Making Progress for Working Families

By Gabriela Vasquez, a Summer 2014 Leadership Conference Education Fund Intern

This week, the White House took a big step towards starting the conversation on fair policies for working parents in the United States. The White House Summit on Working Families addressed many of the problems working families face, such as lack of flexibility in the workplace, paid leave, and access to childcare.

Leaders from a variety of fields spoke at the summit about how the United States can help working parents who are struggling with work and family obligations. Business leaders like Makini Howell, owner of Plum Bistro Restaurant, emphasized the benefits fair workplace policies provide a company. Howell firmly stated that businesses “can care about working families and still make a healthy profit.” This was underscored by many of the panelists, including Claudia Goldin, a professor of economics at Harvard, who said that the “businesses that survive the longest are the most responsive to change.”

While some at the summit praised the progress that has already been made in the United States to help working parents, a recurring theme was how far behind the nation is on a global scale. In his afternoon remarks, President Barack Obama said, “There is only one developed country in the world that does not offer paid maternity leave, and that is us. And that is not the list you want to be on. It’s time to change that.”

Since working women now make up almost half of all workers – and since six in 10 women are the sole, primary, or co-breadwinners for their families – the topic of women in the workforce was discussed extensively. And while advances have certainly been made, women are still paid less than men for doing similar work – and Congress isn’t helping.

Many of the panelists encouraged Americans to take action. From pushing for a raise in the minimum wage, to pressuring local and state officials to act, it was clear that – in their minds – there are ways to move forward on these issues. As First Lady Michelle Obama noted in her remarks, “there is no excuse for America to be following on this issue. We should be leading.”

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Senate Hearing Raises CEDAW Hopes

Strong and moving Senate testimony today raised the prospects for approval soon of landmark legislation that would benefit women and girls worldwide, according to June Zeitlin of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights.

An unusual panel of seven women senators detailed what Senator Tammy Baldwin called “egregious acts of violence” that afflict one of every three women during her lifetime, while other witnesses outlined measures to combat such abuses. At a Senate Foreign Relations subcommittee hearing on combating violence and discrimination against women, they expressed support for passage of the International Violence Against Women Act (IVAWA) and the international Convention on the Elimination of all forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW).

“I’m very encouraged that we could see action on these critically important measures very soon,” said Zeitlin, who heads the Leadership Conference’s CEDAW Project. “The Senate now needs only to put its votes where its rhetoric is.” A two-thirds majority is required for treaty ratification.

Chairing the crowded hearing, Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-CA) agreed. “We need to move on legislation that carries out this notion – not very radical – that we are all created equal,” she said. “It’s ridiculous, it’s embarrassing, it’s inexplicable” that the United States has not yet joined 187 other countries in ratifying CEDAW.

Hauwa Ibrahim, a Nigerian attorney who defends women sentenced under Sharia law to abuses such as death by stoning, testified that U.S. ratification “would be a huge partnership with our own work and make our work go easier….a collective interest beyond north versus south or Christian versus Muslim.” Defending women’s rights, she said, is “a responsibility of our common humanity,” and the United States “is our beacon of hope.”

Fully 219 of the girls captured in Nigeria by the radical Boko Haram organization remain missing she said. “We are still living in disbelief that it happened.”

Catherine M. Russell, U.S Ambassador-At-Large for Global Women’s Issues, pledged Obama administration support for CEDAW and IVAWA passage. “CEDAW would be an important additional tool to urge countries to immediately address gender-based violence,” she said. “We can’t underestimate the power it would have in the world.”

Boxer urged those present to make their views known to the rest of the Senate. “This is not complicated. This is an issue that has a solution,” she said.

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Holding on to a Historical Holiday: Juneteenth

By Quaila Hugh, a Summer 2014 Leadership Conference Education Fund Intern

Before social media, it took time for news to travel.

The news of the emancipation of all slaves, for example, took two years to travel to the South, arriving when General Gordon Granger announced on June 19, 1965 in Galveston, Texas, that all slaves were free. This came two years after President Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation and months after Gen. Robert E. Lee’s surrender. Nevertheless, Black Independence Day was born.

Juneteenth is not a national holiday yet, and other than Obama’s commemoration in 2012, there has not been much national media attention around the day. But it should be remembered and celebrated as one.

Juneteenth is an opportunity to reflect on the legacy of slavery. We should collectively celebrate a day when African Americans reclaimed their humanity and when our country decided to live up to its moral standards.

The celebration of Juneteenth also reminds us that our history should never be forgotten. Celebrate in your own way, but celebrate to ensure that this day, one that isn’t necessarily taught in America’s schools, continues to be remembered.

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Report: Current Judicial Vacancies at Five-Year Low

By Juliet Eisenstein, a Summer 2014 Leadership Conference Education Fund Intern

After an era of unprecedented obstruction in the U.S. Senate, the number of judicial vacancies is at a five-year low, according to Alliance for Justice’s (AFJ) latest “State of the Judiciary” report.

The report credits “bold action by Senate Democrats” for alleviating the frustrating process of judicial nominations that has been a mainstay throughout the Obama administration. Specifically, a Senate rules change this past November allowed the president’s judicial nominees to be confirmed with a simple majority, rather than the previous supermajority of 60 votes.

Following this modification, the president and the Senate have succeeded not only in protecting the democratic process and increasing the pace of confirmations, but also in ensuring the professional and personal diversity of the nominees. As the report says, “lawyers with experience working in the public interest have been nominated at a substantially higher rate than during President Obama’s first five years in office.” Thirteen of the 18 men and women nominated by Obama so far this year have past experience not only as public defenders and plaintiff attorneys, but also as tenured academics. Moreover, Obama has “appointed the highest percentage of women and people of color in history,” as well as eight openly gay federal judges, compared to only one confirmed before his administration.

