Modern-Day Slavery: In Ghana and the World

At the beginning of this year, I was given the opportunity to attend a 4-day seminar with the leading expert in modern day slavery Dr. Kevin Bales. I learned an extraordinary amount about modern-day slavery from Dr. Bales, but what I found most interesting was the many forms that slavery currently takes in the country of Ghana.

Slavery is commonly taught in the United States as a historic system that began with the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade in the 17th century and ended following the US Civil War when President Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation on January 1, 1863. However, slavery pre-dates the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade by thousands of years. In fact, Ancient Egypt, Greece, and the Roman Empire made slavery integral to their social systems.” What many people don’t realize is that slavery is still alive and well today, it has simply taken a new form. Unfortunately, although the delusion that slavery is simply an atrocity of the past pervades many of our modern societies, it couldn’t be further from the truth – slavery still exists in the 21st century. In fact, according to the 2016 Global Slavery Index, an estimated 45.8 million people are still enslaved around the world today. That means that there are more people enslaved today than there were during the entirety of the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade. Unlike Antebellum Era slavery, modern-day slavery is far more difficult to detect, and often goes entirely unnoticed (or unacknowledged) for extended periods of time. According to Kevin Bales, in his book Disposable People, “even when shown photographs and affidavits, nations’ officials deny [modern-day slavery’s] existence.”

commonly referred to as “human trafficking” in the last decade, and the majority of coverage is in the form of sensationalist writing about the atrocities of sex trafficking. It is unfortunately common for organizations – especially those with Christian affiliations – to “employ enslaved people’s narratives as illustrations, while they provide their own philosophy,” thereby using slave narratives to further their own agendas. (Murphy 98). Also common in the media, is the portrayal of slavery survivors as victims, helpless to save themselves, who are in desperate need of our assistance. The results of this are perhaps best described by Dr. Kevin Bales: “When we typecast freed slaves as pathetic victims, however well-meaning that action might be, we deny the unique truth of each lived experience of slavery.” Furthermore, the mainstream media’s obsession with sex trafficking results in a lack of public awareness of other prominent forms of modern-day slavery. Certainly, sex trafficking is a severe issue that plagues our societies, and we must work diligently to abolish it. However, equally important, and yet often forgotten, are the atrocities of labor trafficking around the world. In fact, a larger number of people are forced into labor trafficking than sex trafficking, and yet it remains widely unreported on.

Of the 45.8 million people currently enslaved globally, there are an estimated “5.6 million people currently enslaved in Sub-Saharan Africa alone.” Many of these slaves can be found in Ghana, forced to work in galamsey mines or required to fish on Lake Volta. Both of these involuntary occupations prove to be incredibly hazardous for the men, women and children trapped in servitude due to their deplorable working conditions, and their lack of advanced tools. Galamsey mines are particularly dangerous “due to frequent mine collapses, poisonous dust inhalation, and exposure to toxic chemicals used to extract gold from ore.” This is because it is cheaper to simply replace a slave, than to provide safe working conditions and adequate medical access to insure their health and well being. Whereas in the past, slaves held a relatively high monetary value, following the exponential increase in the global population in the years following World War II, the price of slaves plummeted and now they are worth very little. Paired with the “rapid social and economic change” that the developing world was undergoing post-WW2, the conditions created a heightened level of vulnerability to trafficking in many third-world countries. Whereas in the past a slave was worth approximately $40,000 US dollars, in the modern world a slave is, on average, worth about $90. Slaves are especially inexpensive in the developing world, and can be sold for as cheap as $10.

In order to fully understand modern-day slavery, it is essential to first understand how people come to be enslaved. After all, slavery is illegal in every country, and yet it still exists – to some extent – in nearly every corner of the world. One of the most common forms of trafficking is debt bondage, and it begins with one simple question: “Want a job?” Debt bondage allows traffickers to deceive victims into believing that their predicament is their own fault by using victims’ “pride and honesty to manipulate them [and] by appealing to their sense of fair play.”  The debt trap is precisely how Ibrahim and his Uncle were first trafficked into slavery in Southern Ghana to work in an illegal gold mine. Ibrahim was born in a small village in Northern Ghana that he describes as “very poor…the land is poor, there is little water. There are lots of people, but little work” (“Blood” 128). After his mother and father died, Ibrahim and his uncle decided to travel South, “following a trail of stories of the golden south where there was plenty of food and good jobs.” However, upon their arrival, they quickly realized that the “golden south” was simply a myth – there were no jobs for them.

Displaced and desperate, Ibrahim and his uncle “met a man who said he could get [them] jobs in a gold mine” (lbid). After following the man to his gold mine, Ibrahim and his uncle realized that it was not a legal operation, and began to question their new-found “employer”; however, by that time it was too late to escape – “there were guards to keep [them] from leaving” – but the two men still remained hopeful that they would receive the payment they had initially been promised after three months. Ibrahim describes the working conditions that he was forced to endure as nearly unbearable, and explains that – although his uncle tried to protect him – “any mistake [he] made would bring a beating” (lbid). After the three-month period had elapsed, Ibrahim, his uncle, and the other workers were expecting to be paid, but their trafficker (still masquerading as their legitimate employer) informed them that they hadn’t earned any money. Instead, they were told that they now owed even more, and would have to repay it with interest before they were allowed to leave the gold mine. Of course, the sum was entirely unattainable to the men, and so they remained enslaved under the pretense of debt. Ibrahim realized that “they were stuck,” but also “assumed that it was their own fault” (“Blood” 131). Thus began Ibrahim’s enslavement, although he was not fully aware of it at the time. Now, as an adult, Ibrahim continues to work in the same gold mine under the watchful eye of his “boss” who “encourages him to work harder with blows and abuse.”

