Human Rights in Times of COVID-19: Public Safety vs. Individual Liberty

The flyer for the webinar with pictures of the three panelists

The tension between the authority of governments to impede on individual rights in times of public emergencies and the implications for human rights is a topic that has come into focus as the world reels from the impacts of COVID-19. On Thursday, May 21, the Institute for Human Rights hosted its first webinar on Human Rights in Times of Covid-19, which focused on how we navigate this tension between public safety and individual liberty. Our panelists included Dr. Kathryn Morgan, the Director of the African American Studies Program at UAB and an expert in civil rights, race, and criminal justice policy, Dr. Natasha Zaretsky, a Professor of History at UAB who focuses on contemporary U.S. culture and intersecting histories of women, gender, and families, and Dr. Robert Blanton, the Chair of Political Science and Public Administration at UAB who specializes in international human rights with a focus on human trafficking. We are grateful to our panelists for taking the time to share their expertise on this topic as we navigate this difficult time, and we’re grateful to the UAB/IHR community for your interest and engagement. If you missed the webinar and would like to watch it in its entirety you can find it here. Below is a recap of the event. 

Dr. Morgan focused on the implications of this tension for civil rights in the U.S., reminding us that governments do have the authority and the responsibility during a pandemic to impose restrictions on certain rights afforded by the Constitution in order to keep the most people safe. However, as we are seeing, this is not a cut and dry issue, and there is a lot of disagreement over how to keep people safe and keep the economy functioning. To this end, she mentioned three major concerns: one, what kind of restrictions will be put in place?, two, how long will this go on?, and three, how will these measures be enforced? She also mentioned the variable impact these restrictions and the virus itself will have on different sectors of the population, pointing out how this virus is disproportionately affecting black and brown people who are dying at much higher rates than white people. Dr. Morgan also expressed concern over how federal and state responses to the virus will impact people with disabilities, suggesting that times like this often exacerbate discrimination against these vulnerable populations. 

“When we look at service workers. When we look at people who are in essential positions that help to keep society running, even in a shutdown. Many of those people are from marginalized groups. They are exposed to conditions that really exacerbate the problems of exposure to the coronavirus.”

Dr. Zaretsky discussed the way that partisan division and hostility are shaping this conversation around individual liberties and public health, comparing it to the debate over vaccinations in the U.S. On the one hand, people want and need to work, but at the same time, we see that social distancing and work from home measures are effective in slowing the spread of the virus. And while this seems like a particularly loud and divisive situation, one that the Trump administration is actively inciting, Dr. Zaretsky reminded us that the media is proliferating the opinions at the polar ends of the spectrum, which likely do not represent the views of most Americans. While lockdown protestors are demanding that the economy be reopened so that they can get haircuts and pedicures, it doesn’t seem like they’re considering that this requires other people to risk exposure to the virus so that they can perform these services. What is important to remember is how interconnected we all are. However, in the absence of no comprehensive national plan to end the pandemic, the rampant spread of misinformation, and the politicization of masks and other safety measures, we are left with division and hostility rather than a sense of unity toward a common goal of resolving this crisis. 

“In the context of this pandemic, there is no such thing as individual liberty…it is bringing into view how profoundly interconnected we all are.”

Dr. Blanton spoke of how this tension is playing out on the global stage and how different nations are regarding their human rights commitments during this time. In balancing the human rights with the public good, international law provides a set of standards that calls for restrictions to be necessary, proportionate and non-discriminatory in nature. Of course restrictions on the freedom from things like arbitrary imprisonment or torture should never be lifted under any circumstances. However, Dr. Blanton mentioned what he called “coronavirus coups” happening in places like Hungary, where democratically-elected presidents are using the pandemic to suspend elections and appointment themselves rulers for an indefinite period of time. Other governments have used the pandemic to undermine civil society by using emergency powers to detain journalists and activists and health care workers who criticize the government. In moving forward, Dr. Blanton stressed that the “protection of human rights should not be viewed as an impediment to handling the crisis so much as an essential component of an effective response.”

“Several countries have used the pandemic as an excuse to undermine the rule of law or undermine democratic processes.” 

