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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

The Conflict in Yemen and Trajectories for Peace: Recap

Street photography of Yemen stone alley and buildings
Yemen. Source: Rod Waddington, Creative Commons for Flickr.

Fatima Abo Alasrar, a nonresident scholar at the Middle East Institute and former senior analyst at the Arabia Foundation, joined us on Thursday, Sept. 26, 2019 to shed some light on the crisis in Yemen and advocate a new social contract regarding Yemen as the war has evolved from a local insurrection into an international effort that has exposed greater vulnerabilities of the country, weakened the central government, and emboldened foreign threats to Yemen.

Before the country appointed a president, the Zaydis, an Islamic sect, were dominant in Yemen where they resided for thousands of years. Its Imams controlled the north of Yemen, as the theocratic Yemen Arab Republic, as the south slowly turned into the People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen. When the president in the north, Ali Abdullah Saleh and his regime proposed to unite the north and south under one government, unification was not based on democratic principles, but on state, rhetoric-accentuated polarization and identity politics. For northerners, the war ended succession, but the southerners grieved as they became second-class citizens who were exploited under occupation. Meanwhile, the Houthi Movement organized Zaydi-Shia fighters against underdevelopment and political marginalization as they protested the dilution of Zaydi influence and identity. Inequality built resentment among civilians and some of the dissatisfied joined extremist groups or protest as people lost faith in the state. As more states and non-state actors got involved and introduced differing political and ideological orientations and promoted their interests, efforts deepened sectarian divides.

Saudi Arabia continued to assist the government against the Houthi rebels, especially motivated by their Shiite rival, Iran who supported the Houthi insurgency; however, Ms. AlAsrar revealed Saudi shortcomings in the military’s lack of warfare experience, increase in spending, and media coverage criticizing domestic failures.  She explained that Saudi Arabia has only aggravated this already dire humanitarian crisis and now faces ramifications.  She urged, instead of encouraging Saudi intervention, international attention should shift focus.

AlAsrar stressed Iranian intervention and influence in Houthi insurgency -evident as the group’s propaganda and style mirrors the others’- where Houthis considered themselves proud members of the Iran-led Axis of Resistance alliance (resisting the West and Israel). The Houthis act as Iran’s proxy to advance their goals in Yemen just as the Iranians act as Houthis’ proxy to get power in their own political agenda and this relationship has only festered.

Group holding sign Reading "STOP US SAUDI WAR CRIMES IN YEMEN"
Felton Davis. Creative Commons for Flickr.

The US is complicit in war crimes as it supports Saudi Arabia, a major ally, who is threatened by Western antagonizers including Iran and Houthi rebels in the counter-terrorism narrative. This alliance has clouded Americans’ knowledge of Yemeni objectives and continues to kill, repress, and threaten civilians. Now all players may use the counter-terrorism narrative to attract the international community, which is not as informed and interested in the domestic conflict consuming Yemen.

Radicalized and terrorist groups concentrate and compete for the spotlight and the conflict has amplified as it is linked to the war on terror for international attention. Al-Qaeda is such a group who has acted as a gang for hire in the Yemen conflict. The intervention of regional powers also threatens to draw Yemen further into the broader Sunni-Shia divide. Iran exploited the conflict to increase its influence in the region becoming the most beneficiary actor for its relatively low cost. Whereas, U.S. backed Saudi Arabia suffers reputational damage which is creating more friction.

All sides of the conflict have been accused of violations of international humanitarian law and organization which are pushing Yemeni civilians out. AlAsrar questions whether the UN can hold the Houthis accountable for their end of the bargain. The UN’s plan for Yemen has been shaped in Houthi favor, “confident in their power of destruction,” accepting Houthi demands and encouraging their extraction of concessions so the deal does not collapse. The desire to keep the Houthi involved in the peace process has only legitimized a violent non-state actor.

Children standing over ruins in Yemen.
343 Searching Through Ruins. Felton Davis. Creative Commons for Flickr.

The speaker’s concern was in the international community’s engagement regarding the conflict in Yemen, misguided, misinformed, and disconnected narrative on which international actors base their policies. Political engagement continues to be overshadowed by limited propaganda and media coverage of the war.

AlAsrar elaborated with frustration concerning the overwhelming use of the humanitarian narrative to explain the conflict in Yemen. A lot of humanitarian work is fast-paced and reaches for an emotional narrative. There is a lack of comprehensive policy instruments when the audience sees humanitarian assistance as the primary tool. International humanitarian organization has hijacked the voices of the local civil society to provide immediate relief which cannot speak for the broader political factors that have created and perpetuated the crisis.

Other regional governments have interceded to pursue and protect their own interests, but the root of the Yemeni conflict was a domestic one. These foreign powers may encourage their partners to engage in a political process for peace but have instead overshadowed the conflict in Yemen which was driven by concerns in sectarian marginalization, economic underdevelopment, and displeasure at governmental political distraction in cooperation with foreign powers, the United States and Saudi Arabia. In response, AlAsrar’s narrative encourages broader education and analysis on the different motivations, perspectives, and grievances of each actor to establish a more comprehensive and consistent strategy and policy to deal with the exasperated and dire Yemen Conflict.

