Human Rights Indices as Communication Tools for Social Change

That’s a whole lot of jargon for one title! I apologize. Let’s take a step back.

An index is essentially something that points to something else, such as the index at the back of a book. It is composed of indicators, which are essentially quantifiable ‘things’ that are indicative of less quantifiable ‘things.’ Indicators can be thought of as proxies or “metaphor[s] for phenomena that are not directly measurable” (Green 2001). Here, the concept of an index refers to a system designed to produce numerical scores across a range of entities (e.g., companies) based upon some set of indicators. More formally, indices of this type are “compound measures that aggregate multiple indicators” (Hawken and Munck 2013: 802).

For example, a website that rates local restaurants may develop scores (or indicators) on a variety of elements, such as food presentation or cleanliness, based on user ratings from one to five. Those scores (indicators) may then be aggregated into an overall indicator of ‘quality’ for each restaurant, which the public can then use to compare restaurants. In this case, the overall set of rated and ranked restaurants could be considered an index, based on indicators relating to the dining experience. Human-rights- and social-progress-based indices (from here on, ‘HR indices’) work similarly.

I recently published my findings from an evaluation of one such HR index – the Ranking Digital Rights’ “Big Tech Scorecard.” I argue in this paper that indices like RDR’s, while they might be seen as boring for lots of audiences, can actually provide very valuable resources for activists trying to create social change. I wrote a blog post about the paper for RDR’s website, so instead of writing another post here I’m just going to link to the one I wrote for them.

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The Title of Our Public Schools’ “Gifted” Program Needs to Change

Before my daughter entered the Wissahickon School District in the suburbs of Philadelphia this past fall, as a first grader, we were invited to take a tour of the school. It reminded me a lot of my own elementary school growing up, except that the walls were filled with inspiring messages including “Promote a Growth Mindset.”

As an educator, I knew exactly what this meant, and I was thrilled that my daughter would be going to a school that taught her that nothing comes easy: if you want to get good at something, you have to work hard for it.

Carol Dweck, who developed the concept of a growth mindset, describes it as follows:

Some students believe that their intellectual ability is a fixed trait. They have a certain amount of intelligence, and that’s that. Students with this fixed mind-set become excessively concerned with how smart they are, seeking tasks that will prove their intelligence and avoiding ones that might not. The desire to learn takes a backseat.

Students with a growth mindset, on the other hand:

…believe that their intellectual ability is something they can develop through effort and education. They don’t necessarily believe that anyone can become an Einstein or a Mozart, but they do understand that even Einstein and Mozart had to put in years of effort to become who they were. When students believe that they can develop their intelligence, they focus on doing just that. Not worrying about how smart they will appear, they take on challenges and stick to them.

You may have heard of this concept in pop culture parenting articles that advise parents to stop telling their kids that they’re “smart” when they get a good score on a test or play a song on the piano, but rather to say things like “Wow! You must have really worked hard and practiced a lot,” with the advice generally about praising them for working hard, not suggesting they are innately smart or talented.

So, needless to say, I was thankful my daughter was going to a school that was aware of the dangers of teaching children that intelligence is innate and was so progressive and modern.

Or so I thought. After most of the year had passed, and she’d generally had a wonderful experience, I was surprised last month when I got an email from the school informing me that the “Gifted Screener” would be coming next week, and would be screening first graders to see if they qualified as gifted.

Wait. What?

Don’t get me wrong, I’d heard of the program. It’s state-wide, it exists in a variety of forms around the country, and we had it when I was growing up. I think it’s a valuable program. But I also thought that, surely, this outdated title would have been replaced by a more progressive one given that we’re trying to teach our kids to work hard and not expect things to be “gifted” to them.

Now, I am not arguing that there aren’t kids that truly have an innate level of intelligence that is far beyond their peers. I certainly believe this is the case. For some kids, having a very high innate level of intelligence doesn’t just mean they do well in school. In fact, it often means they do poorly in school because it is difficult for them to function in the regular learning environment. For some of these students, being “gifted” might not feel like much of a gift at all. I am not questioning the need for the program or the benefits for children. My understanding is that these programs are tremendously helpful. However, I have two major concerns with how the word “gifted” might negatively influence other students.

Let’s take a step back and look again at the idea of a fixed mindset (“academic skills are innate and you either have them or you don’t”) vs. a growth mindset (“you work hard and practice if you want to improve your academic skills”). If you’re not familiar with this literature, there’s a fascinating experiment that was done by James Stigler and Harold Stevenson in the 1990s comparing American and Japanese first graders that captures it perfectly. This excerpt summarizing the experiment is from an NPR article:

We decided to go out and give the students an impossible math problem to work on, and then we would measure how long they worked on it before they gave up. The American students “worked on it less than 30 seconds on average and then they basically looked at us and said, ‘We haven’t had this.’”