Community questions

We were pleased to have so much engagement from community members who sent in questions on Facebook for our panelists to address. Here are some of the questions and the responses: 

Would you say now is a good time for the U.S. to join the United Nations in guaranteeing health care and food as positive human rights? 

Dr. Blanton responded to this by saying that this crisis has brought into focus the mediocre job our country does in providing the positive rights, including health care. This has shown the weakness in our existing power structure in that the federal government is pushing to centralize power around the pandemic but at the same time is not able or is not willing to provide the goods and services that states need to combat the virus. He said the U.S. is unusual in its position on not identifying healthcare as a human right, though this is clearly something that needs to change.

Dr. Zaretsky also touched on how this crisis has exposed and exacerbated the pitfalls of the health care system, expressing a cautious optimism that this may serve as an impetus to reframe the healthcare debate in a way that makes forging comprehensive and long-term policy changes possible. Again, this is an example of how the extreme positions have been foregrounded and the wants and needs of the majority go unaccounted for. But there is no denying anymore that changes must be made going forward. 

What about labor rights? They are always tennis to non-existent in the U.S., but especially hard-hit right now as the U.S. and other countries like them slide further under the rug, risking worker safety while they’re at it as part of their coronavirus response. 

In addition to the weakness of our labor unions in the U.S., we fall behind other developed countries in terms of wage levels and working conditions. The crisis is bringing a lot of attention to that, but Dr. Blanton is not terribly optimistic that anything will come of it. The problem is that this requires hefty structural change, not just short-term attention. Dr. Zaretsky pointed out that there have been several labor uprisings during all this – at Amazon and Instacart for example – but these don’t get a whole lot of attention in the media. The focus is largely on militia groups storming the capitols, and the concerns of workers are getting lost in the shuffle. 

It’s easy to think of the two sides during this pandemic as people who resent not being able to shop or eat versus people who are afraid that they will die, but how do you draw the line between what different groups want and how do you decide which voices are listened to? How can a government make both sides feel that they’re being heard? Is there a way to defuse this resentment? 

A big part of this problem, according to Dr. Zaretsky, is that the Trump administration is ratcheting up this animosity by using divisive rhetoric rather than trying to rally people around a common cause. Trump is pitching this as a populist class struggle, and this narrative is dominating the media coverage. This is unfortunate because while there are differences in how Republicans and Democrats think this needs to be handled, the majority of Americans on both sides are in agreement about the need to take the virus seriously and are trying to do what they can to stop the spread. 

We are grateful to our panelists and to all the community members who joined us for the webinar. If you missed the event, you can check out the recording on our Facebook page. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Art for Human Rights: The For Freedoms Congress

FFCon Header. Source: For Freedoms

As the crowd chanted the words “Reactionary? No, visionary” in synchronization, we could envision the power of community and our passion to create change. Our minds were synced in for a collective purpose and hearts full of warmth and unity. This was at the first For Freedoms Congress in Los Angeles, California at the beginning of March earlier this year. I had the incredible opportunity to attend and bring back home a plethora of inspiration, information, and ideas on using art as a tool for activism.

What is For Freedoms?

For Freedoms is an artist-run platform for civic engagement, discourse, and direct action for artists in the U.S. inspired by American artist Norman Rockwell’s paintings of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Four Freedoms—freedom of speech, freedom of worship, freedom from want, and freedom from fear—For Freedoms uses art to encourage and deepen public explorations of freedom in the 21st century. Their belief is to use art as a vehicle for participation to deepen public discussions on civic issues through non-partisan programming throughout the country. Hank Willis Thomas, the cofounder of For Freedoms says that “The people who make up our country’s creative fabric have the collective influence to affect change. Right now, we have a lot of non-creative people shaping public policy, and a lot of creative individuals who haven’t or don’t know how to step up. For Freedoms exists as an access point to magnify, strengthen, and perpetuate the civic influence of creatives and institutions nationwide.”