“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?

“Denial” – A Conversation About Justice

An image of power lines, with smoke and smog from factories rising behind the electrical towers.
Electric Towers During Golden Hour. Source: Pixabay, Creative Commons

On Saturday, September 21st, 2019, the Institute of Human Rights co-sponsored an event with Alabama Young Democrats that featured former Vermont gubernatorial candidate Christine Hallquist. Hallquist’s visit to UAB focused on a screening of her released documentary “Denial” which covers her time as the CEO of Vermont Electric Cooperative while she advocated for sustainable energy and processed her gender identity.

Upon announcing her 2018 gubernatorial campaign in Morrisville, Hallquist officially became the first openly transgender major party nominee for governor. Her campaign focused on increased broadband access, universal healthcare, and an aggressive stance on climate change. After winning the Democratic nomination, she ran against incumbent Phil Scott and gained over 40% of the popular vote. Though losing the gubernatorial campaign, Hallquist continues to be an activist addressing climate change and being a fighter for all those experiencing discrimination or fear based on gender identity.

“Denial” details the life of Christine Hallquist, discussing two major issues, her gender dysphoria (as David in the film) and the increasing threat of climate change in people’s lives. As the CEO of Vermont Electric Cooperative, Hallquist pushed to promote cleaner methods to produce energy, such as wind turbine farms, solar energy, and smart meters. The movie also explores Hallquist’s transition into womanhood through the lens of her son, Derek, who struggles to accept that his father has transitioned into a woman. Asked by her son as to why she didn’t speak out earlier in life, Hallquist responds by explaining how if she were truthful at 15, she would be placed in a mental institution. If she were truthful in her 20s, then she wouldn’t be married nor have any children. She then spoke about her dream, which was to “spend every waking moment as a woman. But if I went to work in a dress,” she says, “I would be unemployed.” These sentiments speak to the barriers trans people face as they navigate their daily lives.

 

Christine Hallquist, in front of a screen showing her film "Denial" talking to the audience.
Hallquist addressing the audience about her film. Source: UAB Institute for Human Rights

During the film’s Q&A session, an audience member asked Hallquist what she has done since leaving Vermont Electric Cooperative. She said she became aware that action would be needed at the executive level in order to induce change and propel Vermont to employ cleaner energy practices; by realizing the severity of the crisis, she transitioned from being perceived as a centrist to that of a staunch progressive. As a result, she wrote the North American Solution to Climate Change, which detailed ways in which the climate crisis could be hindered in favor of saving the Earth. She claimed we are “fighting for the future of this country” and that we have to “collaborate across the world to solve the problem. We need to learn how to work with each other!”

 

An audience member, surrounded by other members looking at him, talking to Christine Hallquist about her work for Climate Justice.
An audience member questioning Hallquist about her work for Climate Justice. Source: UAB Institute for Human Rights

Does it take effort and a willingness to accept change in order to make a difference? That is a question that each one of us must answer. Looking at the future, should we all push towards climate action like Hallquist? Or should we take a step back and plan our movements to avoid being too rash? Hallquist raised an interesting point when she claimed that we as humans are not very well used to change. We decide much of the time to stick with tradition and avoid getting out of our comfort zone. Rather, we should embrace change and grow with our own experiences. We can start by teaching ourselves to challenge what we know about gender as well as to learn more about the impacts of climate change. These issues are imperative to upholding our basic human rights because all people deserve to live in a healthy, safe, and welcoming environment.

The Dynamics of Member States

Photo by Joseph Abua

The United Nations held its 12th Session of the Conference of States Parties to the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disability, CRPD, between 11th to 13th June 2019. I recently got a graduate assistantship position with the Institute of Human Rights UAB and I was selected as one of the rapporteurs from the institute to attend this prestigious event. Despite being new to the institute, I could not have asked for a better start than going to the United Nations Headquarters, not as a visitor, but a note taker in one of the round table discussions of member states. Although on several occasions, I have always dreamed of visiting the UN Headquarters, yet, I never imagined I would be graced with such an opportunity to experience the spectacle and majesty of the UN as a rapporteur. This has made me realize there is never a dream too big to achieve as all we need to make it a reality lies in our will. 

The United Nations serves as an international framework where the world comes together to identify various challenges, share resolutive ideas, discuss developmental strategies and initiatives, and form stronger alliances. The Conference of State Parties to the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disability serves as one of the platforms that ensure the needs of Persons with Disability (PWD) are adequately met and catered for. This year’s theme focused on improving and increasing accessibility and inclusion of persons with disabilities into all spheres of the society by ensuring utmost respect to the rights of PWD at all levels. Recent evidence suggests that by developing new and improving existing technological, digitized and ICT oriented innovations, it will better aid and assist PWD and increase their accessibility. Another fundamental area involves promoting social inclusion for PWD, by ensuring their access to the highest level of healthcare services and extensive participation in the cultural life, recreation, leisure, and sporting activities within the society.

