Webster University's Institute for Human Rights and Humanitarian Studies sponsors the Annual Human Rights Conference, hosted at Webster's St. Louis, Missouri, campus. This free two-day event is open to the public and has been held since 2010 with presenters and speakers from around the country as well as Webster faculty and alumni. Previous themes have included: Women's Rights as Human Rights, Global Migration, Disability Rights, Environmental Justice and Human Rights, and Equality Before the Law.
State of Human Rights in the U.S.
Topics in this tenth edition of Webster World Report on SoundCloud range from the current state of diplomacy, police brutality, and human rights in the U.S. in the wake of the George Floyd protests.
Previous Annual Human Rights Conferences
Webster University’s 2020 Annual Human Rights Conference focuses on the theme of “Global Challenges” and shifts online in response to Covid-19. Sponsored by the Institute for Human Rights and Humanitarian Studies, this virtual lecture series will be offered throughout the 2020/21 academic year.
Around the world, people are on the move—in search of safety, protection, family reunification,
education, jobs, and more. The International Organization for Migration (IOM) reports
that 68.5 million people were forcibly displaced last year due to persecution, conflict,
and violence. Fifty million irregular migrants, 25.4 million registered refugees,
and 25 million victims of forced labor also highlight the vast numbers of people living
outside their home communities and facing severe rights challenges.
Webster University’s 2019 Annual Human Rights Conference focused on the theme of “Global Migration” on October 9-10. This two-day event explored topics such as displacement, restrictions on freedom of movement, borderland communities, statelessness, and the impacts of technology on migration. Sponsored by the Institute for Human Rights and Humanitarian Studies, this on-campus event was free and open to the public.
- Welcome by Elizabeth (Beth) Stroble, Chancellor, Webster University
- Conference framework by Lindsey Kingston, Associate Professor of International Human Rights and Director of the Institute for Human Rights & Humanitarian Studies, Webster University
- Blake Hamilton, Vice President of Programs, International Institute. "Displaced Hope: How Changes in Federal Immigration Policy are Impacting Refugee Communities."
- Christina Leza, Associate Professor of Anthropology, Colorado College. "Indigenous Rights on the U.S.-Mexico Border."
- Roundtable discussion featuring Luke Braby, Adam Saleh, Andy Shah, and Tharwat Ramadan—START (Saint Louis Teens Aid Refugees Today). "Journey to Freedom: Aiding in the Transition to Becoming American."
- Welcome by Julian Schuster, President, Webster University
- Barbra Lukunka, Peace and Security Programme Officer, International Organization for Migration. "The State and its Citizens: Exploring Political Reintegration of Former Refugees in Burundi."
- Winifred R. Poster, Lecturer, Washington University—Saint Louis. "Technologies of Global Im/Mobility."
- Amanda Flaim, Assistant Professor, James Madison College of Public Affairs, Michigan State University. "Migration, Development, and Human Rights in the Age of Crisis"
- Webster faculty panel featuring Professors Mary Ann Drake, Daniel Hellinger, Kelly-Kate Pease, and Debbie Stiles. Moderated by Anton Wallner, Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, Webster University
Luke Braby and Adam Saleh, both currently seniors at the Saint Louis Priory School, founded the nonprofit organization START (Saint Louis Teens Aid Refugees Today) in June 2018. In its infancy, START's mission was simple; its founders wanted to "help local refugee families integrate into the community as they START their new life here in America." However, it became apparent very early that the need for this type of assistance was far greater than the resources available. In May 2019, START partnered with another grassroots organization called Welcome Neighbor STL. The partnership and combined resources allow both organizations to assist local refugee families more effectively. Programs for refugees supported by START and Welcome Neighbor STL include driving lessons, English lessons, relocation services, citizenship classes, and supper club events. Program funding comes from private donors, farmers' market and festival sales, and supper club events. To date, START and Welcome Neighbor STL have raised over $100,000 to support the programs needed to assist the families in their transition to becoming Americans.
Braby and Saleh are joined by Andy Shah and Tharwat Ramadan for a roundtable discussion of local efforts and resources required to meet the demands of refugee families as they struggle to integrate into U.S. communities. Panelists will give a brief overview of the immigration process and the legal and humanitarian rights of these refugee families, and also discuss what resources are available for these families and ways to get involved in the efforts to assist them with integration. Finally, resettled refugees will give their firsthand accounts of resettlement and integration in Saint Louis.
Amanda Flaim is an assistant professor at Michigan State University's James Madison College. She studies problems and paradoxes in human rights policy, including statelessness and citizenship, human trafficking, and the global expansion of rights to education and birth registration. Her current research projects explore the risk of trafficking among Cambodian and Burmese men and boys into the Thai fishing industry, and the causes and consequences of statelessness in Thailand and Nepal. Flaim has consulted for several NGOs and United Nations agencies on a number of projects, including designing and leading two of the largest country-level surveys of stateless populations conducted to date. Prior to arriving at MSU, she was a postdoctoral associate and Human Rights Fellow at Duke University, where she taught courses on human rights, citizenship, migration, and qualitative and mixed methods research for public policy students. Flaim holds a Master's degree in Comparative and International Education from Stanford University, and a Ph.D. in Development Sociology from Cornell University.
Flaim considers the Global Compact for Migration (GCM), which was widely heralded as a critical political success after a decade of rising political anxieties regarding rates of global displacement. Although the GCM constitutes a non-binding UN agreement, it also symbolizes new commitments between states, international governmental organizations, private interests, and humanitarian agencies to coordinate migration regulation efforts. What kinds of migration require regulation and coordination? And what will be the effect of these efforts? Close analysis of the language in the GCM reveals that it is premised on two supposedly related narratives of migration-as-crisis: First, the GCM promotes the idea that "unregulated" migration is a humanitarian crisis that renders individuals and families unsafe and vulnerable to trafficking; and second, the GCM suggests that unregulated migration constitutes a fundamental crisis for national and global development schemes. By this logic, states working together to regulate migration can promote national development while reducing dangers associated with unregulated migration. A critical analysis of the GCM offers a contrasting, and far less optimistic vision of its political potentialities, however. Indeed, a close reading of the GCM reveals that its logics obfuscate the true, fraught relationship between migration and development, and may render migration more dangerous by placing the onus of the "migration crisis" at the feet of migrants themselves.
Blake Hamilton is the Vice President of the Programs Division of the International Institute of Saint Louis (IISTL). IISTL is the region's welcoming center for new Americans and serves more than 6,500 foreign-born St. Louis residents annually. As Vice President of Programs, Hamilton leads the refugee resettlement, education and training, social work and workforce solutions departments of IISTL. Hamilton is an alumnus of the University of Missouri ('04), is a graduate of the Olin School's Business Management for Nonprofit Leaders program, and was a member of Focus St. Louis' 43rd Leadership St. Louis cohort. Hamilton is member of the St. Louis Regional Chamber's Education Attainment and Talent Development Committee, St. Louis Promise Zone Economic and Workforce Readiness Subcommittee, and St. Louis County Workforce Development Board's Career Pathways Committee.
From the Muslim Ban to ICE raids and public charge, executive orders and new interpretations of old rules are reshaping American immigration policy. These changes have created a climate of confusion as immigrants and institutions struggle to keep up with the break-neck pace of policy change. Join Hamilton as he examines these changes to the immigration system and how they are affecting the lives of refugees in St. Louis and beyond.
Christina Leza addresses the impacts of U.S.-Mexico border enforcement on Native/Indigenous peoples whose homelands are divided by the U.S.-Mexico border. She reviews key domestic and international legal rights held by Indigenous peoples in the U.S.-Mexico border region, highlighting both rights violations related to U.S. border enforcement practices and possible avenues for better recognizing Indigenous rights on the border. Leza is an associate professor of anthropology at Colorado College. She is a linguistic anthropologist and Yoeme-Chicana activist scholar whose research addresses Indigenous peoples, racial and ethnic discourses, grassroots activism, Indigenous rights, cognitive anthropology, and the U.S.-Mexico border. A native Arizonan with strong ties to both the El Paso-Ciudad Juárez and the Tucson-Nogales border regions, her publications include work on U.S.-Mexico border hip hop as identity and social movement discourse and Indigenous activist discourses.
Barbra Lukunka is a social-cultural anthropologist with a PhD from American University in Washington, DC. Her research interests include forced migration, peacebuilding, and gender. Her dissertation on the reintegration of Burundian former refugees explores the meaning and process of returnee reintegration after prolonged and multiple episodes of exile. She has conducted field research in Burundi, Ethiopia, and Tanzania. She currently works for the International Organization for Migration (IOM), where she focuses on peace and security and peacebuilding programming. Her prior work experience includes posts with the United Nations in Burundi, Haiti, and New York. She has published articles stemming from her doctoral dissertation including "'They Call Us Witches': Exclusion and Invisibility in the Burundian Returnee Reintegration Process" (Peace and Conflict: Journal of Peace Psychology, 2018) and "The Romance of Return: Post-exile Lives and Interpersonal Violence over Land in Burundi" (in Gender, Violence, Refugees; Berghahn Books, 2017).
