The Grammy Awards: A very public stance for marriage equality

On Sunday, Jan. 26, Macklemore & Ryan Lewis performed their song “Same Love” at the 56th Annual Grammy Awards. What made this performance such a beautiful and touching piece was the stance the Grammy Awards made during the performance when 33 couples— gay, straight and interracial— were married by Queen Latifah.

This public stance— written in the lyrics of “Same Love” and exemplified by the actions of those who put the Grammy Awards together— shows that the world is changing [slowly but steadily]. It also shows the power celebrities have on being a voice of change and influencing the public discourse.

Again, this song shows just how strong a message it has. Everyone has the right to marry, whether your sexuality, religion, race etc. Love is love.

From the lyrics of the song:

I might not be the same, but that’s not important
No freedom till we’re equal, damn right I support it

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The stories behind the pictures: Iraq War

“Every once in a while your path crosses paths with history”- Luis Sinco

I just watched this series of videos done by photojournalists from the LA Times, depicting their journeys during the Iraq War. They spoke about the importance of documenting and humanizing the war, the role of [photo]journalists and why civilians’ stories need to be told.

It was a sobering series of videos that renewed my love for journalism and made me remember why I became a journalist in the first place— to document history and make sure people know what has happened.

Sometimes its easy for you to forget the passion and love you have for something because it fades into the background, being toppled by the daily routines of a job.

My dream has been to become a journalist to document the progress and abuses occurring globally, specifically when it relates to human rights. Everyone should be guaranteed basic human rights, but not everyone has that luxury. Some are deprived of the basic right to adequate sanitation, education, food, water and health care; others are trafficked to a foreign country. These abuses all play a role in global poverty and need to be brought to the forefront so changes can be made.

That is why I became a journalist. I wanted to use my journalist skills to shed light on human rights abuses, much like Nicholas Kristof. And while I have not forgotten this ultimate goal— it has always been a driving force in my life— I sometimes lose sight of the importance of journalists. But the videos from the LA Times reminded me just how important the role of a journalist can be; the role we have in documenting history and exposing the truth.

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Reflecting on Sandy

When I woke up one year ago today, on Oct. 30, 2012, I was shocked at what I saw.

Hurricane Sandy had ravaged my home area [the Jersey Shore] the night before, causing us to live without power throughout the night.

When I woke up, my family and I walked to the beach to see the destruction of Sandy. What I saw was surreal. Sandy had washed away years of memories and replaced them with broken pieces of boardwalk and sand piled everywhere.

As I traveled town to town, it was a similar story: thousands of homes flooded, power lines down everywhere and first responders rescuing hundreds of people who were stranded in their homes.

What I saw post-Sandy was much more than the sum of the destruction, but became defined by the thousands of volunteers who came to our aid and the countless selfless acts between neighbors.

 

One year later, and the area I call home is essentially back to “normal” as the boardwalks were rebuilt and we were open for summer.  But, much still remains as thousands still remain displaced, with some still living with no time frame to move back home.

As I reflect on the year since Sandy, I realize how strong we were as a community and as a state. Amidst the destruction, we banded together to help strangers and friends alike, forged new friendships and helped create our new sense of normalcy.

Today is a day of reflection to remember what happened one year ago. But it is also a turning stone in our recovery, telling us to not forget the past, but also forward to the future.

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Child marriage

 

Watch this video. Although simplistic in nature, the video’s message is deep. It talks about the need to stop child marriage, and how it is tied to many other social issues, such as poverty, education and health.

According to UNICEF, child marriage is defined as the “formal marriage or informal union before age 18.”

Child marriage is an issue that many overlook or might not know about, often because people are far removed from the situation. But it is one that people should educate themselves on because it is a real issue around the world, and it is one that affects you, indirectly or directly.

Around the world, girls and boys [predominantly girls] are married at a young age, some of who are forced into it by their families.

Below are statistics from International Center for Research on Women on child marriage. These are among the reasons that this cause should be your own.

facts big

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Come see the African Children’s Choir on Nov. 23

choir-singing

 

            “Music is the universal language of mankind.”
— Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

Become part of the movement.

Join us and see how one group of children use song to
inspire change and end the poverty cycle.

The African Children’s Choir, which began in the 1980s with one man’s travels to Uganda, has sparked a movement to end the continent’s poverty cycle. The choir is composed of African children ages 7 to 10, many of who have lost one or both of their parents to war, famine or disease. The choir members represent all of Africa’s children and demonstrate the potential that each and every one of them holds. Through the program, thousands of children from various African countries are removed from their poverty-stricken homes and invited to travel the world, raising awareness and support for their brothers and sisters back home. Through song and dance, the choir gains support to fund education and youth development programs for children across Africa.

This choir is a symbol of hope and an example of the enormous impact one person can have. I would like to invite you to end the poverty cycle by donating to my campaign to support the African Children’s Choir.

