Without School, A ‘Lost Generation’ of Rohingya Refugee Children Face Uncertain Future

A Rohingya refugee girl sells vegetables in Kutupalong refugee camp, Bangladesh. Access to education is extremely limited in the camps, and most children — particularly girls — receive little to no formal education, Aug. 28, 2018.  AP Photo/Altaf Qadri

A Rohingya refugee girl sells vegetables in Kutupalong refugee camp, Bangladesh. Access to education is extremely limited in the camps, and most children — particularly girls — receive little to no formal education, Aug. 28, 2018. AP Photo/Altaf Qadri

The boy’s eyes lit up when he talked about his dream of becoming a doctor.

Seven-year-old “Mohammad” – not his real name – is a Rohingya Muslim from Myanmar. I met him at a learning center at a refugee camp in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh, in early July 2019.

After sharing his aspirations, Mohammed quickly remembered reality.

“I know my dreams will never come true,” he said with a faint smile.

Refugee crisis of global proportions

Mohammed is among the more than 700,000 Rohingya who have taken refuge in Bangladesh after an ethnic cleansing campaign of rape, killing and torture by the Myanmar military in mid-2017. They joined the more than 200,000 Rohingyas who had previously fled Myanmar’s brutal efforts to rid the Buddhist-majority country of this marginalized Muslim minority.

Of the newly arrived Rohingya, three-quarters are women and children, according to the United Nations.

In a noteworthy humanitarian gesture, the Bangladeshi government has given refuge to these persecuted people. Aided by Bangladeshi community organizations, various UN agencies and other international donors, the Rohingya have been receiving shelter, food, clothes and basic health care since the massive exodus in 2017.

This essential care, which cost an estimated US$920.5 million in 2019represents a gargantuan global effort. Still, the resources are woefully inadequate.

Most Bangladeshi refugee camps are overcrowded and, as a result, unhygienic. Residents survive on the absolute bare minimum of nutrition and other necessities. Monsoon rain, cold and landslides are everyday threats for these Rohingya, as I’ve witnessed firsthand during my visits to Bangladeshi camps in 2017 and 2019.

It is a dismal existence for all. But it is the plight of the roughly 500,000 Rohingya children living in limbo that strikes me as bleakest.

Concerns of a lost generation

Research shows that future of refugee children grows more imperiled the longer they remain out of school.

In many countries that host substantial refugee populations, including Turkey, Lebanon and Uganda, the United Nation’s refugee agency and the United Nations Children’s Fund ensure children receive a quality, full-time education, either at the camps or in nearby public schools.

Even so, just 23% refugee children worldwide are enrolled in secondary school, according to the UN’s High Commission on Human Rights. Just 1% attend university.

Because Bangladeshi authorities have not granted the Rohingya official refugee status and consider them instead “forcibly displaced Myanmar nationals,” the roughly 500,000 Rohingya children in the country have no access to a formal education. Rohingya children are not permitted to attend Bangladeshi public schools.

The United Nations Children’s Fund and its partners offer Rohingya refugees aged 4 to 14 two-hour daily lessons on Burmese, English, math and life skills at about 1,600 learning centers located at the camps. These classes keep about 145,000 Rohingya children – or about 30% of the Rohingya youngsters in Bangladesh – occupied for part of the day but do not provide the kind of formal education that will allow the children to work toward a high school degree and enter the job market.

The camps offer no schooling at all for Rohingya refugee adolescents aged 15 to 18.

English-language exercise books at a UNICEF-supported ‘learning center’ at one of the Kutupalong refugee camps in Bangladesh. Rubayat Jesmin, Author provided

English-language exercise books at a UNICEF-supported ‘learning center’ at one of the Kutupalong refugee camps in Bangladesh. Rubayat Jesmin, Author provided

Some teenagers, mostly boys, have turned to madrassas, or Islamic learning centers, where they can receive a religious education.

The remaining Rohingya children who attend neither UNICEF classes nor madrassas are simply left to fill their own day. At the Rohingya camps, I saw boys working in shops, playing cards or sitting idle at all hours of the day.

When I asked Mohammad what he does when he is not in school, he told me that he “takes care of his family.”

“I play with the other kids, too,” he added with a grin.

Adolescent girls, I learned, are often kept at home by their parents because of the Rohingya’s conservative social and religious norms.

The camps can also be dangerous for girls. Human traffickers have been known to target young Rohingya women, promising them jobs outside the camps. Girls face other forms of violence and human rights abuse at Bangladesh’s camps, too, including child marriage.

Bangladeshi camps for the Rogingyas are typically overcrowded, unhygienic, muddy and prone to landslides. Rubayat Jesmin, Author provided

Bangladeshi camps for the Rogingyas are typically overcrowded, unhygienic, muddy and prone to landslides. Rubayat Jesmin, Author provided

Rohingya repatriation

Growing up in unstable conditions, with no possibility of study, Rohingya children like Mohammed are at risk of becoming a lost generation.

