Tag Archives: children

Future Shock: Returning What We’ve Stolen from Children, Dr. Robert Zuber

2 Jun

Stolen 3

Misfortune threshes our souls as a flail threshes wheat, and the lightest parts of ourselves are scattered to the wind.  Danielle Teller

In increments both measurable and not, our childhood is stolen from us, not always in one momentous event but often in a series of small robberies, which add up to the same loss. John Irving

He stood at the window of the empty cafe and watched the activities in the square and he said that it was good that God kept the truths of life from the young as they were starting out or else they’d have no heart to start at all.  Cormac McCarthy

I hate that I stopped believing in things I didn’t even know were matters of belief, like justice and fairness. Or honesty. Or the promises people make to each other. Sue Halpern

My hearts ached with a pain I could not describe. I wondered if I were dying. I felt not sadness. I felt pity. For myself. For us all. We were children no longer. And we never would be again.  K. A. Applegate

This past Friday near the UN, John Burroughs kindly lent us his office patio for what has in the past year become a bit of a custom for us – welcoming a gathering of interns from the organizations with whom we once shared office space and with whom we still work.

Amidst the refreshments in a welcoming space shrouded in green just a few minutes walk from the UN, this gathering is pitched as an opportunity to make some acquaintances and perhaps even friends, but also to ponder “what just happened” at a UN which doesn’t always make the best first impression (or second for that matter) but which challenges our minds, hearts and patience literally by the hour.

This week, various members of our patio group took on policy options in diverse UN conference rooms – from peacekeeping in Somalia and the impact of plundered natural resources on international peace and security to the endless challenge associate with financing for development and the ability of UN managers to take a firm stand on sexual exploitation and abuse. Some also attended an extraordinary event this week hosted by Norway and Jordan focused on violence from “right wing terrorism,” and the often-shocking levels of weaponry and internet space enabling this largely unchecked threat.

All of this is important at multiple policy levels and was occasionally quite eye-opening for the interns.  And some of these experiences were raised during our patio time.   But the interesting parts were less about what the UN was doing and more about how it was doing it, the impressions that these people, some of whom had been in the building less than a week, felt initially about their presence in this center of global governance. Was it different than they imagined?  And did this “difference” make them more or less hopeful for the future of the planet?

For many it WAS different than they imagined in several ways, small and large: being relegated to the far reaches of conference rooms; having to enter the main building with the tourists rather than with the officials; watching diplomats reading prepared statements that had most all passion and urgency wrung out of them; a lack of apologies for policy mis-steps or even acknowledgements of mistakes made or valid points made by others; long meetings that resulted neither in specific actions nor even in a consensus to act that would be more about the promise of change than the promise of lunch.

No, the UN does not seem to make these interns particularly more hopeful about their future, at least not at this early stage of their engagement. Of course, what they conclude now will modify over time. They will become better “adjusted” to the way the UN does its business, the subtleties of diplomacy and diplomatic language that often result in meaningful (if not always timely or sufficient) movement on pressing global issues.

Hopefully, they will also cultivate their own means of feed-back to the UN system of which they are now a part,  a system that continues to grant access and privilege, albeit at times grudgingly, to young people who have (like myself and most of the rest of us) not “earned” it in any substantive sense.  We are where we are, not because we are so intelligent, or brave, or wise, or determined, but because (as I like to say) we’ve collectively been around so long they’ve mostly forgotten we don’t completely belong.

But belong we still do and, like it or not, the system of which we are now a part has done little to confront state leadership that, as the remarkable youth “messenger” Greta Thunberg says often, has literally “stolen our childhood,”  has refused to make the changes drastically or quickly enough to stave off the longer-term prospect of a climate-related extinction, let along the poverty, discrimination and violence that jeopardize millions of children in the shorter term.  The faces of too many of today’s children – locked in cages, trapped under rubble, suffering in the harvest fields, at risk of violence while simply seeking water or firewood – are not the faces around our patio table.  Ours are the faces of privilege, faces with “adult” opportunities to add voice to policy at its global center, to insist (if only they will) that the damage done to those who will co-inherit a planet drowning in plastic and mistrust, melting away our ice caps and eroding our resolve to promote justice and honor our promises, can and must come to a stop.  We can’t afford to further jeopardize those who might well ascend to leadership in societies now pushing away from each other, erecting more barriers than we can dismantle and calling very much into question the cooperative spirit that is our best hope for change.

Of all the UN-related voices that come to us through twitter, email and other online sources, perhaps my favorite comes courtesy of Marta Santos Pais, the Special Representative on Violence against Children.  Despite the enormity of her assigned duties, despite the willingness of too much of the international community to use children’s lives as geo-political pawns which are then justified in the name of dubious ethnic “supremacies” or of erstwhile larger global visions that turn out to be merely mean and petty, Pais soldiers on.  And she does so while regularly sharing the most hopeful photos of children from diverse and often challenged backgrounds, children mostly seen smiling, holding hands and sharing portions of the “lighter side” of themselves, children waving their arms playfully from the classrooms that offer them another way forward, children peering longingly or quizzically into the camera lens as though ready to whisper to anyone close enough to hear, “we need a chance too.”

