Moving Towards Environmental Justice: The Flint Water Crisis & Structural Racialization

the Flint Michigan Water Plant
Flint Water Crisis is ongoing. Source: George Thomas, Creative Commons

“Nothing that has been uncovered to date suggests that anyone intended to poison the people of Flint” (Michigan Civil Rights Commission, 2017).  The Flint Water Crisis: Systemic Racism Through the Lens of Flint report was authored in response to the growing cries from community members, government officials, victims, and bystanders concerned with the abject lack of proper response to Flint water crisis which began roughly at the middle of 2014.  The Flint Water Crisis, nationally and internationally infamous for the beleaguered and dangerous handling by all levels of government, has been documented, historicized, lectured upon, and dissected from news publishers, academics institutions, watchdog groups, government organizations, and everyone in between.  The bottom line is government officials cut costs in water sanitation and pipe replacements, the consequences of which sparked a full-blown state of emergency, and finally culminated in the deaths of Flint citizens from Legionnaire’s disease and other complications from the consumption of unclean water; those implicated range from District Water Supervisor Busch to Michigan Governor Rick Snyder.  The failings in Flint, as argued by the Michigan Civil Rights Commission, extend far beyond the ineptitude of handfuls of government officials and their lack of planning or preparedness.  The requisite conditions necessary for a crisis of this magnitude festered many years ago, perhaps as far back as the US Supreme Court’s ruling in Plessy v. Ferguson.  Flint’s problems are institutional and systemic, and unfortunately, it took a catastrophe to bring these issues to the surface.

Structural racialization is understood as the tendency for social groups to “organize around structures that produce discriminatory results… without themselves possessing any personal animus” (Michigan Civil Rights Commission, 2017).  In other words, an individual can actively contribute to community systems that result in suppression without actually harboring ill will to the victims of suppression themselves.  Ignorance/implicit bias, according to john a. powell (2010), is the primary driver behind structural racialization and its horrifying consequences.  Implicit bias–directly linked to structural racialization–sustains the longevity of the structures which cause discrimination, and these structures are kept alive only if the contributors to the structures are unaware of the malevolent consequences of the structures themselves (powell, 2010).  In the case of Flint, structural racialization began many years before the water crisis, and these implicit, racial structures ensured destruction from the crisis unfairly affected largely black, poor, politically unconnected individuals in the Flint area (Michigan Civil Rights Commission, 2017). Using the term ‘structural racialization’ to describe a public health catastrophe, such as the Flint Water Crisis, offers no binding legal or moral prescription.  There is no way to sue a ‘structure’ for unfair or discriminatory harm.  The structure, in these cases, is reciprocally determined by every individual who unknowingly benefits from the structure and does not actively fight against the structure’s survival (powell, 2010).  The case of Flint is rife with example.  Contribution to underlying power structures such as these begins with implicit bias- it is the first stronghold keeping the structure in place.  Implicit bias, by definition, is unseen and unfelt. In this case, the denizens of Flint and the surrounding areas had no awareness of their complicity in structural racialization.  Without this awareness, there can be no hope to fight it.

Beyond the psychology of the issue is the legalistic support of structural racialization. In Flint, this involves segregated housing. The 1900-1930s saw a time of deeply-seated racist and discriminatory housing market practices that forcibly shepherded blacks and poorer whites into select neighborhoods in Flint.  These were effectively ‘ghettos’ and ensured black renters and homeowners were segregated from whites (Michigan Civil Rights Commission, 2017).  Fast forward to present day: the neighborhoods hit hardest by the Water Crisis are neighborhoods that historically have belonged to poor and black renters and homeowners.  Racist business practices in the Jim Crow era exacerbated the loss and destruction felt by black and poor Flint citizens in the present day.

A woman holds water bottles filled with contaminated water in Flint
Flint Water Crisis. Source: Renee B, Creative Commons.

This is not to say the black community in Flint is the only one to feel the deleterious effects of the water crisis.  This public health emergency does not discriminate along ethnic lines. The discriminatory practices that trapped black Flint citizens holds that honor alone.  In 2017, a full three years after the crisis began, clean water is still an issue in Flint.  What do we tell the citizens of Flint?  How can they take civic action to expedite the process of returning to ‘normal’ life post-crisis?  Diana Francis, noted peacemaker and democracy advocate, espouses the concept of ‘speaking truth to power’.  This notion contends people–everyday concerned citizens–are the impetus of action in situational injustice.  Indeed, the recent criminal charges brought against Flint city administrators and politicians show a ‘top-down’ approach to this crisis is both unrealistic and ineffective.  For Francis, the true heroes in this story are citizens affected by and emphatic to the crisis.  Examining the normative response to Flint reveals a public willing to undertake protest and direct action, and a public expecting a direct confrontation with the individuals and systemic structures responsible for this crisis.  Here are some examples: a music festival raising awareness and money for the victims of Flint, national groups donating time and energy to provide resources to disenfranchised Fint citizens, whistleblowers risking their livlihoods to make the crisis public, and academics donating their skills to investigating the crisis itself.  These civil society actors may hold the key to eliminating the effects of the Flint water crisis and eradicating the conditions that precipitated the crisis in the first place.  Of course, this empowered response is not an assumed reaction.

