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 Politics

Debbie Wasserman Schultz Resigns as Chair of DNC, Will Not Gavel in Convention

Ally Boguhn

Donna Brazile, vice chair of the DNC, will step in as interim replacement for Wasserman Schultz as committee chair.

On the eve of the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia, Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-FL) resigned her position as chair of the Democratic National Committee (DNC), effective after the convention, amid controversy over leaked internal party emails and months of criticism over her handling of the Democratic primary races.

Wasserman Schultz told the Sun Sentinel on Monday that she would not gavel in this week’s convention, according to Politico.

“I know that electing Hillary Clinton as our next president is critical for America’s future,” Wasserman Schultz said in a Sunday statement announcing her decision. “Going forward, the best way for me to accomplish those goals is to step down as Party Chair at the end of this convention.”

“We have planned a great and unified Convention this week and I hope and expect that the DNC team that has worked so hard to get us to this point will have the strong support of all Democrats in making sure this is the best convention we have ever had,” Wasserman Schultz continued.

Just prior to news that Wasserman Schultz would step down, it was announced that Rep. Marcia Fudge (D-OH) would chair the DNC convention.

Donna Brazile, vice chair of the DNC, will step in as interim replacement for Wasserman Schultz as committee chair.

Wasserman Schultz’s resignation comes after WikiLeaks released more than 19,000 internal emails from the DNC, breathing new life into arguments that the Democratic Party—and Wasserman Schultz in particular—had “rigged” the primary in favor of nominating Hillary Clinton. As Vox‘s Timothy B. Lee pointed out, there seems to be “no bombshells” in the released emails, though one email does show that Brad Marshall, chief financial officer of the DNC, emailed asking whether an unnamed person could be questioned about “his” religious beliefs. Many believe the email was referencing Sen. Bernie Sanders’ (I-VT).

Another email from Wasserman Schultz revealed the DNC chair had referred to Sanders’ campaign manager, Jeff Weaver, as a “damn liar.”

As previously reported by Rewire before the emails’ release, “Wasserman Schultz has been at the center of a string of heated criticisms directed at her handling of the DNC as well as allegations that she initially limited the number of the party’s primary debates, steadfastly refusing to add more until she came under pressure.” She also sparked controversy in January after suggesting that young women aren’t supporting Clinton because there is “a complacency among the generation” who were born after Roe v. Wade was decided.

“Debbie Wasserman Schultz has made the right decision for the future of the Democratic Party,” said Sanders in a Sunday statement. “While she deserves thanks for her years of service, the party now needs new leadership that will open the doors of the party and welcome in working people and young people. The party leadership must also always remain impartial in the presidential nominating process, something which did not occur in the 2016 race.”

Sanders had previously demanded Wasserman Schultz’s resignation in light of the leaked emails during an appearance earlier that day on ABC’s This Week.

Clinton nevertheless stood by Wasserman Schultz in a Sunday statement responding to news of the resignation. “I am grateful to Debbie for getting the Democratic Party to this year’s historic convention in Philadelphia, and I know that this week’s events will be a success thanks to her hard work and leadership,” said Clinton. “There’s simply no one better at taking the fight to the Republicans than Debbie—which is why I am glad that she has agreed to serve as honorary chair of my campaign’s 50-state program to gain ground and elect Democrats in every part of the country, and will continue to serve as a surrogate for my campaign nationally, in Florida, and in other key states.”

Clinton added that she still looks “forward to campaigning with Debbie in Florida and helping her in her re-election bid.” Wasserman Schultz faces a primary challenger, Tim Canova, for her congressional seat in Florida’s 23rd district for the first time this year.

Commentary Politics

Democrats’ Latest Platform Silent on Discriminatory Welfare System

Lauren Rankin

The current draft of the 2016 Democratic Party platform contains some of the most progressive positions that the party has taken in decades. But there is a critical issue—one that affects millions in the United States—that is missing entirely from the draft: fixing our broken and discriminatory welfare system.