Indeed they do.  We live in a time which (wrongly in my view) seeks to extend childhood for the mostly-privileged almost into middle-age — putting off the “pity” associated with an inevitable and largely irreversible casting aside of childish ways — while our policies impose bewildering amounts of pain and deprivation on other children that they will do well to heal, even in part.   In looking around the patio table at the remarkable people assembled there, I recognize in them some of what I don’t recognize often enough in their peers (or my own for that matter) – the willingness to take a deep and hopeful breath, to accept the responsibility associated with their training and privilege, to renounce residual vestiges of cynicism even as unresolved shocks to our future multiply, and to find common cause with those (like Greta) younger than themselves who are (and not without cause) quickly losing patience with the rest of us.

It is past time to acknowledge what our greed and indifference have been stealing from our children and pledge to return to them what was implicitly promised when we brought them into this world.

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Bully Pulpit:  Eliminating the Coercion we Enable, Dr. Robert Zuber

14 Oct

 

  Romero 4

You aren’t those words. You aren’t the shouts and names. You aren’t the awful things spat at you like flavorless gum. You aren’t the punches or the bruises they cause. You aren’t the blood running from your nose. You aren’t under their control. You are not theirs.  Salla Simukka

They could give a number of reasons for why they had to torment him; he was too fat, too ugly, too disgusting. But the real problem was simply that he existed, and every reminder of his existence was a crime. John Lindqvist

Maybe you never considered yourself a bully, a batterer or an abuser before, but maybe you are — to yourself.  Bryant McGill,

Decades ago, George Orwell suggested that the best one-word description of a Fascist was “bully.”  Madeleine Albright

Though the headline event of the UN’s week was probably the announcement that Nikki Haley will step down as US Ambassador to the UN, the six committees of the General Assembly were now fully in swing as diplomats seek to consolidate gains from High-Level discussions recently held and resolutions previously adopted, while forging new paths to address ever-evolving development and security threats to agriculture and oceans,  children and indigenous persons.

This is also a time of many side events, smaller group discussions that focus on topics important to the UN but less appropriate for larger plenary settings.  Unfortunately, these side events often take on the character of “sales meetings” as UN secretariat officials and NGOs show off their reports and their expertise, hoping to carve out a large niche for the issues they represent and, hopefully, interest those funding states in attendance in writing new (or larger) checks to support their work.

Given this “sales” dimension, too many side events are primed to miss the mark, featuring too many “authorized” voices and seemingly operating on the assumption (false in my experience) of vast gaps in expertise between the speakers and audience.  Rarely is there sufficient time for discussion despite virtually every moderators promise to host an “interactive dialogue.”  In most instances, there is barely time left over for reflection of any kind.  Everyone with relevant policy or funding incentives has seemingly pushed their way on to the agenda for the “show and tell” that most side events represent.

But every once in a while there is an event that both ticks the boxes and tickles the imagination, raising issues that are both under-represented in the UN and have broader social and policy significance, bearing implications beyond the immediate report event and its targeted implications.

Such occurred this week at the launch of Ending the Torment,  an excellent report on bullying in schoolyards and cyberspace, with a discussion moderated by the SRSG on Violence against Children Marta Santos Pais, one of the most consistently kind, thoughtful and determined of all the special representatives.  The focus on her remarks – and of the report – is on bullying, the sort we mostly associate with “mean girls and boys” taking out their frustrations and insecurities on each other and, as Pais noted, eroding trust and social cohesion in ways that breed the “social isolation” that is now a virtual epidemic among adolescents, especially in the “west.”  As the UNICEF representative to this discussion noted, too many children dread the start of school each year, not (solely) because of teachers and homework, but because of the violence, intimidation and even loneliness that is likely to punctuate their return.

Another relevant thing about bullying is its implications for so much of what goes on – often behind the scenes – in the “world of adults,” including in our multilateral institutions.   The bullying we do in this policy spaces like the UN, for instance, is perhaps more subtle than what takes place by children in schools (and requires some rather intense scrutiny of UN processes in order to expose and address it), but it exists nonetheless.  We, too, practice forms of coercion that lie beyond our mandates and the limitations imposed by international law. We, too, employ levers of power to coerce and cajole, to remind states and peoples that the world can still be as unfair and unrepresentative as they had long-suspected it was.

The passive aggressive mode which is perhaps our singular specialty here at the UN only occasionally conveys its own coercive underbelly. We don’t talk much about the intimidation embedded in our own policy processes, nor do we take sufficient steps to ensure that member states (especially the major powers) are called out for their bulling beyond the walls of the UN.  In states like El Salvador for instance, bullying by large states, corporate entities and, at times, the El Salvador government itself have long conspired to shed innocent blood, endanger water supplies, denude forests, enable corruption and block inclusive political participation such that only a few could be considered to “have a say” of any consequence.