But the Japanese students worked for the entire hour on the impossible problem. “And finally we had to stop the session because the hour was up. And then we had to debrief them and say, ‘Oh, that was not a possible problem; that was an impossible problem!’ and they looked at us like, ‘What kind of animals are we?’”

You may or may not agree with an educational environment that teaches children to work on an impossible problem for an hour, but the point of this line of research in general, as with Dweck’s research on fixed vs. growth mindsets, is that some students learn that there is value in struggle, that if you can’t figure something out it doesn’t mean that you’re not smart, that it might be an opportunity to learn and grow, and that it might even be enjoyable.

This is lengthy but worthwhile excerpt from an article by Dweck, summarizing research her and her team have done:

In many of our studies… 5th grade students worked on a task, and after the first set of problems, the teacher praised some of them for their intelligence (“You must be smart at these problems”) and others for their effort (“You must have worked hard at these problems”). We then assessed the students’ mind-sets. In one study, we asked students to agree or disagree with mind-set statements, such as, “Your intelligence is something basic about you that you can’t really change.” Students praised for intelligence agreed with statements like these more than students praised for effort did. In another study, we asked students to define intelligence. Students praised for intelligence made significantly more references to innate, fixed capacity, whereas the students praised for effort made more references to skills, knowledge, and areas they could change through effort and learning. Thus, we found that praise for intelligence tended to put students in a fixed mind-set (intelligence is fixed, and you have it), whereas praise for effort tended to put them in a growth mind-set (you’re developing these skills because you’re working hard). We then offered students a chance to work on either a challenging task that they could learn from or an easy one that ensured error-free performance. Most of those praised for intelligence wanted the easy task, whereas most of those praised for effort wanted the challenging task and the opportunity to learn.

While some students may have higher innate levels of intelligence than others, and truly do need alternative learning environments because of it, I think we ought to be very careful about suggesting, even through language such as the word “gifted,” that there is a clear line between students who are “highly intelligent” and those who are not. While some students may have an innate ability that other students would never achieve, even with hard work, I am unconvinced that any kind of test or screener can determine with 100% certainty who falls within this category.

According to the Pennsylvania Code, it is very clear that the designation of a student as “gifted” is subjective. According to the Code, a person with an IQ score of 130 or higher may be designated as gifted but multiple other criteria can also be used, and students with scores under 130 can also be designated as gifted. Assessment is completed by a school psychologist. I cannot imagine that there aren’t any question marks or borderline cases. After some internet digging, I found that my school district has approximately 4,900 students, and in the 2018-2019 academic year 449 students, or about 9% of students, were deemed to be gifted. It is difficult for me to believe that every single one of these students is leaps and bounds above the other 91% of students. There has to be a gray area, and therefore there has to be room for movement.

When it comes to IQ, I am certainly not the first to suggest that intelligence tests are not perfect nor that they might not reflect fixed, innate, intelligence. The fact that kids from high-income families tend to be overrepresented in gifted programs indeed suggests that there is something more to being gifted than simply genetics.

But the word “gifted” suggests just that. It literally brings to mind a present bestowed upon someone – not something you can work toward.

My second concern is that, even if you had a perfect test that recognized some precise point at which students needed additional learning support, using this word still sends a harmful message to kids. You cannot convince me that average kids (or adults for that matter) understand the nuanced difference between “really good at school” and “gifted.” I am sure that for at least some kids they see the gifted kids as the “smart” ones and feel that they are, therefore, not as smart.

I distinctly remember in the first grade that there were three students in my class that got pulled out for special math lessons, and I remember being pissed that I wasn’t selected to be part of this special group. I could tell you right now what their names were; they were seared with jealousy onto my brain. But I worked hard at school, I liked school, and by the sixth grade I was part of a gifted and talented program. (It was not in Pennsylvania and I don’t think it used the same criteria as Pennsylvania.) At the time I didn’t think twice about the significance of the words, but I do wonder now how it would have affected me if I had gotten the message in the first grade that I simply didn’t have the “gift.” Would I have worked as hard as I did, or would I have given up a little? The research on growth mindsets suggests that the latter is at least a possibility.

And what about kids that are “gifted” in other areas like music, art, cooking, fashion design, poetry, etc.? Are we suggesting that these other kinds of natural talents aren’t as valuable? That they aren’t also gifts?

