this blog to access their right to employment (which is given in article 23 of the UDHR and article 27 of the CRPD) and their right to participation/inclusion in their communities (article 27 of the UDHR and article 19 of the CRPD).

Our Current System

When discussing whether students who have disabilities should be educated separately from students who do not, it is helpful if we begin by considering why we use the system we currently have.  A literature review titled “Implicit Assumptions in Special Education Policy: Promoting Full Inclusion for Students with Learning Disabilities” was published by Moira Kirby in the Child Youth Care Forum in 2016.  In the review, Kirby aimed to find special education trends relating to “inclusive practices, Response to Intervention (RTI), and student achievement.”  She argues that the educational system currently used in the United States, while meant to increase access to education, perpetuates certain students’ isolation from others, as it is based on problematic assumptions about disabilities.  The first assumption is that disabilities are deviant conditions that should be “eradicated.”  The second is that “all special services should be delivered in a separate environment.”  These assumptions inform the implicit biases about degrees of educational ability.  Kirby also argues that these assumptions must be changed in order to “promote access and equality for students with learning disabilities.”   In her article, she states, “The question is not, how can we fix a disability, but how can we make our classroom environments a place where all students can learn, regardless of their need.”

The educational system that is currently in place in the US involves separating students with learning disabilities, “low-performing” students, students who meet “average” expectations, and “high-performing” students.  This system is well-intentioned, theoretically giving each group of students the unique resources they need to reach the height of their personal capabilities.  In practice, however, this system is quite flawed.  It is a system based on expectations (typically informed by assumptions and implicit bias), which become harmful to many students, especially those with learning disabilities, due to stereotype threat.  Stereotype threat is “the risk of confirming negative stereotypes about an individual’s racial, ethnic, gender, or cultural group” and the effect that that risk can have on the individual’s performance.  Many people assume that students with disabilities will do poorly in school, and when students with disabilities know this, they often adopt those same expectations for themselves.  If academic success seems unlikely or even impossible, this can become a barrier to the motivation and access to resources that can lead to it.  Stereotype threat also leads students with learning disabilities to underestimate the quality of their academic performance overall, even at times when they are doing well.  They can start to assume that they simply cannot do well in school.

This sort of negative self-evaluation can also be damaging to a person’s mental health and well-being.  If one consistently sees themselves as not good enough, smart enough, or strong enough to do things well, it can be easy for them to fall into depression, anxiety, or another struggle with mental health.

Another problem that comes with stereotype threat is that it takes up precious cognitive resources.  Students spend part of their cognitive resources thinking about the expectations they are held to, distracting them from the work they are trying to do, and preventing them from using all of their resources to their advantage, which contributes to a decreased ability to perform well.

In her research, Kirby found that teachers who had been asked about inclusion in the classroom tended to attribute the success of attempts at inclusion to the students’ physiological traits rather than the value of inclusive practices.  She points to this belief as one that could potentially lead a teacher to believe that students with disabilities could be taught only separately from others.  They were also often found to lack confidence in their abilities to teach students with disabilities.  Parents also either had negative or neutral views on the impact of inclusive education.

In 2015, “68.2% of students with learning disabilities spend 80% or more of their day in the general education classroom, while 24.1% spend 40-70% of their day in the general education classroom.”  This in no way aligns with the idea that students with learning disabilities need to be educated separately from other students, and it highlights a point of concern.  If many general education teachers do not feel like they are able to teach students with disabilities, and most students with disabilities spend a large part of their day in general education classrooms, what implications do these things have regarding those students’ education?  Ideally, students would be educated by someone who felt they were qualified to teach them rather than someone who is uncertain about it.  If students with different educational needs were consistently taught in the same classroom, teachers would all need to go through the training necessary to teach students with special educational needs, allowing them to better support their students.

Students listening to teachers in a classroom.
“Classroom.” Source: PAL LTER, Creative Commons.
An Inclusive Educational Environment Can Be Beneficial For All Students

The negative impact that a segregated educational system can have on students with disabilities is not the only reason to move towards a more inclusive system.  Evidence that suggests that inclusive classrooms can lead to positive outcomes for all of the students involved.

In their article “The challenges of implementing group work in primary school classrooms and including pupils with special educational needs,” Ed Baines, Peter Blatchford, and Rob Webster review the results of two research projects: the SPRing (Social Pedagogic Research into Group-work) project and the MAST (Making a Statement) project.  Realizing that most studies regarding collaborative work in education that had previously been performed had been on a small-scale and short-term basis, the authors reviewed the results of these two projects to come to a better, more reliable understanding of the challenges of inclusive group-work in primary schools.

The SPRing project was a five-year-long project that aimed to “develop and implement with teachers a programme of principles and activities that incorporated group work  into curriculum and everyday school activities” and “to evaluate this programme relative to a control group in terms of academic progress, behavioral interaction and dialogue, and attitudes and motivation towards learning.”  The developed program included a handbook and six training sessions where teachers could develop the skills that they need to incorporate group work into their lessons.  The four main areas covered by the program included “preparing the classroom and group context for group work,” “preparing lessons and group-work activities,” “preparing adults to support pupils and groups,” and “preparing pupils for group work.”

The results of the SPRing project show that, relative to the control group, the students that participated in the program made more progress in general science tests, “were more actively engaged in task interactions,” had more sustained interactions, and “engaged in more high-level reasoning talk.”

The MAST project “involved systematic observation and case studies” of students with known special educational needs that were being taught in general education classrooms. This project’s results provided Baines and his co-authors with information about the interactions between students with special educational needs and adults/peers.  The project found that students with special educational needs “were half as likely to work with or alongside peers” as other students.  It was also found they were often isolated from the other students.  Some of the reasons for this isolation included a student with special educational needs choosing to sit away from the others, and other students being afraid of or nervous about working with them.  One factor that may contribute to each of these reasons could be that the students with special educational needs that were a part of the study may have had poor social and communicational skills.  While difficulties with communication are an aspect of many learning disabilities, inclusive group work may give these students an opportunity and a safe environment in which they can develop these skills (though a student should never be pushed to do group work if it causes them an amount of stress that is genuinely detrimental to their well-being).

This isolation of students with special educational needs may also result from traditional students and school faculty viewing people with disabilities as “the other” as being outside of normal.  This would help to explain why traditional students may be hesitant to associate with students who have disabilities.  It could also explain why students with special educational needs isolate themselves from other students, as they may have internalized their peers’ view of them.  They may feel like they are on the outside looking in, unable to be a part of the rest of the group.