About the Congress

The For Freedoms Congress gathered delegates from all 50 states, the District of Columbia, and Puerto Rico to come together to share their mutual passion of using art as a tool for advocacy and activism. We were honored and proud to represent the Institute for Human Rights, UAB, and the state of Alabama at this nationwide platform. The Congress spanned over three days in the historic city of Los Angeles to celebrate its role as the birthplace and driver of many important artistic-led cultural movements over the decades. The use of remarkable locations such as the Museum of Contemporary Art, Japanese American National Museum, and the Hammer Museum added to the artistic aura of the conference and gave us an opportunity to explore these exciting places.

Over the course of the conference, we got to attend a number of artist-led planning sessions, creative workshops, art activations, and performances on topics ranging from refugee rights to gun violence, indigenous rights to gender equality, and the criminal injustice system to public art policies. In addition, featured townhalls were held on each of the four freedoms that sparked constructive dialogue between the participants.

The 50 State Photo. Source: Ural Garrett, FFCon

Culture, Art, and Advocacy

The foundation of all the discussions and sessions at the Congress lies on one fact: culture is a human right. Article 27 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights states that “everyone has the right freely to participate in the cultural life of the community, to enjoy the arts and to share in scientific advancement and its benefits.” To make this right a reality, activists, advocates, and cultural institutions from around the country came together to share their ideas, foster collaboration, and to create a platform for civic engagement. They committed to keep playing their part in their respective communities to help make this right a reality for all through public action and commitment to the American values of equality, individualism, and pragmatism.

We need to make sure that cultural and social groups are able to express themselves and exercise their right to art in addition to other human rights. The right to art suggests that it should be accessible to everyone and is synonymous with free speech and self-expression. It goes back to having the freedom to speak up for one’s own self, to have representation, and to practice religion and cultural ways free from any fear or want.

Art is a powerful tool to bring communities together and it speaks to people, which is why it can be used in all kinds of fields to foster equity, inclusion, and justice in society. For example, an important aspect that is often overlooked is the importance of art education and its access in our education system. Art education fosters social development, provides a creative outlet, enhances academic performance and intellectual development, and promotes out-of-the-box thinking for students. Brett Cook, an interdisciplinary artist and educator, led a dialogue on community and collaboration to explain how arts-integrated pedagogy can cause healing and tell stories that reinvent representation. He used The Flower of Praxis as the basic model to foster socially engaged art practices with a focus on art education for collaborative outcomes. It starts with preparing the soil by reflecting on personal experiences and moves through the leaves of connecting with others, seeking new understandings, generating critical questions, and critical analysis to grow into the flower of informed action. The process keeps going by reflection influencing action and eventually generates activism and civic engagement.

The Flower of Praxis. Source: Rosa Gonzales, Creative Commons

Making the voices of people more audible by telling their stories through art and narrative can help create a new moral imagination on pressing issues and social injustices. Art can be used to express what human rights mean to a certain group of people. It gives people the right to their own ways and to tell their own stories. The session “Art Stories on Migration” made me realize the potential of art as a tool for advocacy and how it can be used to create a sense of belonging among disoriented populations. It can redefine identity and help answer pressing questions like who belongs to the economy? Who belongs to the healthcare system? Who belongs to the American identity? It can help communities take ownership and build representation in creative ways. The language of visuals activates the aesthetic perceptions of individuals and facilitates a deeper understanding of issues beyond the surface level. Making the stories of refugees and migrants visible through artistic media gives voice to their struggles and highlights their contributions. Responding to the question of suggesting creative activities or solutions in response to the issues of migration, one participant shared their video project in which immigrants re-read the Declaration of Independence to reflect on what those words mean to them, not just historically but also contemporarily. Another delegate suggested using inclusive language and terminology in museums and other public spaces, such as newcomers or people who migrated instead of refugees or immigrants, enslaved people rather than slaves, and First Americans instead of Native Americans. There are also various avenues for advocacy for non-profit organizations and public charities to lobby, advocate, and encourage participation in politics, elections, and other social movements.

