“On the Pursuit of Equity” – An Event Recap

Ajanet Rountree
Source: UAB Institute for Human Rights

On Tuesday, January 19, the Institute for Human Rights at UAB welcomed Ajanet Rountree, UAB Alumna and Ph.D. student at George Mason University, to our first Social Justice Café of the new year. As part of the King Week activities coordinated by the Office of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion, Ajanet hosted a discussion on “Dr. Kings Perception of Equity”, where she led participants in a conversation about several lesser-known but very important excerpts from Dr. King’s writings.

Dr. King is often misquoted and a large portion of his speeches and writings are excluded when discussing the rich complexity that exists within Dr. Kings work. Ajanet was meticulous in her selection of excerpts from Dr. Kings sermons, interviews, and literary works to be discussed during the Social Justice Café.

In response to Dr. King’s notion that  The real problem is that through our scientific genius weve made of the world a neighborhood, but through our moral and spiritual genius weve failed to make of it a brotherhood.”Ajanet asked participants to evaluate how they define and establish brotherhood within their personal lives. During the initial discussion participants were also asked to think about the things they value and surprisingly, none of the participants seemed to list brotherhood as one of their primary values. Ajanet then directed participants back to the original quote and reiterated that Dr. King was a staunch advocate of brotherhood. He believed without brotherhood the American people will not be able to truly unify and heal.

Moving forward, Ajanet shifted the focus of the conversation to Dr. Kings views on freedom. Ajanet asked participants to articulate their definition of freedom and how those definitions fit within current American culture. At this point in the conversation, Ajanet introduced Dr. Kings interpretation of freedom in America and the reality that there exists two separate Americas. Dr. King said, This other America has a daily ugliness about it that constantly transforms the buoyancy of hope into the fatigue of despair.” While discussing the existence of two Americas, participants began to discuss the events that took place at the United States Capitol on January 6, 2021. Ajanet concurred that the attack on the United States Capital was an exact dramatization of the existence of two Americas.

The lack of unity, understanding, and brotherhood that Dr. King warned about has caused a widening of a major subdivide within American culture. Ajanet used the words of Dr. King to express the importance of pushing legislation that protects the lives and rights of minority citizens. According to Dr. King, The law cannot make a man love me, it can restrain him from lynching me.” Sadly, the presence of love for ones brother and safety often do not exist within the same space.

The final topic of dissection within the Social Justice Café was how the participants can engage in dismantling the asymmetry that exists within America. The discussion began with Ajanet displaying two questions: What will it take for whites to relinquish power?” and Is that an aspect of personal freedom and collective justice?” The conversation around the second question was interestingly skewed amongst the participants. Some felt the dismantling of American asymmetry is a personal responsibility of the individual and should not be addressed through the lens of collective justice. Ajanet concluded by offering some final sentiments, namely that when examining the thoughts of Dr. King, it is imperative that we understand that Dr. King fully supported the unification of the American people, and that Dr. King envisioned a harmonious society built with equity and justice.

Thank you Ajanet and thank you to everyone who participated in this stimulating discussion. The next Social Justice Cafe will take place on Tuesday, February 2 at 4:00PM (CT), and we will be discussing Biden’s human rights agenda. Please join us next time and bring a friend!

To see more upcoming events hosted by the Institute for Human Rights at UAB, please visit our events page here.

People of Color Live Disproportionately Close to Superfund Sites

dirt field with a dumpster and a sign that reads "EPA Quanta Resources Superfund Site. Warning: Hazardous substances present in the soil. No trespassing.
Quanta Resources Superfund Site. Source: Anthony Albright, Creative Commons.

As a Public Health major, I am often looking at disparities and inequities in the distribution of poor health. Environmental justice, which can be defined as “the fair treatment and meaningful involvement of all people with respect to the development, implementation, and enforcement of environmental laws, regulations, and policies” is one topic I’ve learned about in many classes because of the significant impact the environment has on health. Unfortunately, the color of one’s skin plays a large role in their likelihood to live and work in an area that has an unhealthy environment, and the history of people of color unknowingly living and working in areas that are hazardous is long.

The Memphis Sanitation Strike started the environmental justice movement in February of 1968 when sanitation workers in Memphis, TN organized a strike to protest unfair treatment and the effects on their health. The workers had been receiving less pay than their white coworkers, while also doing the more dangerous work. Before the beginning of the strike, two black men had been killed by the trash compactor during work. The movement eventually lead to a recognized union and higher pay. This was not the first instance of environmental racism. However, it was one of the first time that head way was made when it comes to equality and equity.

The most famous example of a fight for environmental justice, Love Canal, seems to have few people of color as part of the story as many of the vocal people involved were white women. After heavy rain fall in 1978, residents of Love Canal, NY, noticed that there was a bad smell in the air, children were returning home after playing outside with burns on their skin, and babies were being born with birth defects at a very high rate. They didn’t know that toxic chemicals had seeped from the chemical waste dump they had built their homes and school on.

However, there was a federal housing project in the area as well that housed mainly people of color, and their voices were overshadowed by people like Lois Gibbs. The movement to move people out of the hazardous area did not extend to moving the people living in the federally funded housing to a safer area even though they were affected by the hazardous waste just as significantly. Luckily, both groups were able to relocate and receive compensation for the health effects.

While the Memphis Sanitation Strike and Love Canal both happened over 40 years ago, the environmental injustice experienced during those times has not completely gone away. Today people of color and low-income individuals are still more likely to live and work in hazardous areas. Most Superfund sites, which are areas that have been deemed severely environmentally contaminated, are within one mile of federally funded housing. Even more disturbing, a disproportionate amount of these families are people of color.

The disproportionate placing of federally funded housing, and therefore low-income communities of color, into environmentally hazardous areas stems from systematic racism, or more specifically, a Not In My Backyard (NIMBY) mentality held by higher-income white communities. No one wants to live near a hazardous waste site, a factory that releases toxic fumes, or a stinky landfill. However, the people with the power to say no get their way while the people who are already more likely to have health risks are placed in dangerous situations.

A larger problem is that low-income communities and communities of color have been not listened to. In northern Birmingham, AL a recent study showed that a coke mill on a Superfund site has been releasing carcinogenic chemicals in the air for years. Many residents have severe respiratory problems, such as asthma, and now can’t survive without many medications. However, the EPA didn’t catch the extremely high levels of rarer toxins in the air because they don’t typically test for those. It took a study from a nongovernmental organization to expose the harm that the coke mill was doing to this community.

