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Cruelty as Policy: Part One

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Euphemisms can be well-intentioned. Perhaps the most famous of all New Yorker cartoons depicts a mother offering a plate of greens to her toddler. “It’s broccoli, dear,” she says. The toddler glares at the plate and says, “I say it’s spinach, and I say the hell with it.”

Euphemisms can also mask evil intent and remarkable cruelty. Consider the term “self-deportation.”  Promoted to one degree or another by various proponents of curtailing immigration, this is typically described as the notion that the flow of immigrants into the United States, and the percentage of the U.S. population represented by undocumented immigrants, can be reduced by taking away economic and other incentives for them to enter or remain in this country, so that they never come or they decide to leave after arrival. A quick scan of such a description might suggest that self-deportation is a relatively moderate political goal that relies on voluntary acts rather than draconian changes to existing law.

Think about that. The decision to flee one’s home country permanently and come to a strange land is not made lightly. Many refugees seek to escape starvation, persecution, torture or certain death, which could be due to their ethnicity, gender or gender orientation, political beliefs or religion, or it could be simply because conditions in their country of origin make it impossible to stay. Such people often have a legal right to asylum.

What the concept of encouraging “self-deportation” embraces is intentionally making conditions in the United States worse for undocumented immigrants than the conditions in the country from which they fled. Not the American Dream, but the American Nightmare. On purpose.

Consider one of the most egregious ideas, that undocumented parents be separated from their children at the border, with the parents placed in a detention center for adults and their children in a children’s detention center.  This proposal, which had the stated goal of deterring families from making the journey in the first place by threatening to have their children pulled from their presence and separately incarcerated, was seriously advanced by the Department of Homeland Security until public outcry forced it to be walked back. The Advocates for Human Rights was one of 184 organizations that have signed onto a letter to Secretary John Kelly of the Department of Homeland Security, registering outraged protests over this proposal. Among other objections, the letter points out that family unity is a fundamental human right under international law, and that the American Academy of Pediatrics has called the proposal “harsh and counterproductive” and pointed to the inevitable emotional and physical trauma to children from family separation

The proposal to separate families by no means exhausted the ingenuity of the “self-deportation” advocates. An anti-immigrant organization that calls itself the Immigration Law Reform Institute has promulgated a menu of 24 methods by which state and local legislatures can make life miserable for immigrants while supposedly minimizing the danger of being found in contravention of federal immigration authority. The related Federation for American Law Reform (cutely called “FAIR”) has published a similar list of anti-immigrant actions to be taken by the federal government, entitled “Immigration Priorities for the 2017 Presidential Transition.”

To refer once again to the New Yorker, the issue of April 3, 2017 contains an article by Rachel Aviv entitled “The Apathetic.” It tells of the heartbreaking suffering of refugees, especially children, resulting both from the trauma which they flee and from the prospect of deportation. In Sweden hundreds of children aged eight to fifteen, all refugees and most from Russia or the former Yugoslavia, have fallen prey to what Swedish psychologists are calling resignation syndrome. In response to the emotional trauma resulting from the prospect of deportation and return to their countries of origin, these children simply fade away. They stop speaking, lose muscle tone, stop eating, and become mute, incontinent and unresponsive to stimuli, including pain. The article compares this syndrome, the particular symptoms of which are likely culture-related, to other severe psychological reactions to the emotional trauma suffered by refugees, such as when one hundred and fifty Cambodian women who had seen family members tortured by the Khmer Rouge lost the ability to see, or when Laotian refugees would cry out in their sleep and die, apparently frightened to death by their dreams.

Think about these refugees and what sort of trauma could cause the body to shut down in this fashion. Then think about comfortable, intelligent Americans who advocate that our country should intentionally create an environment for those refugees that is less nurturing and less attractive than they already face, and do so in order to promote “self-deportation.” Does putting America First require us to make ourselves ashamed of our country?

I say it’s spinach, and I say the hell with it.

By James O’Neal, volunteer attorney and Vice Chair of The Advocates for Human Rights’ Board of Directors. 

Karen refugees in Minnesota have a critical ally

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Pictured: The Advocates for Human Rights’ Madeline Lohman & Karen Organization of Minnesota’s Hta Thi Yu Moom facilitating a meeting to strengthen community between Karen diaspora members and other residents of Roseville, Minnesota.