One of my favorite sessions at the Congress was the “This is Not a Gun” workshop. It was based on using collective creative activism to highlight the stories of injustices inflicted on the American people at the hands of law and order. Since the year 2000, United States police have “mistaken” at least 38 distinct objects as guns during shootings of a majority of young black American men, none of whom were armed. The participants shaped these mistaken-as-gun objects in clay, giving presence to their form, the human rights violations, and racism prevalent in America today. While carving out these everyday objects like a flashlight, hairbrush, and sandwich, we paid tribute to the victims and had a meaningful conversation around accountability, equity, safety, and social justice in our country. It made us reflect on the racial profiling, police brutality, societal trauma, and the role we can play in addressing these issues by coming together to support our people and our communities.

Me shaping a flashlight out of clay at the workshop. Source: thisisnotagun.com, Creative Commons

The takeaway message from the Congress was that art has the potential to make a difference in the social discourse and to create change through public engagement. The For Freedoms Congress built a collective platform for artists around the nation to stimulate public action on pressing national issues. In the words of For Freedoms delegates,

We are a collective of artists, creatives, and cultural institutions. We believe citizenship is defined by participation, not ideology. We are anti-partisan. We use the power of the arts to drive civic engagement, spur public discourse, and inspire people to participate in our democracy.

Good and Mad: The Political Consequences of Women’s Anger with Rebecca Traister

Book cover - Good and Mad: The Political Consequences of Women's Anger
Source: Yahoo Images

On Tuesday, March 10th the Institute for Human Rights alongside the UAB Department of English and the UAB Department of Political Science and Public Administration welcomed Rebecca Traister, writer-at-large for New York magazine, to present a lecture entitled, “Good and Mad: The Political Consequences of Women’s Anger.” The lecture is a part of the UAB Department of English Alumni Lecture series, a series that invites prominent writers and scholars twice a year to discuss ideas and issues related to the study of English. In this lecture, Traister discussed her inspiration for writing and how she became a writer, women’s anger throughout history, the validity of women’s anger, and how women’s anger can make change in the modern era.

The lecture focused on the consequences of women’s anger, a topic that Traister has extensively written about in her book “Good and Mad: The Revolutionary Power of Women’s Anger,” published in 2018. Traister has also written books entitled “All the Single Ladies: Unmarried Women and the Rise of an Independent Nation,” published in 2016, and “Big Girls Don’t Cry,” published in 2010, that focus on similar topics. Alongside her books, Traister has been a feminist journalist for 15 years and describes anger to be a significant part of her work. This anger, Traister says, is a reaction to the many inequalities and injustices in the world. Without anger, it would be impossible to be in the line of work she is in. However, Traister describes being unable to be openly angry. She found that expressing her personal rage would undermine the messages she has been so committed to sharing.

Rebecca Traister speaking.
Rebecca Traister speaking. Source: UAB Institute for Human Rights.

This changed in 2016 with the election that ultimately resulted in Donald Trump becoming the President of the United States. Traister had covered the Hillary Clinton campaign as a journalist and describes being unsurprised that Clinton had lost but at the same time “shocked to the point of paralysis” that Trump won. She also describes feeling a sense of responsibility for being a part of the demographic that voted for Donald Trump (white, middle aged women) and expresses being unable to think clearly because of her anger. Her husband encouraged her to actively pursue her anger and write about it. In a way, this encouragement permitted her to think about anger very intentionally, prompting her to write her 2018 book.

Traister moved from her personal journey to discuss the historical implications of women’s anger and how history classes often remove this narrative. Traister encouraged the audience to think about what we learned about Rosa Parks from grade school: a stoic, exhausted seamstress who practiced an act of quiet resistance. Traister expands on this well-established narrative of Rosa Parks by reminding the audience of Parks’ other accomplishments as a member of the NAACP and encouraging us to remember Rosa Parks as a woman who participated in conscience political action based in fury. In another example, Abigail Adams is known for saying, “remember the ladies,” in a letter she wrote to her husband John Adams. Traister reminds the audience that in the same letter Adams wrote, “All men would be tyrants if they could” and warned her husband that if the founding fathers did not take women into consideration, “women are determined to ferment a rebellion.” Traister also includes Elizabeth Freeman, or Mum Bett, into the example, a slave who sued for her freedom and was successful, concluding in a landmark case that was influential in the emancipation of slaves in Massachusetts. Not many people in the audience had heard Elizabeth Freeman’s name before. It is relatively common to find furious women at the start of many movements in this country, Traister says. The deliberate depiction of women as quiet and merely supplemental or in the right place at the right time removes the purposeful, furious action that women have partaken in throughout history.

