Category Archives: People

Two Nobel Prizes, 65 Million Girls Absent from School

This year’s Nobel Peace Prize, shared by deserving recipients Malala Yousafzai and Kailash Satyarthi, shines important light on the children of impoverished countries. Through their work on behalf of children’s rights we are reminded of the urgency of now when it comes to girls’ education and to child exploitation for financial gain.

Significantly, the award came as the United Nations marked the International Day of the Girl Child, a day to promote girls’ human rights and to highlight gender inequalities that still lead to various forms of discrimination and abuse suffered by a huge number of the world’s girls. That is not to diminish the painful lives boys lead in many corners of the world. But the issue of girls’ education that Malala speaks to is so critical to a country, a community, a family, a girl, a woman, and her own children that it deserves the special attention a 17-year old activist – the youngest recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize – has brought to light.

“Extremists have shown what frightens them most,” Malala has said. “It’ a girl with a book.” She is hardly exaggerating. Just think how ISIS and the Taliban and Boka Haram confine females to sexual slavery by way of faux marriages.

Sadly, history is replete with unnamed multitudes of women denied an education. In medieval times, for instance, women who were unmarriageable or considered unruly were shunted off to convents. But there they found a haven free from subservience and perpetual childbearing, a place where they could read, write, discuss ideas – until the men in power realized how dangerous that was, and banned them from such activities in favor of religious devotion and endless embroidery.

Yet, here’s what we know about the value of girls’ education: It is central to a country’s development and improvement. It leads the way out of poverty. And it has a direct, proven impact on child and reproductive health, economic growth, environmental sustainability, national productivity, innovation, democratic values, and social cohesion.

In the World Bank’s new report, Voice and Agency: Empowering Women and Girls for Shared Prosperity, key findings include that “girls with little or no education are far more likely to be married [off] as children, suffer domestic violence, live in poverty, and lack a say over household spending or their own healthcare than better-educated peers; and enhanced education – the ability to make decisions and act on them – is a key reason why children of better educated women are less likely to be stunted; educated mothers have greater autonomy in making decisions and more power to act for their children’s benefit.”

We know that illiteracy is one of the strongest predictors of poverty and that every year of schooling increases individual wages for both men and women. We know that an educated, skilled workforce is one of the foundations of a knowledge-based society and that education makes vital contributions to lowering maternal and child mortality rates, protecting against HIV/AIDS, reducing fertility rates, and enhancing environmental awareness.

But let’s put a human face on this, as CAMFED, a UK-based non-profit organization dedicated to girls’ education, has. Suppose you’re a 12-year old girl, they suggest. You went to primary school, loved learning, and enjoyed interacting with your classmates. But you couldn’t go to secondary school because your family didn’t have the money for school fees, uniforms, or transport. Perhaps they thought it wasn’t safe. Or that your labor was needed at home. You therefore became a financial burden on your family and had to work to contribute money to the household. Young, lonely and sad, you are likely to have a baby before you are 15 or 16, maybe three children by the age of 20. You are more vulnerable to HIV/AIDS than your former classmates and your children are more likely to be malnourished than women who waited to have families. You have no power – no agency to make decisions – no say whatsoever over your life. And all you wanted to do was stay in school.

In Sub-Saharan Africa, there are 24 million girls like that one. Overall in the world, there are 65 million girls who are not in school.

In poor countries, 60 percent of the present population is under 25 years of age. Without children’s rights, including access to education, how are we going to realize global peace and development? In conflict-ridden areas – proliferating at a staggering rate – how will we stop the violation of children and the continued violence that occurs from one generation to the next?

Thank Heaven for a new generation of young women, and men, symbolized by Malala Yousafzai. “I know I am not alone,” she told reporters on learning of her prize. “I think this is really the beginning. This decision sends a message that all people, regardless of language and religion, should fight for the rights of women, children and every human being.”

That includes policymakers and politicians as well as parents. Would that they had the will to join her quest.

Is America a Failed State?

As we say in New England, it’s been a wicked bad time lately. What with Ebola, ISIS, climate change induced weather crises, the situation in Ferguson, MO, the Secret Service scandals and more, we all feel shaken and fearful for the future.

It’s not only Americans who are feeling less secure and more frightened about what lies ahead. Worldwide, there is a growing sense of insecurity, anxiety and vulnerability. Still, I can’t help noticing the ways in which the U.S. is moving in dangerous directions, revealing flaws so serious that one wonders what separates us from countries that we like to call “developing countries.” “American Exceptionalism” – a term that smacks of superiority – may no longer imply what is best in our national culture. Now it may stand for all that is exceptional in negative ways in American life and politics.