In her literature review, Moira Kirby also addresses some of the benefits of inclusive educational settings, as suggested in different case studies.  In one study, elementary school students scored higher in reading and writing when taught in a general education classroom rather than a separate special education classroom.  Another study found that eighth-graders with learning disabilities had “significantly higher scores in math academic achievement tasks and self-concept” when taught in an inclusive classroom. Students from another study scored higher in math, science, social studies, and language arts.

Students without learning disabilities may also benefit from inclusive educational environments.  Students who perform well could potentially benefit from working with students with disabilities and helping them understand the topics they are learning about and the group work they might do.  Re-wording and explaining a concept to another person can

help cement one’s understanding of it.  Additionally, if all teachers have to teach classes with children with different educational needs, they would have to be prepared to work with students with disabilities, which would improve the support that those students receive and broaden teachers’ perspectives.  This could allow teachers to develop skills that would be beneficial in teaching all students, with or without disabilities.

 Concerns and Challenges

Though there are many advantages to adopting a more inclusive educational system, there are still concerns and challenges that also come with it.  One concern is that students with learning disabilities may face social rejection from their peers.   For their article “The Social and Emotional Situation of First Graders with Classroom Behavior Problems and Classroom Learning Difficulties in Inclusive Classes,” Johanna Krull, Jürgen Wilbert, and Thomas Hennemann surveyed 2,839 first graders and found that students with “classroom learning difficulties” (CLD) and “classroom behavioral problems” (CBP) were at a greater risk for social rejection than their peers.  However, the authors found several outliers in their data, where students with CLD or CBP had higher rates of social acceptance, and they interpret this to mean that, under the right circumstances, an inclusive education system is possible.  In their article, Baines and his co-authors suggest that social rejection in this context can decrease over time when students are involved in inclusive group-work (if the students remain in the same groups throughout that time). Group work allows students with disabilities who struggle with social skills to develop those skills. It will enable other students to better understand people’s experiences who are different from them, which may lead them to be more willing (and happier) to be inclusive and build friendships with other students.  If a student has no/little prior experience with students with learning disabilities, it would not be surprising to find that they are nervous or uncomfortable interacting with them.

When discussing the possibility of an integrated classroom, people are also concerned with the impact of having children with severe behavioral issues in general education classrooms, as they may become distracting or disruptive to the point of preventing any productivity in the class. This may be a factor that needs to be considered on a case-by-case basis. Some children that are deemed as being too disruptive have the potential to become less disruptive with exposure to a traditional classroom setting.  There are likely situations where students truly are too disruptive to allow for a productive classroom, but that is certainly not always the case.  It is important that, if a student is found to behave in a distracting way, that they are not immediately moved into another classroom after a single incident (although consideration should be given to the severity and the nature of the interruption). They should be given the opportunity to try and adjust to the traditional classroom environment before they are placed in a different one.

Another concern is that educating students at such a range of degrees of ability in the same classroom might prevent both students with learning disabilities and students that are currently in advanced programs from reaching their fullest academic potential. This concern is largely connected to the assumption that being in the classroom means that students would all be learning from the exact same curriculum, but that is not necessarily true.

In her article, Kirby suggests that a completely inclusive classroom might not involve basing lesson plans on the categories that students have been assigned to.  Instead, each student would have an Individualized Education Plan (IEP). In our current public education system, children in special education programs must have an IEP, a “map that lays out the program of special education instruction, supports, and services kids need to make progress and thrive in school.” Each child has an IEP team, including their parents, at least one general education teacher (unless the child does not work with any), at least one special education teacher, a school district representative, a school psychologist/specialist, and the child.  After the IEP is developed, the team regularly meets to discuss progress and possible changes for the plan.  If every student, whether they have general or special educational needs, has an IEP, then (in theory), each student could have their personal needs recognized and met in the classroom.  Kirby also suggests that making IEPs standard for all students could reduce the impact that the stigmatization of learning disabilities has on students, as school faculty would be less reliant on separating students into different/broad categories to teach them.

Of course, creating an IEP for every student in the public school system is much easier said than done and is a much more attractive idea in theory than in practice.  It would require a significant shift in the allocation of resources in education, which may not be practical with the financial resources we currently have access to.  It would also be asking many teachers, as they would no longer be able to teach with a singular lesson plan. It is unrealistic to expect teachers to carry this burden themselves, as they are already spread too thin, given more responsibilities than they can reasonably handle.  Having IEPs for every student would likely require a serious increase in the number of teachers at each school or at least an increased/reinforced support system for school faculty. Perhaps a more feasible solution could be developing IEPs for students with a clear need for increased educational support that involves their being more present in the traditional classroom than in a separate one.  While this is still likely to feed into the stigmatization and othering of students with disabilities, there do not seem to be any strong alternatives that are both practical and successful in avoiding stigmatization altogether.

Conclusion

In short, we should aim to educate students with and without learning disabilities together whenever possible, even though it will take a lot of time and effort to do so.  We currently separate students based on expectations of their academic abilities, and these expectations are informed by and reaffirm problematic assumptions about people with learning disabilities.  This can be harmful to people with learning disabilities and prevent students with all degrees of educational needs from accessing the benefits that can come from an inclusive classroom.  However, it is important  that we recognize and genuinely consider the concerns and challenges that arise when we look to put inclusive education ideals into practice.  It is also important to recognize that the conclusions that can be drawn based on the resources used to support this argument are limited, as many gather data from anecdotal situations and small samples sizes.  These factors prevent the results of sources from being reliably representative of experiences with inclusion and students with learning disabilities on a larger scale.  The application of my argument is also limited, as I have focused on students with learning disabilities that do not completely prevent them from effectively learning or functioning in a general education classroom.  While an integrated school system is generally optimal, there are some students for which that kind of system genuinely would not work.  We cannot treat all students with disabilities as if their experiences are the same by assuming that all would do poorly in an inclusive classroom or that all would be unquestionably better off in an inclusive classroom.  Overall, even though it will not be easy, even if we can never achieve a perfectly integrated educational system, it is an important goal which we should work towards for the benefit of all students and their educational rights.

Community and Conservation in Maasai Mara

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thoughts on Homelessness in Birmingham

Image of shelter made of cardboard boxes.
David Hilgart. Home. Creative Commons for Flickr.

During the winter break, I spent a lot of time in Birmingham, staying with my sister and with friends, far away from my farm and home in Columbiana. Our farm is more like an animal rescue or sanctuary that does not generate much income but enough to accommodate. Besides hundreds of animals being surrendered or abandoned, we have even had strays walk up our driveway. Our goat, Fred, was the first I remember as we were in disbelief that a goat was just walking the streets and checking out the very sparse neighborhood, curiously coming up to us with some twine wrapped around his neck. For Fred and everyone to follow, my parents and family members have never refused taking in, rehabilitating, or rehoming an animal in need, so maybe that’s why it was so much more obvious of how much worse the picture I have seen in Birmingham is, or what this article is about. In Birmingham, it is people living in the streets witnessed by a city full of people. Walking through five points and down 20th, there is so much evidence and example of homelessness.  Passerby witness but rarely realize that they are seeing many at their most vulnerable or the harsh, daily routine.

