Mary Frances Whitfield: Why?

Mary Frances Whitfield: Why? is a collaborative exhibition between the Abroms-Engel Institute for the Visual Arts (AEIVA) at the University of Alabama at Birmingham and the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute. The exhibition is co-curated by AEIVA Curator John Fields and Dr. Brandon Wolfe, Assistant VP of Campus and Community Engagement in the Office of the Vice President for Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion at UAB. It is on display at AEIVA until November 23, 2019. The images included below are in the exhibition.

Depictions of lynchings are usually loud – they bring into focus the agony of the victims, their bodies beaten and burned, hanging from a tree, or the intense anger, absolute hatred, and pure evil of the perpetrators and spectators as they relish in their acts of terror, dehumanization and brutality. Mary Frances Whitfield invites us to consider another experience, one that often goes unacknowledged or unconsidered artistically and historically. What happens when the spectacle is over, when the crowd disperses, when the terrorists have gone home, having achieved their fill of racial violence for the day? Who comes to claim the victims, to hold their lifeless bodies one last time, to cut them down and lay them to rest?

Mary, 1994
watercolor and acrylic on canvas board
16 x 20 inches
photo: Adam Grimshaw
Collection of the artist, Courtesy Phyllis Stigliano Art Projects
©Mary F. Whitfield

Whitfield’s paintings are not loud. They depict a silent despair. She transforms the space of public spectacle, of loud chaos, into a private and still experience that focuses on the quiet mourning of the bereaved. For Whitfield, this mourning conditions the lives of black people in her ancestral history and now. Her depictions are dark and heavy, they are full of grief and despair, and this emotional weight is largely held in the bodies of the mourners who literally hold this anguish – and their faces – in their hands. The victims and the mourners are often dressed in bright pastel colors, an image that foregrounds their vibrancy against the backdrop of a thick and consuming darkness. It reminds us of the life they could have lived, a life that was cut short by hate. Wives wrap their arms around the lifeless bodies of their husbands, young boys reach for the dangling feet of their fathers, women touch their protruding bellies, desperately hoping, we might assume, that their unborn children will not meet the same fate as the victim. Bodies of men, women, children, and babies hang from trees, sometimes engulfed in flames, sometimes appearing to sway slowly in the breeze. The stillness of the victims and the stoicism of the mourners in Whitfield’s paintings reflect the normalcy and the familiarly of an ordinary experience, part of daily existence for African Americans in the 18th and early 19th century, a reality wrought with unbearable pain, constant mourning, and overwhelming fear. 

Sari-Mae’s Sorrow, 1996
watercolor on canvas board
16 x 20 inches
Collection of the artist, Courtesy Phyllis Stigliano Art Projects
©Mary F. Whitfield

The title of the exhibit invites us to ask “Why?”, and the question looms on several levels. Why lynching? Why Albert? Why Sari-Mae? Why Mama and Papa? Why me? Why us? Why then? And maybe most importantly: Why now?

When the slavebody became the blackbody, white people could not let go of the compulsion to maintain dominance over black bodies and black lives. The vilification and demonization of black people took hold in the discourse, and a consensus grew around the need to protect white people and white dominance, a need so desperate it justified brutal violence and severe oppression against the newly “freed” citizens. Whitfield’s paintings are borne out of stories her grandmother told her about life during this time, a time when more than 4,000 black human beings were lynched publicly and without consequence. The work is timeless, though, and as we leave the exhibit and go out into the world, we are forced to wonder why this is still happening. Lynchings today take a different form, but they continue to terrorize and demoralize black communities all over the United States and emphasize the devaluation of black bodies and black lives in our society.

Toni Morrison says that the purpose and the power of art is in its ability to create conversation, one that is “critical to the understanding of what it means to care deeply and to be human completely.” If we can ask ourselves “Why?”, if we can have this conversation, if we can engage in this discourse honestly and authentically, if we can accept the truth about the continuing legacy of the slave trade and mass enslavement and lynchings in all of its forms – past and present – and then reconcile ourselves to that truth, then maybe through that conversation, we will see a path forward, one that leads us toward healing, one that will someday allow us to live in the peace and freedom and beauty of Dr. King’s dream. It’s a hard question to answer, not in its complexity but in its power to change our understanding of ourselves, but it’s one that we must ask.

Discover Your Passion: The Quest for Social Justice and Human Rights Begins Within Ourselves

This is the sermon that Dr. Tina Kempin Reuter, Director of the Institute for Human Rights, gave on April 23 at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Birmingham.

A visitor during exhibition ” Luminarium ” sculpture is designed challenge diplomats, UN officials, school children and communities to think more creatively about how to make the work of the Human Rights Council better understood and applied around the world. Source: Creative Commons, Photos by the United Nations, Jean-Marc Ferré

When we talk about our understanding of justice, many of us will most likely have to look to our upbringing for clues. For me, this is certainly true – the trajectory my life took to where I am today, standing before you as the Director of the Institute for Human Rights at UAB, begins with my childhood in Switzerland. I’d like to share two defining moments from my life that have influenced who I have become. Growing up in Switzerland in the 1980s, my family was fairly traditional. My dad worked outside the house as the main provider, my mom was for the most part a stay at home mom. When I was a teenager, my mom decided that she would like to run for public office. She ended up the first female mayor of the town I grew up in, and I admire her greatly. She has been a true role model in my life, showing that women can achieve whatever they want. I must say a word though about my dad. When my mom ran for public office, my dad, who had a very successful career at one of Switzerland’s major banks, supported this endeavor. At the time, he had a job that required a lot of travel, but he decided to switch internally to a position that would enable him to be home more, realizing that my mom’s commitments would often happen at night and that we, his kids, would need him (even though as teenagers we might not have communicated that very clearly). I would say my dad is a true feminist, even though he would probably cringe to hear me say that. He never gave me the feeling that I wouldn’t be able to do anything I wanted because I am a girl and he supported my sister and myself (and my brother, too) in any endeavor we were looking to engage in. My parents – through their achievements and by supporting one another – instilled in us a true sense of equality and I will always be very grateful for that early lesson. I am lucky to have found a husband who agrees with this model – I wouldn’t be able to do what I do today here in Birmingham without his support and encouragement. I think this is why Maya Angelou’s poem really resonated with me, even though it was obviously written in a completely different context. Equality, for ourselves and in the way we treat others is the basis for social justice and the basis for one of the most important principles for human rights, which is non-discrimination.