Coming from a third-world region, Africa remains in constant need of evidence-based initiatives and mechanisms that will aid her in achieving sustainable growth and development at all levels. Over the years, the continent has continuously experienced several cases of inefficiencies at all levels, with little or no evidence of improvement being recorded. One issue that constitutes a major area of concern is the rights of Persons with Disability. PWD are faced with the worst situations you can ever imagine in most African communities. Despite the strong traditional and cultural heritage Africa possesses which constitutes part of the continent’s beauty and charm, it also serves as a curse especially to PWD. There exist different myths, beliefs, customs and misconceptions that negatively affect PWD till date because some traditions and beliefs cannot be abolished. In some cultures, families with PWD (blind, deaf, dumb and cripple most especially) often use their disability as an avenue to beg for alms, while in other cultures, families with PWD are believed to be cursed by the gods or unfortunate which often leads to the entire family being discriminated and treated as outcasts in the community. Other cultures consider specific disabilities such as cripples and hunchbacks, as items for rituals and sacrifices of all sorts.

Photo by Joseph Abua

Although several steps have been taken by various African governments to eradicate these ridiculous myths and beliefs, more needs to be done in ensuring PWD live normal and meaningful lives like others. One major area of concern that limits PWD in Africa is the poor social and political accessibility and inclusion. During the 3rd round table discussion, several member states discussed anticipated and already existing initiatives and programs that will/already include PWDs, and how they plan to sustain such developments. A few that caught my attention was the discussion by the representative of Zambia, Honorable Olipa Makiloni Phiri Mwansa, who spoke about new legislation known as the Zambia Disability Act which assists the nation to develop in-depth demographic characteristics of PWD. The Sri Lanka representative, His Excellence, Dr. Rohan Perera, spoke about the level the nation has gone in ensuring the successful implementation of the National Human Rights Action Plan for PWD by embedding the “Foundation for Inclusion of PWD” into the nation’s constitution. Morocco’s representative, Ambassador Omar Hilale on the other hand, discussed a framework already being implemented, which strictly focuses on providing vocational training for PWD in vulnerable communities to increase their social inclusion. One nation that has fundamentally developed its accessibility and inclusion rate in Mexico. Her representative discussed the 2018 general elections which were considered the most inclusive election in the country’s history as it ensured PWD had easy access to polling units and were also among the electoral officials during the entire election process. 

In terms of challenges faced by some member states, the Republic of Ireland representative gave an extensive remark about how several nation-states government and public sector is not adequately and structurally designed to meet the needs and demands of PWD and such inefficiency issues need to be addressed by the UN. Also, the first panelist, Ms. Tytti Matsinen (Disability Inclusion Adviser, Finland), spoke about how several communities presently have poor access to standard technologies which further increases the marginalization of PWD. She advocates that individuals, agencies, and organizations who are outside the job market be integrated into making assistive technological innovations for PWD more available and accessible. Finally, the Association for Deaf People (NGO) elaborated the need for parties and agencies to collaborate with PWD when developing technological and ICT programs and products because they possess a good degree of knowledge of their condition. 

This Conference made me understand how much effort the United Nation renders in ensuring member states achieve their desired growth at all levels, but more needs to be done in ensuring certain developmental policies, initiatives, and action plans are efficiently carried out by her members. The CRPD Committee representative spoke about how several member states failed to adopt the Public Procurement Policy which was structured at all levels to achieve greater accessibility standard for PWD. Although he condemned the attitudes of such states, he advised the UN to put in biding sanctions to member states that fail in this regard. At the close of the session, there was a resounding echo of relief by representatives of all member states, each having given meaningful insights and recommendations to various challenges faced at national and international levels. 

I am fortunate to have been selected to attend the conference, especially as a rapporteur in one of the round table sessions alongside several other side events which I may write about in subsequent blogs. Based on my love for policy and advocacy, it truly was a learning process and a developmental experience for me and I would like to appreciate the wonderful Dr. Tina Reuter and the Institute of Human Rights, UAB, for giving me this opportunity to see the world at large. I really had a wonderful experience and I am looking forward to many more field trips as this, and I will always be open in assisting and representing the institute at all levels.

Wiki yangu na Kenya

My week spent in Kenya was amazing and profound, yet I find myself at a loss for words when trying to describe my time there.” I have been told that I am not a good storyteller. Details of the stories I tell that seem crucial to me turn out to be utterly unimportant to others, often causing them to lose interest and miss the significance of my experiences. Upon my return from a week-long study abroad trip to Kenya, I was asked all the predictable questions that one receives after a travel excursion: What did you do? How was it? Did you love it? Will you return? Can you tell me more about your trip? These are the questions that I cannot answer…how do I summarize a week’s worth of moments into interesting, well-constructed narratives that completely capture the beauty and wealth of knowledge I learned while away?

