Tuesday, February 27, 2018

Women Conquer Goliath

 There are many ways to travel and explore the world to add to our life experience and expand our understanding of different cultures. Slowing down my travels and spending time with people, eating with them, staying in their homes and getting to know them is priceless.  This is the kind of travel I love the best and my recent trip to Nanonbong Village in the Loei region of Northeast Thailand confirmed this. The people in Nanonbong and six other villages formed a community organization called “People Who Love Their Hometown" to fight Thung Kham Ltd, the company that operated a gold mine in their communities for years while government authorities stood by and did nothing to protect their right to freedom of expression or preserve their way of life.  In this fight they have struggled against health and environmental issues, including contamination of local water sources with cyanide, arsenic and mercury.  It’s been an uphill battle to get access to clean water, to recover from health issues due to farming and fishing in polluted waters, and to change their livelihood, which in the past has been growing rice and fishing in the rivers, making clean water critical beyond just drinking water.

We came to Nanonbong to learn of how these villagers connected their struggle for a clean environment with human rights to stop the mining. This trip fit into our studies as we are a group of students studying human rights at Mahidol University.  While we drove all night through the countryside, we couldn’t see in the dark, but as the van swerved around curves we were aware that we were in the hills and forest of Northeast Thailand.  We arrived in the village at the meeting space just after sunrise. We started learning right away about the villagers’ struggles with an unresponsive business and a repressive government that ignored peoples’ needs, neither of which had any environmental responsibility, and both lacked recognition of human rights. This story grabbed our attention for the next several days.

During the first meet and great it became clear women have strong leadership roles that form images   They host groups like ours to share their story which continues building a movement to protect villagers throughout Thailand. We stayed in the homes of people who each have their own story in this struggle against the mine, reminding me of trips I have done with Habitat for Humanity to build houses.  There is nothing more rewarding than living with people and listening to them tell their own story; these are the stories that one always remembers.
of fighting Goliath, a Goliath made up of the mining company and government authorities that supported the gold mine, with some wins, but some loses as well. We learned later that over 200 women were part of “People Who Love Their Hometown" forming a strong foundation for the organization. It hasn’t just been the women, but they have been the leaders and the strength behind this fight.

We were taken on a tour around the land as villagers continued to tell their stories, we saw dried up rice fields that could no longer be cultivated, standing contaminated waters just below the gold mine where plants were dying, and at the top we saw the actual mine. The only thing left was remnants of a mountain that once was forested and was left bare after the mining company left. One remembrance of Ms. Hongchai brought her to tears as she recounted the night that men in black masks attacked her and the other villagers as they blocked access to the mine by building a wall and setting up human shields.  What these men in black masks didn’t realize and the people who hired them to attack failed to plan fo,r was how this incident gave solidarity and strength to those fighting against the mine.

After the villagers fought off the men in black masks, the media picked up their story and a young woman from the village, Wanpen Khunna age 14, student in Loei, [S1] participated in a broadcast on the Thai Public Broadcasting System (PBS).  In this broadcast Wanpen reported that Thung Kham Ltd polluted the Huai River in her community, ruining their drinking water and a major food source.  We first met her on a tour of the land around the mine just downhill from the holding pond that leaks contaminated water.  She was accompanied by other youth from the village and they were all introduced as youth leaders that run environmental youth camps.  The story about her PBS broadcast came out later and we were told that the broadcast led to Thung Kham Ltd filing a criminal deformation suite against Wanpen.  She was not alone; Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation (SLAPP) have been filed against other villagers and activist all over Thailand as an intimidation tactic to get activist to cease their protests against controversial development projects. 

Wanpen, as a youth, along with her parents in this criminal case were summoned before the Loei Juvenile Observation and Protection Centre to hear their testimony which would determine if there were grounds for the company to sue.  Wanpen’s mother cried out of concern because none of their family had ever been in trouble with the law before.  Wanpen’s mother asked her not to join any more extracurricular activities.  In the end this tactic of a SLAPP did not work in Loei and all the lawsuits against the villagers, including that of Wanpen, were dropped.  At 17 years old Wanpen was nominated by Amnesty International Thailand for the Child’s Rights 2017 International Children’s Peace prize to recognize her activism to protect her village.  The Child’s Right organization enables children to realize their great potential.  Needless to say, Wanpen did not take her mother’s advice and along with other villagers continues her struggle building a movement for free expression and the right to a good standard of living through her activism today. 