 

Minnesota has seen an influx of Karen refugees from Burma over the past decade, the majority settling in St. Paul. The transition to life here can be bumpy as they struggle to learn English, find jobs, navigate government bureaucracy, and sometimes deal with family upheavals.

But the new residents have a critical ally: the Karen Organization of Minnesota (KOM), the nation’s first Karen-led nonprofit. “You can come here any time as long as the office is open,” says Eh Tah Khu, KOM’s co-executive director, “and we’ll make sure you get the help you need.”

The Karen (pronounced Ka-REN) are an ethnic minority group from the mountainous border regions of Burma and Thailand who have been fighting for independence for many years. Subject to ethnic cleansing, forced labor, killings, and other human rights abuses by the former military regime of Burma (also known as Myanmar), many fled to refugee camps in Thailand before resettlement in the United States. (Burma moved to a civilian-led government last year.)

KOM says about 12,000 Karen now live in Minnesota, some drawn from other states because of the high quality of refugee services here. Minnesotans should be aware that many Karen have “been through trauma,” Eh Tah Khu says, and “have never been able to raise their voice for any reason.”

Eh Tah Khu arrived here from Thailand in 2010 with his wife and son and joined KOM as youth development coordinator in 2011. He became co-executive director last year, sharing duties with Alexis Walstad.

KOM — with money from state and federal grants, foundations, and the Greater Twin Cities United Way — offers a wide range of services to Karen and other Burmese refugees. They include job training, English classes, youth programs, weaving, public transit orientation, and community health services.

The organization evolved from the Karen Community of Minnesota, a volunteer group that Karen leaders started in 2003 in St. Paul. They set up KOM as a separate organization with 501(c)(3) status in 2008. Based in Roseville, it now has 25 paid staff members, including two at an office in Marshall; three AmeriCorps members, and about 80 volunteers. It serves more than 1,500 clients a year.

But KOM is at a turning point. Some of its government grants pay specifically for services to new arrivals. But the United States has stopped resettling refugees from Burma, so Eh Tah Khu worries those grants won’t be renewed as his group focuses more on long-term services.

He is frank about other challenges facing the organization. Because KOM is so accessible, he says, “we are overloaded with walk-in clients.” They need help with everything from paying speeding tickets to enrolling in MNsure to filing divorce paperwork.

More mental-health services are badly needed, he added, noting that there are no Karen-speaking therapists, psychiatrists, or psychologists in the area. The community is also grappling with problems like drug use by young people, parents feeling they have lost authority over their children, domestic violence, and divorce (which is rare in Burma).

But Eh Tah Khu says KOM’s strength lies in the partnerships it has forged with a long list of service providers and educational, government, religious, legal and other groups over the years (you can see them here). “We know that without community support,” he says, “we can’t do our work here.”

Karen Organization of Minnesota
Website: www.mnkaren.org
Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/mnkarenorg/
Volunteer opportunities: KOM needs short-term and long-term volunteers to help with activities including youth mentoring, interpretation/translation, data entry, public transit training, and driving. Apply here or contact Rebekah Jacobson at rjacobson@mnkaren.org.
Learn more: KOM holds presentations on Karen culture and history on Friday afternoons every other month. The next session takes place on February 24.

By Suzanne Perry, volunteer with The Advocates for Human Rights. This is the first of the “Welcome Home” blog series featuring articles about groups that represent diaspora communities in Minnesota.

Their stories untold: Widows voices yet to be heard

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It was an afternoon in July 2013 in a rural community in Kumasi, Ghana, when 87 widows shared the ordeals they suffered at the hands of so-called “customs” after their husbands passed away. During an annual human rights survey by Commission of Human Rights and Administrative Justice (CHRAJ), I discovered a cultural practice which very much still stood strong in our society yet was a total infringement of the human rights of widows.

Although their stories differed slightly, all of the women agreed that widowhood rituals served no benefit, but rather brought more hardships to widows. I recall the tears in their eyes as this meeting brought back dreadful memories. A 34-year old widow burst into uncontrollable tears as she recalled how her husband’s relatives took all of the farm lands (the family’s main source of income) because, according to custom, the husband’s nephew was the rightful heir. She was forced to consume nothing except a soft drink once a day continuously for 40 days as part of the cleansing ritual. She recounted that the resulting stomach problem she developed was considered punishment for her alleged crime of killing her husband with witchcraft. Eventually, she and her seven children who were between the ages of two to 14 years were pushed out of the small house they lived in. With no one to turn to, she resorted to begging on the street and hard labor where she faced continued sexual and labor exploitation.