No one wants to live somewhere that is going to make themselves or their family sick, and they shouldn’t have to. While the United States has made progress towards environmental justice over the past 40 years, there is still a long way to go. Superfund sites were created in 1980, but most of the current public housing was created before then. New federally funded housing should not be put near hazardous areas like Superfund sites, and we should work on solutions to clean up Superfund sites near federally funded housing or moving that housing . By reducing the number of housing projects near hazardous waste and taking note when a whole community gets sick, we will begin to move towards racial and income equity when it comes to the environment we live and work in.

Fires and COVID-19 Race Through Lesvos Migrant Camp

We are asking for the European community to help. Why are they not listening to us? Where are the human rights? We took refuge in the European Union but where are they? There are no toilets, no showers, no water. Nothing. Not any security or safety. We die here every day.”

Devastation in Moria

On the night of September 8th, 2020, fires raged through Europe’s largest migrant camp in Moria, Lesvos in Greece. It is home to more than 13,000 people which is 6x its capacity. Recently, Moria has caused deep political divisions and unrest in Europe over Mediterranean migration. Moria serves a direct transit point for hundreds of thousands of people seeking refuge from Afghanistan and Syria with the European Union. After Europe started closing its borders and putting a quota on the number of immigrants 4 years ago, life in Moria began to be plagued by mental and physical health issues and desperation. What was originally a temporary camp, became the home of deplorable conditions for people who were running from another deplorable environment.

On the night of the fires, thousands of Moria residents were displaced and are currently being refused entry into Europe, being refused basic rights to shelter and safety, being refused access to proper shelter and sanitation, and being refused their human rights. Since fleeing the fires, the refugees have resorted to sleeping on fields and the sides of roads. Thousands of migrants are now demanding more permanent housing because their situation is so out of the norm and they just want to feel safe in one environment, but their cries for help are continuing to go unheard. The Greek government has taken positive steps to build a more permanent migrant camp, but this leaves little to no hope for refugees seeking a better life outside of Lesvos.

This picture shows the a part of the residential area of the Moria camp where proper housing is severely limited and lacking along with our necessities. Source: Marianna Karakoukali

While accounts of how the fires started are currently being investigated the Greek government is claiming to have identified the culprits. Rumors of how the fires started are illustrative of ethnic and political tensions on Lesvos. The refugee migrants are tired of their poor living circumstances and the local population is upset with lack of regional, national, and international support for managing the influx of migrants and refugees on the island. While a second civil rights movement is happening not only in the United States, but all around the world, racial and ethnic tensions are high. Many refugees feel the European Union is turning its back on them. The European Union is becoming less tolerant for migrants and refugees, when it had once promised to help.

So how is COVID-19 affecting Moria?

Earlier this year, Greece went into lockdown and put travel restrictions on tourists coming in and residents going out. At the beginning of September, there was a small outbreak among the residents at the Moria camp, and human rights advocates are concerned that the Greek government is using this outbreak as an opportunity to further constrain the lives and freedoms of the migrants. The Greek minister for migration; Mitarchi, released a statement saying that the outbreak suggests need for a more “closed and controlled” environment for the migrants. This is odd considering that Moria has experienced far fewer cases than the rest of Greece, but the restrictions placed over the lives in Moria were much higher in comparison. In the Spring, the United Nations was so overwhelmed and concerned with livelihood and the living conditions at Moria that they called to expedite the migration process and related paperwork. So along with the day to day living conditions at Moria, COVID-19 and readily available access to healthcare is making life harder for the migrants. The fires may have been set in retaliation against the newer COVID-19 restrictions by the migrants or they might’ve been set by the local residents who fear the spread of COVID from the camp.

What is going on now?

In the meantime, while the Greek government is talking to French and Italian national leaders, riot police have been deployed to both the site where fires have been set, and also to the new refugee camp that is being set up to shelter those abandoned in Moria. This new site is at Kara Tepe where local media has identified helicopters that have been transporting tents and other necessities for the residents. In the fires, refugee documentation and belongings have been lost and burned, so it is still being determined how accessible the new site at Kara Tepe will be. Many refugees are now saying that they will not go back to another refugee camp where proper living conditions are not guaranteed, but the Greek government is saying that it will “not be blackmailed.”

Refugees sleep on side of the road following the fires, while they await further government housing and instructions. Source: Tasnim News Agency

What can you do to help?

A Human Rights Perspective on the Opioid Crisis in America

Pills
Pills. Source: Jamie. Creative Commons.

The opioid crisis in the United States is not something I often hear about in the news nowadays. Or maybe it is so often in the news that the title fades into the background amongst the news about politics. However, the opioid epidemic affects millions of people across the United States, and it has affected them for years. Human rights concerns connected to the epidemic have begun to grow in recent years as controversies regarding the United States health care system and law enforcement systems have come to light.

The crisis began with the expansion of opioids for medical purposes in the 1990s. The initial goal with opioids was to treat pain but the drugs soon became exploited by pharmaceutical companies eager to increase their profit revenue [1]. Before the addictive and harmful properties of opioids became known both to the public and to healthcare professionals, prescriptions for opioid medications increased rapidly across the country.

The introduction of extended-release oxycodone in 1996 along with claims by the manufacturers that it was less addictive and effective for up to 12 hours was a major catalyst for the epidemic. There are three described waves of opioid overdose deaths in the United States. The first wave began with an increase in the prescription of opioids, increasing since at least 1999. The second wave included overdose deaths involving heroin, the increase beginning in 2010. The third wave included an increase in overdose deaths involving synthetic opioids such as illicitly manufactured fentanyl (IMF) in 2013.

Hospital
Hospital. Source: Marissa Anderson. Creative Commons.

The first reaction to the opioid crisis was to limit the number of prescriptions in the market. However, this drove many to use the less expensive and more accessible street heroin. Cheaper and stronger opioids kept reappearing on the market, leading to an accelerated rate of fatal overdoses. Most addictions start with diverted supplies instead of among doctors’ patients. This was the case with heroin, which causes 4% of those who were using prescription opioids to switch to heroin. While 4% seems like a small percentage, 4% of the large number of people taking opioid pills is actually very large and enough to exacerbate the crisis [2]. In 2017, the United States Department of Health and Human Services declared a public health emergency. Over 130 people die every day from opioid-related overdoses and 10.3 million people in the United States misused prescription opioids in 2018. In 2017, more than 70,200 people died from drug overdoses. Of those 70,200, around 68% involved opioids.

