The Bay Area has been a melting pot of ethnicities and cultures since its establishment. Yet, with the tumultuous social movements of the 20th century, tensions have both risen and fallen. In this new era of awareness, we look back on five key events spanning from the end of the 19th century to present day.
Special education teacher Jana Sarmiento didn’t go into teaching because she wanted to.
She did it because her Filipino father demanded it because it would be more lucrative — she had originally wanted to be a chef — but she warmed up to the position slowly, and eventually, she became the leader of Bridges, a special education program within FUHSD.
Bridges is a program that aims to educate disabled young adults aged 18 to 22 years old who would normally be unable to find jobs within an otherwise abled society that expects workers to be verbal, ambulatory and able to read. Realizing that this would affect her students’ ability to find jobs outside of school, Sarmiento took matters into her hands and founded Creative Hands, where her students work together to sell homemade products like soap and candles.
“I told myself that if [my disabled students] can’t find a job outside, even if it was on campus, why don’t I just bring the job inside?” Sarmiento said. “That’s when I started to think of ideas like what can we do inside the classroom where … we can create jobs [and] tasks that they could actually do.”
The process of making the crafts that Creative Hands sells involves multiple steps, and Sarmiento has ensured that there are students at every step of the way. One student, for example, is especially adept at smelling and has been tasked with sorting the candles by their scent. Another loves the process of cooking and has the duty of overseeing the wax melting. Sarmiento says that disabled students would possess a magnified lack of self-esteem upon being unemployable, and this process lets them know that they can do at least one thing.
“If we [abled people] don’t have a job, we feel useless,” Sarmiento said. “How much more for [disabled people]? This is something they can do, and they feel good about themselves, and they’re so happy because they’ve accomplished something.”
According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, 18.7 percent of disabled people were employed in 2017. By a stark contrast, the employment-population ratio for abled people was 65. While the employment rate for the disabled has risen since 2016, when the percentage of employed disabled people was 17.9, it remains relatively low. Sarmiento says that Creative Hands is part of an effort to advocate for workplace diversity and accessibility.
“We’re not that diverse to the point that you would understand what a child or a young adult with disability is until you’re actually there,” Sarmiento said. “And you realize, oh, there’s more they can do, they can actually do more than what we see.”
Community advocate for Silicon Valley Independent Living Center (SVILC) Christine Fitzgerald, who has cerebral palsy, agrees with this sentiment. She says that while there has been significant progress in the way of human rights for the disabled, there is still much progress to be made. She cites employment as an example: drastically lower numbers of disabled people are hired than abled people.
“To this day, there’s too many people in many companies just don’t necessarily understand or even can grasp that folks with disabilities can be effective workers,” Fitzgerald said. “They’re very capable of doing the job, given the right tools. In many instances, the employer doesn’t necessarily understand that they can get a tax exemption for hiring people with disabilities.”
Fitzgerald first became an advocate for disability through her parents, who not only emphasized physical independence within the family but psychological and spiritual independence as well. Her mother, in particular, has been a strong advocate for those with disabilities along with having been a special education teacher, and Fitzgerald in turn attributes some of her background in advocacy to her education.
In her work, she has observed that people in the U.S. generally tend to have better rights than those in, say, third-world countries. But though Americans enjoy better rights, they don’t necessarily enjoy full rights. As another example, Fitzgerald cited automatic doors being used by abled people for trivial activities like carrying laundry, blocking access and denying disabled people their right to use the doors for their designed purpose.
“There is, you know, certain barriers because of not having some protected rights as we do here in the United States,” Fitzgerald said. “Certainly, the people that I know are reaching out and trying to make a difference for everybody, no matter where they are.”
Watch the video below for a look at student perspectives on what human rights mean to them, and why it’s important to advocate for them.
From Dec. 3 to Dec. 7, Girls Empowerment Project (GEP) put up donation boxes around campus for the YWCA holiday donation drive. Throughout the week, GEP accepted items such as clothes, kitchenware, gift cards and cosmetics, then donated the collected items to the YWCA Silicon Valley center on Dec. 7.
Participation in the holiday donation drive was a collaborative effort between MVHS GEP and Santa Clara HS GEP. SCHS senior and vice president Kaylee Ngo was searching for an event that could span across several different schools and involve as many people as possible, eventually stumbling upon the YWCA’s donation drive.
