I spent the first few days this week at a professional conference: The Michigan Conference on Affordable Housing. It’s a fascinating conference to me in many ways: it’s pretty expensive, so it’s cost prohibitive to many nonprofits; the exhibition hall is filled with banks and builders, as well as statewide nonprofits — in general, it’s a confusing combination of people who want to build affordable housing, and people who want to help put homeless people into that affordable housing so that they’ll no longer be homeless.
Don’t get me wrong, it was a good conference. But it’s times like this that I am reminded that housing is a human right. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, a non-binding document of the United Nations, states in Article 25:
Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, including food, clothing, housing and medical care and necessary social services, and the right to security in the event of unemployment, sickness, disability, widowhood, old age or other lack of livelihood in circumstances beyond his control. (The emphasis added is obviously mine.)
I’m reminded by my foray into the Universal Declaration of Human Rights by something else: a mentor I once had. She was a school teacher going to graduate school writing fanfiction for fun, and before she turned into a Big Name Fan, I instant messenged her and we struck up something of a friendship. She grew up in Detroit, black and female, and she had a lot to teach me, if I was open to learning.
A quote from my journal back then (March 24, 2002):
I still wish to know what a human rights violation is. When they spoke of the horrible violations of human rights on television during Kosovo, you think of the holocaust which occurred there and assume that that was a human rights violation. And it was.
And I was speaking to an adult friend of mine, trying to understand where she was coming from, why her point of view was so solid, why groupthink was intact, I said that there were no human rights violations against African Americans and she told me that there were. In the year 2002. But I see no holocausts here.
When I think about this subject, when I try to grasp concepts I wasn’t… socialized to, my heart breaks. I feel like I’m doing something wrong, that I should understand something, but I don’t. It’s sorta hard to explain.
I went looking for what human rights are. And I found the United Nations’ Universal declaration of human rights.
I was wrong Eb. There are human rights violations. None of the people I asked today could or would give me an answer, starting with you. Holocausts are only small parts of a bigger whole… I want to enter the dialogue. Having human rights assured would not be utopia, it would be… dare I say it, what America is supposed to be.
But, now that I know what human rights are, what’s a dialogue?
What’s fascinating to me here is that it is an example of how my sixteen-year-old self had some sort of concept of privilege (talking about ideas she was socialized to), and that she was willing (or perhaps justifiably pushed) to educate herself on issues. This journal entry goes through section by section the Declaration and imagines how the US is probably breaking the tenets. Surprisingly, I didn’t recognize that there were people without homes in the United States — people who are homeless.
I think it is important to remember that human rights violations occur anywhere and at anytime that the essential humanity of a person is ignored — my perspective on this is much expanded in the last 8 years. Thank you, Ebony, for asking me to educate myself, and for being my mentor all those years ago. (Congrats on your PhD!)
Sometimes I forget that my day job is in Human Rights.