White Americans make up roughly 80 percent of opioid overdose victims. The attention of the coverage of the opioid crisis has primarily centered on white Americans, pushing aside the attention on minorities affected by the crisis. Minorities made up 20 percent of opioid related deaths in July of 2019, but that number is growing. The crisis has highlighted the racial disparities in the US healthcare system as many experts believe that the number of opioid related deaths in minority populations would be greater if minorities had access to the same level of health care as white Americans. It is known that people of color have had a significant lack of access to the American healthcare system throughout history and throughout the recent years. This disparity lowers the probability that non-whites in American would be prescribed opioids and thus lowers the chance that the population would suffer fatal overdoses. Despite the low death rates due to the exclusions within the health care system, the abuse of opioids is still abundant in communities of color. Scientists have witnessed a doubling of overdose death rates among African Americans, a factor that is being overshadowed by the media and societal focus on the death rates of whites.

Police
Police Officer. Source: G20 Voice. Creative Commons.

The law enforcement system has failed minorities in the opioid crisis as well. The War on Drugs, an attempt at cracking down on the opioid epidemic, has disproportionately affected African American communities across the United States. Studies have shown that law enforcement officials target black communities for drug violations significantly more than they target white communities. While drug use is similar between white communities and black communities, members of the black community are 13 times more likely to be arrested for buying and using drugs. In 2013, black and Hispanic populations represented 29 percent of the entire United States population. Despite this, the number of black and Hispanic prisoners arrested for drug related charges dominated that of whites. Not only is this true, but the United States Sentencing Commission also released a report stating that black prisoners receive longer sentences than white prisoners, despite both groups being convicted of similar weighted crimes.

The opioid crisis has hurt millions of people and families across the United States, one of the most diverse countries in the world. Despite this, the national attention has primarily focused on how the crisis has affected the white population. It is important to focus not only on how the opioid crisis has affected minorities, but also how the health care and law enforcement systems have responded to the opioid crisis in minority groups. The disparities within these systems must be fixed in order to provide an equal treatment of all groups.

[1] The Global Commission on Drug Policy. The Opioid Crisis in America. 2017.

[2] The Global Commission on Drug Policy. The Opioid Crisis in America. 2017.

Saudi Arabia Human Rights Violations: Freedom of Religion and Speech

I recently wrote a blog post commending Saudi Arabia on advancements made with women’s rights. However, to follow up, I think it is important to note what Saudi Arabia still gets wrong in terms of human rights. While there are many ongoing human rights violations, the following discourse will focus specifically on the oppression of religious minorities, namely Shia Muslims, and the lack of freedom of speech. I am writing this post not to join the voices that criticize for the sake of criticizing, but rather because I think it is important for Muslims to be vocal about their expectations for countries that claim to be representing Islam.

An image showing Shia Muslims in Saudi Arabia protesting the bombing of one of their mosques.
Shia Muslims in Saudi Arabia protesting after one of their mosques has been attacked. Source: Yahoo Images, Creative Commons.

Shia Muslims

Shia Muslims are a minority sect in Islam, making up around 10 percent of all Muslims. Because of this, they are often subject to oppression and discrimination by Sunni Muslims. Despite the fact that harmful rhetoric against Shia Muslims exists in most, if not all, Sunni-majority countries, it is especially disturbing in Saudi Arabia considering that the hatred and intolerance towards Shia Muslims has become institutionalized. For example, the Saudi Arabian government has allowed officials and religious scholars to belittle Shia Muslims and their beliefs. This is not only concerning because of the harmful language used, but also because these officials and scholars have influence over both the government and the general public, and thus play significant roles in shaping policy and public opinion. One government official known for spreading hateful rhetoric about Shia Muslims was Former Grand Mufti Abdel Aziz bin Baz, who was quoted saying, “The Shia are Muslims and our brothers? Whoever says this is ignorant, ignorant about rejectionists for their evil is great.” This is one example of many, but it illustrates the hateful rhetoric that Shia Muslims are often victims of.

The institutionalization of hatred against Shia Muslims is most clear in the Saudi Arabian justice and education systems. The justice system is highly discriminatory against Shia Muslims, namely in the criminalization of their religious practices and beliefs. Further, the government has made it illegal to build Shia mosques outside of Shia-majority cities. The education system is perhaps the worst of all, though, because it perpetuates the cycle of discrimination against Shia Muslims by indoctrinating young Saudi children with anti-Shia sentiments. For example, textbooks used in elementary and middle schools stigmatize Shia beliefs and practices and go as far as to claim that Shia Muslims are disbelievers, suggesting that Shia should not be considered Muslims. While criticizing their beliefs and practices is problematic in and of itself, saying that Shia are not Muslims is impermissible, both ethically and religiously, and only serves to cause further hatred and intolerance.

An image showing a protest sign advocating for the release of an imprisoned female Saudi Arabian activist.
A protest sign advocating for both freedom of speech and the release of Israa al-Ghomgham, an imprisoned female Saudi Arabian activist. Source: Yahoo Images, Creative Commons.

Freedom of Speech

The most blatant example of a human rights violation against the people of Saudi Arabia is the lack of freedom of speech, which has especially detrimental ramifications for individuals advocating for human rights. For example, in 2018, several women’s rights activists were arrested and charged with treason solely for their work in activism. This came at the same time that Prince Mohammed bin Salman had lifted the ban on women driving, and ironically, many of the women who were arrested had been advocating for women’s right to drive. Thus, while lifting the ban was a positive move forward, the imprisonment of these women makes the intentions behind Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s decision to lift the ban confusing; it is difficult to deduce whether Prince Mohammed bin Salman is truly concerned with women’s rights, or if this was a step taken to make Saudi Arabia appear that it is being reformed and moving towards modernization. His intentions can be further called into question considering the extent to which these women’s rights have been violated; not only were these women arrested and detained, but it is known that they were also electrically shocked and whipped during interrogations, which amounts to cruel and inhumane treatment. To this day, some of these women are still imprisoned, unlikely to be released without international intervention. However, it is important to note that this was not an isolated event. While Saudi Arabia has always used arrests and detentions to deal with dissidents, the number of detentions significantly increased after Prince Mohammed bin Salman took power in 2017; over 60 individuals identified as dissidents have been arrested and held.