Lukunka argues that the return of refugees to their country of origin is a process that is fraught with challenges. It is a moment in the refugee trajectory that raises questions about the meaning of home and space. For the state, return and reintegration are processes that raise significant questions regarding territoriality, sovereignty, boundaries/borders, belonging, as well as placement of individuals into the socio-economic and political landscape of a state. In this presentation she explores return and reintegration and interrogate the state-citizen relationship during this process. This lecture is based on doctoral research conducted from 2009-2010 and in 2011. Lukunka contends that the cornerstone of successful reintegration is political reintegration. Political reintegration means ensuring that returnees not only enjoy basic rights such as the right to assemble, right to free speech and much more, but also that they are actively included in the political landscape of the country. Political reintegration entails a focus on ensuring that returnee voices are heard, that they are part of decision-making process, and that they are seen by the local communities and the state as citizens. Political reintegration is about ensuring that the state delivers basic services to the population, including returnees, in an equitable manner ensuring that no one is left behind, marginalized or excluded. This presentation is anchored in the historical context of the Burundian crisis, as well as recent political events that have, once again, led to the force displacement of Burundians across borders into neighboring countries.
Winifred R. Poster teaches international affairs at Washington University, St. Louis. Her research interests are in digital globalization, feminist labor theory, and technologies of activism. With a regional focus on South Asia, she follows outsourcing of high tech and call center firms. Her research looks at ethnographic transformations in ICT service labor, through automation, artificial intelligence, crowdsourcing, and virtual assistants. She also has projects on surveillance, national borders, and cybersecurity. She is co-author of Invisible Labor (University of California Press) and Borders in Service (University of Toronto Press). Her work appears in recent books Captivating Technology (Duke University Press) and DigitalSTS (Princeton University Press).
Poster focuses on the issue of labor trafficking, which is part of what the International Labour Organization calls the "new or modern slavery." At least 12 million workers are subjected to forced labor in their place of origin or residence, while another 9 million are moved domestically or internationally each year. As digital and networked technologies pervade these dynamics, are they being used to thwart or aid labor exploitation? This presentation explores the contradictory implications of technology for global workers, especially in the human rights of labor mobility and immobility. For instance, some kinds of technology are enabling trafficking. Cryptocurrencies and other financial technologies hide traces of traffickers and assist their forcible movements of workers. Other technologies obstruct workers who are migrating voluntarily. State agencies are using biometrics, facial recognition, and "smart" checkpoints to surveille and block laborers in their everyday crossings at borders. At the same time, technology is being used by social justice groups as well. Designed by migrant communities to address their specific digital needs, several apps and programs enable workers to collect data, create databases and maps, and utilize social media for organizing and navigating labor migration barriers.
Mary Ann Drake is a professor of nursing who began traveling to the U.S.-Mexico border in the summer of 2018, following changes to immigration policy that included family separation. Working with the organization ARISE, which aims to empower women and children working in Texas' colonias border communities, Drake has taken three trips (and counting) with Webster students and faculty colleagues with a focus on improving access to health and legal services.
Daniel Hellinger is Professor Emeritus of International Relations at Webster University. He is author of several texts and many scholarly articles, including Comparative Politics of Latin America: Democracy at Last? and Conspiracies and Conspiracy Theories in the Age of Trump. He is often asked by asylum seekers from Venezuela and Central America to provided expert testimony in support of their applications to remain in the United States, which he does on a pro bono basis.
Kelly-Kate Pease is a professor of international relations who has authored books on international organizations, the United Nations and human rights, and humanitarian diplomacy. Pease has also published articles and chapters on human rights, foreign policy, humanitarian intervention, humanitarian assistance, and international law. She will discuss the weaknesses of international refugee law in addressing the challenges of global migration, as well as controversies surrounding international efforts to launch the Global Compact for Migration and to make the right to migrate a basic human right.
Debbie Stiles is a professor of applied educational psychology and school psychology in the Graduate Department of Education. She is a research scientist and licensed psychologist who has taught at Webster for 39 years, as well as conducted research with children in 13 countries. Her current research project involves studying the therapeutic value of art and storytelling for refugee and asylum-seeking youth living in Canada, the United Kingdom, the United States, and South Africa.
Article 26 of the United Nations’ International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR) states: “Education shall be directed to the full development of the human personality and to the strengthening of respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms.” Under international law, the human right to education holds governments responsible for providing primary education, for avoiding discrimination throughout educational systems, and ideally for developing equitable access to higher education. In practice, advocates stress the need to make education available, accessible, acceptable, and adaptable—across communities, cultural and socio-economic divides, ability levels, and more. From a human rights perspective, education is both a right in itself and a tool for advancing rights norms and promoting social justice.
Webster University’s 2018 Annual Human Rights Conference centered on the fundamental right to education, focusing on the immense potential of “Education as Empowerment” on October 10-11. This two-day event explored topics such as human rights education (HRE), access to education for vulnerable and under-served populations, and educational opportunities for improving health, for promoting cultural survival, and for building communities. Sponsored by the Institute for Human Rights and Humanitarian Studies, this on-campus event was free and open to the public.
- Welcome and conference framework Conference Welcome by Elizabeth (Beth) Stroble, President, Webster University. Conference Framework by Danielle MacCartney, Associate Professor of Sociology and Fellow of the Institute for Human Rights & Humanitarian Studies, Webster University.
- Rebecca Ginsburg, Associate Professor and Director, Education Justice Project, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign “Higher Education in Prison as Human Right and Social Good.”
- Jimmie M. Edwards, Director of Public Safety, City of Saint Louis “Shutting Down the School-to-Prison Pipeline.”
- Lauren Mueller, Early Childhood Educator, City of Saint Charles School District; Sharon Spurlock, Director of Family Supports, Saint Louis Arc; Christopher R. J. Worth, Organizing Team Manager, Paraquad “Expectation, Access, and Accommodation: The Keys to Empowerment.”
- Roundtable discussion “Human Rights in Higher Education” with Webster University faculty and staff, including Bill Barrett (Photography), Bethany Keller (Multicultural Center and International Student Affairs), Lindsey Kingston (International Human Rights), Amanda Rosen (International Relations), and Julie Setele (Sociology).
- Kevin Miller, Senior Researcher, American Association of University Women (AAUW) “Student Debt as a Human Rights Issue.”
- Neftali Duran, Co-Founder, I-Collective “Cooking, Cultural Education, and Food Sovereignty.”
- Webster Alumni Panel Featuring Javier Cardenas Miranda (The Covering House), Emily Fry Morrison (Missouri Commission for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing), Melissa George (Teach for America/Tulsa Public Schools), Monica Henson (Teach for America STL), and Jordan Palmer (The Independence Center).
- Keynote Address: Nancy Flowers, Co-Founder, Human Rights Educators USA "Bringing Human Rights Home: The Universal Declaration of Human Rights in U.S. Classrooms."
Neftali Duran is a chef, advocate, educator, and organizer working towards an equitable food system and building a network of indigenous food leaders. His work is informed by his own experience as a migrant worker, drawing on his origins in the Mexican region of Oaxaca, and 18 years of experience in the restaurant industry. Duran is a Salzburg Global Fellow and co-founder of the I-Collective, an indigenous collective that promotes a healthy food system that values people, traditional knowledge, and the planet over profit. His writing and culinary projects have been featured at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian and the National Museum of American History, as well as by the Native American Culinary Association, LongHouse Food Revival, Food52, and the Cooking Channel. He was also a featured speaker on The Moth mainstage, as well as at institutions such as Harvard University and Smith College. Duran’s work is grounded in the belief that access to food is a human right, and he is interested in documenting culinary traditions and reclaiming the cultural roots of the original peoples of the Americas.
Jimmie M. Edwards was appointed Director of Public Safety for the City of Saint Louis in November 2017. He served as a Circuit Judge for the State of Missouri for more than 25 years, and was Administrative Judge of the Family Court from 2007-2012. In 2009, Edwards opened Innovative Concept Academy—a school committed to educating at-risk youth while combatting risk factors and negative behaviors that keep them from obtaining a high school diploma. He has been featured on the CBS Early Show, the Today Show, and in The Wall Street Journal. People magazine named Edwards one of its 2011 heroes of the year, while Ebony selected him for its 2013 Power 100 Most Influential in America List. He has received the William Rehnquist Award for Judicial Excellence, one of highest judicial awards in the United States, as well as honors including the Raymond Pace Alexander Award and induction into the Missouri Public Service Hall of Fame.
Rebecca Ginsburg is a faculty member at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and a co-founder and current director of the Education Justice Project (EJP), a unit of the College of Education. EJP offers for-credit courses and a range of extracurricular activities to men incarcerated at Danville Correctional Center, a medium-security state prison. EJP also does outreach with family members and friends of incarcerated people, produces reentry guides, and promotes critical discussion of issues related to incarceration and criminal justice on campus and in the community. Almost 100 faculty, graduate students, and staff from across campus are involved in delivering these programs. They, along with incarcerated EJP students, also produce scholarship on higher education in prison and related topics. Ginsburg received her JD from the University of Michigan Law School, and a PhD in Architectural History from the University of California at Berkeley. At the University of Illinois, she teaches courses on the history of prisons and carceral landscapes.