Image of street and tunnel wall lined with bags and boxes and evidence of someone's home
Chris Yarzab. Creative Commons for Flickr.

Responsibility of the State

People experiencing homelessness face violations of many human rights, such as inaccessibility to safe and secure housing, an inadequate standard of living, education, liberty and security of the person, privacy, social security, freedom from discrimination, voting, and more which are interconnected.  These human rights are protected by several international human rights treaties. The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR), and the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC), which bind the state to legal and moral obligations in realizing and protecting the rights of all people. Also, the right to housing recognized by international human rights law doesn’t just mean a right to shelter. It must be adequate and accessible. Battling and overcoming homelessness is not a task of charity as much as an act of justice. Our Public policy and structures should facilitate or lead to a dignified life in the United States. As one of the wealthiest nations in the world, we should figure out how to shelter or house those who are homeless.

No one is asking what happened to all the homeless. No one cares, because it’s easier to get on the subway and not be accosted.- Richard Linklater

More recently, I saw many cops parked in the middle of five points as they held up traffic to address some of the people I have seen more statically living there, which brought up the thought of criminalization of homelessness and left me wondering if those cops offer rides to shelters before the ride to a cell.

A look at more vulnerable populations

The most visible type of homelessness is what we see when we walk through Birmingham: people living on the streets or sleeping in the parks or street tunnels. However, more move between shelters and temporary homing maybe with their friends or relatives and more long-term shelter where their experience may not be included in the conversation of homeless persons.

Within 2018 records reported by Continuums of Care to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, there were almost 3,500 people homeless on a given night (280 were family households, 339 were Veterans, 158 were unaccompanied young adults (aged 18-24), and 540 were individuals experiencing chronic homelessness). Over 900 of those were concentrated in the Birmingham area. Over the year, there were 14,112 students who faced homelessness in Alabama.

A large portion of the homeless population is affected by mental illness. People with mental illness or other disabilities may face social isolation and may face chronic homelessness. Such individuals may require special types of accommodation or support that may be an obstacle to rehabilitation.  Health issues may cause a person’s homelessness as well as they may be intensified by the experience where poverty and lack of access to care contribute to disparities in health. Another thing to think about is when someone handicapped by a disability loses their parents or caretaker, who will take care of them or will they find tools to live? They could become homeless.

Through the lingering effects of systematic denial of equal rights and opportunities, African American are particularly overrepresented in this system facing a higher risk of poverty, housing discrimination, and incarceration than White Americans

Indigenous people face greater social and economic disadvantage such as lower levels of education or higher levels of unemployment which contribute to higher levels of homelessness in their communities

Women may make up a big portion of those forced to leave their homes fleeing domestic violence or sexual assault. Homeless women may become more isolated for fear of violence, rape, or other abuse. Further, a woman may be separated from her children if she is unable to care for them which challenges her parental rights.

Children and young people are disproportionately affected by homelessness. I have known many classmates and friends who have been homeless as they pursue their education at UAB. Also, Covenant House proclaims that every year, more than 2 million kids in America will face a period of homelessness (The link provides more enlightening and harder-to-swallow statistics). Youth like those emancipated from the foster care system may not have another option. In addition to general human rights laws, children are protected under special rights, like those afforded in the Covenant on the Rights of a Child which describes a higher standard of living and right to protection against neglect, cruelty, exploitation, etc.

Untreated depression and mental illness, self-medication and addiction, childhood trauma and chronic PTSD, abuse and any circumstance that may lead one to homelessness may also create a loop to imprison them. For example, where abstinence is a prerequisite or requirement for homelessness assistance programs, one may not receive help unless they quit, but one cannot quit without relief.

Image of person sitting on roadside
Pedro Ribeiro Simões. Creative Commons for Flickr.

A veteran should not have to stand on the asphalt with a cardboard sign begging for a living in a nation they helped secure and people should not be in the position to be turned down asking for food that was about to be thrown out. In fact, everyone has made contributions and continues to contribute to their society. Homelessness includes people who have paid or pay taxes and those who are paid less than a living wage. It includes people of all labels fleeing abusive conditions or facing escalating housing and living costs. It includes parents and it includes their children who have not had a chance. It also includes all students who are trying to pursue an education to hopefully get a job that will afford them housing. Besides all these achievements, many, including those facing chronic homelessness have endured full lives and have witnessed different forms of trauma. Still, they have survived the circumstances of homelessness, maintaining their humanity and resilience and- intentionally or unintentionally- being that example for others.

Also, keep in mind that going from place to place and not knowing what to do or where you will end up could understandably create a lot of pain and anger. Desperation or frustration may be harder to deal with. Being homeless could even make you apprehensive of ownership or pursuing certain routes that could be encouraged. However, everyone should be afforded options and certain securities.

10 Strategies to End Chronic Homelessness posted by the United States Interagency Council on Homelessness:

https://www.usich.gov/tools-for-action/10-strategies-to-end-chronic-homelessness

More immediate examples for anyone to help everyday

If it’s raining or about to, offer the warmth and privacy of an umbrella.

Offer to pay for an uber ride to a nearby shelter as some cannot walk to or have no means of transportation to one.

If you are not comfortable lending cash, you may offer supplies. You could keep these care bags of everyday products, essentials (maybe small shower things you could find in the travel section, gloves, hats, etc), or resources to offer or pass out at crowded shelters.

Invite others to the restaurant you are on your way to and share a meal if they are up for it. The conversation may also allow you to understand, accept, or appreciate their life and vice-versa. Once, a man I invited to eat with me on campus (in an environment where I felt safe enough to) proclaimed his version of Islamophobia (as that was the summation of a popular sentiment in America, especially during those Trump Campaign days) as he explicitly said he didn’t like Muslims when I revealed that of my identity. But it turns out, I was the first Muslim he had personally interacted with and realized he liked before the word “Muslim” exited my mouth. That could happen with anyone of course and homeless (or only hungry in this case) people are not to be “enlightened” and should not be expected to praise our deed, but the conversation and gesture can open this opportunity

Additional Resources:

Federal Links Relevant to homelessness:

https://www.hhs.gov/programs/social-services/homelessness/resources/federal-links/index.html

 

Diamonds: A Symbol of Love and Conflict

Two young diamond miners.
Blood Diamonds. Source: Brian Harrington Spier, Creative Commons.