The obvious question is: “why don’t victims simply run away?”. The answer, however, is far more complex. Initially, victims of trafficking are not fully aware that they are actually enslaved. Instead, they simply believe that they have accumulated great debt and, most often, they have a “very strong sense that a debt must be repaid, and that a person wo does not pay their debt is a thief and a sinner.”  Furthermore, their trafficker will maintain the charade of intending to pay them for as long as possible, so slaves continue to work with the hope that they might eventually get paid enough to fulfill their debt and move on. Of course, the charade eventually expires and victims come to the unfortunate realization that they are trapped in slavery. However, at this point, victims are keenly aware of the constant, and very real, threat of violence that hangs over their heads if they attempt to escape. Much like in the Antebellum South, runaway slaves in the modern world are hunted down by their traffickers and are punished with violence. The high level of political corruption in the developing world aids in the tracking down of slaves; it is all too common for corrupt local police officials to track down runaways, knowing that they will be paid off by the traffickers. On the off chance that an escaped slave is brought before a judge to plead for freedom, traffickers will simply pay “another bribe to secure a conviction for defrauding the gold buyer (in his role as lender)” (“Blood” 147). Even if an individual dies while enslaved, still their debt does not disappear; the burden is simply passed down to his or her next of kin, thereby shackling the entire family line.

While this situation seems almost-entirely hopeless, there are many ways to reduce the amount of slavery on Ghana’s “gold coast.” For instance, governments of developed nations can crack down on slavery by forcing corporations to better regulate their supply chains. Great Britain is doing just that with the “Modern Slavery Bill…which will require businesses with over a certain level of turnover to publish an annual slavery and human trafficking statement.” With this Bill, the British Crown hopes to reduce the 11% of UK businesses that currently “think it ‘likely’ that some sort of modern slavery exists in their supply chains,” by requiring a higher level of transparency. However, although supply chains seem like one of the best ways to eradicate modern-day slavery because they are our most direct link to the atrocity, they are not the most efficient way to combat slavery because most slave outputs never actually reach the global market. Instead, slave-made products are most often produced, bought, and sold at the local level. Fortunately, many NGO’s like Free the Slaves are dedicated to ending modern-day slavery through other – more effective – methods. Free the Slaves works with local-partner organizations in Ghana to help spread awareness about the threat of slavery, and provide at-risk communities with preventative measures to shield them from traffickers. Since entering the fight to end forced mining in Ghana, Free the Slaves has taught communities how to identify a legitimate job from a debt trap, and the percentage of people “who could identify suitable work rose from 5 percent to 93 percent.” Furthermore, the organization has also given communities more information on government assistance for survivors of slavery, and “The percentage of people who had knowledge of government agencies to contact in cases of child exploitation rose from 25 percent to 61 percent.”

One of Free the Slave’s oldest partnerships is with a Ghanaian-founded organization called Challenging Heights that works to “rescue children in forced labor,” and “offer continuous survivor rehabilitation and recovery support” (“James”). Since its founding, Challenging Heights has managed to rescue over 1,500 children from traffickers on Lake Volta, and have put over 400 children through their survivor rehabilitation center which provides much-needed medical care, education, and support as children are reunited with their families and reintegration into their communities. In addition, Challenging Height’s is also in the business of slave proofing communities through education and economic empowerment programs that provide legitimate jobs to those in need. The founder of Challenging Heights, James Kofi Annan, is actually a survivor of child slavery on Lake Volta himself. Mr. Annan was trafficked at age six, and was enslaved for seven years before he escaped and went on to pursue his education. Today, Mr. Annan uses his powerful personal narrative to raise awareness on the issue of modern-day slavery around the world. Most recently, he addressed the United Nations assembly on December 2, 2016 which marks the International Day for the Abolishment of Slavery.

Child trafficking is the most common form of enslavement on Lake Volta in Ghana. In fact, an estimated 4,000 children have been trafficked into the fishing industry on Lake Volta. Due to the lack of education opportunities in Ghana, many parents are often persuaded to send their children (Some even as young as four years old) to receive a “proper education” in return for what they are told will be “a few hours of work.” However, in reality, “Ghanaian children are sold into a life of forced labor, malnutrition, and abuse,” and are forced to work long and strenuous hours in life-threatening conditions. Although the children are forced to work in rickety boats on Lake Volta, many of them are never instructed on rudimentary water safety skills, and lack even the most basic swimming abilities. As one would imagine, this results in many unnecessary child deaths; furthermore, many children also get tangled in underwater nets and, unable to escape, drown in the lake. Aside from the danger of drowning, children are also forced to struggle with severe malnutrition since they are provided with only one small meal a day. In addition, much like Ibrahim in the Ghanaian gold mines, James Kofi Annan recalls: “Each time I made a mistake as a child fisherman, I was tortured.” Unfortunately, many young children like Mr. Annan endure his same fate.

Fortunately, Free the Slaves, Challenging Heights and their partners have a plan that could end child slavery on Lake Volta in the next five years. Using modern surveying technology, anti-trafficking workers plan to use spatial recognition technology to identify trafficking site on Lake Volta, that will allow them to better coordinate their extraction methods for rescuing victims of child slavery. Furthermore, they hope that this new technology will soon be adapted to help identify other forms of modern-day slavery – such as the trafficking that takes place in illegal Ghanaian gold mines like the one that Ibrahim was enslaved in – as well. Surprisingly, the cost of eradicating slavery is relatively low on the global scale. In fact, it only costs $400 US dollars to liberate and completely rehabilitate a slave. On an aggregate level, that means that we can end slavery for 18.3 billion dollars. At first glance, that seems like an unachievable sum. However, Americans spend $18 billion on video games annually; $18 billion also the annual amount of accrued credit card late fees in the United States. According to a recent study done by the Washington Post, President Trump’s incredibly-controversial border wall is estimated to cost approximately $25 billion dollars. If President Trump chose to use that money to eradicate modern-day slavery, we could liberate 45.8 million people, save $7 billion dollars, and avoid the environmental disaster that the border wall is sure to create.