Muslims around the world strongly oppose Islamophobia and the oppression of Muslims, which is a great thing. However, Muslims tend to be silent about Saudi Arabia’s human rights violations, which is troubling. While many Muslims do call out these violations, many others either turn a blind eye, or even worse, find justifications for these violations. However, this is a double standard; if Muslims around the world truly care about their own rights, it follows that they must care about the rights of all of those who are oppressed, especially when Muslim majority countries are responsible for causing this oppression.

Water Insecurity in the United States

Dirty water spilling our of a glass jug
Dirty water spilling out of a large glass carboy on its side. Source: Ildar Sagdejev, creative commons.

Access to clean water and sanitation is rarely something we have to worry about here in the United States; it comes out of faucets and water fountains at a seemingly endless supply. However, in many parts of the world—including some areas of the United States—access to clean water and sanitation is a major issue and can affect more than just people’s physical health.

In 2010, the UN recognized access to safe water and sanitation as a human right, and the issue was included among the UN’s sustainable development goals in 2015. With the UN’s focus on clean water access, many developing countries have started making efforts to increase access. However, many developed countries, like the United States, have neglected to develop their rural areas, which leaves a significant portion of their population without clean water for drinking and sanitation purposes. In fact, their situations can be similar to situations in developing countries.

Many Americans would be surprised to know that in more rural areas, it’s often not uncommon for people to go without a sophisticated sewer and water system because the infrastructure has not yet been built. In Lowndes county in Alabama, a largely rural and agricultural area, less than one fifth of the population has a safe way to dispose of their sewage waste. This issue can cause the sewage to back up into their systems or to overflow to their backyards. Neither of these outcomes are ideal for promoting health.

The people that are mainly affected by water insecurity and a lack of clean water in the United States are those that are already disadvantaged; the higher your income, the more likely it is you will have complete and adequate plumbing. This leaves those that live in lower socioeconomic areas with lower performing schools and fewer resources more likely to experience issues like inadequate plumbing and lead-contaminated water.

The systems that have the most problems are the ones that serve rural communities. When a city has a sewer issue, more people are paying for the water, so the extra cost is distributed more widely. In a rural community, there are less people to distribute the cost across, so it’s harder to come by the money to update the sewer systems. Because smaller communities have a harder time paying for necessary repairs and upgrades, the residents in these areas have to choose between drinking contaminated water or paying for bottled water.

Another issue that arises is when communities have a city water system but lack the appropriate people to run it. Some areas have no one to run their systems, while other rural sewer systems are operated by volunteers. In Kanawha Falls, West Virginia, a resident was elected to clean the water, but failed to test and report the water, and the state threatened to arrest him. Scotts Mills, Oregon cannot afford to hire workers for the water system, so they rely on volunteers and community reports of smells to know when work needs to be done.

Because some systems don’t have the staff and infrastructure to test regularly, many don’t realize their water is contaminated until they experience an adverse health outcome. For example, in Kanawha Falls, cited 2 thousand times over ten years for not testing and reporting water quality, a man who had skull surgery got two infections from the contaminated water. He now has to keep his head covered when he showers.

These problems aren’t exclusively in rural areas; lower-income areas—typically those in minority communities—also experience these problems. The most famous example is the lead poisoning in Flint, Michigan, where 62.6% of the population is a racial or ethnic minority. At one point, the lead levels—caused by improperly treated water corroding pipes—were almost three times past being considered hazardous waste. While the lead contamination was discovered in 2015, Flint is still dealing with these issues today. The lead’s effect on the community of Flint was enormous: children came down with a rash and mysterious illness; experts believe that lead was responsible for 198 to 276 fetal deaths; and twice as many children were diagnosed with lead-poisoned blood than before.

Flint is not the only area that has experienced issues like this, and Flint is not the only community at risk. Using income information and housing age, Vox and the Washington State Department of Health created a map to show what areas are more susceptible to lead poisoning. They also take the potential of lead paint into account, but the map shows that the at-risk areas are mainly cities, especially those that used to be industrial areas. Looking at the cities I know—Birmingham and Chattanooga—I can tell the areas at the highest risk are those that have a large minority population.

Water insecurity affects people’s mental health as well. Those that have less access to clean water experience more emotional distress. One thing many people, especially in urban areas, count on is easy access to water from their taps. However, when that easy access turns out to be harmful, like it is in Flint, anxiety and worry can rise. Parents that unknowingly gave their children contaminated water may feel guilt even though they didn’t intentionally give their children toxic water. In Flint specifically, levels of fear and anxiety were at an all-time high following the news of the contamination. In 2016, there were reports of parents coming to the ER with water-related breakdowns; many were distressed over the health of their children.

In areas where there’s a lack of water altogether, people can face similar issues. A lack of access to water—whether it be a loss of water through drought or a lack of water to begin with—has been connected to decreased mental health. Those in areas that are water insecure may experience anxiety, water-related emotional distress, and insomnia, among other symptoms. Additionally, the effects of dehydration play a role in mental health. Dehydration has been linked to increased stress, anxiety, depression, and panic attacks. Those facing water insecurity are more likely to become dehydrated, so these symptoms should not be taken likely.

Water insecurity and lack of clean water access disproportionately affect minorities and rural populations. This means these already disadvantaged groups are more likely to experience the adverse effects. Clean water access is considered a human right, but even here in the United States there are people suffering from a lack of clean water.

A Seat at the Table: Learning the True Meaning of Representation at COSP12

Image showing a sculpture of a globe outside the United Nations building in New York.
Globe outside the United Nations. Photo by Samih Eloubeidi.

A few months ago, I was sent to the United Nations as an Official Rapporteur to the 12th Session of the Conference of State Parties to the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (COSP). The theme of this year’s COSP was implementing the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD) to ensure the inclusion of persons with disabilities (PWD) in society. While at the conference, I attended several side events that highlighted how different NGOs, companies, and organizations have made efforts to include PWD in all facets of society. Furthermore, I had the opportunity to transcribe the General Debate and Round Table Three Discussion of the General Assembly, both of which focused specifically on the inclusion of PWD in society through participation in cultural life, recreation, leisure, and sport. For this blog post, though, I want to focus on two of the side events I attended, because I believe that the personal lessons they taught me were the most valuable lessons I learned at the conference.