Their limbo may not last forever. In response to heightened international pressure, Myanmar in November 2017 agreed to take the Rohingyas back starting November 2018.

However, their return was postponed due to protests by the refugees, who feared conditions in Myanmar was not yet safe. The United Nations and other international refugee services have also voiced concern about sending the Rohingya back, saying there was no indication that the Myanmar government had punished the people responsible for the crimes in Rahkine state, nor agreed to give the Rohingya citizenship.

Considered foreigners in both Myanmar, their native country, and Bangladesh, where they’ve sought refuge, the Rohingya Muslims are the world’s largest stateless people.

While the negotiations for their repatriation continue, a generation of traumatized Rohingya children wait for their futures to begin.

RUBAYAT JESMIN is a Doctoral Student at the College of Community and Public Affairs, Binghamton University, State University of New York.


In India, Using Plastic Waste as Tuition at a New School

A school combines accessible education with environmental responsibility through a creative program.

Photo of plastic waste by  John Cameron  on  Unsplash .

Photo of plastic waste by John Cameron on Unsplash.

In 2016, Parmita Sarma and Mazin Mukhtar founded Akshar School in Assam, a state in northeast India. Initially, the school struggled to enroll many of the children living in the area. Most families could not afford private school tuition, and relied on the $2.50 per day wage their children could make working in the nearby stone quarries.

In the winter months, many families in Assam burned plastic waste to keep warm, unaware of the health and environmental hazard this created. The fumes would often linger in Akshar’s classrooms, and ended up giving Parmita and Mazin the idea that would transform the school.

Instead of tuition, Akshar began requiring students to bring 25 plastic waste items to school every week. “We wanted to start a free school for all, but stumbled upon this idea after we realised a larger social and ecological problem brewing in this area,” Parmita told Better India.

Through the use of plastic waste as tuition, students who would not have been able to attend the school were able to learn, and the surrounding environment benefitted. Under the new tuition system, the school blossomed, and now enrolls 100 students ages 4 to 15. Before the tuition program was implemented, Akshar had only 20 students.

To compensate for the wages that children could be making working in the mines, Akshar established a tutoring program, where older students can help younger ones with their work in exchange for currency tokens that can be used to purchase snacks, toys, shoes, and clothing. The students can even exchange the tokens for real money to purchase items online. But financial compensation isn’t the only rationalization for the tutoring program. Through teaching, older students are able to develop useful life skills, practicing communication, leadership, and compassion.

Tuition isn’t the only unusual aspect of the school. Parmita told Better India that the goal of the school is to break with traditional curriculum. Students take class in open areas, and grades are divided by level rather than age.

“We realised that education had to be socially, economically and environmentally relevant for these children,” Mazin told Better India. That would mean not only providing an accessible education, but one that would enable children to find jobs after graduation. To this end Akshar offers career focused classes alongside traditional ones, enabling students to gain skills in cosmetology, solar paneling, carpentry, gardening, organic farming, electronics, and more. The school is also willing to adapt to create the best education for its students. Mazin told Better India that when the school noticed a spike in landscaping in Assam, they began to draft plans for a sustainable landscaping course.

Mazin and Parmita’s success with Akshar has inspired them to create more schools that follow the same philosophy. They hope to implement the Akshar model in 5 government schools over the next year, and 100 government schools in the next 5 years.

Emma is an undergraduate student studying English and marketing at Emerson College in Boston. While not writing she explores the nearest museums, reads poetry, and takes classes at her local dance studio. She is passionate about sustainable travel and can't wait to see where life will take her. 

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Take a Gap Year to Learn about Yourself and the Environment

Eco-Gap Participants in the Greenhouse. Photo provided by Eco-Gap.

Eco-Gap Participants in the Greenhouse. Photo provided by Eco-Gap.

Gap years are on the rise. More and more, young adults are being encouraged to defer their acceptance to college to take a break from the grind of school, mature, and learn more about themselves. For some, taking a gap year serves as an introduction to living away from home. For others, a gap year provides work experience, and the opportunity to make extra cash to pay for college and other expenses. Articles and opinion pieces are frequently being published, attesting to a gap year’s ability to provide crucial preparation for college.

But gap years can serve a purpose other than bettering oneself. Some gap year programs have been created with the goal of fostering a generation of environmentally aware young adults. These programs have an eco-focus, encouraging their participants to live socially and environmentally conscious lifestyles.

International School for Earth Studies

The Cushing family runs the International School for Earth Studies in Southern Alberta. According to Co-Founder, CEO, and Director of Operations Geoffrey Cushing, he and his family were, and remain, “Eco-tourism pioneers.” The International School for Earth Studies run programs that educate and connect people to the environment. They accepted their first gap year student in 2005, and they have maintained a vibrant program ever since.