The second defining moment came when my mom was elected to the social affairs council of our town. This was in the early nineties and the wars in the Balkans had just started. Switzerland was overrun by refugees, mostly from Kosovo and Bosnia. It used to be the case that refugees were processed and housed in the large urban centers in Switzerland, but because of the sheer numbers of new arrivals, mid-size and smaller towns had to start taking refugees as well. My mom found herself in a position that all of a sudden, she was responsible for finding ways to accommodate asylum seekers in our town that was completely unprepared. I will always remember waiting at the train station for the first family to arrive. We went in person (again, there wasn’t anything in place) to pick them up and bring them to temporary housing that was put up on an empty lot. I remember them when they arrived, mother, father, and two boys, thin, with haunted eyes, and nothing but their clothes on their backs. I remember sharing our toys and other personal things with them because they had nothing.

Ever since, I have been interested in the why and how does it happen that people fight and kill each other and commit the worst imaginable atrocities. I realized relatively quickly though that what interested me was not only the why, but also what to do about it. This is how I came to the topic of human rights and peace. I’m interested in what we can do to combat human rights violations, empower those who are suppressed, and frankly, how we can make the world a better place. You might have guessed it – I’m an idealist at heart.

 

UAB Institute for Human Rights

This is how I approached the establishment of the Institute for Human Rights at UAB. The Institute was approved in 2014, but didn’t officially start until my arrival in February of last year. I started off as a one woman show, but now have a diverse team of researchers who work with me. The Institute has three areas of focus: education, research, and outreach. Our educational mission focuses mainly on UAB students, but also includes community training. We’re in the process of developing a minor in human rights and are an integral part of the new MA degree in the Anthropology of Peace and Human Rights. We offer internships for undergraduate students to learn about human rights, advocacy, and to perfect their writing skills. A big part of our educational mission that goes beyond UAB is our blog and I encourage you to take a look. We cover as diverse topics as the chemical attack in Syria, LGBTQ rights in the United States, the intersection of HIV and human rights, and the issue of child marriage around the world. As an institute at an academic institution, research is a core part of what we do. My own interests focus on empowering marginalized voices in global governance. I’m interested in the patterns of marginalization and suppression and what people have done to be heard and break out of their suppressive situation. I’ve focused on ethnic conflict resolution, international law, and human rights approaches to some of the world’s most deeply rooted conflicts, including the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the conflicts in the Balkans, and the tensions in Northern Ireland. In addition, I am an expert and advocate for rights of persons with disabilities and a lot of the work we do today focuses on empowering persons with disabilities and talking about rights of persons with disabilities on a global scale. The last part of our mission is outreach. We do community training on human rights, are in the process of developing a curriculum for elementary students, and engage in solidarity efforts. You might have heard about our public speaker program, which is an important part of our work. We bring speakers to town to discuss global human rights topics and organize panel discussions on the world’s most pressing topics. Past speakers included Nobel Prize winner Leymah Gbowee and Ambassadors from Kosovo and Syria, Tibetan monks, and professors from other universities. I often speak about human rights and human rights violations myself, too, especially as it concerns refugees, persons with disabilities, and human rights education.

The question I get asked the most is “what can I do?” and this is what I want to talk to you about briefly. You need to ask yourselves is two questions: first, what is my passion? And two, what am I good at? When Leymah Gbowee was in town last September, she gave a lecture to our students at UAB. In her talk, she spoke about how she became the leader of the women’s movement that ended the Liberian civil war and enabled the election of the first female head of state in Africa. She said that for us to become active in the field of human rights, social justice, and peace, we have to “find our fire”. This is what I encourage you to do. Look for the defining moments in your life, just as I had mine. You might find that what really captures you is ending the wage gap, focusing on ending economic inequality, battling institutional racism, advocacy on behalf of refugees, which I know is a passion for some of you in this congregation, or advocacy on behalf of children. This is a very individual process and I encourage you to think deeply and reflect. Only if you find your own passion and your “true fire”, you will be able to be an agent of change and social justice.

Pipedreamer. Source: new 1lluminati, Creative Commons

Obviously, not all of us will be Martin Luther Kings, Leymah Gbowees, Ghandis, or Mother Theresas. What we have to realize though is that none of these social justice leaders would have been able to achieve what they achieved without the support of others. Just like my mom wouldn’t have been able to become mayor without the support of my dad or I wouldn’t be able to stand in front of you if it weren’t for the support of my husband. We might not remember their names, but let me tell you, their support is just as important as the one of the leaders. This brings me to the second question – what are you good at? Even if you think you have nothing you can contribute, let me tell you this is not true. Everyone of us has something we are good at. Maybe your strength is to build relationships – why don’t you reach out and connect people who have similar interests? Maybe you like to knit or sew – you can contact a shelter and see what kind of needs there are. You can sew clothes for little babies who were born too early. Knit sweaters for the homeless. Maybe you have great writing skills – why not volunteer your time for an underfunded public school to write grant applications? You see where I am going with this.

When we want to inspire social change, we need to first start with ourselves and then with our communities. Unless we become UN Secretary General, US President, or any other highly visible position, we won’t be to tackle the big problems of the world. I know it is easy to give up when looking at the many issues we face today. Famine in South Sudan, Somalia, Nigeria. Dying children in Syria. Refugees who try to cross the Mediterranean on rubber dinghies. Decaying neighborhoods. Members of the LGBTQ community beaten and put in concentration camps in Russia. How can you not resign, throw up your hands and say, what can I do in the face of all this suffering? Let me tell you, there is so much you can do. Social change starts small – in our neighborhood, in our group of friends, in our community. Just because you can’t personally solve the Syrian crisis doesn’t mean that you can’t be part of social justice. So – ask yourself: what am I good at? And how can I use this power or skill to change my community? Personally, I realized pretty quickly that my calling is not to be a community organizer, but that my strength is to be an educator. This is why I am professor and the director of the Institute for Human Rights today, because my “fire” is to educate others, to give them the tools that they need to change their own communities.

Let me end with a word of caution. Some of you know that I am the mothers of two little boys. When I see what they watch on TV, I can distinguish two narratives. One is that the world can be divided into good guys and bad guys, and the other is that we have to help and rescue people. I’m not going to say much about the first assertion besides that human nature is not absolute but relative, and so much depends on the context. The world is a complex place with lots of shades of grey. It is the second point though that I find important in the context of human rights and social justice. This idea that we have to rescue others seems deeply ingrained in the American culture and – please forgive my bluntness – related to white privilege. It’s good to care for others, but personally, I think the approach of rescue is wrong. What unites marginalized communities is that they lack agency to make themselves heard. This doesn’t mean that they are vulnerable. Many members of marginalized communities are some of the strongest people I’ve ever met. We need to focus our social justice efforts on empowering those who don’t have voice, to give them the tools they need to build agency. They don’t need us to speak for them. We need to listen carefully to what they are saying and not to come in with our preconceived notions of what they need. This, I think, should be the premise of social justice work and it is a principle that I apply in my own work advocating on behalf of others. The goal is to build a world in which everyone can reach their full potential. I am excited for you to join me in this endeavor. As Maya Angelou said, let’s keep on marching forward. Thank you.

