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Thursday, May 8, 2014

What Can I Do?

The crisis continues as nearly 300 Nigerian schoolgirls, kidnapped from their dorm rooms, remain in the violent hands of a terrorist organization.  While it has been nearly a month, only now is the world grappling with the complexities of these young girls' fate and how to respond.  Our own country is finally asking, "how can we help bring these students safely home?"  But the answer to that question is extremely complex.  Many are calling for American military intervention...but we are also deeply aware of how problematic and imperialistic an armed military response may be.  Some are insisting the Nigerian government do more...but we do so without an awareness of how deeply entrenched this terrorist cell is within Nigeria and how difficult it will be to flush them out.

There are the lone rangers; people insisting that if you gave them a gun and ten minutes, they would free all the girls...despite their lack of knowledge of the geography or terrain or the climate.  There are the diplomats; folks who insist that they could negotiate or talk their way into getting terrorists to release these girls...as if one can reason with unhinged armed terrorists.  And as we continue, as a nation, to consider and discard ways that we can truly help to free these schoolchildren, ordinary folks are simply asking: "what can I do?"

I'm one of those people.  I have no allusions of being able to personally engage in a gun battle and I'm skeptical any time America sends troops into another country.  I recognize and respect Nigeria as a sovereign nation that must handle its own affairs, even as I know their government and military are broken.  So what can I, an American citizen thousands of miles from this conflict, do to help these girls?  How can I help end the violation of human rights in another country, without imposing my own narrow viewpoint?  How can I support my Nigerian brothers and sisters, without silencing their voices and agency?  As I've sat with these questions, I decided that there are things we can all do:

1) Work to create a culture of respect for black girls in America.  There is little value assigned to the lives of black girls in America, as well as globally.  We don't celebrate their beauty and accomplishments; we don't affirm their capacities and abilities.  In our patriarchal and white supremacist society, black girls are often the least and the last.  As a nation, we export our dominant standards of beauty and normativity; we uplift those groups and people that we value and we make them the face of a nation. The world knows that a nation protects and cherishes and defends that which it loves. When we insist on creating a culture of love and respect for black girls in America, we can export that respect throughout the world: we can take a stand and proclaim "black girls matter" everywhere when we make sure that black girls matter in our own backyards.

2) Work to create a safe environment for black girls in America to grow into adulthood.  When we engage in conversations about crime or the prison industrial complex or education, our conversations are driven by what is happening to boys.  And yet, black girls face unprecedented violence, harassment, disproportionate imprisonment rates, abuse, and neglect - much of which is not part of the grand narrative we tell about racism and inequity in this country.  What are we doing to make the lives of black girls safe in America?  What are we doing to make sure that they can safely reach adulthood? While we are grateful that black girls are not being stolen from their dorm rooms in the United States, we cannot remain silent when they are being shot in their living rooms or on front porches.

3) Work to expand resources for black girls in America to thrive and compete in a global market.  Nigeria has one of the most highly educated populations in the world. The schoolchildren kidnapped from their dorms were there to take final exams; most of them had sat for a physics exam prior to their abduction. The socio-economic and racial reality of life in America is that the vast majority of black girls in this country will not attend schools that prepare them for physics or engineering.  And while black girls and women are graduating from high school and college at very high rates, they are still earning far less than white men and white women for the same work.  Black girls are systematically discouraged from pursuing STEM fields; they often don't have mentors or advisors who support their educational dreams; they must contend with the forces of both racism and sexism in their pursuit of an education. When we work to expand education and technological resources for black girls in this country, whole communities are transformed and thrive because of it.

4) Donate time, energy, financial resources to local and global organizations that understand the rights of women and children are human rights.  When girls are subjected to sexual slavery, forced marriage, child marriage, unregulated labor, and denied an education, they are experiencing abuses of their fundamental human rights and they are being stripped of human dignity.  Access to a quality education, reproductive rights, and marriage rights are as crucial to girls thriving as are fresh air, clean water, and nutritious food. We must support those organizations, both in this country and globally, working to ensure that girls have freedom to make choices about their futures.

I believe in a God who loves and cares for the "least of these," a God who is always on the side of the oppressed, a God who calls us to love our neighbors as ourselves, and a God who hears the prayers of the broken...so I will continue to pray.  And while I pray, I will work for the safety and protection of the most vulnerable among us.  What can I do?  I can value, love, protect, nurture, advocate for, fight on behalf of all the black girls in my life and in this country - knowing that their lives matter both here and abroad.  If we want black girls to matter in Nigeria, we have to make sure that black girls matter right here in America.

© Yolanda Pierce

Friday, May 2, 2014

Bring Back Our Daughters

They had returned to the school to sit for a physics exam.  Knowing teenagers, I imagine that among the group, there were those who had studied hard for their final exams and others who were just happy to be back with their friends after the school had closed earlier in the year. Were they all asleep when the terrorists came in the middle of the night?  What were they dreaming about when armed men stormed their dorm rooms?  Were some of them still awake, catching up on the latest news with cherished friends? Were they the first to catch sight of the weapons aimed at them, to hear the angry voices shouting at them?

While forced into waiting vehicles under the cover of darkness, I can only imagine their feelings of terror and anguish: cries for beloved parents and family members...fear for best friends separated during the chaos...the anguish of imaging what is to come.  In a span of moments, over 200 schoolgirls filled with hopes, dreams, laughter, and promise are ripped from the places and people they love.  It has been over two weeks. A few have managed to escape, but the fate of far too many others is being determined at the hands of their abductors.

Despite the language being used by various media outlets, these young girls are not "brides" and they are not being sold into "marriage."  Girls who are kidnapped and forced to convert are not entering into a nuptial contract.  They are prisoners of war being trafficked into human bondage, while the world watches and does very little. Real Nigerian weddings are joyous celebrations, filled with ceremony, ritual, food, and dancing.  Terrorists who kidnap schoolchildren are not eager bridegrooms entering into the joys of marriage; they are criminals exploiting the most vulnerable members of society.

Bring back our daughters...daughters who love to laugh and sing...daughters who still enjoy snuggling on their mothers' laps...daughters who ace their physics exams....daughters who like to gossip and text with their friends late into the night...daughters who dream of college and studying abroad...daughters who have a crush on the neighbors' son...daughters who dance in front of the mirror at home...daughters who love and are beloved.

These Nigerian girls are our daughters; black girls everywhere are our daughters and their lives matter. We are commanded to love our neighbors as we love ourselves, so may we do for these Nigerian children what we would do if 234 girls from Germany or Spain or Ireland were kidnapped from their dorm rooms - turn the world upside down until they are found.

© Yolanda Pierce