Education for Human Development

The question of the conditions that ought to characterize social justice has been deeply studied by numerous scholars, including Amartya Sen, Martha Nussbaum and Nancy Fraser. Although there are differences among their arguments and those offered by other scholars writing on these concerns, they all agree that human development is essential to the attainment of social justice (Alexander, 2008; Fraser, 1990; M. C. Nussbaum, 2001; Robeyns, 2005). Human development relates to the creation and improvement of living conditions, such that individuals can develop their potential to the fullest and enjoy the opportunity to live their lives as they might wish (Keleher, 2007; Sen, 1985).

Sen, Nussbaum and Fraser, among other scholars, have pointed to such empowerment as an important aspect of human development (Alexander, 2008; Fraser and Naples, 2004; Keleher, 2007). This essay (1) describes human development and its defining characteristics (2) surveys existing definitions of empowerment and their dimensions and (3) briefly explores the role that higher education may play in promoting individual empowerment.

Human development and the capabilities approach

Traditionally, development has been measured as increases in income or access to material goods, known as the economic growth approach (Fraser and Naples, 2004; Sen, 1985). Human development, meanwhile, “is a process of expanding the real freedom of persons to lead the kind of lives they value and have reason to value” (Keleher, 2007, p. 26; Sen, 1997). Nussbaum has proposed this construct as an alternative to traditional economic growth-centered development theory (Nussbaum, 2011). The approach seeks to ensure that individuals are free to exercise their individual agency as they choose to achieve certain functionings/capabilities (Keleher, 2007). Sen/Nussbaum describe those functionings and capabilities as education, employment and safety, among others.

In short, in this view, human development is assessed within a capabilities approach in terms of the capacities with which a person is free to engage (Keleher, 2007).  Following Keleher, I operationalize this perspective here as the several alternate capabilities a person may pursue to live a life they value (Keleher, 2014).  Proponents of this view have strongly argued that empowerment  is an essential component of human development (Hill, 2003; Keleher, 2007). The next section offers an overview of various definitions of empowerment and how each relates to human development and the capabilities approach.

Defining Empowerment

Conger and Kanungo have defined empowerment as the authority or power an individual has to control their life and claim their  rights (Conger and Kanungo, 1988, p. 472). However, proponents of both the economic growth and capabilities approaches have embraced the idea of empowerment.        For advocates of the economic growth approach, development results from efficient economic growth and productive forms of market participation (Keleher, 2007). In this view, empowerment is a person’s ability to make market-related decisions and autonomously control his/her economic status (Keleher, 2014). For those embracing this perspective, empowerment is an essential part of development to the extent that it uses economic means to promote economic growth and market proficiency (Keleher, 2007).

Since this approach posits that empowerment in individuals can be achieved through the promotion of strategically planned and executed economic interventions (Keleher, 2007; Patrick, 1996), it positions the poor and oppressed as beneficiaries and recipients of services, resources, development interventions and therefore of agency itself (Keleher, 2007).  In contrast, those advancing the capabilities approach view empowerment as a process of expanding the substantive freedom people enjoy, and it therefore relates to an individual’s ability to make basic choices in their lives absent imposed constraints (Keleher, 2014; Sen, 2011). This approach positions empowered people as owners not only of their economic activities, but also as possessors and managers of all of the dimensions of their life experience (Alexander, 2008; Gandjour, 2008; Keleher, 2007; M. C. Nussbaum, 2001) including family, employment, education, health and education, among others. Empowerment, as understood by proponents of the capabilities approach, is central to human freedom and individuals’ realization of life possibilities (Keleher, 2007).

Additionally, unlike those embracing the economic-growth perspective, those advocating the capabilities approach do not believe empowerment can be provided by anyone, it can only be exercised by individuals themselves (Conger and Kanungo, 1988, p. 472; Hill, 2003). In the same way, within the capabilities approach, all development projects and interventions can be understood as projects that seek to provide space and capacities (Keleher, 2014), so individuals can exercise their agency (demonstrate empowerment) to make the life choices they value. In this way empowerment for these scholars constitutes both a process and a result (Keleher, 2007).

I adopt the human development perspective and capabilities approach, which provides a broader definition of empowerment than the economic growth view (Fraser and Naples, 2004; Keleher, 2007; Nussbaum, 2001; Robeyns, 2003). The following sections assume this perspective.

 Empowerment manifestations: Individual Versus Collective     

Since empowerment is a process of expanding individuals’ capacity to exercise the full range of their human potential (Keleher, 2014; Rowlands, 1995; Sen, 2011), it is concerned with people’s ability to become conscious of their interests and abilities  (Rowlands, 1995). Several scholars have established that the capabilities attributed to specific groups of people are to a large degree socially constructed (Duflo, 2012; Rowlands, 1995). As a result, those constructs can be positive or negative to varying degrees. Empowerment, therefore, involves overcoming, “negative constructions so affected individuals get to see themselves as having the capacity and the right to act and have influence” (Ibrahim and Alkire, 2007; Rowlands, 1995, p. 103). The following section outlines different manifestations of empowerment at the individual and collective scales.

The personal dimension refers to the development of individual capacity to reverse the consequences of internalized oppression (Rowlands, 1995), while the collective dimension refers to peoples’ ability to work together to achieve a broader impact than each could attain alone (Rowlands, 1995). It is important to recall that in order to be able to work together with a group in order to achieve a common goal, each individual must possess some minimal sense of their own abilities and worth (Rowlands, 1995; Townsend, Zapata, Rowlands, Alberti and Mercado, 1999). Additionally, the collective dimension includes engagement with shared or group action, institutions and political structures (Rowlands, 1995).

 Empowerment and Agency

Empowerment can be understood as opening space for the exercise of agency and increasing the capabilities of individuals (Fraser, 1990; Keleher, 2014; Nussbaum, 2011). Agency constitutes the most important factor in individual empowerment (Keleher, 2007). The concept refers to the ability a person has to decide for him or herself and to act autonomously to secure change in order to achieve the life course he/she chooses (Keleher, 2014; Sen, 1985). This freedom to select among opportunities is what distinguishes, for example, between an individual who has no choice but to starve, and a person who voluntarily elects to fast (Keleher, 2007).

Individual agency represents the ownership and management an individual has of his or her own life (Hill, 2003; Keleher, 2007). A person with more agency than another, evidences more felt-capacity to achieve the things he/she values and has reason to value (Keleher, 2014; Nussbaum and Sen, 1993). This distinction suggests that there are two dimensions of individual agency: freedom and achievement (Sen, 1985). The freedom element refers to an person’s ability to decide direction as well as daily choices for herself or himself (Ibrahim and Alkire, 2007; Keleher, 2007). Agency–related achievement, meanwhile, is tied to an individual’s realization of the goals and values they envision (Ibrahim & Alkire, 2007; Keleher, 2007). Devotees of the capabilities approach believe it is what allows individuals also to identify existing un-freedoms and to work alone and with others toward overcoming and/or eliminating them by expanding their capacities and self-understanding and by working to alter socially constructed and institutionalized attitudes and practices constraining them (Keleher, 2007).

Empowerment and Political Agency

Collective agency (Shapiro, 2005) refers to an ability to influence a targeted group  positively through cognitive and valuative change (Cerny, 2000).  Political agency involves questioning and challenging unjust assumptions and practices in order to allow individuals to pursue their goals free of socially imposed structures (Beaumont, 2010). Developing agency requires that individuals understand that their everyday choices contribute to their capacity to pursue their political goals collectively (Beaumont, 2010). That is, the belief that lone actions have the capability to contribute to personal and social change, constitute core components of individual agency and empowerment. They are similarly crucial to the achievement of collective agency (Beaumont, 2010).

Political agency arises from individuals acting on their capacities in individual and/or collective ways to secure positive change, and it can therefore manifest differently in different individuals (Cerny, 2000). Often a person’s consciousness of their political agency arises as a result of challenges to existing beliefs, values and practices that had previously undermined its exercise (Shapiro, 2005). Because of this, although political agency is a potent tool for transformation, it directly depends on individual self-awareness and willingness to act (Cerny, 2000). That is, for action to occur men and women should have the ability to recognize the change they want, the capacity to express it and the understanding that they innately possess the ability to engage in activities to promote it. Change also requires reflection and collaboration with other members of the community (Cerny, 2000; Ibrahim and Alkire, 2007).  Each individual’s involvement and sense of empowerment will vary; a fact that implies that social shifts will likely occur over time, rather than comprehensively and at a single moment. Accordingly, efforts to promote human development and justice via political agency should work to ensure that the poor and the oppressed are given ample opportunity to examine and decide what is what they want for their lives (Beaumont, 2010).

The Role of Higher Education in Human Development

Many scholars have argued an inability to access higher education can promote socio-economic segregation and deny individuals important opportunities to develop their capabilities (Connell, 1994; Neave, 1989; Teichler, 2007). Indeed, one may reasonably ask whether current trends in higher education are emphasizing the elements that contribute to student empowerment and therefore to human and social development.

In principle at least, if not always in current practice, higher education is intended to foster broad-based development of human talent and potentials (Chickering and Reisser, 1993). As argued above, empowerment is an essential part of human development (Alexander, 2008; Fraser and Naples, 2004; Nussbaum and Sen, 1993). Nonetheless, many education leaders, following the example of many political officeholders, have now adopted the view that empowerment is an essential part of development only to the extent that it uses economic means to promote growth and market-oriented proficiency exclusively. In so doing, they are overlooking, if not degrading, the potential of education to expand the substantive freedom people enjoy in all of the spheres of their lives, including employment, family, health and others.

Those higher education leaders who understand empowerment from the economic growth perspective, have led their institutions to prize efforts to prepare students for specific jobs. Meanwhile, college and university leaders who view empowerment through the capabilities approach could lead efforts that envision students not only as agents of economic activity, but also as owners and managers of all the different spheres of their lives. A higher education system organized on the basis of the capabilities approach would incorporate concepts of justice, diversity and inclusiveness as core elements of its curricula (Brennan and Naidoo, 2008; Gurin, Dey, Hurtado, and Gurin, 2002; Nunan, Georg and McCausland, 2000). Including a multidimensional exploration of these concepts within diverse academic programs would promote a broader understanding of the world, a safer but challenging learning environment and ultimately an array of spaces that encouraged student empowerment (Brennan and Naidoo, 2008; Nunan et al., 2000).

In conclusion, the exercise of their own agency wrought by a broader understanding of empowerment allows individuals to identify existing un-freedoms and social negative constructions and to work towards altering institutionalized attitudes and practices that sustain them (Keleher, 2007). Put succinctly, this is why, if we want to change the world through post-secondary education, a holistic understanding and promotion of empowerment is essential when designing academic programs within higher education institutions.


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Beaumont, E. (2010). “Political agency and empowerment: Pathways for developing a sense of political efficacy in young adults,” in Handbook of Research on Civic Engagement in Youth, 525–558.

Brennan, J. and Naidoo, R. (2008). “Higher education and the achievement (and/or prevention) of equity and social justice,” Higher Education, 56(3), 287–302.

Cerny, P. G. (2000). “Political agency in a globalizing world: toward a structurational approach,” European Journal of International Relations, 6(4), 435–463.

Chickering, A. W. and Reisser, L. (1993). Education and Identity, The Jossey-Bass Higher and Adult Education Series. ERIC.

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Connell, R. (1994). “Poverty and education,” Harvard Educational Review, 64(2), 125–150.

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Fraser, N. (1990). “Rethinking the public sphere: A contribution to the critique of actually existing democracy,” Social Text, (25/26), 56–80.

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Vanessa Guerra is an architect, urban planner and PhD candidate in Environmental Design and Planning in the College of Architecture and Urban Studies at Virginia Tech. Her research interests include urban interventions as potential contributors to poverty reduction and sustainable development. She has presented her work at several conferences across the United States and South America, and has been a featured speaker at a TEDx event in Quito-Ecuador and at Cityworks (Xpo) in Roanoke, VA. Prior to coming to Virginia Tech, Vanessa worked as a project architect and taught at the Universidad San Francisco de Quito in Quito-Ecuador, where she also coordinated the seminar “Ecuador towards Habitat III”. She currently participates in the Global Forum for Urban Regional Resilience and is a member of DE Lab Decision Engineering for Sustainable Infrastructure and of the Regional Studies Association). Vanessa co-founded LIGNUM, an architecture and urbanism firm in Ecuador.



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Perspective, Power and Complexity at the Planning Table: Thoughts for NGOs Working in International Development

I served as an intern with a “successful” European Union (EU) funded dairy improvement Extension education project in rural Eastern Turkey, in the Fall of 2006. I have been uncomfortable with the role of development in improving people’s lives since that experience. This program ostensibly met its objectives by convening an appropriate number of meetings across the region and involving a posited number of dairy farmers. The Western-university trained Turkish faculty spent money on battery packs, projectors and screens in imitation of the Agricultural Cooperative Extension meetings with which they had been involved in the United States.

But this orientation did not account for the fact that many of the dairy farmers involved in the project were illiterate, not only in their ability to read and write, but also in their understanding and practice of the scientific method. The Turkish agricultural faculty presented research results using Power Point presentations. The farmers sat attentively, men in one room, woman in another, and offered appropriate niceties to me, the Westerner in the room, to the culturally prestigious faculty and to the village elders. As I sat eating delicious food it occurred to me that everyone at the gathering was simply going through the motions. That is, it seemed to me that deep learning among the farmers was likely not occurring.