Widowhood within  some cultures in Africa and other countries is characterized by degrading and inhumane rituals that can amount to torture. These rituals inflict grave abuse of widows. The encyclopedia of Death and Dying in its report, “Widows in Third World Nations” reported that

“…in Nigeria … a widow may be forced to have sex with her husband’s brothers, “the first stranger she meets on the road,” or some other designated male. This “ritual cleansing by sex” is thought to exorcise the evil spirits associated with death, and if the widow resists this ordeal, it is believed that her children will suffer harm. In the context of AIDS and polygamy, this “ritual cleansing” is not merely repugnant but also dangerous. The widow may be forced to drink the water that the corpse has been washed in; be confined indoors for up to a year; be prohibited from washing, even if she is menstruating, for several months; be forced to sit naked on a mat and to ritually cry and scream at specific times of the day and night…”

Widows suffer other types of violations, as well. Widows may be deprived of their home, agricultural land, business assets, and sometimes their children.  Notwithstanding the promulgation of major Treaties like Convention on Elimination of all forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) that guard against these violations, these practices still persist. These harmful practices inflict both physical and psychological violence on women and create an opportunity for abuse and infringement of their rights. It supports unequal power relations between men and women. Through these disproportionate cultural practices, many widows are exploited by male relatives of their deceased husbands. Instead of protecting and supporting these widows, they deny them any access to their husband’s land or property.

Among some tribes in the northern part of Ghana, widows are subjected to a customary practice called “Widow Inheritance” which is a form of Levirate marriage (a system in which the brother of a deceased man is made to marry the widow of his brother). In this case, the widow is forced into a marriage regardless of her consent. This permits the deceased man’s family to choose a male relative to marry the widow, preventing the widow from making her own decision to remain unmarried or married. It essentially promotes forced marriage. If a widow insists and succeeds in remaining unmarried after the death of her husband, she is bound to face maltreatment and rejection by her husband’s family and community. She is usually accused of witchcraft, having bad luck, or having a hand in her husband’s death. On the other hand, when they accept to enter into a marriage, they are faced with a lot of hostility by the wives and children of the men they marry. Also they stand the risk of being infected with a sexually-transmitted disease.

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights stipulates that everyone has the right to life, liberty, and security of person and to be free from torture or cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment. Also the International Covenant on Social, Economic and Cultural Rights (ICESCR) guarantees the right to equal protection under the law and the right to the highest standard of physical and mental health and requires the “free consent” of both parties to enter into marriage. The Protocol to The African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights on the Rights of Women in Africa specifically addresses the issue of widows, spells out that state’s parties shall take the necessary legal measures to ensure that widows enjoy all human rights through the implementation of the following provisions:

“…widows are not subjected to inhuman, humiliating or degrading
treatment…a widow shall automatically become the guardian and
custodian of her children….”

Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) protects a number of human rights, including that men and women shall have the same right to enter into marriage and the same right to freely choose a spouse and to enter into marriage only with free and full consent. CEDAW also mandates state’s parties to recognize women’s equality with men before the law with the same legal capacity as in civil matters. Importantly, CEDAW requires state’s parties to:

“[M]odify the social and cultural patterns of conduct of men and
women, with a view to achieving the elimination of prejudices and
customary and all other practices which are based on the idea of the
inferiority or the superiority of either of the sexes or on stereotyped
roles for men and women.”

Widows are supposed to be protected from degrading, inhumane treatment, and unwarranted disinheritance under these laws. Despite most African states being parties to these international and regional treaties, the plight of widows remains unaddressed in most countries and the pains they suffer seem to be viewed as normal and inevitable by the societies in which they live. In every community there are widows neglected to the harshness of hunger and poverty. Harmful practices such as the widowhood rituals are challenging to modify, and attempts to change or eliminate them demand the collaboration and cooperation of traditional authorities, community leaders, government, and the society at large.

By Abigail Ofori-Amanfo, a 2016-17 Humphrey Fellow at University of Minnesota who is completing her professional affiliation with The Advocates for Human Rights. A women’s right activist, she works to educate rural women and girls in Ghana on their rights and what steps they can take to prevent them from being violated.