The eradication of slavery is within reach – it can be achieved in our lifetimes – but first we must expand our efforts to spread awareness, rescue and rehabilitate survivors, and take preventative measures to ensure that now-vulnerable communities are slavery-proof in the future. After all, although there are 45.8 million people currently enslaved, that is the smallest percentage of slaves to be represented in the global population to this day. Furthermore, the collective revenue created by slavery also accounts for the smallest percentage of the global economy in all of history. We have made tremendous progress in the fight to end slavery, but the war is not yet won. If we are to truly eradicate slavery in the 21st century, we must continue on diligently, remembering the wise words of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr: “No one is free until we are all free”

Sanitation Solutions in Haiti

“Sanitation Solutions for Haiti” // Nick Preneta, Deputy Director of SOIL // April 19, 2017

Sanitation standards in Haiti are some of the worst in the world. In fact, only 26% of Haitian citizens have access to clean water, and 40% of urban residents in Haiti don’t have access to a toilet – private or public. During his presentation, Mr. Preneta explained that these two issues are highly interconnected. Due to their lack of access to toilets and the severely limited sewage sanitation system, many people in Haiti resort to disposing of their waste in local water sources. Given the fact that Haiti has a high water table and flooding is extremely common, this polluted water carries human waste into huge intersections where it collects indefinitely. Furthermore, there is only one functioning waste treatment facility in Haiti, which means that a mere 4% of waste is treated. The lack of sanitation in Haiti continues to cause a multitude of health problems for the Haitian people – and especially those living in urban areas. Diseases like cholera, typhoid, hepatitis, chronic diarrhea, and other waterborne diseases are spread via these waterways and cause mass-infections. The 2010 earthquake in Haiti only worsened sanitation conditions as millions of people were displaced and took up residence in public areas like parks and golf courses. Following the earthquake, water conditions deteriorated rapidly and a massive Cholera outbreak plagued the Island.

Fortunately, Mr. Preneta and his organization SOIL are actively assisting in implementing sanitation solutions in Haiti. SOIL was first established in 2006 after the founders designed and developed their first “Ecosan” toilet – similar to a port-a-potty – and tested a number of prototypes out in various places throughout Haiti’s two largest cities – the Haitian capital of Port-au-Prince in the South and Cap-Haitian in the North. However, much like in the United States, the public bathrooms were not properly cared for in the communities and became incredibly dirty within short time periods. It soon became clear that SOIL did not have adequate funds or staff to efficiently maintain the bathrooms, and so they were all closed within 5 years of their creation. This presented a major setback for the SOIL team, but they learned from their mistake and soon began devising a new in-home toilet prototype. By 2009 they had developed a new strategy that enabled them to improve sanitation by working from the micro level of individual households and out through the entire sanitation chain. The first step was to build a waste treatment facility which would be used to cleanse the waste of any bacteria and then transform it into compost – the facility was completed by the end of the year. The second phase of this new sanitation strategy required slightly more time, but by early 2012, the SOIL team had installed 140 “trial” in-home toilets in a certain community for a three-month period, and had remarkable success.

Today, SOIL provide sanitary in-home toilets to over 1,000 families in the two urban areas that they serve. These toilets are extremely efficient for a number of reasons. First of all, they only cost approximately $25.00 to produce (a cost which is nearly offset by the $3.00-a-month fee that clients pay to use the toilet service). Secondly, the toilets are designed to separate solid and liquid waste immediately into 5-gallon and 1-gallon buckets – thereby expediting the composting process. Unfortunately, the SOIL team has not yet found a sanitary way to dispose of the liquid waste, but the team is currently in the process of exploring sanitary (and cost-effective) options. Finally, and probably most important to users, the SOIL toilets emit almost no odor. This is primarily due to a certain type of sawdust that SOIL includes with the toilets that absorbs the odor almost entirely. Furthermore, SOIL also provides a weekly collection service that picks up the waste-filled buckets (replacing them with clean, empty buckets) and transports them to the SOIL waste treatment facilities.

Since 2009, the SOIL team has built and currently runs two composting waste treatment facilities that they use to compost thousands of gallons of waste over the past eight years. In fact, SOIL is now one of the largest waste treatment operations in Haiti. Mr. Preneta and the SOIL organization take great pride in their composting facilities because the vast majority of sanitary development projects “start and end with toilets.” The problem with this, Mr. Preneta explained, is that the human waste still eventually ends up in the public water system, spreading deadly pathogens to everyone in a community. Water-borne pathogens can cause severe damage in a society; according to Mr. Preneta, in Haiti – an island with the relatively-low population of 9 million (roughly equivalent to that of New York City) – 10 children die from water-borne illnesses each day.

The process required to transform human waste to usable compost is rather complex and requires multiple steps: First, after arriving at the treatment facility, the human waste must be tested for pathogens. In the past SOIL partnered with the US Center for Disease Control to test the feces for various pathogens, but they now operate out of a local lab that uses E. Coli as an indicator of pathogens – the pathogen-removal process typically takes 5-6 weeks. After the waste is processed and cleansed in the lab it undergoes thermophilic (“hot”) composting during which soil microbes slowly decompose and produce heat so that thermophilic microbes can thrive. During this process, the intense levels of heat kills pathogens and expedites decomposition. Finally, the finished compost is tested for pathogens once more, packaged in 40 pound bags, and sold to local farmers and larger corporations. Per Mr. Preneta, one ton of SOIL’s compost costs approximately $300.00, and the organization currently has a waiting list of individuals and businesses that want to purchase their product. Not only does the composting method of disposal significantly decrease the amount of human waste that infiltrates public water stores, it also helps revitalize soil that has been eroded or lost nutrition due to extensive deforestation on the island.

