Monika Johnson


Recent Posts by Monika Johnson

  • The Universal Declaration of Human Rights at 66: How Do We Make the Promise a Reality?

    Dec 10, 2014Ariel SmilowitzMonika Johnson

    Full implementation of the UDHR isn't a pipe dream, but it will require us to look beyond governments and international institutions.

    Sixty-six years after the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, who is responsible for upholding our most basic rights as humans? And are rights truly universal, or are they relative?

    Full implementation of the UDHR isn't a pipe dream, but it will require us to look beyond governments and international institutions.

    Sixty-six years after the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, who is responsible for upholding our most basic rights as humans? And are rights truly universal, or are they relative?

    These questions are indelibly inked into the fabric of our economy, society, and political system. Following World War II and the creation of the United Nations, the UDHR represented “the first global expression of rights to which all human beings are inherently entitled.” Championed by Eleanor Roosevelt, the widely accepted manifesto built upon the work of her husband, who famously declared that worldwide democracy should be founded upon four essential freedoms.

    This primordial soup of rights-based ideology and dialogue resulted in the birth of the United Nations, and subsequently a handful of substantial treaties, frameworks, and guiding principles for our quest to define and maintain human rights globally.  

    However, after decades of debate, we have yet to answer the ultimate question: who is responsible for ensuring this productive discourse is transformed into tangible action? Earlier this year, political scientist Stephen Hopgood proclaimed that we have reached “the end of human rights.” Hopgood argued that despite successful recognition of all human beings’ moral equivalence (no minor feat), little has been done to meld regional differences in interpretation and practice. In other words, our attempts to answer the critical question of implementation -- whether through international declarations like the UDHR, conventions like the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, or the creation of the UN Human Rights Council -- have fallen short.

    As we reflect on the anniversary of the UDHR, perhaps it is time for us to reconsider and expand our approach toward human rights. Leaders of the classical human rights movement envisioned a world in which governments agreed on and multilaterally implemented a set of principles. Since that time, we have witnessed immense globalization, putting civil and political rights at odds with economic and social ones while introducing a set of new players, including multinational enterprise.

    Consequently, these conventions, declarations, and institutions are not fully equipped to enforce human rights at every level of society. It is necessary for us to be inclusive of all influencers, including the private sector, non-state actors, and other organizations and groups, in order to truly realize a society in which every person can fulfill his or her full potential -- the dream of FDR’s progressivism and Eleanor’s Declaration of Human Rights.

    Beyond Institutions: Global Enterprise and Human Rights

    If governments and international institutions are unable to police human rights at every level, non-state actors must accept responsibility for integrating dignity into their practices. While vast ground remains to be covered, many companies are taking the lead on assessing their spheres of influence and ensuring their profits do not come at the expense of the choices and livelihoods of others.

    One such company is Carlson, a corporation in the hotel and travel industries that works to stop human trafficking crimes. According to the International Labor Organization, 14.2 million people are victims of forced labor exploitation in economic activities worldwide. Despite 90 percent of countries enacting legislation criminalizing human trafficking under the UN Convention against Transnational Organized Crime, it persists as tragic but preventable collateral damage of everyday economic and social activity.

    Upon realizing that traffickers regularly use the hospitality industry to transport victims, Carlson used the valuable information provided by UNODC to be part of a solution. Now, they train their employees to recognize and report trafficking and have partnered with the State Department to educate travelers on the sexual exploitation of children.

    For Ford Motor Company, being a more responsible business wasn’t as simple. Forced labor was buried deep in its supply chain, far from Detroit in Brazil’s charcoal mines, which provide an ingredient in steel production. When slave labor was exposed there in 2006, Ford was purchasing pig iron made from refined charcoal and using it in Cleveland to manufacture cars sold nationwide. The company took action to halt the use of pig iron and ensure its supply chain procured materials responsibly. Today, it collaborates with the State Department, the ILO, and the Brazilian National Pact to eradicate forced labor and improve transparency in manufacturing.

    Like Ford’s model, supply chain innovation offers an opportunity for rising leaders to use the economic influence of private business to impact human rights. Both of these companies leveraged their own success to help solve a global problem. They confronted their spheres of influence and were willing to work with partners to develop solutions.

    Similarly, Unilever, the maker of products including Dove soap and Ben and Jerry’s Ice Cream, partnered with Oxfam in 2013 on a supply chain analysis of its operations in Vietnam. The partners sought to better understand the implications of the UN Framework for Business and Human Rights and Global Compact Principles on global companies, and to improve conditions for thousands of workers along their manufacturing chain. Oxfam discovered that while Unilever was committed to high labor standards, policies ran only skin deep; Vietnamese managers were not equipped to implement them and lacked internal reporting mechanisms for violations.