At the core of their gap year program are four pillars:

  1. Environmental Literacy

  2. Self Defense

  3. (Non Motorized) Outdoor Recreation

  4. Animal connection

The International School for Earth Studies runs two sessions of gap year programs: an Autumn and a Winter session. In addition to living and learning on the institution’s immense property that includes a private lake, diverse animals, and a stable, participants travel to other important places such as the Great Lakes, and the largest concentration of power plants in North America. The gap year students will learn from knowledgeable and experienced staff and speakers, including first nation biologists.

Geoffrey explained that students experience an “immersion into an outdoor lifestyle,” as students spend six to eight hours a day working outdoors. A typical day is split up into morning, afternoon, and evening sessions. In the morning and afternoon, participants will learn how to work and connect with animals, or develop outdoor survival techniques. Evening sessions are more discussion based. Sometimes, participants will stargaze. Other times, a participant will lead a discussion. Geoffrey said that the discussions can get particularly deep and emotional.

Geoffrey hopes that participants will leave this program as more educated global citizens, and will feel the urgency of Earth’s environmental situation. “We feel that the world is in crisis environmentally,” Geoffrey said. “We try to use animals, the voiceless, as the platform for our students to realize how desperate the situation is.”

Eco-Gap at EcoVillage at Ithaca

Ecovillage at Ithaca, NY is comprised of three neighborhoods organized as housing cooperatives. Learn@ecovillage’s gap year program is brand new, they just initiated their first cohort last year.

Liz Walker, Director and Co-Founder of EcoVillage explained that Eco-Gap is unique, as it is set in the Ecovillage, a community that is completely environmentally oriented. Participants live with families in the communities.

There are two opportunities for gap year students:

  1. The Eco-Gap immersion program

  2. The Eco-Gap internship program

The Eco-Gap immersion program is an eight-week structured program in the fall, for a small cohort of eight participants. Liz outlined the major, and varied, components of the Eco-Gap immersion program:

  1. Agriculture: local food and farming. Participants will work on the Ecovillage’s four organic farms, and learn to prepare food for themselves and for the needy.

  2. Health and Wellness: Participants will learn yoga and meditation skills, as well as tap into their own artistic creativity,

  3. Building Skills: Participants will learn about green building, and learn carpentry skills to build their own small shed.

  4. Living and leadership skills: Participants will learn how to express themselves fully, and how to deal with conflict through non-violence.

For those that want more work experience, or a more flexible timeline, the Eco-Gap internship program offers individual mentoring.

Through Eco-Gap’s programming, Liz aims to teach from a “context of environmental and social sustainability and social justice.”  Her goal is that her participants “obtain practical skills for transforming oneself and the world.”

These are just two examples of environmentally focused gap year programs. There are more out there, all around the world. Additionally, gap year students can volunteer for the environment independently, without an organized program.

ELIANA DOFT loves to write, travel, and volunteer. She is especially excited by opportunities to combine these three passions through writing about social action travel experiences. She is an avid reader, a licensed scuba diver, and a self-proclaimed cold brew connoisseur. 


The Earth Group Aims to Change the World Through Education and Nourishment

Newly Certified B Corp Collaborates with UN World Food Programme to Help Children Around the Globe

Kori Chilibeck and Matt Moreau at work for The Earth Group and World Food Programme in Sri Lanka. “ Becoming a B Corp is an affirmation of what we’ve worked to achieve for so many years.”

Kori Chilibeck and Matt Moreau at work for The Earth Group and World Food Programme in Sri Lanka. “Becoming a B Corp is an affirmation of what we’ve worked to achieve for so many years.”

The Earth Group is a Certified B Corporation that supports the United Nations World Food Programme (WFP) through donations that provide school meals, drinking water and education to children in the most troubled areas of our world.

To date, The Earth Group has helped fund more than 3.6 million meals to young school kids while helping them get an education in places like Tajikistan, Madagascar, Sri Lanka, Kenya, Bolivia and the Philippines. The B Corp is dedicated to informing consumers everywhere about the power of their everyday marketplace choices. For example, the simple purchase of a bag of Earth Coffee, one of three consumer products sold by the company, provides a schoolchild with meals for an entire week.

Purchase one bag of Earth Coffee online or in-store to feed one child for one entire week.

Purchase one bag of Earth Coffee online or in-store to feed one child for one entire week.

When Earth Group founders Matt Moreau and Kori Chilibeck met as fellow employees of a ski shop near the Rocky Mountains 14 years ago, they likely never imagined what lay ahead for them as individuals, new business owners or as proud supporters of the WFP.

Just forging this critical relationship with the WFP seemed daunting enough, but the maze-like process took far longer to realize than anyone could imagine. Eventually, they launched their social enterprise onto the large and complex world stage of fighting hunger, providing clean drinking water and building schools for children where none existed before.

