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 Law and Policy

No Need to Block Bathroom Access for Transgender Student, Attorneys Tell Supreme Court

Jessica Mason Pieklo

A transgender student in Virginia sued the local school board, arguing that its policy of mandating that students use bathrooms consistent with their “biological sex” rather than their gender identity was unconstitutional.

Attorneys representing transgender student Gavin Grimm told the U.S. Supreme Court this week that there was no reason to block a lower court order guaranteeing Grimm access to school restrooms that align with his gender identity while Grimm’s lawsuit against the Gloucester County School Board proceeds.

Grimm in 2015 sued the school board, arguing that its policy of mandating that students use bathrooms consistent with their “biological sex” rather than their gender identity—thus separating transgender students from their peers—was unconstitutional. Attorneys representing Grimm argued that the policy violates the 14th Amendment and Title IX of the U.S. Education Amendments of 1972, a federal law prohibiting sex-based discrimination at schools that receive federal funding.

A lower district court ruled the school board’s policy did not violate Grimm’s rights. But the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals disagreed, reversing that decision and sending the case back to the lower court, which then blocked the school district from enforcing its policy while Grimm’s case proceeds.

In response, the school board notified the Fourth Circuit of its intent to appeal that decision to the Supreme Court and requested the appellate court stay its order granting Grimm access to bathrooms aligned with his gender identity—a decision the Fourth Circuit granted in June.

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The school board then asked the Roberts Court to issue an emergency stay of the lower court decision blocking its bathroom policy while the Court considers taking Grimm’s case.

Grimm’s attorneys argue there is no basis for the Roberts Court to grant the emergency stay requested by the school board. The board has “utterly failed to demonstrate that it will suffer irreparable harm” if Grimm is allowed to use the boys’ restroom at Gloucester High School while the Roberts Court considers stepping into the case at all, according to Grimm’s attorneys.

Attorneys for the school board filed their request with Chief Justice John Roberts, who handles petitions from the Fourth Circuit. Roberts can rule on the school board’s request to block the lower court decision, or he can refer the request to the entire Court to consider.

It is not known when Roberts or the Court will make that choice.

The Gloucester County School Board has argued that the Obama administration overstepped its authority in protecting transgender student rights. Attorneys for the school board said that overreach began in 2012, when an administration agency issued an opinion that said refusing transgender students access to the bathrooms consistent with their gender identity violated Title IX.

The administration expanded that opinion in October 2015 and filed a friend of the court brief on Grimm’s behalf with the Fourth Circuit, arguing it was the administration’s position that the school board’s policy violated federal law.

The administration again expanded that opinion in May this year into a directive stating that should publicly funded schools deny transgender students access to facilities that conform to students’ gender identity, they would be in violation of federal law, subject to lawsuits, and risking their federal funding.

The Fourth Circuit relied heavily on these actions in initially siding with Grimm earlier this year.

Analysis Economic Justice

New Pennsylvania Bill Is Just One Step Toward Helping Survivors of Economic Abuse

Annamarya Scaccia

The legislation would allow victims of domestic violence, sexual assault, and stalking to terminate their lease early or request locks be changed if they have "a reasonable fear" that they will continue to be harmed while living in their unit.

Domestic violence survivors often face a number of barriers that prevent them from leaving abusive situations. But a new bill awaiting action in the Pennsylvania legislature would let survivors in the state break their rental lease without financial repercussions—potentially allowing them to avoid penalties to their credit and rental history that could make getting back on their feet more challenging. Still, the bill is just one of several policy improvements necessary to help survivors escape abusive situations.

Right now in Pennsylvania, landlords can take action against survivors who break their lease as a means of escape. That could mean a lien against the survivor or an eviction on their credit report. The legislation, HB 1051, introduced by Rep. Madeleine Dean (D-Montgomery County), would allow victims of domestic violence, sexual assault, and stalking to terminate their lease early or request locks be changed if they have “a reasonable fear” that they will continue to be harmed while living in their unit. The bipartisan bill, which would amend the state’s Landlord and Tenant Act, requires survivors to give at least 30 days’ notice of their intent to be released from the lease.

Research shows survivors often return to or delay leaving abusive relationships because they either can’t afford to live independently or have little to no access to financial resources. In fact, a significant portion of homeless women have cited domestic violence as the leading cause of homelessness.

“As a society, we get mad at survivors when they don’t leave,” Kim Pentico, economic justice program director of the National Network to End Domestic Violence (NNEDV), told Rewire. “You know what, her name’s on this lease … That’s going to impact her ability to get and stay safe elsewhere.”

“This is one less thing that’s going to follow her in a negative way,” she added.