In the face of a fully-fledged public health emergency, many citizens in Flint did not feel any semblance of trust in their elected officials to mitigate the crisis without state- or national-level intervention.  Without this trust, the citizens may have felt unable or ineffective to act against the discriminatory power structures in Flint.  This problem, unlike replacing pipes, cannot be ameliorated by federal funding or outside medical intervention.  Addressing this collective distrust will involve some form of cultural transformation.  These deeper fixes must involve the access to elected officials the general public has and the public’s ability to provide continuous feedback to these officials.  At several times in the Michigan Civil Rights Commission (2017), citizens of Flint (of all ethnicities) went on the record saying their concerns regarding water safety went unaddressed due to many factors, such as:

1) no knowledge of how to reach elected officials,

2) feeling their complaints were ‘unheard’ or ‘unseen’ to those who could help the situation,

3) fear of retaliation if undocumented immigrants or individuals with criminal records came forward with concerns, and

4) willful neglect on the part of government officials who simply did not feel accountable for the plights of minorities (involving both ethnicity and socioeconomic status) in the Flint area.

Two protesters hold signs decrying the lack of clean water in Flint
January 19, 2016 Lansing Protest against Gov Snyder regarding Flint Water Crisis. Source: nic antaya, Creative Commons

Moving forward, how can both human rights advocates and ordinary citizens protect rights equally in all corners of the globe and also address the grievances of individuals in Flint?  A shift towards environmental justice may be the answer.  This term means two things. First, all persons, regardless of identifying characteristics (ethnicity, gender identity, sexual orientation, income level, etc.) have the right to enjoy the environment equally. Second, the responsibility of civic participation in the protection and maintenance of the environment belongs to all persons (Michigan Civil Rights Commission, 2017).  Environmental justice takes its cue from Third Generation Human Rights (aka right to the environment) and adds the necessary ingredient of civic participation.  As I have stated previously on this blog, human rights are protected by “people, not documents”.  Given the second caveat of environmental justice, what happens if ordinary people have no avenue to address a public health hazard?  A crisis like Flint erupts.  What conditions predicate an inability to make these addresses?  This post contends a key condition is structural racialization.  Addressing the massive failures apparent in the Flint Water Crisis moves far beyond faulty equipment and the Flint city administration’s glacial response time.  Addressing this egregious human rights violation requires analysis going back at least a century in order to fully understand the complex interaction between history and the present.  Furthermore, the only long-term, stable solution to this issue is to equip the citizens of Flint with inexperienced political power and know-how.  This may include any of the following: a free, fair, and frequent election process; a truly representative (i.e. ethnicity, socio-economic status) local administration; a political mechanism by which citizens can openly voice public health concerns; and funding available in case large-scale crises such as these emerge.  Environmental justice in Flint, Michigan will only be achieved when the insidious structures barring unfettered access to a clean environment and free critique of those hindering this access are dismantled in their entirety.

 

Sources:

Powell, j. a. (2010).  Structural racialization and the geography of opportunity.  Online lecture. http://kirwaninstitute.osu.edu/wp-content/uploads/2011/02/2010_0611_tfn_sm_growth_training.pdf

Michigan Civil Rights Commission (2017).  The Flint Water Crisis: Systemic Racism Through the Lens of Flinthttps://www.michigan.gov/documents/mdcr/VFlintCrisisRep-F-Edited3-13-17_554317_7.pdf

The Claims of Our Common Cause

a portrait of Frederick Douglass
Frederick Douglass. Source: Library of Congress, Public Domain. http://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/2004671911/.

Today is the last day of Black History Month… and what a month it has been. This blog is a nod to Frederick Douglass, who received a mention during a meeting earlier this month.  

Frederick Douglass was born a slave in 1818. In 1848, ten years after his escape to freedom, he penned a letter to his white owner, Thomas Auld, who historians believe to be his father, regarding the reality that the determination to run away arose in him at six years old. In the letter, he vividly describes the moment in which he “attempted to solve the mystery, Why am I a slave?”

“… I was puzzled with this question, till one night, while sitting in the kitchen, I heard some old slaves talking of their parents having been stolen from Africa by white men, and were sold here as slave. The whole mystery was solved at one… From that time, I resolved that I would some day run away. The morality of the act, I dispose as follows: I am myself; you are yourself; we are two distinct persons, equal persons. What you are, I am. You are a man, so am I. God created both, and made us separate beings. I am not by nature bound to you, or you to me. Nature does not make your existence depend on me, or mine to depend upon yours… In leaving you, I took nothing but what belonged to me, and in no way lessened your means for obtaining an honest living…”

Historian Eric Foner writes that although Douglass was a slave, Lucretia Auld–wife of Thomas–taught him to read and write until he forbade her, in accordance with Maryland law at the time. Douglass secretly continued his education with the help of some white children. In the South, the peculiar institution of slavery received elaborate justification from Christians willing to employ and misrepresent the scriptures in order to continue the dehumanizing treatment of African and American blacks, created by God, under the guise of inferiority and barbarianism. De Bow’s Review, published in 1850, states “…a very large part in the United States believe that holding slaves is morally wrong; this party founds its belief upon precepts taught in the Bible, and takes that book as the standard of morality and religion. We, also, look to the same book as out guide in the same matters; yet, we think it right to hold slaves—do hold them and have held and used them from childhood. We find, then, that both the Old and New Testament speak of slavery—that they do not condemn the relation, but, on the contrary, expressly allow it or create it… It cannot, then, be wrong.”