Founded in 1905, YWCA of Silicon Valley advocates for women, children and families, aiming to empower women and eliminate racism. Donations from the holiday drive will benefit survivors of sexual assault, domestic violence, human trafficking and YWCA child care center families. Especially as the YWCA’s mission of empowering women closely aligns with GEP’s own purpose, GEP officers decided on the YWCA donation drive.
“Every year, we look for different kinds of projects to participate in, normally something that can get everyone involved without everyone necessarily having to go off campus,” SCHS senior and GEP president and founder Sofia Kritikopoulous said. “We know that it might be difficult for people to find rides because we span across multiple grade levels. We found that the YWCA was doing a drive and we were like, ‘This is perfect.’”
Though MVHS senior and GEP events coordinator Advika Verma wasn’t directly involved in planning this drive, she had proposed a similar donation drive earlier in the year and felt drawn to the YWCA’s mission as well.
“This was exciting to see that there’s more initiatives out there to support disenfranchised women, especially victims of domestic abuse,” Verma said. “That’s something we feel strongly about, so we decided to donate, especially because it’s something that’s pretty easy to do, an easy way to help out the community.”
MVHS senior and GEP president Ruth Feng, who founded MVHS GEP, felt that this cause was especially important during the holiday season.
“I’m not a victim of sexual assault, so I wouldn’t want to speak on their behalf, but I think that they would really need support, especially during the holiday season where things are so frantic and a lot of people feel more anxiety during these seasons,” Feng said. “I think our cause will benefit others who don’t have the same privileges that many of us do here at school.”
Kritikopoulous, Ngo and Feng, along with other GEP officers, planned the donation drive through video calls and a group chat. Though MVHS and SCHS GEP were the only ones to end up donating, Independent HS’s GEP was also part of the planning process and intended to participate. IHS advertised for the donation drive but was unable to collect any donations, due to an overlap of other events going on at their school.
Similar to IHS, the potential lack of donations was also an area of concern for Kritikopoulous and Ngo as they prepared for the drive. SCHS had recently held a family giving tree drive, as well as a canned food drive. Despite this, SCHS GEP still received donations, including clothes like scarves and coats, books, children’s toys and coloring books. Seeing these donations and participation in the drive was especially rewarding for Kritikopoulous.
“It was really cool because honestly, we didn’t know if that many people would donate stuff,” Kritikopoulous said. “So we felt like maybe people were tired out or didn’t have money left to spend. But this drive really worked out well because a lot of the supplies they were asking for are things that people already have at home that they’re not necessarily using.”
Verma had similar concerns leading up to the donation drive, but she did see a significant response from members of the MVHS community. The donation boxes, which were located in the office and the library, were filled with items such as children’s toys, tampons, bedsheets, clothes and books.
“It’s really heartening because sometimes you feel like, ‘What can you do?’” Verma said. “You can put up flyers and you can put it in the announcements, but do people care that much or are they so preoccupied with their own lives? But it feels good to know that someone is listening and someone cares.”
Regardless of anticipated difficulties, both GEPs were successful in collecting and donating items to YWCA, as well as in achieving their goal to foster interclub relationships by collaborating with another school.
“I think it shows solidarity,” Feng said. “Even though we go to very geographically different high schools, we still have the same ideals about helping others and feeling good about doing that during the holiday season.”
Similarly, Kritikopoulous feels that the joint effort between several clubs shows the collective movement for women’s rights, such that their advocacy for female empowerment is one that spans across the Bay Area.
“Throughout our four years of GEP, we’ve known that other schools exist, it’s just we’ve never really reached out to them and actually done something,” Kritikopoulous said. “I think this is definitely a good first step in showing that it’s not just a SCHS or just a MVHS thing. It’s a Bay Area thing.”
Verma echoes this sentiment, and though she sees the value in individual action, she also stresses the importance of collective activism through collaboration between different GEP branches.
“The solidarity, the fact that it’s not just a small effort, the fact that it matters to that many people makes it so much more profound when you do it,” Verma said. “When you concentrate efforts towards one cause, you can make a much greater impact than if we were all doing different stuff. And obviously, it’s never worthless to be doing even something little, like even if you just give $5 to charity, but it’s also really cool when you can come together and do something big.”