Think about the growing corruption in our electoral system, typical in “less developed countries.” The Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision dealt a terrible blow to our political process when it ruled that essentially corporations are people. The rise of Super PACS and the power afforded individuals like the Koch brothers will have alarming consequences in the 20016 elections.

http://ts1.mm.bing.net/th?id=HN.607992422541035815&w=98&h=108&c=8&pid=3.1&qlt=90&rm=2

Anonymous political giving is growing exponentially. Voters are increasingly accosted by advertising from groups with seemingly benign names and dubious agendas. These groups are required to disclose their finances only on federal tax returns, and the names of donors are exempted. Approximately 55 percent of broadcast advertising has been paid for by groups like this recently. Then there is gerrymandering and changes – attempted or achieved – to voting laws designed to keep certain people from voting the way some folks want them to.

Then there’s police brutality and our deeply broken justice system. I’m not only talking about what happened in Ferguson or St. Louis or other places where black kids are shot to death by white cops, which obviously has a lot to do with the abysmal state of race relations in this country.

I’m talking about stories that seldom make the news, although the case of Lisa Mahone and her boyfriend Jamal Jones did get coverage. Mahone and Jones were rushing to the hospital where her mother was dying when they were stopped by police because Lisa wasn’t wearing a seatbelt. Before the whole thing was over, police had drawn their guns and Jamal was tasered because he didn’t have an ID and was too afraid to get out of the car. All of this occurred with two terrified children in the back seat of the car.

The police are simply out of control. They have turned into militarized forces and SWAT teams because they’ve been trained to act like they work in a war zone by people who have done exactly that, many of whom are now cops on the beat.

Police departments and drug task forces have been allowed to take millions of dollars from Americans under federal civil forfeiture laws with which they buy Humvees, automatic weapons, night-vision scopes and sniper gear, according to the Washington Post. The Justice Department’s Equitable Sharing Program allows local and state police to keep up to 80 percent of assets they seize, even without charging anyone with a crime. In order to retrieve their assets, victims must prove that the seized money or property was acquired legally. Mainly used by the Drug Enforcement Administration or Immigration and Customs Enforcement, there have been 62,000 cash seizures since 9/11 without search warrants or indictments.

As for the justice system, take the case of teenager Courtney B. who was falsely accused by another teen of unwanted sexual touching, an accusation invented by a mother who wanted to sue a school district for money. Courtney was arrested in Arizona without due process, held without bail for 66 days, and wrongfully convicted of child molestation by a judge. Sentenced to 11 years, she is required to register as a sex offender upon release. Despite proof that the alleged crime never happened, the county attorney, disbarred after copious alleged ethics violations, refused to admit he’d made a mistake. So this young woman languishes in jail – like so many others with similarly tragic stories, and many exonerees who finally make it out.

Clearly, we are failing as an exceptional, First World, democratic country in many ways.

In a recent column in The New York Times related to the Secret Service debacle, Thomas Friedman put his finger on something important and relevant. “Just look at Washington these days and listen to what politicians are saying,” he wrote. “Watch how they spend their time. You can’t help but ask: Do these people care a whit about the country anymore?”

We should all be asking that question with all due speed and gravity before we too become known as a “less developed country” struggling with political and moral corruption.

Women Take the Lead as Abolishing the Death Penalty Gains Traction

When Sabrina Butler’s baby stopped breathing in 1989 she tried administering CPR but the baby died shortly after they arrived at the hospital. Police accused her of beating her baby. After aggressive interrogation the 17-year old signed a paper given to her by a hostile detective. Sent to a county jail she languished for a year awaiting trial without an attorney. During her trial, “the judge overruled everything my attorney said.” The jury convicted her of capital murder. Sentenced to die in 1990, the death sentence was overturned in 1992. But Sabrina languished in jail for three more years before a second trial proved her baby had died of a genetic kidney disorder. Finally, in 1995, Mississippi’s only female inmate on death row was exonerated.

Sabrina Butler Sabrina Butler

In 2009, Sabrina settled her case. Now she works with Witness to Innocence, “the nation’s only organization composed of, by and for exonerated death row survivors and their loved ones.” She travels widely advocating against the death penalty. “It’s my calling,” says the spiritually motivated mother of three.

Sabrina’s story is not as unusual as it seems. According to the Bluhm Legal Center at Northwestern University’s School of Law, “Innocent women accused of heinous crimes face extraordinary challenges. In many cases, they are suspected of harming their children or other loved ones. As a result, when under investigation, they are coping with deep personal losses, rendering them especially vulnerable to high-pressure interrogation tactics that sometimes lead to false confessions or seemingly inculpatory statements.”

Nor are exonerees the only ones advocating the end of the death penalty. Take Sister Camille D’Arienzo, an activist with the Sisters of Mercy in Queens, NY. She became involved with the issue in 1993 when George Pataki was promising to restore the death penalty while running for governor of New York. Gathering a group of friends together to ask what they could do, they decided to use the Declaration of Life created by a former Mary Knoll priest to espouse their opposition to taking life “because it violates Christian principles.” The Declaration was sent to then-governor Mario Cuomo who immediately signed it. Thus began the work of a now 81-year old nun, who ministers to prisoners on death row.