Rebecca Traister event
Rebecca Traister event. Source: UAB Institute for Human Rights.

Now why has this become the case? Traister argues that this pattern has occurred because angry women are powerful and powerful women are a danger to the patriarchal society. She proceeds to analyze the many ways that angry women have been portrayed in media and history. The stereotype of angry women is that they are infantile and not worthy of listening to. There are examples of describing high profile, powerful, and angry women as shrill, unhinged, ugly, unnatural and “a crazy aunt.” Traister explains that women’s anger is coded in our minds as unattractive, the opposite of how society perceives an angry white man. The best way to discredit women, Traister states, is to simply show them opening their mouths. However, Traister describes some of anger’s most important roles. It can bring people together by creating a movement around a shared fury. It can encourage people to become involved in politics, inciting political change. Black Lives Matter, Mom’s Demand Action, Black Lives Matter, Brett Kavanaugh protests, Time’s Up, #metoo, and many others were all started by women.

At the end of her lecture, Traister encourages us to think about anger differently, as fuel propelling us forward. She states that a movement is made up of many moments and the movement for full equality has been ongoing for two centuries. Each person must decide whether or not to change the world and should we decide to do so, our anger is what is going to keep us fighting. Traister ends the lecture by giving each audience member the same task: keep going, do not turn back, and stay angry for a long time.

Under the Surface: Navigating Through the Art of Edouard Duval-Carrié

On February 4th, 2020, the Institute for Human Rights, alongside the African American Studies Program, the Department of Art and Art History, the Department of Foreign Languages and Literatures, and the Department of History hosted a discussion with artist Edouard Duval-Carrié. The event was moderated by Dr. Charly Verstraet of the Department of Foreign Languages and Literatures at UAB. Duval-Carrié and Dr. Verstraet discussed Duval-Carrié’s different works, a large overview of his work, as well as the width of the scope and the diversity of his works. Dr. Verstraet and Duval-Carrié specifically discussed Duval-Carrié’s Indigo Room and his collection of artworks entitled Imagined Landscapes before addressing questions from the audience.

The theme of the night was “Under the Surface,” which was described to have two meanings. The first is to delve into what is hidden and unseen in the world and the second is a representation of silence. These meanings carry over into Duval-Carrié’s work and in his life. Duval-Carrié is based in Miami but was born and raised in Haiti. Much of his work represents his Haitian culture and the relationship between the Caribbean and the United States.

Duval-Carrié speaking about his project.
Duval-Carrié speaking about his project. Source: UAB Institute for Human Rights.

The first piece of art presented was Indigo Room. This art installation is a room of blocks, created by local high school students, with a large feminine figure on the ceiling. Duval-Carrié described the piece to be a celebration of the bicentennial of Haiti’s independence as well as to signify the movement of Haitians from Miami to Fort Lauderdale, New York. He worked directly with high school students and asked each one to create a “memory window,” about Haiti. These “memory windows” were encased in resin and placed in the museum alcove. The installation is blue, to represent being underwater. Duval-Carrié stated that he wanted to make sure that as Haitian people arrive to different cities in the United States, the Haitian culture arrives with them as well The figure on the ceiling is the ultimate mother in Haitian culture, representing both the cosmos and water. He described the installation as a mix of the past, religion, and politics. Duval-Carrié also said that in 2014, he and the students who he worked with to create the installation reunited. He described being so impressed at how many of them continued with the arts into their adult lives.