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Pennsylvania landlords have raised concerns about the law over liability and rights of other tenants, said Ellen Kramer, deputy director of program services at the Pennsylvania Coalition Against Domestic Violence, which submitted a letter in support of the bill to the state House of Representatives. Lawmakers have considered amendments to the bill—like requiring “proof of abuse” from the courts or a victim’s advocate—that would heed landlord demands while still attempting to protect survivors.

But when you ask a survivor to go to the police or hospital to obtain proof of abuse, “it may put her in a more dangerous position,” Kramer told Rewire, noting that concessions that benefit landlords shift the bill from being victim-centered.

“It’s a delicate balancing act,” she said.

The Urban Affairs Committee voted HB 1051 out of committee on May 17. The legislation was laid on the table on June 23, but has yet to come up for a floor vote. Whether the bill will move forward is uncertain, but proponents say that they have support at the highest levels of government in Pennsylvania.

“We have a strong advocate in Governor Wolf,” Kramer told Rewire.

Financial Abuse in Its Many Forms

Economic violence is a significant characteristic of domestic violence, advocates say. An abuser will often control finances in the home, forcing their victim to hand over their paycheck and not allow them access to bank accounts, credit cards, and other pecuniary resources. Many abusers will also forbid their partner from going to school or having a job. If the victim does work or is a student, the abuser may then harass them on campus or at their place of employment until they withdraw or quit—if they’re not fired.

Abusers may also rack up debt, ruin their partner’s credit score, and cancel lines of credit and insurance policies in order to exact power and control over their victim. Most offenders will also take money or property away from their partner without permission.

“Financial abuse is so multifaceted,” Pentico told Rewire.

Pentico relayed the story of one survivor whose abuser smashed her cell phone because it would put her in financial dire straits. As Pentico told it, the abuser stole her mobile phone, which was under a two-year contract, and broke it knowing that the victim could not afford a new handset. The survivor was then left with a choice of paying for a bill on a phone she could no longer use or not paying the bill at all and being turned into collections, which would jeopardize her ability to rent her own apartment or switch to a new carrier. “Things she can’t do because he smashed her smartphone,” Pentico said.

“Now the general public [could] see that as, ‘It’s a phone, get over it,'” she told Rewire. “Smashing that phone in a two-year contract has such ripple effects on her financial world and on her ability to get and stay safe.”

In fact, members of the public who have not experienced domestic abuse may overlook financial abuse or minimize it. A 2009 national poll from the Allstate Foundation—the philanthropic arm of the Illinois-based insurance company—revealed that nearly 70 percent of Americans do not associate financial abuse with domestic violence, even though it’s an all-too-common tactic among abusers: Economic violence happens in 98 percent of abusive relationships, according to the NNEDV.

Why people fail to make this connection can be attributed, in part, to the lack of legal remedy for financial abuse, said Carol Tracy, executive director of the Women’s Law Project, a public interest law center in Pennsylvania. A survivor can press criminal charges or seek a civil protection order when there’s physical abuse, but the country’s legal justice system has no equivalent for economic or emotional violence, whether the victim is married to their abuser or not, she said.

Some advocates, in lieu of recourse through the courts, have teamed up with foundations to give survivors individual tools to use in economically abusive situations. In 2005, the NNEDV partnered with the Allstate Foundation to develop a curriculum that would teach survivors about financial abuse and financial safety. Through the program, survivors are taught about financial safety planning including individual development accounts, IRA, microlending credit repair, and credit building services.

State coalitions can receive grant funding to develop or improve economic justice programs for survivors, as well as conduct economic empowerment and curriculum trainings with local domestic violence groups. In 2013—the most recent year for which data is available—the foundation awarded $1 million to state domestic violence coalitions in grants that ranged from $50,000 to $100,000 to help support their economic justice work.

So far, according to Pentico, the curriculum has performed “really great” among domestic violence coalitions and its clients. Survivors say they are better informed about economic justice and feel more empowered about their own skills and abilities, which has allowed them to make sounder financial decisions.

This, in turn, has allowed them to escape abuse and stay safe, she said.

“We for a long time chose to see money and finances as sort of this frivolous piece of the safety puzzle,” Pentico told Rewire. “It really is, for many, the piece of the puzzle.”

Public Policy as a Means of Economic Justice

Still, advocates say that public policy, particularly disparate workplace conditions, plays an enormous role in furthering financial abuse. The populations who are more likely to be victims of domestic violence—women, especially trans women and those of color—are also the groups more likely to be underemployed or unemployed. A 2015 LGBT Health & Human Services Network survey, for example, found that 28 percent of working-age transgender women were unemployed and out of school.