A Civil Dialogue on Immigration: Recap

A Civil Dialogue on Immigration, our panel event co-hosted by the UAB Office of Diversity and Inclusion, took place on Monday, March 21. President Watts introduced the evening by acknowledging the diverse community of UAB and the criticism faced by leadership from students and the Birmingham community for the inaction following the executive orders on immigration. The goal of the panel discussions is provide a forum for dialogue as a means of gaining understanding and cultivating empathy. UAB is limited in taking political positions as a public university, yet moderator Suzanne Austin says that UAB, through this panel, wishes to “take a deeper dive into rights of specific populations, demonstrate support for international students, and listen to the concerns of the public.”

A woman at a protest in London holds a sign saying, "I stand with migrants."
“I stand with migrants. Anti-Trump protester in London’s Parliament Square,” by Alisdare Hickson on Flickr.

There are four panelists: Selvum Pillay, Khaula Hadeed, Catherine Crow, and Inocencio Chavez, selected to aid in shedding fact on the misconceptions and misunderstandings surrounding immigration. Pillay, an administrator and international former student from South Africa, begins the conversation. He came to America in October 2001, and faced significant racism created by backlash from the prior month’s infamous attacks. He was told to “go back to Afghanistan,” but today still believes in fostering peace through discussion and the sharing of opinions. Hadeed gives voice to the importance of shutting down misconceptions about immigrants, specifically those of the Muslim faith. She provides statistics about immigrant demographics, including that are majority Christian and most often from Mexico, India, and China. She concludes her introduction with a bold statement that “we will look back and say that these years changed the future, and we must not repeat the horrors of the past.” Crow, is a former immigration attorney, who currently works at UAB as the director of International Scholar & Student Services. She works closely with the international students and faculty at UAB. Chavez is Youth Organizer for Community Engagement and Education Program at The Hispanic Interest Coalition of Alabama. He states that immigration is a human right, particularly for safety. Immigration, he says, is also a benefit to society by diversifying thought and understanding; cities and countries with the most immigrants have been the best and most effective. Chavez says his personal aim is to help Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals students obtain educational help through Hispanic Interest Coalition of Alabama scholarships and non-federal aid programs.

The floor opens for questions. The first audience questioner asks, “Is there a difference between current and past vetting programs?” Hadeed answers by saying that there isn’t substantial knowledge on the new vetting programs, but gives her experience on past vetting programs. She says that there is a two-year vetting process involving numerous levels of qualification checks, and individuals can be turned down for something as inconsequential as inconsistencies in paperwork. Others can go through the entire process, be approved, and yet still be denied entry under executive orders. Hadeed says that she has lived here for almost sixteen years, but only became a citizen last year. Her husband, on the other hand, has been here for even longer and is still waiting on his.

A ripped banner that says, "Legalizacion Ahora!" and then "Legalization Now!"
“International Workers Day march in Minneapolis” by Fibonacci Blue on Flickr.

An audience member asks for opinions on the forty arrests over the last weekend, and how to protect targeted people, to which Chavez responds, stating their rights were violated. ICE may not be targeting innocent people, but innocent undocumented people are undereducated on their rights and tend to get caught up in ICE raids that focus on other targets. Chavez emphasizes the need to educate all immigrants and U.S citizens on their rights to deny entry, the right to silence, and other rights that many may not be aware of.

The third question is, “As an elementary school teacher, what should we teach about immigration?’ All panelists answer this question and their answers vary, but center on acceptance and respect. Pillay answers initially and says that he believes that children should be taught respect for others through the Golden Rule, because respect is the biggest service individuals can do. Crowe adds that she believes inclusion of lonely and unpopular students should be emphasized in schools, because we carry those inclusive attitudes from childhood into civil society. Both Chavez and Hadeed speak on themes of equality though diversity, and acknowledging and celebrating the uniqueness of every student.

A young girl with her hands in the air and tongue stuck out in a silly expression sits beside a sign reading, "No human being is illegal!'
“Rally for immigrant rights,” by Alan Kotok on Flickr.

There are a series of written questions asked by moderator Suzanne Austin to the panelists. All three questions focus on inclusion of immigrants in the workplace, involving economic change, job “stealing,” and the combating of misinformation on this topic. Pillay answers first and quickly says that the question of job stealing is a non-starter, because the question answers itself. UAB has four-hundred nurse vacancies alone; there is a surprisingly large amount of jobs out there. In addition, most immigrants are not taking desirable jobs. Crow adds that getting a job is not an easy process for international students. For domestic students, you can simply walk into a place and find a job easily and quickly. For international students, it is a lengthy process involving many forms, references, and other steps that employers often do not want to deal with. In addition, international students only have a period of ninety days after graduation to find a job. Even in cases where that period is extended up to two years for STEM majors, that period is punctuated with evaluations from the university and constant contact with academic advisors. Additionally, obtaining a work visa is awarded on a lottery system, so there is no guarantee that you will be allowed to work. There are also a number of protections for federal appointments for international students involving a public notice saying that domestic applicants can come to challenge the appointment. In essence, Crow is saying that the steps to getting a job for international students are so intensive that it does not make sense to claim that they are ‘stealing our jobs.’ Chavez has the final response by sharing a personal story. He says that when he grew up in a rural area, he and his parents works in tomato and melon fields. Non-citizens were hired to do this grueling labor intentionally so that the owners could underpay them—sometimes as little as one dollar for hours of hard labor. This is not a job that non-citizens are stealing from the American people, because no one would do that work for so little money. Austin answers the last part of the question about misinformation and says that UAB is doing that through public forums like these.

Two signs are held high against a background of trees. The signs say "Immigrants right are women's rights" and "We are all immigrants."
“”Immigration Rights Are Women’s Rights” & “We Are All Immigrants” Signs At The May Day Immigration Rights Rally (Washington, DC)” by takomabiblot on Flickr.

The final question comes from a man who introduces himself as Ramirez who works for an accounting firm. He says that undocumented immigrants pay taxes into the system but never obtain the benefits that documented taxpayers do. Many do not want to file anymore for fear of arrest and deportation. Ramirez asks, “Will it hurt the economy if immigrants are too afraid to file their taxes? What can we do to minimize being taken advantage of by people who try to underpay us and violate our rights?” Chavez answers and says to do something. Be in local government, host rallies, and organize. He warns that you will face plenty of rejection, but even if you only reach a single person, your message still spreads.