However, the reports, the ones I wrote on behalf of the project, were beautiful. I suggested that the team had achieved its targeted results: hundreds of farmers had sat through Power Point presentations on dairy cattle artificial insemination. EU officials were pleased, the Turkish government agency involved was happy and the presenting faculty were content. Yet, in reality, the costs for what I became convinced was an ineffectual program were exorbitant, and that fact led me to reflect that to the extent the effort had involved Turkish government resources, it implied real opportunity costs for the families and fellow villagers of the participating farmers. That fact struck me hard, but I was not yet able fully to articulate my sense of unease. As I grew in my understanding of education and community engagement, however, I realized the fundamental flaws of the project that I had served as an intern. My involvement with this initiative proved transformational for me as it left me deeply uncomfortable with one-size, top-down and expert-driven development. I came to see that, improperly conceived and/or implemented, international development work can cause as much harm, as good.

Nevertheless, I know that I and the overwhelming share of those who choose to do development work are deeply passionate about improving people’s lives and that there is still a need to fight for a more perfect world in order to shift the pendulum towards justice. Development work can and should be conducted more effectively, meaning through more equitable and engaged processes to increase responsiveness to local needs. One step toward securing that goal might be for individuals and the organizations to which they belong, e.g., international nongovernmental organizations (INGOs) and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), to start acknowledging the complexity and power at play in their interactions with the people and organizations they aim to assist.

Constructivism is a social science paradigm currently being adopted by many professionals in the development field. It is dynamic and holistic and, as such, it can be useful in capturing the complicated phenomenon of development, “there is no rational choice theory of the pursuit of freedom in the global politics of human rights or beauty in global environmental politics” (Willetts, 2010, p.131). Indeed, human beings evidence intricate patterns of value preferences and typically seek to secure a shifting balance among security, freedom, wealth, justice, equity, equality, beauty, health and other values as conditions and contexts evolve (Willetts, 2010, p.130).

Because of their potentially grass-roots character, nongovernmental organizations possess an ability to recognize and address the complexity of local conditions and populations and thus, when appropriately led, are able to respond effectively to the needs of specific local communities. Nevertheless, Schaaf has rightly declared that, “NGOs should neither be considered a panacea nor the ‘magic bullet’ for solving the problems of development,” nor should any one implementation paradigm be considered so (2013, p. 214). Perhaps what she should have said is that there is no single magic bullet or panacea that can solve the problem of lifting the 3 billion poor individuals in the world out of poverty. This is to argue that there is not a one-size fits all approach to governance, to economics, to education or to any other imperative that must be addressed to secure positive change for half of the globe’s population.

Indeed, the international development community has discovered during the last 70 years that implementing generic fixes without local residents’ input, guidance, engagement and ‘empowerment’ is very rarely successful (Easterly, 2013; Ronalds 2010; Schaaf, 2013; Smillie, 2013; Wallace, Bornstein, and Chapman, 2007). Ronalds, capturing a change in the international development sector, has observed that the prevailing perspective in the field has shifted to, “the more recent and broader understanding of development that emphasizes people’s capabilities and freedoms, not simply their material poverty” (2010, p. 65). In short, development officials are now beginning to acknowledge that the programs they develop are going to have to address the extremely complex and probabilistic and therefore non-linear conditions present, not only at the macro level, but also at the micro and hyper-micro levels, as well. Nevertheless, Wallace et al. (2007) have warned, that while welcome, this shift in orientation now implies a view of development as a slow and often fraught process that is likely to be characterized by many impediments, including the engrained mindsets, and often poorly understood values of those being served, as well as the ignorance of donors, implementers and governments.

It is important to acknowledge that development, like education, is innately political in character. A modification in a person’s social, financial or cultural capital capacity represents a significant political change. Understanding this is to say that even the most well-intentioned and effective NGO will cause both positive and negative social and political ripple effects when it intervenes in a community. This is not to say that those entities should not undertake such efforts, but instead to recognize that, “Constructivism makes the realm of ideas, the way we perceive the nature of the world and the evolution of norms central to politics” (Willetts, 2010, p. 131). If there is going to be a chance to attain positive outcomes from development initiatives, it will occur only when the perspective of every actor is perceived as legitimate and broadly viewed as such.

Power can be defined in a variety of ways, Cervero and Wilson (2009) developed a working theory of the phenomenon, called the planning table. Planning tables are developed for the purpose of implementing programs and are created by the individuals engaged in those processes.  Planning table theory is concerned with the complex interactions that occur among stakeholders involved in program creation. Planning tables do not simply arise out of people’s minds, but rather are the result of sociopolitical relationships among individuals and groups; in which power is both produced and used (Cervero and Wilson, 2001). As Cervero and Wilson have observed:

Power is a social and relational characteristic, not simply something that people ‘possess’ and use on one another. Second, it is necessary to distinguish between power relations as a structural characteristic and people’s exercise of their power, which is an individual activity. Third, although power relations are relatively stable, they are continuously negotiated at the planning table (Cervero and Wilson, 2009, p. 85).

That is, power is the capacity to act (Cervero and Wilson, 2009). This capability is distributed to individuals by virtue of their position and their participation in social and organizational relationships (Apple, 1996; Winter, 1996). Defining power as a result of relationships frames it as involved integrally in all human interactions (Foucalt, 1977). Therefore, power is not specific to a particular form of relationship and it both enables and constrains actions, resulting in a constant negotiation. Power relations matter because they shape who has the capacity to be represented at the planning table, a metaphor for the place at which decisions with significant implications for the general public occur.

As individuals working in development efforts navigate the complex relationships and sociopolitical exchanges in which their efforts are necessarily enmeshed, shifts in power are likely to occur. Democratic ideals of voice, agency and action may not be respected by all actors at the table. For example, there may be too much self-interest among those in power to want to upset the status quo. In many developing nations, those advantaged by existing conditions very well may include international nongovernmental organization leaders and a broad share of global south government elites. This said, it is important to note that INGO leaders are and should be intrinsically motivated to seek their organizations’ continuation and survival (Schaaf, 2013). There is nothing innately wrong with working to ensure the health and legitimacy of an enterprise in which you believe. The same holds true for government leaders.

Nevertheless, some public officials in some developing nations have surely personally benefitted from leading a poor population; by pilfering a portion of the aid money coming to assist their citizens via development efforts. More, as those corrupt leaders have grown richer, their populations have remained poor, ensuring a continued flow of aid from external actors. This situation can occur because very poor individuals, focused on survival, are generally less politically motivated and active than those possessing means and often lack a sense of what might constitute democratic self-governance in any case (Iyengar, 1990). Of course, happily, these conditions do not always obtain in practice. Nonetheless, even assuming the integrity and probity of all involved, a recognition of shared purpose, outcomes and implications is still required for development organizations at all levels, from the largest INGO to the smallest NGO in a rural community to achieve their goals.

Lang has observed that “NGO representatives speak, but, they do not speak for a clientele; instead, they suggest ways to do things that are then pushed back and forth in the discussion [with their stakeholders, including those they seek to serve]” (2013, p.135). NGOs, when undertaking their work with a constructivist lens and a right-sized approach, will be engaged with the populations and individuals they are serving, and with the society more broadly. NGOs possess the potential to alter the power relationships of individuals and society at large. As a consequence, many scholars have observed that NGOs are involved politically at multiple analytic scales: the local, state and international levels (Easterly, 2013; Lang, 2013; Schaaf, 2013; Willetts, 2010). The presence of NGOs at the proverbial development planning table at all of these levels can influence the direction and character of the political discourse that occurs at each. In pointing out this possibility, it is important to note, too, that NGOs act principally on behalf of those stakeholders that created and sustain them. Given that reality, who is to say that their motives are positive or negative? The negotiations that occur between NGO staff, their donors, their clientele and other societal actors, conducted either implicitly or explicitly, have implications for issues of participant power and access for those being served in international development work (Cervero and Wilson, 2006).

Returning to my experience in Eastern Turkey, what made me deeply uncomfortable is that the project’s implementers had not involved local community members in the program planning process. Not inviting the dairy farmers to the planning table did not allow for the integration of their knowledge, needs and perspectives and resulted in an offering that ill fit their requirements. This initiative maintained a hierarchical power dynamic and prevented those it nominally aimed to assist from exercising agency. Perspective, power and contextual complexity are essential considerations at the planning table, whether as an NGO or as an individual who deeply cares about making the world a better place.


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Jeremy Elliott-Engel is currently a PhD candidate in the Department of Agricultural, Leadership, and Community Education at Virginia Tech. His research and practice is focused on the organizational and programmatic effectiveness of Cooperative Extension and the 4-H Youth Development Program. Cooperative Extension is the community outreach and education organization of land-grant universities. 4-H is the youth development program of Cooperative Extension. Before returning to graduate school, Elliott-Engel was a Regional 4-H Youth Development Specialist and County Program Director with University of Missouri Extension in rural Southwest Missouri. He holds a Master’s degree in Education from Cornell University and a Bachelor’s degree in Agricultural Business Management from State University of New York at Cobleskill.



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Compensation in Cuba: Employee Engagement and Motivation through a Socialist Lens


Fidel Castro’s rise to power in 1959 changed the course of Cuba’s relatively short-lived independence, moving the nation from the corrupt dictatorship of Fulgencio Batista to a Marxist-  Leninist-inspired regime (Britannica). Although faulted by many Western critics for the brutality of their efforts to realize their ideas concerning economic equality and redistribution of wealth, Fidel Castro and his brother, Raul, helped Cuba achieve an overall steady rate of economic growth in the decades following Fidel Castro’s ascension to power. This occurred despite periods of famine and the loss of a major ally and provider of economic support, the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics in 1991. Economic growth once again accelerated when the island nation began to develop its tourism sector in 1994, culminating with former U.S. President Barack Obama’s decision to ease restrictions on American travel to Cuba in 2014. Indeed, Cuba enjoyed 4.4% Gross Domestic Product growth in 2015. Nevertheless, the recent political turmoil and travel policy changes in the United States as well as a decline in Venezuela’s commerce with Cuba, one of the island’s primary trading partners, contributed to a decrease in the country’s GDP in 2016 (CIA World Fact Book, 2017).

These economic and political shifts are important to Cuba’s workers who, as members of a socialist economy, earn amounts determined and allotted by the state. Individuals with little education and few skills, and those collecting unemployment earn about $20 per month, whereas more educated workers may earn up to $70 per month. For example, physicians in Cuba now earn an average of $67 per month. Musicians are the highest paid individuals in the nation, as their talent and skills make them valuable abroad and thus more likely to emigrate than members of other occupation groups. Relatively meager salaries, whether for musicians, doctors or others, are supplemented by government-funded education, healthcare, housing and food. In short, the government provides Cubans the necessary basics, so that they may use their earnings to purchase goods and services of their choice.  Approximately 10% of the island’s citizens are employed in the nation’s private sector. A large share of such businesses focus on tourism and pay heavy income taxes and fees to the government (Rizzi, 2017).

This political, social and economic structure has implications for the management of public institutions as it ultimately renders useless performance-based compensation, often regarded as a key managerial tool to engage and motivate employees. Berman et al., for example, have argued that earnings are a concrete measure of employee value, purchasing power, social prestige and perhaps even self-worth (2016, p. 242). These analysts have also contended that employees who believe they are receiving a fair return for their efforts stay in their jobs longer (2016, p. 225). How then do Cuban managers maintain employee engagement and motivation, without being able to quantify the individual-organization relationship by varying salaries for individual performance (Berman et al., 2016, p. 241)?

The Cuban Experience and Employee Motivation/Management Strategies

The “needs perspective” of motivation may provide at least a partial answer to this puzzle. This view asserts that an employee’s innate desire to satisfy his or her hierarchy of needs will provide them with motivation to work. The referenced needs are those that Maslow argued are required for human survival and include safety, belonging, self-esteem and self-actualization (Berman, 2016, p. 218). As noted above, the Cuban government routinely provides the island’s population with its basic shelter, health care and nutrition needs free of charge through publicly funded food, housing and healthcare programs. The government also works assiduously to foster a collective sense of Cuban identity through propaganda and free, state-controlled education. These factors, along with the island’s culture of strong family structures and a “work to live” mindset, suggest that it may not be necessary for public program managers to have recourse to compensation as a central motivation tool for the employees they oversee.

In contrast to the needs perspective, Vroom’s expectancy theory of motivation posits that individuals make conscious choices to take actions that result in the greatest pleasure while incurring the least pain (Seongsin, 2007, p. 789). Proponents of this view contend that this principle produces a self-reinforcing chain of behaviors and choices: the more value a worker puts on an outcome, the harder they will work to achieve it; the more confidence they have in their ability to complete the task well, the more effort they will exert; and the more confidence they have that they will be rewarded for their effort, the more they are likely to employ their energies and capabilities to attain an objective  (Berman et al., 2016, p. 218). At first glance, this perspective on motivation does not appear to accord with Cuban employment practice. Indeed, it appears useless to seek to quantify how motivated Cubans feel to complete a task since there is little possibility that their decision to value work will result in significant raises or bonuses. Put differently, a view of work motivation that seeks to incentivize employee behaviors by promising monetary rewards cannot work in Cuba with its strict government pay banding based on profession.