The “bully pulpit” which former US president Teddy Roosevelt helped to make famous, was considered by him to be a positive development, a way to ensure that he would always “have a voice.”  But people like Roosevelt – and like me for that matter – always seem to find our platform.   If we are serious about ending the scourge of bullying in our multilateral institutions as well as in our schools, we need to ensure a much broader (and hopefully safer) access to existing pulpits.  The voices of the entitled, demanding the microphone over and over when there are so many valuable human perspectives left unacknowledged, can bully in the places where diplomats congregate as they do in the places where young people congregate.

The “solutions” to bullying are elusive, as many speakers at this UN event noted.  In this current “deficit of kindness” moment, where “difference” is exploited for policy gain as it is so often bullied and otherwise humiliated within schools and communities, we need to get back to some very basic truths about how attentive we are to each other, how much respect we are able to demonstrate beyond our rhetoric. As Greece noted during the UN session, we adults must return to “teaching with our practices,” showing children that we are willing to listen, to de-center our views and prejudices, to recognize that the bullying in our playgrounds is simply the mirror image of the multiple forms of coercion that permeate our family and civic life.  Mexico reflected that as bullying seems to be on the rise in our time, especially prevalent in social media, we need to forge a “sensitive and genuine alliance” among all age groups more than we need rigid censorship.  The internet is now the medium-of-choice for our often anonymous and cowardly attacks on each other; but we adults, we officials and erstwhile leaders, we provide the fuel that makes bullying efforts resonate within our children’s increasingly battered psyches.

I am in San Salvador this weekend in part to encourage local participation in the sustainable development goals. But even more I am here to do my small part to celebrate the legacy of Archbishop Romero, once assassinated and now canonized in Rome but never forgotten by the people who grew to cherish his vision for the transformation of human and material conditions. So many in this country grew to embrace Romero’s own transformation from a conservative ecclesiastical caretaker to someone who lived the “good news” of a world still able to dream that all could have enough, a world where humiliation and coercion have been effectively stricken from the human lexicon.

The now sainted Romero had his “bully pulpit,” but he did not bully.  He had a secure space to share his voice, but he was committed to promote the voices of others.  His own status was secured, but he understood that the God he referenced was mocked by a world where some had so much and many others so little.  The thousands who filled the streets of San Salvador in the name of Saint Romero last evening – drum beating young people, indigenous mothers holding their children, people waving support from the stalls in the markets, reporters and photographers by the dozens almost not believing their eyes – were calling out a country that has been bullied for too long and celebrating Romero’s vision for a more just and sustainable world that their many footsteps, hopeful chanting and creative imaging helped bring back into focus.

If we want to end bullying by young people, it will take more vigilance from parents and teachers, more open-ended discussions with young people about their anxieties and fears.  But beyond that it will take a demonstrated commitment from all of us to end our own aggressive and self-serving policies and passive- aggressive manipulation of circumstances, renouncing the subtle and not-so-subtle forms of bribery and coercion that keep too many nations and peoples, minority groups and persons with disabilities, facing a pervasive if worn double threat – the half-hearted attention of the policy community and the full-hearted scorn of too many of their peers.

One of the songs erupting from the groups of marchers who took to the streets last evening to celebrate and pray, to honor and discern, was one about a small bird that, once it learns how to fly, never loses the skill.  Too many of us in these times, it seems, have serially-neglected to flap our wings.  The energy on the streets of San Salvador last evening was a challenge to all those who bully, to all who use their power and privilege to manipulate and coerce, that we will never again mute our voices or misplace our vision, that we will never again overlook our capacity to fly.

Civil Society: Making Change without Making Enemies, Dr. Robert Zuber

1 Jul

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A politician thinks of the next election; a statesman, of the next generation.  J.F. Clarke

Political parties are on the hunt to search and destroy each other, as though we were involved in some kind of enemy combat, rather than the work of statesmanship.   John Lewis

The challenge was that it was harder to be subtle than strident.   Nancy Gibbs

New truth is only useful to supplement the old; rough truth is only wanted to expand, not to destroy, our civil and often elegant conventions.  Robert Louis Stevenson

This was an exhausting week at the UN for all its stakeholders, including a high level General Assembly event on countering terrorism, planning for important resolutions on infectious diseases and a September Mandela Peace Summit, and an outcome document for the Review Conference of the Programme of Action on Small Arms that had delegates negotiating over issues from women’s participation in disarmament affairs to the control of ammunition supplies well into early Saturday morning.

The Nelson Mandela Peace Summit preparatory discussion — with the goal of a consensus political declaration — was particularly interesting for us as delegations shared insights on matters important for the entire UN community; including how to define “vulnerabilities” beyond group categorizations and how to position the declaration so that it reinforced system-wide commitments to “sustaining peace” and the 2030 Development Agenda. The discussion was led by the always entertaining and insightful Ambassador of South Africa, Jerry Matjila, who reminded delegations that these “unusual times require an unusual declaration,” one that can help convince people that “the impossible is still possible.”