It was at this point that Moreau and Chilibeck realized the real work had begun in earnest for their Canadian B Corp based in Edmonton, Alberta. Seeking to confirm that the aid they worked so diligently to fund would actually make the journey to the end-users, they traveled to Sri Lanka, Bolivia, Tajikistan and the Philippines to see for themselves.

As the photos and videos produced from these expeditions clearly testify, Moreau and Chilibeck landed in their natural element, surrounded by the children and co-workers they had been working so hard to support since creating The Earth Group. The expressions on the faces of not only the children and teachers but of Moreau and Chilibeck and the WFP country managers tell a tale of unselfish dedication.

Kori Chilibeck in Sri Lanka hosted by the UN World Food Programme.

Kori Chilibeck in Sri Lanka hosted by the UN World Food Programme.

Seeing the Progress

The Earth Group maps its path to success through respect for the cultures they are trying to help. In many of these destinations, it is still frowned upon for female children to attend school. By respecting that posture yet also using the intellectual tools at hand, the company funds projects that often furnish female students with an extra helping of food to take home if they attend school, thereby allowing them to obtain an education, the family to benefit from the food, and the attitudes about females attending school to soften.

Schoolyard antics in Sri Lanka with Matt Moreau and Kori Chilibeck of The Earth Group.

Schoolyard antics in Sri Lanka with Matt Moreau and Kori Chilibeck of The Earth Group.

The exhilaration of such remote expeditions reached its peak when the duo traveled to the Philippines, arriving in a volatile region where insurgents had blasted grenades and explosives just the day before. Their in-country WFP handlers changed safety tactics at once, and what was scheduled to be a multi-day trip ended up being a shortened-but-packed day of visiting the children in their classes, touring the school facilities, meeting the support staff and then continuing safely out of this troubled zone.

Back home in Edmonton, Moreau and Chilibeck rolled up their sleeves and focused on making their simple products-with-impact list: Fair Trade coffee from Eastern Africa, Indonesia, Central and South America; glacier-sourced drinking water from Whistler, British Columbia, and Rocky Mountain House, Alberta; and organic Alberta-grown teas, available in as many outlets as possible across Canada and around the world. Their online sales are activewith their triple bottom line—people, planet, profit—always remains in focus.

The Earth Group obtains its drinking water from Canadian glacier spring sources near the communities of Rocky Mountain House and Whistler, and their low-weight recyclable plastic bottles are landfill biodegradable. The Earth Group is also partnered with and supports Plastic Bank efforts to reduce ocean plastic.

Screen Shot 2019-05-22 at 11.16.49 PM.png

Paying their dues during long negotiations with large corporations, Moreau and Chilibeck have now succeeded in signing major chain stores in Canada such as IKEA, Safeway, Sobeys, Whole Foods, Save On Foods, IGA and Metro. They also launched their product line in Japan, another major feat for any business run by two people, one employee and a group of dedicated volunteers.

Chilibeck is just back from the unrivaled adventure of presenting The Earth Group products in Japan to the largest food and beverage show in Asia called FOODEX. A receptive audience was excited to hear Earth Water is already available in their marketplace, with more Earth Group products sure to follow.

Path to Success

During certification in 2018 as a B Corporation, B Lab’s independent Standards Advisory Council confirmed The Earth Group’s three essentials: 1) social and environmental performance, 2) transparency and 3) accountability.

“B Corps values are synonymous with ours and embedded in our culture, so working toward the certification was both a pleasure and a reminder of being mindful of the numerous ways in which our work affects people and planet.”

And so it goes for these two young Canadian entrepreneurs and their “overnight success,” which has only taken them 14 years of collaboration, dedication, no-pay and near bankruptcy to arrive at a point where they can now see the results of their work. Having the blessings of understanding spouses has made it all possible, plus a bit of luck at critical moments.

Business gurus will tell start-up entrepreneurs timing is everything, and while this adage does have merit, the hard work and determination to succeed cannot be underestimated.

When Moreau and Chilibeck hatched their road map to success in a ski shop near the Rocky Mountains 14 years ago to create The Earth Group, at the same time Ben Cohen and Mal Warwick’s book Values-Driven Business: How to Change the World, Make Money, and Have Fun was synthesizing best practices and socially responsible business goals and laying the foundation for what would become the first B Impact Assessment, a process still used to certify B Corps.

B the Change gathers and shares the voices from within the movement of people using business as a force for good and the community of Certified B Corporations. The opinions expressed do not necessarily reflect those of the nonprofit B Lab.

GREGORY B. GALLAGHER is a Writer, Filmmaker, Musician and Producer.