Wolfgang Mieder points out that when his education was taken from him as a child, Douglass “very consciously chose” to study and memorize material that would become useful as an adult. As a statesman, his mastery of the English language and his knowledge of the scriptures became a method of rebuke, persuasion, and a declaration of reversal of fortune. For Douglass, the biblical references provided an added authority and wisdom as morality and religion were one in the same. Mieder summarizes Douglass’ speeches and writings as an identifiable narrative, fought against slavery and injustice through the raising of a powerful voice that argued for the “strength of morality, equality, and democracy.”

Frederick Douglass observed a disconnection between the words of the Declaration of Independence: “we hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights” and the treatment of blacks as a byproduct of slavery. He believed that from a political and personal standpoint, under natural law, every person possesses the same rights as another, and owed the honoring of those rights by another under God. Nicholas Buccola concludes that Douglass’ personal experience as a slave in the South then a free man in the North, shaped his worldview and belief that the promise of liberty has to belong to all or it belongs to none. He states that individualism negates the feeling of and the need for empathy, making it difficult to persuade another about the plight of someone who is not and never considered a neighbor. In other words, the sense of brotherhood is made obsolete because of individualism.

According to Leslie Friedman Goldsmith, Douglass “put his hopes in the press and pulpit for the moral education of America” while believing social reform would take place in politics as those in government became more concerned with the establishment of justice and the advancement of common good, rather than “the greedy quest for the material fruits of public office.” Douglass’ advocacy, as a member of a minority group, grew from a place of mutual understanding that the lack of moral responsibility finds correction in the adaption of moral obligation. Therefore, he focused on the role of the individual as a perpetuator of injustice or protector of human rights. By appealing to the empathic core—the soul–of an individual, Douglass hoped for a synergistic catalyst towards the eradication of slavery, and the humanization of blacks, whether free of enslaved, in America. As a result, under President Abraham Lincoln, the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863 and the abolishment of slavery and involuntary servitude of the 13th amendment brought about a possible future for blacks in America.

Frederick Douglass appealing to President Lincoln and his cabinet to enlist Negroes," mural by William Edouard Scott,
Frederick Douglass appealing to President Lincoln and his cabinet to enlist Negroes,” mural by William Edouard Scott, at the Recorder of Deeds building, built in 1943. 515 D St., NW, Washington, D.C. Source: Library of Congress, Public Domain. http://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/2010641714/

Civil equality was a fundamental platform for Frederick Douglass as he championed for the women’s rights, abolition of slavery, and the right to vote. Despite the victories of 1863, the true freedom of blacks remained his primary mission. Douglass demanded the extinction of racial prejudice and the false belief that the African lineage of black Americans disqualified them from the same rights as white Americans. Daniel Kilbride states that Douglass’ stance on Africa during his lifetime is similar to Countee Cullen’s questioning poem, Heritage during the Harlem Renaissance. He concludes that Frederick Douglass “treasured the values and institutions of the USA and insisted that the free enjoyment of them was a birthright of Americans of African descent.” It is imperative to understand that Douglass did not deny his ancestry; he accepted the discourse as irrelevant given the fact he was born in America.

During the late 1840s, the women’s movement was on the rise due to persistence of Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Susan B. Anthony, and Lucretia Mott, among others. When Stanton formulated and organized the Seneca Falls Convention in 1848, Frederick Douglass was on the platform as a main speaker. More specifically, he was the only male and person of color in support of women rights to equality, including the right to vote. Douglass summarized the convention in an 1848 North Star editorial article: “Many who have at least made the discovery that the Negroes have some rights as well as other members of the human family, have yet to be convinced that women are entitled to any. While it is impossible for us to go into this subject… Our doctrine is that ‘right is of no sex’”. Benjamin Quarles narrates the delicate interplay of Douglass’ personal friendship and political partnership with the women’s movement. Quarles notes the Reconstruction Era as the turning point in Douglass’ partnership with the women’s movement, as the question of what group deserved the right to vote first: blacks or women. “To women the vote is desirable; to the black, it is vital”, he pronounced. For Douglass, blacks as a people before women as a gender. He lamented in 1883, “for no where, outside of the United states, is a man denied civil rights on account of his color.” The recognition of blacks though the casting of votes was an “urgent necessity” post-Emancipation Proclamation.

Relevance for 2017

Frederick Douglass died in1895, yet his life, words, and legacy are still relevant for today. Earlier this month, Donald Trump mentioned Frederick Douglass as “an example of somebody who’s done an amazing job and is being recognized more and more.” Interestingly enough: if Douglass were alive, the recognition could come in both positive and negative forms as he questioned and challenged slavery, prison reform, women’s rights, and all lives matter. The employment of the Scriptures as a justification for the present value and identity crisis taking place in America, given the values forfeiture of liberty and justice for all, in exchange for individualism, isolation, and rhetoric would undergird his critique.

