Commentary Human Rights

12 Ways Young People Organized for Human Rights in 2014

Erin Matson

Contrary to a narrative that young people are apathetic or lazy or too busy texting to care about human rights, in fact young people are at the helm of the movement for justice for all people. I, for one, can't wait to see what they pull off in 2015.

It’s the end of the year, and thus the perfect time to reflect on the ways in which young people in 2014 led the charge for change in the human rights and justice movements.

1. Young people were at the forefront of racial justice activism in 2014. Throughout the history of this country, Black men have been killed at the hands of police officers, often while unarmed, in the name of “safety.” Safety for whom, we don’t know. But what made 2014 different was not the brutality of these murders. Nor was it the unwillingness of grand juries to indict in high-profile cases like the deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner at the hands of law enforcement. What made this year different was a grassroots movement, largely led by youth organizers, flooding the streets in Ferguson, conducting die-ins in New York City, shutting down intersections in Washington, D.C., blockading freeways in Oakland, and walking out of classrooms around the country. Young people of color continue to be active leaders and participants in this work to declare that Black lives matter and that police violence must end.

2. Malala Yousafzai became the youngest recipient of a Nobel Peace Prize. Yousafzai, a Pakistani advocate for women and girls and especially access to education, was at age 17 awarded a Nobel Peace Prize for her activism, making her the youngest recipient ever. She began campaigning for education for girls at age 11, and first drew international attention after Taliban fighters shot her in the head. This year Yousafzai traveled to Nigeria, issuing an appeal for increased funding for education after more than 200 girls were abducted from a school by Boko Haram terrorists. Yousafzai’s bravery and moral clarity serve as inspiration to young feminist activists around the world.

3. United We Dream and immigrant youth demanded that the president issue an executive order on immigration. After foot-dragging that extended past the November elections, President Obama made good on a promise to issue an executive order extending relief to undocumented immigrants. The order protects up to five million undocumented residents, and especially the parents of children who have citizenship, as well as the parents of DREAMers brought to the country as children. As with other controversial executive actionsnotably one in which the president refused to extend religious discrimination into an executive order barring employment discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation by federal contractors—Obama was compelled to act because a left flank used direct action to inject clear moral analysis into the debate. Leading that flank was United We Dream, an immigrant youth-led organization that, among other direct actions, led activists to get arrested outside the office of Sen. Harry Reid (D-NV). In July, activists from the group were escorted out of the Netroots Nation conference while interrupting a speech by Vice President Joe Biden with the chant “stop deporting our families”; after a pause, the vice president encouraged the audience to applaud them.

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4. With one mattress, Emma Sulkowicz turned campus sexual assault into a striking piece of performance art. Sulkowicz, a visual arts major at Columbia University, turned her rape on campus into an unavoidable activist conversation with a piece titled “Carry That Weight,” in which she carried a twin-size dorm mattress around campus to draw attention the fact that her rapist, a fellow student, had not been expelled. Her piece inspired a Carry That Weight Day of Action on more than 100 campuses, with thousands of students carrying mattresses to call for reforms to the way colleges address sexual assault.

5. Know Your IX kept leading a grassroots movement to demand accountability on campus sexual assault. There is no one better to organize against oppression and injustice than those most directly affected, and the growing organization Know Your IX—a reference to Title IX, under which educational institutions receiving federal funding must address sexual assault as a civil rights obligation—does just that. The survivor-led and student-driven group, founded last year, remained at the forefront of efforts to inform students who have been sexually assaulted of their rights and demand that the Department of Education improve its enforcement of the law. These efforts played a clear role in a new national dialogue about campus sexual assault and the unveiling of the It’s On Us campaign by the Obama administration in September.