The first side event I attended detailed how artificial intelligence (AI) and other technology can be used to increase the inclusion, participation, and independence of PWD. Many of the panelists noted that while AI can help PWD, it can also be an obstacle that further perpetuates the societal exclusion of PWD. In response to this point, Megan Lowery, the representative for Microsoft, highlighted the importance of including PWD in the creation and dissemination of technology, noting that their input is indispensable for ensuring that the AI is in fact facilitating PWD’s inclusion and participation. As a testament to this, Alejandro Moledo from the European Disability Forum (EDF) detailed “Plug and Pray?”, a report created by the EDF to provide a perspective from PWD on emerging technologies. The report highlights the concerns and risks PWD have about these technologies and provides partial recommendations to policy makers and AI creators.

The second side event I attended focused on deinstitutionalization in the Arab region to support the inclusion and independence of PWD. As a Middle Easterner myself, I was particularly excited about this panel and the insights it would provide. Her Excellency Haifa Abu Ghazaleh and Her Excellency Ghada Wali both detailed that institutions should be made to provide health care, educational opportunities, and other resources for PWD rather than just being institutions where PWD are placed. In this way, PWD would have systems of support that would allow them to live independently while also giving them access to opportunities that could increase their inclusion in society. The discussion was opened to the panelists, all of whom were PWD; Mr. Ibrahim Abdullah, Mr. Mohammed Lotfy, and Mr. Muhannad Alazzeh. Mr. Abdullah stated that he is supportive of deinstitutionalization due to the fact that institutions isolate children with disabilities from their communities, while both Mr. Lotfy and Mr. Alazzeh supported transforming the institutions into support systems for PWD.

While these events were incredibly informative, it is not the information alone that has stuck with me. As I watched the panelists and speakers share their thoughts, the phrase, “a seat at the table”, continuously came to mind; the panelists and speakers at both side events I detailed were PWD discussing issues that PWD face. To me, this is what true representation is supposed to look like. When dealing with issues pertaining to any minority group, the people from that minority group should be responsible for leading the discourse. It is upsetting to see, then, that many people try to lead discourse when the discourse is not theirs to lead. Being well versed on the plight and issues that other minority groups face does not and should not make allies feel as though we can adequately address these issues. It is true that all minorities face struggle, but that is the extent of the commonality between us; every minority faces struggles differently, and we cannot assume that our own struggles are similar to, or even on the same level as, the struggles others face. After being at the conference, I realized that sometimes I too try to be a voice for others. However, I understand now that when it comes to discourse pertaining to other minorities, my voice is solely meant to be used to support, rather than to supplant, their voices.

From this, I also learned what it means to truly be an ally. An ally is someone who stands on the periphery of the aforementioned table, allowing the ones whose issues are being discussed to be the ones claiming the seats. However, as allies, we cannot be selective on which tables we stand on the periphery of, and this is where the conference revealed a major fault in my being an ally. I pride myself on being an adherent to intersectionality, so I was disappointed in myself when I realized that I have never included PWD within the realm of my discourse pertaining to minority rights. However, to be pro-black, pro-Muslim, pro-women, etc. is to be an advocate for the rights of PWD; these identities are not mutually exclusive. Thus, when I say that I am an adherent to intersectionality, I have a responsibility to include all minorities within this claim of adherence.

I believe that for any internal growth to occur, we need to be challenged. Without being challenged, our thought processes and views of life are static, hindering us from moving forward and evolving into better versions of ourselves. I am grateful to the IHR and Dr. Reuter for giving me the opportunity to attend the COSP, for without this experience, I do not think I would have had these faults revealed to me as clearly as they were. As I move forward, I will carry these lessons with me and continue working on bettering myself as both a person and an ally.

A LGBTQ+ Perspective on Today’s World

picture of a gay pride rally in Leeds, England
Leeds Pride. Source: Bryan Ledgard, Creative Commons,

LGBTQ+ youth today may look at the world around them and think all hope is lost. It is understandable because the possibility of an entire community losing their civil rights at any moment is creating a looming fear. As human beings, we all come to terms with ourselves in our own ways; whether it is simply growing into yourself in order to find out who you are, or growing into someone you never imagined. The process of coming to terms with identity is completely different when your sexuality is not the “social norm.” Growing up, I felt scared of myself, and fearful of what the future might hold for people like me. However in 2015, when marriage equality became law, I thought to myself, “We are finally getting to a place where children will not have to grow up like I did.”

My story is not the same as every LGBTQ+ individual around the country, and certainly not across the globe. Every day, I wake up hoping that I do not hear of another story about a Matthew Shepard or Pulse Nightclub tragedy. To live as an open member of the LGBTQ+ community is to live in a constant state of worry. You may not always feel it, but the hum of it, however quiet it may be, still echoes through the back of your mind. It is a worry for your brothers, sisters, others of your community, and for yourself. This infringes upon our right to security, as we are afraid to be ourselves in public spaces. This fear even extends to private places because for many, our families are the main aggressors. For youths who suffer through the pain of oppression at the hands their family, there is never a true sense of peace.

I have faced discrimination throughout the course of my life. Based on my rumored sexuality, I experienced exclusion from many of things. It is a pivotal moment in one’s life when they choose to come out. It is a time that you accept all the ridicule, the torment, and the imminent threat of attack. I have emotional scars from peers and family that still haunt me to this day. Yet, what hurts me most is the look in another person’s eyes when they become aware of my sexuality; it is that look—from people whom I have never met—which is devastating. How can someone who knows nothing about me, judge me?

While the future for American LGBTQ+ youth seems frightening and uncertain, it is nothing compared to those of the LGBTQ+ community across the globe. A LGBTQ+ youth in the Middle East and Northern Africa has a different perspective based upon cultural experience and a belief that there is no hope and fear that there never will be–an upbringing filled with trials comparatively different to those I suffered as a youth. Living as an open member of the LGBTQ+ community in a Muslim country can potentially turn into a life threatening choice. Imagine that: telling your friends and family who you are, and then fearing that your life could end at that exact moment. That fear, no matter how far from home, affects us all.