Then there’s Bonita Spikes, whose husband was killed in a convenience store robbery in Maryland twenty years ago. Since then she has “reached out to other families who’ve suffered the traumatic loss of a loved one to murder.” Focusing on African American communities in Baltimore she knows people “who have little or no access to professional help coping with their overwhelming loss.” Still, she says, for most of them, the notion of a death sentence for their loved one’s murderer “isn’t even a remote thought.”

Joyce House worked equally hard to get her son Paul released from Tennessee’s death row. Wrongfully convicted of rape and murder in 1986, he languished in prison, ill with an untreated neurological disorder, until he asked Joyce if she’d ever heard of DNA. As a result of her research a semen specimen proved that he had not raped the victim. They still tried to convict him of murder. The media picked up the story highlighting the abuse Paul suffered by a corrupt legal system. In 2009 all charges were dropped, although he was placed under house arrest for a year so that he would be ineligible for financial reparations.

Delia Meyer has not yet succeeded in exonerating her brother, on death row in Texas for sixteen years. Charged with a triple homicide he did not commit, Delia says, “We’ve had a hard time getting out from under it,” in part because evidence was hidden or withheld. Now the Innocence Project is working on the case.

Photo credit: Flickr

These women work closely with organizations advocating an end to the death penalty. Sabrina Butler recently joined forces with the Kentucky ACLU where bi-partisan legislation is gaining traction. In Tennessee, where ten executions are scheduled between now and 2016, Stacy Rector, executive director of Tennesseans for Alternatives to the Death Penalty, says since the legislature brought back the electric chair, more people are discussing death penalty failures.

Why are so many women in the forefront of the movement? “Because for the longest time women have been the standard bearers for our culture,” says Diann Rust-Tierney, executive director of the National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty. “It’s because we have compassion and probably a much better ability for forgiveness,” adds Alicia Koutsouliereis, a volunteer with Amnesty International USA.

Women are clearly having an impact. Coupled with news of botched executions, pharmaceutical companies refusing to provide drugs, and increasing numbers of exonerees, there is growing awareness of the fatal flaws in the criminal justice system, and the inhumanity of state-sanctioned killing. During oral arguments at the Supreme Court earlier this year, a California federal judge declared that state’s death penalty system had violated a constitutional amendment banning cruel and unusual punishment. He called California’s system “antithetical to any civilized notion of just punishment.”

Women working to end the death penalty have known this for years. Their fight to end the travesty continues.

Telling Birth Stories: New online workshop starts Nov. 1!

Telling Birth Stories: An Online Writing Workshop

with Award-winning author & journalist, Elayne Clift

This baby is shown just after a water birth. - Photo (c) E. Vest

How do you write a good birth story? What makes any story compelling? How can we tell our own birth stories, as remembrance and as a gift to other women?

In Birth Ambassadors: Doulas and the Re-emergence of Woman-supported Birth in America (Praeclarus Press, 2014), Christine Morton and Elayne Clift include stories by women for whom a doula was present at their birth. These beautifully crafted first-persons narratives give voice to the extraordinary experience of giving birth. Join the growing chorus of women whose voices, and birth stories, are being heard!

This 4-week online workshop guides participants – moms, dads, midwives, nurses, doulas, docs – through the elements of good storytelling as they relate their personal experience while giving or assisting birth. Weekly prompts will serve as a guide to setting the scene, involving characters, using dialogue, making wise word choices, and more. Work will be shared each week among participants who will respond to each other. Elayne will offer in-depth feedback and suggestions for each piece and facilitate dialogue among participants.

If you’re interested in painting a word portrait that carries your audience with you as you tell your birth tale, please register by Oct. 15. Register by Oct. 5 for one of two chances to receive a signed first edition of Birth Ambassadors! Space is limited to 8 participants!
WHEN: The online workshop will begin November 1 and conclude Nov. 22.

COST: $80/pp (sorry, no pro-rations)

QUESTIONS: eclift@vermontel.net 802-869-2686

* * * *

Elayne Clift (M.A.), a specialist in gender issues and women’s health, has been an international educator and advocate on maternal and child health issues for more than 25 years. She is Sr. correspondent for the India-based syndicate Women’s Feature Service, a columnist for the Keene (NH) Sentinel and the Brattleboro Commons, and a reviewer for the New York Journal of Books. Her articles, prose and poetry appear in numerous anthologies and publications internationally and her novel, Hester’s Daughters, a contemporary, feminist re-telling of The Scarlet Letter, was published in 2012. She lives in Saxtons River, Vt. (www.elayneclift.com)

A Long Cold Summer When Civilization Seemed to Retreat

It’s been a summer of troubling drama, a time of “Sturm and Drang” (storm and stress) as one German writer put it, a season of disasters of Biblical proportion. Even those of us lucky enough to be a continent or an ocean away from various epicenters have not been left untouched by the seeming scourge of disease and human despair that seemed to jump borders with alarming speed.