How Small Science Is Creating Big Possibilities in Africa

Ofori Charles Antipem wears many hats—he’s an inventor, an entrepreneur and an advocate of STEM. Now, he’s bringing all his passions together, dedicating his life to bringing affordable science education to kids across Africa. The Science Set is Antipem’s creation, developed to give students access to a unique toolkit. Each set contains 45 scientific components and costs just $20. His next invention? Cheap and easy-to-assemble microscopes, carefully designed and built using 3D printed materials. 

This Great Big Story was made possible by IBM Africa.

Students Across Europe Protest in Hopes of a Greener Future

After years of political gridlock surrounding climate change legislation, students emerge as a force for change.

Photo of a student protester. By  Josh Barwick  on  Unsplash .

Photo of a student protester. By Josh Barwick on Unsplash.

Thousands of students across Europe left school on Friday, February 15 to protest the lack of action on climate issues in their countries. In what the New York Times called a “coordinated walk out for action on climate issues,” elementary, middle, high school, and undergraduate students came together to demand a greener future. In London, protestors held signs reading “The ocean is rising and so are we” and “Act now or swim later.”

The student-led movement for climate action that is currently taking Europe by storm began with 16-year-old Swedish activist Greta Thunberg. In September, Thunberg started skipping class to stage sit-ins at the Swedish parliament, demanding that her government seriously address climate change. Thunberg’s action inspired teens worldwide, some of whom created the global movement Youth Strike 4 Climate and began organizing protests and walkouts, using social media to coordinate efforts. According to the New York Times, demonstrations have been held in Belgium, Britain, France, Germany, Ireland, Sweden, and Switzerland, among others.

The New York Times writes that the new organization gained even more energy in October of 2018 when a report from the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change disclosed that the world has only twelve years to change its climate policy before the consequences of inaction such as food shortages, rising sea levels, floods and forest fires manifest themselves.

Thunberg remains a notable voice in the movement she inspired, and went on to speak at the global climate-change conference in Poland last December. “You say you love your children above all else — and yet you are stealing their future in front of their very eyes,” she told politicians at the conference. “Until you start focusing on what needs to be done rather than what is politically possible, there is no hope. We cannot solve a crisis without treating it as a crisis.”

In British schools, protesters received mixed reactions from teachers and staff. While some encouraged students, others threatened to punish them for skipping class. “My school was not supportive at the start. They said I would get detention for unauthorized absence,” Anna Taylor, the seventeen-year-old co-founder of the UK Student Climate Network told the New York Times.

Sixteen-year-old Bonnie Morely, who was attending the strike with friends from school, told the New York Times that a head teacher had taken down posters advertising the strike in her school’s common areas. “They’re treating us like we are doing something really wrong,” Morley said. “The future of our planet is looking really bleak, and all the politicians are asleep at the wheel. We have to wake them up, and I think thousands of kids on the streets will do just that.”

Like the teachers, European politicians displayed mixed reactions, with some supporting the students and others going so far as to suggest that the strikes were the product of a secret governmental organization.

According to the New York Times, a spokesperson for British Prime Minister Theresa May said that, “everybody wants young people to be engaged in the issues that affect them most so that we can build a brighter future for all of us. But it is important to emphasize that disruption increases teachers’ workloads and wastes lesson time that teachers have carefully prepared for.”

Thunberg tweeted in response: “British PM says that the children on school strike are ‘wasting lesson time.’ That may well be the case, but then again, political leaders have wasted 30 years of inaction. And that is slightly worse.”

“We don’t miss school because we’re lazy or because we don’t want to go to school,” Jakob Blasel, a high school student who assisted with the organization of an earlier protest in Berlin told the Washington Post. “We can’t go to school, because we have to strike. We have to deliver an uncomfortable message to our leaders that it can’t go on this way.”

Youth for climate is currently planning another round of protests and another global youth strike for March 15. The movement is growing and more students from nations across the world are expected to join.

EMMA BRUCE is an undergraduate student studying English and marketing at Emerson College in Boston. While not writing she explores the nearest museums, reads poetry, and takes classes at her local dance studio. She is passionate about sustainable travel and can't wait to see where life will take her. 

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Fighting to End Child Marriage in Lebanon

Ghassan Idriss knows firsthand the harmful effects of child marriage on society. Having married at a young age to a woman even younger than himself, Idriss and his wife faced struggles that so many other couples in his home country of Lebanon grapple with. Now, with three daughters of his own, Idriss is doing everything he can to educate those around him about the dangers of this antiquated institution. By hosting talks, he’s using his voice to spark change within his community.

America’s Public Schools Seldom Bring Rich and Poor Together – and MLK Would Disapprove

America’s public schools were meant to bring together children from all walks of life.  Monkey Business Images/www.shutterstock.com

America’s public schools were meant to bring together children from all walks of life. Monkey Business Images/www.shutterstock.com

Five decades after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., many carry on his legacy through the struggle for racially integrated schools. Yet as King put it in a 1968 speech, the deeper struggle was “for genuine equality, which means economic equality.” Justice in education would demand not just racially integrated schools, but also economically integrated schools.