While I do not soon foresee a diamond in my future, I have been able to witness the happiness a diamond ring brings to the lives of other people. A diamond ring represents love and commitment, and nothing can be purer than that. Imagine my surprise when I learned in my economics class that a significant number of diamonds, called blood or conflict diamonds, can be linked to horrific suffering and bloodshed. A good number of these conflict diamonds can be traced back to one company: De Beers.

De Beers diamond company was founded in the 1800s by Cecil Rhodes in South Africa. Before 2000, the goal of De Beers was to effectively and efficiently buy as much of the world’s supply of diamonds as possible so as to be able to determine the price and guarantee price stability. This tactic earned the company the nickname “the custodian” of the diamond industry. In 2000, De Beers controlled around 65 percent of all diamond production, while in 2001 De Beers marketed two-thirds of all the rough diamonds in the world and produced nearly half of the world’s supply of diamonds from their mine. The company employed strategic marketing tactics to maintain their power and growth worldwide, effectively influencing the perception of diamonds to what it is today. For example, the phrase, “A Diamond is Forever,” was coined in a De Beers ad campaign. De Beers influenced the choice of a diamond as the centerpiece for an engagement ring and even the price of the ring to be two months’ salary. The Washington Post described De Beers as “a global cartel controlling mining, distribution, and pricing.”

For a company that produces a product to signify love, such as an engagement ring, De Beers has left a significant amount of bloodshed and controversy in its wake. The company has been banned from operating or selling inside the United States borders since 1996 over a price-fixing case. In the 1990s, De Beers bought billions of dollars’ worth of diamonds from conflict ridden areas in Africa, which in turn provided the means for rebel groups to obtain weapons and supplies on the black market. In the mid to late 1900s, De Beers benefited from the South African apartheid because the system of black repression ensured cheap labor for the mines, protecting the company from being hurt by the diamond boycotts sweeping the world at that time. The company became scorned as more and more information regarding conflict diamonds and De Beers’ blatant disregard for the harm conflict diamonds can cause became public.

Two diamond rings
Rings. Source: ilovebutter, Creative Commons.

The definition of conflict diamonds, as written by the United Nations, is as follows: “diamonds that originate from areas controlled by forces or factions opposed to legitimate and internationally recognized governments, and are used to fund military action in opposition to those governments, or in contravention of the decisions of the Security Council.” Armed groups use the revenue from exploiting diamond mines and diamond workers to fund their personal agendas. Despite the diamond business being an $81.4 billion a year industry, the towns that house the diamond mines do not reflect the wealth that lies below. Many parents choose to send their children to work in the diamond mines in order to earn a meager salary, determined on a diamond-by-diamond basis, instead of sending the children to school. The difficulty that evolves from attempting to eliminate conflict diamonds is that the diamonds traded by rebel groups are physically indistinguishable from the diamonds traded by legitimate groups. Because of the long process a diamond goes through before it reaches the jeweler, it is very difficult to determine the original source of the diamond.

In 2000, De Beers put out a statement guaranteeing that their diamonds did not originate from conflict zones in Africa and promised that their purchasing of diamonds did not fuel any conflicts in Angola and Congo. The statement was met with mixed reviews, some welcoming the initiative the company was taking, and some believing that De Beers would be unable to control the smuggling system that crisscrosses across the continent of Africa. Since the initial statement in 2000, De Beers’ statements have been very contradictory, stating at one point that it would be easy to find the origin of the diamonds and yet continually releasing statements saying that it is impossible to distinguish the origin of the diamonds that they buy. Since 2000, some independent diamond dealers have not only claimed to sell diamond bunches that they bought from rebel groups to De Beers, but also that De Beers was aware of the origin of the diamonds. Currently on their website, De Beers boasts that 100% of their diamonds are conflict free. However, the company only cites the Kimberley Process, a process they helped to create, in regards to this certification.

De Beers’ promises have rested on determining the origin of the diamonds. It has already been stated but is worth reiterating that determining the origin of diamonds has been much disputed as diamonds are handled in groups, making the process of discovering the origin of a diamond very difficult. In 2003, a process named the Kimberley Process was established by the main actors in the diamond industry, including De Beers. The Kimberley Process is so named for the town where De Beers diamond company was founded, highlighting the influence the company had in the establishment of the process. It is an international certification process with the goal of distinguishing conflict-free diamonds from those diamonds associated with a conflict. The Process was created from a meeting in 2000 in Kimberley, South Africa, where the biggest diamond producers and buyers in the world met to address the growing threat of a consumer boycott. Consumers were becoming more aware of the influence the sale of diamonds had in funding to civil wars in Angola and Sierra Leone and were threatening to forgo buying diamonds all together. In 2003, 52 governments and international advocacy groups ratified the Process, creating a system of certifications issued by the country of origin that must accompany any shipment of diamonds. If a country was unable to prove that their diamonds were separate from any conflict, said country could be cast out of the international diamond trade. The Process did marginally reduce the number of conflict diamonds in the market, but the process is ridden with loopholes. It is unable to stop the international sale of the majority of diamonds mined in conflict ridden zones and diamond mining even outside of a conflict zone is terrible work with many of the miners being school-aged minors.

Diamond mine in Australia
World’s Largest Diamond Mine. Source: Soundog, Creative Commons.

Many argue that the Kimberley Process is not only laced with loopholes, but it also does not go far enough. For example, the Process does not disqualify diamonds mined in an area with human rights abuses. Also, the definition of conflict used in the creation of the Process is so narrow that it excludes many situations that would generally be considered a conflict. The definition used is, “gemstones sold to fund a rebel movement attempting to overthrow the state.” An instance where the definition stated in the Kimberley Process failed occurred in 2008. The army of the government of Zimbabwe seized a diamond mine within Zimbabwe’s borders and proceeded to kill and rape hundreds of miners. Because the army represented a legitimate government, this instance is not considered to be against the Kimberley Process. The Kimberley Process did implement a ban on the Central African Republic when it was discovered that the mining of diamonds helped to fund a genocide of thousands since 2013. However, the UN estimates that $24 million worth of diamonds have been smuggled out of the country since the ban.