In my opinion, one of the most unique and admirable qualities of SOIL’s operations is that they largely employ internally. According to Mr. Preneta, apart from the few US founders of SOIL who now largely work on advertising and fundraising abroad, the entirety of the SOIL team (approximately 30 full-time employees) are native Haitians. Not only are these employees highly qualified for their positions but, being natives themselves, they are also acutely aware and sensitive to the sanitation situation in Haiti and the many ways in which it negatively affects Haitian citizens – especially those living in poverty. In addition to SOIL’s 30 full-time Haitian employees, SOIL also employs a significant number of “daily workers” at their composting facilities. Per Mr. Preneta, each morning, large lines of Haitian citizens hoping to earn a day’s wage form outside of both SOIL composting facilities. In this way, SOIL also assists in the reduction of poverty in both Port-a-Prince and Cap-Haitian (both of which are hosts to high levels of unemployment) by way of job creation.

Despite all of the excellent work that SOIL does in Haiti, there are multiple ways in which the operation could be significantly improved. Based upon the information provided by Mr. Preneta, SOIL faces numerous economic shortcomings that severely inhibit their productivity. For one, the $3.00 monthly fee that SOIL charges for their toilet services does not quite cover the cost of toilet production and waste transportation to and from users’ homes. After a thorough cost-analysis, the SOIL team came to the realization that their costs were $1.50 more than their profits. However, Mr. Preneta is confident that with a few modifications to the current process (such as outsourcing transport in order to avoid unnecessary costs like vehicle repair), in the near-future, this portion of their operation – the “front end” – will soon be a money-making business venture that will be extremely attractive to private-sector corporations. Unfortunately, the “back end” of the operation – testing human waste for pathogens and subsequently composting waste – is a far more expensive endeavor. According to Mr. Preneta, SOIL’s average costs currently outweigh their profits by approximately $8.00 (a far larger gap).

Of course, there are certain actions that the SOIL team can take to reduce the current back-end costs – for example, employing new machinery to make the composting process more efficient. However, it is becoming increasingly apparent to the team that they will require some level of public funding by the Haitian government in order to continue operations sustainably. Unfortunately, there is a high level of political turnover in the Haitian government that makes it difficult to build and maintain government relationships. Furthermore, much like in the United States, the environment does not take top priority in Haitim so the DINEPA (the Haitian equivalent to the US EPA) does not have adequate resources to allocate to SOIL’s project. That said, during one of SOIL’s meetings with the DINEPA, the agency made it clear that they are willing to provide some level of funding to SOIL when the team presents them with a self-sustainable business model. Mr. Preneta was adamant that SOIL is on the verge of developing such a business model, and is hopeful that it will allow the public and private sectors to work together in solving Haiti’s sanitation problems.

Prior to attending Mr. Preneta’s lecture, I had never heard of SOIL and was relatively uninformed about Haiti’s poor sanitation. Truthfully, upon hearing that 40% of urban residents in Haiti do not have access to a single toilet, I was racked with guilt over the fact that I myself have three toilets in my own apartment – all of which I take for granted. After hearing Mr. Preneta speak about the work that SOIL is doing on the ground, I am of the belief that their operations are paramount to improving sanitation conditions in Haiti. I am especially impressed by the holistic approach that SOIL takes to solving sanitation problems – not only providing access to toilets, but also repurposing human waste as compost in order to revitalize soil and employing local Haitian residents at composting facilities in order to reduce unemployment (and in turn, poverty). I am curious to know if it would be possible for the SOIL team to somehow implement a device into toilets that could detect pathogens on a house-to-house basis, thereby enabling Haitians to recognize their illnesses and better treat them. I wonder if, additionally, a pathogen-detecting device would also be beneficial to the Haitian government in accessing public health. It will be interesting to see if, as their operations continue to grow, SOIL eventually begins to repurpose liquid waste as well as material waste – especially seeing as numerous studies have proven that it can be used as an excellent fertilizer.

Seeing as the situation in Haiti is so deeply complex, there are a number of interconnected “geographic standards” that create the conditions in which the poor sanitation conditions are allowed to thrive. However, I would say that at its core, the sanitation problem essentially boils down to overpopulation in urban areas (Element 3, Standard 6). According to Mr. Preneta, the population of Port-au-Prince is nearly 1 million and Cap-Haitian’s population is approximately 250,000. In both of these cities, poverty is rampant and Haitian citizens live in extremely close quarters that promote the spread of various pathogens. The 2010 earthquake in Haiti severely exacerbated this situation due to the migration of thousands of displaced families to cities in order to gain better access to resources. Upon their migration, thousands of people set up temporary settlements in public places, worsening the already suboptimal sanitation situation in the highly urbanized areas.

As I mentioned before, the Haitian people are extremely impoverished and so over 40% of the urban population in Haiti does not have access to a toilet and so they dispose of their waste in local water sources. This disposal method is worsened by the fact that both Port-au-Prince and Cap-Haitian are coastal cities prone to flooding. When these cities are flooded, the waste-filled water flows through the cities narrow streets and collects in major intersections where it remains. Since these intersections are so heavily trafficked by city-dwellers, the pathogens contained in the waste are spread rapidly throughout the city. These diseases lead to high death rates on the Island, but the CDR is far outweighed by the extremely-high birth rate in Haiti which is causing the population to grow exponentially. Since children are far more susceptible to disease, Haiti’s high CBR also expedites the spread of deadly pathogens.

Populism: Into The Mainstream

Prior to attending Professor Heinisch’s lecture entitled “Populism: Into The Mainstream” about the many diverse forms that populism can take, I was largely unaware of the extensive spectrum that Populist parties can span.  Of course, I knew better than to believe that “populism” fit perfectly into the single homogeneous categorization like the media attempts to portray. However, the extent of difference between the European Populist parties is quite shocking. For example, as Professor Heinisch explained, the distinction between populist parties in the East, West and South are significantly different from each other – varying along the lines of style, scapegoat, etc. Furthermore, even the public’s reactions to these populist parties vary geographically; in the West, traditional political parties attempt to isolate populists and refuse to cooperate with them, while in the East traditional parties shift their alliances to benefit from the populists.