As we were also reminded this week by African women themselves at an excellent side event on preventing violence extremism in Africa, the multiple threats from poverty and climate-affected desertification and drought conspire to create openings for extremists that bring danger even to daily routines.  If peace “is still possible” in the poorest, driest parts of Africa, it will take more reassuring capacity support and non-partisan leadership from the rest of us; more than these determined women can alone deliver for their communities, as they themselves made clear.

Such leadership is elusive in our time. On Saturday I was in New Mexico to join with a wide range of stakeholders — from activists representing area (often displaced) indigenous tribes to mothers clutching children themselves clutching signs of frustration and determination,  as the reality of the family separation being chronicled from the stage by those who had experienced it’s effects first-hand was almost too painful to bear.

The advocacy around the plaza ranged from those seeking only to reunite separated children to those seeking to oust the current US president using language that struck me as a tad on the reckless side – as though lecturing and insulting people you don’t like is an effective way to change their behavior, or as though any deference to civility in our currently ravaged political discourse is little more than code for passive indifference.

Civility did take a bit of a hit at this rally, with some declaring an era of state fascism and otherwise alleging political enemies in categorical terms.  As the scene unfolded, I kept thinking back to a poll released this week by Transparency International indicating that by a shockingly wide margin, people report only limited “trust” in their government.   The poll, it must be noted, was conducted through Facebook and would likely not rise to the highest polling standards.  And yet, at least in the main, it confirmed so much of what I read and hear about through the UN – societies becoming simultaneously suspicious, insular and polarized, with fewer and fewer opportunities for the “dialogue” that we constantly (and rightly) advocate for conflict states from Syria to Cameroon.

As some of the Hispanic speakers at the rally rightly claimed, too many people in this world are simply not being heard, and simply not being heard by governments.  Indeed, there are some people in this world who have a hard time being heard by any government – including voices from some of the indigenous communities represented on the plaza.  But “hearing” now seems to have become primarily a partisan activity as our views on what kinds of societies we want to live in continue to diverge. And to make matters worse, there is now a scarcity of statesmen/women who heed needs and voices beyond partisan bases and who help us grasp our longer-term responsibilities to the children who depend on us for things other than staking out political turf.  We need more of these leaders in both national and multilateral settings to help us resolve this current cycle of mistrust and recrimination while it is within our capacity to do so.

Through its sometimes powerful norm building, the UN for its own part seems to embrace a mostly progressive worldview with mostly-diligent diplomats working hard to “keep the doors open” for effective policy negotiations.  But there are tremors lurking here as well as some of the most visible and respected diplomats at UN headquarters represent leadership in national capitals whose “heads” are wrapped around decidedly different policy priorities. At the UN, we collectively know a fair bit about how to diffuse and even overcome some of the short-term policymaking and partisan venom that has infected discourse in so many political contexts.   We have learned much about the challenge and necessity of seeing value in the actions and priorities of even our policy adversaries. What we don’t yet know how to do, at least with consistency, is to use UN norm building as a tool to actively stem the tide of intolerance and authoritarianism that seems to be cascading over more and more of our member states.

In looking for clues in these urgent times, we all have things to atone for, including exclusions that we have done more to enable than we are willing to acknowledge. But we have also had past successes in reaching beyond limitations of trust and context that it would be helpful to recall.  Indeed, one of the most memorable speeches at the New Mexico rally was also one of the least incendiary.  A Vietnamese woman took the stage to remind the audience of its own history – specifically the successful integration of Vietnamese in the 1970s to places like New Mexico and Oklahoma which could not have been more different from where these people had come from but where –somehow, some way — people eventually made it work.

We can make it work again, she exclaimed.

Indeed we can.

 

 

 

Modeling Agency:  The Gift of a Father’s Inspiration, Dr. Robert Zuber

17 Jun

My father would take me to the playground, and put me on mood swings. Jay London

I believe that what we become depends on what our fathers teach us at odd moments, when they aren’t trying to teach us. We are formed by little scraps of wisdomUmberto Eco

Beauty is not who you are on the outside, it is the wisdom and time you gave away to save another struggling soul like youShannon Alder

I should no longer define myself as the son of a father who couldn’t or hasn’t or wouldn’t or wasn’t.  Cameron Conaway

A few weeks ago in this space, I posted an essay honoring mothers for their sometimes heart-wrenching task of accompaniment — helping children to overcome the challenges that we can no longer “fix” for them.   The images of refugee mothers dragging their children across hostile terrain, away from everything familiar but no longer safe, is a gut-clutching narrative that is repeated, in tone if not in substance, millions of times over in our fragmented world.

Fathers, of course, are hardly excluded from such painful and emotionally-draining experiences.  Indeed, two images in these past days have moved me beyond the dull ache that often results from long days in UN conference rooms.  The first is perhaps the more familiar:  a Honduran man who brought his child across the US border only to have them immediately separated by US agents. The man was subsequently taken to some sort of prison facility where he apparently hanged himself, taking with him we can only assume portions of shame and remorse for daring and then failing to seek a safer and perhaps even more prosperous environment for his family.