However, non-monetary rewards and work-related benefits could be used to motivate Cuban employees under a model informed by Vroom’s theory. Cuban culture and interpersonal relationships thrive on open communication and generous friendships (Government of Canada, 2017). These widely accepted values provide a mechanism by which employees could be motivated outside of financial compensation alone. These might include, for example, managerial kudos for working to ensure “friendly and cooperative workplace relations,” “reducing negative supervisory relationships” or “selecting the right people for a job.” In theory, it would be straightforward to create such nonpecuniary “meaningful rewards and recognitions” that are fairly distributed, and that could be accorded by means of  an informal thank you or via more formal types of appreciation. That is, “feedback that provides recognition” could be implemented in a socialist system that does not otherwise provide budgetary or ethical leeway for monetary bonuses (Berman et al., p. 225-7). In any case, it is worth recalling that the rewards for doing a job well do not have to be monetary. Flexible work schedules, increased opportunities for education and training, shortened work weeks or even the prestige of receiving or attaining an honor or a supervisory position, are all rewards that could be employed within a socialist political system. When we adjust the way we measure valence, a system defined by Vroom’s expectancy theory could be designed in a fashion that could be used in Cuba.

The key to implementing a motivation system that relies more heavily or even completely on non-monetary rewards lies in shifting an employee’s motivation from extrinsic to intrinsic.  McGregor developed Theory X and Theory Y to explain what drives people to complete their work (Berman et al., p. 197). Theory X strongly emphasized that managers employ extrinsic motivations, such as money, rewards or even threats, as necessary, to get a job done. McGregor argued, meanwhile, that Theory Y  managers routinely emphasized the intrinsic drivers behind achievement, helping their employees recognize their roles in the work to increase performance and creativity in their organizations (Berman et al., p. 219). In Cuba, where citizens are acculturated from a young age to feel loyalty and devotion to the state, fleshing out such intrinsic values and developing systems of employment related motivation around them could increase managers’ ability to incentivize effectiveness and productivity without additional expenditures.

Exploring Cuban workplace motivation provides a lens into a key argument concerning the often posited superiority of capitalism¾that socialist and communist economies are unable to maintain motivation for growth without adopting a capitalist model of ever-increasing and ultimately unsustainable, wages. Examining Cuba’s socialist employment experience suggests that in the long run, the role of the manager shifts from triggering motivation through external rewards to fleshing out intrinsic engagement with soft skills, such as communication and relationship building. While certainly not perfect, the Cuban economy and employment sector offers a different, but useful, perspective on employee engagement and motivation.



Berman, et al. (2016). Human Resource Management in Public Service. Los Angeles: Sage Publications, Inc.

“Cuba” (2017). CIA World Fact Book. Accessed: 15 October 2017.

“Cuban Revolution” (N.D.). Encyclopedia Britannica. Accessed: 15 October 2017.

“Cultural Information– Cuba” (6 June 2017). Government of Canada Centre for Intercultural Learning. Accessed: 15 October 2017.

Rizzi, Mario (24 January 2017). “Poverty in Cuba,” Full Compass Guides. Accessed: 15 October 2017.

Seongsin, Lee (2007) “Vroom’s expectancy theory and the public library customer motivation model,” Library Review, 56(9), pp.788-796,

Morgan Dean is a first year graduate student at Virginia Tech, studying for a Master’s in Public Administration and Policy. She completed her undergraduate degree (BA) in International Studies at Hollins University in Roanoke, Virginia in 2013. Currently working at Meadowview Community Center in Pulaski, Virginia, Morgan is interested in community and economic re-development in Appalachia, and plans to build a career in this field. Her interest in socio-economics and politics is largely thanks to her undergraduate advisor at Hollins, Dr. Jeanette Barbieri. In her free time, Morgan likes to be outside with her dog, Merle Dean.



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The Spectre Haunting North America? A Democratic Socialist Moment in the Era of Trump


On November 8, 2016, Donald J. Trump won the U.S. Presidency for the Republican Party (GOP) with a minority 45% of the popular vote. One year later, elections were again held in several states and localities. In what many news outlets and  analysts are calling a repudiation of “Trumpism” and the GOP, Democratic Party candidates made significant gains in several states, including Virginia and Washington (Cillizza 2017; Hayden 2017). Amidst this “blue wave” was an interesting, and very different sort, of red undercurrent (Bradner 2017).[1]

This particular trend found candidates affiliated with and endorsed by socialist parties and organizations winning elections throughout the country. While one should not overgeneralize these victories, or suppose they constitute an impending critical mass, it is equally important not to dismiss them. There is nothing inevitable about a movement toward socialism. However, I argue in this essay that the failures of neoliberal capitalism—persistent poverty (Semega, Fontenot, and Kollar 2017, p. 12), widening inequality (Hardoon 2017, p. 2) and catastrophic ecological degradation (Klein 2014)—coupled with the current reactionary turn in American politics necessitate strong counter-organizing. As the November 2017 election suggested, appealing to the socialist tradition can be an effective strategy in today’s electoral politics. It can also offer a normative foundation and inspiration for progressive change.

I first identify three central features of a socialist political economy and how that form of social organization differs from the variant of capitalism now dominant in the United States. Thereafter, I consider in greater detail socialists’ electoral victories on November 7, 2017. In the essay’s final section, I explore the plurality of public support for a socialist alternative. I argue this portion of the citizenry could be mobilized to launch a mass anti-capitalist political party as a counter-balance to the hegemonic neoliberalism of both the Democratic and Republican parties. I close by arguing this political moment could also be pushed to reclaim the history of socialism in America as a resource for resisting right-wing ideologies and officials.

Outlining a 21st Century Democratic Socialism

I begin by sketching what I mean by socialism and contrast that description with capitalism. I describe each approach’s view of political economy as well as its normative and ethical content concerning human social relations. There is no single accepted definition of either concept; a wide variety of historical and contemporary institutions have called themselves socialist or capitalist. Therefore, it is more accurate to speak of multiple socialisms and capitalisms (R. D. Wolff and Resnick 2012, p. 311). For example, the socialism I describe would in no way resemble the political economic arrangements in the now defunct Soviet Union. It is important to stress that the key attributes I identify below constitute a spectrum of ideas and traditions.

First, a central normative principle in a socialist political economy is the organization of human activities on the basis of cooperation rather than competition. Capitalism, particularly its neoliberal variant, assumes that human beings pursuing their self-interests and competing will most efficiently secure a range of benefits for each individual and society at large (W. Brown 2015, p. 36; Harvey 2005, p. 65). In contrast, socialism rejects this “invisible hand” argument, instead contending that people working together for a common goal will produce greater benefits for individuals and society (Jahan and Mahmud 2015; Nichols 2015, p. 136). In this tradition, living in community implies a voluntary and cooperative venture in which individuals share responsibility for each other (King Jr. 1986, p. 122).

This conception of socialism is also predicated on the idea that a healthy and just society insures the material well-being of all of its members (Wilde 1915). In such a society, the production of clothes or food would be organized to provide an equitable distribution of those necessities to all of its members, rather than driven by a private profit motive as in a capitalist political economy (Jahan and Mahmud 2015). In the words of poet and author Oscar Wilde, this sort of socialism would entail “converting private property into public wealth” (1915, p. 6). This distribution would likely occur by means of a mixture of decentralized planning within and among households, firms and localities and by means of at least some market transactions.[2]

Finally, this distribution would be accomplished through collective and democratic ownership of property. This could mean, for example, public ownership and control of energy resources such as mineral deposits, wind turbines or solar farms. It could also result in collective arrangements whereby firms are owned and controlled not by individual capitalists or boards of directors, but by everyone who works there. Such organizations go by different names, including worker-self-directed enterprises and worker-owned cooperatives.[3] Individual cooperatives could then form federations also linked democratically (Hahnel 2009; R. Wolff 2012). Likely, a socialist political economy in the 21st century would contain a mix of these arrangements.[4]

Because socialism as I outline it here is founded upon cooperation, equality and democracy, it stands in stark contrast not only to capitalism, but also to the xenophobic and racist politics embraced and practiced by President Trump and today’s Republican Party (Bobo 2017; J. A. Brown 2016; Edge 2010). A 21st century socialism would be radically egalitarian and therefore rooted in, for example, anti-racist, anti-ableist and feminist politics. This vision of socialism would also necessarily begin to move beyond exclusionary political borders as they are currently imagined and enacted. As a result, it represents a genuine potential alternative to the insular, ethno-nationalist politics that have recently moved from the fringes of U.S. political culture to the mainstream.

No society has ever fully realized either this idealized socialist vision or a similarly idealized view of capitalism. Despite the fact that socialist praxis has a long history in the United States, it is outside the mainstream spectrum of U.S. political beliefs today (Nichols 2015). Indeed, both the Democratic and Republican Parties accept the basic contours of a neoliberal form of capitalism.[5] While individual elected officials may hold alternate views, the parties as a whole have signed on to the neoliberal consensus of deregulation, privatization, competition and profit-maximization as guiding virtues for a majority of societal institutions in recent years (Harvey 2005). However, as I explore in the next section, despite this hegemonic approach to political economy, alternative socialist platforms have proven to be effective electorally.

Socialists Show Up in Meeting Halls and at the Polls

Socialist thought and organizing is deeply engrained in the United States. Well-known figures in the American cultural and political pantheon, including W. E. B. DuBois (Streator 1947), Helen Keller (Cohen 2015), Woodie Guthrie and Martin Luther King Jr., (Sustar 2016; Sturm 1990), advocated for a social and economic system that would eliminate the poverty and inequality endemic to capitalism’s “liberty to work or to starve” (Marcuse 2007, p. 4).[6] However, for most of the 20th century, socialist traditions were forced out of the realm of acceptable political discussion in the United States. The U.S. ideological and proxy military wars against the Soviet Union led to multiple periods of political repression against American socialists and conflation of any form of socialism with Soviet style communist authoritarianism (Zinn 1998, pp. 166–74).

The 2016 U.S. Presidential election brought socialism back into the national public discourse. Bernie Sanders, a long-time independent United States Senator from Vermont, sought the Democratic Party presidential nomination while identifying himself as a democratic socialist. Sanders articulated a vison of socialism as political and economic democracy and justice (Kruse 2015; Sanders 2017). Although he failed to obtain the Party’s nomination, Sanders garnered more than 13 million votes during the primary process (“Presidential Primaries” 2016). After its formal efforts ended, the Sanders campaign reinvented itself as a progressive political action committee called Our Revolution. Moreover, many citizens have continued to call on Sanders to lead a new (third) “People’s Party” as an alternative to the Democratic and Republican parties (Zipp 2017).[7]
Existing organizations, including the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA), also saw renewed interest following the 2016 election. DSA membership, for example, rose from around 8,000 in late 2016 to 30,000 by November 2017 (Guan 2017). DSA is not a political party, but instead calls itself the largest socialist organization in the U.S. building a “mass, multi-racial democratic socialist movement” (“What Is DSA?” 2017). The organization and its 120 local chapters endorse and canvas for candidates, organize protests in support of refugees and universal healthcare (Roman 2017; Krieg 2017) and perform community activities, such as holding brake light repair clinics (Deane 2017).[8]

DSA enjoyed significant success on election day 2017 in the United States. The organization has reported that its members competed in 25 elections in 13 different states, many on Democratic Party tickets. According to Jacobin, 56% of DSA members running for office won their elections on November 7, 2017, compared with only 20% in the previous election cycle (Marcetic 2017). Fifteen new DSA members were elected in 2017, bringing the total now holding elected office to 35 individuals nation-wide (“2017 Election” 2017). Put differently, the recent election saw a 75% increase in the number of DSA endorsed or dues paying members occupying elected political offices in the U.S.[9]

Socialist Alternative (SA), an electoral party founded in the 1980s, saw its membership rise 30% in 2017 as well (Strickland 2017). SA had earlier successfully elected Kshama Sawant to the Seattle, Washington City Council in 2013. At the time of Sawant’s inauguration in January 2014, she was the first socialist elected to a city-wide office in 97 years (Ibid.). In the November 2017 Minneapolis, Minnesota city council race, SA candidate Ginger Jentzen received the largest number of donations of any political candidate in that contest and in city history (Mullen 2017). Minneapolis employs a ranked choice voting system, and Jentzen received the highest number of first choice votes, but ultimately lost to the Democratic Farmer Labor (DFL) candidate due to second choice votes (“Results – Minneapolis” 2017).

These victories and close races represent the culmination of hard work and organizing on the part of DSA, SA and other like-minded organizations. While I do not want to claim too much on the basis of these outcomes, it is clearly possible today in the U.S. to identify as a socialist, garner votes and win elections. In the final section I argue that the appeal of such ideas to a sizable segment of the nation’s population provides potential to build an anti-capitalist electoral movement capable of resisting the rightward shift in American politics.

Toward the Future: Mobilizing A Democratic Socialist Moment

The elections on November 7, 2017 indicate that there are cracks, if only small ones, in the wall of a politics of TINA, or “There Is No Alternative,” and the overriding neoliberal public philosophy in the United States. Despite the hegemonic acceptance of that perspective by both dominant U.S. political parties, the socialist alternative has seeped through. There are reasons to be hopeful that it is possible to resist what Freire  called a neoliberal fatalism informed by an ethic that declares it a virtue to generate profits for a minority at the expense of the majority (2005, p. 25).