Despite the unity they’ve seen across the Bay Area, SCHS GEP has also encountered some who question the validity of issues that they discuss, such as domestic violence or the wage gap.
“At club fairs, we’ve definitely had our fair share of people come up to us that are like, ‘Oh, no, that’s not a thing. The wage gap isn’t real,’” Kritikopoulous said. “Sometimes that turns away other girls because they’re like, ‘I don’t really want to be a part of something that’s super controversial like that. I don’t want people to dislike me.’”
Kritikopoulous sees these situations as another manifestation of the issues they fight for, reflective of the reality of the situation — one out of every six American women has experienced rape, whether it be attempted or completed, in her lifetime. And yet, 63 percent of sexual assaults go unreported — some expressing that they feared having to recount their experiences in order to provide justification, others feeling that validity of their statements would be questioned.
She views this as another reason to keep advocating for their cause.
“Even if people are talking poorly about you or telling you like, ‘Oh, no, that doesn’t exist,‘” Kritikopoulous said, “that’s part of the reason why we need to stand up for the cause.”
Fostering conversations about these issues is also something that GEP hopes to encourage. Whether it be about past court cases, such as Roe v. Wade, or current events, such as the confirmation process of Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh, who was accused of sexually assaulting Christine Blasey Ford and two other women, these issues have been topics of discussion during SCHS GEP meetings.
According to Verma, more people are willing to engage in conversations about these topics and because of these conversations, are more inclined to enact positive change for the cause. Verma attributes this more open discussion as a reflection of current events and the shift in public sentiment, particularly with the Me Too movement. Gaining traction on Oct. 15, 2017, the Me Too movement on social media encouraged those who have faced sexual harassment or sexual assault to speak out, aiming to show the prevalence of the issue.
“I think it’s less taboo to talk about this stuff and be like, ‘Okay, I’m getting donations for sexual assault survivors,’” Verma said. “It’s less like people will recoil [because] it’s more recognized that this is such a prevalent problem, and it’s more recognized that there needs to be something done about it.”
Feng feels that this societal shift has increased people’s willingness to participate in events like the donation drive.
“I think Me Too has really raised awareness,” Feng said. “Rather than before, we had less people who are aware about these causes. Now, when they hear this donation will help a sexual assault survivor, they’re more willing and motivated to help them.”
Verma also expresses that though the Me Too movement has caused a cultural revolution, sparking realizations of the issue’s prevalence, awareness is only one form of activism. For her, the next step is enacting change through active action, such as through the holiday donation drive.
“But more than just bringing awareness, it also has to be about now that we’re talking about it, how do we support the people that have been through it,’” Verma said. “This is such a great time to be doing something like [the donation drive] because people are really starting to pay attention to it.”
National Human Rights Month: learning about it
Understanding human rights from within different classes.
“Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” are often known as the fundamental humanitarian ideals that America’s founding fathers searched for during the quest for independence. For junior Alex Richardson, who is taking AP U.S. History, identifying these core values of human rights is more than just a matter of examining historical events― it’s about understanding them.
He believes that a key right that everyone should have access to is property, being able to live and acquire things on one’s own terms without the fear of prosecution. However, by examining the different sources of judgment that can prevent someone from getting property, it can open up to discrimination.
“Even after [African Americans] were freed, the government had promised them that they would have equal rights under the law, that they would have all the protection,” Richardson said. “But they really didn’t. It was difficult for them to get property not just because they were freed from slavery but because of racism and other factors. That was a major thing ― imagine not having a place to live. It would take away a lot of your ability to pursue happiness.”
While Richardson pinpoints property as a matter that does not correspond with nationality or ethnicity, sophomore Hari Bhimaraju uses the term “inalienable rights,” which transcends beyond property.
“The idea of inalienable rights is something that you cannot be human without,” Bhimaraju said. “It’s not anyone’s decision to judge how to approach these rights or who gets these rights [but] by virtue of being a human being, you’re born with these and that cannot be changed. [One is] the freedom of speech because people are heard through their opinions and you can’t take away somebody’s power to think and express what they feel.”