While the Republican Party has adopted one of the most regressive, punitive, and bigoted platforms in recent memory, the Democratic Party seems to be moving decisively in the opposite direction. The current draft of the 2016 Democratic Party platform contains some of the most progressive positions that the party has taken in decades. It calls for a federal minimum wage of $15; a full repeal of the Hyde Amendment, which prohibits the use of federal Medicaid funding for abortion care; and a federal nondiscrimination policy to protect the rights of LGBTQ people.

All three of these are in direct response to the work of grassroots activists and coalitions that have been shifting the conversation and pushing the party to the left.

But there is a critical issue—one that affects millions in the United States—that is missing entirely from the party platform draft: fixing our broken and discriminatory welfare system.

It’s been 20 years since President Bill Clinton proudly declared that “we are ending welfare as we know it” when he signed into law a sweeping overhaul of the U.S. welfare system. The Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act (PRWORA) of 1996 implemented dramatic changes to welfare payments and eligibility, putting in place the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program. In the two decades since its enactment, TANF has not only proved to be blatantly discriminatory, but it has done lasting damage.

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In one fell swoop, TANF ended the federal guarantee of support to low-income single mothers that existed under the now-defunct Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) program. AFDC had become markedly unpopular and an easy target by the time President Clinton signed welfare reform legislation into law, with the racist, mythic trope of the “welfare queen” becoming pervasive in the years leading up to AFDC’s demise.

Ronald Reagan popularized this phrase while running for president in 1976 and it caught fire, churning up public resentment against AFDC and welfare recipients, particularly Black women, who were painted as lazy and mooching off the government. This trope underwrote much of conservative opposition to AFDC; among other things, House Republican’s 1994 “Contract with America,” co-authored by Newt Gingrich, demanded an end to AFDC and vilified teen mothers and low-income mothers with multiple children.

TANF radically restructured qualifications for welfare assistance, required that recipients sustain a job in order to receive benefits, and ultimately eliminated the role of the federal state in assisting poor citizens. The promise of AFDC and welfare assistance more broadly, including SNAP (the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, commonly known as food stamps) benefits, is that the federal government has an inherent role of caring for and providing for its most vulnerable citizens. With the implementation of TANF, that promise was deliberately broken.

At the time of its passage, Republicans and many Democrats, including President Bill Clinton, touted TANF as a means of motivating those receiving assistance to lift themselves up by their proverbial bootstraps, meaning they would now have to work while receiving benefits. But the idea that those in poverty can escape poverty simply by working harder and longer evades the fact that poverty is cyclical and systemic. Yet, that is what TANF did: It put the onus for ending poverty on the individual, rather than dealing with the structural issues that perpetuate the state of being in poverty.

TANF also eliminated any federal standard of assistance, leaving it up to individual states to determine not only the amount of financial aid that they provide, but what further restrictions state lawmakers wish to place on recipients. Not only that, but the federal TANF program instituted a strict, lifetime limit of five years for families to receive aid and a two-year consecutive limit, which only allows an individual to receive two years of consecutive aid at a time. If after five total years they still require assistance to care for their family and themself, no matter their circumstances, they are simply out of luck.

That alone is an egregious violation of our inalienable constitutional rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Still, TANF went a step further: It also allowed states to institute more pernicious, discriminatory policies. In order to receive public assistance benefits through TANF, low-income single mothers are subjected to intense personal scrutiny, sexual and reproductive policing, and punitive retribution that does not exist for public assistance recipients in programs like Social Security and Supplemental Security Income disability programs, programs that Democrats not only continue to support, but use as a rallying cry. And yet, few if any Democrats are crying out for a more just welfare system.

There are so many aspects of TANF that should motivate progressives, but perhaps none more than the family cap and forced paternity identification policies.

Welfare benefits through the TANF program are most usually determined by individual states based on household size, and family caps allow a state to deny welfare recipients’ additional financial assistance after the birth of another child. At least 19 states currently have family cap laws on the books, which in some cases allow the state to deny additional assistance to recipients who give birth to another child. 

Ultimately, this means that if a woman on welfare becomes pregnant, she is essentially left with deciding between terminating her pregnancy or potentially losing her welfare benefits, depending on which state she lives in. This is not a free and valid choice, but is a forced state intervention into the private reproductive practices of the women on welfare that should appall and enrage progressive Democrats.