Kevin Miller is a Senior Researcher at the American Association of University Women (AAUW). He holds undergraduate degrees in psychology and political science from the University of Illinois and received his doctorate in social psychology at the Ohio State University. He has authored publications, testified before state and city lawmakers, conducted technical assistance, and analyzed data on a wide variety of topics. These topics include the gender wage and leadership gaps; challenges faced by women in postsecondary education; paid leave and other workplace policies; implicit bias; and early care and education. Before joining AAUW, Kevin conducted research at the Institute for Women’s Policy Research and was staff at the City University of New York Graduate Center. He joined AAUW in November 2015.
The “Expectation, Access, and Accommodation” panel includes:
- Lauren Mueller is an Early Childhood Educator for the City of Saint Charles School District. She received her Bachelor’s Degree from Missouri Baptist University and is currently pursuing Master’s degree at the University of Missouri—Columbia.
- Sharon Spurlock has worked in support of people with intellectual and developmental disabilities since 1982. She currently serves as Director of Family Support at the Saint Louis Arc, where oversees planning and problem solving for the 4,000 individuals and families. Spurlock facilitates her organization’s Social Justice Committee and was a founding collaborator with the UMSL SUCCEED program.
- Christopher R. J. Worth is the Organizing Team Manager at Paraquad, a Saint Louis nonprofit whose mission is “to empower people with disabilities to increase their independence through choice and opportunity.” He has a Master’s of Fine Arts from Marshall University in West Virginia.
Human Rights in Higher Education: Institutional, Classroom, and Community Approaches to Teaching Social Justice (Palgrave 2018) focuses on human rights education (HRE) at the university level, with an emphasis on supporting undergraduate education for social justice and global citizenship. Panel participants include book editor Lindsey N. Kingston (Associate Professor of International Human Rights), as well as chapter authors Bill Barrett (Professor of Photography; “What Do You Think You’re Looking At? The Responsibility of the Gaze”), Bethany Keller (Assistant Director, Multicultural Center and International Student Affairs; “Supporting Inclusive Campus Communities: A Student Development Perspective”), Amanda Rosen (Associate Professor of International Relations; “Real World Survivor: Simulating Poverty to Teach Human Rights and Sustainable Development”), and Julie Setele (Assistant Professor of Sociology; “Education as Resistance: Teaching Critical Criminology to (Aspiring) Cops”).
The Webster alumni panel features:
- Javier Cardenas Miranda (Political Science ’15) is the Manager of Development at the Covering House, a nonprofit based in Saint Louis that provides refuge and restoration to young survivors of sex trafficking. Inspired by his father to pursue a career in service and politics, Cardenas Miranda interned for a U.S. Congressman, worked for the Nicaraguan Ministry of Foreign Relations, took on several roles in state and federal campaigns, and worked in Jefferson City as a District Director for a state legislator.
- Emily Fry Morrison (Public Relations and International Human Rights ’14, Media Communications ’15) began working for the Missouri Commission for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing in Jefferson City shortly after graduation. Since joining the team, she has been involved in advocating for legislation benefitting Missourians with hearing loss, training law enforcement on the needs of the Deaf Community, coordinating Deaf awareness events, and launching a grant program that promotes the independence of individuals who are DeafBlind.
- Melissa George (International Human Rights ’14) joined Teach for America following graduation, teaching Pre-K in Tulsa, Oklahoma. After two years of service, she remained with the Tulsa Public Schools for another school year. Her experiences there highlighted the challenges faced by educators in under-funded public districts. In 2018, she joined her fellow teachers to protest low pay, poor conditions, and pervasive inequalities within Oklahoma school systems.
- Monica Henson (International Human Rights ’16) dedicated a year service with AmeriCorps, a voluntary civil society program supported by the U.S. government. She worked on development, marketing, and grant writing at Saint Louis College Prep, a local charter school that aims to get students to and through college. She is now a Development Associate at Teach for America, which works to change practices, structures, and policies to realize educational equity for all children.
- Jordan Palmer (International Human Rights and Photography ‘18) is a Community Support Specialist at the Independence Center, a community-based rehabilitation program for adults with severe and persistent mental illnesses. Previously, she documented the issue of homeless in St. Louis as an AmeriCorps volunteer and interned with the Curbside Chronicle, a “street paper” benefitting people who are homeless in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma.
Nancy Flowers, a writer and consultant for human rights education, began her career as a high school English teacher. She has worked to develop Amnesty International’s education program and is a co-founder of Human Rights Educators USA, a national human rights education network. As a consultant to governments, nongovernmental organizations, and UN agencies, she has helped establish national and international networks of educators, develop materials, and train activists and professionals in many countries. She is the author and editor of articles and books on human rights education, most recently Towards a Just Society: The Personal Journeys of Human Rights Educators (Minnesota, 2016); Human Rights. YES! Action and Advocacy for the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (2nd Edition, Minnesota, 2013), Acting for Indigenous Rights: Theatre to Change the World (Minnesota, 2013); and Local Action/ Global Change: A Handbook on Women’s Human Rights (2nd edition, Paradigm Press, 2008). She lives in Palo Alto, California.
Growing awareness of climate change has led to increasing recognition that human rights and environmental sustainability are inextricably linked. Human rights advocates contend that climate change threatens fundamental rights to health, livelihood, and property, while also infringing on indigenous rights to culture and profoundly impacting the global poor. The environmental justice movement brings together scholars and activists who are concerned about both environmental protection and social justice, paying particular attention to how vulnerable populations are disproportionately harmed by rising sea levels, deforestation, desertification, fossil fuel extraction and transportation, the disposal of hazardous wastes, air pollution, and a range of other environmental hazards.
Webster University’s 2017 Annual Human Rights Conference considered challenges associated with “Environmental Justice and Human Rights” on October 11-12. The conference provided intersectional analyses of environmental racism, sexism, classism, and colonialism with the aim of raising critical awareness of the human rights violations caused by environmental degradation. Sponsored by the Institute for Human Rights and Humanitarian Studies, this on-campus event was free and open to the public.
- Welcome and conference framework Kate Parsons, Fellow of the Institute for Human Rights & Humanitarian Studies, Webster University—Saint Louis
- Sarah Jaquette Ray, Associate Professor of Environmental Studies, Humboldt State University “Is There Room for Environmental Justice in the Human Rights Framework?”
- Sylvester Brown, Jr., Founder and Director “The Sweet Potato Project”
- Jaskiran Dhillon, Assistant Professor of Global Studies and Anthropology, The New School “Planetary Dystopia, Indigenous Resurgence, and the Fight for Environmental Justice”
- Excerpts from The First Secret City with filmmakers Alison Carrick and C.D. Stelzer
- Carl A. Zimring, Professor of Sustainability Studies, Pratt Institute “The Dirty Work of White Supremacy in the United States after the Civil War: Considering the Historical Context of Modern Environmental Inequalities”
- Marnese Jackson, Rev. Elston K. McCowan, and Bruce Morrison; The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) “The Environmental Justice Impacts of Climate Change”
- Roundtable discussion An open conversation with our conference speakers
- Keynote Address: Carolyn Finney, Assistant Professor of Geography, University of Kentucky “Reclaiming Our Time: Black Faces, White Spaces and the Possibility of Us”
Sylvester Brown, Jr., is a former award-winning columnist for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. He published Take Five Magazine for 15 years and later worked as a consultant and researcher for SmileyBooks, owned by public radio and TV commentator Tavis Smiley. There he worked on several book projects, including Brainwashed: Challenging the Myth of Black Inferiority by Tom Burrell, Too Important to Fail by Smiley, and The Rich & the Rest of Us by Smiley and Dr. Cornel West. In the summer of 2012, Sylvester partnered with the North Area Community Development Corporation to enact his “Sweet Potato Project,” a year-round program aimed at teaching at-risk youth “do-for-self” entrepreneurial skills. Young people plant sweet potatoes on vacant lots and are charged with turning their produce into marketable products.
Alison Carrick is a Saint Louis-based, independent filmmaker, and writer. Her previous work has been screened at the St. Louis Filmmakers Showcase (Close Up, 2011; The Waiting Hour, 2013) and she has worked as a cinematographer on various local productions. Carrick has bachelor degrees in English and Anthropology from the University of Kansas and an MFA in fiction writing from the University of Missouri-Saint Louis.
The First Secret City—Before the creation of the secret cities of Los Alamos, Oak Ridge and Hanford, the Manhattan Project hired the Mallinckrodt Chemical Works of St. Louis to refine the first uranium used in the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima. For the next two decades, Mallinckrodt continued its classified work for the Atomic Energy Commission during the Cold War. The resulting radioactive waste contaminated numerous locations in the St. Louis area some of which have not been cleaned up 70 years after the end of World War II. Told through the eyes of an overexposed worker, the story expands through a series of interviews that careen down a toxic pathway leading to a fiery terminus at a smoldering, radioactively-contaminated landfill. The First Secret City is a feature-length documentary that reveals a forgotten history and its continuing impact on the community in the 21st Century, uncovering past wrongdoing and documenting the renewed struggles to confront the issue.