Learn more about the best practices in drafting legislation on maltreatment of widows.

We are advocates. We can do this.

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The first days of the Trump administration have been bewildering. “Alternative facts” have been presented with a straight face. The media has been told to shut up and listen. Muslims have been turned away at our airports. Refugees’ travel plans have been revoked. People, including very young children, have been detained for hours, handcuffed, stripped-searched, and treated like criminals. Children have been separated from their mothers. People have been coerced into signing away their visas and then not allowed entry into the United States.

The list goes on.

For many, these actions make us feel like the United States is in freefall.

But we have a clear road map for the days ahead. The human rights principles which emerged in 1948 set out a simple benchmark: dignity. Every single person in the United States – no matter who we are, that we believe, how we look, or where we were born – has a right to live with basic human dignity.

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights provides non-negotiable standards which we, as human beings, have a right to expect and to demand. Freedom of speech. Freedom of religion. Freedom of torture. Freedom from arbitrary detention. The right to seek and enjoy asylum from persecution. Freedom from violence.

The human rights framework does more than provide a list of rights we can check off as they are violated. It provides an approach to organizing and action.

Protect those who are marginalized. The 1st Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, with its unequivocal protection of peaceful dissent and protection against the tyranny of the majority, is but one of the ways in which the power of majority rule is balanced.

Ensure those affected by decisions can participate in making them. The right to vote is at the heart of American democracy, yet millions of people – primarily American Indians and African Americans – have had this fundamental right stripped from them.

Address the root causes of injustice. Eradicate the conditions which perpetuate human rights violations.

Hold people accountable for human rights violations and abuses. Tyranny thrives in a climate of impunity. A strong judiciary and independent media are hallmarks of free societies.

Last week I spoke with a new volunteer who’d just retired from a successful corporate career. She shared that she took part in the Women’s March – the first time in her life she’s ever turned out for such an action. She’s ready to act.

The human rights framework gives us clarity of demands and of action. We are advocates.

We can do this.

By Michele Garnett McKenzie, Deputy Director of The Advocates for Human Rights

Featured photo: Jenna Schulman (left), The Advocates for Human Rights’ youth blogger, and two of her friends at the Women’s March on Washington.

 

Featured

President Trump’s Executive Order Harms the U.S. & Refugees

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I have worked with refugees and asylum seekers since 1991. I cannot even tell you how many I have had the privilege to represent, and I believe that I have only encountered two cases of fraud in more than 20 years. I have never encountered even a single client with any links to terrorism. The refugees and asylum seekers who I have met have been fleeing for their lives – sometimes from terrorists.

The Executive Order “Protecting the Nation from Foreign Terrorist Entry into the United States” signed on January 27, 2017 overreaches executive branch powers (under the plenary power doctrine, immigration policy is shared between the legislative and executive). Moreover, aspects of the order are both unconstitutional and violate United States’ international legal obligations under the Refugee Convention (which we ratified in 1980). This comes at a time when there are more forcibly displaced people (65+ million) than ever before in human history.

The Executive Order violates the United States Constitution and the nation’s international obligations under the Refugee Convention to ensure that:
  1. Refugees not returned to a place where they will be persecuted (non-refoulement);
  2. There is an individualized determination of persecution on account of one of five grounds (race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group, or political opinion), NOT just religion; and
  3. Refugees are not discriminated against.

Here are some specific reasons why the Executive Order is bad policy and should not be enforced:

1. Suspends U.S. Refugee Admissions Programs (USRAP).

  • The order suspends all refugee admissions for 120 days.  Refugees are perhaps the most thoroughly vetted individuals who enter the United States. Refugee processing often takes up to 36 months and includes background checks, biometrics, and interviews with several federal agencies. I have met many people stuck in limbo in refugee camps, waiting to be cleared to join immediate family members in the United States.  Even following the 9/11 terrorist attacks, refugee admissions were suspended for less than three months.
  • It does not appear that clear instructions regarding implementation were conveyed to the Border & Customs Protection — those who had to enforce the order this weekend — leading to chaos and lawsuits. Under the order, exceptions can be made on a case-by-case basis for national interest, if the person does not pose a risk and is a religious minority facing religious persecution OR diplomats OR if the person is already in transit and denying admission would cause a hardship.
  • The order reduces the number of refugee admissions by more than half, to 50,000. The President, in consultation with Congress, sets each year the refugee admission number. In fact, during President Obama’s administration, the United States had dropped historically low in the numbers of refugees resettled. The goal this fiscal year was to admit 110,000 refugees. The government’s fiscal year began October 1, and we have already admitted 29,895 as of January 20, 2017. Under this new Executive Order, we will admit only about 20,000 additional refugees before the end of the fiscal year on September 30. That means that 60,000 refugees who have already been vetted will remain in life and death situations.
  • Once resumed, the United States will prioritize the religious persecution claims of minority religious groups.  Purportedly, this is to prioritize the claims of persecution of Christian minorities, but Muslims are also a persecuted minority in some countries. What does this mean for them?
  • The order suspending the United States Refugee Admissions Program for 120 days directs Department of Homeland Security to determine how state and local jurisdictions can have greater involvement in determining placement resettlement in their district. This will allow states and cities unprecedented authority to determine whether they will resettle any Muslim refugees. Bills have already been introduced in states such as North Dakota and South Dakota to ban all resettlement unless approved by the state legislatures.

2. Bans Syrian Refugees
The order halts the processing and admission of all Syrian refugees. Indefinitely. One of the worst human rights crises on the planet is happening in Syria. Over the past few years, millions of people have fled from both the forces of President Bashar Al-Assad (supported by Russian airstrikes) and ISIS. The United States finally stepped up last year and accepted 10,000 refugees —  far, far less than most Western countries. To date, the majority of refugees resettled from Syria to the United States have been women and children. 

3. Bans Entry of Nationals of Muslim Majority Countries
Both non-immigrant (tourist, student, etc.) and immigrant (including legal permanent residents, at least for the initial roll-out of the order) from seven countries (some friends, some foe) — Iraq, Iran, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria, and Yemen — are banned from entry for at least 90 days. (The order also notes that other countries and immigration benefits may be added to the banned list.) Courts have already temporarily blocked the implementation of part of this order based on the First Amendment Establishment clause (which prohibits the government from preferring or disfavoring a religion) and the Fourteenth Amendment Equal Protection clause. But part of the order also calls for the exclusion of individuals who “would place violent ideologies over American law” or “who engage in acts of bigotry or hatred, including persecution of those who practice religions different for their own.” That is incredibly vague and potentially discriminatory.  Moreover, there has been enhanced screening for everyone coming from countries with high levels of terrorism since 9/11.

4. Requires In-Person Interviews for All
The order suspends the Visa Interview Waiver Program (VIWP), primarily used for people who had been vetted, were considered a low-security risk, and were on renewable employment-based visas. The requirement for in-person interviews for non-immigrant visa applications will create huge backlogs at embassies and consulates and slow down the process for anyone applying for a visa (including family members of legal immigrants, asylees, and refugees). Many of The Advocates for Human Rights’ asylum clients come to the United States on visitor or student visas; this processing backlog will prevent these people the ability to escape persecution in their countries, leaving them vulnerable and unsafe.

5. Screens ALL for Immigration Benefits
This is policy by fiat, going beyond congressional authority. While screening standards are already in place for identifying fraud, etc., the Executive Order directs agencies to create a process to evaluate the person’s “likelihood of becoming a positively contributing member of society” and “ability to make contributions to the national interest.” These are entirely new and subjective standards, and it is not clear how anyone could implement them. They are NOT statutory requirements for any immigration benefit (except a national interest visa).

This Executive Order is public policy based on myth. It is not what is best for our country. Every Department of Homeland Security professional that I have ever met has said that the problem is lack of resources rather than the need for new laws or regulations. Every refugee I know is a true American patriot, one who tears up when saluting the flag because they know the true price of freedom.
Educate yourself. Call your congressional, state, and local representatives. Volunteer to help refugees and asylum seekers in your hometown. Provide a safe haven for those who are forced to flee persecution is a core American value.
This Executive Order will not make us safe. Instead, it will erode the United States’ moral standing as leader of the free world.
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By Jennifer Prestholdt, Deputy Director, The Advocates for Human Rights.