The mine, even though it has stopped operations, has left a village in distress not only in destroying the land but also health issues continue to plague the villagers. According to analysis by the Loei Provincial Office of Public Health and Wang Saphung Hospital, tests show about 100 people living around the mines have levels of cyanide, arsenic and mercury in their blood that exceed safety standards.  Unfortunately, this contamination, the government claims, cannot be linked to the mining operation.  The villagers experienced with the contaminated waters from the mine disagree with this conclusion.  As students of human rights, we interviewed several villagers who were having health problems.  One was Pa Pun Khangchampa, age 85, who rolled out of her house in what I would call a wheel chair platform because she can’t walk. Her house is in the village of Bang Kok Sathon “City of Canals,” down the hill from the mine’s holding pond, where it has been documented to contain contaminated water which still stands and is seeping chemicals into the communities’ water source.  Bang Kok Sathon village has 36 houses with 120 people.  Pa Pun Khangchampa talked about how she has lost most of her muscle strength in her legs and has recurring rashes. This all started four years after the gold mining operations commenced and many villagers have experienced similar health issues. 

We also interviewed Mae Boon Ma, 52 years old, the wife of Kenchaporn who is 57 years old and lives around the corner from Pa Pun Khangchampa. Mae Boon Ma spends her days taking care of her husband, because his kidneys are failing, and she has to perform a home style dialysis five times a day because there is no healthcare facility in the village. Mae Boon Ma is also having health problems because she has high levels of arsenic in her blood.  When we interviewed her, she was at home surrounded by members of her family and we learned that the people in these villages are a close-knit group of people that look out for each other. We saw that women are more affected by this contamination because they not only suffer from health issues, but they become care givers even when they themselves have health issues.

Ms. Hongchai and Wanpen Khunna, leaders in the village, continue their activism because even though the mining operations have been shut down the villagers are in the process of healing.  These two women and the community organization “People Who Love Their Hometown" share their stories and encourage people to speak up against injustice all over Thailand. The last night on our trip we celebrated our new friendships, eating together and singing songs, we were all so glad that we shared this experience. There is no doubt that the villagers will go on fighting and telling their stories to inspire people like me and my fellow students from all over the world to carry the message of how villagers can fight Goliath and win, a story so important to our future human rights work.  My hope is that sometime in the future all who travel get to experience local villages like Nanonbong hearing their stories and passing them on to make the world a better place for all of us.

Wednesday, December 20, 2017

The Success of the Women's March and Beyond

Women from all over the world marched January 22, 2017 bringing a fresh look at grassroots organizing. Looking at a small community in Washington State where a march was organized at the last minute and several huddles formed in the aftermath of the march shows the saturation and impact of the Women’s March on women all over the United States. Starting with a Facebook post on Election Day of 2016, the Women’s March became the biggest worldwide grassroots movement, with millions coming out to resist Donald Trump’s presidency.  Through hard work, innovative organizing and the forethought to channel the energy from the election into the future, the Women’s March accomplished more than anyone could have predicted.  Though the national organizing committee for the March had some bumps and hurdles, they pulled together an organization developing tactics with flexibility that allowed a strong worldwide grassroots movement which continues to organize today.