The second discussion point was the collection of artworks entitled Imagined Landscapes. These pieces are re-imagined from the artworks of the Hudson River School, depicting an idealized Caribbean. Duval-Carrié described the Hudson River School paintings as alluring and romantic. While the paintings were beautiful, they forgot to incorporate the humans living on the islands and the suffering they endured. Duval-Carrié’s re-imagining took select Hudson River School paintings and upended them, making the scenery large and mysterious. Most importantly, he adds the culture of the Caribbean and the heartbreak of United States imperialism back into the landscapes.

Duval-Carrié has taken his talent and passion for art to inspire important conversations around the world. He encourages Haitians to be proud of their heritage and their country. He encourages Americans to recognize the way imperialism reshaped entire countries and how those countries are still reeling from its effects. It is important to acknowledge the powerful effects of art in reclaiming culture and sparking conversations and it is vital that we keep those conversations flowing.

Duval-Carrié taking questions from the audience.
Duval-Carrié taking questions from the audience. Source: UAB Institute for Human Rights.

If you are interested in learning more about Mr. Edouard Duval-Carrié, you can look at his  webpage where a listing of his current exhibitions can also be found.

 

Kenya and Beyond: Including Human Rights in Conservation

Nelson and Maggie Reiyia watched in despair as their community slowly fell into decline despite tourism profits from nearby Maasai Mara National Reserve. As indigenous Maasai themselves, the Reiyias were determined to reinvigorate their community despite the massive forces of ‘big’ conservation and outside development. Thus, they set out to create the first Maasai-run conservancy in the history of Kenya and reconnect their people, culture, and livestock to the land and its wild inhabitants.

A Maasai man in traditional red clothing overlooks the Sekenani River. Nearby vegetation reflects off the water's rippled surface.
A Maasai tribe member overlooks the Sekenani River. The Sekenani restoration project is one of many local initiatives conducted by the Nashulai Conservancy. (Photo credit: The Nashulai Conservancy, http://www.nashulai.com/sekenani-river-restoration)

Historically, the Maasai and other Kenyan tribes occupied these lands until Western colonial powers began to forcibly move people to make room for themselves and their ever expanding game reserves. Sadly, there is a long history of colonial and post-colonial entities removing people from their lands in the name of conservation and game management. This tendency to ‘Other’ people unlike us – that is, to assume their inferiority as humans – continues to taint conservation and often results in counterproductive efforts to save endangered species.

Sadly, this model of conservation has been adopted the world over and partly stems from the assumption that Indigenous people lack the ability to govern themselves or the knowledge to sustainably manage their lands. Yet, in the case of the Maasai, they have occupied the landscape long enough for it to become an integral part of their culture and worldview. Of course this is hardy meant to reference to the outdated ‘noble savage’ cliché; rather, it is an attempt to force us to consider who was already managing these lands and critical resources before the colonizers arrived.

A herd of wildebeest and zebras meandering about the vast and empty Maasai Mara National Reserve.
A herd of wildebeests cross the Maasai Mara National Reserve. Every year the migration of these animals attracts tourists from around the globe. (Photo credit: Sherrie Alexander)

An additional assumption held by Western society and much of modern conservation is that people should be removed from their lands in order to establish pristine areas for wildlife. Enter the additional force of tourism – a massive economic influence that often turns sentiments against local populations thought to be spoiling the landscape, competing with wildlife, and over-hunting the animals we so desperately seek on our travels. Don’t get me wrong, tourism can be a positive source of income for a region. But when money takes precedence over people depending on ancestral lands, it is unethical at best.

Finally, we cannot forget the horrid calls to shoot poachers on-sight and emotional outcries against trophy hunting. In our Western need to anthropomorphize wildlife, especially the ‘cute’ or charismatic animals, we fail to see the socioeconomic complexities of people and place. We also have to remind ourselves these are not our animals to govern. These animals – if they can be thought of to belong to anyone – are clearly in the domain of the countries in which they reside and the people living among them. In other instances, certain animals represent a critical source of local income through legal trophy hunting. But as we saw with the ‘Cecil the Lion’ outrage, the Western world is appalled at the thought of killing a lion for any reason while giving little thought to the ribeye steak on our dinner plate.