This panel was particularly effective because it magnified the voices of people directly affected by the executive order on immigration. It allowed non-immigrants to more clearly understand the institutional barriers and societal struggles faced by both documented and undocumented immigrants. As a model for civic dialogue, panel discussions are a fantastic tool to spread awareness and challenge prejudice in a civil way.

 

Bringing Regime Change to the Hermit Kingdom North Korea: A Recap

Jung Gwang Il with translator Henry Song.
Jung Gwang Il with translator Henry Song. Photo by Marlee Townsend.

Jung Gwang Il sits in front of a room of twenty people with his translator and colleague, Henry Song. He begins to tell his tale, beginning with his birth in China.

Persecuted for their beliefs in China, Jung’s family fled to North Korea in the 1960’s when he was only seven years old. As an adult, Jung was in the North Korean military for ten years, and then found work with a trade company. The 1990s, when Jung was working as a businessman, was a particularly hard time for North Koreans. Following the death of Kim Il-Sung in 1994, the country experienced four years of famine and despair. Jung recalls seeing “twenty fresh bodies killed by starvation every day,” during this period, known by North Koreans as the Arduous March. Seeking extra revenue in such a difficult time, many traders looked for money in any avenue they could find. These business wanderings ultimately lead to Jung’s arrest and imprisonment, as unapproved foreign dealings were taboo. In 1999, Jung was reported by a colleague for meeting with South Korean businessmen and was subsequently arrested for suspected espionage.

Pigeon torture at Yodok sketched by defector Kim Kwang-Il, part of the report of the commission of inquiry on human rights in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.
Pigeon torture at Yodok sketched by defector Kim Kwang-Il, part of the report of the commission of inquiry on human rights in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.

Jung, following his arrest, underwent a ten-month period of water, electric, and pigeon torture. He went from 170 pounds to 80 pounds during these months and was unable to walk without clutching a wall. After ten months of enduring constant torture, Jung finally falsely confessed to espionage simply so that the torture would stop. He was then sent to an infamous prison camp known as No. 15, or Yodok concentration camp. Jung says that there were around seven-hundred other political prisoners, some imprisoned for offenses as contacting Christianity or criticizing the regime. He recalled one inmate whose offense was accidentally ripping a newspaper with Kim Jong-Il’s face on it—which was reported by his wife to the authorities.

Life at the camps were not very different than the initial months of torture, according to Jung. Inmates were forced to work sixteen hour days with only one daily meal of 600 grams of ground corn (equivalent to around 2.5 cups). This small portion of food was only awarded if an inmate finished their work quota; many did not, and consequently died of starvation. Jung believes he buried as many as three hundred prisoners himself during his three years at Yodok. This comes with a heavy emotional toll— every time Jung speaks of the horrors at Yodok, he says he can never sleep the following night because of the nightmares.

Poster for "Yoduk Story," a musical about North Korean human rights abuses by futureatlas.com
Poster for “Yoduk Story,” a musical about North Korean human rights abuses. Source: futureatlas.com, Creative Commons.

On April 12, 2003, Jung was released. Although he only spent three years in the camp (a relatively light sentence in American prison) Jung says it was “hell on Earth that felt like an eternity.” Twelve days after his release, Jung fled to a series of countries. After swimming to China through the Tumen River, Jung traveled through Vietnam, Cambodia, Thailand, and finally settled in South Korea. It was in South Korea that Jung realized he could never forget the faces of the inmates in Yodok, and vowed to become an activist in their names. He wrote a comprehensive list of everyone and everything he could remember, which was later used as evidence in United Nations resolutions against North Korean human rights violations. His activism did not stop there; he wanted to deliver news and information to the North Koreans to inspire social change and revolt. To achieve this, Jung formed a non-governmental organization entitled No Chain, inspired by the idea of breaking the chain that binds the North Korean people. No Chain specializes in sending information-packed CDs, DVDs, USB flash drives, and micro SD cards to the North Koreans via drones. Predominantly using micro SDs, they are disguised with brand-new packaging but are filled with movies, documentaries, South Korean dramas, k-pop, and other forms of media. No Chain initially used a human network, but now uses drones after Kim Jung-Un ordered guards to shoot civilians crossing the river on sight in 2014. North Korea is trying to cover up their efforts by labeling Jung as a “terrorist” and “human scum,” claiming he uses his helicopter drones to destroy statues of present and past leaders.

statue of kim il sung
Statue of Kim Il-Sung in Pyongyang. Source: Stephan, Creative Commons.

Today, the goals of No Chain are to gain help in their efforts to disseminate information to the North Korean people. Jung and Song have been traveling to universities and festivals across the world to share Jung’s story along with No Chain’s platform. Jung urges students to send in personal video messages and any other media they possibly can to send to North Korean youth. In regards to the real threat of North Korea’s nuclear capabilities, Jung advises “not to fear,” because information dissemination is what the regime is most afraid of. If their mission is successful, Jung hopes the North Koreans will be able to wake up and subdue the dictatorial regime and end the nuclear threat. Jung ends the speech with a rallying cry: “UAB, help us!”

To get in contact with No Chain, you can follow their Facebook page or contact their director, Henry Song, at (202) 341-6767 or henry@nknochain.org.

Innovative Master’s Program in the Anthropology of Peace and Human Rights

MLK Statue at Kelly Ingram Park, Birmingham AL. Source: Kelly B, Creative Commons.

The Department of Anthropology and the College of Arts and Sciences at UAB initiated a brand new Master’s Program in the Anthropology of Peace and Human Rights this spring semester. The program begins with an initial cohort of nearly 20 students from Alabama and beyond, who are eager to study, understand, and ameliorate conflicts and injustice, from local communities up to the national and global levels. The new Master’s program complements the educational and outreach activities of the recently established Institute for Human Rights at UAB.

The history of the Civil Rights Movement in Birmingham constitutes one reason why the development of peace and human rights at UAB is historically and culturally important. The Anthropology of Peace and Human Rights program, with its educational purpose, can be seen as the one element among other positive developments in social justice and civil rights in Birmingham and Alabama over the last half century. The new program also takes a global focus.

Anthropology is the science committed to the comparative and historical study of humankind, looking across different cultural circumstances and into the depths of prehistory. Anthropology literally means the study of humanity and considers the interplay of biological and cultural factors. The new Master’s program in the Anthropology of Peace and Human Rights will introduce an innovative focus on peace, justice, human rights, and ecology, as considered from anthropological perspectives. The new program will address how factors such as ecological sustainability, human security, democracy, justice, non-violence, conflict resolution, and human rights are interconnected and related to peace in today’s interconnected world.