Surely I’m not the only one who thought of Masada when the Yazidis and other religious minorities fled to the top of Iraq’s Sinjar Mountains to escape death at the hands of ISIS. Masada, the flat mesa on top of a mountain that rises in Israel near the Dead Sea, was the site of a mass suicide in 73 C.E. More than 1,000 Jews died there rather than fall into Roman hands. (One woman and five children hid and survived to tell the tale.)

masada

Nor could I have been alone in thinking about the exodus of the Jews out of Egypt when I watched the refugees who came down from the mountain as they crossed that rickety bridge over a river on their way to find refuge.

And then there was the Israeli/Gazan situation, a conflict as old as the Bible itself.

Did anyone else think of Tiananmen Square when they saw the horrific pictures of tanks lined up against the people of Ferguson, Missouri as they protested peacefully after an unarmed Michael Brown was shot to death by a policeman?

An unidentified man attempts to block tanks entering the square

Wasn’t the outbreak of Ebola reminiscent of medieval plagues, when borders were closed and bodies were carried away in carts, their homes marked as houses of death?

Didn’t the deaths of hundreds in a disappeared jumbo jet and other airline disasters, as well as the deaths of so many notable figures, bear the overtones of Greek tragedy?

And yet, among all the events that seemed to suggest a leap into a frighteningly dystopian future, is there some hope to be found? Might we be at some kind of turning point, a profoundly learnable moment that will ultimately render us capable of finding what writer Mary Gordon has called “the simple beauty of the good”?

Could it be that we stand on the fragile threshold of a time in human history when instead of “circling the drain,” we might, in an attempt to survive, find our universal souls, returning to truth and justice as guideposts, to ethical governance and sensible, compassionate leaders who would replace the oligarchs leading us into anarchy?

These questions were no doubt raised after the colossal tragedy of World War I (and many wars before that). Surely they were asked after World War II and the Holocaust. I remember them being raised in the 1960s when assassinations seemed endless and military might on the streets of America made us wonder if we had reached the apocalypse. So, too, did we ask ourselves if we could return to our better selves after the genocides of Rwanda and the Balkans. It seemed then and it seems now a Sisyphean question that we are doomed to ask in perpetuity.

But, without wanting to sound delusional, I think it may be possible that we are about to enter a moral epoch marked by a collective, rejuvenated spirit of good over evil, right over wrong, moral choices over inhumane acts.

I suggest this possibility because it seems to me that we all feel dangerously close to the precipice of madness. I say it because of all the people in all the cities who rallied in support of an end to police brutality after Michael Brown was killed. I say it because of a community that stood up to an unethical businessman when he demonstrated corporate greed. I say it because of organizations like MomsRising and I say it because of the outpouring of help that occurs when humanitarian crises perpetrated by political insanity and potentially fatal diseases happen. I say it because, as Bishop Desmond Tutu wrote in a moving commentary in Haaretz, “you add together all the people who gathered to demand justice in Israel and Palestine – in Cape Town, Washington, D.C., New York, New Delhi, London, Dublin and Sydney, and all the other cities [and] this was arguably the largest active outcry by citizens around a single cause ever in the history of the world.”

I say it because I see no alternative.

And yes, I say it knowing that history has proved me wrong again and again and that bad people flourish while “good guys finish last.” But just imagine a world in which we find within us the ability, the strength, the intelligence and compassion to move our communal heritage forward instead of falling back to the Dark Ages!

Surely the majority of us maintain a moral vigor, a life force that can enable us to recapture the soul of our communities and countries, to find again our better natures, and thus emerge with new hope and dignity in a sustainable world.

Dare one hope that in the face of so much sadness and threat we might yet be on the threshold of our greatest hour? At the very least, could the winter to come bring with it at least some renewed and reassuring warmth?

Reacting to Conflict in the Middle East: A Revealing Litmus Test

It’s amazing watching what people reveal about themselves when tensions in the Middle East explode. Some otherwise liberal, compassionate souls with big hearts suddenly morph into raging self-appointed authorities. Others who’ve suffered deeply and have reason not to be kind toward oppressors become surprisingly gentle. Some spew invectives while others weep for dying children.

But nothing rivals what has taken place on social media since the horrific conflict between Israel and the Palestinians began. Having responded to a friend’s pro-Israel Facebook post in which she equated my sympathy for the plight of ordinary Palestinians with being “pro-Hamas,” a slew of opinions started flying and haven’t stopped.