Building up to the March
The resist Trump movement gained momentum during the 2016 presidential campaign and built a strong social media presence, bringing activism for the first time to many who had never been active before. Trump, a rich white guy that took advantage of women, and Hillary Clinton, the first woman presidential candidate nominated by a major political party, were opposites. While both women and men felt despair and urgency, women took the lead in this resistance. Pantsuit Nation, a rallying cry that established a social media presence early on in the Hillary campaign, took a central role in the women’s resistance against Trump’s ideology and became the fanbase identity of Hillary supporters.  Major social media groups promoted the slogan, and a secret group formed on Facebook called “Pantsuit Nation” with more than 3,000 members by Election Day. The Women’s March peaked the Trump resistance movement and spread the resistance throughout American society. Feminism was resurrected as a positive identity among women. As one marcher put it “Feminism is no longer a dirty word.” The presidential campaign with the first woman as a major presidential candidate in contrast to Trumps misogynist rhetoric kicked off a social diffusion that maximized the internet impact in rallying grassroots support for the Women’s March.  

The seed was planted for the Women’s March on election night by a Hawaiian woman named Teresa Shook. Devastated by the 2016 presidential election results, she wanted to demonstrate for women’s equality in response to Trump’s victory.  Her obstacles included limited resources, and she lived in Hawaii, on a small island in the middle of the Pacific far away from the women she wanted to reach. Her solution: Facebook. She posted a fictional event for the march she dreamed of because it made her feel better. By morning she received more than 10,000 responses.   Several factors set Shook’s Facebook event apart from others: it had a genuine motivation with a personal story attached, the timing was perfect, there was already a resist Trump presence on social media and women in particular were sharing their personal stories on platforms all over the internet.

Organizing momentum for a women’s march to resist Trump continued building fast on several social media platforms. Crimson Hexagon reported that up to 40 keywords and hashtags relating to the Women's March collected more than 200,000 unique social media mentions between December 20, 2016 and January 21, 2017. The number of groups on Facebook promoting the Women’s March on Washington continued to grow, and participants took to Instagram and Twitter using the hashtag #WhyIMarch to share their reasons for getting involved.  

Organizational Development
Early on the Women’s March was committed to dismantling systems of oppression through nonviolent resistance and building inclusive structures guided by self-determination, dignity and respect. The mission of Women’s March was and is to harness the political power of diverse women and their communities to create transformative social change. All of this sounds ideal, and it is, in creating the organization where a critical dialog on inclusion emerged between the organizers and other women on social media.  The Women’s March continues their ideals to be a women-led movement providing intersectional education on a diverse range of issues and creating entry points for new grassroots activists & organizers to engage in their local communities through trainings, outreach programs and events.

The Women’s March organizational structure is tough to describe without lengthy explanations because of the unconventional framework. Building the organizational process was and continues outside any formal, academic, or old school grassroots organizational model. The founding organizers come from diverse backgrounds in various areas of social justice and each has a unique contribution that led to the movement’s ability to accomplish a worldwide event that does not have precedents in current history. This process has created the ability to be inclusive in a way that has not been accomplished before. Inclusion philosophy that was spelled out in the four-page Guiding Vision and Definition of Principles states that "women have intersecting identities and are therefore impacted by a multitude of social justice and human rights issues."

The principle of diversity was reflected in the national committee that was made up of 50 women with overlapping responsibilities for fundraising, logistics, communications and arranging partnerships. This leadership created a decentralized structure; giving the March wide appeal, and diffused the partnership potential, all of which added to the organizations flexibility to respond to changing dynamics that contributed to the March’s success. The original location of the Women’s March was Washington, D.C., and the flexibility of the D.C. March’s organization facilitated the inclusion of solidarity sister marches organized by local activist worldwide, making the March a global effort. These local marches were organized by local people as autonomous marches, but with strong solidarity with the Women’s March in D.C. Local community organizations not only organized local marches but also helped coordinate transportation, housing and other logistics for their constituents to get to Washington, D.C.

Inclusion was one of the Women’s March strengths. The Unity Principles were the codification of #WhyIMarch. The hashtag that united marchers across social media was used by the ad-hoc committee of contributors, including writer Janet Mock and Kelley Robinson of Planned Parenthood in the four-page outline of marching orders, the Unity Principles. This document delineated exactly why people marched, bringing diverse issues into alignment. Unlike a conventional campaign’s unity principles, and other organizational development components that are written and approved by a small group of project managers that have done extensive research on what is needed, the Women’s March Unity Principles were written from social media posts and reflected the pulse of the “Base.”  This is a reflection of the grassroots organizational structure of the Women’s March and their priority that the masses came before the organization.