The truth is I can’t, so I don’t,  leaving both me and my friends unsatisfied. So when my professor who led the trip to Kenya reminded us of our living dictionary assignment, my plan began to take form. The Living Dictionary assignment was to select words in Swahili and translate them to English and turn in that list of words we had collected while there. Nelson, who started the camp and worked tirelessly to coordinate our trip and helped me translate the words for my Living Dictionary. This is not a commonly used phrase – in the United States or otherwise, so it took Nelson a minute to compose it. My mind starting whirling as to how I could take the assignment and make it into an art project. I realized that each day of my trip could be summarized into two Swahili words, and those words could tell the stories of my trip, along with accompanying the artwork.

While I was in Kenya, I chose nine words and phrases to tell the stories of my experience. Then I created images to accompany the words using different art mediums. These phrases and words were translated for me by the people I met while I was in Kenya. I found it liberating to express my experiences through creativity, and then use those art pieces to tell a story of my time abroad. Organizing my thoughts through the words and pictures ordered the information I shared. Reflecting on my week in Kenya, I knew there was some core knowledge I had observed while there that left an impact on me, I wanted to leave an impact with this art.

Kamuzu ambayo ni hai “Living Dictionary”

The watercolor is inspired specifically by an image from the safari we took; however, it also represents the vibrancy of color in the Kenyan landscape. We spent a majority of our time in Kenya out in the Maasai Mara, which is about four hours from Nairobi. There we stayed at Oldarpoi Camp, a sustainable tourism camp run by the community for the community. On the safari, I saw animals in their environment and on their own terms. The land and animals there are demonstrating an authentic ecosystem, something I have never seen firsthand before. My lion and elephant viewing could be confined to the zoo, but the safari was the antithesis of the zoo. There were no glass windows separating the animals from the observer, nor regularly scheduled feeding times. It was as if I stepped into a city where the skyscrapers were trees and sidewalks were flowers and bushes. Like any great city my presence did not interrupt its typical course, nor will my individual presence ever be remembered by the occupants. The natural beauty of this place never failed to leave an impression on me.

Moja & Billie (Mbili) “One” & “Two”

The image I chose to depict these words was inspired by all of the nights I spent looking out from the window above my bed. I could always see the milky way, and it was an unreal, magical sight that I have never been able to appreciate while in the States. Looking up at the universe I saw light and contrast that I cannot name or begin to understand. I could not tell you why stars burn in the night or the difference between celestial planets, but that does not mean I cannot appreciate it. I ended each day in Kenya grateful and full of love for all that I had seen and learned, even if I had not yet begun to process it. Like this trip, those evenings staring at the expanse was a singular experience The highlight of my evening was when I picked out Orion’s belt, a constellation made of three stars. It was so clear and easy to pick out that I wanted to add it into this piece.

On our first day in Kenya, as we were driving out to the Mara, we stopped on the side of the road at a shop. There, I met Joseph, who taught me how to count in Swahili. This is the first of many instances where my English ears did not hear or understand the nuances of the language. Two in Swahili is spelled “mbili,” but to my ears, it always sounded like “billie.” Language was an important tool to use when making a connection with others in Kenya. I often did not speak the same language as them, but something I have found to be true everywhere, in the United States and Kenya, was that others are eager to teach. Never once did I ask how to say or spell something in Swahili and the response was “No.” Each time, the person gleefully and patiently waited with me as I stumbled over sounds trying to repeat what they were teaching me. Not only did I learn Swahili words from this, but I learned the power of teaching and how it provides connection and bonds with humans.

Sawa Sawa & Twende “Ok? Ok!” & “Let’s go!”

During our trip, Sam and Joel not only drove us all over the country but also became our friends and guides. They fearlessly leading us all over the Mara through a safari. They knew so much about the creatures we were seeing. They knew where they would spend time and were able to find the best spots for viewing. Whenever we would stop to look at an animal, Sam would ask us, “Ok?” and we would all respond “Ok!” letting him know we were ready to move on. Sam was an expert driver and wild animal spotter as we witnessed many animals such as lions, giraffes, zebras, and warthogs in their natural habitat.

Much of the way people make money is through tourism, and often the safaris and the promise of animals is what brings the tourists. In order to see the animals up close, it is vital that you respect and understand their patterns and habits.

Sopa & Asanti (Asante)“Hi” “Hey” Hello” & “Thank you”

A majority of people that I met while in Kenya were able to speak three languages: English, Swahili, and their local dialect. We were staying in the Maasai lands where they speak Maa, which is that region’s local language. A common greeting for them is “Sopa” or hello. When we first arrived at the Oldarpoi camp, we were greeted by the people sharing their culture and traditions with us. They always warmly welcomed us with a friendly “Sopa”. When beginning to learn a new language it seems that some of the first phrases you pick up are how to welcome and how to be grateful. This made “Thank you” a vital phrase, and gratitude a universal concept, which is one of the most insightful realizations I had while in Kenya. I might not speak the same language as them, or fully understand their culture, but there are mutual understandings of humanity that persist across cultural boundaries. The sound of children laughing and playing is the same in any country. Friends teaching each other popular dances is the same in any country. Being grateful for life and connection is the same in any country. Asanti, or Asante as it is correctly spelled, was given freely and frequently during our time there. How could it not be? We had so much to be grateful for.