That said, I was equally as surprised by one of the similarities that European Populist parties have in common – “the Putin connection.” As Professor Heinisch explained, populist parties across Europe have continuously received financial aid and media support from Russia. Initially, it seemed odd that Europeans were not more outraged by this connection – attempting to use it against the populist parties. However, after Professor Heinisch explained the division between populist voters and traditional-party voters, it became clear that the Russia connection would make little difference in political elections.

Given the number of varying strategies that have been used to eliminate populist parties in Europe, my question to Professor Heinisch would be which strategy he believes is most efficient, or if there is no single strategy for combating Populism that can be universally applied seeing as populists adapt to the current political climate of a given country. I was particularly curious about Professor Heinisch’s comment about traditional parties that have allowed the Populist party take power, fully expecting them to flounder and thus lose public support. From my perspective, this strategy seems like a rather uncertain gamble but, if it is common for populist parties to fail after taking office, perhaps the risk is worth it? I would like to know the percentage of populists that thrive while in power, as opposed to those that fail.

Syria: A No Win Situation?

This past Tuesday, Bashar al-Assad unleashed a chain of chemical bombings that resulted in the deaths of dozens of innocent men, women, and children — even going so far as to target medical clinics and hospitals. Although Assad and his Russian backers have repeatedly claimed that the attack was not of their volition, it is clear that only the Assad regime had both the means and motive to stage an attack of such massive proportions.

In a statement released by President Donald Trump yesterday, he denounced the Assad regime — claiming that the attack “crossed many, many lines” and changed his attitude towards Bashar al-Assad “very much.” Of course, President Assad has been wrecking havoc on the Syrian people for more than six years, and has used chemical weapons in the past, so this latest attack (tragic as it may be) is not entirely surprising.

Of course, President Trump is not the only one to blame for Assad’s actions. Former-President Obama, after making his Red Line Statement in 2012, failed to deliver on the threats that he made against the Assad regime. In the words of Arizona Senator John McCain, “what’s worse than doing nothing is saying you’ll do something and then do nothing.

That said, it seems that President Trump may be planning to follow a similar course of action (or rather inaction) to that of his predecessor if Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s recent statement is anything to go on. However, Republicans like John McCain and Marco Rubio appear far more intent on removing Bashar al-Assad from power than the Trump administration.

In a recent statement by Marco Rubio, the Florida Senator explained that it was irresponsible for the American leaders to assume that Assad is not a primary threat to the Syrian people and to the United States. In fact, according to Senator Rubio, many of the radical jihadists in the Middle East are initially radicalized in response to the violence they and their families face from the Assad regime. We cannot efficiently combat ISIS if we do not first examine the factors that are causing these radical groups to gain support.

As a world leader, the United States has an obligation to act in response to such a blatant war crime. For six years, we have allowed innocent Syrian civilians to be brutally murdered by their own government, and we have offered almost no assistance or asylum. It is time that we offer the Syrian people our assistance — it is time that we provide them with a strong ally so that they may retake their homeland without being forced to chose between pledging their allegiance to the Assad regime or to radical jihadist groups.

This has gone on for long enough.

International Group: The Informed Citizens Discussion Group Fall 2016

For my sophomore year of college, I decided to shift from an international book club to a discussion group which focuses on diving into the deep issues of current events, both domestic and foreign.

The Informed Citizens Discussion Group(ICDG) is an organization on campus which organizes small discussion sections to spread awareness and understanding of pressing issues from all around the world.

I was initially attracted to the group because I have a deep-rooted interest in current events and global affairs. Since I was old enough to understand the dynamics of politics and related issues I have been drawn to talking to anyone and everyone about what is occurring in the world. Since starting college and with the introduction to larger classes, there have been less opportunities to sit down and have a discussion with a group of equally invested individuals.

I decided to join the Informed Citizens Discussion Group because I knew of a few other Global Engagement Fellows who were involved in the program and really enjoyed themselves. I signed up for the Wednesday time slot which held a meeting every Wednesday from 4:30-5:20.

The experience was exactly as I have imagined and hoped it would be. Every week I was able to engage in conversations about a wide array of current events. The group gave me another reason to stay up to date with articles and be actively involved in seeking out information about news.

Being the presidential election season, the discussions were definitely interesting, to say the least. I am glad to have been able to be a part of a gathering of students who were each so passionate about what they were discussing. Most of the students held generally liberal views, yet there was a pleasant sprinkling of differing opinions which kept the meetings from becoming an echo-box of reinforcement.

Discussions ranged from talking of Kim Jong-un’s recent theatrics to an in-depth analysis of the Oklahoma state questions which were on the ballot in November. We discussed the human right’s abuses being carried about by Philippine president Rodrigo Duterte, the cabinet appointments that president-elect Donald Trump has been making, the formation and rising prominence of the ‘Alt-Right’, the death and history of Fidel Castro, immigration reform and polarizing issues.

The discussion group taught me to sit and listen rather than thinking of only of what I am going to say next. It was interesting and exciting to sit and listen to 10 different voices and opinions engaging with each other. Some were very conflicting while others were reinforcing and supportive. Being exposed to differing thought processes encouraged me to be introspective, analyzing my own opinions and the reasoning behind them. Surprisingly I found myself taking a different stance on a topic by the end of a discussion session, more than once.

The Informed Citizens Discussion Group gave me a safe spot to engage in serious conversation once a week with no ties to grades or repercussions for having a lack of understanding on a topic.

I look forward to continuing participation in the group for the Spring 2017 semester, especially as the Trump presidency begins to take hold and effect the United States and global community.

On the 2016 Election, SQ 779, and the Bleak Future of the OK Education System

I am shocked by the disastrous results of this election, and I am thoroughly disappointed in my fellow Americans – and more specifically my fellow Oklahomans – for not only electing a misogynistic, racist, xenophobic, failed businessman and ex-reality TV star (who has multiple trials for both fraud and rape coming up within the next year) into the highest office in the nation, but also refusing to recognize the extent of the OK Education System’s failings and refusing to vote for SQ 779 that would have offered much-need (albeit limited) relief for our state’s educators.

