A Connecticut teenager who says she was mocked and shamed for not standing up during the Pledge of Allegiance filed a federal lawsuit this week against her teacher and the school board.
The unnamed 14-year-old student said she and other students remained seated as part of a “peaceful and nondisruptive” protest over racial discrimination against black people in her lawsuit filed Monday in U.S. District Court.
The Waterbury Arts Magnet School teacher brought another teacher into the classroom to lecture the students on their “supposed lack of patriotism” while praising others who stood, according to the lawsuit.
The student’s attorney, John Williams, said the teacher “went way overboard,” and his actions violated her First Amendment rights.
“As long as they are not being disruptive, they are entitled to freely express political views,” he said.
Williams told the Republican-American the student’s mother reached out to him after attempts to resolve the issue with school administrators failed.
He said the student has been “frightened and intimidated” as a result of the teacher’s actions.
Williams said they’re seeking an injunction to stop the teacher’s behavior and get undisclosed damages.
A message left at the school district’s superintendent’s office Thursday was not immediately returned.
Minister and elder Sammie L. Berry talks with the news media after a Sept. 9, 2018, worship assembly at the Dallas West Church of Christ, Botham Jean’s home congregation. RNS photo by Bobby Ross Jr.
The preacher stood wearily on stage, wiping tears from his eyes.
The mayor, working to bring healing to a city of 1.3 million, sought solace on a front pew.
Allison Jean, mourning the fatal shooting of her son Botham Shem Jean by a police officer, wailed as the 250-member, predominantly black congregation sang hymns such as “Trouble in My Way.”
“I know that Jesus — Jesus— he will fix it after a while,” the church sang.
Television and newspaper cameras captured the emotion — and the heartbreak — as the Dallas West Church of Christ gathered to worship just days after the inexplicable killing of 26-year-old Botham Jean in his own apartment.
The recent Sunday was no ordinary Lord’s Day for the congregation, which was grieving the sudden loss of a beloved song leader and Bible class teacher — and doing so under an immense media spotlight stretching from Texas all the way to the Caribbean island nation of St. Lucia.
Attorney Lee Merritt, left, with Botham Jean’s mother, Allison Jean, to his right, speaks to the news media at the Dallas West Church of Christ after a prayer vigil on Sept. 8, 2018. RNS photo by Bobby Ross Jr.
“Somebody like Bo — why?” church member Sherron Rodgers said, uttering the question on everybody’s mind. “Why did it happen to somebody like him? I’m just sad.
“He was a special, kind person who would never mess with anybody,” she added. “He’d take off his jacket and give it to you. That’s the kind of person he was.”
According to those who knew him, Botham Jean was a devoted man of faith with a “beautiful” and “powerful” singing voice.
He was baptized at age 10 in his native St. Lucia and moved to the U.S. at age 19 to attend Harding University, a Christian liberal arts university in Searcy, Ark. He often led worship at Harding’s daily chapel assembly and served for three years as a ministry intern with the nearby College Church of Christ.
Allison Jean, right, mother of shooting victim Botham Jean, hugs a mourner after a prayer vigil Sept. 8, 2018, at the Dallas West Church of Christ. RNS photo by Bobby Ross Jr.
Officer Amber Guyger, who lived in the same apartment complex as Botham Jean, was charged Sept. 9 with manslaughter and booked into jail before posting bond.
According to an arrest affidavit filed by Texas Ranger peace officer David L. Armstrong, Guyger worked her shift Sept. 6 and then returned home. At the apartment complex’s multi-level garage, she parked on the wrong floor and then mistook Botham Jean’s home for her own. After entering through his slightly ajar door, she confused him with a burglar and opened fire.
But for the victim’s mother, a former top government official in St. Lucia, many perplexing questions remain. The official narrative about how her son died doesn’t make sense.
“The No. 1 answer I want is: What happened?” said Allison Jean, who was joined at a recent news conference by attorneys and Allen Chastanet, the prime minister of St. Lucia, a nation of 178,000 people. “I have asked too many questions and been told there are no answers yet.”
At the microphone, Allison Jean was flanked by Botham Jean’s older sister, Allisa Findley, and his younger brother, Brandt. Noting that Botham Jean was her middle child, the mother said, “I stand in the middle to represent Botham.”
Botham Jean’s death has refocused national attention — and even international attention, given the St. Lucia connection — on police shootings of unarmed black males by white police officers.