Many Americans reject a capitalism that valorizes a reality in which “those who cannot compete, die” and are open to socialist alternatives (Ibid.). A 2016 YouGov poll, for example, found that, overall, 29% of respondents had a favorable view of socialism and self-identified Democrats in the poll were equally as favorable to socialism as they were to capitalism (42% for each). Interestingly, those aged 18-29 who responded to the survey rated socialism (43%) more favorably than capitalism (32%) (Rampell 2016). A 2016 Gallup poll found that 35% of respondents indicated a favorable attitude toward socialism (Newport 2016). And in a June 2017 poll of registered Democrats, slightly more respondents (35%) answered that they would hypothetically like to see a socialist as party leader versus a capitalist (31%) (Marcin 2017).

These consistent pluralities represent millions of Americans who could be mobilized to vote for a strong socialist campaign and platform. Such an electoral force could be organized by existing socialist parties or by a new political party. A left-labor party is one potential avenue by which this turn could be accomplished. In October 2017, for example, the AFL-CIO, the largest federation of unions in the United States, representing more than 12 million members, resolved at its annual convention to explore the viability of independent third party politics (“Resolution 48” 2017). There are multiple potential avenues by which to press for a robust anti-capitalist alternative and those who advocate for democratic socialism would do well to continue to exploit this moment.[10]

Finally, any intellectual hegemony or imaginary that prevents people from critically reflecting on the institutions that govern their lives is dangerous. This was true of Soviet-style communism and it is true of neoliberal capitalism. This moment might also represent an opportunity to write the history of socialism in America back into discussions and debates about how U.S. society, politics and economy should operate. At a time when white supremacists and xenophobia have emerged from the shadows, it is crucial to mobilize the intellectual resources to push back these reactionary ideologies and to envision a better future for everyone in the United States regardless of race, class or immigration status.

The socialist tradition offers such a possibility. I close with the words of democratic socialism advocate Martin Luther King Jr., who argued in 1966 that in order to build a freer and more just world it was essential to cultivate a “divine discontent” and refuse to accept as normal or necessary racism, religious bigotry, militarism and economic conditions that “take necessities from the many to give luxuries to the few” (King Jr. 1966).[11] This call to reject existing capitalist logic and reactionary ideologies is where a socialism for the 21st century should begin.


[1] In recent years, red has been associated with the conservative, capitalist Republican Party in the U.S. It has traditionally represented socialist parties and movements (Bump 2016).

[2] For example, in such a system one might buy a sandwich at a worker-owned and controlled restaurant while on the way to a community meeting in which members decide how much electricity to produce and allocate.

[3] Approximately 256 such organizations currently exist in the U.S. and typically operate on a one-person, one-vote system rather than a per share vote system as in capitalist corporations (“US Worker Cooperatives” 2015).

[4] Moreover, this would not necessarily entail complete abolition of private property. Individuals might continue to own the clothes they wear privately, but the power grid and auto plants would be democratically owned and controlled.

[5] In early 2017, for example, Democratic House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi was asked a nuanced question about whether the Democratic party should move to the left to appeal to younger voters who are now more favorable to socialism. Her initial response was to laugh and say, “We’re capitalist and that’s just the way it is” (Seipel 2017). More recently, millionaire Democratic donor Stephen Cloobeck told an interviewer on NBC he was so worried Democrats were moving too far to the left that he was considering quitting the party. He went on to say that he personally told party leadership that he would “cut your money off” if they attempted to move left (Lynch 2017).

[6] Guthrie’s popular, and often misunderstood, song “This Land is Your Land” is not an ode to the beauty or greatness of the United States but rather a biting critique of the sentimentality and patriotism of “God Bless America” (Spitzer 2012). Later verses in the song directly criticize private property and the hunger and poverty Guthrie had seen traveling the country (Guthrie 2017).

[7] Other progressive organizations such as the Women’s March on Washington were also catalyzed in the wake of the 2016 election. While the Women’s March is not explicitly a socialist organization, it lists as inspirations many women who were or are including: Ella Baker, Audre Lorde and Angela Davis (“Guiding Vision” 2017). One of its co-chairs, Linda Sarsour, is a DSA member as well (Sarti and Steinkopf-Frank 2017).

[8] The organization considers its brake light repair program a combination of mutual aid and direct action (“Brake Lights & Socialism” 2017). These activities are undertaken to provide a service to community members and to reduce police interactions and prevent the often-heavy fines levied for non-functioning lights.

[9] Several close defeats point in interesting directions as well. DSA-endorsed Jabari Brisport ran on Green and Socialist ballot lines receiving the most votes of any third party candidate (29%) against a Democratic incumbent for the 35th district seat on the New York City Council (Whitford 2017; “General Election” 2017). Several months before the November elections, self-identified socialist and NYC DSA-endorsed Khadeer El-Yateem came in second in a close primary with 31% of the vote against the eventual Democratic victor of NYC district 43’s city council seat (Max 2017; Stahl 2017).

[10] Recent Greek politics offer an interesting example. Greece’s coalition of left parties Syriza went from 4% of the vote in 2004 to controlling the Greek government in 2014 (Nardelli 2015). The Greek electoral system is different than the U.S.; however, the point is that such possibilities are open if they can be exploited.

[11] King’s words echo five-time Socialist Party of America candidate for U.S. President Eugene V. Debs who in 1918 succinctly articulated a socialist critique of capitalism arguing: “I am opposing a social order in which it is possible for one man who does absolutely nothing that is useful to amass a fortune… while millions of men and women who work all the days of their lives secure barely enough for a wretched existence” (Debs 2001).


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“2016 Presidential Primaries, Caucuses, and Conventions.” 2016. The Green Papers.

AFL-CIO 2017 Convention. 2017. “Resolution 48: Exploring New Directions for Labor in Electoral Politics.” St. Louis, MO.

Bobo, Lawrence D. 2017. “Racism in Trump’s America: Reflections on Culture, Sociology, and the 2016 US Presidential Election.” The British Journal of Sociology 68 (S1): 85–104.

Bradner, Eric. 2017. “5 Takeaways from the Democrats’ Big Night.” CNN.

“Brake Lights & Socialism.” 2017. Medium.

Brown, Jessica Autumn. 2016. “The New ‘Southern Strategy:’ Immigration, Race, and ‘Welfare Dependency’ in Contemporary US Republican Political Discourse.” Geopolitics, History, and International Relations 8 (November): 22–41.

Brown, Wendy. 2015. Undoing the Demos: Neoliberalism’s Stealth Revolution. Brooklyn: Zone Books.

Bump, Philip. 2016. “Red vs. Blue: A History of How We Use Political Colors.” The Washington Post.

Cillizza, Chris. 2017. “Winners and Losers from the 2017 Election.” CNN.

Cohen, Sascha. 2015. “Helen Keller’s Forgotten Radicalism.” Time.

Deane, Mark. 2017. “Group Changes Brake Lights for Free to Prevent Fines for Drivers.” WGNO ABC.

Debs, Eugene Victor. 2001. “Statement to the Court: Upon Being Convicted of Violating the Sedition Act.”

Democracy at Work Institute. 2015. “US Worker Cooperatives: A State of the Sector.”

Edge, Thomas. 2010. “Southern Strategy 2.0: Conservatives, White Voters, and the Election of Barack Obama.” Journal of Black Studies 40 (3): 426–44.

Freire, Paulo. 2005. Pedagogy of the Oppressed. New York and London: The Continuum International Publishing Group Inc.

Guan, Frank. 2017. “Could a Democratic Socialist Actually Win a Spot on City Council?” New York Magazine.

Guthrie, Woody. 2017. “This Land Is Your Land.” Woody Guthrie Publications.

Hahnel, Robin. 2009. “Reducing Inequities Among Worker-Owned Cooperatives: A Proposal.” Eastern Economic Journal 35 (2): 174–89.

Hardoon, Deborah. 2017. “An Economy for the 1%.” Oxfam Briefing Paper.

Harvey, David. 2005. A Brief History of Neoliberalism. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Hayden, Michael Edison. 2017. “Democrats Are Not Americas—They Are ‘Bolsheviks,’ Conservates Warn After Election Night Losses.” Newsweek.

Jahan, Sarwat, and Ahmed Saber Mahmud. 2015. “What Is Capitalism?” Finance & Development, June: 44–45.

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———. 1986. “The Ethical Demands for Integration.” In A “Testament of Hope” The Essential Writings and Speeches of Martin Luther King, Jr., edited by James Melvin Washington, 117–25. San Francisco: Harper San Francisco.

Klein, Naomi. 2014. This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. The Climate. New York: Simon & Schuster.

Krieg, Gregory. 2017. “Democratic Socialists Are Taking Themselves Seriously. Should Democrats?” CNN.

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Lynch, Conor. 2017. “Big Donors Threaten to Bolt from Democrats — and That’s a Good Thing.”

Marcetic, Branko. 2017. “Yesterday Was a Good Day.” Jacobin.

Marcin, Tim. 2017. “Democrats Want a Socialist to Lead Their Party More Than a Capitalist.” Newsweek.

Marcuse, Herbert. 2007. One-Dimensional Man: Studies in the Ideology of Advanced Industrial Society. London and New York: Routledge.

Max, Ben. 2017. “2017 New York City Primary Election Results.” Gotham Gazette.

Mullen, Mike. 2017. “Socialist Ginger Jentzen Is the Greatest City Council Fundraiser in Minneapolis History.” City Pages.

Nardelli, Alberto. 2015. “Greece Election Result: The Key Numbers.” The Guardian.

“New York City and State 2017 General Election Results.” 2017. New York Daily News.

Newport, Frank. 2016. “Americans’ Views of Socialism, Capitalism Are Little Changed.” Gallup.

Nichols, John. 2015. The “S” Word: A Short History of an American Tradition … Socialism. London and New York: Verso.

Rampell, Catherine. 2016. “Millennials Have a Higher Opinion of Socialism than of Capitalism.” The Washington Post.

“Results for Selected Contests in 43000 – Minneapolis.” 2017. Saint Paul.

Roman, Gabriel San. 2017. “Laguna Beach Protest a Big Victory for OC’s Democratic Socialists of America Chapter.” OC Weekly.

Sanders, Bernie. 2017. “Bernie Sanders: My Vision For Democratic Socialism in America.” In These Times.

Sarti, Jordan, and Hannah Steinkopf-Frank. 2017. “The Revolution Will Not Be Business Casual—and Other Takeaways From the Women’s Convention.” In These Times.

Seipel, Brooke. 2017. “Pelosi Town Hall Question on Capitalism Wasn’t Planned: Report.” The Hill.

Semega, Jessica L., Kayla R. Fontenot, and Melissa A. Kollar. 2017. “Income and Poverty in the United States : 2013 Current Population Reports.” Current Population Reports. Washington D.C.

Spitzer, Nick. 2012. “The Story Of Woody Guthrie’s ‘This Land Is Your Land.’” NPR.

Stahl, Aviva. 2017. “Khader El-Yateem Could Be the First Socialist Palestinian Pastor on the City Council.” The Village Voice.

Streator, George. 1947. “Du Bois Declares Socialism a Haven.” The New York Times.

Strickland, Patrick. 2017. “More Americans Joining Socialist Groups under Trump.” Aljazeera.

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Sustar, Lee. 2016. “The Evolution of Dr. King.” Jacobin.

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Whitford, Emma. 2017. “‘Crazy Green Party Dude’ Wages Grassroots Fight in Brooklyn Council Race.”

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Wolff, Richard. 2012. Democracy at Work. Chicago: Haymarket Books.

Wolff, Richard D., and Stephen A. Resnick. 2012. Contending Economic Theories: Neoclassical, Keynesian, and Marxian. Cambridge, MA and London, England: The MIT Press.

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Jake Keyel is a Doctoral Candidate in the Planning, Governance, and Globalization program in the School of Public and International Affairs at Virginia Tech. His research interests include critical migration and refugee studies, international ethics and the connections between state violence and displacement, and deepening democratic practices. Prior to enrolling at Virginia Tech, he worked for five years in the non-profit sector focused on integration of new immigrants, particularly from the Middle East and North Africa. He holds a Bachelor’s degree from Nazareth College in Sociology and a Master’s degree in International Relations with a concentration in Middle Eastern Affairs from Syracuse University. Jake is currently a board member and treasurer for the Blacksburg Refugee Partnership.



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Puerto Rico’s Citizenship Status and Disaster

More than two months have passed since Hurricanes Irma and Maria devastated Puerto Rico, but the inadequacy of the disaster response of both the federal and Puerto Rican governments has left millions without electricity or drinkable water as this is written.  The disaster mitigation and response for Puerto Rico has proven particularly challenging because of its status as a United States (U.S.) territory.  Many Americans are unaware of Puerto Rico’s complex relationship and history with the U.S.  A New York Times article published six days after Hurricane Maria landed reported that 46% of those it surveyed did not know Puerto Ricans were American citizens (Dropp & Nyhan 2017).   The poll also showed that 81% of those who knew that the island’s residents were citizens supported disaster aid, whereas only 44% of those who were unaware of that fact expressed support for such assistance.