I am not going to dwell on the fact that Donald Trump will most likely be our next president (primarily because it makes me physically ill to do so). My only hope for our federal government is that the US Congress will be able to minimize the destruction that Trump will inevitably leave in his wake.

Tonight, I would like to call all of your attention to SQ 779. No, it is not a sustainable solution. Yes, our state legislators need to get it together and provide us with some better options. But let’s be honest, do any of you really have faith that our legislators are going to rise to our challenge? I certainly don’t; they certainly haven’t in the past. Right now, our education system needs any scrap of funding that it can get, even if that funding comes in the form of a penny tax. Our teachers are drowning – they are underpaid, overworked, and held to unrealistically high expectations. Today, we also proved that they are underappreciated in the state of Oklahoma.

I know that many of you voted no on SQ 779 because it isn’t an adequate solution. I have seen many claims that SQ 779 is simply a band-aid applied to a bullet wound. You are absolutely right. SQ 779 was honestly insulting to OK educators, however it was also our best chances at offering them some temporary relief. I am saddened to say that, as Oklahomans, we failed them. By voting no on SQ 779, we have chosen our pride over our educators.

I am disappointed, yes, but I am also afraid. I am truly, deeply, genuinely afraid for the future of our nation and for our state.  Education is the backbone of our society – if we do not give our children the opportunity to receive a quality education, how can we expect them to provide this nation with a quality future. The short answer? We can’t.

A Response to the 2016 Oklahoma State Questions

The 2016 general election is just around the corner, in five days to be exact. Who would have thought the presidential election would come down to Hilary Clinton vs Donald Trump? It’s something out of an SNL skit, for sure.

But what is often overlooked in these elections are the smaller ballot decisions which have effects on one’s local life. The presidential election outcome is actually less likely to have an effect on the average person than local elections, obviously. In this upcoming election, there are state questions on the ballot which have the ability to drastically change Oklahoman life.

Allow me to elaborate on my views of them. The quick descriptions of these ballots were brought to you by ballotpedia.org and okpolicy.org.

State Question 776 was designed to assert that all methods of execution would be constitutionally allowed unless prohibited by the United States Constitution and designated statutorily by the legislature.  It gives the Legislature the power to designate any method of execution, prohibits the reduction of death sentence due to an invalid method of execution, and prohibits the death penalty from being ruled “cruel and unusual punishment” or unconstitutional according to the Oklahoma Constitution

My vote? No

The question would essentially make it so that Oklahoma cannot deem the death penalty unconstitutional. It would place the death penalty above the law, bypassing the system of checks and balances that keeps justice.

Furthermore, 776  is likely to be opposed by higher courts as soon as it is passed. Why waste the time and resources?

State Question 777 was designed to establish a constitutional right for farmers and ranchers to engage in farming and ranching practices. The amendment bans any new law regulating or prohibiting an agricultural practice unless it can be shown to have a “compelling state interest.” That means any new agricultural regulations would have to pass strict scrutiny, the legal standard used for laws that deprive people of fundamental rights like free speech, gun ownership, or religious freedom.

NO. NO NO NO. 

A huge, loud, resounding, echoing NO.

This bill would make it so that “farming” is a constitutional right; any new laws and farming can easily be dismissed as an infringement on “constitutional rights.” If technology currently used by farmers is later found to be environmentally harmful, or inhumane, new regulations would be extremely likely to be turned down on this defense.

State Question 777 would allow an unchecked farming industry to develop in Oklahoma under the guise of giving citizens the “right to farm.” Big farming industries would be drawn to Oklahoma because they could claim protection under this amendment.

Think about this: ANY NEW LAW proposed to regulate farming practices would be held under the same level of scrutiny as new gun laws! I’m sorry, but the freedom to farm is not equal to the rights to freedom of speech, religion, and the right to bare arms. It shouldn’t receive the same protections as these fundamental rights. Farming ought to be regulated by ever changing environmental regulations, and Oklahoma shouldn’t become a safe haven for big corporations to farm without fear of checks on their farming practices.

State Question 779 was designed to increase the state sales tax by 1 percent to generate revenue for education funding. Of the total revenue generated by the new tax, 60 percent would go to providing a salary increase of at least $5,000 for every public school teacher. The remaining funds would be divided between public schools (9.5 percent), higher education (19.25 percent), career and technology education (3.25 percent), and early childhood education (8 percent). The State Board of Equalization would be required to certify that revenues from the new tax are not being used to supplant existing funds.

Yes. While it feels odd to be to vote to increase taxes, I’m confident this measure would be successful in improving education in the state of Oklahoma. It’s estimated that, if passed,  State Question 779 would add $615 million per year in education funding.

According to Oklahoma Watch. Org , in the 2012-2013 school year, the amount spent on individual students, at $7,912 ranked 49th in the nation along side teacher pay, which shared the same ranking. Oklahoma is struggling to keep and recruit teachers, even the ones who are educated at the University of Oklahoma.

While some claim that a penny tax would harm the poor, one also has to understand that teachers in Oklahoma ARE the poor. The students who are receiving one of the worst educations in the United States, they BECOME the poor. Oklahoma desperately needs this tax if it wishes to reverse the state of it’s education.

State Question 780 and 781: 780 was designed to reclassify certain property offenses and simple drug possession as misdemeanor crimes, and 781 was designed to use money saved by reclassifying certain property and drug crimes as misdemeanors, as outlined in State Question 780, to fund rehabilitative programs.

This is a simple yes for me, to both measures.

I don’t believe the state should be spending ludicrous amounts of money to imprison people for small offenses. The money saved by altering the charge severity would be used for rehabilitation programs, in turn reducing the amount of crime and drug abuse in Oklahoma, and in turn saving even more money.