Students, faculty and staff at Harding University in Searcy, Ark., gather Sept. 10, 2018, on the university’s Benson Auditorium steps to grieve and remember alumnus Botham Jean. Photo by Noah Darnell, courtesy of Harding University
This week, a group of Dallas religious leaders, including megachurch pastors Matt Chandler of the Village Church and T.D. Jakes of the Potter’s House, wrote a letter expressing grief over Botham’s death and calling for “fair, consistent application of the law” in the investigation. Guyger’s status as a police officer should give her “no advantage in the current investigation nor upcoming prosecution.”
“We demand full transparency, consistency, and integrity in the days ahead as the judicial process progresses,” they wrote.
A criminal investigation is ongoing. So far, Guyger has not faced disciplinary action from the Dallas Police Department for the shooting.
“An exhaustive and thorough criminal investigation is essential, and as soon as we are assured that conducting an administrative investigation will not impede on the criminal investigation, we will proceed,” Dallas Police Chief U. Reneé Hall said in a statement this week.
At the Dallas West Church of Christ, minister Sammie L. Berry said the congregation will work to support the family and make sure justice is served.
“Bo was an outstanding young man,” Berry said of Botham Jean, who had started preaching occasionally on Sunday nights. “You just can’t think of how this could happen to him. I mean, all he did was go to work, go to church, help people.
“We’re going to make sure that his name is lifted up. We’re going to make sure that we get answers to what happened,” the minister added. “We won’t allow this to be just brushed to the side and move on to the next case. He meant too much to his family. He meant too much to this congregation, to his college, to the place where he worked.”Allison Jean told the congregation at a prayer vigil that her middle son “did everything with a passion,” including serving the Lord.
“I can never give up because I know that Botham is singing with the angels, and I want to be in that choir,” she said. “I want to see my son. I want to look upon his face.”
When Botham Jean was born in 1991, his mother said, “God gave me an angel.”
While much of the national conversation focuses on race, she said Botham Jean “never saw color. He never saw race. He wanted all of us to unite, to be together.”
Mike Rawlings. Photo courtesy of City of Dallas
Dallas Mayor Mike Rawlings, who earlier met with Botham Jean’s family to express his condolences, stayed for the entire two-hour Sunday service.
At the end of the service, Rawlings told the congregation he came not in an official capacity but as a citizen, “wanting to soothe some of my hurt because the city of Dallas is hurting so bad.
“To be able to sing with you, to be able to pray with you, to be able to listen to this wonderful sermon was just what I needed because I feel like, as mayor, I’m in the perfect storm,” he said.
The mayor drew cheers when he agreed with Berry that “we all need to be like Bo.”
“God bless you,” Rawlings said as he wrapped up his remarks. “Let us pull together. We will be a better city once we know the truth and once we come together and heal.”
Tommy Bush, a retired executive minister, works with a small congregation in Romance, Ark., an unincorporated community about 20 miles west of Searcy.
Bush, 70, served as a professional mentor to Botham Jean his senior year in college and helped the accounting graduate land a job with PwC, formerly known as PricewaterhouseCoopers, in Dallas.
The two became close friends and worked together to support missions in St. Lucia and Kenya.
“His theology — his philosophy — was to get as good a job as he could and to make money to be able to give,” said Bush, who came to worship with the Dallas West church and comfort Botham Jean’s family. “He had great ideas for serving poor children and orphans in St. Lucia.”
Bush said he prays the charged officer knows Jesus.
“I just hope that she has the indwelling presence of Christ,” Bush said, breaking into tears, “because Botham will be the first one in line to give her a hug and welcome her home.”
(Bobby Ross Jr. writes for the Christian Chronicle.)
Asale Chandler holds a picture of her son, Yalani Chinyamurindi, who was murdered at age 19. Now, Chandler is a running for the Board of Supervisors in San Francisco. (Alex Leeds Matthews/California Healthline)
SACRAMENTO, Calif. — More than three years have passed since Asale Chandler’s teenage son was murdered in San Francisco. But Chandler said it feels as though it has been only three days.
The anguish doesn’t get better, said Chandler, a 55-year-old community activist from San Francisco at a recent rally. “It gets worse.”
Chandler’s 19-year-old son, Yalani Chinyamurindi, was one of four young black men who were shot and killed in January 2015 while sitting in a Honda Civic in the city’s Hayes Valley neighborhood. One man has been arrested in connection with the shooting.