Turkey is one of the few Middle Eastern countries where homosexuality is legal. Unfortunately, homophobia is still very prevalent so when a group of members from the community tried to initiate their own Pride festival, local authorities shot them with water cannons, rubber bullets, and sprayed them with tear gas. Across the Middle East, there are standing laws to persecute those of the LGBTQ+ community, including imprisonment for up to 10 years. In Ancient Egypt, being gay or lesbian was a godlike quality; however, in modern times, homosexuality is viewed as sin and punishable by death. When the White House went up in rainbow colored lights in 2015, the authorities in Saudi Arabia went on the hunt. Children face death around the country for “deviant” behavior by their own governments. A privately run school in Riyadh was fined $26,500 (in U.S. dollars) for painting the rooftop in rainbow stripes, and one of the administrators for the school was jailed for allowing such a “monstrosity”. Afghanistan banned the decorating of cars with rainbow stickers because it “may be misinterpreted.” In Iran, Yemen, and other Middle Eastern countries, many face execution for engaging in sodomy.

 

a picture of a city hall building, lighted with rainbow colored lights in honor of gay pride
City Hall. Source: Tom Hilton, Creative Commons.

An assembly was called on in 2015 by the United States and Chile to bring light to the attacks on the LGBTQ+ community that are prominent in the Middle East, specifically by the Islamic State. Syrian refugees who fled their war-torn homeland spoke to the United Nations about what their life and the suffering they endured. One man admitted to hiding his sexuality his entire life, saying, “In my society, being gay means death.” Another man told of his witnessing of an al-Qaeda affiliated group taking control of his hometown and began torturing and murdering men that others thought to be gay. Cheering audiences attended the executions of gay men. Some men, tossed from building ledges, meet their death; however, for those who do not die upon impact, the hateful crowd stoned them to death.

Institutionalized discrimination is a prominent threat no matter where one may look across the globe.

In the south and in the US, we feel criminalized; in the Middle East, we are criminalized. 

Being a part of a marginalized community has affected me in many negative ways, but also in positive ways. I feel a commonality with people I have never met and will likely never have the luxury of doing. As a part of the community, I am “branded in rainbow”, which is the most fulfilling feeling that I had experienced. I chose to take all of the negativity that surrounded me and channel it into positivity. This community and a shared experience has made me stronger, more confident, and allowed me to channel my anger by turning it into passion. As a member of this community, I implore you to become more accepting of the people around you, no matter where you may be from or what you may practice. It is powerful to feel human, and it is a feeling we all deserve.

 

 

Protests: Movement Towards Civil Rights

** The National Walkout Day last week and the upcoming March for Our Lives protests organized by the surviving students of the Parkland school shooting in February has prompted this blog repost from 2016. 

Signs carried by many marchers during March on Washington, 1963. Source: Library of Congress, Creative Commons.

 

Have you ever considered the pilgrims’ decision to leave England over religious freedoms, as a protest? Or slave rebellions as a protest to the dehumanizing treatment of being viewed as less than human or 3/5 of a person? Or the suffragettes dressed in white marching for the constitutional right to vote? Often most people point to protest images of the Civil Rights movement or Vietnam War as finite examples of protest, believing that protests are a thing of the past and no longer applicable in 2016. What I find fascinating is how quickly a protest is discounted as merely a group of unsatisfied people gathering together under a banner of their perceived oppression.

I use the phrase “perceived oppression” because it was used as a matter of fact, rather than projected opinion, by Facebook webstar Tomi Lahren in an interview two weeks ago. During a segment, Lahren assumed that Colin Kaepernick’s national anthem protest was rooted in his “perceived oppression” about how black people and people of color are treated in this country. Aside from The Daily Show audience, Tomi Lahren’s videos boast between 7-17 million views – an incredible feat for someone who doesn’t seem to understand the power of her platform. Lahren is entitled to her opinion. She is granted that right as a human being and a citizen of this country, as written in the first amendment. Additionally, Colin Kaepernick, Black Lives Matter, gay rights activists, and anti-abortionists do too. Here’s where I have issue: the lack of regard for fact and truth. So where does a disregard for truth and fact leave the minorities who are oppressed? They remain outcasts due to opinion rather finding allies through fact.

The fact is oppression is real.

It is not just an impact felt by American minorities; it is an international way of societal coexistence to which the natural response is protest and resistance. **For the sake of this blog, the term ‘minority’ means every group that is not a part of the majority, whether by race, gender, class, ethnicity, sexual orientation, and/or ability.

Many have concluded that the not-so-silent white majority came out in force in support of Trump over Clinton in this election. The narrative is that for the past 6-8 years, their voices had been silenced under a lack of jobs, healthcare, and education. In this election and with this new president, their voices are now being heard. Yet, what about the voices of the minority groups who have been asking for the same things for longer than 6-8 years… how about centuries? When and how will their voices be heard?

Most major languages have a word for violence; however, the idea of nonviolence is the combination of the words that mean ‘not violence’. The Sanskrit word, ahimsa, means ‘not doing harm’, and Mahatma Gandhi reiterated that ahimsa “does not mean meek submission to the will of the evildoer, but it means pitting one’s whole soul against the will of the tyrant.” Gandhi and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. are names synonymous to the principle and practice of nonviolent resistance.

Gandhi was the first to explore the expansion of nonviolence from an individual lifestyle into a concerted political and social justice strategy, believing that nonviolence was used with more frequency and brought about more success than violence. Dr. Erica Chenoweth and Maria Stephan analyzed 323 violent and nonviolent resistance movement from over 100 years, substantiating Gandhi’s claim: “nonviolent resistance campaigns were nearly twice as likely to achieve full or partial success as their violent counterparts.” Dr. Stephen Zunes concludes that nonviolent action, in the form of resistance, has been taking place as a part of political life for centuries. It is their success which has garnered attention as the cause of human rights has advanced as a direct result of “toppling or dramatically reforming repressive regimes.” Nonviolence protest is a deliberate tool for social change. It is not an ad hoc strategy. It is, rather, a methodical method of struggle which is no longer simply rooted in religious or ethical principles. Gene Sharp labels it as political defiance.

So what is protest?