Take these facts from the Vera Institute of Justice:

IN FISCAL YEAR 2010, the Oklahoma Department of Corrections (ODOC) had $441.8 million in prison expenditures. However, the state also had $11.6 million in prison-related costs outside the department’s budget. The total cost of Oklahoma’s prisons—to incarcerate an average daily population of 24,549—was therefore $453.4 million, of which 2.6 percent were costs outside the corrections budget.

Though some would like to say this measure would “legalize marijuana” and “make criminals commit more crimes,” it is simply not true. The measure would aim to rehabilitate and help those caught with small amounts of drugs, rather than sending them to prison, an expensive process which also has been proven to lead to harder drug exposure and abuse. It’s time for Oklahoma to fix it’s overgrown prison problem.

State Question 790 was designed to repeal Section 5 of Article 2 of the Oklahoma Constitution, which prohibits public money from being spent for religious purposes.

Coming from a Christian, I have to say, no. This is for a couple of reasons.

Being that religious institutions are already tax exempt, it doesn’t make sense for them to receive tax-generated money.

The state should not endorse or fund any one religion, nor should it endorse and fund any processes related to all of them.

Scholarships given to students who then decide to attend a private religious school have already been held constitutional.

Even if the bill is passed, the ten commandments will still most likely be removed from the state capitol grounds.

State Question 792 was designed to allow grocery stores and convenience stores to sell full-strength beer and wine. Currently these stores are prohibited from selling beer containing above 3.2 percent alcohol by volume, as well as all wine and all liquor. SQ 792 would also allow Oklahoma liquor stores to sell refrigerated beer and alcohol accessories (i.e., sodas, corkscrews). The measure would allow multiple beer and wine stores to be owned by one corporation (ownership would be limited to two stores per person if spirits are sold). Currently individual liquor store owners are not allowed to have more than one store. If SQ 792 passes, these changes would take effect on October 1, 2018

There is ALSO a companion bill which will go into effect if this bill passes, SB 383. It allows direct shipment of wine into Oklahoma, increases the clerk age for selling beer from 16 to 18, and establishes other regulations on the sale of alcohol.

Yes. 

Oklahoma currently has the strictest laws regulating alcohol. It is time for Oklahoma to drop the outdated laws.

Being that this practice is legal in almost every other state, the proposed negative effects on liquor stores are unlikely to be realized. Passage of this bill would make the purchase of alcohol more convenient for consumers and it would open the industry in Oklahoma. Liquor stores would be allowed to sell corkscrews and mixers, increasing the likelihood that customers will use these stores as a “one-stop” place for their alcohol needs.

The bill would also allow liquor stores to sell refrigerated beer, allowing crafted and specialty beer to be sold in these stores. It would open the door for Oklahoma beer makers, at a time when beer crafting is an up and rising hobby. Some crafted beers cannot be stored without refrigeration.

The only negative part of this bill is that it could possibly allow larger corporations to open chains of beer and wine stores in Oklahoma.

The measure would allow multiple beer and wine stores to be owned by one corporation (ownership would be limited to two stores per person if spirits are sold). Currently individual liquor store owners are not allowed to have more than one store.

While these stores wouldn’t be able to sell liquor, it is still something to consider. However, the benefits outweigh the negatives.

 

This coming Tuesday is going to change a lot for both America as well as the state of Oklahoma. If you’re over 18 years old, please vote. Don’t brag about not being registered to vote. Don’t let the mudslinging convince you that political action is arbitrary. Don’t allow yourself to concede to political apathy. If you’re not voting, you DO NOT lose responsibility for things that may go wrong, because you have the opportunity to make a difference.

Not acting on your right to vote is a vote for whatever side you oppose.

 

 

 

 

Intro to Mass Communication: Blog Question #1

What question drives your interest in media? What question(s) are you hoping you will find the answer to regarding your media world?


The question that drives my interest in media is a resounding, “What is the truth?” As I’ve grown, I’ve been exposed to a multitude of ideas and points of view, and it seems as though every outlet of news presents events in their own scope. With a scope comes in the inevitable field of view that isn’t captured within that circle.

What is left around the edges? What do these scopes leave out that are integral to true understanding of what is happening?

From what school curriculums leave out, to every fact ommited in the new editions of textbooks, to the focus that news organizations adopt when reporting.

These questions of ambiguity created by these purposeful limitations drive me to delve into the world of media. I want to expose myself to the techniques used to frame information in biased ways, the underground realms of news that the mainstream media leaves out, and the psychological aspect of our ever deepening obsession with the world of media. When one masters these techniques they can escape the pre-made mold of knowledge enforced to optimize citizen submission and reduce backlash.

Why are we ever obsessed with media? Does it harm our essence of human being? Is it inescapable that we would eventually come to this point of digital interaction? How does digital media obsession drive political and global forces?

The search for unfiltered knowledge drives my interest in media.

On Black Lives, Privilege, and Systemic Racism

First of all, lets just get this out of the way, I am white. Actually, to be even more specific, I am a white, non-disabled, straight, upper-middle class female. So, on practically all accounts, I fit perfectly into the cookie-cutter categories that society has deemed “normal.”

Let me clarify one thing — I am not ashamed of being “normal.” I like who I am, but it would be ridiculous for me to try to deny the privilege that my “normal”  status grants me in society.

I don’t want to feel guilty for being white, just like I don’t want anyone else to feel guilty for being black, red, yellow, green, purple, etc. However, what I do feel guilty about is spending over half of my life silently perpetuating the systemic racism that pervades our society by accepting my privilege without any consideration for those who couldn’t share in it.

That’s something else we should probably touch on: privilege.
And, more specifically, white privilege.

**No, white privilege is not a myth or a scheme or a guilt trip; It is an actual real-life thing, and it is EVERYWHERE.

White privilege is being able to go to the store and buy “skin-color” Band Aids that actually match your skin tone. White privilege is being able to turn on the TV and see a wide array of people who look like you.
White privilege is getting pulled over by a police officer and not having to worry about being attacked.
White privilege is going to an interview and knowing that your name won’t be the deciding factor of whether or not you get the job.