Chandler prayed, protested and communed with other mothers — and brothers, sisters, aunts and uncles — who have lost their loved ones to violence.
The “Mothers Fight Back!” rally came amid ongoing unrest over the police shootings of unarmed black men, including Stephon Clark, who was killed in his grandmother’s backyard in Sacramento in March. His death sparked large-scale protests that blocked traffic and disrupted Sacramento Kings basketball games.
But attendees of the rally noted they were speaking out against violence of all kinds, not just police brutality. They said they took to the Capitol steps to grab the attention of lawmakers and journalists.
A poster commemorating Stephon Clark, who was killed by Sacramento Police in March, sits on the Capitol’s steps during the Mothers Fight Back! rally. (Alex Leeds Matthews/California Healthline)
A few, like Chandler, are running for public office. Others participated to support their loved ones and join in solidarity with other mothers.
“You do want to connect to a mother or a father who’s been through it,” Chandler said. She hasn’t found solace through therapy or medication, but said being around other mothers whose lives were also transformed by violence is “the true medicine.”
The rally was passionate, but it wasn’t as pugnacious as its name might suggest. The moms came bearing snacks, handcrafted posters and children’s books. They sang and said prayers.
Participants said they are facing a dire mental health crisis fueled by violence, trauma and uncertainty.
“It’s traumatic for all of us. … We’re scared to death. We don’t know what to do, we don’t know how to act,” said Leia Schenk, 40, a social services worker in Sacramento, who is close with Sahleem Tindle’s family. Tindle was shot and killed by BART police near the West Oakland BART station in January.
Asale Chandler’s son was murdered more than three years ago in San Francisco. At a recent rally, the community activist participated in a Hebrew “mother’s prayer” at the Mothers Fight Back! rally at the Capitol. (Alex Leeds Matthews/California Healthline)
Schenk said she struggles with the emotional fallout from the violence and fears for her children, particularly her two black sons. “It’s a helluva way to live,” she said.
Black children die from gun-related homicides at a rate nearly 10 times higher than that of white children, according to a 2017 study in the American Academy of Pediatrics. Another study published a few weeks ago showed that black men are at risk of being killed by police at a rate about triple that of white men.
The statistical differences are important, said Chet Hewitt, president and CEO of the Sierra Health Foundation, which awards grants to reduce health disparities.
However, the numbers don’t reveal the mental and physical pain that afflicts victims and their communities contending with violence, said Hewitt, who did not attend the rally.
“You are constantly on high alert, and you are constantly in a state of mourning,” said Cat Brooks, an Oakland mayoral candidate and a co-founder of the Anti Police-Terror Project.
Brooks, who has a 12-year-old daughter, attended the gathering to address the struggle many black parents encounter trying to protect their children from violence.
“Because there is no rhyme or reason to our people getting killed, that means there’s no one to tactically figure out how to avoid it,” said Brooks, 41. “We teach our children everything we can about how to stay alive.”
A poster commemorating Stephon Clark, who was killed by Sacramento police in March, sits on the Capitol’s steps during the Mothers Fight Back! rally.
That trauma, fear and uncertainty has measurable effects on health.
Community cohesion can help people heal from acts of violence, but violence can also erode that sense of togetherness, said Flo Cofer, director of state policy for Public Health Advocates, a nonprofit organization that works to address health disparities.
Many of the communities most affected by violence also face other physical and social challenges like poverty, hunger and educational obstacles, she said.
“That’s part of the reason why the violence is so devastating. This is happening in a place where trauma is the air they breathe,” Cofer said in a phone interview.
At the rally, the low-key gathering of approximately 50 people consisted mainly of women and children. Moms parked strollers under a tent while their former occupants munched on crackers or toddled on the Capitol steps.
As one little girl, dressed in flowery overalls and shimmery sandals, danced to the “Circle of Life” song, adults and older children, dressed in white, surrounded her, clapping to the beat.
When the mothers gathered for a Hebrew “mother’s prayer,” Chandler stood near the front with her arms stretched above her head.
She is running for the Board of Supervisors in San Francisco to address the violence in her Bayview-Hunters Point neighborhood. “I’ve seen nothing but yellow tape, and it messed me up so badly,” she said.
Yolanda Banks Reed led the prayer.
Banks Reed’s son was the young man who was killed nearly seven months ago near the BART station. She said she knows the mental toll will be lifelong.