While a true fair-trade system would ban diamonds mined in a conflict ridden area and allow consumers to purchase diamonds that could improve the life of artisan workers, ultimately there is no way of truly knowing whether the diamond you buy is in somehow linked to a conflict. The Human Rights Watch has come up with a list of strategies that may help diamond companies fulfill their obligation of “identifying, preventing, mitigating, and accounting for their own impact on human rights throughout their supply chain.” Such strategies include: 1. Establishing a policy regarding the supply chain that is included in the contracts with suppliers 2. Creating a ‘chain of custody’ by requiring documentation for each step along the supply chain 3. Assessing thoroughly and respond promptly to human rights risks at all stages of the supply chain 4. Employing independent, third-party examiners 5. Becoming public with the names of suppliers 6. Sourcing responsibly and being wary of large-scale mining operations. The diamond industry has a long way to go but with established organizations calling out companies like De Beers, loopholes in certification processes can be closed and ultimately conflict diamonds may be eliminated.

What Will It Take to End Child Marriage in Your Country?

by Grace Ndanu

The silhouette of a young girl with her head hanging low in her lap
Source: Pixabay

Justice is coming! As I continue growing old I keep asking myself, why child marriage? Is it really necessary? And if not, what do I or we have to do about it? I understand that child marriage is a result of male dominance at large. I think it’s best if we bring men on board first. Working with men can be very effective in reducing child marriage if not ending it. It will help to change ideas and behaviors, especially dealing with patriarchal attitudes. Once men are on board, they can use their influence to pave the way for positive change.

Adults have groups where they get to share what they are going through. Children also need safe spaces in schools. This will help them build their confidence and trust amongst themselves and also with their teachers. I’m sure there are girls who wouldn’t have gone through early marriage if they had a chance to escape. But they didn’t. Simply they didn’t have anyone to tell regarding what their parents were planning for them. This is why they need that space, it’s the window to their success.

Corruption has deep roots in my country, Kenya. For example, I would like to know where funds meant for educating less fortunate girls go. Culture is not the only reason for early marriage, but also poverty. There are girls who sacrifice themselves to go get married in an effort to reduce a burden on their parents. It has come to my notice that the leaders or people responsible for the education funds tend to accuse these girls of bad behaviour, but they are trying their level best to do what is right. Can’t the funds holders use the funds to educate the girls instead of them using the funds for their own benefits?

Not all problems are solved through fighting. Why shouldn’t we mingle? As they explain why early marriage we have a chance to convince them how early marriage is harmful and the advantages of not doing it. At some point there will be some girls listening, them knowing the advantages of not being married off, they will always want to go for their success and thus they will always report whatever harmful plan is made for them.

I don’t know who is with me! I consider myself as the second doubting Thomas. If am not sure of what am told I will ask for a success story if not stories. The girls who escaped the scandal of early marriage should be advised to go back to their communities and villages. The parents will be so proud until they will shout for the whole community to hear and come and see. Other parents would want their daughters to come home successful and hence they may change their attitudes towards early marriage. On the other hand there will be role models for little girls and the whole society.

Juvenile Justice Reform Helps Kids Be Kids

by Pamela Zuber

A pair of young hands gripping a prison fence
Source: Pixabay

While people in many places in the United States and around the world are experiencing human rights violations, the news is not entirely bleak. There are also positive developments. One is in juvenile justice.

How has juvenile justice progressed?

On October 1, 2019, four U.S. states allowed people seventeen years old and under to be tried automatically as adults: Georgia, Michigan, Texas, and Wisconsin.

Members of Michigan’s state House of Representatives and state Senate took steps to change that statistic. They passed legislation in October 2019 that would:

  • Define adults as people eighteen years old and older.
  • Place seventeen-year-olds in family court, not adult criminal court.
  • Assign alternatives such as counseling and monitoring instead of incarceration or help accused youth avoid traditional court procedures entirely.
  • Give prosecutors the option to try people under the age of seventeen as adults if they are accused of violent crimes such as murder or rape if they have court approval.
  • Prevent seventeen-year-olds from being incarcerated in the same facilities as adults.
  • Not apply to seventeen-year-olds who have been previously sentenced as adults.

Legislators previously had trouble reaching agreement on the Michigan bill because of a dispute over funding for juveniles in the state’s justice system. The state of Michigan and the state’s counties currently share such funding responsibilities, but under the 2019 bill, the state would fund the first few years of the new program. The funding arrangement could help ease financial burdens for counties struggling to fund programs relating to health and wellness, law enforcement, and other services.

Known as a raise the age bill, Michigan governor Gretchen Whitmer signed this bill, Senate Bill 84, into law on October 31, 2019. The provisions in the bill will take effect in 2021.

What are the advantages of charging people as juveniles?

A young man skating along a road on a skateboard
Source: Pixabay

Charging people who are seventeen years old or younger as juveniles instead of adults may produce many benefits. On a short-term basis, it may be safer if accused young people are housed with other young people instead of adults. Young people treated as adults may be incarcerated with people accused of or convicted of violent crimes. The safety of juveniles could be at stake.

Designating people as juveniles also may produce more long-term benefits. For one, it could save money. A 2011 report published by the Vera Institute of Justice stated that raising the age of adult prosecution from sixteen to eighteen could provide millions of dollars in benefits for youth, victims, and taxpayers in the state of North Carolina. Such changes could initially cost money because they would require changes to the youth justice system, but in the long run, they could save money by not engaging the adult justice system.

Proponents of prosecuting children as adults have said that this prosecution could scare youths straight. They claim it could prevent young people from committing serious crimes because they are frightened of the consequences. But studies have shown that such harsh penalties do not deter young people from committing serious crimes.

Judicial system changes may help reconcile what we’re learning about the biology of young people. “Researchers focused on brain development have found that 18- to 24-year-olds—also referred to as young adults — stand out as a distinct developmental group with heightened impulsive behavior, risk taking, and poor decision making,” wrote scholars at the Council of State Governments (CSG) Justice Center in 2015.

Teens’ impulsiveness, judgment problems, and desire to experiment may thus make them liable to try alcohol and drugs and engage in other dangerous practices. They could be using such substances to rebel against their parents and other caretakers. After they use drugs or alcohol, the substances may alter their still-developing brains, creating life-altering consequences. Similarly, teens who engage in illegal behavior may face legal consequences. If they’re tried as adults, they may spend years behind bars or face other repercussions that could haunt them for their entire lives.

Who else advocates for juvenile justice reform?

Michigan legislators aren’t the only people and organizations advocating for changes to the justice system for juveniles. Organizations such as the Campaign for Youth Justice (CFYJ) are working to stop the prosecution of children under the age of eighteen as adults and end youths’ incarceration in adult facilities. The CFYJ says that this advocacy is necessary. It claims that 95,000 U.S. children are housed in adult prisons and jails every year and that several states and the District of Columbia allow children as young as seven years old to be prosecuted as adults.