    Oxfam dissected Unilever’s business practices and concluded that while Unilever still had a long way to go, its positive corporate culture and long-term relationships with suppliers make it well positioned to confront the root causes of labor problems and authentically attempt to solve them.

    Unilever, Ford, and Carlson did not sacrifice profits or shareholder obligations. Instead, they participated in a global conversation on human rights -- one aggregated by the UN Global Compact -- and underscored the importance of effective, cross-sector collaboration to reform their own practices.

    A New Legacy for Our Generation

    Each of these entities demonstrates the many spheres of influence at play in the pursuit of full human rights and dignity for all. What if every company took the same initiative to understand the social repercussions of its actions?

    We need to rethink human rights by recognizing the power of our own choices upon others. Everyone is responsible for upholding human rights, whether as a part of your day job or as a member of a community. Seemingly benign actions -- how much you pay your employees or which charities you support -- are manifestations of your own unique interpretation of what dignity and rights mean.  

    The UN, NGOs, and other global institutions have provided a priceless platform for dialogue on human rights. Without the consensus-building mechanisms they provide, there would be no Universal Declaration of Human Rights, no “naming and shaming” of human rights abusers, and no coordinated effort to stop the world’s cruelest atrocities.

    And yet, as we continue our efforts to avert the "end of human rights," what will our own generation's legacy of implementation be? As this generation rises to power in public and private leadership roles, those at decision-making tables across the spectrum will have an opportunity to think critically about their own actions. The foundation and forums, from the UDHR to the UN Global Compact, certainly exist. Now, it’s up to us to ensure a future in which human rights are celebrated not only at the institutional level, but at a more personal, human level as well.

    Ariel Smilowitz is a senior at Cornell University majoring in Government and the Northeast Regional Policy Coordinator for the Roosevelt Institute | Campus Network.

    Monika Johnson is a member of the Roosevelt Institute | Campus Network's Alumni Advisory Committee.

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  • Building the Infrastructure for a Lasting Progressive Coalition

    Nov 21, 2012Monika Johnson

    In order to sustain the progressive coalition that re-elected President Obama, we can create spaces for civic engagement among young Americans at the local level.

    In order to sustain the progressive coalition that re-elected President Obama, we can create spaces for civic engagement among young Americans at the local level.

    Young voters surprised pundits and Republicans again this year as we turned out in record numbers to vote, joining key constituencies including African Americans, Hispanics, and women to reelect President Obama. Composing 19 percent of the electorate, up from 18 percent in 2008 and 12 percent in 2004, young Americans demonstrated their importance to a growing progressive coalition.

    Many question, however, whether our diverse and unprecedented coalition will be able to build on this foundation and sustain the power of our ideas and values throughout our lifetimes. Or, like the Reagan coalition after 1990, are we fated to fracture as a political force by 2016? Some suggest that the strong generational power of today’s 18-30-year-olds will become inconsequential as the hype dies down and we grow up. Our next steps are critical.

    Young progressives are a distinct and large population that favors pragmatic problem-solving, opportunity for all, justice and equality, and government’s promotion of such ideals. Identifying more strongly with values than with a political party, we are a significant portion of President Obama’s alliance. Yet given the diversity of the Obama coalition, someone must lead productive grassroots dialogue, finding a broader progressive voice. As members of the largest and most diverse generation in American history, young progressives are the best candidates for the job.

    Rather than waiting 30 or 40 years to see how this pans out, let’s write the story ourselves today. Young people are powerful influencers of elections, and we’ve built a strong foundation on which to stand. But it’s up to us to define citizenship for our generation and maintain a unified commitment to progressive values to solidify the political shift.

    One lacking aspect of Reagan’s group of committed, conservative supporters was a shared vision of active citizenship and a space within which to exercise it. When the candidate went away, they left. With our core values gaining increased momentum, civic engagement is more important today than ever.

    The renaissance of bold millennial progressivism will not be realized in the federal offices of Washington, but on America’s sidewalks and street corners. Generations before us used Kiwanis and Rotary clubs, consciousness raising groups, and bowling leagues to facilitate civic infrastructure; today, we must take a critical look at how we support people and ideas to build a better America for all. Our model is still being formed, but we need to build an infrastructure that will make the progressive coalition last beyond the campaign cycle.