Two zebras graze in the vast Maasai Mara National Reserve where the grass and sky both seem endless. Few people are seen aside from tour guides and tourists.
Zebras graze in the vast Maasai Mara National Reserve where few people are seen aside from tourists and their tour guides. (Photo credit: Sherrie Alexander)

Conservation is complicated so we have to look at the bigger picture. It is often as much about humans as it is about wildlife and ‘wild’ spaces. The combined result of ‘Othering’ indigenous populations and disregarding their traditional ecological knowledge, while simultaneously anthropomorphizing wildlife and claiming ownership over entire ecosystems, has led us to our current circumstances. While many conservation initiatives are beginning to take local and Indigenous voices into account, the unfortunate fact is that neocolonial conservation is alive and well.

Over the last decade I have watched as the push for social science integration with conservation biology has slowly gained momentum. Such calls for interdisciplinary approaches have arisen from the desperate need to better understand the multifaceted human dimension of conservation. ‘Fortress conservation’ and the forced removal of people from their lands, or lack of access to resources and profits from their lands, are outdated practices and clear human-rights violations. From conservation to tourism, local cultures have a right to be included. In fact, research from myself and others has demonstrated that when communities are intimately involved there is an increased likelihood of long-term conservation success.

The Nashulai model diagrams depicts their commitment to helping both people and wildlife while also preserving cultural heritage.
The integrated Nashulai model emphasizes the need to help both people and wildlife while also preserving cultural heritage. (Image credit: The Nashulai Conservancy, http://www.nashulai.com/)

After hearing Nelson and Maggie Reiyia speak at UAB about their indigenous-run conservancy and the advances they have achieved for both their cultural and biological heritage, I believe there is hope that we can shift the narrative of conservation to one that is more inclusive and ethical. Simply put, supporting initiatives like the Nashulai Conservancy can help push back against ongoing injustices and bring human rights to the forefront of conservation.

Sherrie D. Alexander, MA
University of Alabama at Birmingham, Researcher and Instructor of Anthropology
IUCN Primate Specialist Group, Section for Human-Primate Interactions, Member
Barbary Macaque Awareness and Conservation, North American representative

Land acknowledgement: The University of Alabama at Birmingham is located on the traditional lands of the Muskogee Creek Indians.  

 

 

Community and Conservation in Maasai Mara

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Golf and Life Lessons: The Dennis Walters Story

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Artificial Intelligence and Its Impact on Human Rights

Mathais Risse and Sushma Raman introducing themselves to the audience. Source: UAB Institute for Human Rights

On October 25, 2019, the Institute for Human Rights hosted Mathias Risse, Lucius N. Littauer Professor of Philosophy and Public Administration and director of the Carr Center for Human Rights at Harvard University, and Sushma Raman, the executive director of the Carr Center.  During the lecture and discussion, Risse asked the audience to consider the present and future moral and philosophical implications of ever-growing developments in artificial intelligence (AI) technology.   

One of the most well-known ethical dilemmas that Risse addressed is the Trolley Problem thought experiment which, seemed to be irrelevant in real life at the time of its conception, has massive implications in today’s world.  Imagine that you are standing by as a runaway trolley is headed toward five people who are tied to the tracks.  You can either refuse to intervene and allow those five people to die, or you can divert the trolley onto a sidetrack where a single person is tied. Which option is more ethical?  As AI technology is developed and products such as self-driving cars become more common, we cannot ignore the ethical concerns that will emerge and their attendant consequences. 

Risse also discussed rising concerns about the relationship between social inequalities and AI technology.  One concern is that, as technology develops, “unskilled” labor will be outsourced to AI, leaving low-income communities that typically work those jobs behind.  Not only does that leave people struggling to find work to support themselves and their families, but it also takes away their voice and political power because it pushes them out of the job market and economic system.  There is also a concern that technology will become less accessible to low-income communities as it develops, and that under-privileged groups will be left behind.  This has led many to worry that AI will “drive a widening technological wedge into society.” 

After the lecture, Risse and Raman answered some of the audience’s questions.  One person asked which of the problems regarding AI and human rights is the most concerning.  In response, Risse pointed out that it depends on who you ask.  From policymakers to tech developers to “unskilled” laborers, each group would have a different perspective on which part of the issue is the most urgent because each party has a unique relationship with technology.  