As angry as this story of separation made me, the other image was in some ways even more tragic.  A young Syrian boy awakens after surgery to discover that the landmine that prompted the surgery in the first place has left him dazed and confused, but also blind.  As he flails away in his makeshift bed, his father attempts to comfort that which might never be comforted, a boy who must now deal with the double trauma of injury and darkness, and the father who knows that, despite the destruction all around punctuated by the threat of more landmines, his son will now need more from him – and for a longer period — than he ever imagined.

The insights here for me are twofold and apply to most all parents and caregivers. The first is the extraordinary violence and indifference that characterizes our treatment of so many children in this world. How do we rationalize children forcibly separated from parents, having to play in a field with un-exploded landmines, recruited into armed insurgencies and brothels, forced to beg for provisions that might sustain their lives but won’t allow their brains – let alone their hearts – to grow?

And the second insight is the burdens that all of this places on caregivers – on fathers who take their protective and provider responsibilities seriously – parents and others who must bear to watch an often heartless world plunging their children into darkness and despair.  As many parents now recognize, we can stand sentry on the porches of our homes, but the storms that make more of our eyes suspicious and our souls frustrated are unlikely to be frightened away.  The wolves, it seems, have gained strength of wind and a more strategic predatory interest since they first appeared in our fables.

And our now-apparent propensity for short-term policy fixes is only likely to make our long term prognosis more alarming; that time, past our time, when our collective lack of vision and kindness that jeopardizes any sustainable peace will come home to roost.

I am not a father myself, and many of my closest father-friends know to take some of my reflections on fathering as worth only the smallest grain of salt.  But I think most would agree that if we want children of character, children who care about things other than themselves, children who have the courage and resilience both to face up to the threats from storms and rebuild better in their aftermath, then we have much that we now need to model for them.

The best fathers and others who accompany children known to me do this as a matter of course.  They eschew the “do as I say not as I do” method of child influence for lives that are transparent and accountable, lives that seek to demonstrate the perseverance, resourcefulness, kindness, duty and integrity that they would be pleased to see more of in the world, certainly more of in the children they raise and know.  These fathers and others inspire lives of sustainability and service by living lives of sustainability and service, lives of strength and resilience by adapting and persevering.  They know to fill an increasingly barren and distracted landscape, not with words but with active hands and a big heart.

If there was ever a time for us to reboot our responsibilities to the next generations, this just might be it.  As it turns out, the “little scraps of wisdom” that fathers impart are often the very scraps that get children out in the world rather than shrinking in the corner, that help them create circles of concern as large as their hearts can bear, that help them cash in their anxiety and suspicions for a curious, compassionate and confident engagement with life.

Today is the World Day to Combat Desertification, a day for me to reflect on both the reality and the metaphor of our creeping deserts; the lands that can no long support a harvest, the souls that can no longer sustain meaningful connection, sometimes not even to our closest of kin. In our climate-damaged world, we are losing more and more precious land by the day, thus sending more and more families on a perilous journey to find safe spaces for children, land that will yield its fruits and strangers willing to risk becoming neighbors.

At the end of our days, as those of us who dare to make policy for others will also discover, our children are unlikely to ask why we didn’t buy them the latest gadgets to distract them from life, but why we didn’t do more to fix what’s broken in our world and why we didn’t prepare them better to fix things once we’re gone?

For all the fathers out there who are prepared to fully and lovingly answer those questions, we are forever in your debt. Through your strength of character and willingness to model, you are doing your part to make the desert bloom again.

Accompanied Minors: The Gift of a Mother’s Presence, Dr. Robert Zuber

13 May

Africa

Being a parent wasn’t just about bearing a child. It was about bearing witness to its life.  Jodi Picoult

The human heart was not designed to beat outside the human body and yet, each child represented just that – a parent’s heart bared, beating forever outside its chest.  Debra Ginsberg

It’s come at last, she thought, the time when you can no longer stand between your children and heartache.  Betty Smith

It’s not our job to toughen our children up to face a cruel and heartless world. It’s our job to raise children who will make the world a little less cruel and heartless.  L.R. Knost

There is much discussion at the UN on a regular basis focused on the horrible circumstances that some children in this world must endure because of the foolishness of older people much like me.  How do we rationalize, inside and outside of policy communities, the fears and abuses that inflict deep scars on the young and that threaten to make in their adult years people more dependent on care – and less able to give it – than could ever be in our best interest?  What should our response be to children when sometimes cruel and heartless life challenges throw a wet blanket over their capacity to alleviate cruelty for others in their latter parts of their life cycle?

But even more common –perhaps less heartless–circumstances also bring pain and uncertainty for the young – the scraped knees, the verbal intimidations at school, the agony of unrequited desire, the moves away from happy homes to cramped and unfamiliar quarters due to declining economic circumstances.   And then there are the children for whom serious disease or accident threatens to snuff out at least some of the potential of lives that have just barely gotten off the ground.