All of these ideals put into the organizational structure didn’t mean the march was beyond criticism. These ideals navigated a complicated web of issues ranging from reproductive rights to gun control and police brutality to climate justice, the diffusion on the intent wove together disparate, sometimes competing interests of the Women’s March into a cohesive whole. Intersectional feminist philosophy influenced the March’s organizers and was a driving force in the discourse of the Women’s March. Intersectional Feminist philosophy focuses on elevating marginalized women and asks white women to accept or check their privilege and beliefs. Even though all women are marginalized, Intersectional Feminists believe there are segments within the group of women that are further marginalized. This philosophy is strengthened in studies that show women of color and Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender (LGBT) women are marginalized in ways that white women are not.

Social media facilitated discourse on Intersectional Feminist philosophy leading to an open, honest debate of the criticisms. Gloria Steinem, an honorary co-chair for the March had been criticized in the past for ignoring intersectional feminism, said during this discourse that conversations on race are important, and other March leaders agreed. For the most part criticisms were constructive. Linda Sarsour, a co-chairwoman for the Women’s March, said that the discussion on race, “…was an opportunity to take the conversation to the deep places.” The response by the Women’s March organizers, was to recruit more women of color to participate in the organization and planning process, including Hispanic activist Carmen Perez and gun control activist Tamika Mallory.

Consequences of taking inclusion too far was a pro-life group, the Texas-based New Wave Feminists, that was added, and then dropped, from the list of march sponsors following a story in The Atlantic. Groups listed among the march’s sponsors were organizations like Planned Parenthood and NARAL Pro-Choice America, but the March was not underwritten by any one group. Some criticized that all female gender identities were not included, which gave little visibility to different gender identities. A contentious Facebook post about white allies on the Women’s March page prompted a swift response from some white women who no longer felt welcomed at the event while stimulating important conversations about privilege and inclusion.

Organizing was not restricted to the national organization, and other groups started to build the momentum and projects promoting the march. One of those groups was the Pussyhat Project, which was cozy little hats that were knitted for women who marched. This movement was started by Krista Suh and Jayna Zweiman, the idea was for marchers to knit, sew, or crochet hats to create a visual statement of a "sea of pink.” Pussyhats started being knitted like crazy, local craft shops couldn’t keep them in stock and women knitted them for women they knew were going to Washington but couldn’t go themselves. Some even attached a message on why the knitter wanted to march. It was this kind of participation that brought people together, giving everyone the feeling that they had something to contribute.

The Day of the March
Marches took place in 50 states and 32 countries. Some of the cities included San Francisco, New York, Park City, Raleigh, Shreveport, Albuquerque, Paris, Accra, Vashon and Warsaw. The last count was 616 sister marches around the world.  Partici­pation in all march locations was es­timated to be over 4 million. In D.C. alone, participation was estimated to be about 1 million.  More than 7,378,442 social media mentions were documented by SpoutSocial the day of the March itself. In the end, it was “one of the most massive single-day protests in American and world his­tory” (Friedersdorf, 2017).
Carmen Perez, one of the four co-chairs of the Washington march, alongside Tamika D Mallory, Linda Sarsour and Bob Bland, pointed out that the protests were grounded in the non-violent ideology of the civil-rights movement. Extraordinarily, there wasn’t a single incident of violence at any of the marches worldwide. Women all came to the march with different pressing issues, and what that means is that the march looked beyond women’s issues alone and protest signs carried at the march reflected those messages. This graph by Crimson Hexagon sums up some of the top reasons women marched that were mentioned on social media.
Even though the reasons marchers march went beyond feminist ideals, the day of the march feminism had its comeback debut. Identifying as a feminist is voluntary and both men and women enter this identity and shed it depending on the social climate.  The day of the march feminism became a badge of honor again, no longer a dirty word. The collective sight of pink, crocheted, knitted or sewn "Pussyhats," made a visual statement on the streets.  Women wore these hats on the planes, trains, and buses on their way to D.C. and all over DC before and after the march, creating a strong sense of sisterhood. The Pussyhat became the symbol that summed up the sentiment of the day.