TANF’s “paternafare,” or forced paternity identification policy, is just as egregious. Single mothers receiving TANF benefits are forced to identify the father of their children so that the state may contact and demand financial payment from them. This differs from nonwelfare child support payments, in which the father provides assistance directly to the single mother of his child; this policy forces the fathers of low-income single women on welfare to give their money directly to the state rather than the mother of their child. For instance, Indiana requires TANF recipients to cooperate with their local county prosecutor’s child support program to establish paternity. Some states, like Utah, lack an exemption for survivors of domestic violence as well as children born of rape and incest, as Anna Marie Smith notes in her seminal work Welfare Reform and Sexual Regulation. This means that survivors of domestic violence may be forced to identify and maintain a relationship with their abusers, simply because they are enrolled in TANF.

The reproductive and sexual policing of women enrolled in TANF is a deeply discriminatory and unconstitutional intrusion. And what’s also disconcerting is that the program has failed those enrolled in it.

TANF was created to keep single mothers from remaining on welfare rolls for an indeterminate amount of time, but also with the express goal of ensuring that these young women end up in the labor force. It was touted by President Bill Clinton and congressional Republicans as a realistic, work-based solution that could lift single mothers up out of poverty and provide opportunities for prosperity. In reality, it’s been a failure, with anywhere from 42 to 74 percent of those who exited the program remaining poor.

As Jordan Weissmann detailed over at Slate, while the number of women on welfare decreased significantly since 1996, TANF left in its wake a new reality: “As the rolls shrank, a new generation of so-called disconnected mothers emerged: single parents who weren’t working, in school, or receiving welfare to support themselves or their children. According to [the Urban Institute’s Pamela] Loprest, the number of these women rose from 800,000 in 1996 to 1.2 million in 2008.” Weissmann also noted that researchers have found an uptick in “deep or extreme poverty” since TANF went into effect.

Instead of a system that enables low-income single mothers a chance to escape the cycle of poverty, what we have is a racist system that denies aid to those who need it most, many of whom are people of color who have been and remain systemically impoverished.

The Democratic Party platform draft has an entire plank focused on how to “Raise Incomes and Restore Economic Security for the Middle Class,” but what about those in poverty? What about the discriminatory and broken welfare system we have in place that ensures not only that low-income single mothers feel stigmatized and demoralized, but that they lack the supportive structure to even get to the middle class at all? While the Democratic Party is developing strategies and potential policies to support the middle class, it is neglecting those who are in need the most, and who are suffering the most as a result of President Bill Clinton’s signature legislation.

While the national party has not budged on welfare reform since President Bill Clinton signed the landmark legislation in 1996, there has been some state-based movement. Just this month, New Jersey lawmakers, led by Democrats, passed a repeal of the state’s family cap law, which was ultimately vetoed by Republican Gov. Chris Christie. California was more successful, though: The state recently repealed its Maximum Family Grant rule, which barred individuals on welfare from receiving additional aid when they had more children.

It’s time for the national Democratic Party to do the same. For starters, the 2016 platform should include a specific provision calling for an end to family cap laws and forced paternity identification. If the Democratic Party is going to be the party of reproductive freedom—demonstrated by its call to repeal both the federal Hyde and Helms amendments—that must include women who receive welfare assistance. But the Democrats should go even further: They must embrace and advance a comprehensive overhaul of our welfare system, reinstating the federal guarantee of financial support. The state-based patchwork welfare system must be replaced with a federal welfare assistance program, one that provides educational incentives as well as a base living wage.

Even President Bill Clinton and presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton both acknowledge that the original welfare reform bill had serious issues. Today, this bill and its discriminatory legacy remain a progressive thorn in the side of the Democratic Party—but it doesn’t have to be. It’s time for the party to admit that welfare reform was a failure, and a discriminatory one at that. It’s time to move from punishment and stigma to support and dignity for low-income single mothers and for all people living in poverty. It’s time to end TANF.