Jack M. Barrack Hebrew Academy in Bryn Mawr will move some human rights issues off of the front page and onto center stage when it hosts its eighth Human Rights Conference on March 15.
The numerous refugee crises; women’s health and reproductive issues; student activism; sex trafficking; racism: Human rights issues have occupied conversations and efforts in the halls of governments and nonprofit organizations — not just in the United States, but around the world — perhaps more than at any other time in recent memory.
Jack M. Barrack Hebrew Academy in Bryn Mawr will move some of these issues off of the front page and onto center stage when it hosts its eighth Human Rights Conference on March 15.
The biennial program, which began in 1999, will feature 23 speakers, including keynote addresses by Temple Adath Israel Rabbi Ariella Rosen, who will talk to middle school students about disability rights; and Marsha Levick, who will speak to the high school about the Juvenile Law Center, the “Kids for Cash” case and child advocacy.
Senior Tali Glickman, who is the president of the school’s Human Rights Club, is planning the event with teacher Thomas McLaughlin.
“The purpose of the conference is to educate and inspire,” McLaughlin said. “In the short term, our club always gains membership after these conferences, as Barrack students are motivated by the ‘do now’ philosophy. Long-term, students are inspired to become more involved in human rights causes and organizations in college and beyond.”
This will be Glickman’s fourth conference, but the first she has coordinated. She told the Jewish Exponent that the program has inspired her to study psychology at Northeastern University in Boston next year.
She acknowledged she may not have taken the conference seriously in middle school, but it really hit home when she became a sophomore, and helped her understand not to take things for granted.
“Definitely, looking back on it, it made me think twice about everything I did,” Glickman said. “It made me realize there’s a world out there that needs help.”
Glickman hopes her peers grasp the message of the conference.
“It’s all about education,” she said. “That’s the first step to changing the world.”
Levick, who co-founded the Juvenile Law Center in Philadelphia in 1975, serves as its deputy director and chief counsel. The Juvenile Law Center is the oldest nonprofit public interest law firm for children in the country. She has been an advocate for children’s and women’s rights and is a nationally recognized expert in juvenile law.
The United States is the world’s leader in incarceration, with 2.2 million people in prisons or jails. One way to decrease that sobering statistic is to manage the amount of juveniles in the system, Levick said.
She explained there are far too many children incarcerated or punished for petty crimes, due to race and mandatory minimum sentencing laws. According to the Equal Justice Initiative, a nonprofit organization that provides legal representation to indigent defendants and prisoners who have been denied fair and just treatment in the legal system, nearly 3,000 children nationwide have been sentenced to life imprisonment without the possibility of parole.
Children as young as 13 have been tried as adults and sentenced to life in prison, typically without any consideration of their age or circumstances of the offense.
“We’re tending to criminalize adolescents in a way that we don’t need to,” Levick said.
Another issue is mandatory minimum sentencing. In the 1980s and ’90s, when the country waged a war on drugs, mandatory minimums were implemented, which were justified then, but not today, she said.
The Supreme Court of Pennsylvania issued an opinion on June 15 that found the state’s Drug-Free School Zones Act, which set mandatory minimum sentences for selling drugs near schools, unconstitutional. The court’s reasoning applies to nearly all of the state’s drug- and gun-related mandatory minimum sentencing laws and will therefore invalidate those mandatory sentencing laws, too.
While she acknowledged it is difficult to amend sentencing laws, Levick said Pennsylvania is headed in the right direction.
Rosen said that although middle school students may not be in a position to make physical changes to their school, they can point out things that need to be improved. However, the kids can control the language they use and the impact of their words.
She said her goal is to educate them that embracing people with disabilities is not just a matter of chesed, but one of tzedek.
“There should be no barriers to participation in a community that are based on ability,” the rabbi said. “Another piece that’s important is this notion of ‘nothing about us without us.’ ” In particular, conversations about disabilities inclusion tend to be well intentioned, but still lead to an “othering” of the differently abled community (which in and of itself is not a cohesive group) as the objects of conversation and/or the recipients of people’s efforts rather than being the voices driving the conversation.
“I’m going to try as much as possible to bring in perspectives and voices of individuals with disabilities, rather than just talking about them,” she continued. “I think it’s a problem in general with different issues when we talk about a group of people without actually soliciting their thoughts and elevating their voices, so I’m going to do my best to avoid that.”
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