We we ni rafike yangu & Nakupenda“You are my friend” & “I love you”

On the first afternoon of our arrival in the Maasai Mara, we asked the warriors if they could show us around the camp. There was a village below where we stayed and as we were walking down the road the children were arriving home from school. We stopped and began to talk to these bright and inquisitive children. They drew their names in the dirt, as well as an outline of Kenya with a star where they lived. They wrote out long division problems with a stick to test my “college education”. The children giggled as they posed for photos and excitedly crowded the cameras. They opened their home, their lands, and their hearts to us without hesitation.

It was important to me that there was not a white savior mentality on this trip. I personally think that not only is the idea or concept of entering a foreign country and being a “savior” detrimental to the community, but also spreads this harmful to other Westerners considering trips to Africa. Dr. Stacy Moak and Dr. Tina Reuter, the professors who led this trip, ensured that we worked collaboratively with those in the community to provide them with the resources they needed. Change in a community does not come from a group of students visiting for one week. Members of the community are the true agents for change, and to have an opportunity to learn from them is an unforgettable experience. In many depictions of non-Western countries, the people are displayed in images of despair and poverty. This fuels the white savior complex but placing pity on these countries and the utmost need for a Westernized hero. Is there despair and poverty in Kenya? Yes. Is there despair and poverty in the United States? Yes. Regardless of where we are, considering what the photos you take and share are actually depicting is a measurable action you can take. Does the photo reflect the strength of the person? Does it treat humans in the photo as entertainment only? When someone is wanting to use imagery to advocate and empower for change, is the photo reflecting the true nature of its subject, or whatever sensationalized image will get the most emotional response?

I can’t speak to all the plights of the Kenyan people, nor can I summarize everyone who lives there within a week of being there; all I know is what I observed from my week-long trip: The people I met in Kenya are smart. They are curious. They are happy. They are resilient. Maybe if others had more opportunity to engage with non-Western worlds in an accurate and authentic way some of the negative mentalities and complexes surrounding how we view the rest of the world would begin to be transformed. I was fortunate to get physical proximity to the people of Kenya and the characteristics they exhibit, and hopefully, the visuals I shared will begin to give others a sort of pseudo-proximity to the humanity in all.

The Evolution of How I Defined a Global Citizen

Maasai warriors
Maasai warriors. Photo by Emma Laurence.

As the world has grown smaller, and the global economy and policies have pushed their way to the focus of peoples concerns, many citizens have altered their attention from the nation to the globe, defining themselves to be a global citizen. Since the introduction of social media, I have seen how easy it is to know what is happening around the world. With easy access to international information, I have seen more of my own generation focus on what they can do to help people on the international stage. Specifically, when my friends and I began deciding what we wanted to study as undergraduates, we were not focused solely on what we wanted to do but also how we could use our major to help others around the world. We would consider ourselves to be global citizens. What does it mean to be a global citizen?

Over spring break 2019, I traveled with the UAB Social Work Department along with Dr. Stacy Moak and Dr. Tina Kempin Reuter to Kenya. While we were there to work on projects that centered around a multitude of social work topics, I learned what it means to be a global citizen and how my definition of that changed throughout the trip. Before leaving for Kenya, I considered myself a global citizen, but I was not certain about what it meant to be one. From my experience in traveling, I defined a global citizen to be someone who understood that there were cultures and communities outside their own community that should be appreciated.

Before the class began, my knowledge of African culture was limited to what I saw in movies like the Lion King and Black Panther. During the class we prepared for our trip by creating lessons on our projects, expanding our knowledge about Kenyan culture, and preparing supplies to take to the groups we were meeting in Kenya. This knowledge helped me establish a basis of understanding for the communities we would be visiting. As part of our class, we read My Maasai Life: From Suburbia to Savannah by Robin Wiszowaty which educated me on many Swahili and Maa words as well as specific cultural details within the Maasai Mara. We also had a lesson on human rights and what should be available to all humans. This lesson opened my eyes to a part of global citizenship that I had not thought of because of my little education on human rights. To help communities around the globe, I must know what’s going on in international and national legislation to know where those human rights are being violated or taken away. This knowledge grants the ability and responsibility to work towards a better world where everyone has their basic rights as a human.

Emma and the Maasai women sitting in a circle having conversation
Photo by Emma Laurence

Before this trip, I had believed that this understanding would be enough to establish an appreciation for the community of the Maasai Mara. While I did appreciate the culture, I soon realized that fully experiencing a community is far more important than learning from documentaries and online sources. The experience that creates a deep connection towards communities of the world is one that is achievable when you focus on the people around you. Throughout our time in the Maasai Mara, my definition for a global citizen was redefined. From getting to go inside a Maasai community to doing beadwork with some of the hardworking Maasai mothers, I began to create relationships within the community, some even without a common language to speak.