This snapshot of how the American public views Puerto Rico, at a time when its residents have enjoyed U.S. citizenship for 100 years, reminded me of how African Americans were referred to as “refugees” after Hurricane Katrina struck New Orleans in 2005. Many of those who were so described were offended by the label because it appeared to suggest that the nation was providing support to them out of pity, rather than as an innate responsibility owed to its citizens (Sterett 2011). Many observers of the situation in Puerto Rico have recently voiced similar concerns and have reiterated that the United Sates has an obligation to assist its citizens: “Indeed, Puerto Ricans and U.S. Virgin Islanders are U.S. citizens and expect the same federal aid and support during natural disasters as the rest of the United States” (Zorrilla 2017, p. 1801).  This essay explores how the juxtaposition of popular ignorance of Puerto Ricans’ citizenship and the historical marginalization of its residents, have contributed to the slow and inadequate federal disaster response still underway as this is written (Mack 2017; Venator-Santiago 2017).

The Aftermath of Hurricanes in Puerto Rico

On September 6, 2017, only a share of Puerto Rico was in Hurricane Irma’s path.  Nevertheless, the Category 5 hurricane left one million people without power on the island.  Two weeks later, however, Hurricane Maria, also a Category 5 storm, struck the island directly.  This time, all of Puerto Rico was left without power. Soon thereafter, the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority (PREPA) estimated that it would take at least four months to restore power to all affected residents.  Puerto Rico also faced severe financial woes before the destruction wrought by Hurricanes Irma and Maria. The island’s infrastructure, including power and healthcare, was already in crisis because of austerity measures taken to address a fiscal crisis that began in 2006.  Moreover, with Puerto Rico’s economy also in decline in recent years, underemployed professionals, such as doctors and teachers, have been steadily leaving for the U.S. mainland to find employment (Melendez & Hinojosa 2017).

As I write, the Puerto Rican power grid is operating at 58% of normal capacity and 93% of the Commonwealth’s water meters have been reactivated, although it is not clear what portion of residents are actually receiving services as a result (, 2017). Moreover, the Puerto Rican government has issued a public advisory that no water (other than bottled water) is safe for consumption unless first treated with bleach or boiled (, 2017).  The migration of Puerto Ricans to the U.S. mainland due to the living conditions in Hurricane Maria’s wake is expected to accelerate and may result in an estimated 14% reduction in the island’s population in the near term, according to a new report issued by The Center for Puerto Rican Studies (Melendez and Hinojosa 2017).

Puerto Ricans Are Citizens but Not Americans?

Puerto Rico’s status as a United States commonwealth has presented significant challenges for disaster response.[1]  To understand fully the island’s situation as it works to address the damage inflicted by recent storms, one must highlight the importance of the Jones-Shafroth Act of 1917 (also known as the Jones Act), which granted a limited form of citizenship to Puerto Rico’s residents.  Although the United States acquired the island in 1898 after the Spanish American War, the decision to grant Puerto Rico’s residents citizenship arose in an effort to quell a growing independence movement and to ensure the U.S. maintained permanent control of the territory as a strategic asset (Rivera Ramos 2001).  Yet this extension of citizenship did not mean that Puerto Rico would become an “incorporated” area with the eventual promise of statehood.  This was also a result of a series of Supreme Court decisions in the Insular Cases that were rooted in racist ideology (most notably Plessy v Ferguson in 1896). In these decisions, the Court treated Puerto Rico’s inhabitants and those of other newly acquired U.S. territories as “alien races” and “rescued peoples” incapable of governing themselves in the Western/Anglo tradition (Mack 2017; Caban 2017). Indeed, the congressional legislators who crafted and adopted the Jones Act explicitly treated Puerto Ricans as political subordinates (Ramos 2001). Because islanders have historically been viewed as not-fully citizens, they cannot vote for the President of the United States and do not enjoy full voting representation in Congress. In short, their legal status has entrenched Puerto Ricans in a unique form of second-class citizenship.

However, today, more than 100 years after the U.S. acquired the island, and in the wake of the massive destruction wrought by two Category 5 hurricanes, Puerto Ricans are now invoking the citizenship rights they do possess to demand adequate post-disaster assistance and treatment (Ramos 2001). Puerto Ricans are arguing that as citizens, they have grounds to expect to receive disaster mitigation, response and recovery assistance from the United States proportionate to the damage the storms inflicted.

 “Puerto Rico Se Levanta” (Puerto Rico Will Rise)

The inadequate response to the level of devastation wrought by two Category 5 hurricanes on the part of the U.S and Puerto Rican governments has resulted in millions of Americans living on the island without power or water more than two months after the storms struck.  It is hard to imagine that such a situation would be acceptable in the states of Iowa or Nevada, for example, whose populations are smaller than that of Puerto Rico, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, were those states to experience a similar disaster scenario (U.S. Census, 2016).  Yet, because Puerto Rico is not a state, it is viewed by many Americans and United States officials with less empathy and broadly seen as less deserving of assistance.  Indeed, for example,  on September 30, 2017 at 4:26 AM, President Trump (@realdonaldtrump) tweeted “…Such poor leadership ability by the Mayor of San Juan, and others in Puerto Rico, who are not able to get their workers to help. They want everything done for them when it should be a community effort. 10,000 Federal workers now on the Island doing a fantastic job.”

Puerto Rico’s government faces many challenges as it continues to respond to the immediate needs of its residents and plans for its recovery.  It remains to be seen how Puerto Rico will rebuild, but pro-independence sentiments are growing among those who resent what they now perceive as likely continued U.S. marginalization and subjugation. In fact, some Puerto Rican analysts now darkly believe that the poor U.S. response has been deliberate so as to force a significant share of the native population to depart to allow for new development for tourists: “They want to rebuild Puerto Rico without Puerto Ricans” (Clemente 2017). Given President Trump’s public and deeply misleading stance concerning post-hurricane(s) recovery efforts on the island and the poor support Puerto Rico has received as it has confronted calamitous storm damage, it is clear that U.S. citizenship has not served residents as a political buffer from continued discrimination by the United States government.

While a share of Puerto Ricans see independence as the path to addressing this scenario, the island’s governor, Ricardo Rosello, is advocating for statehood instead; arguing that such standing would have eased bureaucratic “red tape” and allowed the Puerto Rican and federal governments to respond more effectively and quickly after the storms hit than they were able to do given the realities of the island’s current legal status. Partisans of independence and statehood alike see Puerto Rico as a blank slate and the current difficult situation as an opportunity to advance their preferred alternative to the status quo. Whatever may obtain concerning this debate, however, it is clear that Puerto Ricans are U.S. citizens, and, “out of necessity to survive … most Puerto Ricans have ‘negotiated’ in practice their status.  They have appropriated the category imposed on them, and they have tried to make the most of it…” for 100 years (Ramos 2001, p 189).


[1] On September 29, 2017, in a speech to the National Association of Manufacturers, President Trump emphasized that the difficulty in disaster relief to Puerto Rico was in part due to its location: “This is an island surrounded by water, big water, ocean water.”  Puerto Rico is located in the Caribbean Sea.


Caban, P., 2017. “Puerto Ricans as Contingent Citizens: Shifting Mandated Identities and Imperial Disjunctures.” Centro Journal29(1), p.238.

Clemente, R. 2017, October 24. Free Speech TV. “They want Puerto Rico without Puerto Ricans for a playground.” Retrieved from [29 November 2017].

Dropp, K. and Nyhan, B. 2017, September 26. New York Times. “Nearly Half of Americans Don’t Know Puerto Ricans Are Fellow Citizens.” Retrieved from [26 November 2017].

Status PR. 2017. Government of Puerto Rico. Retrieved from [26 November 2017].

Mack, D. 2017, October 9. Slate. “The strange case of Puerto Rico: How a series of Supreme Court decisions cemented the island’s second-class status.” Retrieved from [12 November 2017].

Melendez, E. and Hinojosa, J. 2017 October. “Estimates of Post-Hurricane Maria Exodus from Puerto Rico.” The Center for Puerto Rican Studies, RB2017 (1).

Ramos, E.R., 2001. Hegemony through citizenship. American Psychological Association.

Sterett, S.M., 2011. “Need and citizenship after disaster.” Natural Hazards Review13(3), pp.233-245.

Venator-Santiago, C.R., 2017. “A Note on the Puerto Rican De-Naturalization Exception of 1948.” Centro Journal29(1), p.224.

Venator-Santiago, C.R. and Melendes, E. 2017. “U.S. Citizenship in Puerto Rico: 100 Years After the Jones Act.” Centro Journal, 29(1), p.3.

Zorrilla, C.D., November 9, 2017. “The View from Puerto Rico—Hurricane Maria and Its Aftermath.” New England Journal of Medicine, (377), pp.1801-1803

Rosa Castillo Krewson is a doctoral student at the Center for Public Administration and Policy in the School of Public and International Affairs. She is a member of the Pi Alpha Alpha Global Honor Society for Public Affairs and Administration and was selected as a 2017 Founders Fellow by the American Society for Public Administration. Her research applies social equity to disasters and veterans affairs. Rosa holds a BA​ in Philosophy and Political Science from Boston University. She has also earned a Nonprofit Management Executive Certificate at the Georgetown University Center for Public and Nonprofit Leadership.​

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Trade Agreements and Democracy


Trade policy is currently politically and popularly salient. Few days pass without major media outlets offering analyses that blast or praise the Trump administration’s approach to the subject. The Trump White House is seeking to renegotiate The North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) 22 ½ years after its initial implementation. The U.S. – South Korea Free Trade Agreement (KORUS, for the pundits) is also under review by the current administration. The United States has also placed the World Trade Administration (WTO) in a parlous position by refusing to accept appointees to the organization’s Appellate Body, its judicial organ, which hears disputes from members. If we add to this mix the announced intention of the United Kingdom to withdraw from the European Union—Brexit—all of the ingredients necessary for an implosion of the current architecture of global trade are present.

Critics of trade agreements such as NAFTA, and of supranational organizations such as the WTO, argue that these legal arrangements and institutions have been implemented and managed to the detriment of workers and citizens of advanced nations in general and of the United States in particular. But what precisely do these trade accords and organizations do? Who benefits from them and what are their consequences?  This short essay briefly summarizes the state of the art of research concerning trade policy. I will argue that an important line of inquiry is still missing: the institutional consequences of trade agreements. Research on this concern could potentially shed at least partial light on the reasons for the current backlash among a share of the American population to free trade policy.

Trade Agreements

In the current public debate about trade, it is important to emphasize that these agreements are primarily instruments for liberalization whose purpose is the reduction of tariffs (taxes on imports) and quotas (limits on the quantities of a product that may be exported or imported). The goal of reducing barriers to trade is a more efficient system for exchanging goods among nations. There are many different types of exchange agreements and, as a group, they differ in content and scope. Relevant scholarship orders them in a hierarchy from “shallow” to “deep.” Shallow agreements are those, such as the KORUS, which include only measures at national borders. Shallow free trade accords reduce tariffs at borders, but domestic policies may remain untouched. Deep agreements also include rules and regulation beyond national borders, such as introducing standards and rules of origin for products and services (WTO 2011, p. 110). Some examples may help clarify these differences. As noted, KORUS is a shallow trade agreement, while NAFTA is a medium-deep agreement. The European Union is one of the deepest trade accords, as its provisions include a common market and a single currency for its members.

Taken together, all of these covenants are meant to create more efficient markets and to promote and simplify conducting business among their member countries. But what do they do actually? As past WTO director general, Pascal Lamy, has observed, “We need to look at the manner in which RTAs [regional trade agreements] operate” (Lamy 2007).

Economists: We are Better Off Thanks to Trade Agreements

Economists like numbers. Most of their research is dedicated to quantifying the benefits of trade and of its liberalization. Analysts have created a vast literature on the consequences of exchange agreements that, as a general proposition, argues that free trade is beneficial. There are welfare gains associated with freer trade for citizens across all income strata, but these may not be evenly distributed or occur immediately (Corcos, Del Gatto, Mion and Ottaviano 2012). In consequence, many citizens today, across the U.S. and Europe, do not perceive themselves to have benefited from many major trade compacts. In fact, empirical research demonstrates that the gains from such agreements have indeed been unevenly distributed among individuals and across time (Baccini, Pinto and Weymouth 2017). In particular, a share of U.S. blue-collar workers, for example, have suffered from employment off shoring and real wage decline due to some trade agreements, including NAFTA (Hakobyan and McLaren 2016). These facts help explain why some laborers have perceived that they were left behind by the globalizing efforts of encouraging more and freer trade. In fact, and as a result, many citizens in the Rust Belt region in the Midwest of the United States and the manufacturing regions of Northern England have strongly supported anti-trade agreement rhetoric à la advocates of Brexit or as articulated by Donald Trump.

Political Consequences of Trade Agreements

Political scientists have also researched trade agreements resulting in a vast literature on public opinion and trade (Kono 2008; Mansfield and Mutz 2009; Guisinger 2017; Jedinger and Schoen 2017). Recent research of this sort provides a mixed picture of the extent of public support for free and open trade, and of agreements that support those goals. Nonetheless, recent polls have suggested that the majority of Americans still support free trade and broad U.S. involvement in global affairs (Smeltz et al. 2017). Indeed, political scientists have found evidence that free trade agreements and the sustainability of democratic governments are related (Liu and Ornelas 2014). In fact, democracies tend to sign trade agreements with each other (Mansfield, Milner and Rosendorff 2002). Similarly, analysts have determined that economic liberalization and free trade follows regime change towards democracy (Milner and Kubota 2005).