Jaskiran Dhillon is a first generation academic and advocate who grew up on Treaty Six Cree Territory in Saskatchewan, Canada. Committed to the tenets of public intellectualism, Dhillon’s scholarship is intimately connected to, and informed by, on-the-ground advocacy and direct action. Her work spans the fields of settler colonialism, anthropology of the state, anti-racist and Indigenous feminism, youth studies, colonial violence, and Indigenous studies and has been published in The Guardian, Cultural Anthropology, Truthout, Public Seminar, Feminist Formations, and Decolonization, among other venues. Her first book, Prairie Rising: Indigenous Youth, Decolonization, and the Politics of Intervention (University of Toronto Press, 2017), provides a critical, ethnographic account of state interventions in the lives of urban indigenous youth. Her new research focuses on developing an anti-colonial critique of the environmental justice movement by examining Indigenous political movements working against the extractive industry, including the resistance at Standing Rock. She is also the guest editor of a special issue of Environment and Society that foregrounds Indigenous resistance to, and theorizing of, climate change. Dhillon is an Assistant Professor of Global Studies and Anthropology at The New School in New York City and a member of the New York City Stands with Standing Rock Collective.
Marnese Jackson is from Pontiac, Michigan, and she is the NAACP Regional Environmental and Climate Justice Organizer for the Midwest and Plain States. Her background is in energy efficiency and weatherization; she has worked as the Weatherization Program Coordinator for Oakland Livingston Human Service Agency and the Energy Services Outreach Specialist and Project Coordinator for the Southeast Michigan Regional Energy. Jackson is a liaison for the Midwest Energy Efficiency Alliance and an organizer for the Energy Democracy Strategy Convening on Natural Gas. She was instrumental in organizing the 2017 Detroit Climate Justice March and was a member of Al Gore’s 2017 Climate Leadership Corps. She is a member of Soulardarity’s membership and utilities justice teams, supporting the nonprofit organization’s work of building a brighter future in Highland Park, Michigan, by educating and organizing for people-powered clean energy—including working to install solar-powered streetlights to reduce energy costs.
Reverend Elston K. McCowan is the 1st Vice President of the Saint Louis City NAACP. He chairs both the Criminal Justice and Prison Committees. McCowan also serves on the Environmental Justice Committee for the Missouri State Conference of NAACP Branches, as well as the Prison Committee. He is the Co-Chair of the Gateway Green Alliance and the Chair of the Green Party Central Committee of Saint Louis City. McCowan is the Pastor of Star of Grace MBC and is also currently employed with the Saint Louis Public Schools as a Family Community Specialist at Walbridge STEAM Academy.
Bruce Morrison is General Counsel of Great Rivers Environmental Law Center, a nonprofit public-interest environmental law center located in Saint Louis. Cases in his docket have included protecting parks and wilderness areas, improving air quality and public health, advancing renewable energy sources, protecting communities of color and low-income communities from toxins, and protecting and preserving the region’s rivers, wetlands, and floodplains. Morrison chairs the Environmental Justice Committee of the Missouri State Conference of the NAACP.
Sarah Jaquette Ray is an Associate Professor of Environmental Studies at Humboldt State University in Arcata, California, where she also leads the Environmental Studies BA program and is an affiliated faculty member of the Environment and Community Master's program. She is the author of The Ecological Other: Environmental Exclusion in American Culture (University of Arizona Press, 2013) and two 2017 co-edited collections, Critical Norths: Space, Nature, Theory (University of Alaska Press) and Disability Studies & the Environmental Humanities: Toward an Eco-Crip Theory (University of Nebraska Press). She is currently working on another co-edited collection entitled Latinx Literary Environmentalisms: Justice, Place, and the Decolonial (with Temple University Press) and a second monograph on climate justice pedagogies, which considers the role of emotion and affect in classes that deal with climate change and environmental injustices. Her research and teaching interests lie at the intersection of the environmental humanities and environmental justice.
C.D. Stelzer is an award-winning investigative journalist. He first began reporting on nuclear waste in 1991 for the Riverfront Times, Saint Louis’ alternative weekly newspaper. In 2010, he revealed how workers and residents at a former Dow Chemical plant in Venice, Illinois, had been chronically exposed to Cold War-era radioactive contamination without their knowledge for decades. The stories appeared in FOCUS/Midwest online.
Carl Zimring is a Professor of Sustainability Studies in the School of Liberal Arts and Sciences at Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, New York. An environmental historian, Zimring’s research focuses on ways that human societies manage wastes, and how waste management practices shape environmental, technological, economic, and social systems. His books include Aluminum Upcycled: Sustainable Design in Historical Perspective (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2017); Clean and White: A History of Environmental Racism in the United States (NYU Press, 2015; paperback 2017); and Cash for Your Trash: Scrap Recycling in America (Rutgers University Press, 2005). With William Rathje, he edited the Encyclopedia of Consumption and Waste: The Social Science of Garbage (Sage, 2012), an interdisciplinary reference volume in critical discard studies.
Carolyn Finney is a writer, performer, and cultural geographer at the University of Kentucky. As the author of Black Faces, White Spaces: Reimagining the Relationship of African Americans and the Great Outdoors (The University of North Carolina Press, 2014) and an interdisciplinary practitioner, she is deeply interested in issues related to identity, difference, creativity, and resilience. Along with public speaking, writing, and consulting, she serves on the U.S. National Parks Advisory Board and is part of The Next 100 Coalition—a first-of-its-kind coalition of civil rights, environmental justice, conservation, and community leaders from around the country who put together a vision statement and policy document on diversity and public lands for the Obama Administration. She is currently working on a number of projects including a new book that explores identity, race, lived experience, and the construction of a black environmental imaginary and a performance piece about John Muir (The N Word: Nature Revisited).
The universal human right to equality before the Law protects all people from discrimination in matters related to laws and justice. Article 7 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights states that "All are equal before the law and are entitled without any discrimination to equal protection of the law." Thus, everyone must be treated equally under the law regardless of characteristics such as race, gender, ethnicity, religion, or disability.
Read more about the Equality Before the Law conference on the Journal of Webster University.
Webster University’s Institute for Human Rights and Humanitarian Studies hosted its eighth Annual Human Rights Conference on October 7-8, 2015. Held at Webster’s main campus in St. Louis, Missouri, the conference focused on the Millennium Development Goals in coordination with the 2015/16 Year of International Human Rights (YIHR) theme. Speakers also discussed the recently-adopted Sustainable Development Goals, which represent the United Nations’ “next step” in promoting its global development agenda.
Webster’s 2015 Annual Human Rights Conference reflected on the Millennium Development Goals and considered vital “next steps” less than two weeks after the United Nation’s formal adoption of the Sustainable Development Goals.
The conference’s first plenary lecture was presented by three Webster professors, who offered the study of Brazil for better understanding the MDGs related to ensuring environmental sustainability and eradicating extreme poverty. Deborah Pierce (Center for International Education), Kate Parsons (Philosophy), and Amanda Rosen (International Relations) were part of a 2015 Fulbright-Hays team that spent five weeks in Brazil learning about sustainability and researching ways to bring those lessons back into the classroom. Joined by middle and high school teachers, as well as university students, their travels took them around the country—including to Rio de Janeiro, Sao Paulo, Foz de Iguacu, Brasilia, Salvador, Fortaleza, and Manaus.
Professor Rosen discussed the case of the Itaipu Dam, which is a source of renewable energy as well as an example of international cooperation. Created through a treaty between Brazil and Paraguay, this project creates the energy necessary to support and develop economies, as well as to provide essential services for people on both sides of the border. However, this project came at a cost; the construction of the dam displaced local residents (including indigenous tribes), had deeply harmful consequences for animals and plants (including the extinction of several then-endangered species), led to deforestation in the area, and prompted the destruction of the Guaira Falls, which were once the world’s largest waterfalls by volume.
Professor Parsons outlined a sustainable tourism and fishing project outside of the beach city of Fortaleza, where local residents used grassroots activism to protect their environment and livelihoods. Community members have sought out sustainable ways to encourage tourism in their area, while at the same time ensuring that the beaches are protected from construction and development that will harm the fishing industry.
Lastly, Dr. Pierce highlighted the grassroots efforts of local activists in Rio de Janeiro — a city struggling with massive water shortages and pollution. For instance, environmental activists have teamed with local residents to protect endangered crabs and restore mangroves. Instead of criminalizing locals who harvested mangrove trees for wood and crabs for food, local organizations teamed with residents to restore mangrove forests and protect endangered species. This approach not only prioritizes the environment — including mangroves that are vital for cleaning the local water supply — but also ensures that locals have a way to support themselves and their families. These organizations also work with community members to professionalize recycling programs, helping many women regain their dignity by learning professional skills to build and maintain their businesses.
The second plenary lecture was given by Emily Farell from The Advocates for Human Rights, a non-governmental organization in Minneapolis, Minnesota. She focused on the MDG of achieving universal primary education. The “right to education” is outlined in international law, and governments have the obligation to fulfill the four A’s: Education must be available, accessible, acceptable, and adaptable for all. These duties are key because education is an “empowerment right” that helps people advocate for and enjoy other human rights. It can also transform societies, leading to positive outcomes such as peace and economic development; it is therefore central for achieving the other MDGs.
Since 2000, we have watched progress being made toward achieving this goal. For instance, there has been a 42 percent drop in the number of children not enrolled in school and there has been notable progress toward gender parity between boy and girl students.
However, this goal has not been fully achieved — particularly in sub-Saharan Africa. Donor funding has been in decline since 2010, yet problems related to illiteracy and children being out of school continue. Conflict also creates challenges for school attendance and enrollment. According to UNESCO, 57 million children are still out of school today; that means one in 10 children are denied their full education rights.