    With this in mind, Roosevelt Institute | Pipeline is capitalizing on a unique moment in history to engage young people in activating progressive ideas across the nation. Obama for America led a national dialogue throughout the election on what values shape our nation, but constructive exchangement must continue in the context of community action. In order to do this, we need to create spaces to facilitate the exchange of ideas on the local level, engaging all demographics of the progressive coalition. By leading conversations on local issues in 15 cities, we are supporting and empowering individuals to be active citizens and translate the national dialogue to the community level.

    The Pipeline chapter in New Orleans, LA is holding discussions among young progressives about public policy issues in its city. The members pick a new topic every few weeks, build a diverse group of people working in different fields, and engage in dialogue about potential solutions for problems facing their neighborhoods. The result is better informed, more engaged people, a community of progressives, and a platform for influence.

    In San Francisco, CA, the Pipeline chapter convened tech start-up leaders to create a space to refine ideas for social entrepreneurship. By creating a local space to support young people enacting innovative ideas, members are building an infrastructure for progressives outside of politics. Moreover, they are engaging individuals from both the public and private sectors.

    Creating progressive infrastructure will ultimately yield decisions that change our economy and society. For example, I was struck recently when a relative turned down a lucrative deal because the organization was enacting anti-gay policies in conducting business. In making this decision, he took a stand for what he believed in and created a ripple effect that will influence that business’s chances of success.

    Hands-on opportunities to connect constituencies and build a progressive community are also sprouting up across the nation. Organizations such as the Future Project are creating innovative ways to connect young people with students and inspire brighter futures. At Groundswell, organizers are helping community members leverage their collective buying power to bolster the local clean energy sector. Like Pipeline, both of these organizations are leveraging the power of the diverse progressive coalition.

    To borrow from Roosevelt Institute President Felicia Wong, who spoke to a group of us young progressives last weekend in Hyde Park, NY, “Great ideas and great people rise up together.” Before we begin the next campaign cycle, let’s think critically about how civic engagement translates progressive values into change. When dozens, hundreds, thousands of local actions take place and we create a shared space to support them, we catalyze progress. If the conversation on what ideas and values shape our nation stagnates, we risk losing the foundation progressives have built over the last five years.

    Monika Johnson is the co-Chapter Head for the Roosevelt Institute | Pipeline in Washington, DC and a member of the Pipeline Advisory Committee.

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  • Obama's SOTU Charts a Course Toward a Prosperous Millennial America

    Jan 25, 2012Monika Johnson

    line-of-american-peopleWith work still yet to be done, President Obama's State of the Union kept the momentum from the 2008 election going for young Americans.

    line-of-american-peopleWith work still yet to be done, President Obama's State of the Union kept the momentum from the 2008 election going for young Americans.

    In November 2008, I voted in my first presidential election. The summer had been a brutal battle for the Democratic nomination, and young people were campaigning in record numbers to take hold of our futures (and, of course, that of "Joe the Plumber"). That fall, approximately 23 million young people comprised almost two-thirds of the overall 5.4 million voter turnout increase. NDN states that the Millennial Generation (born 1978 - 2000) voted for Barack Obama by a 34-point margin, a 25-point increase from John Kerry's support in 2004.

    Nearly four years later, the State of the Union address reminded me of the great sense of duty we felt to turn our country around. Here stood a president who had showed us that the future of our country was in our hands but fell victim to the realities of catalyzing significant political change.

    At the close of his address, Obama used the capture of Osama bin Laden to allude to the enlightened self-interest lost in Congress: "One of the young men involved in the raid later told me that he didn't deserve credit for the mission. It only succeeded, he said, because every single member of that unit did their job: the pilot who landed the helicopter that spun out of control; the translator who kept others from entering the compound; the troops who separated the women and children from the fight; the SEALs who charged up the stairs. More than that, the mission only succeeded because every member of that unit trusted each other, because you can't charge up those stairs into darkness and danger unless you know that there's somebody behind you watching your back."

    Obama's reference was intended to inspire Congress to overcome its partisan gridlock, but its expression on a national platform illuminated more than a slap on the wrist to politicians who had acted selfishly since the last State of the Union address. It was all too obvious that the chamber full of culturally polarized baby boomers, apathetic to the president's comments, maintains a very different perspective on the role of the individual in society than my generation does.

    The president's steadfast, civic-minded tone on Tuesday reflected one that inspired Millennials to act in 2008 and powerfully endures today. Many Millennials became quickly disenchanted by Washington's realities, but have continued to turn out in record numbers to enter public service. In 2009, 16 percent more recent college graduates worked for the federal government than in the previous year and 11 percent more for nonprofit groups, according to the American Community Survey of the Census Bureau. Applications to AmeriCorps and City Year tripled, and interest in Teach for America and the Peace Corps also skyrocketed.