The Aftermath
Even though there was not a clear vision beyond the Women’s March during the organizing efforts, immediately following the Women’s March organizers held another rally and networking session officially labeling it “Where Do We Go from Here?”  The next day, Sunday, Planned Parenthood and other groups held a training session for 2,000 organizers on how to go from this grassroots mobilization event to political action. By the time marches got home there was a plan
for 10 actions in 100 days, calling for participants to channel the outrage expressed at the Women’s March and organize huddles in their communities. There were 5,642 huddles registered on the Women’s March website, which represented all 50 states to take up the 10 Actions in 100 Days campaign. This new campaign took the grassroots organizing to a whole new level of social movement accomplishments.

True to other social movements the Women’s March took extensive coordination with little accomplishment in the short term making it important to have a plan to follow up on their goals and harness the enthusiasm of the millions that marched.  The march’s original goals and agenda were full of grand ideas of political change and hope for the future, and created a network that could be mobilized. Other organizations benefited from this network created by the Women’s March.  Emily’s List, an organization that trains and supports women who want to run for office, had 900 women sign up to run for political office in 2016. By 2017, 16,000 women signed up. A newly formed group, Invisible,  had the same local group concept as the Women’s March 10 Actions in 100 Days, and spearheaded a similar campaign. Invisible’s guide to organizing in small groups went viral, being downloaded more than one million times and inspiring many, including marchers, to stay active. The Women’s March led to other marches including a tax march demanding that Trump release his taxes on 15 April 2017, the March for Science on 22 April, 2017, the People’s Climate March on 29 April 2017; and an Immigrant Support March on 6 May, 2017.

The accomplishments of the Women’s March go beyond inspirational. The 10 actions in 100 days kept the movement going into the future. The Women’s March received the PEN America award, for Freedom of Expression and Courage at the 2017 PEN Literary Gala. Nine months after the march, internet platforms set up to spread activism are still active and march organizers hosted a Women’s Convention with 4,000 attendees in October 2017. This convention was seen by the organizers as an extension of the march as well as a test of the movements ongoing relevance. The movement continues to touch women’s lives and promote unity in resistance to Trump. As time passes, academics, media studies and communication experts will reflect and discover new significance and impacts of the Women’s March as the evaluation of the campaign continues, developing giving ongoing relevance to the Women’s March that many are calling the beginning of the “Third Wave of Feminism.”

Friday, October 20, 2017

The US Constitution and Human Rights

The United States has a complicated government structure consisting of a national Constitution and laws, state constitutions and laws, as well as county and city laws.    The United States Declaration of Independence states, “…. that endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”  These unalienable rights can be interpreted as economic, social and cultural rights.  In looking at the different jurisdictions within the United States, some laws back up this statement and address economic, social and cultural rights ESCR. The United States Supreme Court is called upon to interpret these laws from these different jurisdictions within the context of the national Constitution.  Unfortunately, that interpretation of the US Constitution changes over time and at present is one of the central discourses today within the cultural wars of the United States.

Founding members of the United States Constitution believed that by setting up a division of powers in the government protected individual rights by preventing majorities to form and capture power to be used against minorities.  The Constitution alone contains few individual rights but later the Bill of Rights provided individual rights focusing on political and civil rights.  At the time of writing and ratification of the US Constitution there were no human rights as we know today.  Looking at the Bill of Rights several of the Amendments relate to the articles in the UDHR that pertain to political and civil rights and none that relate to articles 22 – 27 of the UDHR which pertain to (ESCR).  Other Amendments of the Constitution over time have strengthened human rights protection still focusing on political and civil rights and lacking in ESCR.