There certainly are no shortages of human rights challenges, conflicts, and violence in the world today, but as students will have a chance to explore in this new Master’s program, there also are viable solutions.  To mention one aspect of cultural influences on conflict perceptions, a person’s view of humanity can affect thoughts on how best to seek justice and security. Culturally-based perceptions that human nature is naturally selfish, competitive, and aggressive can lead to fear of others, distrust, and a reluctance to cooperate. Such culturally-derived perceptions can also lead to pessimism about ending the institution of war or preventing particular wars. If human nature is nasty and aggressive, it follows that there may be only a slim chance of achieving a more peaceful and secure world. With such an orientation, it may seem sensible in seeking security to keep up one’s guard—“keep the powder dry”—and maintain suspicion about the intentions of others.

On the other hand, perceptions that humans can be cooperative as well as competitive, and peaceful as well as warlike, open the door to a different type of security strategy. As President Kennedy once suggested, “Every thoughtful citizen who despairs of war and wishes to bring peace, should begin by looking inward—by examining his own attitude toward the possibilities of peace.”

Perhaps the abolition of war could be possible and disputes could be handled justly without violence.

A goal of the new Master’s program is to explore questions: How we can handle our disputes more justly and effectively, with less violence?  How can we question assumptions and challenge habitual thinking about war and peace to explore alternative security approaches?

In 2017, for instance, a solid argument can be made that strictly military-based strategies for security are no longer viable in an interdependent world facing common challenges. Military strength can do little-to-nothing, for example, to halt and reverse the numerous threats posed by global warming. The only manner to successfully address this planetary crisis, and to achieve security more generally, is through international cooperation. Military might does not address the problems we are now facing on an overheated planet.

Source: Takver, Creative Commons.

Fortunately, international cooperation has been shown to be possible. The successful protection of the Earth’s ozone layer proves this point. In the late 1980s, the countries of the world negotiated and implemented the Montreal Protocol on Substances that Deplete the Ozone Layer and then have worked together to phase-out ozone destructive chemicals such as CFCs worldwide. Since the elimination of global CFCs and other ozone depleting substances, the Earth’s ozone layer has been replenishing. As of 2016, it is on the mend faster than predicted. In Science News published last week, Dr. Susan Solomon of MIT emphasizes that “public engagement was key to solving the ozone problem, with people coming together to identify an issue that threatened society and develop new technologies to fix it. In that respect, the most successful environmental treaty in history holds lessons for dealing with a much bigger threat…climate change.”

Global interdependence can provide the rationale for why cooperation is absolutely necessary to address common threats such as global warming and climate change. Safety and security in an interdependent world of 2017 require that humanity give-up the institution of war and instead concentrate our vision, resources, and ingenuity on solving the common threats such as climate change, loss of biodiversity, nuclear proliferation, and attacks on human rights and freedoms wherever they occur. The globally concerted and successful effort to save the Earth’s shared ozone layer demonstrates that an understanding of interdependence can lead to global cooperative action to solve common challenges. These are the types of anthropological lessons about conflict, rights, and justice that the new Master’s program will consider in depth.

Anthropology can contribute to understanding cultural diversity; reflection on cultural relativism; appreciation of multiculturalism; understanding of effective communication in cross-cultural interactions; knowledge regarding cultural variation in norms, values, beliefs, and culturally-embedded conflict resolution styles; and the development of respect for cultural differences and human rights. This unique knowledge-base and set of perspectives is at the heart of the innovative Master’s program’s focus on peace and human rights, which simultaneously contributes to the explicitly stated goals of the UAB College of Arts and Sciences to “enhance students’ global perspective” in an era where “globalization is diminishing the importance of national and political boundaries while increasing the opportunity for international harmony.”

The Department of Anthropology hosts the Peaceful Societies website, which provides a valuable educational resource on peaceful societies from around the globe. Anthropology faculty work regularly with students to help them pursue their academic interests and to develop the skills needed locally and globally in the 21st century.

Uniquely, the new Master’s program will combine and integrate the study of peace and human rights from an anthropological angle. It will draw upon the rich perspective of anthropology to highlight respect for diversity, multiculturalism, cultural relativism, and a comparative cross-cultural perspective. The new program also will focus both on theory and practice, thus facilitating the learning of theory and applications, a feature for which the discipline of applied anthropology is known. All Anthropology faculty members will teach from time-to-time within the Master’s program, and several professors are experts in relevant areas:

Dr. Loretta Cormier is one of the originators of the undergraduate minor Peace, Justice and Ecology. Her most recent book is Disasters and Vulnerable Populations (with Lisa Baker, Springer, 2015). In the new Master’s program, Dr. Cormier will teach electives such as “Medical Anthropology and Health Disparities.”

Dr. Douglas P. Fry specializes in peace and conflict studies. He is author of Beyond War (2007, Oxford), The Human Potential for Peace (2006, Oxford) and editor or coeditor of Keeping the Peace: Conflict Resolution and Peaceful Societies around the World (2004, Routledge), Cultural Variation in Conflict Resolution (1997, Erlbaum), and War, Peace and Human Nature (2013/2015, Oxford), and Associate Editor of the Encyclopedia of Violence, Peace, & Conflict (2008, 2nd edition, Academic Press). He will teach courses such as “Peaceful Societies and Peace Systems.”

Dr. Chris Kyle is a specialist in political violence in Mexico. He recently has received a prestigious Harry Frank Guggenheim research grant to study drug related violence in the Mexican state of Guerrero through innovative methodologies. He is currently writing a book on this topic. He will teach courses such as the “Anthropology of Human Rights.”

Dr. Tina Kempin Rueter is the Founding Director of the Institute for Human Rights at UAB. She holds a primary appointment in the Department of Government and a secondary appointment in the Department of Anthropology.  Her research focuses on human rights, ethnic conflict and genocide studies, and conflict management and peacemaking with a geographical focus on Europe and the Middle East. She will teach various courses on human rights.

Dr. Geneviève Souillac is the author of Human Rights in Crisis (Rowman & Littlefield/Lexington Press, 2005), The Burden of Democracy: The Claims of Cultures, Public Culture, and Democratic Memory (Rowman & Littlefield/Lexington Press, 2011), and A Study in Transborder Ethics: Justice, Citizenship, Civility (Peter Lang, 2012) as well as numerous articles and book chapters. She will teach courses such as “Religion, Reconciliation, & Forgiveness” and “Conflict Resolution in a Cross-Cultural Perspective.”