First, human trafficking, in the form of sex and labor, is a new form of an old method. Kevin Bales suggests slavery failed to disappear in the 1860s because trade of people, through means of exploitation, has increased with modernization and globalization. He elucidates the subject of disposable people by informing that human trafficking is not a long-term cost investment due to high supply and high demands. The benefits of “ownership” have waned while the profits from slave trade dramatically increases because whether it is sex in Thailand or Brazil, tomatoes in Florida or chocolate from Ivory Coast, or the FIFA World Cup stadium in Qatar, slave laborers will be exploited in order to ensure the needs of consumer are met. Second, America has the highest incarceration population in the world. According to Bryan Stevenson, there is something missing from the judicial system, specifically in our treatment of the condemned, incarcerated, and those judged unfairly. The American prison system, as means to dehumanize human beings, particularly black Americans in 13th by Ava DuVernay and The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander, systemically removes human rights and destroys families. Former President Barack Obama implemented some justice reform, resulting in the commutation of thousands of non-violent offenders. Third, Frederick Douglass would be an advocate for HeForShe. As a feminist, Douglass would question why men have consumed the decision making power about women, from pay to maternity leave and healthcare rights, without consulting them, or at the very least, having them present when signing laws about their personhood. Finally, America’s treatment of her citizens—the marginalized because of race, ethnicity, sexual orientation or identity, and ability—the blatant denial of human rights while championing all lives matter and pro-life. The plight of marginalized Americans remains trapped under the thumb of the majority, whereas the words of Douglass’ The Claims of Our Common Cause apply:

“…A heavy and cruel hand has been laid upon us. As a people, we feel ourselves to be not only deeply injured, but grossly misunderstood. Our white country-men do not know us. They are strangers to our character, ignorant of our capacity, oblivious to our history and progress, and are misinformed as to the principles and ideas that control and guide us as a people. The great mass of American citizens estimates us as being a characterless and purposeless people; and hence we hold up our heads, if at all, against the withering influence of a nation’s scorn and contempt. It will not be surprising that we are so misunderstood and misused when the motives for misrepresenting us and for degrading us are duly considered.”

In 1853, our common cause stood as a pronouncement, emphasizing the misunderstanding and misrepresentation of the marginalized, specifically blacks. Today, our common cause stands as a banner to those in power and opposed to change because of prejudice. The banner signifies the past while embracing the fullness offered in those presently dismissed–doctors, farmers, merchants, teachers, ministers, lawyers, editors, etc.–American citizens who, through unity and belief in the foundational values of this country, fought and fight against every perpetuation of injustice “with pride and hope”.

 

 

Additional resources:

Louise Shelly

Kevin Bales and Ron Soodalter

Rhonda Callaway & Julie Harrleson-Stephens

Bryan Stevenson

Jeff Guo

Right to and Role of an Education

 

a picture of a one way sign with the word EDUCATION written on it
Education: a street sign. Source: OTA Photos, Creative Commons

‘Ms. Crenshaw, make sure Jasmine keeps writing’. My mom was told this by my 4th grade teacher, Mrs. Williams, at my school’s open house event after she had read my book report on “The Watsons Go to Birmingham-1963”. Mrs. Williams also had our class to write journal entries regularly throughout the entire school year. She gave us topics to write about, from everyday events to what our favorite things were as nine-year-olds. One entry of mine was about the weekend where I was baptized at my church. In the entry, I wrote about my shopping adventures to find a white baptism dress and how excited I was to experience this new part of my faith. Thanks to Mrs. Williams, I was affirmed in my writing abilities. Between elementary and high school, I had other teachers–mostly Black women–who encouraged, criticized, and strengthened my writing skills. As a teenager feeling inspired by books, music, and television, I wrote in my journals regularly. I also wrote poems, mini-novels, and essays, most of which will never see the light of day. I wrote these pieces because of the confidence Mrs. Williams had in my writing. And I’m forever grateful for her. Those skills have served me well through my collegiate and post-collegiate careers.

Education and mentorship is important for all girls and women to experience, especially for girls and women of color. For most of my life, Black women were in the front of my classrooms, teaching everything from English to Chemistry, while making sure that me and my peers were empowered to become our best selves. When students are presented with that type of environment, the sky’s the limit. There have been plenty of examples shared across social media platforms, where teachers have affirmed their students’ individuality and their desire to learn. In a video from Nadine S. Ebri’s classroom in La Core Christian Academy in Florida, two of her students are calculating a long division problem on the whiteboard, as her classmates, and her teacher sing a song to help her answer the question correctly. In another video, Jasmyn Wright, a third-grade reading teacher in Philadelphia, goes through an empowerment exercise with her students before they start the day. I do understand when students–especially those of color and those from other marginalized communities–do not have access to this environment at times.

Some students may not feel open to being in affirming learning environments due to previous disciplinary actions or because their previous teachers  had a lack of compassion for them. In multiple Southern states, it was found that Black students are expelled or suspended five times than the rest of their student population (Smith and Harper, 2015). Girls of color, especially Black girls, experience difficulties with this, especially when they are disciplined at higher rates than other racial/ethnic groups in the classroom nationally (National Women’s Law Center, 2016). When girls of color are being disciplined more and unjustly in classrooms, they might feel a sense of detachment and hurt, which might interfere with them wanting to continue working toward their educational aspirations (The White House, 2016; African-American Policy Forum, 2015).

a picture of girls playing clarinets while in a computer lab
Education. Source: Erin Lodes, Creative Commons.