There are many challenges to universal primary education. Among them are expenses; it seems like the poorer you are, the more expensive school can be. Even in places where school is supposedly “free”, costs such as school supplies, uniforms, tutors, and exam fees often place a high burden on poor families. Other challenges include conflict and child soldiering, the need for children to work for livelihoods, child marriage and teen pregnancies, gender discrimination, and the impacts of various disabilities.
Many of the obstacles to education are things that Americans would never think of. Malnourishment, for instance, can impact brain development and set a child back the equivalent of four years of lost schooling. Hard geographic terrain can make it impossible for a child to reach the nearest school, and displacement from armed conflict sometimes means that children have no school at all. Issues with infrastructure are also problematic; sometimes a lack of toilets, or bathrooms for girl students, means that children can’t seek an education. In poor countries, there simply aren’t textbooks; in Cameroon, one reading text is shared by 11 students, on average.
Ms. Farell notes that there is good news — including a more focused on planning and a concrete initial framework for thinking through the issue of educational rights. However, the MDGs don’t include a human rights perspective; our thinking about development and education change vastly if we adopt a human rights perspective. For example, our current thinking about economic development ignores legal obligations to provide primary education.
“By prioritizing education over other rights, we missed out on some opportunities for long-term change,” said Farell. “We need to take a holistic approach”—and that includes talking more about gender discrimination, assessing learning quality and outcomes, and thinking through how various human rights impact each other. It also means strategizing for continued success and sustainable solutions.
“One of the most ironic things about the MDGs is that, while they stressed sustainability, they did not include sustainable funding for goals like education,” Farell said. Instead, these goals were time-bound and prioritized some issues over other related problems.
While the new Sustainable Development Goals still do not adopt a human rights approach, there is some forward progress. SDG #4 stresses inclusion, equity, quality, and lifelong learning — all concepts that were ignored with the MDGs, but have become prioritized by the international community.
The third plenary lecture was presented by Christopher Morley of SUNY Upstate Medical University in Syracuse, New York. His research centers on the social determinants of health; in this case, determinants that relate to the MDGs of reducing child mortality and improving maternal health.
“We often focus on pathogens,” Morley said. “But there are structural issues here that aren’t exactly head scratchers. If you don’t have people drinking sewage water, babies live longer. It turns out that we also see positive health impacts if we simply treat each other better.”
Those simple statements also ring true in the United States; numerous medical studies show stark differences in child mortality when we compare the death rates of white babies versus black babies born in the U.S.
When it comes to child mortality and maternal health globally, one challenge is a lack of data. Only 51 percent of countries have reliable data about issues such as maternal health, although research is improving. Despite research gaps, there’s broad agreement that there are serious gaps in the healthcare workforce. The World Health Organization estimates that the international community will be short of 12.9 healthcare workers by 2035, and that we are already short by 7.2 million.
Dr. Morley’s research shows that these gaps matter; the more medical practitioners in a society, the higher the vaccination rates among children and the lower the rates of child and maternal deaths. For every one doctor that is added per 1,000 people, an estimated 9 child lives are saved.
One obstacle to building the healthcare workforce in the developing world is the issue of “brain drain”. Some medical professionals migrate so they can get higher-paying jobs elsewhere, or (as in the case of India) so they can send remittances home. Uganda was recently criticized for making a deal with Trinidad and Tobago, exchanging their doctors for help exploiting oil resources.
This issue is part of the “positive” right to health. Positive rights require input of resources and expertise. So Dr. Morley asked a number of questions, including: What about healthcare when there is no state? Or when it’s too weak to protect and provide for its people? Take the case of southern Lebanon, where the main provider of health services is Hezbollah.
In the United States, attempts to protect the universal right to health are often met with debates about socialism and big government, or about the decreasing ability of doctors and pharmaceutical companies to make a profit. As Dr. Morley admitted, he doesn’t have all of the answers to these questions or debates. But, in his words: “An unimmunized, unhealthy, and short-lived society is to no one’s benefit.”
On Thursday, Robert Lorway (Centre for Global Public Health, University of Manitoba) started the day with the conference’s fourth plenary lecture. He explored the MDG goal related to combatting HIV/AIDS in his talk titled “Technocratic HIV Interventions in the Era of the Millennium Development Goals.” In particular, he discussed the case of Avahan, the India AIDS Initiative, and health interventions in India.
Avahah, which received more than $330 million in funding from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, focused its health strategies in India on changing behavior and promoting condom usage. The program provided specialized services to the most at-risk persons (MARPs), working in partnership with NGOs, the government, and universities; it has since declared “success” in India and moved on to Kenya, although many positive gains are “sliding back,” according to Lorway. Avahan weaved together business logic with public health principles, especially “implementation sciences” used by pharmaceutical supply chains. It aimed to inject private sector thinking into civil society; it approached health service delivery as a business. Instead of treating vulnerable populations as “poor victims”, they were instead viewed as resilient entrepreneurs — including outreach workers that were viewed as a “sales force”.
“You can give out condoms to sex workers, but [that won’t make much of a difference] if police are harassing them and they are facing violence every day,” explained Lorway. Empowerment, therefore, was a central goal for combatting HIV/AIDS in India.
However, Lorway also remarked that an increasing drive to produce “measurable results” has some scholars questioning whether the processes of measurement themselves have impacts, including unintended negative consequences. So-called “field visits” (which Lorway calls “inspection tours”) highlight monitoring and surveillance of health projects with the aim of convincing donors to invest in projects — and building the Avahan brand, in this case study. This surveillance included meeting quotas for testing people for HIV/AIDS; if those quotas couldn’t be met, non-risky groups would be tested in order to boost numbers — wasting time, money, and human resources in the process.
One activist told Lorway in 2015: Avahan went from social activism and community service to “company work” focused on “form filling”, which outreach workers needed to do in order to receive funding. For instance, Avahan utilized community feedback by distributing evaluation forms, complete with images for illiterate stakeholders. However, these useful practices later gave way to standardized tracking sheets that asked for detailed person information that made it difficult for outreach workers to build trust. These forms were time-intensive and overly-bureaucratic, taking time away from health interventions themselves.
Some approaches also viewed same sex as pathological or immoral, treating certain sexual behavior as if they were diseases or addiction. This was reflected by case workers themselves, even about their own sexuality, leading Lorway to question: Do these interventions impact sexual dissidence and political dissent? Do they impact social movements, such as quelling movements for LGBTQ rights in India?
Lorway ended his lecture with the concluding question: “How do we meet the requirement for measurable evidence and accountability without undermining the capacity of local community-based organizations to effectively respond to the HIV epidemic?”
In the conference’s fifth plenary lecture, Ather Zia (University of Northern Colorado) used the case of Kashmir for exploring the MDG of promoting gender equality and empowering women. She began by showing the Indian government’s report full of images of “happy bureaucrats” and children eating nutritious meals; images that donors want to see, but which lead to the question: What is hidden or invisible here? To answer that simple question, Zia contends that Kashmir — a disputed region between India and Pakistan — is a “zone of exception” when it comes to Indian policy on Kashmir and its display of the Millennium Development Goals. Kashmir valley, which is also known to exist in a “terminal colonial situation” under India,does not appear in MDG reports. We can conduct a simple Google search and see that state of political dispute and the human rights violations prevalent there and which is not reflected in the reports.
Zia provided an overview of the conflict between India and Pakistan that has caused tension in Kashmir since the 1940s. The region is now carved up between the two nuclear powers (along with a piece of “no man’s land” controlled by China). The territory of Kashmir is under the Disturbed Areas Act and the Armed Forces Special Powers Act 1958 (AFSPA), which gives the military unlimited powers over human life in Kashmir. The armed troops can kill without being held accountable, Zia argues, noting that Kashmiri people are undergoing psychological, physical and cultural oppression. India has committed serious human rights violations since the armed uprising for Independence started in 1989. The violent responses to armed militancy known as counter-insurgency, by the Indian government include more than 70,000 killed (depending on the source of information) forced disappearances (8000 +), mass executions, and mass rapes. Kashmir is seen by the international community as a bi-lateral dispute, but Zia believes it is an active conflict where the aspirations of people are strongly for an independent state.
While the armed militancy has decreased since 2000, Kashmir remains a highly militarized zone; there is an estimated one army person for every 8 Kashmiri men. Sexual violence and the killing of “stone pelters” has occurred, and pellet guns and pepper spray have been used, even on minors. Kashmir has been deeply impacted by the militarization. For instance, women often serve as chaperones to male relatives in order to protect them from the Indian army. Women are also joining protests and pelting stones and are active in human rights movements, especially in the search for men disappeared in the custody of Indian army. This “war system” is becoming increasingly normalized, with high rates of sexual violence against women and other key human rights challenges that obstruct gender dynamics and women’s equality.
“There are some serious lapses [in rights and development reports],” explains Zia. “They need to be accounted for.” For instance, she gave the example of “half widows” whose husbands have been forcibly disappeared (and probably killed) by government forces. India’s MDG reports do not talk about the state of women’s affairs in Kashmir who are seriously compromised by the Indian government’s policies. Zia contends that “women’s rights are enmeshed in the political solution for Kashmir.”