Dr. Peter Verbeek specializes in studying conflict resolution and peacemaking in humans and other species and is the founder of the field of peace ethology. He is co-editor of Behavioral Processes and Systems of Peace (with Benjamin Peters, in press, John Wiley & sons). He will teach such courses as “Peace Ethology,” “Methods in Peace and Human Rights Research and Practice,” and “Peace and Environmental Sustainability.”

 

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.”

 

 

The Liberian Renaissance: The Rebirth of a Nation

Leymah Gbowee (photo credit: Michael Angelo)
Leymah Gbowee. Photo credit: Michael Angelo

 

Leymah Gbowee is one of my human rights heroines. I first heard of her work in my peace studies class. We watched the documentary, Pray the Devil Back to Hell, which chronicles the cessation of the second Liberian Civil War and the power of nonviolent protests in pursuit of peace. Gbowee and the women of the Liberian Mass Action for Peace organized peace talks between African leaders and rebel warlords in order to see peace come to a nation upended by more than 14 years of violent war. After hearing her speak on campus a couple of weeks ago, I wanted to educate myself on how Liberia has decidedly made steps towards the creation and maintenance of peace—how the citizens and the government acknowledge and confront a destructive history while establishing a constructive present, building for an improved future. 

When thinking of peace, one may think of marijuana smoking hippies and flower children in the middle of a New York field, or a society without war. The latter is a fair but incomplete description of peace. Anthropologist Margaret Mead concluded that “warfare is just an invention…The ordeal [warfare] did not just go out because people thought it unjust or wrong; it went out because a method more congruent with the institutions and feelings of the period was invented… We can take comfort from the fact that a poor invention will usually give place to a better invention” (Barash 23). Peace is the better invention.

Peace is an alternative to war but it is complex.

There are factors that have to be considered in addition to the curbing of physical violence. Dr. Douglas Fry asserts that although violence makes headlines, it is actually a minute part of social life. It is the focus on aggression which allows it to become the central narrative. “Human potential for peace is underappreciated, whereas violence and warfare are emphasized, and thus naturalized. Naturalizing war and violence can help to create a self-fulfilling prophecy: if war is seen as natural, then there is little point in trying to prevent, reduce, or abolish it. Consequently, the acceptance of war as a social institution facilitates its continuance.” He proposes that there is a potential for human beings—and as a direct result, societies–to live at peace and in peace.  

What does war and peace have to do with the current state of Liberia? Everything. From 1989-2003, the country had been overrun by warlords, child soldiers, and internally displaced people (IDP). War and civil unrest had leveled communities built upon “togetherness and sharing”. Yet, this nation, located on the southwestern coast of Africa, that is home to 4.5 million people has been in a state of peace for the past 13 years. The government of Liberia is underwriting a Liberian rebirth under the leadership of President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf.

The President of Liberia, HE Ellen Johnson Sirleaf. Source: Chatham House, Creative Commons
The President of Liberia, HE Ellen Johnson Sirleaf. Source: Chatham House, Creative Commons

 

The historic 2005 election of Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf was the first of its kind on the continent of Africa. Gwendolyn Mikell writes that from a Liberian perspective, the vote in favor of Johnson Sirleaf was rooted in the fact that she was not a man. “Societies have needed women to help transition them from socialism to democracy or from conflict to peace. African publics claim that women are more responsive to people’s needs, and that women make better politicians.” Liberians believed that male presidents brought war and violence; therefore, a woman would be needed to make things right. In and out of politics for more than 30 years, Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf was imprisoned for criticizing President Samuel Doe’s administration, found political asylum in the US during the years of the Liberian civil war, and worked as director of the Africa Bureau of the UN Development Program.

What has a Liberian renaissance looked like over the past 13 years? It has been a slow process of reconciling two Liberias, according to Ruthie Ackerman. “The answer may lie in demonstrating that the government’s top priorities are justice and accountability.” The lifestyle of a life without war provides a peace that is not fully resolved, a term called ‘negative peace’, because the roots of the issues causing the conflict have not been addressed. The antithesis of negative peace is positive peace. In pursuing positive peace, the desire for a lack of violence is the starting point. Positive peace confronts the hidden symptoms of societal structural violence. Johan Galtung coined the term ‘structural violence’ as a description of violence where social institutions (church, government, employment, schools, etc) fail to meet the needs of its citizens, perpetuating social injustice based upon race, age, gender, class, nationalism, etc. David Barash states that

“when human beings suffer from diseases that are preventable, when they are denied a decent education, housing, an opportunity to play, to grow, to work, to raise a family, to express themselves freely, to organize peacefully, or to participate in their own governance, a kind of violence is occurring, even if bullets or clubs are not being used. Structural violence is another way [kind] of identifying oppression, and positive peace would be a situation in which structural violence and oppression are minimized.”

In Liberia, the identification of the oppression and process of rectifying and removing it has been the foundation of Johnson Sirleaf’s presidency. She correlates the decline and abrupt end of growth of her country with decades of war, the corrupted power of a few, and a closed political system, resulting in Liberia becoming one of the poorest countries in the world. “The entire nation had been virtually deprived of basic services and infrastructure such as roads, clean water, electric power, and solid waste disposal.” Poverty, though improving, continues to plague the nation, particularly Monrovia, the capital. The Guardian reports that Monrovia is the poorest city in the world. Basic necessities like water, electricity, healthcare and transport are still not up to par. Ebola devastated the country last year, and the diamond industry remains a cause of interstate and international disparity. Despite challenges and setbacks, the efforts of the Johnson-Sirleaf government to initiate reform have been recognized globally.

Children in Monrovia. Source: Giorgio Minguzzi, Creative Commons
Children in Monrovia. Source: Giorgio Minguzzi, Creative Commons

 

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) outlines that human beings have equal and inalienable rights to

  1. Life, liberty and security of person in Article 3
  2. A standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family including food, clothing, housing and medical care and necessary social services in Article 25
  3. Education… elementary education shall be compulsory in Article 26
  4. Work with just and favorable condition and without discrimination in Article 23

In 2007, President Johnson-Sirleaf introduced three issues of policy that her government would correct: national peace and security, investment in education and healthcare, and revitalization of the economy and infrastructure by creating jobs in agriculture and trade.

The government of Liberia created a model for peace and was able to implement it.