Girls and young women of color, among other marginalized communities, such as those who identify as LGBTQIA+ and those with disabilities, also experience lack of access and availability to the resources they need to thrive in the classroom. In the case of our city of Birmingham, educational inequity between Whites and non-Whites, primarily African-American students, has existed since the early 1900s (Jefferson County Place Matters Team, 2013). Similar to other parts in the South, Birmingham underwent radical changes once ‘white flight’ occurred during the late 1950s, causing White citizens to create new towns and school systems in Vestavia Hills and Mountain Brook (Colby, 2012). This level of educational inequity has continued even into 2017. A large income and poverty disparity remains between the Birmingham City School and the Mountain Brook City School districts, significant enough for it to rank highly on NPR’s list of the top 50 most segregated school borders in the country (Turner, 2016). When it comes to gender and sexual orientation, students in Alabama may feel that some of their schools are not equipped to handle the types of bullying and discriminatory behaviors they experience daily. This may be due to lack of safe spaces, lack of Gay-Straight Alliances (GSAs), and lack of teacher/administrative training (The Community Foundation of Greater Birmingham, 2016). When students’ identities intersect, as being both Black and impoverished or Hispanic and gay (for example), they might feel more uneasiness about whether or not they belong in the classroom.

When students are not provided the resources they need or the affirming learning environment they deserve, this becomes an infringement on their right to have an proper education. Financial disparity, poverty, inexperienced teachers and staff, and unequal disciplinary tactics all contribute to this. Given our new administration and the new Education secretary, Betsy DeVos, we all have a responsibility to make sure our students have the best chance to a great education, however that may look like, and to become whatever they please. Our commitment the responsibility may vary. It may be through representation in media, mentoring programs, after school programs, or just students knowing that they are loved and they are seen. Every student should have a chance to meet their own Mrs. Williams and unlock their potential for greatness.

 

Jasmine E. Crenshaw earned both her Bachelors of Science in Psychology and her Masters of Public Health in Health Care Organization and Policy from at the University of Alabama at Birmingham in 2014 and 2016, respectively. She works as a public health professional, a writer, and the media curator of the online Southern feminist digital hub, Curated in Color. You can find Curated in Color at facebook.com/curatedincolor.

References

Colby, T. (2012). Some of my best friends are Black: The strange story of school integration in America. [Book]

Community Foundation of Greater Birmingham, The. (2016, August). Living LGBTQ+ in Central Alabama: Priorities for action. Retrieved from http://www.cfbham.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/08/Living-LGBTQ-in-Central-Alabama.pdf

Jefferson County Place Matters Team. (2013). Place matters for health in Jefferson County, Alabama: The status of health equity on the 50th anniversary of the civil rights movement in Birmingham. A special report. Retrieved from http://media.al.com/spotnews/other/Place%20Matters%20for%20Health%20in%20Jefferson%20County%20Alabama.pdf

National Women’s Law Center, The. (2016). Let Her Learn: A Toolkit to Stop School Push Out for Girls of Color. Retrieved from http://nwlc.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/11/final_nwlc_NOVO2016Toolkit.pdf

Smith, E.J. and Harper, S.R. (2015). Disproportionate impact of K-12 school suspension and explusion on Black students in southern states. Philadelphia: University of Pennslyvania, Center for the Study of Race and Equity in Education. Retrieved from https://www.gse.upenn.edu/equity/sites/gse.upenn.edu.equity/files/publications/Smith_Harper_Report.pdf

Turner, C. (2016, August 23). The 50 most segregating school borders in America. NPREd. Retrieved from http://www.npr.org/sections/ed/2016/08/23/490513305/the-50-most-segregating-school-borders-in-america

White House, The. (2016, December). Advancing Equity for Women and Girls of Color: 2016 Updated Report. https://www.whitehouse.gov/sites/whitehouse.gov/files/images/2016%20CWG%20WGOC%20REPORT%20.pdf

 

 

Women’s March: An Evolution in Global Solidarity

picture of Washington, DC Women's March 2017
DC Women’s March. Source: Liz Lemon, Creative Commons.

On January 21, 2017, over five million people marched–on all seven continents–in solidarity for women’s issues. In Washington D.C, one million marchers made their voices heard, nearly three times the size of the crowd at the inauguration, according to crowd scientists. The Birmingham, Alabama march numbered nearly five thousand, to the surprise of organizers who expected closer to several hundred. The official Women’s March website states the platform and approach is committed to equality, diversity, and inclusion. While initially, the Trump administration may have been the fuel for this rise, the movement presently signifies an international protest against the growing threat of a dishonest narrative about women’s rights and unjust treatment of them.