Marching for a bridge forward

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Living halfway across the country from one another, Erin Banovetz Lake and Nick Banovetz are like many siblings and families: The geographical distance that divides them presents its challenges – like their children not seeing each other as much as they’d like or not always celebrating holidays together – but they find ways to stay connected. Participating in the Women’s March on January 21 was something they shared, even if from cities afar. Here are a few reflections from them.

From Erin Banovetz Lake, Washington, D.C. (pictured above on right)
Prior to the march, I was disheartened by the status of human rights and equality held by some of the members of this great country. I am a white, middle class, 30-something female. I consider myself very fortunate in life. My upbringing was safe, secure, and predictable. I was well taken care of, both physically and emotionally.

I have spent my career working with and endeavoring to help troubled and marginalized youth in one of Virginia’s poorest counties. I see first hand some of the hardships others have to endure in life. This exposure has increased my level of understanding about challenges people face as well as my cultural awareness and sensitivity.

Recently, it has become evident that many, especially elected officials, do not possess this same awareness – the awareness of how important human rights and equality are to the survival of a community, of a country. Is it a willful ignorance? A lack of emotional intelligence and exposure to different cultures and populations? Or a lack of sensitivity and an overwhelming need to further oneself over the good of the community? It is with this awareness that I chose to participate in the January 21 March on Washington, hoping to demonstrate how important these issues are for the people of our nation.

Stepping onto the streets of our capital immediately gave me a sense of hope. Actually, it began when I picked up my mom and two of her best friends from the Richmond, Virginia airport the night before the march. The excitement we had in the anticipation of standing together with others who shared these values was evident from the beginning.

This hope continued as we boarded the bus that would take us to DC. While a commercial express bus, it was a “March on Washington bus” nonetheless because it was crammed with riders donning pink pussy-cat hats and discussing social issues and human rights with one another.

The march was peaceful. Not one arrest. Everybody we encountered throughout the day was kind, thoughtful, and had a light in their eyes. There was a strong sense of camaraderie. Stepping off the bus onto the street that day was energetic, like stepping into a pink pussy-cat hat/poster-carrying human rights parade. The number of people there was mind blowing, awe inspiring, and heart warming. The feeling in the air was one of a grass roots effort filled with hope and an excitement to finally be heard.

And heard we were. Along with the hundreds of other sister marches across the nation and globe, we raised our voices. The collective energy and voice showed us that we are stronger together. I live in a conservative part of Virginia, and just the sheer fact of being surrounded by people who value human rights and equality lifted me up. Knowing that there are so many others out there who share similar values, thoughts, hopes, and fears empowers me. (My experience is mirrored by millions of other marchers across the world. Is it strange how the overarching tone and feeling at these marches was energetic and a demand for acceptance? Independently, the hundreds of marches on each of the seven continents conveyed peace, acceptance, and a demand to be heard.)

The people I stood beside were there not solely to promote women’s issues. Rather, they promoted human rights for all. Those in attendance were of all ages, skin color, cultural background, religion, and from all walks of life. But in the message, we all shared a common belief in the necessity of human rights and equality.

Soon, my children will both be in school and I will return to the workforce. I already had plans to use my career as a conduit to channel my values. My march experience will serve as a catalyst to my vision of helping to create a stronger, healthier community for all. Thank you to the organizers of the march. It is through your hard work, determination, and vision that people of our world have stood together to make a statement. If we maintain this momentum, the people of this beautiful nation and around the globe will reap the benefits.

From Nick Banovetz, St. Paul, Minnesota (pictured below, right)
nickOn Election Day 2016, I left the polls telling my daughter – a 1.5-year-old strapped to my back  – “Thanks for helping Dada vote.” It was the first time I had cast a ballot with a child of my own. I relished participating in this part of our democracy; bringing my daughter with me – like my parents did with me – was memorable.

For many, the 2016 election has disrupted our communities and our own senses of self. The elevated and prolonged discourse surrounding systemic racism, income disparities, sexism, and immigration during the 2016 presidential campaign and election will hopefully result in the long term in a more prosperous, inclusive nation. The adage “Democracy is a not a spectator sport” is a rallying cry and a call to unite, regardless of one’s political leanings.

To stretch our lungs and lead by example, my dad, my wife, and I – with our daughter strapped in her stroller – participated in the Women’s March in St. Paul. Our experience was like thousands, millions, of others – a rush of adrenaline over the sheer mass of the crowds, a healing experience from the positive and inclusive vibes permeating these open, crowded spaces.