One afternoon the students and professors sat down with the Maasai women to learn how to make soap and do beadwork, we had learned that these women used these skills to make money for their families. The woman who was tasked with trying to teach me how to do the beadwork was very patient and kind, and we didn’t even speak more than a few words to each other. I know little to no Swahili or Maa, and the woman knew no English. We were able to find a way to establish a friendship through unspoken communication, involving a lot of laughter at my inability to put beads on a string. It seemed impossible before I came to Kenya to establish a friendship with someone who came from a vastly different culture and background from mine especially if there is no common language spoken. I quickly from the trip that not only can you form relationships with people from all walks of life, but they are necessary to understand and fully appreciate the communities you visit when traveling.

While at Cara, a women’s rescue facility outside of Nairobi, I learned more about the role that I play in communities around the world. As we sat around a table where students were discussing social work practices with the counselors at Cara, I saw how the exchange between communities is important as well. We learned that the women at Cara, had the experience to help the young ladies in their facility but they needed supplies, as well as some specific lessons, plans that they hoped we could develop later for them as a future project. This exchange taught me that first, to help a community, you must be told what they need from the community itself, you cannot interpret this yourself. As an outsider in a community, I would never know what people need; therefore, by being told by the community, our group was able to help with the specific needs of the community. Second, as a global citizen, my role is not to go into communities and change them to look more like mine. My community is not always right. Therefore, you must communicate and exchange information to meet the community where they are at. Thus, I redefined a global citizen to be someone who sought out friendships so that they could enhance their love for a community and exchange knowledge to put in place future projects that would aid members of the community.

a group photo of the team from UAB
Photo by Emma Laurence

Once I returned from Kenya and quickly fell into my daily routine as a student, I found that a few more things about how I was defining a global citizen changed. The definition is not simple or short because to be a citizen of the globe involves a lot of thought and appreciate as well as work. As a global citizen, it is important to create relationships in a community to see the community as your own because as a global citizen your community is the globe. This leads to the service aspect of a global citizen. Because these communities are part of your community, you must work to help those communities where they need it, if that need is established from the community itself, while working to preserve the beauty of the culture within the area. It is your responsibility to make sure the people in your global community have the rights they deserve as a human. Therefore, you must say up to date on current events surrounding legislation around the globe especially when that legislation infringes on human rights.

While I was only able to spend a week working on the projects, my trip will be able to impact how I see myself in the world for years to come. I know now what my job is as a global citizen and how I can do that job to the best of my ability. I hope soon more people will see their role as a global citizen so we can move towards furthering knowledge for the different cultures around the globe, access to human rights for all, the exchange between communities, and international friendships.

Dr. Robert Bullard: Health Equity through Environmental, Economic and Racial Justice

a photo of Robert Bullard speaking to a crowd
Dr. Robert Bullard. Photo by UAB IHR.

Dr. Robert Bullard has been fighting alongside the citizens of various cities for their right to a clean environment. He positions himself as a dot-connector who utilizes the central theme of fairness, justice, and equity. He is a seeker of just equity. His fight began with the demand of his wife, Linda, in 1979 after she filed a lawsuit against the state of Texas and BFI, a national company seeking to dump waste in a Black community. Bean vs Southwestern Waste Management Corp. was the first lawsuit to challenge the notion of environmental justice using civil rights law. Bean found that while Blacks made up 25% of the population of Houston during the years prior to 1978, the communities in which they resided became the ‘new residences’ of 82% of the city’s waste. Environmental justice (EJ) reveals the disparate impact of the embedded disrespect White supremacy has for marginalized communities, specifically poor communities of color in the South. It exposes the interdependent relationship among pollution, corruption, and racism. oil containing PCBs dumping travesty in Warren County, North Carolina in 1982, initiated the launch of EJ on the national level. Young Black activists put their lives on the line in protests. In 1983 a study found that 75% of waste sites were in Black communities in seven (7) of eight (8) Southern states. Bullard advocates for community-based participatory research projects.

Using a variety of maps and graphs, Bullard located the roots of environmental injustice to the division of the country during enslavement. The data shows that racism can make people sick. “Your zip code is the most powerful predictor of health and well-being.” A 1994 Clinton executive order reinforced Title IX of the Civil Rights Act and by 1999, the Institute of Medicine found that persons of color were more impacted by pollution and contract more diseases than affluent White communities. The highest concentration of environmental injustices occurs in Southern Black communities, including North Birmingham and Emelle, Alabama. Emelle houses the largest chemical waste management site in the nation. This site receives waste from the lower 48 states and 12 international countries; however, this tiny town is in the heart of the Black Belt, 95% Black, and in a county that borders the AL/MS state line.