“Our policies must respond to the deep wounds of our civil war, and enhance national governance while quickly introducing measures of structural reform and reconstruction”, said President Johnson-Sirleaf in 2006. According to the Global Peace Index, which measures the peacefulness of countries based upon 23 qualitative and quantitative indicators, Liberia ranks 72/163 countries; whereas, the United States is ranked 103/163. In fact, since 2008 (which is how far the index reviews) Liberia has been viewed as more peaceful than the US. Fry points out that societal shifts from violence to peacefulness  takes years and generations, and though a society was once violent, the past does not discount their ability to become and remain peaceful in the future.

The government of Liberia is working to improve and administer healthcare for more of its citizens. Kerry A. Dolan summarizes that within the next four years, the government is working to deliver healthcare to citizens living the rural areas as they put into service community health assistants. “The CHAs will be paid $60 a month… will be supervised by nurses and physician assistants. The primary goals of the programs are to reduce maternal and child mortality and build a resilient health care system.” Additionally, the program will create thousands of jobs; tremendous progress for a country that once had 50 doctors for 4 million people. Dr. Raj Panjabi of Last Mile Health trusts that the effort will prevent local outbreaks from becoming global epidemics.

Children pictured at a UNCHR food distribution point in Liberia in 2011. Source: DFID, Creative Commons
Children pictured at a UNCHR food distribution point in Liberia in 2011. Source: DFID, Creative Commons

 

The government of Liberia is conducting a reconstruction of its educational system. In 2013, all 25,000 high school graduates failed to pass the state university entrance exam. Aagon Tingba deems that proceeding with a controversial partnership between the private sector and public education is the best option for the children of Liberia. “Critics say the government should be responsible for our own schools, but in Liberia we simply don’t have the resources to do it ourselves. That is the reality. Liberian children deserve more. Doing nothing was not an option.” The decision is needed specifically for primary school students and teachers. The Liberian government is piloting this education program that will provide training, support, accountability, and resources to a system in need of improvement. “In some [secondary] schools, children [are] being taught basic fractions by teachers who are barely literate”, says Sheldon Yett of UNICEF.

The government of Liberia is empowering women and girls by placing them in the foreground. Leymah Gbowee calls attention to the lack of expression given to the female experience, particularly as a survivor of war, in her book, Mighty Be Our Powers. She discloses that women are always in the background as though our lives are an appendix to the main narrative. “If we are African, we are even more likely to be marginalized and painted as pathetic…victims. That is the image of us that the world is used to, and that image sells. During the war, almost no one reported the other reality of women’s lives. And how we created strength in sisterhood.” Mikell confirms that President Johnson-Sirleaf has placed female leadership over the rehabilitation of female victims and child soldiers, and the citizens have elected women to parliament and other political office.

So what does supplying healthcare and education, eradicating poverty, and giving voice to the female experience have to do with the uncovering of structural violence in order to create and maintain positive peace while living without war? Everything. Graham Kemp characterizes a peaceful society as one that has diagnosticated and cultivated ideas, mores, value systems and cultural institutions which stimulate cultural interactions and developments towards the minimization of violence and the promotion of peace. Human rights violations are symptomatic of a failed shared value system. A peaceful culture and society is not a utopian existence. It is, however, a recognition of a personal and communal decision to enhance the wellbeing of another. President Johnson Sirleaf’s belief that poverty and corruption are parasitic lead to the establishment of a transparent government. The overhaul of the educational system prepare the process of removing poverty as an obstacle in the road to achievement, making leadership and employment opportunities possible, thus eliminating a potential creation of a vacuum where violence and war might build.

Liberia President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf greets an Armed Forces of Liberia soldiers. Source: DVIDSHUB, Creative Commons
Liberia President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf greets an Armed Forces of Liberia soldiers. Source: DVIDSHUB, Creative Commons

On September 22, 2016 in her address to the UN General Assembly, President Johnson-Sirleaf declared that after 13 years of institution and consolidation of peacebuilding, security, and governance strategies, the Liberian government had taken full responsibility for the agency of the future advancement of the country. The hand-off took place on June 30, 2016. The Liberian Congress on September 29, 2016, with the backing of UN Women and other agencies, voted and passed the Equal Representation and Participation Act, a significant bill of inclusion. The bill is praised by government officials as “guaranteeing the participation of women and other marginalized members of the population in shaping the country’s progress.” The ‘special constituencies’–lower than originally proposed due to budget constraints–authorizes five seats for women, one seat for a youth representative, and one for a person with disabilities within the legislative body.

Liberia is an example that by openly addressing past mistakes, pinpointing and communicating a new narrative on cultural core values, the capacity for the formulation and execution of solutions that will empower the future begins to occur.  

 

 

 

Islamophobia: A Threat to All

Source: Daniel Zanini H., Creative Commons
Source: Daniel Zanini H., Creative Commons

 

A few weeks ago, I had the opportunity to meet Dalia Mogahed, Research Director at the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding (ISPU). She delivered a powerful speech at UAB’s Hill University Center about an issue that has plagued American society for many years, Islamophobia.

Islamophobia, as Dalia Mogahed defines it, is “anti-Muslim bigotry and discrimination based on an irrational hatred and fear of Islam”. According to a new report generated by the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) and the University of California, Berkeley, over $200 million dollars is spent annually to perpetuate this fear, which is evidenced by the tone and volume of reporting about Muslims. Nearly 80% of the media coverage about Islam is negative portraying Muslims as more dangerous than countries armed with nuclear weapons, drug addiction, or diseases such as cancer. As Americans, it is important that we seek out facts and form our own opinions rather than bending to the bias of others. Prejudice of any kind is a problem that affects all Americans by threatening our safety and way of life.

Islamophobia lecture.
Islamophobia lecture. Photo credit: Charles Coleman.

According to an ISPU report, Islamophobia is a gateway to other types of discrimination such as anti-Semitism, human rights violations, and anti-rights legislation. For example, Mogahed mentions the recently released Community Brief “Manufacturing Bigotry”. In that study, researchers find that legislators who promote Islamophobic agendas are 80% more likely to support anti-foreign legislation, voter identification mandates, and limitations on immigration and oppose women’s rights, access to abortion, and same-sex marriage – all laws empowering groups marginalized in the political process. She points out that

“fear erodes freedom, which is the foundation of our democracy”

and makes us more accepting of authoritarianism, conformity, and prejudices.

Each of these limiting ideas makes all Americans less safe. In fact, according to a recent report generated by Freedom house, the perpetuation of Islamaphobia aids the rise of terrorist rhetoric and opens the door for extremist ideology. One example Mogahed provided is a recruitment tape released by Al-Shabaab, a Somali terrorist group. In this clip, terrorists use an audio excerpt from one of presidential nominee Donald Trumps rants to push their Islamist views and label American society as racist.