The fight for racial integration meant overturning state laws and a century of history – it was an uphill battle from the start. But economic integration should have been easier. In the mid-18th century, when education reformers first made the case for inclusive and taxpayer-supported education, they argued that “common schools” would ease the class differences between children from different backgrounds.

As Horace Mann, the most prominent of these reformers, argued in 1848, such schools would serve to counter the “domination of capital and the servility of labor.” Learning together on common ground, rich and poor would see themselves in common cause – a necessity for the survival of the republic.

More than 150 years later, the nation has yet to realize this vision. In fact, it has been largely forgotten. Modern Americans regularly scrutinize the aims and intentions of the Founding Fathers; but the early designs for public education – outlined by Mann, the first secretary of education in Massachusetts, as well as by leaders like Henry BarnardThaddeus Stevens, and Caleb Mills – are mostly overlooked. Today, the average low-income student in the U.S. attends a school where two-thirds of students are poor. Nearly half of low-income students attend schools with poverty rates of 75 percent or higher.

Education historians, like myself, have generally focused their research and attention on racial segregation, rather than on economic segregation. But as income inequality continues to deepen, the aim of economically integrated schools has never been more relevant. If we are concerned with justice, we must revitalize this original vision of public education.

Shared community

Early advocates of taxpayer-supported common schools argued that public education would promote integration across social classes. They thought it would instill a spirit of shared community and open what Horace Mann called “a wider area over which the social feelings will expand.”

Horace Mann (1796-1859) was an early advocate of public education in the U.S.  Fotolia/AP

Horace Mann (1796-1859) was an early advocate of public education in the U.S. Fotolia/AP

And, generally speaking, it worked. The ultra-rich mostly continued to send their children to private academies. But many middle- and upper-income households began to send their children to public schools. As historians have shown, economically segregated schools did not systematically emerge until the mid-20th century, as a product of exclusionary zoning and discriminatory housing policies. Schools weren’t perfectly integrated by any means, particularly with regard to race. They were, however, vital sites of cross-class interaction.

Many prominent Americans – including U.S. presidents – were products of the public schools. Commonly, they sat side by side in classrooms with people from different walks of life.

But over the past half-century, students have been increasingly likely to go to school with students from similar socioeconomic backgrounds. Since 1970, residential segregation has increased sharply, with twice as many families now living in either rich or poor neighborhoods – a trend that has been particularly acute in urban areas. And segregation by income is most extreme among families with school-age children. Poor children are increasingly likely to go to school with poor children. Similar economic isolation is true of the middle and affluent classes.

Contemporary Americans commonly accept that their schools will be segregated by social class. Yet the architects of American public education would have viewed such an outcome as a catastrophe. In fact, they might attribute growing economic inequality to the systematic separation of rich and poor. As Horace Mann argued, it was the core mission of public schools to bring different young people together – to consider not just “what one individual or family needs,” but rather “what the whole community needs.”

Many parents do continue seek out diverse schools. A number of school districts have worked to devise student assignment plans that advance the aim of integration. And some charter schools are reaching this market by pursuing what has been called a “diverse-by-design” strategy. As demonstrated by research, diverse schools can and often do improve achievement across a range of social and cognitive outcomes, such as critical thinking, empathy and open-mindedness.

Largely overlooked, however, has been the political benefit of integrated schools. One rarely encounters the once-common argument that the health of American democracy depends on rich and poor attending school together. This is particularly surprising in an age of tremendous disparities in wealth and power. Members of Congress, on average, are 12 times wealthier than the typical American. Moreover, lawmakers are increasingly responsive to the privileged, even at the expense of middle-class voters.

If elites are isolated from their lower- and middle-income peers, they may be less likely to see a relationship of mutual commitment and responsibility to those of lesser means. As scholars Kendra Bischoff and Sean F. Reardon have argued, “If socioeconomic segregation means that more advantaged families do not share social environments and public institutions such as schools, public services, and parks with low-income families, advantaged families may hold back their support for investments in shared resources.”

What can be done?

Today more than 100 school districts or charter school chains work to integrate schools economically. Cambridge, Massachusetts, for instance, has four decades of experience balancing enrollments by social class, seeking to match the diversity of the city as a whole in each school.

This, of course, is only possible in a diverse place. Median family income in Cambridge is roughly US$100,000, while 15 percent of city residents live below the poverty line. It is also made possible through heavy investments in public education in the city. After all, it is far easier to convince middle-class and affluent parents to send their children to the public schools when per-pupil expenditures rival the highest-spending suburbs, as they do in Cambridge.

But not every district has Cambridge’s advantages. Nor does every district have similar political will.