In closing his lecture, Risse noted that he wished he could end on a more cheerful note, but he found it to be nearly impossible due to the long list of concerns that the philosophical community has regarding the future of humanity and artificial intelligence.  Throughout his lecture and the Q & A session, Risse emphasized the point that there needs to be a serious increase in the interaction that occurs between the AI community and the human rights community.  While technological advancements can be wonderful and even lifesaving, it is vital that we evaluate the potential risks that come with them.  Just because something is possible does not mean it should be done, and multiple perspectives are necessary to effectively evaluate any given possibility.

Salvaged Pages: Young Writers’ Diaries of the Holocaust 

Alexandra Zapruder answering questions from the audience. Source: UAB Institute for Human Rights

On November 7, the Institute for Human Rights hosted Alexandra Zapruder, author and member of the founding staff of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington D.C.  She discussed her first book, Salvaged Pages: Young Writers’ Diaries of the Holocaust, and answered questions about her work.  Throughout her lecture, Zapruder highlighted the variety of insights we can gain from the diaries of teenagers/young adults who experienced the Holocaust.   

While Anne Frank is certainly the most well-known authors of such a diary, there is much to be learned from the other young authors whose diaries have been found in the last few decades.  Zapruder described these diaries as being both historical and literary fragments, giving us a window into the past and helping us better understand human experiences from different perspectives of the time.  

Zapruder described having to grapple with the legacy of Anne Frank’s diary and how it shapes the reception of the other diaries that are found.  For example, people often associated Frank’s writing with a hopeful view of humanity.  It is often discussed with language that relates to redemption and optimism that is rarely used when discussing the atrocities that occurred during the Holocaust on their own.  This does not, however, reflect every young writer’s writing during this time.  Zapruder noted that, no matter how great a writer is, it does not make sense to expect their writing to represent all perspectives in a common experience when people are so different.  Reading other diaries from the Holocaust requires setting aside the preconceived notions we have from learning about Anne Frank’s diary in the past. 

One young writer that Zapruder spoke about during her lecture was Klaus Langer, a child of a fairly well-to-do family in Essen, Germany.  She read an entry from his diary that was written on November 11, 1938, the day after Kristallnacht.  His diary entries were generally records of what happened in his day-to-day life as he and his family made efforts to leave Nazi Germany, and this entry was no different.  Langer described walking down the street through the wreckage after everything that happened, walking on glass splinters.  Though that day in history had not been named “Kristallnacht” yet, the significance of the shatter glass is clear in his writing.  When reading this entry, Zapruder recognized that, when you are writing in a diary about the day-to-day, you capture nuances you might miss later, things that would be easy to forget in future recollections. 

Another writer that Zapruder discussed was Elsa Binder, a 21-year-old girl who lived with her parents in Poland.  Zapruder described Binder as someone who could be sarcastic and had an edge.  In Binder’s diary, Zapruder found a strong example of an unexpected common theme among the diaries: the passage of time.  There were certainly themes that had been expected, such as desperation, hope, hunger, and displacement, but the passage of time was addressed to a surprising degree in nearly all of the diaries.  Zapruder found many entries detailing life before the war, the traumatic break from normal life, and waiting liberation as time passed.  Birthdays and holidays were noted regularly, even when the world was in chaos. 

Perhaps the most striking thing that Zapruder addressed during her lecture was the way that these works resonate with young people.  Though the experiences of most American teenagers are far different from those who lived during the Holocaust, many of the things that young people experience today connect to the themes found in the diary, from hope for the future to fear to desperation.  Children face many human rights issues, such as school shootings, gun violence, and violence against people of color and the LGBTQ+ community.  Like many of the young writers that Zapruder discussed during her lecture, many of the children of today are desperate for a better future.  It is vital that adults step up and become better advocates for that future and for the human rights of children and adolescents.   

If you want to learn more about children’s rights and related issues in the United States you can checkout Children’s RightsThe Coalition to Stop Gun Violence, and the Human Rights Campaign.