Some of this might sound a bit like “first world problems,” but it also points to a common experience of so many mothers in this world – to kneel at the foot of the metaphorical cross, as it were, able to accompany the pain of a child’s crucifixion but unable to significantly impact its circumstances.  This accompaniment can be both a great gift and an extraordinary act of courage –easing the necessary and often difficult transitions through the mere grace of presence.

We focus much attention – though probably not enough – on the physical pain and psychic disability that life’s conditions inflict on too many children.  But what of the ones who have committed to bear witness to those lives?  What of the mothers who must engage the eyes of children seeking relief from fear and pain that is beyond their singular capacity to deliver?   Indeed, what of the mothers who can do little but watch in sorrow as the world turns their babies into soldiers, or victims of abuse, or hustlers on unpredictable and even unforgiving streets?

These are the sorts of things I think about when sitting in meetings such as last week’s Security Council Arria Formula discussion intended to review policy progress on ending abuses against children in African states, including and especially their vulnerability to recruitment into such “adult” activities as armed conflict.  Such progress is welcome, of course, as we have clearly not done enough to reassure and protect children from powerful, if metaphorical earthquakes followed by what seem to be for too many, a series of connected aftershocks – the bombing that leads to displacement, that leads to food insecurity, that leads to border hostility and even family separation.

Of course these seismic shifts impact more than just children themselves. What toll do they also take on those parents who seek truly to accompany the lives of these children, who have hopes for their children as we have for ours; who have dreams for their children that they will do well to meet only by fraction?  How do we better support those parents – those mothers – whose hearts have been laid bare through their deep connection with those whom they have born, hearts which are so often in grave danger of being broken in two by the endless shaking of their fragile world?

During the Arria Formula discussion on “action plans” to prevent violence against children, the Netherlands smartly noted the growing disregard for international law that creates the backdrop for so many child abuses, which they then rightly identified as threats to international peace and security.  In the same vein, Sweden (which has been a leading member of the Security Council in calling attention to children’s issues) reminded other members that progress on children’s well-being now will significantly enhance our longer-term efforts to sustain the peace.

Fortunately, as Chad and a few other states noted, we have in fact made some progress on ending child recruitment into the “service” of armed violence, freeing more children from such “service” in both government and non-government forces.  We are also doing a better job at disarming children and reintegrating them into society, providing them with educational and psychological opportunities necessary to growth and healing.  This is all good and hopeful, and many parts of the UN system, including UNICEF, the office for Children and Armed Conflict, and the Department of Peacekeeping Operations, should rightly take a bow.

But the circumstances that cause children to plead for comfort and relief from their parents – their mothers – can run far deeper than recruitment.

The accompaniment chosen by so many mothers; a consistent presence through the various stages of child dependency and continuing past the time that we can still deliver those we love from life’s heartaches; this is the special gift and responsibility that we honor on this day.   A commitment by the rest of us to alleviate the miseries of children who must one day assume leadership for our threatened planet is essential for children themselves, but also for those parents– those mothers– who too often are left to suffer in silence the burdens that accrue from a fully exposed heart beholding the pain and longing of children that at times must simply seem too difficult to bear.

More than flowers and cards, more than running a load of laundry and emptying the sink of dishes, many mothers could use a hand – including by all who try to make good policy at places like the United Nations– to do more to calm the tremors that create so much fear and anxiety for so many children, quakes to which those who accompany their journey are compelled to respond but for which there is often no effective or satisfying answer. Today is a good time for all of us to pledge to make a world better fit for children, but especially to honor the mothers who skilfully accompany their young – in all of their joy, pain and anxiety — until that elusive calm is reached.

Baby Face: A Christmas Reflection, Dr. Robert Zuber

24 Dec

Christmas

I don’t need a holiday or a feast to feel grateful for my children, the sun, the moon, the roof over my head, music, and laughter, but I like to take this time to take the path of thanks less traveled. Paula Poundstone

I have accepted a seat in the House of Representatives, and thereby have consented to my own ruin, to your ruin, and to the ruin of our children. I give you this warning that you may prepare your mind for your fate.  John Adams

If we had paid no more attention to our plants than we have to our children, we would now be living in a jungle of weed.  Luther Burbank

Christmas represents an outlier moment for many persons, including those who work on “peace and security.”  After months of pondering solutions to some of the existential threats that we have manufactured for ourselves –the clever ways we have concocted to subjugate and humiliate each other – the attention of many of us turns to a baby in a barn, a baby in whom some invest mountains of hope, but a baby nonetheless; a baby as shocked and bewildered by the profound implications of the short voyage from womb to world as the rest of us were; a baby experiencing its first chills in the evening air, its first experiences of “distance,” its first uncomfortable naps in some seasonally dry hay, its first hiatus between desire and accommodation.

Yes, that baby: a miracle at one level; a life form struggling to cope with unfamiliar “rules” and surroundings at another.

In the Christian tradition, we tend to sentimentalize this singular newborn.   We just assume that this baby can manage the frosty air filling its lungs; we just assume that this baby has no genetic predispositions to childhood disease, is not allergic to his mother’s milk, is invulnerable to the many germs hovering around the barn to which he has not had nearly enough time to develop a resistance.