The latter of those two constraints, however, may soon begin to change. Faced with a growing divide between rich and poor, Americans may begin to demand schools that not only serve young people equally from a funding standpoint, but also educate them together in the same classrooms.

Common schools by themselves are not enough to solve the problem of economic inequality. Yet if Americans seek to create a society in which the rich and the poor see themselves in common cause, common schools may be a necessary – and long overdue – step. We must come to see, in the words of Martin Luther King, that, “We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny.”

JACK SCHNEIDER is an Assistant Professor of Education at the University of Massachusetts Lowell.


Cocoa Industry: For Children by Children?

The cocoa industry continues to rely on child labor, but some companies are trying to change that.

A cocoa worker processes cocoa beans. 

A cocoa worker processes cocoa beans. 

From little kids to adults, chocolate evokes an essence of simplistic indulgence most cannot refuse. It is no wonder then that the average American will eat over 11 pounds of chocolate a year. However neither simplicity nor delight are terms found in criticisms of the cocoa industry. More likely one will read statements such as “it will be decades – if ever – before human rights will be respected…”— as concluded in the 2018 Cocoa Barometer’s 2018 report, produced by 15 NGOs including Oxfam and Stop the Traffik.

So who produces chocolate? Most are children who haul heavy bags of cocoa beans or harvest with machetes. Indeed, in West Africa where 70% of cocoa comes from, 2.1 million of laborers are children. The labor is often times dangerous and in a Tulane University study of the 2013-2014 growing season, 96% of child labor was labeled hazardous.

Also critical is that child labor interferes with schooling. Education is essential as it equips future workers with skills that nurture a competitive job market. Considering most of the cocoa growing areas are impoverished areas, the lack of education is a deterrent to ending systemic poverty. Further, many of the children’s parents also worked on cocoa farms and do not understand the risks of child labor or the benefits of education.

Still children are cheaper to employ for cocoa farmers than adult laborers as most cocoa farmers only make $0.78 a day. And even that meager wage is vulnerable to fluctuations in cocoa price on the global market. Goals to reduce use of child laborers by 70% by 2020 have notably failed in part because of the poor wages—in Côte d’Ivôire $0.78 is only 37% of a living wage.

Another factor in the continued use of child laborers is the absence of effective legislative action. Cocoa Barometer described the current political will as lacking “sense of urgency, or ambition to tackle the sector’s challenges.”

One area that legislation has been particularly negligent is trafficking of children. The International Labor Organization in 2002 conducted a study that concluded 12,000 child laborers were trafficked in West Africa. And while 16 years have passed since, it is still common knowledge that child laborers exist in the industry. Efforts to stop it have been ineffective: the Ivory Coast made trafficking illegal, but has yet to educate the prosecutors and police officers who can enforce the ruling.

Rather, companies are taking their own steps to confront child labor. Since 2012, Nestlé has implemented a Child Labor Monitoring Remediation System (CLMRS). CLMRS work directly in local communities and notes instances of child labor, whether self-declared or not. They respond with various forms of remediation, such as tracking school attendance.

Mondelēz International, owners of the Cadbury brand, invested $400 million in 2012 with the explicit goal to “empower at least 200,000 cocoa farmers and reach one million community members.” By 2016, Mondelēz had worked with 92,000 farmers in 861 communities.

Advertisement embodying Cocoa Life’s commitment to empowering cocoa farmers (Source: Cocoa Life).

Advertisement embodying Cocoa Life’s commitment to empowering cocoa farmers (Source: Cocoa Life).

Mondelēz’s success is because of Cocoa Life, a third-party cocoa sustainability program that is overseeing Mondelēz’s gradual shift to sustainable cocoa. Focusing on child labor, Cocoa Life emphasizes education of both children about their rights as well as educating parents about the negative effects of child labor. And at the end of 2017 116 CLMRS were monitoring the supply in Ghana out of the 447 communities it was active in.

Nestle and Mondelēz are setting examples of what many critics hope other multinational cocoa companies will replicate: reporting their successes and failures so the industry can learn from one another. Increased transparency is only one step though. Another is the hope for legislation in consuming countries that legally hold companies to the United Nations Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights— which is currently only a voluntary framework.

For now cocoa is still a complicated industry driven by the simplistic need to get a fix. But if consumers know the faces behind the candy bar, then awareness will encourage progress. And progress is critical to making cocoa sustainable for future generations as well as viable living for its workers.



TERESA NOWALK is a student at the University of Virginia studying anthropology and history. In her free time she loves traveling, volunteering in the Charlottesville community, and listening to other people’s stories. She does not know where her studies will take her, but is certain writing will be a part of whatever the future has in store.

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Literacy… for Whom?

The significance of the Gary B. v. Snyder lawsuit dismissal.

Detroit students opened up the conversation on who has the right to education (Source: Steve Neavling).