Still, the battle continues. While progress this year is noteworthy, a greater commitment to the nominations process – one that ensures a diverse and well-resourced federal judiciary – is needed before this issue will disappear. As the report notes, “During President Obama’s time in office, current vacancies have risen by 13 percent… [and] the number of seats considered to be ‘judicial emergencies’ has risen by 25 percent.” The report goes on to express that many of these vacancies are driven by partisanship, as “states with at least one Republican senator account for 87 percent of all current vacancies without nominees, and states with two Republican senators account for 55 percent of all current vacancies without nominees.” Nevertheless, vacancies in federal courts have dropped from 10 percent of all federal judgeships to 7.2 percent in just the past month.

“Obstruction and gridlock cannot be the ‘new norm’ for judicial nominees,” the report says, and with the progress made in recent months there is still hope that it won’t be.

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More Jobs Does Not Equal Economic Growth

By Quaila Hugh, a Summer 2014 Leadership Conference Education Fund Intern

Six and a half years after the start of the Great Recession we have finally recovered the jobs we lost, according to employment data released last week by the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

The unemployment rate, however, is unchanged. Why?

As the country has grown, so has the number of jobs needed to support our expanding population. Reports estimate that we need about 7 million more jobs to keep up with the growth of the potential workforce. Further, not all jobs are created equal. According to a recent report from the National Employment Law Project, employment gains have been concentrated in lower-wage industries, where we’ve seen 44 percent of new jobs created. Only 22 percent of these jobs, however, were lost during the Great Recession.

This makes efforts to raise the minimum wage more relevant than ever. If low-wage jobs continue to replace the mid- and high-wage jobs our economy lost, our economy will struggle to see the growth it needs for families to make ends meet. Minimum wage is not a living wage. And around the country, people are demanding that Congress raise it.

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Report Provides Comprehensive Recommendations to Improve School Discipline Policies

By Quaila Hugh, a Summer 2014 Leadership Conference Education Fund Intern

The Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights (OCR) in March released its Civil Rights Data Collection, which identified troubling disparities in school discipline. Black children, for example, represent 18 percent of preschool enrollment, but 48 percent of preschool children receiving more than one out-of-school suspension.

To complement this data, The Council of State Governments Justice Center this week released “School Discipline Consensus Report: Strategies from the Field to Keep Students Engaged in School and Out of the Juvenile Justice System,” which carefully charts the harmful outcomes that strict discipline policies have on our students.

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According to the report, students suspended from school are likely to have their grades fall during the period of suspension, increasing the likelihood of students dropping out and funneling into the juvenile justice system. Further, the report echoes the OCR data in illustrating that these policies disproportionately affect students of color, students with disabilities, and students who identify as LGBT.

The report, however, does not passively testify to these issues. Collecting information, data, and testimony from over 600 practitioners over the course of three years, it outlines more than 60 recommendations for how to improve our current discipline practices. The holistic recommendations are best practices collected from every related field, including education, health, law enforcement, juvenile justice, and families, all of which have a stake in school discipline.

This report is a call to action to protect the minority students suspended at sometimes double the rate as their White peers, the 20 percent of secondary school students with disabilities, and the LGBT youth who are three times more likely to be subjected to severe disciplinary treatment. It highlights crucial changes in discipline policy needed to create a safe environment, address the behavioral health needs of children, and inform police on how to build a positive relationship with students.

As the title suggests, this will ensure we engage our students in classrooms and do not allow our most vulnerable populations to fall through the cracks and into the courtrooms.

Click here to read the full report.

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Congressional Briefing Underscores Need for Updated Profiling Guidance

By Quaila Hugh, a Summer 2014 Leadership Conference Education Fund Intern

At a recent briefing for congressional staff sponsored by The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights and moderated by Lexer Quamie, advocates explained why it’s critical that the Department of Justice update its 2003 Guidance on Use of Race by Law Enforcement to clarify the law around profiling. The guidance provides standards on the use of racial profiling by federal law enforcement officials, but contains several loopholes and exceptions, which advocates believe render it ineffective.

Adil Haq, staff attorney with Muslim Advocates, explained the DOJ Guidance that President George W. Bush issued in 2003 and the guidance’s many shortcomings, including the need to include a prohibition on profiling based on national origin and religion and the need for the guidance to apply to local law enforcement agencies that receive federal funding. Linda Sarsour, national advocacy director at the National Network for Arab American Communities, spoke passionately about the guidance’s exceptions for “national security” and the need for it to apply to data surveillance activities.

To explain the “border integrity” exception to the guidance, Jose Magaña, staff attorney with the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, drew a mental image for the audience to emphasize the importance of closing the loophole. “Imagine the next time you are on the metro. Imagine an officer boards the train and interrogates your fellow passengers about immigration status. He seems to be ignoring those with lighter skin,” Magaña said. “This is justified by border protection.”

According to the panelists, targeting individuals based, not on their behavior, but rather on the basis of personal characteristics – such as race, ethnicity, national origin, sexual orientation, or religion – undermines our constitution and creates a “culture of fear.”

The briefing called on advocates and members of Congress to take action through letters to the DOJ, floor statements, and editorials. The hope is that these actions can begin to break down the “culture of fear” and rebuild the trust that has eroded between law enforcement and many communities of color.

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