“It’s one thing to be so-called ‘pro-Hamas’ but quite another to simply be against the slaughter of innocents,” I wrote. “No one denies Israel’s right to exist (least of all me, a Jew) or to defend itself, but their slaughter approaches genocide. I cannot sanction the disproportionate response to the aggression perpetrated by some Palestinians. Most people in Gaza are ordinary, impoverished folks trying to survive in terrible ghetto conditions with absolutely nowhere to go or hide. Given the Jewish experience with ghettos and extermination who should feel compassion for them more than Jews?

“When I learned that 25 people perished while eating a meal together during Ramadan (suppose it had been 25 Jews breaking the Yom Kippur fast?), or that hospitals and UN safe-haven schools were being bombed with children killed, maimed, traumatized, there is no way I could sanction Israel’s aggression. While both sides need to regain their sanity and end hostilities in a sensibly negotiated settlement, Gaza has become a killing field. It makes me sad, and I feel an unwelcome shame (where once I felt pride) that ‘my people’ could behave like this. I ask this simple question: How does killing more children after the tragedy of lost youth that started this conflagration solve the problem or redeem the tragedy?”

Some readers support my position, some argue against it, and some spew spurious vitriol. The people who agree with me frame their arguments as I have, with a social justice, human rights lens, while those with opposing points of view respond from a (frequently erroneous) historical and political perspective. The passion that both sides feel is stunning, and sometimes alarming.

Because of copious dichotomized debates, I want to offer some further thoughts, beginning with a quote from Holocaust survivor, Reuven Moskovitz. His words are credited to IAcknowledgeApartheidExists.org. “It is a sacred duty for me to protest against persecution, the oppression and imprisonment of so many people in Gaza. As a Holocaust survivor I cannot live with the fact that the State of Israel is imprisoning an entire people behind fences. It’s just immoral.”

Leaving a synagogue because of “our overwhelming silence as Jews” over what was happening in Gaza, writer Naomi Wolf said, “I mourn genocide in Gaza…I mourn all victims… Where is God? God is only where we stand with our neighbor in trouble and against injustice.”

Someone in Gaza wrote this email to my friend, “Israel has targeted houses and residential areas. When people flee their homes the warplanes target them in the streets. They didn’t even allow the Red Cross to pull dead bodies and injured people out. Medical teams and journalists are among the victims. More than 70 percent are children and women. We have no power and no water. It’s horrible.”

It is not my purpose here to debate the merits, mistakes or arguments of either side in this terrible conflict. Nor am I trying to justify my position. I am merely stating it. I think it is urgent to transcend the politically expedient rhetoric of Hamas and others who say their goal is to destroy Israel, wiping Jews off the face of the earth. Consider Israel’s military strength and its American support and you realize that is never going to happen. We also need to acknowledge that a human rights approach to the situation does not make one “pro-Hamas.” Name-calling serves no purpose other than to inflame.

Israel has a right to exist and to defend itself, but that does not give it ‘carte blanche’ to slaughter innocent people by the thousands. Nor does Israeli oppression of Palestinians mean Hamas has a right to fire rockets indiscriminately. We must acknowledge that both sides are guilty of hideous violence, broken promises, outrageous lies, blind hatred, and unwillingness to negotiate in the interest of mutual survival. But we also need to recognize that both sides are equally terrified. That’s why the blame-game is useless. It gets us nowhere in solving the problem. Neither does name calling. Anti-Semitic accusations (and acts) must not be tolerated; no one should assert that charge against someone because they hold differing views.

In the end, the conflagration will expire when its impact becomes intolerable. For me, it already is. That’s why I speak out. Will others find their voices of conscience before another woman, on either side, grieves a dead child who never had a chance at life?

Micro-aggression: Subtle but Searing

When I was in the sixth grade a classmate called me a “stupid Jew Bitch.” I slinked away from the playground and never told a soul what she’d said or how it made me feel. Bullying was not a word we used then and adults seldom dealt with unnamed and often invisible blows even when they were reported.

Today we have begun to recognize the horrific impact bullying can have on children. But we have yet to understand “micro-aggression” and its effect on adults.

Micro-aggression has been defined as common verbal or behavioral insults, whether intentional or not, that communicate hostile or negative slights to marginalized groups. Researchers have also identified micro-assaults, micro-insults and micro-invalidations as disturbing behaviors that pack a punch.

Micro-assaults are conscious and intentional actions or slurs, such as racial epithets. Micro-insults are verbal or nonverbal communications that convey insensitivity or demean someone’s heritage or identity, while micro-invalidation communicates subtle messages of exclusion that nullify the thoughts or feelings of others, particularly people of color.

The Microaggressions Project website has a slew of real examples: “Are you sure you have the right room number? This is the ‘honors’ section.” “How much money would you put on the Boston bombers being Muslim?” How about this one? “My chemistry teacher was in shock when I got 100 percent on an exam. However, she wasn’t shocked when two white kids did well. That was kind of hurtful.”