EJ is not simply about the release of pollutants into the atmosphere. It is also about the lack of accessibility in neighborhoods and the decreasing proximal distance between vehicles and pedestrians. Health connects to everything. We must redefine the environment, our understanding of it, and our relationship to it. Bullard argues that the environment, though it should be neutral and equally accessible for all, is not when the entitlement of equal protection is not applicable to some members of society. Health equity brings together all the segments which merge into intersections. EJ advocates and activists must call out the normalization of whitewashing in both the history and the present injustices plaguing marginalized communities. We need more equal partnership—with universities and communities, and among the marginalized. Marginalized communities must have a reclamation of space—free from the influence and presence of Whites—for the unshackling of all the ‘isms’ from their narratives to unify their voices and their messages. Whites must make room for, stand aside, and equally distribute finances and resources when confronted with the reality of EJ like Flint and the southern Black Belt. The erasure of history makes people ignorant but the failure to invite and listen to the voices of those most affected by EJ continues the perpetuation of the injustices.

Bullard concludes that justice has not been served in places like Flint because not only does the issue remain, the families are still poisoned, and the government officials have not received justice. For 40 years, Bullard has steadfastly shown that a commitment to EJ specifically, and justice broadly, is lifelong and intergenerational. It also requires an alliance with Whites longing to learn and build relationships. The process of mutual learning, regardless of race or age, must be met with clear expectations and a desire to focus on that which may seem ‘unsexy and unattractive’ because that is where the real need for attention lies. Community health is not just about the treatment of the sick; it is the exacting of liberty and justice for all.

Symone Sanders: Becoming a Radical Revolutionary

On Wednesday, March 20th, the Institute for Human Rights co-sponsored the UAB Lecture Series alongside Undergraduate Student Government, Graduate Student Government, Student Involvement & Leadership, and Leadership and Service Council to present political strategist and commentator Symone Sanders.

Sanders began by critiquing the cliché of how one would change the world if they had a magic wand. However, in this world, she insisted we’ll never have that opportunity because social change doesn’t operate through a blank slate. As a result, we must work with a system that doesn’t want to change which warrants radical revolutionary leadership in the spirit of community.

This evoked Sanders to propose her tenants for being a radical revolutionary:

  • First, you must be willing to buck the status quo and take a risk.
  • Second, you must be willing to feel uncomfortable and act.
  • Third, you must be willing to stand in the gap for other people.
  • Fourth, you must be willing to take on your adversaries as well as your allies.
  • Finally, you must pick an issue and care about it.

Sanders admitted these tenants were inspired by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s commitment to social change by claiming that immediately after his assassination, many Americans blamed him for his own demise because they believed he was doing too much. In contrast, Dr. King’s current legacy of racial and economic justice is well-respected. Sanders insisted Dr. King was often very uncomfortable when addressing injustice across the country and implored the audience to be more like him when it comes to strategic community building, namely when it comes to intersectional and intergenerational coalitions. As for challenging your allies, Sanders admitted that she recently had to condemn the sexual assault allegations against her friend and Virginia Lt. Governor Justin Fairfax because truth is truth and much like Dr. King, “…silence is betrayal”. She claimed radical revolutionaries are vigilant about what’s happening to marginalized communities across the country and allow themselves to hope, dream, and have an outline for social change.

 

Symone Sanders speaking to the audience. Source: UAB Institute for Human Rights

 

Amid political and social turmoil nationwide, Sanders’ lecture about becoming a radical revolutionary is timely as well as necessary. By modeling this approach from Dr. King’s legacy, Sanders has drafted a pragmatic, although challenging, formula that has and will continue to confront injustices that have outstayed their welcome in U.S. culture. Sanders largely addressed the challenges of race and sex-based discrimination, not only in the political area but in her personal life, who as a Black woman must constantly confront intersectioning prejudices that attempt, but fail, to undermine her Black womanhood.

Sanders said to the crowd, which was predominantly UAB students, there is no one more powerful in the world than young people in U.S. and that we must be willing to do things that have never been done before. This claim is particularly salient to a group of people that were likely ineligible to vote in the most recent U.S. presidential election. For this reason, these young, aspiring minds are capable of taking this narrative to their families, friends, classmates, and the voting polls which can embolden the revolutionary change our society needs and deserves.

Disability Rights, Identities, and Narratives

Photo: By NC 2.0/USAID U.S

Disability rights is an increasingly important issue in our society. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, one in four people in this country have a disability. With such a large segment of our population facing a type of disability, it is crucial for the expansion and protection of disability rights. One way in which support for people with disabilities (PwD) can be increased is through the sharing of personal narratives of the experiences and lives of individuals with a disability. Narratives help to educate the public and prevent unintentional bias or stereotypes from causing harm to this community. Giving an individual with a disability an opportunity to open up and share their stories will help empower many of our friends, families, and neighbors and show that every single member of society matters and is appreciated.