Detroit students opened up the conversation on who has the right to education (Source: Steve Neavling).

On June 29, 2018 US District Judge Stephen J. Murphy III dismissed a federal class-action lawsuit, Gary B. v. Snyder. The lawsuit, filed in 2016 by Public Counsel and Sidley Austin LLP on behalf of a class of students, claimed the plaintiffs were deprived of the right to literacy. The decision will be appealed at the US Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals.

Although Judge Murphy agreed a degree of literacy is important for such matters as voting and job searching, he did not say it was fundamental: constitutional.  The central reasoning for the dismissal of the case was the suit failed to show overt racial discrimination by the defendants in charge of the Detroit Public Schools: the state of Michigan. The other reasoning Judge Murphy provided was that the 14th amendment’s due process clause does not require Michigan provide “minimally adequate education.”

Meanwhile the case brings up an important question its initial filing gave rise to: is literacy a constitutional right? One could argue the importance of literacy goes back to Reconstruction. According to Professor Derek Black, Southern states had to rewrite their constitutions with an education guarantee in addition to passing the 14th amendment before they could be readmitted into the US. Black states “the explicit right of citizenship in the 14th  Amendment included an implicit right to education.”

The theme of education and citizenship is a central component to the complaint’s argument for literacy as a fundamental right. It appeared in the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education case too, which emphasized that education was “the very foundation of good citizenship.” The complaint drew on this citizenship theme to argue the importance of establishing elementary literacy tools—about the equivalent of a 3rd grade reading level. These can then develop into adolescent literacy skills, which allow an individual to comprehend and engage with words. Such engagement is what democratic citizens need when they are making decisions on who to vote; even more importantly, literacy is essential to understanding the often complex ballots voting requires. Further, literacy allows one to take part in political conversations.

The schools in question also “serve more than 97% children of color,” according to the complaint. Many of these students also come from low income families. On the 2017 Nation’s Report Card the average score out of 500 for reading was 182 for Detroit 4th graders, compared to the national average of 213 in other large city school districts. If the 1982 Pyler v. Doe case argued children could not be denied free public education that is offered to other children within the same state—in line with the 14th amendment—then why the disparity in scores?

The plaintiffs believe the disparity lies in deeply rooted issues in the Detroit Public Schools. They argue literacy tools that are first taught in elementary school are not only unavailable to them but that their schools are also not adequate environments for fostering education.The complaint mentions unsanitary conditions, extreme classroom temperatures, and overcrowded classrooms as environmental stressors. They also mention inadequate classroom materials as well as outdated and overused textbooks.

Worn history textbook from 1998 (source: Public Counsel).

Worn history textbook from 1998 (source: Public Counsel).

Not only is the school environment not conducive to learning for these students but their teachers are often not the proper facilitators for learning. The complaint mention such issues as high teacher turnover, frequent teacher absences, lack of short term substitute teachers, inadequate teacher training, and allowance of non-certified individuals.  The complaint also states students at these schools may also have unaddressed issues related to trauma teachers are not trained for.

And the solution to these discrepancies could very well be what the plaintiffs are arguing for: make literacy, education, a fundamental right. In a 2012 Pearson study on global education systems, the US was number 17. All the countries ahead of the US had either a constitutional guarantee of education or a statue acknowledging the role of education. According to Stephen Lurie, this creates a baseline ruling of what education entails: a culture of education around which laws can form.

Such a baseline ensures education is not a question of privilege. Indeed such conditions as the complaint mentions, as lawyer Mark Rosenbaum stated, would be “unthinkable in schools serving predominantly white, affluent student populations.”  What Gary B. v. Sanders is asking for is a safe school environment, trained teachers, and basic instructional materials. It is asking that Detroit students are guaranteed a minimum of education that will at least give them the chance other students in Michigan have at becoming informed citizens and adults.


TERESA NOWALK is a student at the University of Virginia studying anthropology and history. In her free time she loves traveling, volunteering in the Charlottesville community, and listening to other people’s stories. She does not know where her studies will take her, but is certain writing will be a part of whatever the future has in store.

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Solar Mamas — Why Poverty?

Are women better at getting out of poverty than men? The Barefoot College in India is a six-month program that brings together uneducated middle-aged women from poor communities all over the world, and trains them to become solar engineers. In this documentary from WHY POVERTY? meet Rafea, the second wife of a Bedouin husband from Jordan and watch her learn about electrical components and soldering without being able to read, write or understand English. Full documentary airs this Sunday 9 pm GMT in UK on BBC.


USA: Every 26 Seconds

Every 26 seconds in the United States a student drops out of high school. Merit is a clothing company who cares about changing that. Education is their cause, and 20% of all their revenues are dedicated to helping disadvantaged kids get to college. Read more about Merit through David Merrit, the founder's blog here.