Similarly, sophomore Delani Franklin believes in the principle of freedom of equality where people have the liberty to make choices without causing damage to others but not being denied or denying others of the same freedom.
“[Human rights] is something that everyone should get and get an equal amount of rights,” Franklin said. “The freedom of speech, freedom to do whatever they please without doing anything illegal or damaging, but just the freedom to live their everyday life without judgment.”
She continues by examining human rights in the novel read in World Core Literature classes: “Persepolis.” Written by Marjane Satrapi from when she was a child heading into the Iranian Revolution, the novel portrays the drastic changes in a young girl’s lifestyle of freedom to becoming constricted and imposed once her hometown becomes a war-zone.
“Reading ‘Persepolis’ gave me a huge perspective about what the main character went through [as] a little girl,” Franklin said. “Considering all the things she loved to do before, [now] ... it wasn’t something she made as her own choice but as something that was forced on her.”
For Richardson, the discussion of American history in APUSH brought up a variety of ideologies that provide a distinction in older thinking versus modern thinking, with reference to slaves that was often indistinguishable from property. According to the Atlantic, by 1860, there were nearly four million slaves with a total worth of nearly $3.5 billion that accounted for the wealthy landowners living with luxury.
“That conflict of interest [...] really ended up pushing it over the edge where we decided that slaves are not property,” Richardson said. “They are humans and with that distinction, [...] your rights don’t protect you from that. So what APUSH has taught me, is how important [human rights] are because there are biases in our textbooks, in our learning systems but I do get a sense that they aren’t covering up as much.”
AP and regular U.S. History teacher David Hartford builds on Richardson’s ideas as he emphasizes the value of incorporating multiple perspectives within the learning system, with respect to minority groups.
“A lot of the times you are focusing on minority groups whose voices are usually shut out of the traditional narrative,” Hartford said. “So as we provide more agency for [...] minorities, seeing how they’re enacting upon it, that translates into a more of a historical study on human rights because we start to seek out and search for historical narratives on people who don’t have the same platform to voice what is going on around them.”
Bhimaraju agrees with Hartford regarding the necessity to learn and understand history from being able to observe the various approaches to human rights to give a complete perspective, not one that is limited to only a certain side.
“Learning about that in a classroom setting has shown me how different cultures approach human rights and how that has evolved over the years,” Bhimaraju said. “[It] has given a multi-faceted and well-rounded exposure to really what are human rights and what does that encompass and how that has changed.”
According to Article 26, Section 2 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, “education shall be directed to the full development of the human personality and to the strengthening of respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms. It shall promote understanding, tolerance and friendship among all nations, racial or religious groups, and shall further the activities of the United Nations for the maintenance of peace.”
Organizations such as National Education Association and The Advocates for Human Rights have constructed a variety of lesson plans to help teach human rights of all the various aspects to students and retain a well-rounded perspective.
For Hartford, learning about human rights in a classroom environment is not a matter of interest or enthusiasm for the lesson but rather being able to facilitate an environment of comfort to discuss sensitive topics like slavery.
“I think a lot of it is comfort because individuals want to recognize themselves as good people, [...] but once people start to realize that these problems still exist, [...] you have to react to it,” Hartford said. “Once you know it’s prevalent, the inaction can tear individuals down and [...] then when you see the scale of the problem, that can be very eye-opening [...] because once you see it, you can’t unsee it.”
Franklin believes that awareness is crucial when it comes to learning about prevalent issues and taking into account where people are less fortunate and experience such hardships. She finds that awareness is a method of understanding what goes on around her.
“We’re in such a fortunate area to be living such great lives right now, [...] but if we were to be put in someone else’s shoes who are not as fortunate, we’d have a totally different perspective,” Franklin said. “So raising awareness, it not only shows what others have to go through but it kind of tones back on yourself [...][and] really appreciate these things in your life because everyone around you could be suffering in totally different ways without you knowing it.”
Franklin’s point about awareness ties into Richardson’s connection that connecting American rights and human rights together, concepts he sees as closely intertwined with each other.
“In history, [human rights are] one of those things [...] that are an absolute necessity [and] very important,” Richardson said. “Human rights should transcend nationality, ethnicity so you can’t say that just because someone is here illegally and isn’t an American, they don’t have human rights.”