I have been told that many of the teachers and staff in our elementary school use the word “enrichment” instead of “gifted.” To me this suggests an inherent acknowledgement that “gifted” is a word we should not be using with young children who are trying to discover who they are. Why, then, do we feel it’s ok to use this word with any children? Especially when there are other terms, like enrichment, that could function just as well? Why can’t the program be framed as something that students might qualify for one year, even if they didn’t qualify the previous year? How many kids are we, intentionally or not, deterring from achieving their academic potential?

There are a lot of problems in the world right now and the title of a school program is arguably not high on the list of things we should be exerting our energy on. But at the same time, it’s a pretty easy fix. So I appeal to the Pennsylvania Board of Education: Can we please just change the name of this program??

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Empowerment & Trauma

The sub-discipline of Communication studies that I focus on – Communication for social change (CSC) – takes as one of its foundational elements that empowerment of marginalized groups is a key component of social change. By empowering marginalized groups, the logic goes, they can be the instigators of authentic, relevant, and sustainable change.

A problem that arises, though, is that ‘empowerment’ is very hard to define. In CSC it often refers to political empowerment or political voice, meaning having a voice in the public sphere, being able to speak about policies, and in particular having influence on local, community, or political decision-making.

But personal empowerment – including self-confidence and self-efficacy – is important too. Further, personal empowerment is particularly important when we’re talking about victims of trauma, who might not be ready (for a variety of reasons) to discuss their views of politics in the public sphere.

One aspect of personal empowerment that is particularly valuable for victims of trauma is the ability to tell their own story. For many survivors of trauma, the ability to tell one’s story, even to a friend, can feel impossible, or re-traumatizing. In this case, we can see why victims being able to tell their stories would be empowering on a personal level, and valuable for individual healing and happiness, regardless of whether that empowerment ever led to more politically oriented social change. Indeed, I would argue that for those who have suffered trauma, this sort of reckoning with one’s own story is a necessary precursor to more meaningful political engagement, and one that is too frequently overlooked in models of empowerment within CSC.

Trauma, another word that has multiple definitions, is often viewed as a niche issue, a rare experience caused by a single horrific event or episode in one’s life. But trauma is not actually so rare, which is why there has been so much recent attention paid to trauma-informed care. The U.S. Department of Health describes trauma as potentially resulting from a ‘set of circumstances experienced by an individual as physically or emotionally harmful or life-threatening with lasting adverse effects on the individual’s functioning and mental, physical, social, emotional, or spiritual well-being.’ Some chronic trauma is a result of the stress of living in poverty, experiencing institutional oppression or inequality, or experiencing subtle ‘every day’ racism. Approximately 90% of U.S. clients in public behavioral health care settings (who are more likely to be poor) suffer from trauma; approximately one in seven children in the United States experiences some form of abuse or neglect (with much higher numbers in low SES households); approximately one in four women in the United States has experienced intimate partner violence (IPV). Other marginalized groups in the U.S., including ethnic minorities, incarcerated individuals, LGBTQ+ communities, and immigrant communities, also experience trauma and PTSD at higher rates. In other words, trauma is a significant and daily hurdle for many populations.

In a recent paper in Applied Communication Research,I discuss an evaluation I conducted of a housing facility for homeless survivors of intimate partner violence – most of whom suffer from trauma. One of the conclusions of this paper, based on many discussions with survivors, is that ‘empowerment’ following abuse is almost impossible until trauma is (at least partially) healed and survivors stop living in constant fear. This might seem obvious, but many CSC interventions generally, and many U.S. IPV policies specifically, seem to operate as if this is not the case.

For example, many CSC projects are designed under the assumption that giving people political voice – an opportunity to take part in decisions that affect their daily lives – will be empowering for marginalized communities no matter what. In other words, there is insufficient acknowledgement that such projects may fail if individuals are traumatized to a degree that they aren’t ready to jump into politics and advocacy and protests. Indeed, many such projects have failed because targeted populations were unwilling or unable to engage politically, and trauma may be a partial explanation for some of these failures.

Within IPV interventions specifically, U.S. housing policy often promotes a ‘housing first’ philosophy for homeless populations. This is the idea that one cannot be empowered, cannot thrive, until they have a home of their own. Subsidized housing is therefore a common intervention for the homeless, including homeless IPV survivors.

The facility I evaluated here, however, was a transitional housing facility, meaning survivors lived at the facility for a short period of time (typically six months to two years). The address of the facility is confidential, there are strict limits on visitors, and clients enter through a locked gate with a monitored security camera. They have access to a variety of resources on-site including a case manager and a therapist. Note that this is very different from being placed, on one’s own, in a subsidized housing program. In contrast to subsidized housing programs and an emphasis on independence, the transitional housing program emphasizes emotional healing from trauma and finding the strength to survive on one’s own after abuse. It is, in many ways, a journey of self-discovery.