What can we as Americans do about this and how can we protect our freedom and ideals? Mogahed states that we need to educate ourselves and replace our fears with facts. According to Martin Scott, author of the journal “Catholics and the Ku Klux Klan”, nearly a century ago this same scenario presented itself, but it was Catholicism that was the recipient of discrimination and prejudice perpetuated by groups like the True Americans and Ku Klux Klan.

Source: Keoni Cabral, Creative Commons
Source: Keoni Cabral, Creative Commons

 

Today, we need to understand who American Muslims are and how they help shape the diversity of our nation. American Muslims are not only Arab. In fact most are African American, Caucasian, Asian, and Hispanic. According to Mogahed, Muslims are the most likely group to reject military attacks on civilians, and contrary to popular belief those that attend the masjid or “mosque” are the most likely to be engaged in community and civic activities, not radical Islam.

American Muslims, on the whole, retain strong simultaneous American and Muslim identities and want to work to protect the American way of life.

Therefore, it is our duty to help Muslims protect their identity by not associating every Muslim with ISIS or other radical Islamist factions.  If we learn about Islam and get to know the Muslims in our community we will see that they are normal people who are more disgusted with radical Islamic ideology than anyone else because they are the group that is most affected by the actions of radical Islamist groups. I have traveled across the globe and met many Muslims along the journey. They would all agree that there is nothing worse than the killing of innocent people and any individual who condones these acts of violence does not represent normative Islam and its values. To protect our American way of life we have to move past the unfair framing of all Muslims as terrorists. Mogahed advises that we need to create strong diverse coalitions that protect human rights, and religious freedoms to build a stronger more pluralistic America. We have to challenge bigotry by calling out prejudices when we see them. At the same time, we need to not be afraid to call out anti-Muslim bias in media coverage, not shy away from having difficult conversations challenging prejudice, preach outside the choir and vote for government representatives who will uphold American values as opposed to letting fear dictate policy.

IHR Director Dr. Tina Kempin Reuter with speaker Dalia Mogahed.
IHR Director Dr. Tina Kempin Reuter with speaker Dalia Mogahed.

 

 

Establishing the UAB Institute for Human Rights

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Twelve months ago I interviewed for the position of Director of the UAB Institute for Human Rights (IHR).

Nine months ago I was offered the position.

Six months ago I arrived in Birmingham with an idea of what I wanted to do, not knowing anyone or having a concrete plan of how to implement my ideas.

Three months ago we started to determine in which direction we want to take the IHR. Now, the Institute has a physical space, a virtual space, and staff.

And this is the UAB IHR’s first blog post. It’s been a whirlwind!

The IHR was initiated by Robert Palazzo, the Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, and key faculty members in 2013 to provide a framework for Birmingham’s human and civil rights activities and to connect the city’s historical significance in the struggle for civil rights to national and international collaborative initiatives. In June 2014, the University of Alabama System Board of Trustees approved the Institute, which is housed in the UAB College of Arts and Sciences.  A search for its Director started.  And here I am.

UAB Heritage Hall, the physical location of the UAB IHR (room 551)
UAB Heritage Hall, the physical location of the UAB IHR (room 551)

I thought long and hard about how to position the IHR not only within Birmingham and UAB, but also within the wider academic community. It seems there are three types of institutes for human rights:

  • the one at the law school, focusing on the law making process, adjudication, and domestic or international implementation of human rights law;
  • the policy-oriented institute, advocating and lobbying for human rights in government institutions; and
  • the interdisciplinary center that either examines specific rights (e.g., social and economic rights) or a specific areas of human rights (e.g., human trafficking, transitional justice, or women’s rights).

The first two options didn’t seem to be a good fit for UAB, which left the last option. I concluded I needed to learn more about UAB and Birmingham to make an informed decision on how to position the IHR.

Over the course of the past several months, I’ve met with close to 100 organizations and units at UAB, in the Birmingham area, and beyond that engage in human rights work. I reached out to institutions focusing on alleviating poverty, addressing women’s issues, educating on human rights or human rights related issues, dealing with victims of violence and human trafficking, and focusing on social justice issues and civil rights. It was an interesting experience that taught me a lot about the community that I’ve come to live in. I realized that by connecting with the work that’s already being done in this city and around this state, the IHR could serve as a solid link between the university and its surroundings, providing a framework for human and civil rights.

Sculpture dedicated to the Foot Soldiers of the Birmingham Civil Rights Movement. Kelly Ingram Park, Birmingham, Alabama; The George F. Landegger Collection of Alabama Photographs in Carol M. Highsmith's America, Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division, Public Domain
Sculpture dedicated to the Foot Soldiers of the Birmingham Civil Rights Movement. Kelly Ingram Park, Birmingham, Alabama Source: The George F. Landegger Collection of Alabama Photographs in Carol M. Highsmith’s America, Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division, Public Domain

 

I’m a social scientist by trade – I have a joint appointment in the Department of Government and Department of Anthropology at UAB. I’ve always been interested in studying the way vulnerable or underrepresented populations – minorities, refugees, women, children, or persons with disabilities – advocate for and claim their human rights and how they deal with and monitor human rights violations in their own communities. The pattern of their struggles often remains the same – marginalization, poverty, violence, and a whole myriad of human rights violations.

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The IHR will specifically focus on these struggles worldwide. It serves as a platform for interdisciplinary interaction and collaboration to study the bottom up approach to human rights and highlight the way in which marginalized and vulnerable groups assert their human rights. The focus on the social movement associated with human rights is embodied in the Institute’s icon, which represents the movement taking over the world.

 

The IHR’s goal is

to bring Birmingham to the world and the world to Birmingham

focusing specifically on human rights in an international perspective. It engages in three specific areas:

  • education, mainly focused on UAB students, but also beyond;
  • research, at the IHR but also in collaborating with other research institutions, government agencies, international organizations, and NGOs; and
  • practical action and outreach, namely engagement with the local community, practitioners, and by integrating applied approaches.

This blog is thus a crucial part of fulfilling the IHR’s mission. It will serve as a way to educate a wider audience on international human rights issues, as a forum for reflection and discussion, and as a way to promote our events. The IHR research and events team will post weekly updates.

Source: new 1lluminati, Creative Commons
Source: new 1lluminati, Creative Commons

I hope you will check back often and engage with us on the blog, social media, and in person. We can’t wait to open up a whole new world of human rights and show you how you can get involved, learn from your ideas, and collaborate and interact.

For more information, visit our website, follow us on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram, and stop by our office on the 5th floor of Heritage Hall (room 551, to be exact).