The African Children’s Choir will be performing on Saturday, November 23, 2013 at 7 p.m. at Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School (4301 East-West Highway,  Bethesda, Maryland 20816). This free performance is open to the public, but the choir does accept donations to support programs

To donate to the cause, visit http://africanchildrenschoir.com/help/give-now/ . Please put “November 23- Bethesda Event” in the notes section when donating.

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New Jersey Supreme Court: Same-sex marriages can begin Monday New Jersey Supreme Court: green lights gay marriage starting Monday

I am so proud of my state.

Today, the NJ Supreme Court gave the go ahead for same-sex marriages to take place in the state beginning Monday— a stepping-stone in the right direction for the country as a whole.

The ability to marry whom you love is a right, not a privilege. It should be afforded to everyone equally, with no discrimination.

Yet, like so many other rights, the right to marry whom you love becomes a battle—a fight to gain what is rightfully yours. That battle takes time— as progress in people and law are slow—but eventually we will win.

And while there are still so many rights to fight for [including being able to marry who you love, despite your sexual orientation] today is a small victory for those who believe in equality.

In the words of “Same Love” by Macklemore and Ryan Lewis.

            “No freedom til we’re equal, damn right I support it.”

 New Jersey Supreme Court green lights gay marriage starting Monday

Courtesy: Washington Post

The New Jersey Supreme Court on Friday said gay marriages can begin taking place starting Monday, brushing aside a request from Gov. Chris Christie’s (R) administration for a delay as it appeals.

“We conclude that the State has not made the necessary showing to prevail … and that the public interest does not favor a stay,” the judges wrote. “We therefore deny the State’s motion for a stay.”

The court ruled that the state has “not shown a reasonable probability it will succeed on the merits,” which will be argued in January.

Christie’s administration is appealing a lower-court ruling from last month that legalized gay marriage, but his press secretary Michael Drewniak said in a statement Friday the governor will comply with the ruling.

“The Supreme Court has made its determination,” Drewniak  said. “While the Governor firmly believes that this determination should be made by all the people of the State of New Jersey, he has instructed the Department of Health to cooperate with all municipalities in effectuating the order of the Superior Court under the applicable law.”

Christie, a potential 2016 presidential candidate, personally favors civil unions but remains opposed to gay marriage. He has said he would prefer the issue be put on the ballot rather than decided by the courts.

Gay rights activists involved in the case rejoiced at Friday’s ruling.

“On Monday, New Jersey will begin to tear down its Berlin Wall separating straight people who have had total freedom, and LGBT people who have not,” said Steven Goldstein of Garden State Equality. “Gov. Christie, not even you have the power to resurrect that wall. 2016 may compel you to try, but the tide of history won’t let you succeed. It’s time to stop the charade of opposing the inevitable.”

Opponents, meanwhile, said it showed how judicial activism could distort the political process.

“It is extremely disappointing that the New Jersey Supreme Court has allowed the ruling of an activist judge to stand pending its appeal through the court system,” said Brian Brown, president of the National Organization for Marriage, in a statement. “The definition of marriage is something that should be decided by the people of New Jersey themselves, not by any judge or court.”

Brown noted that the idea of allowing marriage licenses to be issued while the case is still pending is “unfair both to the voters of the state and to same-sex couples themselves. If the state Supreme Court were to uphold marriage as they should do, then the validity of the ‘marriages’ that will be performed starting next week will be called into question.”

The court scheduled oral arguments for early January.

Udi Ofer, executive director of the American Civil Liberties of New Jersey, said the best solution would be for the state legislature to legalize same-sex marriage by the end of the year. Gay marriage advocates need to pick up three votes in the state Senate and 12 in the state Assembly to override Christie’s veto by January; in recent weeks, six assembly members, four Republicans and two Democrats, have announced they will now support same-sex marriage.

“This brings us another step closer in the legal battle to win marriage equality, but the fight is far from over,” Ofer said. “The momentum is on our side, and this decision will only bolster the confidence of pro-marriage lawmakers that they are on the right side of history.”

Peter Sprigg, a senior fellow for policy studies at the Family Research Council, said “it’s a little hard to know how [Friday's ruling] will cut” in terms of the legislative vote, since lawmakers could said the court is poised to resolve the matter next year anyway.

But Sprigg questioned the reasoning behind the decision to allow marriages to take place, saying, “It strains credulity to saw it will work irreparable harm to maintain the status quo definition of marriage for just a few months longer until final adjudication of the issues.”

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Shedding light on sex trafficking in the U.S.

Many people believe sex trafficking is only an epidemic abroad— but they are wrong. Sex trafficking is a global issue, one that affects the United States just as much as it does countries abroad. New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof sheds light on sex trafficking at home— and the fact that it is closer than you think— in his column today.  

 From the Streets to the ‘World’s Best Mom’

NASHVILLE — WHEN men paid Shelia Faye Simpkins for sex, they presumably thought she was just a happy hooker engaging in a transaction among consenting adults.