Furthermore, the issue of humanitarian aid by the military to combat counter-insurgency in Kashmir tends to normalize the Indian hegemony. Zia argues that ignoring these cases of human rights violations and more importantly the ignorance about the aspirations of Kashmiris for independence allows states such as India to “get away with murder” and present international report without the fear of any backlash. This is particularly noteworthy now, as India seeks a permanent seat on the United Nations Security Council.
Hans Peter Schmitz from the University of San Diego, California, provided the conference’s last plenary lecture. He explored the MDG of building global partnerships for development by focusing specifically on digitally-enabled activism.
To begin, Schmitz noted that there is unclear causality and a lack of data for assessing the MDGs. There are concerns that those with existing resources were most impacted by the goals, and that the most vulnerable populations were hardest to reach. We saw immense progress toward poverty alleviation in countries such as China and India, where the governments tend to be more authoritarian than democratic. There are also concerns that the MDGs are driven by bureaucrats and lobbyists, creating competition among NGOS to get “their thing” into the newly-adopted Sustainable Development Goals. “Once [an issue] is in there, it gets money,” Schmitz explained simply.
The question: Do local people really care? They are not involved in deciding which issues become part of campaigns such as the MDGs and SDGs, and perhaps their participation is not practically possible — but local people and organizations are the ones who must implement these campaigns. While the SDGs may create a framework for action, how should local organizations proceed? To help answer these questions, Schmitz contends that digital media is leading to some disruptive change. “Technology is being used by people to replace the absent state,” he noted. For instance, phones can be used to transfer money and to report human rights violations. Digital platforms are increasingly being used for advocacy (although some critics complain that many digital activists are simply “clicktivists” or “slacktivists”).
Examples such as 350.org (a digital campaign to divest from oil and coal investments) highlight how the Internet can be used to personalize issues, make problems easy to understand, and reach “real” people. These campaigns reach large audiences and are inexpensive, yet they also come with drawbacks: they are difficult for organizations to control or direct and they often fail to account for regional and local differences.
Other examples include Change.org (a for-profit organization that circulates online petitions for social change, but which also sells information about petition signers) and Sumofus.org (an online organization that mobilizes action against corporations). In the case of Sumofus.org, their website portrays well-attended and fun events, like setting the world record for the most people blowing conch shells on a Hawaiian beach; the idea is to keep it simple, fun, and engaging.
More traditional organizations, like Oxfam, have different approaches and can’t compete with these types of online presence. Yet traditional organizations have more funding and infrastructure to research issues and follow-up on progress. They send to work “quietly” with other players, such as Sumofus.org, who are able to attract large support bases but may lack the research legitimacy.
Increasingly, for-profit organizations are becoming part of the social justice scene. InVenture is a for-profit organization that provides business and technical assistance for micro-businesses, as well as accessible credit. Schmitz argues that this approach is a useful one to consider; he suggests starting with a goal and working backwards. “Just caring about an issue isn’t enough,” he said. “What do you want to happen?”
Schmitz noted that he wants to “reclaim social enterprise as a real possibility for development.” While he’s not a supporter of popular social enterprises such as TOMS, which sells shoes and other merchandise on a one-for-one charity model (and which he says doesn’t think enough about what poor people actually want), he does see potential in business modeling. “I want you to give up this idea that nonprofits are different than businesses,” he said. “Making money is not necessarily a bad thing if you want to make the world a better place. But it is tricky.”
To accomplish this, Schmitz encourages students to focus on the impact they want to make. “How much difference do you make, and how do you measure it?” This can be frustrating because students want to do good, but low wages in nonprofit work often can’t pay living wages. He believes people should have both—the opportunity to do good and make a living. “You’re not a savior,” he said. “You are building a skill set [to make the world a better place].” (To learn more about social enterprise, he recommends visiting the Social Good Guides at www.socialgoodguides.com.)
Following the plenary lectures, several speakers gathered to participate in a roundtable discussion chaired by Webster professor Chris Parr (Religious Studies). Participants included Emily Farell, Hans Peter Schmitz, keynote speaker Judith Blau, and Lisa Nesser. (Nesser is the Founder and Executive Director of Thai Freedom House, a community center for refugees and minorities in Thailand, and the owner of the social enterprise Free Bird Café. Her photographic work from the exhibit “Refugee: Ten Years Along the Thai-Burma Border” was on display during the conference.)
The roundtable discussion included exploration of the following issues: (1) Thoughts on the new SDGs, including questions about how they were negotiated and why certain issues were prioritized. (2) Consideration of local efforts to accomplish the MDGs, which was a common theme throughout the plenary lectures. Nesser’s work in Thailand helped explore this topic, and she noted that “we need to ask people what they need” instead of being tied up by grants. (3) Structural violence, including the role of capitalism in human rights and development. (4) The question of how we hold the MDGs (and now the SDGs) accountable. This includes looking at the impacts of such aspirational language and questioning the scope and potential of these goals.
A keynote lecture by Judith Blau (Professor Emerita of Sociology at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill) concluded Webster’s 2015 Annual Human Rights Conference. Despite losing her voice, Blau addressed students and faculty to ask the powerful questions: Is the United States ready for the SDGs? Is it ready for human rights?
Although the SDGs are largely targeted at developing countries, statistics in the U.S. show that the developed world also has much to learn and achieve. Blau presented startling statistics to illustrate her point, including: Fourteen percent of American families face food insecurity. Women earn 79 cents for every dollar earned by men. Lead poisoning from water is harming children in cities such as Flint, Michigan. High income inequalities and low social spending follow racial divides.
From a human rights perspective, the U.S. is not a party to a variety of human rights treaties. Three major treaties were signed but never ratified. “That’s truly appalling,” said Blau. “We don’t cooperate with the international community on human rights treaties. Copyright and trade agreements, sure. Those are for protecting capitalism.” This stands in stark contrast to the “truly wondrous” time when U.S. First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt helped create the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948.
On a federal level, the U.S. Constitution’s Bill of Rights are focused on “negative” rights, meaning civil and political rights. These are things that shouldn’t be taken away by the government, such as freedom of speech and the ability to vote. Yet the Patriot Act infringed on those rights, and the 2015 Freedom Act continues that recent tradition. Torture occurs in places as varied as Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and within police stations throughout the United States. Voting rights are being stripped away (including in the American South, where Blau has worked as an activist) and corporations are being recognized as individuals worthy of rights.
To compare the U.S. Constitution with other countries, Blau recommends the Constitute Project (www.constituteproject.org). Students should note that many countries aspire to providing a decent standard of living, disability rights, non-discrimination, the rights of women and children, health care, and environmental protection. Yet these social goods aren’t central to the U.S. Constitution. “So why don’t we do something about that?” asked Blau.
Blau and colleagues are currently working on a project to revise the U.S. Bill of Rights, aiming to make human rights protection and sustainable development a central focus. She believes that such change needs to start at the grassroots level, perhaps through proposals submitted via Change.org. She is also working on a book project (Of the People, For the People, By the People) to address this issue. Ultimately, Blau contends that pressure must come from the American people—just like with the Civil Rights Movement and many other social movements. Although it is potentially dangerous to simplify the process for changing the Constitution, Blau also believes that such activism holds enormous potential for vast social movement progress. While the MDGs did not focus on the United States, she hopes that the U.S. government will get “on board” with the SDGs and its inherent values.
Webster University’s Institute for Human Rights and Humanitarian Studies hosted its seventh Annual Human Rights Conference on October 8-9, 2014. Held at Webster’s main campus in St. Louis, Missouri, the conference focused on the Rights of the Family in coordination with the 2014/15 Year of International Human Rights (YIHR) theme.
Webster’s 2014 Annual Human Rights Conference highlighted the need for further study, debate, and advocacy related to the rights of the family..
On Wednesday morning, Washington University law professor Susan Appleton provided a framework for family rights law in the United States. She highlighted how family rights within U.S. law and Supreme Court cases are ultimately about protecting choice, self-determination and liberty in private life. While many examples showed positive developments toward greater respect for family diversity in the U.S., we also see connections to gender discrimination and state controls on sexuality within law and policy making. Appleton noted that the “gold standard” in families is still marriage, and there’s little space for relationships that look different from this norm. There are also sometimes consequences for protecting the family as a unit, rather than focusing on individual rights. For instance, we see cases of intimate partner violence when respect for family means that individuals suffer harm. Another issue that Appleton raised was the potential conflict between parental rights and children’s rights. Do children have a right to make their own choices, even when that choice opposes the parents’ wishes? For instance, in cases when children want to attend sex education classes that their parents opted them out of.
Building on this legal background, Kate Kuvalanka—a professor of family studies at Miami University in Ohio—began her plenary lecture by highlighting the need for legal protections for lesbian and gay parents who aren’t biologically connected to the child. This approach forces us to re-conceptualize our traditional understanding of the family. She outlined progress in the U.S. toward marriage equality, but also noted issues like health care, poverty, and non-discrimination in employment that all affect LGBTQ families but are rarely addressed in that context. She also asked the audience to honor November 20 at the Transgender Day of Remembrance, in which we remember the transgender victims of intolerance who died from murder and suicide. Kuvalanka’s “The TransKid Project” studies families with transgender and gender-nonconforming children, looking for ways to fight stigma and save lives. Kuvalanka reports that knowledge must be shared, including among pediatricians and health insurance companies, to understand the perspectives of transgender children and avoid stigma, persecution, and risks of suicide. Her project is ongoing action research, and it is only one piece of a larger puzzle for investigating LGBTQ issues around the world.