Protest is a right. The first amendment of our Constitution grants all Americans the right to peaceful assembly and to express dissatisfaction to the government. Additionally, according to Article 20 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), peaceful assembly has been declared a human right. The clarifying word is peaceful, or nonviolent, in both documents. It is imperative to understand that a riot is not a right.

Protest is different to riot. Dr. King emphasized that the riot is socially destructive and self-defeating but it is also the “language of the unheard,” thus the counteraction to a riot is to organize in nonviolent resistance based on the principle of love.

Kiev monk hearing confession during protest. Source: Jim Forest, Creative Commons.

 

Protest is not passive. Students in Serbia (Yugoslavia) organized a nonviolent resistance in cities around the country as a means of protesting the dictatorship of Slobodan Milosevic. They called themselves, Otpor!. By adapting Gene Sharp’s book as a manual, Otpor! positioned themselves under a threefold banner of unity, planning, and nonviolent discipline. The strategy was nonviolent resistance with concerts, sprayed painted slogans, and ridicule of the government, including a “birthday party for Milosevic”. The resistance which began as a student-led protest became a movement of more than 700,000, resulting in an overthrown government.

Protest is the struggle for recognition of an injustice. By honing in on societal structural violence, which is made manifest through cultural and social institutions, nonviolent protests are not about ‘attacking people’ as much as they are about calling attention to and addressing the “psychological, social, economic, and political weapons applied by the population and the institutions of the society”, believes Gene Sharp. In New York City 1985, at the height of the AIDS epidemic, the gay community and their heterosexual allies took to the streets in protest of governmental failure to fund and research a cure. At the time, millions of people worldwide had succumbed to AIDS-related illnesses. Activists under the banner of ACT UP and TAG sought to bring awareness and solution to governmental decision to penalize human beings for their lifestyle choice. Therefore, not only were they denied their constitutional right to protest but their human right to medical care which is included in the standard of living, identified in Article 25 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR).

The UDHR is the international standard for the treatment of human beings. The document sheds light on Dr. King’s pronouncement that “Justice is indivisible. Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” What interesting is that the Pledge of Allegiance and the Constitution of the United States of America both speak of liberty and justice is for all, and that all men are created equal. Equality is a misnomer for some citizens of this country and the world.

How does justice exist for all if you are the target of a hate crime or laws designed against you?

Gandhi said, “The first condition of nonviolence is justice all round in every department of life. Perhaps, it is too much to expect of human nature. I do not, however, think so. No one should dogmatize the capacity of human nature for degradation or exaltation.” To find justice all round in every department of life, a person must begin with self. Johann Gottlieb Fichte announced, “if you are to see differently, you must first of all become different.”

Source: Revolution Messaging, Creative Commons.

Protest is the courageous outward expression of inner dissatisfaction or disapproval. Angela Y. Davis asserts that the struggle is exemplified in protest. Grassroots nonviolent movements, or as Diana Francis refers to them as “people power” movements, have consistently challenged repressive and unjust systems for generations. So what can you do to join nonviolent resistance movements which seek to expose and eradicate structural violence directed at minorities in the form of oppression and repression? Adapt four characteristics of a nonviolent ethic as exemplified in Gandhi and King. The four characteristics of identity and ethics from the lives of Dr. King and Gandhi are a compassionate, cosmopolitan worldview, a truthful reality, an educated voice, and love. As students of their work and life, we can possess and impress these characteristics upon others, transforming the world through personal change in order to garner social change.

  • A compassionate, cosmopolitan worldview: The word cosmopolitan comes from the Greek words cosmo meaning world, as in universe not earth, and polis referring to the city that one owes loyalty. Voltaire says, “Cosmopolitans… regard all the peoples of the earth as so many branches of a single family, and the universe as a state, of which they, with innumerable other rational beings, are citizens, prompting together under the general laws of nature the perfection of the whole, while each in his own fashion is busy about his own well-being.” Therefore, the possession of a cosmopolitan worldview means we have placed ourselves under the loyalty of the world and the citizens who share this common space, with the added dimension of compassion.
  • A truthful reality: A truthful reality is not a denial of the past. It is the understanding that the past and those who endured it, are the launching pad for those of us living in the present. Davis states, “in the 1960s we confronted issues that should have been resolved in the 1860s. And I’m making this point because what happens when 2060 rolls around? Will people still be addressing these same issues? And I also think it’s important for us to think forward and imagine future history in a way that is not restrained by our own lifetimes.”
  • An educated voiceWilliam Ellery Channing concluded that “others are affected by what I am, and say, and do. And these others have also their sphere of influence. So that a single act of mine may spread in widening circles through a nation or humanity.” Everett Rogers studies the diffusion of innovations in societies. He has concluded that for an idea–whether true or false, good or bad—to become embedded in society, it only takes 5% of the population to believe it, and if 20% become aware of the idea, it becomes unstoppable. In Rwanda, the genocide of Tutsis by Hutus in April 1994, was because of untruths spewed from the radio.
  • Love: Dr. King professed that “love is the only creative, redemptive, transforming power in the universe.” The beauty of love is that you can love and disagree. Love is a choice. You choose to be ruled and guided by love, just as you choose to be ruled and guided by fact or opinion, or emotions and feelings.

Protest gives an AND rather than an OR.

 

Black Panther: A Game-Changing Film

A laughing boy.
Child laughing. Source: cheriejoyful, Creative Commons

On February 16, 2018, the revolutionary movie, Black Panther, was finally released for the world to enjoy.  The film provides the audience with a much-needed source of representation for the black community, both on and off-screen.  Black Panther is part of a revolutionary change in an industry that has historically disregarded people of color.

Depiction of Black Characters

It is easy to see that Black Panther is a game-changer in the film industry in relation to its production, but it also includes a much-improved depiction of black characters.  They are multi-dimensional and have their own personal histories and experiences.  They are not forced into any one single role, challenging the idea that people of minorities are limited to the surface-level narratives that society usually expects.  They are real people who have struggles, fears, and triumphs.  It lacks the stereotypes that films often use to create characters of color.  The normative roles given to black actors are often of dangerous criminals with limited education, such as drug dealers and con-artists.  These kinds of characters worsen the incorrect and harmful perception that much of society has of black men.  When black roles are actually given positive characteristics, they are still generally given littles depth, and are used as nothing more than support for the white main character.