I spoke with the clients of this facility to try to understand how they view empowerment and how they believe IPV survivors can go on to thrive after abuse. I analyzed the interview transcripts together with a small group of current and former clients of the facility. Together, we concluded that none of the program clients could begin to feel empowered until they felt physically safe. Being in a state of physical fear makes it impossible to begin recovering from trauma. It was only when they came to the transitional housing facility, with its locked gates and security cameras, that they could begin to heal.

Here are but two of the many comments made by clients of the facility that capture this sentiment:

“In the past month or so, when I’m out of the gates I don’t feel that safe, but when I’m inside of the gates I feel safe because I know that he can’t get in, and there’s cameras and stuff.”

“Before I got here, I really didn’t feel safe. It was a constant… I mean, I do look over my shoulder today, still, from time to time, just, you know what I mean, just to be safe. Better safe than sorry… But since being here, I’ve … I guess it’s like a shell, like a turtle shell I guess. You know what I mean? I’m okay when I’m in my shell. I’m fine as long as I’ve got my shell.”

The interviews revealed that it is difficult to accomplish any goals – personal, political, or otherwise, when one feels physically unsafe. While transitional housing clients often felt physically unsafe even while within the locked gates of the facility, this feeling would have been multiplied if they were immediately put into permanent housing, where there are no gates, no cameras, and no staff on site. Being in this state of constant fear and paranoia makes it impossible to recover from trauma.

On the other hand, a feeling of safety can be transformative and empowering. Being in a facility with gates and cameras allows clients to breathe for a moment. As one of the clients put it, ‘When you feel safe, when you know nothing is going to happen to you, you become a different person.’

And yet, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development has recently ‘fundamentally shift[ed]’ away from transitional housing and toward subsidized housing under the assumption that living independently is the best way to become empowered and thrive. In other words, the current wisdom stands in almost complete opposition to the idea that IPV survivors cannot feel empowered when they feel alone and unsafe – when they are still experiencing everyday trauma.

The transcript analysis also revealed that storytelling – both to others and to oneself – can be a powerful way to heal trauma. The group of women that analyzed the interview data with me concluded that relating one’s story of abuse was a key component of empowerment and that story disclosure through social support groups ought to become a key pillar of the program.

At first I was reluctant to go [to the community meetings]… But once I started coming, it got easier and easier… and then I just let my guard down and then realized that these women was just like I was. You know, different story but same situation. And it just, you know, [I said to myself]… ‘Give life a chance. Stop holding back so much…’ And you know, people would look around and go, ‘I’m not the only one.’ …And it just was, how can you say? A sort of type of a home that I didn’t have. I can’t speak for nobody else, but that I didn’t have at that time. That I guess I was searching for…

For some of the survivors at the facility simply being given a safe space to breathe and think about what happened to them (in other words, to self-reflect) was incredibly healing. As one client put it:

I did a lot journaling while I was there. I did a lot of that. Things that I learned to gain your clarity and gain your balance back. I had the space to do it. I feel like [this program] is a great place for any woman that needs the space to re-direct… Good, bad, everybody has their story.

There is already much research indicating that telling stories to others, or journaling to oneself, has positive health effects (e.g., this piece by Joshua Smyth and Melanie Greenberg). Yet, storytelling as a way to heal trauma is rarely discussed within CSC (though an exception to this is the sub-field of communication for peacebuilding in conflict-affected regions). Again, the typical emphasis of CSC work is political engagement, not personal healing.

This evaluation suggests that we need to focus more on personal empowerment as a precursor to political engagement. Indeed, there was some evidence here that personal empowerment could lead to more political engagement. Some of the clients who had finished the housing program did express an interest in acting in leadership roles, in terms of speaking with other survivors as mentors or offering motivational support. This echoes findings by others who have found that IPV survivors who have healed from trauma have gone on to take on other kinds of leadership roles.

Trauma can inhibit empowerment. But at the same time, those who have experienced trauma may be especially motivated to become empowered. Trauma therefore represents a challenge, but also an opportunity to empower those who deeply deserve to find meaning and hope in their lives, and who may be uniquely motivated to help others by pushing for political change down the line.

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I’m starting a blog. Maybe.

I’m going to start blogging. I’m a bit late to the game, I know. I’m not even sure if this counts as a ‘blog’ as I only have one entry.

I’m also not sure yet that I have a unifying ‘theme’ for my blog. Do I need that? I also don’t have a title. (I’m open to suggestions!)

Overall, I’m hoping that this will be a place to 1) discuss my research in a way that is not overly academic (read, boring to 99% of people) and 2) to try to tie my research interests to current events.

Between work, family, kids and life, I fear that this effort will be one more thing that never quite gets off the ground, but I’m going to try!

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