“It’s a life sentence for a mother,” she said. “A mother should not lose her children.”
In the book, legal scholars Devon Carbado and Mitu Gulati argue that in the “post-racial” era, white-controlled organizations prefer to hire “‘good blacks’ who will think of themselves as people first and black people second.”
“They will neither ‘play the race card’ nor generate racial antagonism or tensions in the workplace,” the book contends. “They will not let white people feel guilty about being white; and they will work hard to assimilate themselves into the firm’s culture.”
This lets an employer realize the benefits of diversity without having to deal with issues of race, Carbado and Gulati argue.
Their critique made me wonder: Do America’s colleges and universities act the same way toward black students in the admissions process?
What I found is that historically and predominantly white institutions are more likely to embrace black students who don’t profess interest in racial justice.
Preferences at play
In other words, similar to how the authors of “Acting White” argue that white employers like black employees who see themselves as people first, and black people second, my study found that white colleges like black students who see themselves as students first, and black students maybe second or third or fourth, if at all.
My research suggests that black students who state that they plan to fight for these kinds of things might never get the chance to set foot on campus of the college of their choice.
Racial hostility on campus
It also matters because this is a time when black students are facing hostile environments on campus. At Yale, for instance, earlier this year a white student called police on a black student who was napping in a common area. I would argue this is a time when America’s college campuses need more students eager to fight racism, not just acquiesce.
It’s not that white colleges don’t want black students – many do. A 2014 report showed that nearly all enrollment leaders at hundreds of public and private historically and predominantly white institutions indicated a goal to enroll “diverse students.” Research shows this often means black students.
However, what my study shows is that these institutions are more likely to screen out black students who vocalize opposition to racism.
To investigate whether white admissions counselors were screening black high school students who don’t adhere to the color-blind imperative, I conducted a nationwide audit study. I began by generating and testing a list of distinctly black names, such as Lakisha Lewis and Keshawn Grant, that would signal to white admissions counselors that the students who were emailing them were black. I then created an email account for each name.
Next, I created four email templates that represented black students interested in 1) math and English, 2) environmental sustainability, 3) African-American history and culture, and 4) anti-racism. In each one the fictitious student asked if he or she would be a good “fit” for the school based on their interests and activities.
I sent a random sample of 500-plus white admissions counselors at the same number of private, historically and predominantly white colleges across the United States, two of the four emails from two fictitious black high school students approximately one month apart. I selected small or medium-sized colleges and universities from U.S. News & World Report’s 2013 list of best colleges.
To identify white admissions counselors, a research assistant and I used profile pictures from college websites or websites such as LinkedIn and Facebook. Only those counselors who both of us independently agreed appeared white were classified as white.
My findings revealed that white admissions counselors were, on average, 26 percent less likely to respond to the emails of black students whose interests and involvements focused on anti-racism and racial justice. The gender of the counselor and the student also mattered. White male counselors were 37 percent less likely to respond to anti-racist black students. And when black women students committed to anti-racism were emailing white male counselors, they were 50 percent less likely to receive a response.
The most extreme finding was the difference in the response rate for white male counselors responding to black women. Black women interested in environmental sustainability got a response rate of 74 percent, while those who presented the anti-racist narrative got a response rate of 37 percent. Stated differently, white male admissions counselors were twice as likely to respond to black women if they were committed to fighting environmental degradation instead of white racism. This indicates that it was not activism that depressed the response rate of anti-racist black students, but rather the focus of their activism.
Degrees of race consciousness
Noteworthy, too, is the finding that white admissions counselors were just as responsive to moderately race conscious black students who participated in culturally resonant activities, such as a jazz band and gospel choir and who mentioned the phrase “cross-cultural understanding,” as they were to black students who revealed no interest in racialized involvements. This suggests, in other words, that it was not simply race consciousness, but a critical race consciousness – one that unequivocally challenges the validity of color-blind ideology – that seemed to be unappealing to some white admissions counselors.
Importantly, the screening pattern I uncovered doesn’t necessarily show that admissions counselors are purposefully discriminating against anti-racist black students, but it doesn’t preclude it, either. Whatever the case may be, there are clear, concrete and immediate steps that administrators can take to curtail this racially discriminatory practice.