“That’s where [economic abuse] gets complicated,” Tracy told Rewire. “Some of it is the fault of the abuser, and some of it is the public policy failures that just don’t value women’s participation in the workforce.”

Victims working low-wage jobs often cannot save enough to leave an abusive situation, advocates say. What they do make goes toward paying bills, basic living needs, and their share of housing expenses—plus child-care costs if they have kids. In the end, they’re not left with much to live on—that is, if their abuser hasn’t taken away access to their own earnings.

“The ability to plan your future, the ability to get away from [abuse], that takes financial resources,” Tracy told Rewire. “It’s just so much harder when you don’t have them and when you’re frightened, and you’re frightened for yourself and your kids.”

Public labor policy can also inhibit a survivor’s ability to escape. This year, five states, Washington, D.C., and 24 jurisdictions will have passed or enacted paid sick leave legislation, according to A Better Balance, a family and work legal center in New York City. As of April, only one of those states—California—also passed a state paid family leave insurance law, which guarantees employees receive pay while on leave due to pregnancy, disability, or serious health issues. (New Jersey, Rhode Island, Washington, and New York have passed similar laws.) Without access to paid leave, Tracy said, survivors often cannot “exercise one’s rights” to file a civil protection order, attend court hearings, or access housing services or any other resource needed to escape violence.

Furthermore, only a handful of state laws protect workers from discrimination based on sex, sexual orientation, gender identity, and pregnancy or familial status (North Carolina, on the other hand, recently passed a draconian state law that permits wide-sweeping bias in public and the workplace). There is no specific federal law that protects LGBTQ workers, but the U.S. Employment Opportunity Commission has clarified that the Civil Rights Act of 1964 does prohibit discrimination based on gender identity and sexual orientation.

Still, that doesn’t necessarily translate into practice. For example, the National Center for Transgender Equality found that 26 percent of transgender people were let go or fired because of anti-trans bias, while 50 percent of transgender workers reported on-the-job harassment. Research shows transgender people are at a higher risk of being fired because of their trans identity, which would make it harder for them to leave an abusive relationship.

“When issues like that intersect with domestic violence, it’s devastating,” Tracy told Rewire. “Frequently it makes it harder, if not impossible, for [victims] to leave battering situations.”

For many survivors, their freedom from abuse also depends on access to public benefits. Programs like Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), the child and dependent care credit, and earned income tax credit give low-income survivors access to the money and resources needed to be on stable economic ground. One example: According to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, where a family of three has one full-time nonsalary worker earning $10 an hour, SNAP can increase their take-home income by up to 20 percent.

These programs are “hugely important” in helping lift survivors and their families out of poverty and offset the financial inequality they face, Pentico said.

“When we can put cash in their pocket, then they may have the ability to then put a deposit someplace or to buy a bus ticket to get to family,” she told Rewire.

But these programs are under constant attack by conservative lawmakers. In March, the House Republicans approved a 2017 budget plan that would all but gut SNAP by more than $150 million over the next ten years. (Steep cuts already imposed on the food assistance program have led to as many as one million unemployed adults losing their benefits over the course of this year.) The House GOP budget would also strip nearly $500 billion from other social safety net programs including TANF, child-care assistance, and the earned income tax credit.

By slashing spending and imposing severe restrictions on public benefits, politicians are guaranteeing domestic violence survivors will remain stuck in a cycle of poverty, advocates say. They will stay tethered to their abuser because they will be unable to have enough money to live independently.

“When women leave in the middle of the night with the clothes on their back, kids tucked under their arms, come into shelter, and have no access to finances or resources, I can almost guarantee you she’s going to return,” Pentico told Rewire. “She has to return because she can’t afford not to.”

By contrast, advocates say that improving a survivor’s economic security largely depends on a state’s willingness to remedy what they see as public policy failures. Raising the minimum wage, mandating equal pay, enacting paid leave laws, and prohibiting employment discrimination—laws that benefit the entire working class—will make it much less likely that a survivor will have to choose between homelessness and abuse.

States can also pass proactive policies like the bill proposed in Pennsylvania, to make it easier for survivors to leave abusive situations in the first place. Last year, California enacted a law that similarly allows abuse survivors to terminate their lease without getting a restraining order or filing a police report permanent. Virginia also put in place an early lease-termination law for domestic violence survivors in 2013.

A “more equitable distribution of wealth is what we need, what we’re talking about,” Tracy told Rewire.

As Pentico put it, “When we can give [a survivor] access to finances that help her get and stay safe for longer, her ability to protect herself and her children significantly increases.”