It was actually more complicated than that, as it usually is. Simpkins says that her teenage mom, an alcoholic and drug addict, taught her at age 6 how to perform oral sex on men. “Like a lollipop,” she remembers her mom explaining.

Simpkins finally ran away from home at 14 and into the arms of a pimp.

“I thought he was my boyfriend,” Simpkins remembers. “I didn’t realize I was being pimped.”

When her pimp was shot dead, she was recruited by another, Kenny, who ran a “stable” of four women and assigned each of them a daily quota of $1,000. Anyone who didn’t earn that risked a beating.

There’s a common belief that pimps are business partners of prostitutes, but that’s a complete misunderstanding of the classic relationship. Typically, every dollar earned by the women goes to the pimp, who then doles out drugs, alcohol, clothing and food.

“He gets every penny,” Simpkins explains. “If you get caught with money, you get beat.”

Simpkins periodically ran away from Kenny, but each time he found her — and beat her up with sticks or iron rods. On average, she figures that Kenny beat her up about once a week, and she still carries the scars.

“I was his property,” Simpkins says bluntly.

I met Simpkins here in Nashville, where my wife, Sheryl WuDunn, and I have been filming a segment about sex trafficking as part of a PBS documentary accompanying our next book. We were filming with Ashley Judd, the actress, who lives in the Nashville area and is no neophyte about these issues. Judd has traveled all around the world to understand sexual exploitation — and she was devastated by what we found virtually in her backyard.

“It’s freaking me out,” she told me one day after some particularly harrowing interviews. It’s easier to be numbed by child prostitution abroad, but we came across online prostitution ads in Nashville for “Michelle,” who looked like a young teenager. Judd had trouble sleeping that night, thinking of Michelle being raped in cheap hotels right in her hometown.

In this respect, Nashville is Everytown U.S.A. Sex trafficking is an American universal: The Tennessee Bureau of Investigation reported in 2011 that over a two-year period, trafficking occurred in 85 percent of Tennessee’s counties, including rural areas. Most are homegrown girls like Simpkins who flee troubled homes and end up controlled by pimps.

Of course, there are also women (and men) selling sex voluntarily. But the notion that the sex industry is a playground of freely consenting adults who find pleasure in their work is delusional self-flattery by johns.

Sex trafficking is one of the most severe human rights violations in America today. In some cases, it amounts to a modern form of slavery.

One reason we as a society don’t try harder to uproot it is that it seems hopeless. Yet Simpkins herself is a reminder that we needn’t surrender.

Simpkins says that she would be dead by now if it weren’t for a remarkable initiative by the Rev. Becca Stevens, the Episcopal priest at Vanderbilt University here, to help women escape trafficking and prostitution.

Rev. Stevens had been searching for a way for her congregation to address social justice issues, and she felt a bond with sex trafficking survivors. Rev. Stevens herself had been abused as a girl — by a family friend in her church, beginning when she was 6 years old — and she shared with so many trafficked women the feelings of vulnerability, injustice and anger that go with having been molested.

With donations and volunteers, Rev. Stevens founded a two-year residential program called Magdalene for prostitution survivors who want to overcome addictions and start new lives. To help the women earn a living, Rev. Stevens then started a business, Thistle Farms, which employs dozens of women making products sold on the Internet and in stores like Whole Foods. This year, Thistle Farms has also opened a cafe, employing former prostitutes as baristas.

Shelia Simpkins went through the Magdalene program and overcame her addictions. In December, she will earn her bachelor’s degree in psychology, and then she plans to earn a master’s in social work.

She regularly brings in women off the street who want to follow her in starting over. I met several of Simpkins’ recruits, including a woman who had been prostituted since she was 8 years old and is now bubbling with hope for a new future. Another has left drugs, started a sales job and found a doctor who agreed not to charge her to remove 16 tattoos designating her as her pimp’s property. And a teenage prostitute told me that she’s trying to start over because, “the only person who visited me in jail was Miss Shelia.”

Magdalene and Thistle Farms fill part of what’s needed: residential and work programs for women trying to flee pimps. We also need to see a much greater crackdown on pimps and johns.

Simpkins figures she was arrested about 200 times — and her pimps, never. As for johns, by my back-of-envelope calculations, a john in Nashville has less than a 0.5 percent chance of being arrested. If there were more risk, fewer men would buy sex, and falling demand would force some pimps to find a new line of work.

In short, there are steps we can take that begin to chip away at the problem, but a starting point is greater empathy for women like Simpkins who were propelled into the vortex of the sex trade — and a recognition that the problem isn’t hopeless. To me, Simpkins encapsulates not hopelessness but the remarkable human capacity for resilience.

She has married and has two children, ages 4 and 6. The older one has just been accepted in a gifted program at school, and Simpkins couldn’t be more proud.

“I haven’t done a lot of things right in my life, but this is one thing I’m going to do right,” she said. “I’m going to be the world’s best mom.”

 

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