The Black Panther himself, T’Challa, is not just a superhero (though his being a superhero is significant in itself).  He is the king of Wakanda and acts as a diplomat, representing and speaking on behalf of his country at the United Nations.  He is respectful of women and recognizes their value and strength, as seen through his female bodyguards, the Dora Milaje.  He does not let toxic masculinity impact his actions and has a strong connection to his family.  T’Challa is brave, intelligent, and compassionate, making him a well-developed main character and hero.

Even Eric Killmonger is given depth and undeniably human experiences.  If one seeks a traditional villain among the movies’ characters, most signs point to him.  All of his actions are focused around defeating the Black Panther and taking over the throne, and he does not care what it takes to do so.  However, if we look closer, the circumstances are not so black and white.  His anger towards T’Challa stems from the death of his father and Wakanda’s years of ignorance of the suffering of African Americans.  His primary goal in defeating T’Challa, is to send Wakandan resources to people facing oppression.  His methods were misguided, but his motivations are fairly easy to understand.

The development of Killmonger conveys the idea that we all think of ourselves as the hero in our own stories.  T’Challa sees himself as the hero, fighting to save the country he knows and loves.  Killmonger sees himself as the hero, trying to correct the wrongs of the past and seek what he believes to be justice.  The only thing that changes is the framework of the story, the perspective through which you are experiencing it.  In real life, the vast majority people make the choices they make because they believe they are doing the right thing (even when they are wrong).  While this does not excuse actions that harm other people or mean that everyone is concerned with doing the right things, it does suggest that wrongdoings are not independent events.  Every experience we have impacts the choices we make.  If we want to make the world a better place, we have to address the causes and events that have led to different negative situations.

People are complex.  The fact that this concept is explored in a film about characters of color is indescribably important because it goes against the stereotypes and archetypes that are often used to create such characters.  It gives the characters dimensions which reflect the human experience that connects all people.

Depiction of Women of Color

The film’s use of well-rounded characters does not end with those who are male.  The character stereotype of black women in films is loud and dramatic and is perceived as having an attitude problem.  They are considered bossy, aggressive, and sometimes even mean.  The female characters in Black Panther defy traditional expectations and radiate empowerment.  Black Panther depicts numerous powerful black women without objectifying and over-sexualizing them as many movies do.  They are just normal women.  Realistic, intelligent, kind, and brave. These characters stand on their own and serve a greater purpose than supporting the development the male characters.

Shuri, T’Challa’s half-sister, is a sixteen-year-old genius who leads the development of Wakandan technology.  She offers representation for increasing number of women and young girls, especially those of color, who aspire to be part of the STEM field.  She is not limited to being “the smart one.”  When the time comes, she is ready and more than willing to be part of the fight to protect her country.  In addition to her brilliance and strength, she is also equipped with a vibrant personality.

Okoye is a member of Dora Milaje, the group of women who act as bodyguards for the Black Panther.  She is a fierce warrior, dedicated to serving her people to the best of her ability.  She is strong and loyal, ready to sacrifice her relationship to do what is right for her country.  She would do anything to protect Wakanda.

Nakia is a Wakandan spy, who goes undercover in an effort to undermine human traffickers in the beginning of the film.  She takes action and puts herself in dangerous situations in order to help others.  Her work is her passion and main priority, and she refuses to sacrifice it for the sake of romance. She also encourages T’Challa to share the resources of Wakanda with the rest of the world.  She is driven and wants to make the world better place.  She is a world-shaker.

A smiling boy.
Jamaican. Source: Ashley Campbell, Creative Commons

Watching Black Panther as a White Woman

This film is not just important for the black community, or even just for minority groups.  It is important for white people to watch the film as well.  As a white woman, I originally went to watch Black Panther to simply support a film I knew was important for people of color and to enjoy the experience.  However, as I sat in a theater full of children of color, listening to their reactions to the dialogue and every plot twist, I truly believe that I gained a deeper understanding of the film’s importance.  The kids were excited and absorbed in every moment.  I realized the extent to which I am privileged to have characters I can identify with in just about every movie and television show.  It is something that I have taken for granted for a long time.

I also realized how important it is that black people have an increased opportunity to speak.  White people need to be close allies of course, but we should not dominate the conversation.  We need to support the creation and maintenance of platforms from which they can represent themselves.  We have a history of making everything about us, and we need to ensure that that does not continue.  In the past, white people have stolen land, enslaved entire nations of people, and destroyed families for their own selfish gain.  We now need to be a part of fixing the damage that our ancestors have caused and work to empower people of color in every way possible.

Why Does this Matter?

There are some people who question the importance of representation in the media.  They do not understand why it is so vital to have well-developed characters of color and female characters.  Dr. Christopher Bell provided a thorough explanation of this in his TED Talk, “Bring on the Female Superheroes!”  In his talk, Bell explains public pedagogy, or “how societies are taught ideologies.”  This involves concepts such as what it means to be a member of the different genders, how to behave while in public, and how to be polite.  According to Bell, we now live in a 100% media saturated society, meaning every part of our lives, including public pedagogy, is influenced by what we seen on television, in films, and on social media.  The characters and the people that children see through the media are key in their understanding of the world.  When children are unable to see people they identify with as leaders, scientists, or artists, it is difficult for them to see a future where they are doing those things.  The media you consume impacts your outlook on who you can be.

The film shows traditional gender roles being smashed through all its characters.  Women can be warriors, scientists, and world-changers. They can be protectors and leaders. Men can be compassionate and emotional. They do not have to fit into ‘traditional masculinity’.  People can support each other in their choices, regardless of how it fits societal expectations.  In the film, the country of Wakanda contains a society in which gender roles do not seem to apply.  The proposal of a woman becoming the leader and Black Panther is not questioned.  The king’s guards are women, and no one tries to fight it or questions the Dora Milaje’s ability to protect their leader.  All people are equal and are offered the same opportunities.

In addition to its being a huge leap in representation, the film also acts as a proof that change is possible.  More representation, better opportunities, and a better future are all within reach for marginalized groups.  It is crucial that we maintain this momentum.  The Black Panther film is an immense milestone, but there is still more to do.  There still needs to be more representation for the black community and similar representation for other people of color.  We need to work towards a future where such a representative film is a norm rather than an anomaly.