    For many of today's Americans in our early twenties, there is no alternative to taking an active role in civil society. We are skeptical that America will always be #1 because we don't remember what life was like before 9/11 and came of age during a fiscal crisis.

    The realities facing our progressive and socially conscious generation breed a sense of emergency. In the fall of 2011, the media focused on the idea of a "lost generation" of young adults holding undergraduate and master's degrees, unable to both find employment and advance in the workplace. Young people wonder if public service will continue to be an option as the wealth gap grows larger and higher education becomes more expensive.

    Tuesday night, the Obama administration sought to justify our continual investment of ourselves in the future of the nation, calling upon Congress to realize their self-interest and describing promises that make young voters swoon. We elected him in 2008, and he wants to keep our support for the upcoming 2012 standoff. If fulfilled, Obama's solutions could lead to a prosperous Millennial America.

    American Manufacturing: Obama's blueprint for revitalizing the American middle class began with manufacturing, highlighting a large productivity increase in science and technology industries. He referenced a national skills training program, which would partner with community colleges to transform them into career centers for emerging industries. Moreover, he outlined tax incentives for companies to "in-source," continue manufacturing domestically, and relocate to communities that lost factories throughout the recession.

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    With the gradual decline of manufacturing and rise of the knowledge-based economy, the opportunity to pursue the "American Dream" has increasingly relied on obtaining a college degree. Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernake said in a "60 Minutes" interview that he believes the foremost driver of a rapidly expanding American wealth gap is education disparity. He stated that for college graduates the current unemployment rate is 5 percent, but for those without a degree it's 10 percent. Unfortunately, the majority of educations are funded by borrowed money. According to the U.S. Department of Education, 61 percent of students and their families at public four-year institutions, 70.6 percent at private non-profit universities, and 97 percent at private for-profit schools accrue educational debt. A college degree is becoming more indispensable, but less affordable.

    This phenomenon has resulted in a saturated job market, full of young adults with bachelor's and master's degrees deep in debt. The revitalization of American manufacturing might give millions of young people the opportunity to pursue a productive and lucrative lifestyle without a college diploma and the rising debt that comes with it. In the short term, this means offering these national training opportunities through community colleges to recent high school graduates in underserved areas.

    Education: While skills-based jobs should be more available to young people, higher education should be accessible. Obama rightfully pointed out that Americans owe more in tuition debt than in credit card debt, and interest rates on student loans are slated to double in July. He conveniently neglected to point out that interest on graduate Stafford loans had been altered this year in order to help balance the budget, however.

    Many Millennials believe access to higher education to be the single biggest issue of our generation as tuition increases (and exponentially rising text book costs) threatens the accessibility of education to the middle class and burdens graduates with immense debt. Obama called for extending the tuition tax credit, doubling the number of work-study jobs in the next five years, and requiring that states prioritize student aid in their budgets. Finally, he stated, "Let me put colleges and universities on notice: If you can't stop tuition from going up, the funding you get from taxpayers will go down."

    While these reform proposals are good, we should challenge leaders to go one step further and address the current student debt crisis. Specifically, the administration should propose better regulation of the private student loan industry to account for public service time and income-calculated minimum payments. Longer term solutions are on the rise, but a short-term solution to student debt would help alleviate a generation's fear of being economically unviable.

    Trade and International Cooperation: Millennial America desperately needs a larger job market for their skills, with the highest number of college degrees compared to any other generation. However, we aren't willing to sacrifice the global perspective and civic-minded values we have developed and displayed prominently through consumer patterns.

    Obama announced the creation of a Trade Enforcement Unit to investigate unfair or unlawful trade practices. He stated enthusiastically, "Our workers are the most productive on Earth, and if the playing field is level, I promise you -- America will always win." Hopefully, this unit will work alongside the World Trade Organization to promote fair trade principles for all countries. Just execution of such a governmental entity will include cooperation with international trade agreements, construction of new, progressive principles, and full participation in multilateral negotiations.

    The end of the State of the Union is traditionally a "USA!" rally, but exiting Iraq and the fall of Osama bin Laden gave a little extra enthusiasm. According to the Greenberg Millennial Study, cited in Generation We, 68 percent of American Millennials questioned believe the generation of Americans under 30 has a great deal or a fair amount in common with young adults of their generation in other countries. Opportunities to collaborate with foreign universities and students are abundant, and rising leaders know the importance of not alienating our competitors. The administration should tread carefully in advancing a progressive foreign policy that emphasizes multilateral cooperation, aligning with its young supporters globalized perspectives.

    Monika Johnson is the co-Chapter Head for the Roosevelt Institute | Pipeline in Washington, DC and a member of the Pipeline Advisory Committee.

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