I felt part of a community again. And as a newish dad, I’ve been reflecting. I keep coming back to my grandmothers, partly because of the obvious (their gender, their generation), but also because of subtle lessons they taught me.

Several years ago, on my Grandma Ilona’s birthday, my wife solicited words of wisdom from her. Without any hesitation, Ilona said resolutely, “All people are people.” These words are simple, yet relevant. I think of them often. Ilona was a life-long learner, never short of an opinion. She cherished her time in college, which I believe fueled her confidence. When someone was full of bologna, Ilona would throw her hand out, slap the air, shake her head, and say, “Oh, honestly!” I’ve envisioned her doing such dozens of times as of late. There’s something to be said about keeping it real, being authentic, and offering a polite reality check when others aren’t.

My other grandma, Vi, read the St. Paul Pioneer Press every a.m. – from poring over the front page to completing the crossword puzzle. Those who knew her saw a witty – even sassy – woman who found some of her own independence by working outside of the home and belonging to her social service club. I visited her often. Over breakfast we’d study the newspaper together. She taught me to be informed. And Grandma Vi was empowered because she was well informed. (Vi, in jest, would often remark on First Lady Hillary Clinton, saying with hope in her voice, “Who does she think she is, President?” One time she looked up and said something to the effect of “Imagine that”; the exact words escape me, but it was her disbelief and wonder over a female leading our nation that I remember.)

My hope for our nation is that people from all sides can engage with one another outside of social media platforms, choose to arrive at opinions that are both diverse and well-informed. We each need to appreciate that all people are people.

By Erin Lake Banovetz, Dillwyn, Virginia; and Nick Banovetz, Mendota Heights, Minnesota. They are the daughter and son of The Advocates’ Communications Director, Sue Banovetz.

“I can march.”

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This was my first march. I really did not know what to expect. I spent the evening before the march sitting on the basement floor in our house with my sister and our friends painting posters. When we finally got to the march – which was no easy feat because the DC Metro was so overwhelmed with numbers of people, we had to walk – the sheer number of people prevented us from getting close enough to hear any of the speeches. We could not even see the Jumbotrons. I had to wait until I got home to learn what some of the speakers, including people like Gloria Steinem, had to say.

What I did hear and see, however, were the voices and actions of people engaged in peaceful protest. Even in the midst of the crush, people were friendly and civil. The energy was palpable. From the looks of it, people were at this march, born at the grass roots, for many different reasons. Some were there to protest the new administration. Others were there to ensure that their voices were heard on a variety of themes, including reproductive rights, gender equality, immigration, racial equality, and climate change. Homemade signs were everywhere.  Frequent chants included:  “My body/my choice!”;  “This is what democracy looks like!”; and “Women’s rights are human rights!”

What I saw on the ground was inspiring, and what I saw on my social media feeds inspired me, too. My Facebook and Instagram pages had hundreds of pictures of my “sisters” in different parts of the country marching in their hometowns. Even if we might have been at the marches for different reasons  and in different locations, we were connected and empowered.

I know that the march has been controversial at some levels – even in my high school.  Some question how the march can be successful – as there was not a singular focus. However, I did see a common focus: the need for respect.

Last week in my 10th grade European history course, we focused on the French Revolution.  One of the things I learned about was the “march” of October 1789 when more than 7,000 women marched from Paris to Versailles protesting the scarcity and high prices of bread.  They had a goal of bringing King  Louis XVI back to Paris so that he would be closer and arguably more responsive to the people. They succeeded! The crowd, numbering more than 60,000 people, escorted the royal family back to Paris. Some say that this was a major turning point in the French Revolution.

I don’t know if Saturday was a major turning point. But it was an important reminder of the power people have when they work together. It was also a reminder of the powerful voice women have and the importance of exercising it. When the marchers return to their homes, I hope they remember that the march is not a substitute for long- term action. It’s just the beginning; they need to take action in their local communities. Whether that action is calling their legislators or running for office themselves, it is important.

I am excited to see where this takes us – and I am grateful to the women who organized this march for exposing me to the possibilities of collective action.

By The Advocates for Human Rights’ youth blogger Jenna Schulman (pictured on left in photo above), a 10th grade student in Washington, D.C.