That is, there is evidence of a positive relationship between trade agreements and liberalization and the resilience of democratic systems. Trade compacts, as well as international organizations, however, lack direct and clear democratic accountability, as they are not approved or enacted by a specific demos or democratic citizenry (Elsig 2007, Koppell 2010) and they suffer deficiencies in their legitimacy, since their procedures are sometimes not transparent and characterized by technocratic decision-making (Esty 2002). The point is that “global governance is neither democratic nor entirely undemocratic” (Strange 2011, 240). In fact, on the one hand, public opinion supports open trade, while on the other hand, many citizens express concerns about the democratic accountability of such accords and the institutions that oversee them.

I argue therefore that to examine the political legitimacy and the democratic accountability of trade agreements, analysts must add another factor into their investigative calculus. It is not enough to evaluate the economic, political and institutional consequences of trade accords against the electoral and participatory dimensions of democracy alone. In addition, to gauge their overall import and impact, the rules and procedures of democracies, often anchored in judicial and legislative checks-and-balance systems, also must be analyzed. This is not to say that it is not important to consider what people think about goods exchange deals, but an additional layer of concerns should also be considered when evaluating their implications, including their relative transparency, impacts on civil liberties, rule of law and import for horizontal accountabilities (veto rights, checks on rulers), to name a few (Coppedge et al. 2011). Researchers studying the consequences of trade agreements should consider these concerns seriously if they expect to understand why some workers and citizens support anti-globalization politicians. Put differently, those examining the implications of free trade need to understand better the implications of such agreements for these dimensions of liberal democracy. Investigating these matters will lead analysts to evaluate more fully the domestic political effects of such efforts.

The global economic system is fundamentally capitalist and trade agreements are part of the management of that market regime. This structure, often dubbed regulatory capitalism, is increasingly dominated and managed by a system of administrative rules that are neither obvious, nor readily transparent to the populations affected by them (Levi-Faur, 2005). Trade agreements have often been implemented to reduce or eliminate the anti-competitive effects of specific policies, such as tariffs, so as to allow freer exchange across national borders. However, as Vogel has argued, more open markets seem also to imply more rules (Vogel 1996). Scholars are not yet in a position to understand the consequences of trade agreements for the performance of such a regulatory capitalism regime and future research should seek actively to understand and examine those. Efforts to do so, I have argued, must investigate how international trade agreements are affecting the liberal character of the democratic states that agree to participate in them.


Analysts need to understand better the ways in which trade agreements have contributed to creation of the current regulatory capitalism global regime. Researchers have focused on the electoral and participatory dimension of democracy. In the U.S. case, the majority of Americans still support open and free trade, but paradoxically, a share of that group also back political leaders who are against such policies. This paradox might partially be a consequence of regulatory and administrative changes in the management of the global economy. Hence, it is necessary to study the impact of trade agreements on the liberal dimensions of democracy, which include judicial and legislative checks-and-balance processes. Such inquiry could shed light on the reasons why so many citizens in western democratic nations have supported a recent, and often unreflective, backlash against, trade agreements, international organizations and global governance.



Baccini, L., P. M. Pinto, and S. Weymouth (2017): “The Distributional Consequences of Preferential Trade Liberalization: Firm-Level Evidence,” International Organization 71(2): 373–395.

Coppedge, M. et al. (2011): “Conceptualizing and Measuring Democracy: A New Approach,” Perspectives on Politics 9: 247-68.

Elsig, M. (2007): “The World Trade Organization’s Legitimacy Crisis: What Does the Beast Look Like?” Journal of World Trade 41(1): 75–98.

Guisinger, A. (2017): American Opinion on Trade. Preferences without Politics. Oxford University Press.

Esty, D. C. (2002): “The World Trade Organization’s legitimacy crisis,” World Trade Review 1(1).

Hakobyan, S., and J. McLaren (2016): “Looking for labor market effects of NAFTA,” The Review of Economics and Statistics 98(4): 728–741.

Jedinger, A., and Schoen, A. (2017): “Anti-Americanism and Public Attitudes toward Transatlantic Trade,” German Politics, pp. 1–22.

Kono, D. Y. (2008): “Does Public Opinion Affect Trade Policy?,” Business and Politics, 10(2), 1–19.

Koppell, J. (2010): World Rule. Accountability, Legitimacy, and the Design of Global Governance. The University of Chicago Press.

Lamy, P. (2007). “Proliferation of regional trade agreements “breeding concern”” Speech at the opening of the Conference on Multilateralizing Regionalism. 10 September 2007. Available at:

Levi-Faur, D. (2005): “The Global Diffusion of Regulatory Capitalism,” The Annals of the American Academy 598: 12–32.

Liu, X., and E. Ornelas (2014): “Free Trade Agreements and the Consolidation of Democracy,” American Economic Journal: Macroeconomics 6(2): 29–70.

Mansfield, E. D., and D. C. Mutz (2009): “Support for Free Trade: Self-Interest, Sociotropic Politics, and Out-Group Anxiety,” International Organization, 63(3), 425–457.

Mansfield, E. D., Milner, H.V. and Rosendorff, B. P. (2002): “Why Democracies Cooperate More: Electoral Control and International Trade Agreements.” International Organization 56 (3): 477–513.

Milner, H. V., and K. Kubota (2005): “Why the Move to Free Trade? Democracy and Trade Policy in the Developing Countries,” International Organization 59(1): 107–143.

Smeltz, D.; Daalder, I.H.; Friedhoff, K. and Kafura, C. (2017): “What Americans Think about America First.” The Chicago Council on Global Affairs. Available at:

Strange, M. (2011): “Discursivity of Global Governance: Vestiges of “Democracy” in the World Trade Organization,” Alternatives: Global, Local, Political 36(3): 240–256.

WTO. (2011): World Trade Report 2011 – The WTO and preferential trade agreements: From co-existence to coherence. World Trade Organization.


Simone Franzi is a doctoral student in the Planning, Governance and Globalization program at Virginia Tech. His current research interest is in the political economy of trade and, in particular, how trade and trade agreements play roles in shaping geographies and polities. More specifically, he is studying the consequences of trade agreements for different dimensions of democracy. Prior to coming to Virginia Tech, Simone earned a Bachelor and a Master’s degree in Political Science and Geography from the University of Bern, Switzerland. His baccalaureate thesis addressed conceptualizations of trust in the social sciences. For his Master’s degree, he studied the implications of commodity trading for sustainable development and wrote a thesis on the relationship between commodity abundance and international cooperation.


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Youth as a Social Construct


Youth as a subject of study has evolved from its consideration as a biological category to its conceptualizations as a social construct. In what follows, I explore the meaning of youth as a social construct. In doing so, I first examine the standard age-based definition of youth. To provide dimension to the latter understanding, I present the youth demographic imperative that has arisen in many developing nations in the essay’s second section. In the third and last part of this analysis, I seek to expand the definition of youth based on age to one that acknowledges first and foremost the concept as a social construct.

Youth as a transitioning phase

For statistical and record-keeping purposes, the United Nations (UN) has defined a youth as a person aged between 15 to 24 years old. The UN Secretary-General first referred to this definition of youth in 1981 in his report to the General Assembly concerning International Youth Year and thereafter endorsed it in ensuing reports (UNDESA, Fact Sheet). Nonetheless, defining this group precisely is quite challenging because what constitutes youth varies in different societies around the world. The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) website, for example, has suggested that a young person is,

A person between the age where he/she may leave compulsory education and the age at which he/she finds his/her first employment. This latter age limit has been increasing, as higher levels of unemployment and the cost of setting up an independent household puts many young people into a prolonged period of dependency (UNESCO Website).

Meanwhile, the African Youth Charter characterizes young people as individuals between 15 and 35 years old. In these definitions, the distinction between “youth” and “adult” is somewhat arbitrary. The fact that a 24-year-old or a 35-year-old is considered a youth, while a 25-year-old or 36-year-old is an adult is a social construct, based on the conventions established and promoted by organizations such as the UN, African Union and the International Labor Organization (O’Higgins, 2001). Such organizations’ definitions have characterized youth as a transition in life that is “neither childhood, nor adulthood,” comprising young people’s transitions from school and/or work, to forming families and securing independent status and households.

Sukarieh and Tannock (2015) have offered an alternate perspective on how to conceive of youth. These authors have conceptualized this demographic cohort as a social category in the context of the global economy. However, before delving into their argument, it is important to outline why youths have emerged as a focus of attention for policy-makers, international organizations and corporations.

 Youth Demographic Imperative

The first and most obvious reason for today’s increasing interest in young people is the fact that the world currently has the largest population of such individuals in its history. Earth now has about 1.8 billion youths between the ages of 10 and 24. Persons between the ages of 15 and 24 now number 1.1 billion, a figure that constitutes 18 percent of the global population.  Youths and children together, including those aged 24 years and younger, account for nearly 40 percent of the world’s inhabitants. The largest number of young people is concentrated in Asia and the Pacific. Approximately 60 percent of the world’s youths live in Asia; 15 percent, in Africa; 10 percent in Latin America and the Caribbean and the remaining 15 percent, in developed countries and regions (Advocates for Youth, 2017). About 80 percent of the world’s young people live in developing countries. The following figures illustrate this point: more than half of Egypt’s labor force is younger than age 30. Half of Nigeria’s population of 167 million is between the ages of 15 and 34.  In addition, more than two-thirds of the population of Afghanistan, Angola, Chad, East Timor, Niger, Somalia and Uganda is under the age of 25 (Foreign Policy, 2017).

Nearly half (45.9 percent) of the world’s youths live in low-income countries, while another third (34.1 percent) reside in lower middle-income countries. The remaining fifth (20 percent) live in upper middle-and high-income countries. Nevertheless, more than 30 percent of 15-24 year olds in the world live on less than $2 per day (Advocates for Youth, 2017). Understanding the importance of these demographic realities is essential to grasping the importance of how young people emerged as a salient demographic for policy-makers.

Youth as a Social Category

According to Sukarieh and Tannock (2015), the social category “youth” has always been double-sided, encompassing both negative and positive stereotypes. On the one hand, young people have been said by some analysts to constitute a “ticking bomb” that presents a threat to the security and fabric of society (UN Africa Renewal, 2017; NPR, 2015). In this view, young people represent potential denizens of unemployment, delinquency or extremism. On the other hand, for some writers, youth constitute the “promise of the future,” the hope for addressing the ills and flaws of their societies (Daily Nation, 2015). This binary stereotyping highlights the fact that who is considered a youth, as well as how they are imagined, are social constructs. Indeed, young people have been viewed as a resource that can either be mobilized ‘efficiently’ or emerge as a major social risk. Thus, youth may be a signifier that embodies both potential and negative risk simultaneously.

Young people today not only represent a significant demographic cohort globally, but they also are navigating many of life’s perceived crucial transitions in a relatively short time as they emerge as adults. A 2007 World Bank Report on Development and the Next Generation, for example, has identified six main transitions that many youths undergo: learning, working, migrating and staying healthy, forming families and exercising citizenship. These shifts suggest that a successful passage to adulthood involves navigating all or the major share of these transitions, laying aside the fact that some may conflict with one another.

It is useful to cite a few examples that illustrate the tension among these milestones. One might involve a situation in which a young person would have to work a low paying job and pause their studies at a university to support themselves and pay the costs associated with their education. In such cases, a tension exists between learning and working. Another example might occur when a young person is deterred from forming a family, despite the fact that they want to do so, for fear they cannot support a spouse and children, or from visiting a doctor because they are unemployed or fear they cannot pay the related costs. In these cases, youths’ transition to work and forming families, as well as remaining healthy, are in tension.

Simply citing these changes as markers or milestones for young people fails to take into account the structural conditions that can mediate each, including poverty, family violence, inequality, war or conflict. Indeed, the 2007 World Bank Report did not acknowledge the ability of young people to access work, school, healthcare, mobility and so on when it highlighted these (necessary) transitions to adulthood. Viewing youths as an asset and a resource tends to commodify them and suggest that they need to work to adapt their aspirations and capacities closely to the interests of employers, the workplace and the market economy if they want to avoid being regarded as a risk or detriment to society..

In light of this pervasive perspective, it is important to emphasize that youths are more than a grouping of individuals who constitute a more or less arbitrary assigned age category. Instead, they are a heterogeneous group that possess agency and may seek to chart their own course as individuals and as a group in ways that embody risk and potential in many different ways:

Young people are never simply passive dupes or empty vessels when they participate in youth programs that have been designed by other organizations and states, but actively contest, resist and rework such programming to their own ends (Sukarieh & Tannock 2015, p.29).

While it is essential to recognize young people’s potential agency to defy the socially constructed binary in which many find themselves enmeshed, it is also paramount to emphasize that the institutions shaping youth today, such as schools, corporations, the state, media and social media, foundations, NGOs, the military and youth experts, all play roles in shaping and constructing what it means to be young and successful.

Youth can be shaped and constrained by these entities’ discourses that too often fail to take into account the structural circumstances young people confront. That is precisely how a definition of youth as a social construct serves to bring to light the multiple ways of defining youth and their implications. The fact that we live in an era characterized by the largest youth population ever recorded evokes the importance of these social constructs. This is so not only because such constructs define how the experience of youth is understood by young people and society-at-large alike, but also because those views shape public policies and actions that materially affect young people’s life prospects.

References (2017). Available at:  [Accessed November 6,  2017].

Daily Nation. (2017). The youth are the pillars of development. Available at: [Accessed November 9, 2017]

Lord, Reiss, Hennessey, Wittes, Pauker, Schake, Boot and Zenko (2017). Here Come the Young. [online] Foreign Policy. Available at: [Accessed November 6, 2017]. (2017). Global Youth Unemployment: Ticking Time Bomb? Available at: [Accessed November 9, 2017].