This baby apparently is the beneficiary of some divinely-procured pathogen defiance, apparently exhibits some innate ability to tolerate changes of 20 degrees C or more from the womb where it lay snugly only hours before; this baby –with blanket protections but no proper blanket — has taken on sacred significance in ways that have captured the imagination of persons from all monotheistic faiths and a fair number of others besides.

A baby so much like other babies of his time; so much like other babies of our time; yet underscored by such a hopeful and enticing narrative, such a different set of expectations.

This hope is not so different from the hopes we have for the babies born in settings from modern hospitals to tents in refugee camps.  When a child is born, there is a real sense in which the world begins anew.  It begins “anew” because of all the potential locked up in that squirming ball of humanity that has survived perhaps the most dramatic and difficult transition it will ever face over the course of its life, potential that too-often neglected and even traumatized parents must find some way to unlock.

It is this potential that we continue to squander, at times neglectfully at other times intentionally and even murderously.   We cut off health care to children at their most critical developmental moments. We bomb hospital and schools creating mass trauma while eliminating the institutions that might help children recover some measure of their emotional bearings.  We lie to our progeny (and to ourselves) about the future these babies are destined to inherit; a melting, more militarized, more divided world that is virtually guaranteed by the reckless, self-interested decisions that we (and our erstwhile leadership) make each and every day.

With all due respect to the UNICEF team here in New York, it still amazes me after all these years that the human community needs some large multilateral agency (and its numerous national counterparts) to guarantee a modicum of respect and care for children, a modicum which, by the way, we are a long way from ensuring.   What is the matter with us?   How can we pour so much sentimental significance into a long-ago baby in a makeshift manger and then so little into the babies – in Yemen, in Honduras, in rural areas of Central Africa, in urban favelas around the world, even in our own neighborhoods – whose life-enhancing potential is being undermined the second their umbilical cords are severed?

I don’t get this.  It remains for me a Christmas mystery matched only by the star that functions like a GPS device and parents gathering around a manger in rapt attention despite what might well be their own hunger, fatigue, nausea and chills.

In trying to get through this mystery, I have benefited greatly from contributions from two friends of mine (and this office), two of the many women of great substance and thoughtfulness who have helped me (and many others) interpret the times and navigate a way forward in both personal and institutional aspects.

Marta Benavides reminds us frequently from El Salvador about the degree to which “greed and ambition are clouding vision and action,” blinding us to the inequalities we create and the human potential we rob in the name of power and “progress.”  In a similar vein, Lisa Berkley has noted that “If there is one thing the #metoo movement is showing us, it is just how wounded we all are.”

There is, of course, much beyond greed and ambition that clouds our vision, much beyond #metoo that exposes the wounds to which we give so little attention and which are thereby likely to become a most unwelcome slice of our babies’ inheritance.  The greed and personal ambition that we won’t curtail results in decisions that barely benefit the present but surely undermine our prospects.  In the same way, the wounds we will neither confront nor heal in ourselves will surely morph into infections for which no metaphorical antibiotics will ever be sufficient.

Being a baby in this world – not to mention caring for them – is simply too challenging now.  We are as a species, indeed, too damaged, too greedy, too smug; we are too ambitious for our own interests and too little concerned with the general interest.  These deformations of character are things we can address.  Indeed we must, as the consequences of our folly will consume the elders as readily as they will our youngest.

This year, my Christmas prayer for our “lands of confusion” is that our reverence for the manger child becomes not a substitute for, but an enabler of our active reverence for all the babies who enter this world, most entering not under a star but a cloud.

What about Us?: The Children We Need, the Children We’ve Ignored, Dr. Robert Zuber

15 Oct

Puerto Rico

Those who have virtue always in their mouths, and neglect it in practice, are like a harp, which emits a sound pleasing to others, while itself is insensible of the music. Diogenes

When the human race neglects its weaker members, when the family neglects its weakest one – it’s the first blow in a suicidal movement. Maya Angelou

Last evening, I sat in a Harlem church, in a row filled with former members of my now-closed parish, and listened to the wonderful East Coast Inspirational Singers led by the equally remarkable (and former music director at my parish) John Stanley.

The music was both deafening and completely on key.   The audience was active and engaged, soaking in the music and the message, waving and shouting both their approval and their conviction that something continues to go terribly wrong in our world, something that they have at least a bit of resources and the will-power to help fix.

The “something” in this particular instance is the slow pace of response to the hurricane-related needs of the people of Puerto Rico (and other Caribbean communities).   This concert was meant to inspire donations to augment what many felt has been a pattern of government neglect, leaders taking credit for responses that have left most families still in the dark, children without schools to attend, health deficits made worse as residents consume contaminated water in the absence of any cleaner alternatives.