The US Constitution and how it relates to the UDHR can be linked to the United States participation in forming early United Nations human rights standards.  Eleanor Roosevelt as the Chair of the Committee that drafted the UDHR continued President Roosevelt’s legacy by promoting economic human rights as laid out in the President’s Economic Bill of Rights. Unfortunately, the United States support of economic rights policies did not transfer over into the Cold War era. The United States reluctance to accept ESCR during the Cold War came from the idea that these rights were communist doctrine and the United States being a capitalist free market system based policies on a government that protected political and civil rights but saw ESCR as entitlements.  

The United States reluctance to ratify UN treaties has to do with the obligations that goes along with ratifying the treaties because some of the policies in the United States during the early years and today such as discriminating against African Americans, and not passing a Women’s Equal Rights Amendment to the Constitution would be in violation of UN treaties which would make the United States vulnerable in International Law.  Changing the Constitution is not an easy process, three fourths of the 50 states must ratify an amendment before it becomes law. In over 200 years there have only been 27 Constitutional Amendments.

The United States has a “National Constitution” and a United States Supreme Court; all 50 States have their own individual constitution, and their State Supreme Court; the state constitutions cannot conflict with the United States Constitution.  A recent campaign for marriage equality is a classic example how National and State Laws and Courts work.  Some States made same sex marriage legal, some made it illegal. This went on for years.  In 2014, 35 states had legalized same sex marriage, through state legislative law, state court case or local federal court case.  During this time the issue was moving through state and federal court systems.  In July 2014 alone five court decisions reversing the ban on same-sex marriage were in the works in different states and a couple on their way to US Supreme court. When working on an issue like this it can takes years until it runs through State supreme courts which needs to happen before it can be appealed to the US Supreme Court where the final decision is made after the five judges review the complaint in context of the US Supreme Court.  On June 26, 2015 the US Supreme Court legalized same sex marriage in all 50 states and US territories.  The LGBT community won a long battle for marriage equality on a national level.

The U.S. Supreme Court acts as a mechanism to insure the rights of the American people and in case decisions have identified fundamental rights not explicitly stated in the Constitution, such as same sex marriage. Lower U.S. courts provide a mechanism for people whose constitutional rights have been violated to get a fair hearing and depending on the appeal the case can be resolved there.  The U.S. Congress also passes laws that protect constitutional rights and provide remedies for victims of human rights violations. The most important of these domestic laws are those that prohibit discrimination, including discrimination based on race, gender, religion, or disability. 

An example of a law passed by the United States Legislature outside of the Constitution and in line with International Human Rights doctrine is the Safe Drinking Water Act of 1974.  In 2016 a case came up in Flint, Michigan where there was a clean water crisis.  The Safe Drinking Water Act of 1974 that is administered by the Environmental Protection Agency that establishes minimum standards for state programs to protect underground sources of drinking water was sued in federal court.  The UN didn’t have a clean water policy until November 2002, when the United Nations Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights adopted General Comment No. 15 on the right to water.  Flint, Michigan’s water was contaminated in 2014 and was followed by law suits being filed citing violations to the Federal Safe Drinking Water Act of 1974 the case decided in favor of Flint residence.  Because the United States has not ratified the ICESCR no human rights violation was pursued by NGOs or the United Nations in this case.

The US congress has limited flexibility to address ESCR including the right to health, education, public welfare and the right to collective bargaining. (2012 p.1) There is global trend for local governments to looking at international human rights laws and mechanisms when forming local policy.  This is not only happening in the United States, but also globally with organizations such as the United Cities and Local Governments (UCLG) that has members in two-thirds of the UN’s member states.  The City of Seattle’s Race and Social Justice Initiative (RSJI) is an example of a local government entity using the values and concepts of Human Rights to make policy. (2012 p.1) Seattle’s RSJI has created opportunities for civic engagement and worked with local communities to identify problems and shape solutions.

The debate in the United States of whether ESCR policies in one of the biggest debated issues in the country today.  Americans are at risk of using universal health care, social security, or any new ESCR being enacted is hard to imagine.  But while this debate continues today within the cultural wars raging in the United States today, many in the advocacy community already recognize the role that human rights norms are playing in domestic law and policymaking in local jurisdictions within the United States that often address human rights topics including ESCR unique to the states and local jurisdictions.