6. Young people participated in and led abortion speak-outs. 2014 continued to be a challenging year for abortion rights in the legislatures; as of December 1, states had enacted 23 new restrictions on abortion access. However, advocates are actively working to create culture change around abortion and break stigma through storytelling. Young people were among the 100 individuals participating in the first-ever live-streamed abortion speak-out hosted by the 1 in 3 Campaign, which is run by Advocates for Youth. Abortion speak-outs also occurred during in-person events on college campuses, including the University of Michigan, the University of Central Michigan, and the University of Central Florida, where hundreds attended.

7. Emily Letts filmed and shared her abortion, demystifying the process. Letts, a counselor at Cherry Hill Women’s Center in New Jersey, filmed her abortion and shared the video online, an act that showed a common medical procedure as it truly is. “I could have taken the pill, but I wanted to do the one that women were most afraid of,” she told Cosmopolitan. “I wanted to show it wasn’t scary—and that there is such a thing as a positive abortion story.” The video has been watched more than a million times.

8. Alex, an 8-year-old-boy, rapped about coming out as transgender to his mom. The confluence of rampant discrimination and inadequate legal protections for transgender people hits youth particularly hard; more than half of transgender youth will attempt suicide by age 20. But in one short viral video released by Camp Aranu’tiq, a camp for transgender youth, an 8-year-old boy named Alex seized a difficult narrative and turned it into a source for hope. His rap details his positive story of coming out as transgender to his mom, and ends with a call that “We all deserve freedom, love, and respect!”

9. Pro-choice students at Catholic-affiliated universities fought back against restrictions on reproductive and sexual rights, and free speech. One of the primary faces of today’s pro-discrimination movement is the religiously affiliated university. Playing a prominent role among those are Catholic-affiliated colleges attempting to hold a line for the archconservative U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. In 2014, students and their allies at these institutions fought back. In Indiana, three Notre Dame students using the pseudonyms Jane Doe 1, Jane Doe 2, and Jane Doe 3 joined a brief opposing their university’s lawsuit against the birth control benefit. In the District of Columbia, students from the group H*yas for Choice were removed by campus police twice this year for tabling in peaceful protest of the Vatican’s stance on reproductive rights and LGBTQ rights; these efforts have led the group to grow in popularity and size.

10. A Florida youth council fought for access to comprehensive sexual education, and won. The Broward County Youth Council, a leadership group of ten high school, college, and graduate students, fought long and hard to have the Broward County school board adopt comprehensive sexual education standards, and that fight culminated in 2014 with a big win. Students in the county will now receive medically accurate, LGBTQ-inclusive sexual education. As local student Keyanna Suarez told CBS Miami after the vote, “There’s not gonna be a taboo about anything. Everyone’s gonna be able to open up, ask questions, and get the info they need to make these decisions because some parents aren’t giving them the education at home.” Broward County is the sixth largest public school system in the country.

11. Colorado high school students walked out of class to protest a proposal to downplay the role of protest in U.S. history. In September, hundreds of high school students in the Denver area walked out of their classrooms in protest of a proposal to focus history curricula on topics that promote respect for authority. “I don’t think my education should be censored,” Tori Leu, a student who protested at Ralston Valley High School told the Guardian. “We should be able to know what happened in our past.” One month later, the Jefferson County School Board passed a compromise proposal that essentially overruled the proposed change.

12. The Harry Potter Alliance tackled income inequality with creativity. The alliance, which engages Harry Potter fans, used the recent success of The Hunger Games to engage young people in income inequality activism. The Odds in Our Favor campaign uses the #MyHungerGames hashtag to encourage people to share their personal stories about class-based injustice. The organization has also compiled pictures of youth using the story’s three-finger salute to protest income inequality.

Baker’s dozen bonus: Rewire continued to foster and share the voices of young people on the important issues of sexual and reproductive rights, health, and justice. As a proud servant leader of the Rewire young writers program, I would be remiss not to mention the commitment of this publication to young people. It was on full display in 2014.