Personal narratives are a great way to bridge the gap and inform the general population about disability issues. Oftentimes what people know about disabilities stems from limited education in schools or medical commercials. These outlets tend to focus on statistics and don’t address the issue on a personal level because most of the times they are not consulting an individual with a disability. Even though one in 4 people in this country have a disability, people lack a personal connection that allows them to fully understand the discrimination and ignorance that a person with a disability faces. In fact, it is common for individuals with a disability to have stories where people have stared at them, gawked at them, pointed at them, laughed at them, or even flat out harassed them in public. In all of these cases, PwD are not treated like normal people and are often made to feel ostracized. This disconnect needs to change and this mistreatment of people with disabilities needs to end. If people hear these stories from the viewpoint of a disabled person, then a personal connection is far easier to establish.

A personal connection between both communities is crucial. Empathy and understanding are needed to end fear and uncomfortable feelings when engaging with people with disabilities. It is important for people to realize that disabilities aren’t diseases you can catch. In fact, PwD pose no risk whatsoever to those around them. Listening to PwD talk about their conditions, lives, and how they overcome their disabilities to live a fulfilling life dispels all rumors and falsehoods about disabilities. Stereotypes and prejudice disappear when people see that disabled people are just like them and that disabilities do not define an individual. Each PwD has their own unique identity that is not affected by their disability.

To combat the lack of understanding, misinformation, and stereotypes about PwD and diminish the gap that exists between both communities. It is important to create a safe place for this community. A safe place is an environment where PwD feel comfortable enough to express themselves and share their stories without any fear of judgment or repercussions. Such an environment would make them feel normal and not different from the people around them. It is high time that disabilities were normalized and that PwD are given the same treatment as anyone else. Creating a PwD inclusive space allows the PwD community to strengthen. The benefit of this is that it lets PwD not only advocate for themselves but also to advocate for other people in their community so they might not have to go through the same prejudices.

To create this safe place for PwD it is imperative to promote representation and educate people about individuals with disabilities so that disabilities are normalized in the public eye. Increasing the population’s amount of interaction with PwD is not difficult and is much needed. The earlier this takes place, the better. If society’s youth is brought up surrounded by their peers with disabilities, it would allow both communities to learn a lot from each other. Teaching younger generations how to interact with PwD is a good place to start. Treating these lessons like any other instance where you would educate a younger person about manners and social cues can prevent a lot of uncomfortable situations for people with disabilities. It can also prevent harmful biases from growing in a young child’s mind since their exposure and prior knowledge makes them understand that individuals with disabilities are humans too.

Often times, disability policies have typically been developed for people with disabilities without their direct participation. An element to creating a better environment for people with disabilities is to ensure that they are active in all sectors of the economy. It is a great thing that most public areas are now required to be accessible to PwD. The use of ramps, elevators, sloping curbs, lifts for public transportation, and other methods are required by law to ensure that PwD can navigate through their everyday lives regardless of movement impairments. However, even though these fixtures for creating a more accessible space is mandated by the law, there are many instances where there is only one wheelchair accessible table at a restaurant, or a ramp inconveniently located at the backside of an establishment.  It is not only about making space accessible, it is also about how conveniently these resources are accessible to PwD. The reason that disability friendly spaces are sometimes difficult to come by is that people with disabilities are often not the ones designing these spaces. However, having a person with a disability as someone in charge or as a consultant for these issues can help the ball get rolling. So far society has expected people with disabilities to modify themselves to fit in, but having society bend the rules to accommodate people with disabilities can be beneficial to the growth of this community. Therefore, having people with disabilities in charge and active in leadership roles can spearhead this campaign.

Representation is incredibly important for people with disabilities. The marginalization and ostracism of people with disabilities severely hinder their representation in media and pop culture. People with disabilities are the largest minority group in the United States. Yet, the 2017-2018 GLAAD report (report that analyzes diversity in television) found that only 1.8% of characters have a disability making them the least represented minority group in the TV industry. Representation shows the disabled community that they are welcome and belong just as much as any other community.  Representation is not only about quantity, but also about being represented accurately without perpetuating any negative stereotypes. More often than not, people with disabilities are depicted in TV shows and movies as these characters that are trying to overcome their disability. It would be more appropriate to show these characters embracing themselves and having a purpose bigger than overcoming their disability. This supports the argument for having more individuals with disabilities as writers, directors, producers, or media consultants. When someone without a disability creates media from the perspective of an individual with a disability, they struggle to paint a truthful picture. This may cause someone without a disability to make assumptions and maintain stereotypes. Having better quality and quantity of disability representation will expose the population to more realistic experiences of individuals with disabilities. This can help generate truthful interchange between communities.

A simple change in the public’s perception of disabled individuals would go a long way in accomplishing the goal of increasing rights and opportunities for PwD. If people can see past the disabilities and focus on the person, then most of the discrimination, awkward moments, and harmful stereotypes facing the disabled community can be resolved. Both communities advocating for change will allow greater access and accommodations for disabled individuals to pursue higher education, enter the workforce, and engage in public events and venues. People need to learn how to respect the rights of these individuals and help them when needed. It is essential to campaign and use powerful narratives to enact greater protections and rights to this community of people. Effectively normalizing disability by tackling these issues head-on can lead to widespread positive changes.

 

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