Then there was the black doctor waiting his turn to check into a hotel. He’d been flown into town for an appearance on a TV station and delivered to his hotel in a chauffeur-driven limo. But when he moved to speak with the hotel clerk, a white man marched in front of him. “Do you think I’m waiting for a bus?” the outraged doctor asked. The man claimed he hadn’t noticed him.

I could relate. Traveling abroad some years ago I had a layover at the Emirates Airlines hotel in Dubai. There were three check-in lines; mine was the middle one. I soon noticed that whenever it was my turn to approach the counter a man on my left, then my right jumped ahead of me. Finally, I pushed one of them out of the way, pulled myself up to my full height, and declared, “I’m next!” I was marginalized by gender frequently on that trip, in hotels, airplanes, shops and restaurants. I can say firsthand it’s not a pleasant experience.

The American Psychological Association blog reveals a piece by writer Tori DeAngelis called “Unmasking ‘Racial Micro-aggressions.” It cites a group of Columbia University psychologists who began studying and classifying the phenomenon some years ago to help people of color understand what was happening and to educate white people about their biased words and actions, intentional or not.

“It was a monumental task to get white people to realize that they were delivering micro-aggressions,” one of the psychologists said. “It’s scary to them. It assails their self-image of being good, moral, decent human beings to realize that maybe at an unconscious level they have biased thoughts, attitudes and feelings that harm [other people].”

The effects of micro-aggression are now well-documented. They include negatively impacting people’s mental health, job performance and social experiences, often leaving deep scars. One study found that African-Americans and women performed worse on academic tests when subjected to stereotypes about race or gender. This was especially noticeable with respect to women’s math performance. Intelligence scores for blacks also plunged after subjects were exposed to stereotypes about blacks’ inferior intelligence.

Dr. Gerald Wing Sue, an Asian-American psychologist, focuses his work on micro-insults and micro-invalidations because of their less obvious nature. “While a person may feel insulted, they are not sure exactly why,” he explains. “This puts them in a psychological bind while the perpetrator doesn’t acknowledge that anything happened because he is not aware he has been offensive. The person of color is caught in a Catch-22 because if they confront the perpetrator, he will deny it. That leaves the person of color questioning what actually happened, resulting in confusion, anger, and ultimately, sapped energy.”

Sue’s research with African-Americans revealed them feeling they did not belong or were untrustworthy in certain situations. Respondents reported feeling “watched” in stores or being overly cautious about their body language when they were near white women “so not to frighten them.” Others said they were “vigilant at work” so that mistakes wouldn’t reflect badly on their race. Asian-American described different ways in which they have been made to feel “alien,” like being told they speak good English. Women in this group revealed that white men often expected them to be subservient.

“These incidents may appear small or trivial but they assail the mental health of recipients,” Dr. Sue says.

I didn’t need an expert to tell me that. My time in Dubai nearly drove me crazy and I’m white. I can’t imagine what it feels like to be subjected to invisible aggression in your own country because of your skin color or the slant of your eyes.

It’s Time to End the Epidemic of Sexual Assault

What do city subways, college dorms, and military service have in common? They are all venues for the vulnerable when it comes to sex assaults.

The latest horror stories come from women in New York who’ve been ogled, groped, flashed, harassed, splashed with ejaculate and attacked on subways or in subway stations. One recent account involved a woman who was forced off a train and only managed to escape when she was able to push an alarm button as her assailant dragged her along the platform.

The city, trying to deal with the situation, has proposed a law to upgrade unwanted sexual contact from a misdemeanor to a felony and to turn “sexually motivated touching” into a sex crime with possible jail time.

But one woman blogger says she isn’t convinced it will help much. “The most lamentable aspect of taking public transportation as a woman is enduring the unsavory boys and men who exploit the shared space and put our safety in jeopardy. Women understand that most men don’t engage in this brand of sexual violence. But the number of guys who are doing these things is sizable enough to make most women uneasy during our commutes.”

The seriousness of the sexual assault epidemic on university and college campuses is garnering much needed attention thanks to recently released guidelines promulgated by the White House. Aimed at forcing academic institutions to aggressively combat sexual assaults the recommendations call for anonymous surveys, anti-assault policies, and greater confidentiality for those reporting crimes. The administration wants Congress to pass further measures to enforce the recommendations and levy penalties for failure to comply. It has also proposed a website – NotAlone.gov – to track enforcement and provide victims with information.

“No more turning a blind eye or pretending it doesn’t exist,” Vice President Joe Biden said when the steps were announced. “We need to give victims the support they need and we need to bring the perpetrators to justice.”

For Emma Sulkowicz and Dana Bolger that’s good news, but it’s money-where-mouth-is-time. Raped by a fellow student while at Columbia University, a university official interrogated Sulkowicz about the sex act that occurred, suggesting that it was physically impossible as described. The panel dismissed her accusation, even though there had been other sexual assault complaints against the same man. “Has anything every happened to you that was just so bad you felt like you became a shell of a human being?” Sulkowicz asked a New York Times reporter when sharing her story.