The sheer numbers of attendees at the march inspired and infused hope into the hearts of many deeply opposed to the injustices within the context of women’s rights. Critics of the march seem to misinterpret the intentions of marchers by claiming that the cause was American-centric, thus ignoring the subjugation of women globally. There is some validity to this, in that, the focus of many marchers remained centered in American political issues, and often excluded some key actors from the discussion like transgender people. However, many critics used these potentially valid grounds to deny the existence of oppression in America. Blogger Stephanie Dolce, after listing a series of wrongs against women in other countries, writes, “So when women get together in America and whine they don’t have equal rights and march in their clean clothes, after eating a hearty breakfast, it’s like a vacation away that they have paid for to get there.” This critical narrative reveals the false impression that many Americans have about women’s rights, the nature of protests, and the human right to participate in protest.

picture of girl holding signs at Birmingham Alabama Women's march 2017
Women’s March in Birmingham, AL January 2017. Source: Ajanet Rountree.

Dolce mentioned the issues of rape, limited education access, gender violence, and denial of bodily autonomy through legislation, infanticide, and female genital mutilation (FGM). She then suggests that American women do not experience these acts of violence and oppression. To believe that these issues are absent in America is to remain blinded by privilege. Dolce’s argument, supported and shared many times across social media, is rooted in privilege—a privilege that often undermines the nature of exploitation and oppression of another because distance rather than proximity and a lack of knowledge discredit the acknowledgement of an experience.

Marchers in cities around the world reflected the microcosm of the global civic society. It is highly unlikely that Dolce, who is vocally critical of the march, attended a protest based on her blog writing. Conversely, I have been an advocate for human rights for years and decided to experience the Birmingham march firsthand. I found myself deeply moved by the variety of issues and identities represented; therefore, I can bear witness to a crowd of people marching for a diverse set of causes, each inherently political but not as a political reaction. Protest signs held high regarding immigration, environmental issues, racism, disability rights, and more, dotted the landscape of Kelly Ingram Park. The diversity of the city was visible in the composition of marchers and their causes. The harsh, judgmental “anti-Trump” rhetoric is an insult to social justice, as this march and subsequent protests, are not about him or any one person.

The highly divisive stage in American politics provides a vehicle of change through shock and outrage; fortunately, the movement is not limited to the American arena. This activism is not a backlash to the election or simply a march about women’s issues. This is not, as some may see it, a petty protest against the shift in ideology represented in our new president. This is the beginning of a global movement to protect rights presently impacted by global structural violence targeted towards women specifically, and humanity generally.

picture of Women's March in London 2017
Women’s March London. Source: Garry Knight, Creative Commons

The Women’s March website has listed steps to transform the vigorous energy seen on January 21 into a long-term international movement. Given the millions of marchers who came out, it is hard to imagine that the momentum and awareness for women’s rights will simply fade away. The evolution of the movement is already underway. They currently have two “global action steps” listed and a third still developing. First, communicate concerns for women’s rights by contacting representatives, using postcards or letters with a picture of the march. Second, organize local “next up huddles” which are intended to foster support and community. The goal is that each area brainstorm a “set of actions and strategies our group will pursue in the coming weeks and months”, mobilizing the community through grassroots activism and people power.  The grassroots approach, fueled by people power, is essential because it empowers leadership and change from the bottom-up rather than top-down. People power initiates the quicker and more effective change across nations.

With an enormous base of supporters and power of grassroots change, it is clear that the spirit behind the Women’s March is thriving and quickly evolving into a transnational platform.

 

Female Empowerment via the Internet

The Internet is a veritable minefield of content for women. For adolescent girls, as they begin to explore their freedom and independence, this boundless online environment contributes to their ability to educate themselves on women’s rights earlier than ever before. Online articles on topics from personal health to social change grant a generation of young girls access to an increased knowledge base for advocacy and protection. The Internet also empowers adult women through professional education, resources for help in dangerous situations, and access to communities that may be inaccessible in their areas. The United Nations’ Guidelines on Women’s Empowerment states, “‘Advancing gender equality and equity and the empowerment of women, and the elimination of all kinds of violence against women, and ensuring women’s ability to control their own fertility … are priority objectives of the international community’.”  Empowerment at any age is vital to women in a time where sexism is still very much alive. In communities that may be lack gender equality, girls can find ways to adapt and thrive.

picture of a girl at a laptop
Source: StartupStockPhotos, Creative Commons.

The internet equips adolescent girls with accurate information about puberty, sexual health, and reproduction in cultures where discussing reproductive health is forbidden. Menstruation, a taboo topic in many cultures, is often punishable by death. In Nepal, a practice called “chaupadi” has resulted in the deaths of many young women. Though outlawed, the practice involves banishing menstruating girls from their homes because they are viewed as “impure and treated as untouchable,” according to the New York Times. Forced to live in tiny, poorly constructed sheds for the duration of their menstrual cycle, girls often die from animal attacks, exposure, or suffocation from lighting a fire without proper ventilation.

In an example more familiar to Americans, Donald Trump recently commented on a female reporter by saying, “You could see there was blood coming out of her eyes, blood coming out of her wherever.” Though he later claimed that he was referring to her nose, the implication that periods contribute to irrationality garnered notice by much of the audience. Periods have long been used as evidence to block women from certain professions and fields. Some may recall a similar quote by Edgar Berman, claiming women were incapable of wielding political power because of “the raging hormonal imbalance of the periodic lunar cycle.” In direct response to Trump’s comment, social media created a campaign called #PeriodsAreNotAnInsult to empower menstruating females and erase the stigma of periods.