Efforts from the Juvenile Law Center (JLC) are also trying to change the juvenile justice system. Like the Campaign for Youth Justice, it wants to end the prosecution of children as adults. The JLC is also working to end harsh conditions and solitary confinement at juvenile correctional facilities. It seeks to stop sentencing youth to serve their entire lives in prison without parole and end economic practices such as fines and fees that keep poor children confined more than more affluent ones. In addition, it also wants prisons and jails to provide educational opportunities for youth that can help them build better lives that prevent them from committing additional crimes and re-entering the correctional system.

On the websites for both organizations, there are sections that allow people to donate to their causes. Both sites also offer updates to keep people informed. The Campaign for Youth Justice (CFYJ) site also allows people to share their stories and give testimonials. It provides instructions on how people can contribute to the organization’s initiatives.

Prosecuting teenagers as youths allows people to face the consequences of their actions, but it doesn’t condemn them to serving lifetimes in prison for minor crimes that they committed when they were still growing physically and mentally. We all make mistakes, especially when we’re young. Sensible justice sentencing for juveniles acknowledges mistakes and gives people the time and opportunity to learn from them.

 

About the author: Pamela Zuber is a writer and editor interested in many topics, such as human rights, addiction and recovery, history, business, and science.

 

Family Fire: A Gun Safety Issue

A child holding a gun
Source: Yahoo Images, Creative Commons

Last week, a 2-year old boy accidentally shot himself in his home in southwest Birmingham. Fortunately, he survived the gunshot wound and is being treated at the Children’s of Alabama hospital. The police are not sure how he obtained the gun yet, but the investigation is ongoing. Last month, a case of a two-year old boy in Indiana was reported who lost his life after finding his mother’s unsecured gun in their home and accidentally shot himself. A few months ago, a 12-year boy in Mississippi accidentally shot and killed his sister of the same age while playing with a gun. There are numerous other cases like these when children get access to unsecured firearms and end up in such horrific circumstances. These accidental shootings are defined by the term “family fire.”

Family fire is a shooting that involves improperly stored or misused gun(s) found in the home, resulting in injury or death, including unintentional shooting, suicide, and other gun-related tragedies. Family fire is a constant threat for all members of the household where firearms are not properly stored. The Harvard Injury Control Research Center found that the prevalence of guns AND unsafe storage practices are associated with higher rates of unintentional firearm deaths. It was also found that youth killed in these gun accidents are shot by other youth in most cases, usually someone of their own age and typically a family member or friend.

Every day, family fire injures or kills eight children in America. According to a report from the New York Academy of Medicine, children under the age of 18 suffer the most from in-home gun-related incidents. For suicides and unintentional deaths, the gun used almost always comes from the child’s home, resulting directly from improperly stored firearms and the lack of proper precautions. Over 4.6 million children in the United States live with unlocked or loaded guns in their homes.

A large body of evidence has shown that the presence of guns in a child’s home substantially increases the risk of suicide and unintentional firearm death, though recent data suggests that not a lot of gun owners appreciate this risk. Parents and other adults who own guns tend to greatly underestimate the possibility of children being able to access those arms. It has been found that 75 percent of kids know where that gun is stored in their home. A report on “Parental Misperceptions About Children and Firearms” revealed another shocking fact that one in five kids had handled a gun in the absence of their parents. Not only that, children’s exposure to unsafely stored firearms can also have consequences beyond the home. It has been found that 75 percent of school shootings are facilitated by kids having access to unsecured and/or unsupervised guns at home.

Considering the seriousness of these statistics and the deadly consequences of unsafe access to guns, Brady launched a “End Family Fire” campaign. Through this initiative, they strive to promote the use of the term “family fire” in order to raise awareness of this nationwide crisis and drive social change by educating and encouraging gun owners about safe gun storage. Their belief is that family fire can be ended with joint community action and public awareness and that lives can be saved through promoting safe storage practices.

Ad Council, America’s leading producer of public service communications, partnered with EndFamilyFire.org to bring attention to this pressing issue and to encourage people to learn more about proper gun safety and responsible ownership.

Research data from the New York Academy of Medicine shows that:

“The risk of unintentional and self-inflicted firearm injury is lower in homes that store firearms unloaded (compared with loaded) and locked (compared with unlocked). In keeping with this evidence, guidelines intended to reduce firearm injury to children, first issued by the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) in 1992, assert that whereas the safest home for a child is one without firearms, risk can be reduced substantially, although not eliminated, by storing all household firearms locked, unloaded, and separate from ammunition.”

There is a lot of conversation around gun violence and gun rights in America. Much of this debate is focused on the 2nd Amendment of the US Constitution, which states that “A well-regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.” Yet, what we need to understand is that this is more than a conversation about gun rights, gun violence, and whether or not people should have the right to bear arms. I’m sure that we can all agree on the importance of preventing our kids from the risks and deadly consequences of having easy access to firearms. Those on all sides of the Second Amendment debate and gun owners and non-gun owners need to come together to promote safe practices and prevent unfortunate incidents like family fire from occurring.

The first and foremost step is to safely store the firearm(s). It has been found that keeping guns locked and unloaded reduces the risk of family fire by 73%. Additionally, storing ammunition separately from its gun reduces the risk of family fire up to 61%. Keep them out of the reach of others, especially children, who can use them to dangerous outcomes. The State of New Jersey has required sellers to provide trigger locks or locked gun cases with each gun purchase, among other laws this has contributed in a decline of unintentional gun death cases in the state. It is another way to promote safe gun storage and making sure that people have the necessary equipment to do so.

Another way is to encourage discussions around responsible gun ownership and safe storage practices within our social circle, family, friends, and colleagues. The most important thing to do is to have a conversation with your kids. Make sure that they understand their limits on accessing firearms, do not consider it a toy, and understand the severity of consequences that may arise as a result. Discussing gun safety and making it a part of the family’s safety conversation is important, especially for gun owners because they play a powerful role in educating others about safe storage practices. Additionally, we need to begin asking others about the presence of unsecured guns in the home for their own safety, before moving in with someone, and before sending your kids to anybody’s home.

Family fire is a pressing issue affecting many families everyday in the country. We as a society need to take up the responsibility of addressing this problem, encouraging the lawmakers and security agencies to take notice and action, and play our part by both promoting and practicing safe gun storage practices.

Cupcake and the State of Missing Children in the U.S.

Kamille Cupcake McKinney. Source: AMBER ALERT, Creative Commons.