Some may think the solution is for black students who actively fight racism to masquerade as something that they are not. One problem with that approach is it’s difficult, if not impossible, to be vocal against racism and not leave evidence of one’s anti-racist activism in their digital footprint. For that reason, I focus my solutions on what institutions can do, not how black students should comport themselves to fit into a white environment.
Second, schools should institute policies requiring admissions counselors to respond to all inquiry emails. Currently, the National Association for College Admission Counseling doesn’t have any best practices for email or inquiry response, according to an association official I spoke with for this article.
Third, the chief admissions administrator should develop a system whereby all admissions staff emails are randomly audited for responsiveness, content and tone.
Fourth, and most importantly, as with employment discrimination, there must be appropriate sanctions and consistent enforcement to maximize compliance. Such a system would incentivize admissions counselors to act in a non-discriminatory manner toward not only black students but all students committed to fighting against white racism and white supremacy.
Might this intervention come at a financial cost to colleges and universities? Perhaps. But it should not be a prohibitive one. Either way it is necessary. If some white admissions counselors don’t even respond to an inquiry email due to a black student’s commitment to racial justice, how can they be trusted to treat these students fairly at the application stage?
Merlin, 38, left Cameroon last year due to violence. But as a black immigrant, his experience in America has been a unique challenge. Rachel Zein for The Texas Tribune
Editor’s note: Some language in this story may not be appropriate for the faint of heart. Consider yourself warned.
After a months-long journey across the Atlantic Ocean, into Central America and through Mexico, Merlin arrived at the U.S. port of entry in Laredo full of hope. The 38-year-old who worked in hotel management said he fled violent political unrest in Cameroon to seek a new life in America, a country he viewed as a bastion of safety and freedom.
But after legally crossing the border and asking for asylum, Merlin was detained by federal officials for 11 months. He lived at the South Texas Detention Complex along with people who didn’t look like him or speak his native language, French.
Merlin, who asked to be identified only by his first name because he’s fleeing political persecution, was frequently frustrated with how the reality of life as a refugee in America conflicts with the country’s image as a haven for immigrants while he struggled through an asylum process experiencing fundamental shifts under the Trump administration.
This wasn’t the United States he thought would be welcoming him with open arms and opportunity. Some days, he questioned why he came.
“I was a bit disappointed for what we were thinking,” Merlin said last week. “In Africa, you thought [America] was paradise.”
As the Trump administration implemented its now-reversed “zero tolerance” immigration policy and narrowed previous paths to asylum , thousands of Mexican and Central American immigrants became the faces of chaotic changes that federal agencies made in how they treat people legally and illegally crossing the border.
But asylum seekers like Merlin who fled African countries have also been ensnared in the bureaucratic tumult. And those black African immigrants arriving in Texas are finding a litany of racial, cultural and practical challenges that can be different from — and overshadowed by — the experiences of Latino immigrants who flood into Texas each year, advocates and experts say.
“We become frustrated with the single story pushed out,”said Deborah Alemu of the UndocuBlack Network, an organization that advocates for black, undocumented immigrants.
The number of African immigrants in the U.S. has roughly doubled every decade since 1970, according to the Pew Research Center. The original plaintiffs at the heart of what is now a class-action lawsuit that the American Civil Liberties Union filed against Immigration and Customs Enforcement over federal officials separating families seeking asylum are from the Democratic Republic of Congo.
Texas, the second-most populous state in the country, has more than 235,000 foreign-born African residents. That is more than any other state, according to 2016 U.S. Census data. But those immigrants represent only 5 percent of the state’s total foreign-born residents, thanks mainly to the large number of immigrant Texas residents born in Latin America.
Alemu said that historical racism and discrimination directed at black people in America can exacerbate the difficulties African immigrants already face for being an asylum seeker.
“You won’t be recognized as Ghanaian, Congolese or Jamaican,” Alemu said. “You’ll be recognized as black.”
A “resting place of hope”
Four houses sit in a cul-de-sac in East Austin, forming what is almost a small town. Children outside run from house to house. Doors slam as squeals of laughter and chatter fill the air. These homes belong to Posada Esperanza, which roughly translates to “resting place of hope,” a transitional housing program for immigrant mothers and their children who are escaping cultural or domestic violence. The organization provides immigrant women and their children with temporary housing and resources to find jobs and permanent homes.