The online availability of domestic violence resources as proven crucial in the empowerment of women. The resources help save the lives of women in abusive relationships, including finding an escape from dangerous situations. Women are empowered to use  resources like the “safety exit” feature on many sites, which exits the site with a click of a button if their abuser is nearby, as exhibited on the National Coalition against Domestic Violence’s website. The ability for victims of abuse to find a support network is invaluable. In cases of those escaping situations where abusers left them isolated and degraded, many victims felt helpless and alone until they find an online outlet. At the same time, these websites also offer help to victims of human trafficking. Online tip centers and hotline databases can bring justice to numerous women.

a picture of a girl asking the audience to help prevent domestic violence
Source: Wikimedia, Creative Commons.

Online resources have been an avenue in providing an education outside of a traditional classroom. Women, previously hindered and halted in completing a college degree, now have the opportunity to enroll and graduate from online universities. Online education contributes to the empowerment of people with disabilities and social disorders. People with disabilities can find relief from an unaccommodating and inaccessible university through online classes. Women living with anxiety or sleep disorders can obtain educations without worrying about attendance or overwhelming social environments.

Finally, universal access to online communities is perhaps the most significant contribution to empowerment across genders, races, cultures, abilities, and sexualities. In societies that often silences minority voices, the ability to share your voice and connect with like-minded individuals is invaluable for both community and individual well-being. For example, the platform of Twitter has been a vital resource to the black community. According to the Pew Research Center, 40% of young African Americans online are on Twitter — more than 12% higher than the rate reported by young white Internet users. Jenna Worthan of Smithsonian Magazine writes an illuminating article on the relevance of Black twitter, saying in part that “black Twitter—and the Black Lives Matter activists who famously harnessed it—have created a truly grassroots campaign for social change unlike anything in history.” Beyond the activism aspect, a subject I wrote about in an earlier blog post, the beauty of Black Twitter is the visible, dynamic communal dialogue that allows white Americans a insight into the humanity and brilliance of a minority population.

The LGBTQ+ community also offers a vibrant insight into their culture through their online presence, while also extending support to people who are exploring their identities. Media platforms such as Tumblr gave rise to a vigorous culture of support for disabled people, giving hope and survival tips to afflicted individuals. Searching for the terms “disabled,” “chronic illness,” or “spoonie” (referring to spoon theory, which refers to a disability metaphor of how energy is dispensed through the day for chronically ill people) results in a plethora of supportive and potentially life-changing results. Increased visibility for these marginalized communities improves both how society perceives the group overall and each individual members’ well-being.

a picture of four Black women with t-shirts that read respect me, protect me, support me, and hear me.
Source: Flicker, Creative Commons

I am personally familiar with how valuable the Internet can be in advocating for and understanding human rights. Growing up in Alabama, where Southern culture can be particularly toxic to young girls, it was on social media sites that I was exposed to new viewpoints and gained access to social justice-related literature. I followed accounts and blogs run by marginalized members of society that I never had met in my predominantly white, able-bodied, middle-class hometown. I was able to discover my own identity and find how I fit in within these communities. Without access to the online communities where marginalized people freely and comfortably discussed their issues, I might be the same socially ignorant person that I was before I found online educational resources. I am certain that having access to the voices of people of color, LGBTQ individuals, persons with disabilities, and other groups has made me the person I am today: a passionate activist for all marginalized communities, whether I am a part of them or not.

Human Rights in the Age of Online Activism

Online activists are often termed as “social justice warriors” by those who doubt their impact. Self-identified “trolls” cast ridicule on these individuals, beliving social media activism is useless. How merited are these claims, and how useful is online activism?

Source: pixiekult, Creative Commons.
Source: pixiekult, Creative Commons.

Social media users have transformed online platforms from casual social atmospheres to an environment of learning. The online practice of calling out culturepublicly identifying and shaming individuals for offensive statements or actions, is harsh while providing an avenue for social change. There are plenty of issues with this practice – bullying minors, for one;however, there is a need for accountability in today’s age where people can spread harmful opinions across the web in seconds. A popular Tumblr blog called “Racists Getting Fired” participates in online call-out culture in a practice sometimes known as doxxing – publicly spreading information about individuals with the intention of harming their social or work lives. The blog details the work information of the individual(s) in question and contacts the employer, which can lead to the termination. Some claim this is too harsh of a practice, yet others say that these are simply the consequences of posting racist or bigoted opinions online.

An activist holds a "Black Lives Matter" signs outside the Minneapolis Police Fourth Precinct building following the officer-involved shooting of Jamar Clark on November 15, 2015. Source: Tony Webster, Creative Commons
An activist holds a “Black Lives Matter” signs outside the Minneapolis Police Fourth Precinct building following the officer-involved shooting of Jamar Clark on November 15, 2015. Source: Tony Webster, Creative Commons

The use of hashtags has also been an effective tool in raising awareness for human rights. Groups of activists tweeting #blacklivesmatter or #noDAPL has raised global awareness for these issues. Social media allowed activist groups to spread the word about the water crisis in Flint, Michigan, when the media turned a deaf ear. Social media has been a platform for organizing protests and spreading knowledge about public dissent over the murders of black individuals at the hands of the police. Many outside of the Black community would not be aware of the heartbreaking stories of Sandra Bland, Tamir Rice, Michael Brown, and so many more without the aid of social media. Twitter in particular has been useful in giving voices to activist leaders such as DeRay McKesson, and giving rise to celebrity activists like Zendaya.