Dana Bolger’s rape occurred when she was at Amherst, where a dean “encouraged me to forgive my assailant and move on,” she recalls. “He advised me to take time off and wait for my rapist to graduate.” Another Amherst student survivor was forced into a psychiatric ward and forbidden to study abroad or write a senior thesis. She ultimately withdrew.

One in five women is sexually assaulted in college according to one survey and 55 prestigious colleges and universities are currently under investigation by the Department of Education for their handling of sexual violence. The White House initiative is “a meaningful first step,” says Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.), but more needs to be done. “There is a sense this isn’t really a crime, that there is no harm. Well, it’s a felony and it is harmful.”

Meanwhile, sexual assault in the military continues apace. A new Pentagon report reveals that between June 2012 and June 2013 there were more than 3500 reports of sexual assault – a 43 percent increase in one year. During that year soldiers were fifteen times more likely to be raped by a comrade than killed by an enemy, a statistic that even the Pentagon calls “startling.”

The military seems baffled about how to handle the growing epidemic, despite new oversight and assistance programs. And it is clearly embarrassed by ongoing high level disasters, like the fact that more than thirty Air Force instructors are being investigated for assaults on trainees at a Texas base. New legislation has been proposed that would standardize guidelines for punishment for sexual assault convictions, but it may be too little too late. Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel has said “the military may be nearing a stage where the frequency of this crime and the perception that there is tolerance of it could undermine our ability to effectively carry out [our] mission.”

It’s hard for victims in the military to take things into their own hands but college students and subway riders are fighting back. Emma Sulkowicz and Dana Bolger helped launch a national network of students who have established an educational and advocacy website called Know Your IX – referring to Title IX, the federal law mandating gender equity on campus and the right to an education unimpeded by violence and harassment. And in New York advocates for subway safety formed an organization, New Yorkers for Safe Transit, which support a bill requiring police to collect data on sexual harassment in subways.

What do these groups have in common? The belief that no one should have to “forgive and forget” when sexual violence occurs – anywhere, to anyone.

Welcome to the New America, Where Oligarchs Rock!

When I was a junior in high school my English teacher, Vivian Davenport, wrote a “Word for the Day” on the blackboard. Students were charged with defining the word and crafting a sentence using it correctly.

‘Oligarchy’ might well have been one of Ms. Davenport’s words: Definition – “a small group of people who together govern a nation or control an organization, often for their own purposes.” Sentence: America seems to be moving from a democracy to an oligarchy.

Ms. Davenport might well have written ‘plutocracy’ – governance by the wealthy class, or ‘autocracy’ – the unlimited political power of a single ruler, on the blackboard too. I doubt she ever asked us to define or use the word ‘democracy.’ She would have assumed we all understood that political system, given how frequently it was invoked to describe the merits of American life back in the post-war 1950s. Today I suspect she would add it to her list. In her quiet way, she would want us to understand what we stand perilously close to losing.

Let’s not be Pollyana about American democracy, though. As writer Tom Adams pointed out in a blog post on Reader Supported News a while back, the word ‘democracy’ doesn’t even appear in the constitution. John Adams warned his colleagues of the “tyranny of the majority,” and Alexander Hamilton believed that “the people should have as little to do as may be about the Government.”

Hamilton                           John Adams  Adams

The so-called founding fathers were, like the majority of our Congressional members today, wealthy, white, property-holding (and slave-owning) males who favored a system of government that protected their own financial interests. Then as now, chosen representatives did not represent the interest of the public. Rather, their priorities neglected society at large while serving the financial elite.

Nevertheless, despite their political motives and personal flaws, we like to believe that the nation’s architects understood their responsibility and their legacy as they crafted a future for the new country they were helping to build.

Would that we could say the same for our current Supreme Court. Instead we are left to wonder how in the world they could have done it again with their McCutcheon v. Federal Election Commission decision hot on the heels of the Citizens United decision – opening the doors to a new America in which money talks while the one percent balks.

The Citizens United decision of 2010 cleared the way for corporations to spend freely to get their sympathizers elected. It virtually declared that corporations were people too, effectively eliminating limits on direct donations by the ultra-wealthy to political campaigns. As Common Dreams noted, “it was a disaster for democracy.”

Now, the Court’s shocking decision has removed virtually all remaining constraints on campaign donors, including one that limited the ability of wealthy individuals to donate more than a total dollar amount of $123,000 in each two-year election cycle to political candidates and parties. (The decision left the cap of $2,600 per election that an individual can give to any single federal candidate but removed the limit on the grand total that can be contributed to all federal candidates.)