In July, Associate Editor Regina Mahone traveled to Detroit to attend the Youth Sexuality Media Forum; you can read her resulting report on how the media can better cover youth sexuality here. President and Editor in Chief Jodi Jacobson spoke to 19 young reproductive rights activists from around the world at a Youth Champions Initiative in Palo Alto, and Senior Legal Analyst Imani Gandy and Investigative Fellow Zoe Greenberg attended in-person as well; you can read Imani and Zoe’s fantastic conversation with four of the youth champions here.

The participants in our young writers program receive mentoring, intensive coaching, and editorial support beyond the bounds of what traditional freelance writers receive, and publish pieces on Rewire at a competitive rate. What follows is just a small sample of what those participants published this year. Emily Spangler, a high school student in Illinois, wrote about how other young women can get involved in politics; Marcus Lee, a student at Morehouse College, discussed ways men can embrace a culture of consent; Erin McKelle, a student at Ohio University, took a look at the consequences of young people not voting; Lizzie Fierro, a high school student in Texas, spelled out how we can combat sexism in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) subjects; and Briana Dixon, a student at Spelman College, took a nuanced look at the news of a couple who sued a sperm bank after mistakenly receiving a Black sperm donor. (Insert group hug!)

Contrary to a narrative that young people are apathetic or lazy or too busy texting to care about human rights, in fact young people are at the helm of the movement for justice for all people. I, for one, can’t wait to see what they pull off in 2015.

News Sexual Health

State with Nation’s Highest Chlamydia Rate Enacts New Restrictions on Sex Ed

Nicole Knight Shine

By requiring sexual education instructors to be certified teachers, the Alaska legislature is targeting Planned Parenthood, which is the largest nonprofit provider of such educational services in the state.

Alaska is imposing a new hurdle on comprehensive sexual health education with a law restricting schools to only hiring certificated school teachers to teach or supervise sex ed classes.

The broad and controversial education bill, HB 156, became law Thursday night without the signature of Gov. Bill Walker, a former Republican who switched his party affiliation to Independent in 2014. HB 156 requires school boards to vet and approve sex ed materials and instructors, making sex ed the “most scrutinized subject in the state,” according to reproductive health advocates.

Republicans hold large majorities in both chambers of Alaska’s legislature.

Championing the restrictions was state Sen. Mike Dunleavy (R-Wasilla), who called sexuality a “new concept” during a Senate Education Committee meeting in April. Dunleavy added the restrictions to HB 156 after the failure of an earlier measure that barred abortion providers—meaning Planned Parenthood—from teaching sex ed.

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Dunleavy has long targeted Planned Parenthood, the state’s largest nonprofit provider of sexual health education, calling its instruction “indoctrination.”

Meanwhile, advocates argue that evidence-based health education is sorely needed in a state that reported 787.5 cases of chlamydia per 100,000 people in 2014—the nation’s highest rate, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Surveillance Survey for that year.

Alaska’s teen pregnancy rate is higher than the national average.

The governor in a statement described his decision as a “very close call.”

“Given that this bill will have a broad and wide-ranging effect on education statewide, I have decided to allow HB 156 to become law without my signature,” Walker said.

Teachers, parents, and advocates had urged Walker to veto HB 156. Alaska’s 2016 Teacher of the Year, Amy Jo Meiners, took to Twitter following Walker’s announcement, writing, as reported by Juneau Empire, “This will cause such a burden on teachers [and] our partners in health education, including parents [and] health [professionals].”

An Anchorage parent and grandparent described her opposition to the bill in an op-ed, writing, “There is no doubt that HB 156 is designed to make it harder to access real sexual health education …. Although our state faces its largest budget crisis in history, certain members of the Legislature spent a lot of time worrying that teenagers are receiving information about their own bodies.”

Jessica Cler, Alaska public affairs manager with Planned Parenthood Votes Northwest and Hawaii, called Walker’s decision a “crushing blow for comprehensive and medically accurate sexual health education” in a statement.

She added that Walker’s “lack of action today has put the education of thousands of teens in Alaska at risk. This is designed to do one thing: Block students from accessing the sex education they need on safe sex and healthy relationships.”