Patti McCabe, the shelter’s director, said Posada’s population was once majority Latino residents. But now, nearly half of the women housed at Posada are from African countries. Most of them fled the Democratic Republic of Congo — a country dealing with violent fallout from the 1994 Rwandan genocide, which triggered a wave of weak governance, exposing Congolese civilians to sexual violence and rape, extreme poverty and human rights violations by rebel groups.
McCabe said Africans often travel as family units. But once they reach American soil seeking asylum, the husbands are detained and the women and children are often released while they wait for court dates. Posada receives many immigrant women who are pregnant or have given birth without their spouses by their side. One Congolese woman currently at Posada was within days of her due date this month while her husband remained detained at a facility in New Jersey.
“When you think of family separation, you think of children being separated from their parents — that’s what everyone has been talking about,” Posada case manager Laura Messenger said. “But what we’ve seen a lot this year and what we have been seeing for the past two is our women and children here being separated from their husbands and fathers who are still in detention.”
Posada’s staff teach women how to ride the city buses, find health clinics and research work and housing options during their stay. But the goal is to teach the women to financially sustain themselves and their children on their own — which can be incongruous to the traditional gender roles some of the women were taught. Yet for the women of Posada, being financially independent single mothers while their husbands are detained has been empowering, McCabe said.
“It would be they might have input, but the husband always makes the ultimate decision,” McCabe said. “But now, like it or not, they’re the ones who need to make the decisions.”
Still, basic activities like riding public transportation or going to the grocery store can be a difficult task for those who don’t speak Spanish and English — the two most predominant languages in Texas.
“I just can’t imagine how that must feel from their perspective — to not be able to communicate even simple things about what they need in the facilities, let alone their asylum claim and conveying that in an application that’s in English,” said Priscilla Olivarez, an attorney with American Gateways, an organization that has asylum-seeking clients from Africa.
Then U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions last month issued a ruling that made it tougher for victims solely escaping domestic or gang violence to seek asylum in the U.S. — leading to more deportations before seekers have the opportunity to argue their cases in front of an immigration judge. Sessions had previously criticized what he called widespread abuse of the asylum system and said in October that the asylum process “has become an easy ticket to illegal entry into the United States.”
Olivarez, who sees many asylum claims from African immigrants based on religious reasons or gender-based violence, said she’s seen an increase in asylum denials after Sessions’ June ruling. Olivarez has also seen an uptick in cases where people are being required to pay a parole bond so they can be released while awaiting a final determination of their asylum request. And she’s noticed more parole bond requests denied, meaning asylum seekers are being detained as the process winds through federal courts.
“Before the administration change, we wouldn’t see that,” Olivarez said. “Generally we wouldn’t see parole bonds and they wouldn’t be as high as we’re seeing.”
Immigrations and Customs Enforcement reported that 35,070 bonds have been posted so far this year, compared to 48,199 for all of 2017 and 42,384 for all of 2016.
An ICE spokesman said there have been no changes to the bond policy and that “custody decisions are made on a case-by-case basis taking into account multiple factors, including immigration history, criminal history, medical history and ties to the community.”
Olivarez said her African clients have been “shocked” when they are detained after seeking asylum at the border — especially those who were imprisoned in their home countries for being political activists and must now deal with what she called the “retraumatization” of being detained.
“Many clients tell me they did not think they would be treated this way,” Olivarez said. “For many of them, America was a country that valued freedom, which is why they made the dangerous journey to come to the U.S. They believed the U.S. was the only country that would provide them with sufficient protection. However, when they arrive in the U.S., they feel as if they are treated as a criminal.”
From African jail to American detention
Merlin left Cameroon after violence erupted between the country’s French-speaking population, which dominates the government, and English-speaking separatists, who have reportedly been marginalized by the French-speaking majority.
Since 2016, scores of civilians on both sides have been killed, with the government accused of torturing suspected separatists and separatists accused of kidnapping and extorting civilians and state workers, according to Human Rights Watch.
Merlin, who grew up farming with his parentsand is now a single dad, saw the country he loved rapidly change before his eyes. After being arrested with hundreds of others during a protest, Merlin’s mother begged him to go to America for his safety.
He was surprised that he was detained for so long, but he said he’s grateful that it was only 11 months. He met other detainees who had been there for years.
“Why allow people in and detain them?” Merlin said.
Racism, discrimination linger beyond asylum process
Merlin was released in February and then stayed at Casa Marianella, another Austin-based immigrant adult shelter, where he connected with other French-speaking African immigrants. As he awaits a judge’s ruling on his asylum case, he is slowly adjusting to life in America.