Jacqueline Bhabha of Harvard University then turned the discussion toward adolescent rights, including the rights of young people undertaking dangerous migration in places like Mediterranean Europe and Central America. She argues that “the cost of inaction, the cost of not thinking about this, is dramatic.” Bhabha highlighted the connections between migration, inequality, and sex trafficking. In many cases, the need to GET OUT of bad situations at home forces minors into hopeless situations elsewhere. The line between consent and coercion is therefore blurred, since poverty and violence inhibit free choice. Another “desperate exit strategy” is child marriage in places like Syria, where parents may see marriage as security for their children against harassment, poverty, and rape. Other “costs of inaction” on this issue include the fact that only 6 percent of girls in rural India attend university, while many former child soldiers in Sierra Leone now work as sex workers. Bhabha argues that we need to use a rights-based approach to combat these social ills and fill the vacuum of protection. While some extreme circumstances galvanize public attention—such as the 2012 case of gang rape in Delhi, India—we see continued ambivalence toward the social and economic concerns of adolescents. Bhabha’s own work focuses on the concept of “positive deviance,” studying the ways in which young people fight negative norms and strive for something better in their own lives. For instance, a study of 19-year-old girls in India who attended college despite all odds, shows us the impact of key mentors throughout adolescence. Bhabha contends that we need consistent movement toward investing in social and economic infrastructures that support young people in establishing new, more positive social norms.
Three breakout sessions split the group into three classroom spaces on Wednesday afternoon:
- Pamela Sumners from NARAL Pro Choice Missouri talked about political challenges related to abortion rights.
- Hasmik Chakaryan and Stacy Henning from Webster’s Professional Counseling program discussed methods for assisting non-traditional families through major life transitions.
- David Nehrt-Flores from Missouri Immigrant and Refugee Advocates outlined the challenges that U.S. immigration policies create for migrant families.
To round out the first day of the conference, Sara Shoener—a researcher with New York City’s Human Resources Administration—shared her doctoral research on female survivors of intimate partner violence. She provided incredible stories of women who struggled not only against their abusers, but also against a system that was supposed to support them. Well-intentioned actions and resources may sometimes put families at risk. According to Shoener’s research, the courts prioritize two-parent families and sometimes open up partners and children to further abuse. Determined to protect the father-son relationship, for instance, one judge allowed unsupervised visits with a father who regularly beat and tormented his young child. The federal welfare system also promotes and privileges two-parent families, including marriage. For instance, President Obama praised marriage in a State of the Union address while Mitt Romney argued that stronger families would reduce gun violence. The internalized bias of survivors, as well as community-enforced biases that pressure women to “suck it up and keep the family together,” often leads to increased violence and security risks. Particularly striking was the fact that a court distributed brochures entitled “Kids Need Dads” right outside a protection order court, where women went to seek restraining orders against their abusers. In fact, claims of abuse were often used against women who participated in Shoener’s study; they were called petty and told they were trying to alienate fathers.
On Thursday morning, Webster University professor Lindsey Kingston discussed the connection between family rights and statelessness. There are approximately 13 million stateless people in the world, meaning that they do not have legal nationality to any country. While the right to a nationality is established in international law, statelessness also serves as a “root cause” of additional rights violations such as the inability to attain a basic education or legal employment, discrimination and inequality before the law, and vulnerabilities to human trafficking. Kingston outlined how statelessness often begins in childhood (with a lack of birth certificates and state recognition, for instance) and creates lifelong human rights challenges. Using case study examples from places such as North Cyprus and Egypt, she noted that stateless people are often “invisible” and outside of government protection. Other issues include gender discrimination in citizenship laws that often render women and their children stateless, obstacles to family reunification in times of crisis, challenges to the right to health (including family planning and reproductive health), and emerging concerns related to statelessness and commercial surrogacy.
Breakout sessions again split the group into three smaller classroom spaces, providing opportunities for dialogue and brainstorming:
- Kevin Drollinger, Executive Director for Epworth Children and Family Services, outlined actions and potential solutions for giving voice to older youth in foster care.
- Webster University professor Don Conway-Long discussed issues related to “Men, Masculinities, and the Family.”
- Ann Rosen discussed her photography exhibit and ongoing work related to family. Her exhibit “In the Presence of Family” was on view at the May Gallery during the conference week.
Kathryn Stam, a professor at State University of New York Polytechnic Institute (SUNY PI), shared stories and images related to her work with central New York’s resettled refugee population. She argues that families face challenges and separation not only during initial crises (such as war and conflict), but also during the resettlement process and because of problems in their country of resettlement. By collecting Facebook images and narratives, sharing stories in the “Refugees Starting Over” project in Utica, and managing the Nepali Folk Collective musical group, Stam studies the lived experiences of resettled refugees and hopes to share their stories with others.
Joining Stam was Jenjira May Htoo, a SUNY PI graduate student who was resettled to the United States in 2007. A member of the Karen minority group, May’s family fled Burma to Thailand years before resettlement. She lived in a series of refugee camps in Thailand, where she had access to some resources (like shelters and medicine) but sometimes still faced scarcities related to food, clean water, and proper sanitation. Without income, many refugees sneaked out of camps to undertake illegal employment or suffered from severe depression. Here in the United States, May notes that life is better but that many refugees still face challenges related to culture, lack of transportation, language, and the stress of everyday life in America. Many resettled refugees cannot find employment, for instance, and are unfamiliar with laws and paperwork processes. Yet she ended her lecture on a positive note; according to an elder in her community, “The first generation plants the seeds. The second generation gets the shade. The third generation gets the fruit.”
Following the plenary lectures, many speakers gathered for a roundtable discussion moderated by Webster professor Kate Parsons. The panelists included Sara Shoener, Ann Rosen, Kathryn Stam, Jenjira May Htoo, and Lindsey Kingston. Many Webster students and faculty affiliated with the undergraduate International Human Rights program, as well as the Women & Gender Studies program, also participated in the discussion. The roundtable touched on a variety of family rights issues, but one thread of conversation that was particularly lively related to the place of marriage within U.S. society. Why is marriage privileged in laws and policies, as well as in social movement such as the “marriage equality” movement for gays and lesbians within the United States? Participants considered the social pressures to marry, as well as the oft-neglected legal consequences of marriage in cases when relationships fall apart. “Family still has an awful lot of cultural baggage,” reflected Professor Bill Barrett. Ann Rosen noted: “If we can redefine family as a group of people who support each other…then maybe more people will participate in these conversations.”
Lastly, Marc Solomon’s lecture on “Securing Human Rights in America: Lessons from the Freedom to Marry Movement” took on this issue and outlined the human rights battle for marriage equality in the United States. The National Campaign Director for Freedom to Marry, Solomon visited Webster University during an “amazing and historic week”; because the U.S. Supreme Court refused to hear a variety of cases, the number of states with marriage equality climbed from 19 to approximately 35 in a few days. This means that more than 60 percent of Americans would soon live in a state with marriage equality. This represents a dramatic shift from perspectives in the early 2000s, when the Vatican called marriage equality in Massachusetts “a nationality tragedy” and the decision was attacked by both Democrats and Republicans. This issue was the “third rail” for politicians back then, said Solomon; “touch it and die,” with public approval ratings around 30 percent. Yet activists took on the clear (aspiration and inspirational) goal of marriage equality as part of a broader LGBTQ movement, arguing that people should no longer “learn to settle” for second-class citizenship. “To be denied a right is an indignity,” said Solomon. “It hurts.” Gays and lesbians were encouraged to “come out” and tell their stories, to talk to people who were unsupportive in hopes of changing their opinions, and to be active in political elections. “We weren’t trying to change marriage, we wanted to be a part of it,” said Solomon. He notes that while “we’re definitely winning,” it is imperative for activists to keep fighting until marriage equality is gained in all 50 states. “No fight like this is quick or easy,” he said. “The work of changing people’s views about something important is always hard.”
For hundreds of years, the treatment of persons with disabilities was a question of charity. Society offered pity and compassion, but people with disabilities had no right to equal treatment under the law. Reformers struggled to make “the handicapped” more productive, more “normal,” and less of a burden to society. In the nineteenth century, such efforts led to the mass confinement of persons with disabilities in asylums. In the twentieth century, many countries—including the United States—adopted polices of forced sterilization. A widespread obsession with “racial improvement” and a fear that persons with disabilities posed an unsustainable burden for society culminated in the Nazis' program of “euthanasia,” or mass-murder. The legacies of this past are with us today.
The 2013-14 Year of International Human Rights (YIHR) at Webster University focused on the theme of Disability Rights in a global context. More than 700 million people—or one-tenth of the world's population—have mental or physical disabilities, yet they continue to face severe challenges to their basic human rights. In many countries, persons with disabilities are still treated as pariahs, forced to live in degrading and abusive institutions and deprived of access to the law. The abuse of persons with disabilities, sometimes reaching the legal definition of torture, goes largely unseen or unacknowledged. In the United States, discrimination against persons with disabilities is rampant almost 25 years after passage of the landmark Americans with Disability Act (ADA). Today only 20 percent of the disabled population in America participates in the work force.