The law follows the 2016 Legislative Round-up released this week by advocacy group Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States. The report found that 63 percent of bills this year sought to improve sex ed, but more than a quarter undermined student rights or the quality of instruction by various means, including “promoting misinformation and an anti-abortion agenda.”

Commentary Politics

On Immigration, Major Political Parties Can’t Seem to Agree on What’s ‘Un-American’

Tina Vasquez

As far as immigration is concerned, neither the Democrats nor Republicans are without their faults, though positions taken at the conventions were clearly more extreme in one case than the other.

Read more of our coverage of the Democratic National Convention here.

Immigration has been one of the country’s most contentious political topics and, not surprisingly, is now a primary focus of this election. But no matter how you feel about the subject, this is a nation of immigrants in search of “el sueño Americano,” as Karla Ortiz reminded us on the first night of the Democratic National Convention (DNC). Ortiz, the 11-year-old daughter of two undocumented parents, appeared in a Hillary Clinton campaign ad earlier this year expressing fear that her parents would be deported. Standing next to her mother on the DNC stage, the young girl told the crowd that she is an American who wants to become a lawyer to help families like hers.

It was a powerful way to kick-start the week, suggesting to viewers Democrats were taking a radically different approach to immigration than the Republican National Convention (RNC). While the RNC made undocumented immigrants the scapegoats for a variety of social ills, from U.S. unemployment to terrorism, the DNC chose to highlight the contributions of immigrants: the U.S. citizen daughter of undocumented parents, the undocumented college graduate, the children of immigrants who went into politics. Yet, even the stories shared at the DNC were too tidy and palatable, focusing on “acceptable” immigrant narratives. There were no mixed-status families discussing their deported parents, for example.

As far as immigration is concerned, neither the Democrats nor Republicans are without their faults, though positions taken at the conventions were clearly more extreme in one case than the other. By the end of two weeks, viewers may not have known whether to blame immigrants for taking their jobs or to befriend their hardworking immigrant neighbors. For the undocumented immigrants watching the conventions, the message, however, was clear: Both parties have a lot of work to do when it comes to humanizing their communities.  

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“No Business Being in This Country”

For context, Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump and his running mate Mike Pence are the decidedly anti-immigrant ticket. From the beginning, Trump’s campaign has been overrun by anti-immigrant rhetoric, from calling Mexicans “rapists” and “killers” to calling for a ban on Muslim immigration. And as of July 24, Trump’s proposed ban now includes people from countries “compromised by terrorism” who will not be allowed to enter the United States, including anyone from France.

So, it should come as no surprise that the first night of the RNC, which had the theme of “Make America Safe Again,” preyed on American fears of the “other.” In this case: undocumented immigrants who, as Julianne Hing wrote for the Nation, “aren’t just drug dealers and rapists anymorenow they’re murderers, too.”

Night one of the RNC featured not one but three speakers whose children were killed by undocumented immigrants. “They’re just three brave representatives of many thousands who have suffered so gravely,” Trump said at the convention. “Of all my travels in this country, nothing has affected me more, nothing even close I have to tell you, than the time I have spent with the mothers and fathers who have lost their children to violence spilling across our borders, which we can solve. We have to solve it.”

Billed as “immigration reform advocates,” grieving parents like Mary Ann Mendoza called her son’s killer, who had resided in the United States for 20 years before the drunk driving accident that ended her police officer son’s life, an “illegal immigrant” who “had no business being in this country.”

It seemed exploitative and felt all too common. Drunk driving deaths are tragically common and have nothing to do with immigration, but it is easier to demonize undocumented immigrants than it is to address the nation’s broken immigration system and the conditions that are separating people from their countries of originconditions to which the United States has contributed. Trump has spent months intentionally and disingenuously pushing narratives that undocumented immigrants are hurting and exploiting the United States, rather than attempting to get to the root of these issues. This was hammered home by Mendoza, who finished her speech saying that we have a system that cares more about “illegals” than Americans, and that a vote for Hillary “puts all of our children’s lives at risk.”