Some of these Harlem folks brought their children along, in some cases to fortify the impression that people still care about others down on their luck and that the plight of children living within and far beyond Harlem is deserving of more attention by others.  The concert raised almost $3000 out of pockets that I know in some cases to be mostly empty.  No one imagined that this gesture would be sufficient, would substitute for the oft-lacking determination by government agencies to fulfill their commitments to their own people.  But they had to do something.  And they did.

And they also painfully understood that if the message to the children brought to that concert was one of agency and concern, what message must the children of Puerto Rico take away from a crisis that has both profoundly disrupted their lives and possibly also confirmed their worst fears about how much (or little) they are valued by others?

Such questions gnawed at much of the UN all week as well. The “Third Committee” of the General Assembly heard from special rapporteurs about the often-heartbreaking circumstances endured by children in diverse global regions, especially the children displaced by violence, storms or drought, children on the move with or without their families, sometimes falling victim to traffickers eager to sell them off to sexual predators or even to harvest their organs.

At the same time, the rapporteurs also reminded states of their near-universal commitments to preserve the rights and dignity of children, to do everything in their power to ensure that next generations are capable and enabled to manage complex future challenges, including doing a better job of preventing the conflicts that continue to ravage prospects for future generations.

Beyond the 3rd Committee, the UN honored the International Day of the Girl Child with a quite upbeat Wednesday afternoon event featuring UN Deputy Secretary-General Amina Mohammed.    The theme of the event, “Empowering girls—before, during, and after crises,” was an important reminder of both the many skills of girls and the responsibilities of states. And yet, as with so many UN events, this one was also of no particular comfort to Caribbean children struggling with their families and communities to adjust to circumstances that they could not foresee and with no insurance agents standing ready to offer assistance like the ones they (when the power was still on) have seen on TV.  Nor is it of comfort to the girls who have reportedly been sold into marriage by Yemeni parents who see no other way to get their children away from the bombing and cholera to which they have daily been subjected.

The Security Council had its own engagements with the often-unsettling circumstances of the world’s children.   On Friday afternoon, the Council in an Arria Formula format welcomed back former SG Kofi Annan to discuss recommendations for addressing violence and discrimination against Myanmar’s Rohingya minority still to be found streaming into neighboring Bangladesh.   Calls by Council members to end violence committed by the Myanmar military, to address documentation and citizenship concerns of the Rohingya, and to conduct an official mission to Rakhine state (as suggested by Ukraine) were all most welcome, but again were surely of no comfort to the children fearfully separated from families, desperate for food and shelter, and struggling to shake off the horrific effects of the traumatic violence to which they have already been witness.

Earlier that day, with logistical and program support from Jo Becker of Human Rights Watch and others, the Council held still another Arria Formula event, this time focused on the grave (and seemingly growing) problem of attacks on schools by state and non-state military forces, including the forced dislodging of students and teachers such that schools might become “zones of occupation” for armed combatants.

The highlight of this event for many in the room was the address by Joy Bishara, one of the Chibok Girls who managed to leap to safety after Boko Haram attacked the school and herded girls on to a get-away truck.  Joy is now a student in Florida (thanks to the intervention of a US Congresswoman) and shared her story in a clear and determined manner, evoking some emotional responses from Council members who lauded her courage and pledged to do more to keep this from happening to others.  One concrete outcome from all this “pledging” (we hope) is for more Council members to formally endorse the Safe Schools Declaration to prevent armed violence from compromising educational facilities and impeding student access to those facilities.

This was my second time listening to Joy (with her Chibok friend Lydia) and, while her talks were meant to share a story rather than critique a process, I was struck by the trust deficits that permeated much of that story — at least between the lines.  Where were the school guards on the night of the attack?  Where was the government security sector as the girls were being carted away?  Where was the international community as the rest of Joy’s classmates remained in a dismal captivity month after month?  Joy spoke of running for help after jumping from the truck and then “not trusting” those who offered it.   I’m guessing that her deficits of trust will turn out to be more pervasive than those directed at a Nigerian boy with a motor scooter in the middle of that night.

Returning to Saturday’s Harlem concert, one highlight of the event was a Gospel selection familiar to me and others, the key line being “what about us?”  What about those promises, those commitments?  What about those international resolutions and treaties, those constitutional protections and national implementing agencies? What about those state services missing in action? What about all that?

There might be no determination quite like that displayed by people of modest means and solid values who know the consequences first hand of our collective failure to ensure safe and productive passage for children.  Many of the older folks at this concert had lived through the ravages of crack cocaine and broken down schools, of sub-standard health care options and a hands-off attitude by police and other public servants.  They had shielded children not their own from bullies and bullets, but mostly from the creeping fear that they might not be worthy of empowerment, of a chance to have a voice and make a difference, even of the possibility of trusting the public institutions that rhetorically purport to have their best interests at heart.

This damage to the physical and emotional well-being of children has the potential to undermine our common future every bit as much as “competing” existential threats, including those related to weapons and climate.   We can and must do more at community and policy levels to reverse the “slow suicidal movement” wherein we pass on our unresolved crises to a new generation, too many of whom have already had their hopes and dreams senselessly impaired.

What about us?