Human Rights Leaders Institute

A couple of months ago, I applied for sponsorship to attend the Amnesty International USA Human Rights Leaders Institute from July 28-30 in Chicago. Human rights has always been a passion of mine and one that I first acted on in high school when I started an Amnesty International club despite my intense shyness and social anxiety disorder. Recently, I’ve felt the need to reconnect with that passion as I’ve contemplated my goals and priorities now that I’m 30. 

Later, I had a call with the Field Officer and was invited to attend. I won’t go into the details of our activities; I’d rather focus on my takeaways from the weekend. 

First, I met a lot of smart and inspiring people at the HRLI, including the women who I will be working with here in Baltimore. I made instant connections with some and for others, I developed a respect and admiration gradually over the three days. 

Second, I was reminded of the problems that plague mostly white-led organizations, whether they acknowledge it or not. I don’t entirely believe these issues can be solved since whiteness always comes with blind spots despite the best of intentions. But the problems can only be brought to light and addressed when a wide range of people of color are active participants and decision-makers in every aspect of an organization. 

I also felt re-energized after leaving the conference. For the past couple of months, I have been taking a break from actively leading or organizing around social issues to focus on personal goals to which I hadn’t been able to devote the necessary time and effort. I came to the HRLI with no decisive result in mind. Since I just returned a few days ago, this hasn’t changed, but the regional planning sessions did invigorate me the most. These were sessions where regional groups met to discuss and plan our group agendas. The chemistry between the Baltimore women was effortless. As I usually do when making plans, I felt my excitement rising for the possibilities of human rights activism in my city. Our ability to set concrete goals and have a meeting of minds with no tension made me optimistic about future efforts together. 

The closing exercise was an unexpected and slightly uncomfortable, but invaluable experience. Everyone stood in a circle facing outwards and closed their eyes. After everyone gave consent, a smaller group stood inside the circle and touched individuals on the shoulder or back who they felt matched the prompt being called out. For example, the exercise leader said “someone who showed you kindness” and people in the middle of the circle walked around to touch those who had shown them kindness that weekend. A few people started tearing up and crying, myself included. I can’t even put my finger on why, but it speaks to the power of physical human contact and kindness. It’s not every day that we express appreciation for others and it’s a powerful act to give and receive it at the same time. 

This, along with new relationships, new skills, and renewed motivation, is what I will take away from the HRLI.


#PGPDVice Sensationalizes Prostitution Sting with Live-Tweet

The #myNYPD fiasco may have just been bumped to second place in a Twitter race to show which police department is most out of touch with reality. Last Thursday, the Prince George’s County Police Department in Maryland announced a plan to live-tweet a prostitution sting this week, a decision that has been met with considerable pushback. Opponents are hijacking the Twitter hashtag #PGPDVice and tweeting their thoughts to @PGPDNews. HIPS, a harm reduction nonprofit serving sex workers, will live-tweet a day of service from its drop-in center and outreach van in response.

This afternoon, PGPD announced that they conducted their sting but chose not to tweet about it. They made no arrests, citing the publicity as an intended deterrent. Despite PGPD’s claims of success, others are less confident that this was the plan all along.

Whatever the intention, there are valid reasons for outrage, including issues of privacy and due process. Individuals whose images will be shown are suspected of committing a crime, not convicted of one.

Just as disturbing is the effect this will have on the sex workers. Though the PGPD claims to “target those soliciting prostitutes,” the fact is this plan is guaranteed to harm women, not just their customers. Given PGPD’s—and police departments’ nation-wide—reputation for harassing, exploiting, and generally failing to help sex workers, it’s no wonder that many people don’t trust PGPD’s word. A photo of a plainclothes police officer taking a woman away in handcuffs did not help the PGPD’s argument that it will only target customers. The photo has since been taken down, but it is apparent that both johns and prostitutes are arrested which brings up a larger issue. If a sex worker decides to quit the life, an arrest record means additional hurdles to mainstream employment and housing. The shame that already exists for sex workers will only be magnified and cause further entrapment in a life that often consists of violence and abuse.

Even targeting the johns is problematic. As the National Center for Transgender Equality wrote in a letter to the PGPD, public shaming “endangers sex workers and creates additional barriers to accessing any kind of social or family support or alternative employment. Targeting sex workers’ customers isn’t any better – it further instills fear and makes it harder for sex workers to protect themselves by screening clients. In short, shaming not only doesn’t work, it’s dangerous.”

The PGPD’s live-tweet is an irresponsible PR stunt that plays into society’s existing dehumanization of sex workers. What may be an entertaining real-life episode of Law & Order: SVU to some is actually an abuse of power that has life-changing consequences for those involved.

Sexual assault, trafficking, transgender rights, and other human services organizations have been providing police training for some time now. Still, the question remains; what else has to change in order to teach police departments how to operate with awareness of social realities?

This article was originally published on Hashtag Feminism.