There was also Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio, a notorious racist whose department made a practice of racially profiling Latinos and was recently found to be in civil contempt of court for “repeatedly and knowingly” disobeying orders to cease policing tactics against Latinos, NPR reported.

Like Mendoza, Arpaio told the RNC crowd that the immigration system “puts the needs of other nations ahead of ours” and that “we are more concerned with the rights of ‘illegal aliens’ and criminals than we are with protecting our own country.” The sheriff asserted that he was at the RNC because he was distinctly qualified to discuss the “dangers of illegal immigration,” as someone who has lived on both sides of the border.

“We have terrorists coming in over our border, infiltrating our communities, and causing massive destruction and mayhem,” Arpaio said. “We have criminals penetrating our weak border security systems and committing serious crimes.”

Broadly, the takeaway from the RNC and the GOP nominee himself is that undocumented immigrants are terrorists who are taking American jobs and lives. “Trump leaned on a tragic story of a young woman’s murder to prop up a generalized depiction of immigrants as menacing, homicidal animals ‘roaming freely to threaten peaceful citizens,’” Hing wrote for the Nation.

When accepting the nomination, Trump highlighted the story of Sarah Root of Nebraska, a 21-year-old who was killed in a drunk-driving accident by a 19-year-old undocumented immigrant.

“To this administration, [the Root family’s] amazing daughter was just one more American life that wasn’t worth protecting,” Trump said. “One more child to sacrifice on the altar of open borders.”

It should be noted that the information related to immigration that Trump provided in his RNC speech, which included the assertion that the federal government enables crime by not deporting more undocumented immigrants (despite deporting more undocumented immigrants than ever before in recent years), came from groups founded by John Tanton, a well-known nativist whom the Southern Poverty Law center referred to as “the racist architect of the modern anti-immigrant movement.”

“The Border Crossed Us”

From the get-go, it seemed the DNC set out to counter the dangerous, anti-immigrant rhetoric pushed at the RNC. Over and over again, Democrats like Congressional Hispanic Caucus Chair Rep. Linda Sánchez (D-CA) hit back hard against Trump, citing him by name and quoting him directly.

“Donald Trump believes that Mexican immigrants are murderers and rapists. But what about my parents, Donald?” Sánchez asked the crowd, standing next to her sister, Rep. Loretta Sánchez (D-CA). “They are the only parents in our nation’s 265-year history to send not one but two daughters to the United States Congress!”

Each speech from a Latino touched on immigration, glossing over the fact that immigration is not just a Latino issue. While the sentiments were positiveillustrating a community that is thriving, and providing a much-needed break from the RNC’s anti-immigrant rhetoricat the core of every speech were messages of assimilation and respectability politics.

Even in gutsier speeches from people like actress Eva Longoria, there was the need to assert that her family is American and that her father is a veteran. The actress said, “My family never crossed a border. The border crossed us.”

Whether intentional or not, the DNC divided immigrants into those who are acceptable, respectable, and worthy of citizenship, and those—invisible at the convention—who are not. “Border crossers” who do not identify as American, who do not learn English, who do not aspire to go to college or become an entrepreneur because basic survival is overwhelming enough, what about them? Do they deserve to be in detention? Do their families deserve to be ripped apart by deportation?

At the convention, Rep. Luis Gutiérrez (D-IL), a champion of immigration reform, said something seemingly innocuous that snapped into focus the problem with the Democrats’ immigration narrative.

“In her heart, Hillary Clinton’s dream for America is one where immigrants are allowed to come out of the shadows, get right with the law, pay their taxes, and not feel fear that their families are going to be ripped apart,” Gutiérrez said.