It breaks my heart to write about the tragedy of the three-year-old little girl Kamille “Cupcake” McKinney, fondly known as Cupcake, who was abducted from a birthday party about two weeks ago here in Birmingham, Alabama. AMBER alerts were issued across Alabama and extended into neighboring states in an effort to locate her. The Birmingham police department had been updating the public on the efforts, but unfortunately a day after Mayor Randall Woodfin pleaded with the public to help find her, the remains of the little angel were found in a dumpster at a landfill in Birmingham. This is indeed a sad moment for not only the family of Cupcake and the city of Birmingham, but also for humanity as a whole. We as a society have failed the little angel, and she is indeed in a better place than this cruel world. My heart goes out to her family as this is an irreparable loss for them that cannot be made up with any amount of sympathy. We hope they are able to find solace and healing with time.

Mayor Woodfin held a vigil for “Cupcake” outside of Birmingham City Hall, where hundreds of people gathered to honor her. They expressed sorrow and solidarity for the innocent soul “whose disappearance gripped the Birmingham area for 10 days and whose death shook the city to its core.” Birmingham police department, City Council, community activists, faith-based leaders and the general public stood with heavy hearts and teary eyes to pay tribute to baby Kamille. This was one of the many vigils held in the city after the devastating news of her death, including the spot where she was last seen in Tom Brown village. Birmingham Police Chief Patrick Smith expressed his grief over the incident and how his department endlessly worked in hopes of bringing the child safely back home. He had some powerful words to say:

“I believe Kamille changed this city. A 3-year-old little girl has changed the landscape of the city of Birmingham. She made us stop and check ourselves. Check ourselves to see if we’re doing everything we can to keep our children safe from harm. Check ourselves to see if we’re truly the village that we promise to be. Check ourselves to see if we’re living up to the expectations of tomorrow and watching over our children today.”

This incident has called for a reflection of ourselves and of our community. It has made us question the safety of our own children because little Cupcake was one of us. We need to evaluate if we really are the village that we strive to be or are we too segmented and disconnected as a community and a society? It makes us question how safe our neighborhoods and cities are? Do we assume that someone will always be there to step in and stop it? Are there any truly safe spaces? The answers are to be found.

To this date, two persons of interest have been charged with kidnapping and murder in relation to Kamille’s disappearance. A similar case surfaced in South Carolina when the body of a 5-year-old girl Nevaeh Adams, who was missing since August, was also found dumped in a landfill within 24 hours of this tragedy.

Missing children is a bigger crisis in the U.S. than most people think, and unfortunately Cupcake was one of many. A child goes missing every 40 seconds here in the United States. Last year alone, more than 400,000 reports of missing children were made to law enforcement in the US, out of which almost 15,000 were kidnapped. The most commonly abducted group was of female children aged 12-17.

It is notable to consider the amount of coverage Cupcake was able to get and the reward amounts offered for her retrieval. Unfortunately, this kind of effort is not always the case for missing children, especially for those of color. A study by Ohio State University found that missing African American children are in fact underrepresented in news media making it difficult to spread the word about them and to retrieve them. This itself is a violation of the Article 7 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which states that all are equal before the law and are entitled without any discrimination to equal protection of the law. The Black and Missing Foundation, a non-profit striving to bring awareness to the missing persons of color, issued a report suggesting that one reason for the under-representation of missing minority people is the widespread belief that such people live in impoverished conditions with crime being a regular part of their lives. This mindset contributes to the factor of racial consideration in the coverage and efforts of finding missing persons.

Cases of people who go missing generally involve multiple abuses of human rights. For example, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights ensures the rights to life, liberty and security of person (Article 3) and that no one shall be subjected to torture or to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment (Article 5). In a lot of cases, the right to life is also violated as in that of Cupcake and Nevaeh Adams. Additionally, the families of victims may face violation of human rights as well, such as the right to a family life. In case of the absence of official investigations, the families and survivors of the victims face the violation of their right to due process, to recognition of a person before the law, and even to the prohibition of torture. It is important to consider it as a human rights issue and the various ways in which the fundamental rights of the missing persons and their families are abused.

It is the responsibility of the state to ensure a safe environment for all its citizens and the community members to play their part in keeping it safe. In case of such unfortunate circumstances, the community seems to be limited to the aftermath and post-incident action. The states are under a legal obligation to conduct effective investigations for all missing persons and to guarantee that all abuses be officially investigated irrespective of the fact that whether or not those abuses are considered attributable to actions by the victim. International Humanitarian Law also obligates the search of the missing and complements the universal guarantees provided by human rights.

There are various reasons that a child can go missing. When children are kidnapped by strangers, it is often due to pedophilic motives and for sexual exploitation. Some kidnappings are also motivated by monetary reasons such as human trafficking, sex-trafficking, forced child labor, illegal adoption, or for ransom. These are generally well-organized illegal networks run nationally and internationally and are always on the lookout for potential target-children. A few rare cases also involve serious mental conditions or revengeful motives used for kidnapping, abducting, and hurting children. Parental abductions and runaways also constitute a large number of missing children, but the focus of this article are the abductions by strangers.

Now the question arises: What can we do on our part to prevent such unfortunate circumstances and to keep our children safe from predators in addition to actions taken by the authorities?

According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, most of these incidents happen when children tend to wander off without realizing the danger. Parents and guardians need to take necessary precautions to help keep their children safe by being more vigilant of their surroundings and ensuring a check on children. Some kids can be more curious, mischievous, and vulnerable than others. Parents need to ensure trustable adult supervision at all times, especially in crowded public places. While choosing daycares, schools, or camps for children, make sure that there are ample security measures and policies in place for kids’ safety. Adults also need to be very careful while hiring babysitters and should get necessary background checks and recommendations before letting someone be alone with their child. Additionally, children need to be educated and trained for potential crisis situations and ways to seek help. Train them to be mindful of strangers, encourage them to share any unusual happenings, and teach them about the resources and necessary actions when encountering an unusual situation. For children with special needs, parents and guardians should take extra precautions and make necessary arrangements for the safety of their children, as they might be more vulnerable than others.

Lastly, all of us need to stay alert of our surroundings and take active responsibility for helping authorities in our communities when AMBER alerts are issued for such cases. We can look out for people, vehicles, victims, or criminals as specified in the issued alert. We can help spread the word by sharing the information with others and volunteer to distribute posters of missing children. For specific cases, community members can conduct organized searches to help the police forces look for missing children. We should stay aware of our surroundings, report suspicious activities and people, safely intervene and help in situations to the best of our abilities, and know the community resources for taking appropriate action.

A number of resources are available for parents facing such an unfortunate situation of a missing child. In such an emergency, contact your local FBI field office or call the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children on 1-800-THE-LOST. The AMBER Alert program has also been credited with the safe recovery of 957 children to date and is a great way to get the word out in order to mobilize communities for the lookout. Parents are also encouraged to keep child safety kits which include all the necessary information like IDs, recent photos, physical characteristics, fingerprints, and other information about the child. These should always be kept intact to be used in potential emergency situations to assist the authorities in taking appropriate and immediate action.