White privilege is my being able to write this article and know that even though some people will disagree, they won’t base their opinion of everything I say on the color of my skin.

I could seriously keep writing about white privilege for the next week, but for the sake of my sanity (and yours) I’ll move on.

***(If you want a full description of what white privilege is, check out White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack.)***

This brings me to Black Lives Matter.

Let me go ahead and answer the question that many of you are probably thinking right now: yes, all lives matter. no black lives do not matter more than any other lives.

However, in our society, black lives are undervalued and black people are under represented. The Black Lives Matter movement isn’t about proving that black lives are worth more than any other lives; Black Lives Matter is about saying that black lives matter as much as all other lives.

Yeah, that probably sounds obvious to you. After all, you’re not a member of the KKK, right? You have a black friend, right? you’re not a racist, right? Martin Luther King Jr. is on of your role models, right?

Good, all of this is a great start to ending racial inequality, but it is just the beginning. Just because you aren’t actively racist, doesn’t mean that you aren’t still a part of the problem.

The only way to truly end racial inequality is to be actively anti-racist.

However, it’s really difficult to fight racism when you don’t realize what forms it takes in our modern society. So, lets take a quick sec to talk about systemic racism.

No, racism is no longer about having to sit at the back of the bus like Rosa Parks. No, it isn’t enforced by Jim Crow laws. It is deeply and systematically imbedded in our society in ways that often go unnoticed by those of us who have the privilege of remain unaffected by it.

Systemic Racism is the fact that the black unemployment rate is almost always twice the white unemployment rate. And, before you explain this away by assuming that people of color are just less motivated or less qualified for employment, this same ratio goes for black people with college degrees vs. white people with college degrees.

Systemic Racism is the fact that black people are charged an average $700 dollars more that white people when buying cars, and the fact that when they drive their cars they are twice as likely to get pulled over as white people.

Systemic Racism is the fact that black people are four times more likely to be arrested for possession of marijuana, despite the fact that marijuana is used equally by blacks and whites.

Google the phrase “systemic racism” and you can see for yourself just how prominent this issue is in our society.

It isn’t enough to be “colorblind.” For one, if you claim that you are truly blind to the color of peoples’ skin you either have an actual medical condition or you are lying.

It’s natural to judge people based on their appearances, and in moderation it can even be a good thing. Seriously, it is basic self-preservation to be aware of your surroundings.

Of course there are some crappy black people; there are crappy white people too. There are crappy cops and crappy lawyers and crappy construction workers. What we need to recognize is that people aren’t crappy because their skin is a certain color, or because they have a certain job. People are just crappy because we are people and the world isn’t a perfect place.

Systemic racism will stop when (and only when) white people start taking responsibility for our privilege. When we all stop assuming that the amount of melanin in someone’s skin somehow dictates their behavior. When we stop trying to explain away the injustice in our society and actually start trying to correct it.

Systemic racism will stop when we stop picking sides between All Lives Matter and Black Lives Matter, start recognizing that they are the same exact thing, and unite as human beings to combat inequality.

On Trump, Skittles, and Refugees

“If I had a bowl of Skittles and I told you three would kill you, would you take a handful? That’s our Syrian refugee problem.”

This is the tweet that Donald Trump Jr. sent out on Monday, and there are more than a few things wrong with it. After I saw the tweet I was shocked by the demeaning ( and not to mention inaccurate) message that the image conveyed, but, then again, I guess the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree.

After all, what can we really expect from the same campaign that has likened Mexican immigrants to rapists, made fun of a disabled reporter, proclaimed that veterans who are captured during war are not true war heroes, and faulted a female news anchor for having a period.

The list of the Trump Campaign’s trespasses could go on for days but back to the issue at hand.

First and foremost, Donald Trump Jr.’s tweet it is severely dehumanizing. I mean seriously, is it really that hard to muster up the common decency required to refer to people as people instead of food?? I don’t care how good skittles are, if somebody ever negatively referred to me as a poisonous candy (or a peanut — shoutout to Mike Huckabee) I would be pissed.

And, can we just think about how bug that bowl of skittles would have to be for this analogy to be even remotely accurate? All it takes is some basic math to understand how ridiculous this tweet really is.

*Side note: I haven’t used skittles to do math since I was in the second grade learning how to add and subtract, but desperate times call for desperate measures.

According to the Migrant Policy Institute, the US has admitted a total of 784,000 refugees (or skittles, if you asked Donald Trump Jr.) since 9/11. Of these 784,000 only 3 — I repeat: THREE — have been arrested for suspected terrorist activity. So, lets do some simple addition:

784,000 / 3 = 261,333

Most importantly, I wouldn’t advise anyone to eat 261,333 skittles ever, much less in one sitting. But for the sake of Trump’s analogy, lets say that this was a good idea. The bowl that Trump pictures in his tweet is relatively small; I’ll be generous and assume that it would holds 200 skittles. How many bowls  of skittles would you need to eat to be at risk? 1,306.

I can only speak for myself, but I certainly don’t have that many bowls  (or skittles) in my possession.

On top of all of this, the image featured in Trump’s tweet is actually copyrighted…from a refugee. I mean honestly, if you are going to be an insensitive jerk to all refugees the least you could do is make sure that you have authorization to use the photograph in your advertisement.

In my opinion the best response to Trump’s tweet came from a Wrigley Co. (the creator of skittles) representative himself, when he astutely pointed out that “Skittles are candy. Refugees are people.” going on to explain that Wrigley did not feel that it was “an appropriate analogy.”  I don’t know how to dumb it down any more than that.

I guess that it is too much to ask for that a presidential campaign would be informed (and respectful) enough to know that comparing people who have literally been forced from their homes and separated from their loved ones to poisonous skittles isn’t okay.