The Democratic Party is participating in an all-too-convenient erasure of the progress undocumented people have made through sheer force of will. Immigration has become a leading topic not because there are more people crossing the border (there aren’t) or because nativist Donald Trump decided to run for president, but because a segment of the population has been denied basic rights and has been fighting tooth and nail to save themselves, their families, and their communities.

Immigrants have been coming out of the shadows and as a result, are largely responsible for the few forms of relief undocumented communities now have, like Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, which allows certain undocumented immigrants who meet specific qualifications to receive a renewable two-year work permit and exemption from deportation. And “getting right with the law” is a joke at this point. The problem isn’t that immigrants are failing to adhere to immigration laws; the problem is immigration laws that are notoriously complicated and convoluted, and the system, which is so backlogged with cases that a judge sometimes has just seven minutes to determine an immigrant’s fate.

Becoming a U.S. citizen is also really expensive. There is a cap on how many people can immigrate from any given country in a year, and as Janell Ross explained at the Washington Post:

There are some countries, including Mexico, from where a worker with no special skills or a relative in the United States can apply and wait 23 years, according to the U.S. government’s own data. That’s right: There are people receiving visas right now in Mexico to immigrate to the United States who applied in 1993.

But getting back to Gutierrez’s quote: Undocumented immigrants do pay taxes, though their ability to contribute to our economy should not be the one point on which Democrats hang their hats in order to attract voters. And actually, undocumented people pay a lot of taxes—some $11.6 billion in state and local taxes last year, according to the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy—while rarely benefiting from a majority of federal assistance programs since the administration of President Bill Clinton ended “welfare as we know it” in 1996.

If Democrats were being honest at their convention, we would have heard about their failure to end family detention, and they would have addressed that they too have a history of criminalizing undocumented immigrants.

The 1996 Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act and the 1996 Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act, enacted under former President Clinton, have had the combined effect of dramatically increasing the number of immigrants in detention and expanding mandatory or indefinite detention of noncitizens ordered to be removed to countries that will not accept them, as the American Civil Liberties Union notes on its site. Clinton also passed the North American Free Trade Agreement, which economically devastated Mexican farmers, leading to their mass migration to the United States in search of work.

In 1990, then-Sen. Joe Biden introduced the Violence Against Women Act, which passed in 1994 and specifically excluded undocumented women for the first 19 of the law’s 22 years, and even now is only helpful if the victim of intimate partner abuse is a child, parent, or current/former spouse of a U.S. citizen or a permanent resident.

In addition, President Obama is called by immigrant rights advocates “deporter in chief,” having put into place a “deportation machine” that has sent more than two million migrants back to their country of origin, more than any president in history. New arrivals to the United States, such as the Central American asylum seekers coming to our border escaping gender-based violence, are treated with the same level of prioritization for removal as threats to our national security. The country’s approach to this humanitarian crisis has been raiding homes in the middle of the night and placing migrants in detention centers, which despite being rife with allegations of human rights abuses, are making private prison corporations millions in revenue.

How Are We Defining “Un-American”?

When writing about the Democratic Party, community organizer Rosa Clemente, the 2008 Green Party vice president candidate, said that she is afraid of Trump, “but not enough to be distracted from what we must do, which is to break the two-party system for good.”

This is an election like we’ve never seen before, and it would be disingenuous to imply that the party advocating for the demise of the undocumented population is on equal footing with the party advocating for the rights of certain immigrants whose narratives it finds acceptable. But this is a country where Republicans loudly—and with no consequence—espouse racist, xenophobic, and nativist beliefs while Democrats publicly voice support of migrants while quietly standing by policies that criminalize undocumented communities and lead to record numbers of deportations.

During two weeks of conventions, both sides declared theirs was the party that encapsulated what America was supposed to be, adhering to morals and values handed down from our forefathers. But ours is a country comprised of stolen land and built by slave labor where today, undocumented immigrants, the population most affected by unjust immigration laws and violent anti-immigrant rhetoric, don’t have the right to vote. It is becoming increasingly hard to tell if that is indeed “un-American” or deeply American.