This may be good news for right wing billionaires like the Koch brothers and Sheldon Adelson but it spells disaster for the rest of us, having overturned decades of much needed campaign finance law.

As Sen. Tammy Baldwin (D-Wisconsin) put it, “It is far too often the case in Washington that powerful corporate interests, the wealthy, and the well-connected get to write the rules. Now the Supreme Court has given them more power to rule the ballot box by creating an uneven playing field where big money matters more than the voice of ordinary citizens.”     Baldwin

Welcome to the new America, where oligarchy rules and plutocrats reign.

Reform groups are organizing and demonstrating, petitions on social media are mounting and pundits (like me) are pounding the keyboards. But the fact remains that the highest court in the land has now made it possible for one rich guy to write a single check worth millions of dollars to be spent by candidates, political parties and political committees, and the little guy be damned.

Is there even a word that captures how dangerous that is for America’s future, or a word for the day when democracy died?

 

The Elephants in the Pay Equity Room

Last month, April 8th being National Equal Pay Day in the U.S, pay equity for women got another fifteen minutes of fame.  We were reminded that when the Equal Pay Act was signed into law by President John F. Kennedy in 1963, American women were earning an average of 59 cents on the dollar compared to men. Today they’ve reached between 77 and 81 cents on the male dollar — a still unacceptable gap resulting in hundreds of thousands of dollars in lost wages, and thus smaller retirement accounts and lower social security payments just because of gender.

As Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), who is noted for her activism on economic issues, pointed out, “If in 99.9 percent of all occupations men earn more than women, that is not an accident, that is discrimination.” 

There was big blather among talking heads noting that the comparative figures being used to quantify the gender-based discrepancy was an aggregate number.  But what we didn’t hear much about in the discussion was several critical issues that impact women’s work lives and often prevent them from reaching the equity goal.

 Let’s start with the fact that women are not monolithic.  We have different levels of education and thus different opportunities, different goals, aspirations and skills, different skin colors and ages. We live in different parts of the country, urban and rural.  We are physicians, farmers and factory workers; bankers, bakers and businesswomen; models, machinists and marketing mavens. For some of us, our productive work is unpaid and unrecognized. Think of women who don’t “work outside the home” but who provide unremunerated services ranging from food preparation and housekeeping to chauffeur, psychologist and hostess.  All of this makes it dicey to talk about women and work in simplistic ways.

But there are other relevant variables that we missed a golden opportunity to address more fully when focusing again on the need for pay equity because the gender pay gap isn’t just about “comparable work.”  It’s about big stuff like access, equity, subtle discrimination, racism and more.

We know that African American women earn 72 cents for every dollar men earn, although that figure depends on whether they are being compared to white or black men.  For Latinas it’s even worse; they earn 60 cents for every dollar that men earn.  But as Bryce Covert points out in an April article in The Nation, race too often gets removed from the conversation about discrimination. “It ends up in the ‘explained category,’” she says, citing studies that explain why a certain percentage of the gap is due to racial disparities. “But a large percentage of the gap remains unexplained,” she points out. “We know that race dramatically shapes wages. That’s partly why it gets lumped into the explained category. Taking this measurable difference into account helps explain some of the wage gap. But does that mean we should remove it from the conversation about discrimination? Do we have a good explanation for why people of color of both genders make less than white people? …There’s plenty of research indicating that our labor market still discriminates against people of color. But race is pushed aside in the discussion about whether women are up against real life wage discrimination.”

Another issue is likely to be particularly relevant to two-career families in the economic bracket that draws the most attention when issues of pay equity arise. For professionals with careers in which both women and men are heavily invested psychologically, there needs to be more discussion of divisions of labor on the home front, and quality childcare.  One reason women never catch up to men financially in the workplace resides in the fact that they still bear the brunt of responsibility for keeping everything ticking along in America’s kitchens and nurseries.  You know the story: Women come in and out of the job market because of children so they never make partner in their law firm, or never get tenure, or aren’t viewed as managers and leaders.

Which leads to another topic – the “second generation gender gap.”   Studied by Deborah Kolb at Simmons College among others, the term refers to organizational practices that look neutral but can have different impacts on men and women.  For example, gendered assumptions about male vs. female roles often lead to conclusions that men are better at strategic roles while such innovations as encouraging diversity or fostering team work are viewed as women’s work.  “In deciding what’s a good fit when it comes time to choose people for strategic roles it is much more likely that men will be put up for these opportunity jobs,” Kolb says. “Organizational structures and assumptions can go far in shaping formal systems such as hiring and promotion practices as well as compensation.”

 These issues are not esoteric. They are germane to pay equity in critical ways. Sure, they’re complex and difficult to assess. But until we take them on, recognizing and reconciling them in meaningful ways, the wage gap is likely to continue creeping toward resolution, if it moves at all. What a shame we lost the chance to dig deeper into this matter before another year is gone.