Despite these challenges, an international revolution in the legal standing of persons with disabilities is growing. Recently, activists achieved their greatest success when the United Nations adopted a Convention for the Rights of Persons with Disabilities.The Convention, modeled in ways on the Americans with Disabilities Act, set a new standard for legal equality and equality of opportunity worldwide. Inspired in part by the ADA, many countries have passed their own legislation protecting the rights of persons with disabilities. Some of these nations have advanced beyond the United States by vigorously promoting fair housing, access to education, and employment opportunities for disabled citizens. An international network of disability rights advocates has fought for the recognition of disability as a human rights issue. Non-government organizations today carry out investigations and issue reports on the status of persons with disabilities around the world. In 2006, the United Nations adopted a Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disability. More than 80 countries have signed the Convention, and it is fast becoming an important tool for pressuring governments to abolish discriminatory laws and practices.
Resources on Disability Rights
I. Articles and Reports on Violations of the Rights of People with Disabilities Worldwide
- One Million Forgotten: Protecting the Human Rights of Persons with Disabilities, by Human Rights Watch
- Country Reports by Disability Rights International
- Regional Reports, International Disability Rights Monitor
II. The United Nations and Disability Rights
- United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities
- Marianne Schulz, Understanding the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities
- Best Practices for Including Persons with Disabilities in all Aspects of Development (PDF), UN (April 2011)
III. Organizations Promoting the Rights of Persons with Disabilities Worldwide
- Disability Rights International: Our Work
- Human Rights Watch: Disability Rights
- Handicap International: About
- The European Union: Disability Strategy 2010-2020
Highlights of the 2012-13 YIHR included:
- April-May, 2013: Nowhere People, The World's Stateless. Photo Exhibit by Greg Constantine. View Constantine’s work on stateless populations around the world at www.gregconstantine.com.
- Nov. 29, 2012: Indian Blood: Mixed Race Identity, Indigenous People, and HIV/AIDS. Andrew Jolivette, Ph.D. This event explored issues of inter-generational trauma, Native American cultural resilience, stress coping mechanisms, and identity politics within the context of public health disparities — ranging from mental health in urban environments to political activism, and the sacred role of two-spirit, same-gender loving indigenous populations throughout the United States.
- Oct. 29, 2012: Humanitarian Government as the Postcolonial and the Compassionate Side of Globalization. Michel Agier, Institut de Recherche pour le Développement et École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales, Paris.Co-sponsored by the Department of Languages and Cultures.
- Sept. 10, 2012: Monte Reel, author of the human rights common reading The Last of the Tribe: The Epic Quest to Save a Lone Man in the Amazon.
- Tuesdays in September, 2012: Year of International Human Rights Film Festival, Indigenous Rights. Films included Thick Dark Fog (September 25), Rabbit Proof Fence (September 18), Smoke Signals (September 11), and Reel Injun (September 4).
- Apr. 18-19, 2013: The 2013 annual human rights conference centered on the rights of indigenous peoples and stateless persons. The two-day conference offered different perspectives on the intersection between human rights protection and recognition, and brought together experts, scholars, and students to examine the human rights ramifications stemming from lack of full legal and social recognition. A dynamic program of lectures, expert panels, break-out sessions, and exhibitions allowed participants to critically consider the necessity of recognition for upholding international human rights and ensuring that human dignity is protected for all.
Highlights of the 2011-2012 YIHR included:
- Oct. 3, 2011: Changing Realities in the Arab Spring: Migrants and a Voyage to Europe. Jack Shenker, journalist.
Award winning journalist Jack Shenker visited Webster University in October. Shenker, who made headlines earlier this year with his coverage of the Egyptian revolution, spoke in Moore Auditorium as part of the Year of International Human Rights 2011-12: Refugee & Migrant Rights. Shenker spoke on Changing Realities in the Arab Spring: Migrants and a Voyage to Europe.
A correspondent for the U.K.'s Guardian newspaper as well as magazines and other newspapers, Shenker has reported from Egypt, the Indian subcontinent, central Asia, Sudan, and Gaza. His coverage of the revolution in Egypt won him the Amnesty International Gaby Rado Prize for excellence in human rights journalism.
In, January 2011, Shenker was attacked on the streets of Cairo by government security forces. Along with demonstrators, he was beaten and driven to the desert in the back of a police truck. Shenker secretly recorded his experience on a dictaphone, and the audio that was eventuallycirculated around the world revealed the brutality of government forces and the desperation of demonstrators trying to crack a three-decade-old dictatorship. Over the next three weeks, Shenker's reports on Egypt were awaited eagerly by the rest of the world. His coverage was named one of the Guardian's 190 “most defining moments.”
Shenker now lives between London and Cairo as he continues to cover Egypt's ongoing revolution. He also is working on other journalistic projects. Among them is an investigation of the experiences of migrants, which heightened awareness of the plight of those seeking political asylum and a better life in Europe.
Shenker was co-sponsored by the College of Arts & Sciences, the Multicultural Center/International Student Affairs, the School of Communications, and the Year of International Human Rights 2011-12: Refugee & Migrant Rights.
- Nov. 17, 2011: Student Panel "My St. Louis Story: Immigrants & Refugees" student panel. Webster students, alumni, and Pat Joshu, Executive Director of Immigrant and Refugee Women's Program in Saint Louis, came together to discuss immigrant and refugee issues. Students and alumni shared their stories of how they came to Saint Louis, and what life is like as a refugee or immigrant.
- Nov. 28, 2011: Is the 'Golden Door' Still Open?: America's Reception of Refugees in the 21st Century. Jonathan Guzé, Attorney at Law.
Jonathan Guzé shared his personal experience and insights as a result of representing immigrants in Immigration Court and before the Bureau of Immigration Appeals. He has provided legal assistance to immigrants and the businesses which hire them on various matters arising out of the employment of aliens. Mr. Guzé has supplied professional legal advice on issues related to interactions between immigration and nationality matters and criminal, family, and estate matters. His experience includes interactions with the U.S. Department of Labor, the U.S. Department of State's National Visa Office, the Department of Homeland Security, and the Employment Security Commission of North Carolina. He helped us understand the human rights of immigrants from the inside.
**This event was part of series of annual seminars dedicated to Mary T. Hall, a leader of the United Nations Association of St. Louis and other local civic organizations for many years. This 2011 Mary T. Hall Seminar had special significance because Mary celebrated her 100th birthday in February.
- Feb 1, 2012: A Talk with John Seager, President of Population Connection
- Apr.19-20, 2012: The YIHR conference on refugee and migrant rights took place on April 19 and 20th, 2012 and explored the contemporary refugee situation, as well as related migration issues. The needs of individuals in refugee-like situations, such as those who are internally displaced or are fleeing general violence, civil war, extreme poverty, or natural disaster will also be examined. The conference incorporated a combination of expert panels, workshops, breakout sessions and speakers to address the many facets and challenges of the global refugee situation.
The 2010-2011 Year of International Human Rights theme was Women's Rights as Human Rights. Throughout the year, students learned about women's issues—including trafficking, access to health care, and education—through the common reading of Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide, by Nicholas D. Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn. Webster University welcomed Sheryl WuDunn to its Saint Louis campus for a public lecture on September 13, 2010, to allow students and members of the community to address their questions about the book directly to its author.
Women's rights were also the focus of a number of art exhibits, music and dance performances, lectures, coffeehouse discussions, and activism events.
Highlights of the 2010-2011 year included:
- Tuesdays in September: Year of International Human Rights Film Festival, featuring films like After the Rape (pictured)
- Sept. 13, 2010: Webster University welcomed Pulitzer prize winner Sheryl WuDunn to its Saint Louis campus for a public lecture to allow students and members of the community to address their questions about her book, "Half the Sky."
- Oct. 12, 2010: Congressman Russ Carnahan speaks on global women's rights
- Nov. 10, 2010: LaVena Johnson: "The Silent Truth" premieres in Webster's Winnie Moore Auditorium, followed by a panel discussion with Col. (Ret.) Ann Wright, Joan Brooker-Marks and Dr. John Johnson.
- Dec. 8, 2010: Letters & Cake: Webster's Amnesty International Chapter serves birthday cake and copies of the Universal Declaration of HUman Rights commemorating the declaration's birthday. Students were invited to write letters on behalf of human rights victims at the event.
- Jan. 21, 2011: "Real Beauty," an exhibit of handmade fabric dolls that focuses on conceptions of feminine beauty, opened on Jan. 21 in Hunt Gallery. The exhibit was co-sponsored by the Department of Art, Design and Art History and YIHR.
- Mar. 31 - Apr. 1, 2011: The Women's Rights conference linked international human rights to local human rights work. The conference was organized around three of the principal challenges facing women seeking to realize their internationally recognized human rights: access to education, physical security, and economic hardship. The keynote address, given by E. Desmond Lee Professor of Global Awareness Dr. Janaki Rajan, was webcast globally. Over 175 people attended locally and more than 75 participated internationally via the global webcast (made possible by Dr. Roy Tamashiro, PhD, the Global Forum, and the interactive media staff in the Office of Marketing). The conference brought together students, faculty, staff, and members from the local and global community for solutions-based sessions to demonstrate that everyone can play a role in protecting and promoting human rights, even in their own backyard.