We as a society need to re-evaluate ourselves, our values, commitments, priorities, actions, and safety in the light of these staggering realities and horrific instances. Little baby Cupcake will not come back to her family, but a lot of other children can find their ways back home through the joint efforts of authorities and community members. We all have to work together to make our communities safer for our precious children, who are the future of this world.

Young Activists and the Burden of Change

Two girls smiling and holding up peace signs.
Children. Source: Shazron, Creative Commons

What would you do if you felt like the whole world was on your shoulders before you were even old enough to vote?  Many children have faced this exact question, some of which have been acknowledged for their extraordinary efforts to make the world a better place.  Malala Yousafzai.  Greta Thunberg.  Emma González and David Hogg.  These are only few from a long list of young activists who have made great sacrifices in hopes of creating a better future for themselves and future generations. 

For many, seeing children give up so much for something they are passionate about is greatly motivating.  Children’s willingness to put themselves at risk for the greater good often make adults feel like they should be doing more to make a difference or that they have been underestimating the problem the entire time. 

That being said, why should children have to make sacrifices in order to convince adults to change?  Should the burden of change ever be placed on a child’s shoulders? 

Why do they feel the need to get involved? 

When discussing this issue, it is important that we consider what is causing so many young people to feel the need to take on the serious responsibilities that come with activism.  It may speak to the severity of an issue when the members of society with the least responsibilities for the problems we face are the ones leading the charge for progress or, possibly, because they are the ones dealing the brunt of the impact of change. 

Greta Thunberg, a sixteen-year-old environmental activist, skips school on Fridays in order to protest outside Swedish parliament buildings, pressuring the government to pass legislation that would reduce carbon emissions in line with the Paris Agreement. These efforts interfere with her right to an education which is recognized in Article 26 of the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights and Article 28 of the Convention on the Rights of the Child).  When asked about her message for world leaders at the UN Climate Action Summit, said, “You are failing us.  But the young people are starting to understand your betrayal.  The eyes of all future generations are upon you.  And if you choose to fail us, I say: We will never forgive you.  We will not let you get away with this.  Right here, right now is where we draw the line.  The world is waking up. And change is coming, whether you like it or not. 

Personal Connections to the Issue 

For many child activists, their membership in a community that is particularly or uniquely impacted by an issue contributes to their involvement whether it is by participation or choice.  Consider the activists from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida.  Their activism began as a response to their experiences as survivors of a school shooting.  Many of the activists have attributed much of their drive for promoting gun-reform to their feeling that adults are not doing enough (or are even making the problem worse).  Cameron Kasky, an 11th grader at the school, said, “The adults know that we are cleaning up their mess.”  Emma González added onto this, stating, “It’s like they’re saying, ‘I’m sorry I made this mess,’ while continuing to spill soda on the floor.” 

In other cases, children carrying the burden of change are from marginalized groups who are disproportionately impacted by a given issue.  Malala Yousafzai grew up in Pakistan, where her father was a teacher who ran a school for girls.  In 2008, the Taliban overtook the town she lived in and put many harsh restrictions in place, one of which was declaring that girls could no longer attend school. Yousafzai spoke out against this and in support of girls’ right to an education (which is recognized as a right in Article 10 of the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women).  In 2012, at the age of 16, Malala was shot in the head by a masked gunman in response to her activism.  She knew that speaking out was dangerous but took the risk, because she knew, firsthand, how girls are affected when refused their right to an education. 

Children should not have to lead the fights for their own rights and well-being, especially when it involves risking their lives. 

Greta Thunberg sitting in a chair and being interviewed.
Greta Thunberg at the Parliament. Source: European Parliament, Creative Commons

Harmful Responses 

One way in which heavy involvement in efforts for change has been harmful for children is the way people who disagree often begin to treat them.  While Ruby Bridges was not an activist at the time, she still faced serious backlash when she became the first African American to attend a school that had previously only enrolled white students.  Throughout her first year at her new school, there were mobs of people in front of the building every day protesting her attendance.  People were angrily pointing and shouting at her as she was escorted into school every day.  In an interview for NPR, she shared that some people would bring a baby-sized coffin with a black doll inside, and she would have to walk by it every day.  This frightened her so much it gave her nightmares.  She was simply a little girl going to school, but it was as if people stopped seeing her that way. 

With the rise of social media in recent years, children who are part of social change or activism are more aware of people’s responses to them than ever before.  Some adults, angered by the actions of these children for one reason or another, flock to websites like Twitter to air their grievances, seemingly without any consideration for how their words might impact the children involved.  As her work has become more well-known, Greta Thunberg has faced much cruelty from adults.  In August, Thunberg was traveling across the Atlantic Ocean on a high-tech racing yacht (to decrease her contributions to greenhouse emissions) to spread awareness of climate change.  Arron Banks, multimillionaire and co-founder of Leave.EU, tweeted her picture with the caption, “Freak yachting accidents do happen in August…”.  Others have mocked her for having Asperger’s syndrome or for displaying its symptoms.   

The long-term negative impact that internalizing these kinds of harsh words and actions can have pose a threat to a child’s mental health.  Article 25 of the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights states that all people have the right to live in an environment that supports their health and well-being. 

What Do We Do? 

How do we deal with this issue?  It is not so simple as to say that kids should be kept out of political conversations altogether.  Many children live with certain aspects of their lives that require political conversations.  If a child’s parents are a same-sex couple, the parents need to be able to talk to their child about the way some people treat the LGBTQ+ community.  This conversation cannot be had without at least some political themes.  People of color need to be able to talk to their children about certain topics which are considered political in order help keep them safe. 

These conversations should not be limited to parents and children who are directly impacted by political issues.  Children with privilege should not be kept ignorant of these serious issues, as gaining knowledge about marginalized groups can help them develop empathy.  Additionally, children who are impacted by political issues should not be alone when having to face the difficulties of learning about these issues. 

It is also important to recognize that exposure to conversations about political issues at an early age can lead to increased political engagement as an adult.  Hearing their parents/guardians talk about different topics communicates to children (whether directly or indirectly) that these issues matter and have value.  Political discourse that highlights the importance of such issues can, therefore, teach children to value political engagement. 

One thing that we can do is spread awareness about how heavy participation in political activism can impact children, particularly their mental health.  We can hold ourselves and our peers accountable for the things we say online (or in-person), hopefully decreasing the amount of mocking and bullying that children experience through the actions of adults.  We can also respond to their cries for action by working toward progressive social change so that they do not have to do our job for us. 

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

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

Who are you?