Sukarieh, M. and Tannock, S. (2015). Youth Rising? The Politics of Youth in the Global Economy, New York: Routledge Publishers.

O’Higgins, N. (2001). Youth unemployment and employment policy: A global perspective. Geneva: International Labor Organization. (2017). Youth dividend or ticking time bomb? | Africa Renewal Online.
Available at: [Accessed November 9, 2017].

UNDESA, Definitions of Youth. Fact Sheet. Available at:
[Accessed November 6, 2017].

UNESCO. What do we mean by youth? Available at: [Accessed November 6, 2017]. (2017). Youth participation & leadership | UNFPA – United Nations Population Fund. Available at: [Accessed  November 6,  2017].

World Bank. (2007). The World Development Report 2007 on Development and the Next Generation. Available at:
[Accessed November 6. 2017].

Nada Berrada is a native of Morocco and a Ph.D. student in the ASPECT program (Alliance for Social Political, Ethical and Cultural Thought) at Virginia Tech. She previously earned an M.A. in Public and International Affairs at Virginia Tech and a B.A in Political Science and Economics from Ecole de Gouvernance et d’Economie de Rabat (EGE) in Morocco. She currently teaches for the Political Science Department. Berrada has worked for The Coca-Cola Company in Atlanta, Georgia, the German Marshall Fund, the United Nations Development Program, the Foundation Orient Occident and the Johns Hopkins University Center for Talented Youth. She also served as a Youth Delegate representing Morocco during the 70th (2015-2016) United Nations General Assembly session.

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Strategic Use of Media in Mobilizing – Khunti Diaries

Members of a local advocacy grassroots group in Khunti, India, serve as a bridge between the poor and laborers in that community and its government administration. The group is comprised of local community members and student volunteers and its activities are focused on assisting the area’s population with bringing their concerns and grievances to the local government. Individuals, mostly of the Munda community with which I worked at the time, held a meeting with the national government’s Cabinet Minister for Rural Development, Jairam Ramesh Khunti, in Summer 2012, to discuss the grievances of the locals who were not receiving the food and minimum wages to which they were entitled from the local administration.

Many representatives of the national, regional and local media, and members of the community, including unarmed Maoists dressed as locals, and the District Magistrate (DM) responsible for the area, attended the gathering. The grassroots advocacy group’s members arranged the meeting to bring attention to an issue to which the DM of the area had proven unresponsive. As Magistrate, he was charged with ensuring dissemination of individual welfare benefits in the region. Nonetheless, the DM was not distributing those funds on time. Indeed, very often, the transfers were never completed and there was no information available concerning the whereabouts of the funds in the public domain. Eligible beneficiaries in Khunti had repeatedly requested their public entitlements for work on government-sponsored civil construction projects, but to no avail.

The grassroots advocacy group members convened the meeting to ensure that the responsible Cabinet Minister would question the DM with television staff and journalists present. The NGO’s leaders believed that simply sending the Minister the relevant data concerning alleged misappropriation of funds would not lead to timely and affirmative action without such overt public pressure.

There were two groups in the audience.  One consisted of local villagers who had not received their allocated entitlements for several months.  They participated in order to demand explanations and accountability from various government ministerial and bureaucratic officials, who made up the second group.  Overall, approximately 150 people attended the event. Beyond those participating, several dozen members of the paramilitary forces, assigned to protect the ministers, stood nearby.

Overall, this experience taught me the critical role that news media can play in mobilizing wider support outside the affected community for the concerns of a group seeking change or support. It also taught me the processes through which discourses may shape whether such demands are legitimated or validated by the wider society. Finally, this episode suggested that it can sometimes be useful for groups to seek to broaden the scope of awareness of a conflict.   In this case, that meant involving national officials in a local matter. This essay explores the relationship between social movements in India and the media in that nation by sketching the benefits and risks involved in seeking to involve news organizations in advocacy efforts.  I also briefly address how media actors affect the character and direction of social movements in India.

How does the news media affect social movement goals in India?

The members of the local advocacy groups had invited a range of electronic and print media representatives to the Khunti gathering from local, regional and national outlets because they hoped to ensure transparency for the outcomes villagers desired by helping hold public officials accountable. This was a strategic move to ensure that the issue received attention.  If such could occur, the members of the grassroots advocacy group  hoped that it would build hope among the villagers that they enjoyed options when selecting tactics to employ when approaching/lobbying government officials and that those could reap tangible benefits. Journalists asked the political officials questions about the alleged misappropriation of funds and how much longer it would be before an investigation was undertaken concerning the entitlement payments that might hold any individuals found culpable accountable. The media representatives asked the members of the grassroots advocacy group how long the missing funds had been a problem; which specific populations had been affected and how; and, finally, they asked the villagers for details on the effects of not being able to access their food entitlements, as well as how the drought at the time had exacerbated their life situations.

As a general proposition, the targeted government officials, who travelled with security forces, appeared unapproachable to the villagers. As a result, many local residents were frightened to assert their democratic rights in public.  After all the protests, strikes and marches and reports and inquiries shared with relevant Ministries, it was this meeting, with the presence of the media, that obtained effective government action.  More specifically, this gathering resulted in the case being taken up by the Central Ministry of Rural Development, whose leaders in turn summoned the DM to New Delhi to answer for the holdup in paying entitlements. Thereafter, the long-delayed funds arrived within two weeks.  Moreover, the government not only paid currently owed sums, but also cleared a backlog of non-payments owed to Khunti’s citizens.

The result of this action for the local advocacy group with which I volunteered was quite positive as it suggested to affected residents that collective mobilization involving the media could lead to successful advocacy on behalf of otherwise marginalized individuals and groups. Further, several of the communications outlets whose representatives had participated in the original briefing, continued to follow up with state officials in an effort to ensure their ongoing accountability to the citizens affected.  In retrospect, it was clear to all concerned that the media’s presence had brought widespread attention to an issue that otherwise likely would not have gained political salience (Williams, 1995).

Nevertheless, the advocacy group privately received pushback from national government officials in Delhi, who accused its members of not working collaboratively with local government representatives to address the issue. The group’s leaders disagreed and concluded that the presence of journalists had made it clear to public sector leaders that while it was happy to work with them, it was not beholden to them. The group could (and had, in fact, already done so) pursue other strategies to hold government actors accountable if need be.

The Relationship between the Media and Social Movements

The relative autonomy of a movement in its relations with a media outlet depend in part on temporal and spatial factors, as well as on what territories and populations its efforts address.  Long-lived and well institutionalized social movements tend not to challenge the status quo directly. In consequence, they are less dependent on journalistic coverage for their survival.  However, media attention can be crucial for less well-known or established movements that may not yet have acquired strong public legitimacy. Their outsider status, their marginalization from central political decision-making processes and the fact that they are often resource-poor, may make it more difficult for such groups to garner publicity. The situation may also force them to rely on alternative methods to obtain popular support for their concerns.

Ultimately, this challenge translates in practice into social movement leaders identifying strategies to align their goals with public concerns in ways that capture media attention and thereby increase the likelihood of reaching larger groups of people and galvanizing action. Many social movement leaders have found this imperative easier to address during election campaigns. These provide moments for such entities to pressure government officials and candidates to include their concerns on their agendas.  For instance, India’s Right to Food movement was successful in using media salience strategically to press elected officials to enact poverty alleviation acts in the run-up to the Lok Sabha elections of 2014.   The type of advocacy used by a movement is also key.  Certain spectacular strategies, such as hunger strikes, can quickly draw widespread public attention to an issue but, to succeed, all concerned must perceive that those employing this approach are completely serious concerning it.  Further, where advocacy occurs may matter as much as how it is undertaken.  Demonstrations and acts occurring in very visible, public areas, such as outside Parliament, government offices, etc. are much more likely to receive media attention than private meetings in offices or community/village gatherings.

Positives and Negatives

Broadly speaking, social movements gain in several ways from positive media treatment of their efforts. First, press, radio and television coverage can legitimize a movement’s claims and processes.  Second, the media offers frames that the broader population can adopt to understand the causes and potential solutions for an issue.  Third, journalistic coverage can bring a much broader audience’s attention to a local concern or specific community.  Fourth, media salience provides social movements opportunities actively to shape public understanding of important issues.  Fifth, strong sympathetic media coverage of a topic can serve to mobilize support among the larger public.  Sixth, media may serve as an important resource for publicizing messages when social movements are cash-strapped.  Finally, and as the example outlined above suggested, media coverage can serve to press State and corporate actors to behave in more transparent and accountable ways.

However, engaging with the news media can also result in adverse effects. Outlets may frame a social movement and its attendant issues negatively. This has occurred at times with several movements in India, including anti-nuclear activists, as well as Right to Food advocates.  In one famous incident in 2012 in India, several media organizations depicted a member of a missionary group as part of an effort to obtain land illegally in Jharkhand.  In fact, she was a part of a local advocacy group that was actually fighting corporate land grabbing efforts.  Sadly, the erroneous coverage prompted some members of the affected community to murder her.  In this case, corporate actors persuaded journalists of an untrue narrative in an effort to delegitimize resistance to their actions.

This example demonstrates how important the nexus of state, corporate and media can be to social movements.  State and corporate actors often seek to frame social movements and issues for media representatives in a negative light so as to delegitimize them.  Media actors can also adversely affect an issue by simply not publishing or publicizing it for any number of reasons.    Reporters may also frame the strategies used by social movements in a negative light.  For example, the media has often condemned the destruction of State property by members of the Maoist insurgency in one state in India, while not mentioning why the group is pursuing such measures.  Also, owing to concerns with gaining the largest audience possible, media outlets are selective concerning the social movements and issues they cover.  Overall, movements working in urban centers and affecting upper and middle-class individuals are more likely to be covered than, for example, those aimed at assisting rural villagers located in the middle of a jungle.

Media can strongly influence how movements are popularly perceived and thereby affect their possible direction and action strategies. The India Anti-Corruption Movement, for example, was based on Gandhian ideology in India, which gained high media coverage, that consistently discussed its non-violent strategies and in turn, implied a direct tie between the Movement and Gandhiji, a celebrated figure.  In terms of actors and issues, while corruption in public offices is widespread and affects all communities, the Indian media focus primarily on issues affecting the middle and upper classes, such as delays in passport processing and receiving business permits.  In contrast, the vast majority of people affected by corruption are poor.  The Anti-Corruption movement received widespread attention because of the way the media elected to characterize it. Journalistic accounts concerning the movement suggested that all corruption could be eliminated, if the movement’s aims could be fully realized.  Many media and political actors touted a “corruption-free India” as a way of achieving much higher economic growth, a goal desired by people of all classes.  This, emphasis however, obscured how deeply corruption is enmeshed in the government’s bureaucracy.   Nevertheless, the news media played an active role in “creating legitimacy and [a] favorable discourse” in support of the movement (McCarthy and Zald, 1977; Williams, 1995).

In short, the way that such activities are reported in the media is fundamental to the effectiveness of the feedback loop between the public and its government leaders, elected and appointed. Public officials are often openly critical of social movements that undermine their authority.


There is a paucity of scholarship that studies the relationship between the media and social movements in India, especially in a time when major communications outlets are generally held privately by for-profit firms in that country. I have sought to use Indian examples to illustrate the fact that social movements can be greatly benefited by their strategic use of media coverage. The scholarship concerning this topic is becoming ever more important, as social movements not only seek to influence public actors within states, but also transnationally.



McCarthy, J. D., & Zald, M. N. (1977). “Resource Mobilization and Social Movements: A Partial Theory,” American Journal of Sociology, 82(6), 1212–1241.

Williams, R. H. (1995). “Constructing the Public Good: Social Movements and Cultural Resources,” Social Problems, 42(1), 124–144. Accessed October 30, 2017.

Pallavi Raonka is a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of Sociology at Virginia Tech. She received her BA- Psychology from Maharaja Sayajirao University of Vadodara, India, and her M.A. in Rural Development from the Tata Institute of Social Sciences, India.

Her research interests include the political economy of globalization and development, social movement theory, and Indian politics.




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“Disabled Femininities” in Paralympic Sport: Exploring the Narratives of Brazilian Female Paralympians*

Gender in sport is deeply contradictory and complex: women are oppressed by men in sport; both women and men are oppressed in sport; and women and men experience freedom in sport. But definitions of oppression and freedom are not straightforward – they relate to the values which people hold and the context which they are in, which, in turn, affects what they do.                                         (Hargreaves, 1990, p.302).


The international Paralympic Games have evidenced a history of unequal representation of the male and female athletes.  Although the number of female Paralympians has increased significantly during the last two decades, as the International Paralympic Committee’s (IPG) data show in the table below, there still was a substantial participation gap between males and female athletes at the most recent Paralympics in Rio de Janeiro in 2016.