Protester against the Dakota Access Pipeline. Source: Fibonacci Blue, Creative Commons.
Protester against the Dakota Access Pipeline. Source: Fibonacci Blue, Creative Commons.

The power of social media cannot be understated. To suggest that online activism isn’t real or impactful is simply false. Successful maneuvering of social media platforms creates significant changes in society through the impact of an individual who cultivates awareness and makes knowledge accessible to millions. In the past, those with the loudest voices and the most opinions were those with the most power and money, and the proper connections to global media. Today, the advancement of social media has favored the voices of the marginalized minority groups–people of color, LGBT, disabled, indigenous, Syrians in Aleppo–have been heard globally by millions when they have been silenced for centuries.

 

 

 

 

 

 

UAB IHR at UN for Soft-launch of CRPD 10+ App

https://www.un.org/development/desa/disabilities/wp-content/uploads/sites/15/2016/08/IDPD-Logo-rev.4-300.jpg
Source: UN Division of Social Policy and Development Disability.

 

The UAB Institute for Human Rights is co-sponsoring the soft-launch of the “CRPD 10+ App” at this year’s United Nations International Day of Persons with Disabilities. The CRPD App is an iOS 10 application commemorating the 10th anniversary of the Convention of the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD) and serves as a tool for human rights education, advocacy, activism, and empowerment. The app has been developed by the Institute on Disability and Public Policy (IDPP) at American University.

Our Director, Dr. Tina Kempin Reuter, will speak Dec. 2 at 12:15 pm CST at the United Nations headquarters in New York City on the significance of the “CRPD + 10 App”. The event will be live streamed and available for remote participation via the link here.

 

From hostility to hope: Kosovo’s struggle for inclusion and independence

 

property of UAB IHR. Photo taken by Charles Coleman
Photo taken by Charles Coleman

Ambassador Ahmet Shala, former Minster of Economy and Finance in the government of Kosovo, recently visited the University of Alabama at Birmingham’s Institute for Human Rights to speak with faculty and students about minority rights in the Balkan Peninsula, current economic development in Kosovo, as well as efforts to modernize the country.

The Republic of Kosovo is located in South Eastern Europe nestled among a group of nations, which were part of former Yugoslavia. In 1990, economic disparities in Yugoslavia led to increased tensions in the ethnically diverse territory. As the economy declined, Croats, Bosniaks, Slovenes, Albanians, Montenegrins and Macedonians began to promote ideas of ethnic nationalism. Croatia and Slovenia were the first to seek a split from the union, followed closely by a brutal war in Bosnia and Herzegovina, and later Kosovo. This series of wars for independence spanned nearly a decade and as Human Rights Watch reports many human rights violations were committed, in addition to the ethnic cleansing of several groups, which left thousands of civilians dead.

After years of Serbian crackdowns in Kosovo, NATO intervention led to the small territory’s liberation and recognition as a United Nations protectorate from 1999-2008. Finally in 2008, Kosovo declared independence and today is recognized by 110 countries as a sovereign state. The road to independence was littered with atrocities and war crimes based on ethnicity. According to Ambassador Shala, “the different groups in Yugoslavia did not feel as if they were citizens. Slavic people are different from Albanians, which was the key feeling for minorities.” Ambassador Shala added that the resulting Yugoslav wars became “Apartheid on the heart of Europe.” From the onset of the conflict, many ethnic Albanians were fired from their jobs, not allowed to attend school or university, and thousands were either killed or imprisoned.

Although, the situation improved under the UN protectorate, according to Ambassador Shala, the UN administration was incompatible with the needs of the Kosovars.  Ambassador Shala commented, “There were UN soldiers on the ground from other countries that had no idea about the needs of the people” and “there was no sustainable vision for the future and no real goals, which led to increased anxiety and frustration.”

Photo taken by Charles Coleman
Photo taken by Charles Coleman

After independence, the leaders of the Republic of Kosovo have made tremendous strides in determining the future of the country. From its inception, the idea has been that Kosovo would be a true democratic society, which embraces its multicultural identity and provides equal rights to all citizens. Today, the country seeks to create partnerships with its neighbors, fully integrate into the international community and become a member of NATO, the European Union, as well as the United Nations. The country is well on its way to succeeding at its stated goals. In 2013, the country had an estimated population of 1.86 million and according to economists as of 2015, Kosovo had a GDP (ppp) of 9140.10 billion USD. There are still some hurdles to cross, namely, not all NATO countries have recognized Kosovo as a nation; this has not stopped the ambitions of the young nation. In a recent interview with EURACTIV, the Brussels based EU policy driven news outlet, Kosovar Foreign Minister Enver Hoxhaj explains how important it is for Kosovo to become a member of both the EU and NATO. Hoxhaj states, “being an EU member is the best way to modernise [sic] politics, the economy and society. For us, it is a modernising [sic] agenda that will allow us to compete with others in the region and to grow.”