“When you get out of [detention], you put your hand on your chest and say, ‘thank God,’” Merlin said. “I’m more safe today.”
But even those black African immigrants who are allowed to stay while their asylum requests are processed — and those who successfully immigrate to the United States — face racial bias and discrimination both inside and outside the immigration enforcement system, according to a 2016 report by the NYU Immigrant Rights Clinic and the Black Alliance for Just Immigration.
Nigeria recently surpassed India to become the country with the highest number of people living in extreme poverty: 87 million. Nigeria is oil-rich and boasts Africa’s fastest growing economy. Yet six of its people fall into extreme poverty every minute.
This is the continent’s paradox: vast natural resources and mineral reserves alongside extreme poverty.
Historically, poverty has been predominantly dealt with as a lack of material resources or an income deprivation issue. Development work has focused on pushing resources to poor communities. Many have criticised the availability of “free money” through international aid, which they say has created a “dependency syndrome”, dishonest procurement and white elephant projects. Aid work has also been accused of fostering paternalism rather than partnership.
Without contextual knowledge, education and adaptation, foreign or imposed practices or resources cause new sets of problems. This is seen again and again across countries that depend on aid. For example, where food poverty was causing under-nutrition in parts of Malawi, financial aid has alleviated it. But that problem is quickly being replaced by diabetes and hypertension – because of a narrow financial solution to a complex problem.
We argue that tackling poverty requires a different focus, rather than just money. It requires partnerships and practices that promote learning, particularly in relation to cultural and self-knowledge. Having communities identify their own problems, then collaborate to find solutions, is also crucial. Money has a role to play in partnerships, but projects shouldn’t default to depending solely on it.
Many of the factors that are blamed for contributing to poverty are not measurable in dollar terms or connected to income. These include people’s lack of choices, restriction of freedom, lack of skills, gender castes and barriers.
Understanding these issues and their complexities require looking at poverty through a sustainability lens. This is a perspective that focuses on ethical and innovative ways to look at and use resources, share knowledge, and build a community to affect positive change.
Our work with the Sustainable Futures in Africa Network has shown the importance of this lens. We’re an interdisciplinary collective of researchers, educators, and communities of practice that aims to build understanding, research, and practice in socio-ecological sustainability (which recognizes the interconnection between social and ecological systems) in Africa.
We work from the understanding that because poverty is multifaceted, solutions to alleviate it must be multifaceted, too.
A number of the community projects we work with are engaged in poverty reduction practices but don’t focus solely on generating income. These projects are driven by communities on their own with existing resources; they rely on their own abilities and efforts that are not externally funded.
One example is ECOaction, which works in a slum community on the outskirts of Kampala in Uganda. Residents largely rely on collecting and selling discarded plastic bottles collected from across the city for small amounts of money.
With no resource other than time and vision, residents have built a community hall from recycled water bottles and an urban garden that grows food for residents and a chicken farm. Colorful murals and sculpture can be found around every corner.
In Botswana, the Sustainable Futures in Africa team is working with a community in Mmadinare to develop a project that will protect their farmland from wild elephants. This will not rely on or generate, external funding. But it will protect the farmers’ and the wild animals’ interests.
There are other ways to build strong sustainable communities without external financial resources. In Taba Padang, a village in Indonesia, sustainable community forestry is helping improve human well-being. There’s also Boomu African Village in Uganda, where a women’s group participates in eco-tourism and invests back into the community. They have built a nursery school and trained other residents in their village to get involved in eco-tourism.
Other self-reliance projects centre on health. For example in Lesotho, volunteers participate in community home-based health care and fill the gap in the community health care chain.
A new lens
There is, of course, no one-size-fits-all solution that will end poverty. But aid in the form of donated money, from one place to another, is culturally, practically, and ethically problematic.
Money is not the currency of well-being, sustainability, and community cohesion. More often, it’s a tool for influence and power dynamics that will favor the creditor. That’s why partnerships that rely on different types of resources and bring people together to design and act on context-relevant solutions can be such powerful drivers of change. That’s why for resource-rich Africa, promoting self-reliance would be key to eliminating poverty.
This article was co-authored by Dr. Deepa Pullanikkatil, who recently completed a residency at the University of Glasgow funded by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council, UK. She is the co-founder of Abundance (www.abundanceworldwide.org).