Table 1. Female athletes at Paralympic Games

Event Sydney 2000 Athens 2004 Beijing 2008 London 2012 Rio de Janeiro 2016
Women 990 1,165 1,383 1,501 1,671
Total number of athletes 3,879 3,808 3,951 4,237 4,238
Percentage of Female Participants 25.5 30.6 35 35.4 39.4

Sources: IPC (n.d. a; b; c; d; e)

This discrepancy has historically characterized Brazilian Paralympic delegations as well. During the Paralympic Games in Sydney, Australia in 2000, for example, Brazil was represented by 11 women on its Paralympic team of 64 athletes (Wikipedia, n.d.). At the event in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil competed with its largest Paralympic delegation since its first participation in the games. Of the nation’s 287 Paralympians in 2016, 102 were women, or about 35.5 percent of the total delegation CPB, 2016),

The reasons a large discrepancy between male and female Paralympic participation exists are highly complex and the topic is under researched (DePauw, 1997; Hardin, 2007; Hargreaves, 2000; Olenik, 1998). As DePauw (1999) has argued, sport, as a social institution, has been transformed by the presence of women, individuals with disabilities and female athletes with disabilities. Nevertheless, ableist ideologies, gendered relations of power, social and cultural barriers and women’s personal choices have all shaped a relative lack of representation of women in disability sport (Hargreaves, 2000, p.211).

More than 45 million Brazilians live with impairments and they experience a variety of physical and social barriers that prevent them from participating in sports. For example, their access to sporting opportunities is constrained by inaccessible infrastructure, as well as transportation and attitudinal barriers (DataSenado, 2010; Pereira et al. 2013). Although prejudice against people with disabilities has decreased in recent years in Brazilian society, many such Brazilians remain the target of preconceptions that they are incapable of participating in sports activity (DataSenado, 2010; Ferreira and Miranda, 2013). Furthermore, Brazilian women in general and women with impairments in particular, have not enjoyed the support of policies and programs aimed at increasing their participation in organized sports (Miragaya and DaCosta, 2007). These reasons, among others, have led to the fact that half of Brazilians with disabilities do not participate in sports (SAGE/COPPE/UFRJ Research Team, 2014, p.115).

This short essay seeks to illuminate the issues and experiences of Brazil’s female parathletes in order to highlight the inequities and barriers such women now confront in disability sport in the country. Following this brief introduction, we sketch the sociopolitical context of Paralympic sport in Brazil and then examine more closely the experiences of women participating in it.. That section offers the reflections and observations of four Brazilian female athletes who competed in the 2016 Summer Paralympic Games in Rio de Janeiro.

Paralympic sport in Brazil

Involving people with impairments in sports began at Stoke Mandeville Hospital in Salisbury, England in the 1940s, with the goal of assisting the rehabilitation of WWII veterans with disabilities. Sir Ludwig Guttmann, director of Salisbury’s Spinal Injuries Centre, organized the First Stoke Mandeville Games for the Paralyzed in 1948 for 26 British veterans (including three women) who competed in archery (DePauw, 2012). In 1960, Rome hosted 400 athletes from 23 countries in the first international Paralympics, and in 2016, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, hosted 4,350 athletes from 170 countries in a Latin American nation’s first-ever hosting of the Paralympic Games (Craven, 2016).

Although disability sport initiatives began in Brazil in the late 1950s with wheelchair basketball clubs in Rio de Janeiro and Sao Paulo, Brazil’s formal participation in the Paralympic Games began almost two decades later in Toronto, Canada, in 1976 (Junior, 2012). The Brazilian Paralympic Committee,  created in 1995, which propelled the development of high performance Paralympic sport in Brazil (Marquez and Gutierrez, 2014). Thereafter, national congressional enactment of the Agnelo/Piva Law in 2001 was crucial for sustaining the Paralympic movement in the country. The statute mandated that two percent of federal lottery funds be set aside for the Brazilian Olympic and Paralympic Committees, distributed in a proportion of 85 percent and 15 percent, respectively. In 2015, the nation’s Senate changed the Agnelo/Piva Law’s proportion of lottery revenues designated for the Olympics from 2 percent to 2.7 percent, as well as the percentage of revenue assigned to Paralympic sports within that sum from 15 percent to 37.04 percent (Fontenelle, 2016).

This shift has allowed the Brazilian Paralympic Committee (CPB) to establish a national sports team, members of which receive financial support, including bonuses for medals won, for the duration of the Paralympic cycle (Mauerberg-deCastro et al., 2016). However, many of those we interviewed for a forthcoming book noted that this financial support has been unstable, resulting in some Brazilian parathletes having to work full-time during the day and train in the evenings and on weekends.

Although the federal and state governments in Brazil have been investing in adequate training facilities and coaches for Paralympic sport, access to these is still  limited to large urban centers, where most such professionals and infrastructure is located. This fact requires many athletes to relocate for professional training and rehabilitation services, which implies a long-term commitment and dependence on sponsorships and state support (Mauerberg-deCastro, et al., 2016). One way to demonstrate regional disparities in opportunities to participate in Paralympic sport in Brazil is to chart the number of medals won per state in the 2016 Paralympics: a little more than 40%, or 56 of 135 medals were attained by athletes from just two states—Sao Paulo and Rio de Janeiro (Passos, 2016).

Although Paralympic sport in Brazil has grown significantly in recent decades, it still confronts major challenges including, inadequate infrastructure of sports clubs, spotty sporting facility accessibility, insufficient equipment and materials, lack of public awareness of disability sport and an insufficient number of qualified coaches and other professionals (Marques and Gutierrez, 2014). Additionally, disability sports organizations are often led by volunteers without impairments (Mauerberg-deCastro et al., 2016). Withal, despite the advances of the Paralympic movement in Brazil, women, particularly, participating in Paralympic sport in the nation still face major impediments and inequities.

Women in the Paralympic sport

Although gender inequity has been identified in previous work within the world of mainstream conventional sport, Olenik et al. have rightly pointed out that making generalizations from able-bodied sport to disability sport ignores, denies or erases the significance of women’s experiences within the latter, as it ignores the historical and political context of those experiences (1995, p.54). Recruitment of female Paralympians remains a significant challenge in many world regions. At an elite level, in comparison to the Olympic Games, the proportion of female athlete participation in the Paralympic Games lags by approximately ten percent. Blauwet has attributed this difference to a lack of access to sport rather than an insufficient number of potential participants (2015, p.126).

Available research suggests that women with impairments who aspire to participate in high-level sport competitions may indeed face the greatest discrimination of all. There are individual differences in whether the disability is congenital or acquired later in life, how long they have been living with their impairment(s) or unique manifestations of loss or reduction of functional ability, as well as differences in age, social class, education, race, ethnicity, etc. However, insufficient research makes it difficult to develop an accurate picture of the specific reasons why so few disabled women participate in sport and the obstacles they face if they do participate. The interviews and personal conversations we have conducted with 2016 Brazilian female parathletes have confirmed some of the challenges treated in the available literature, including, lack of awareness of opportunities to become involved in sports, lack of financial means, high opportunity cost of engaging in disability sports compared to other activities, lack of financial incentives to become involved in disability sport, high cost of sporting equipment, lack of adequate transportation and public safety, inaccessibility of many athletic facilities and attitudinal barriers.

The complex and contradictory position that sportswomen with and without impairments find themselves is illustrated in this statement by a Brazilian goalball player, when discussing maternity:

In sport, women face prejudice and difficulties with the issue of maternity and child-rearing. The sporting milieu is not ready to accommodate a mother athlete. She would have to take time off if she wants to breastfeed and spend more time with her child. I think there is a possibility to work out strategies that would allow a woman to exercise her professional activity in sport and spend time with her child, if there was more sensitivity to this issue (Individual interview conducted on June 7, 2017).

Participation of women with impairments in the world of elite sports is often accompanied by other barriers, as suggested by this sitting volleyball player:

I do not know how it is in other sports, but in sitting volleyball, our team was clearly disadvantaged. But we overcame it with much struggle and dedication. For example, we did not have the opportunity to train at the Olympic Stadium, we had to find another venue to train before the Paralympics. We only trained once on the official court, while the male team trained there regularly. We had the opportunity to train with the Japanese team in Volta Redonda [a city two hours away from Rio de Janeiro], which in the end helped us gain more experience. We also had several scrimmages with the Chinese team, and we made the most of our experiences (Individual interview conducted on May 22, 2017).

Another female sitting volleyball player commented on the different marketing and promotion treatment that Brazil’s male and female sitting volleyball teams received during the Rio Paralympics:

I feel the difference in the promotion and in the opportunities between female and male sport [of sitting volleyball]. During the Rio Paralympics, there was a banner promoting men’s sitting volleyball team on the Rio-Niteroi bridge [that connects the city of Rio de Janeiro to the rest of the state]. In case of the female team, we only had an image of one of the players on a subway car on Line 2… We also needed to be treated as someone who had conditions to be among the best in the world … Our medal was the first in team female sport that Brazil has ever won, but it did not bring an increased return to us in terms of media attention, sponsorship or promotion (Individual interview conducted on May 23, 2017).

A female shooting parathlete noted that she has confronted similar challenges in recognition and expectations during her sporting career:

Shooting is a male-dominated sport, and I have always felt that. It was not explicit, but I always felt that I had to prove that I was better, that I was capable of achieving more. I felt this pressure because I am a woman. If I win in a mixed competition [with male and female participants competing together], men usually joke about the one who lost, ‘wow, aren’t you ashamed, you lost to a woman!’ (Individual interview conducted on March 22, 2017).

Overall, women participate less than men in disability sport for a complex array of reasons that affect those who wish to become involved and those already engaged in elite Paralympic sport alike, as exemplified by one female goalball player we interviewed:

I had some competitions canceled because of insufficient number of active women in goalball. It is a larger issue, as there is a greater number of national male goalball teams around the world than national female teams. In Brazil, we also have more male than female goalball teams. And because of this, sometimes we do not have the same number of competitions among the female teams as the male teams do. There are social factors at the basis of this, such as, for example, the difficulty of women accessing sport and often higher vulnerability of blind women in social settings. She may leave home less frequently, practice less sport and sometimes end up in a more over-protected situation by her family (Individual interview conducted on June 7, 2017).

This essay has outlined some of the obstacles that Brazilian female Paralympians face in obtaining recognition for their achievements, especially those who compete in less popular or male-dominated sports. Issues such as insensitivity to the maternity and child-rearing needs of sportswomen, unequal recognition in comparison to their male counterparts and fewer competitive opportunities because of the lack of female athletes with impairments involved in elite sports, all contribute to the unequal representation of women in such activities. As Hargreaves (2000) has argued, we lack full understanding of the particular problems that women face because of insufficient research. However, “the increasing visibility of sportswomen with disabilities helps to transcend the idea that the body is a burden and encourages other disabled women to focus on their sporting abilities” (Hargreaves, 2000, p.198). In keeping with this contention, the women we interviewed suggested that their experiences as participants in Paralympic sport have made them more resilient. As Seal has observed, “rather than operating as a ‘double disadvantage,’ gender and disability dynamically combine to offer them a different set of opportunities” (2014, p.191). Although this is a positive conclusion, these possibilities are not available to all women with impairments aiming to compete in elite athletic events due to socioeconomic, cultural, political and ideological barriers.



(*) We borrow the term “disabled femininities” from Emma-Louise Seal’s study of the intersection between gendered and disabled identities of elite female athletes in disability sport. Her idea of “disabled femininities” denoted the complexity underlying how these individuals desired to be seen as strong and tough, while at the same time maintaining their sense of embodied femininity (Seal, 2014, p.205).


Blauwet, C.A. (2015). The paralympic female athlete. In M. L. Mountjoy (Ed.), The Female Athlete. 1st Ed. John Wiley & Sons, pp.120-127

CPB – Comitê Paralímpico Brasileiro. (2016, August 31). Atletas paralímpicos brasileiros começam a chegar ao Rio de Janeiro e têm recepção no Boulevard Olímpico. Retrieved October 10, 2017, from

Craven, P. (2016). The Paralympic Games and the Promotion of the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. UN Chronicle, 2, 10-13.

DataSenado (2010). Condições de vida das pessoas com deficiência no Brasil. Pesquisa de opinião pública nacional. Retrieved October 6, 2017, from

DePauw, K. (1997). Sport and physical activity in the life-cycle of girls and women with disabilities. Women in Sport and Physical Activity Journal, 6 (2), 225-234.

DePauw, K.P. (1999). Girls and women with disabilities in sport. The Journal of Physical Education, Recreation, 70(4), 50-52, 61.

DePauw, K.P. (2012). A historical perspective of the Paralympic Games. Journal of Physical Education, Recreation & Dance, 83(3), 21-31, DOI: 10.1080/07303084.2012.10598739.

Ferreira, A. and Miranda, A. (2013, December 2). Três cidades do ABC oferecem programas de esporte para deficientes. Retrieved from: esportes/2013/12/tres-cidades-do-abc-oferecem-programas-de-esporte-para-deficientes-o-projeto-tem-como-objetivo-promover-a-inclusao-social-e-buscar-novos-talentos-santo-andre-sao-bernardo-e-sao-caetano-oferecem-programas-de-esportes-adaptados-para-deficientes-da-regiao.4.

Fontenelle, A. (2016, August 1). Aprovada em 2001, Lei Piva acabou com carência de dinheiro no esporte olímpico. Senado Noticias. Retrieved October 9, 2017, from

Hardin, M. (2007). “I consider myself an empowered woman”: The interaction of sport, gender and disability in the lives of wheelchair basketball players. Women in Sport and Physical Activity Journal, 16(1), 39-52.

Hargreaves, J. (1990). Gender on sports agenda. International Review of Sociology of Sport, 25(4), 287-307.

Hargreaves, J. (2000). Heroines of sport: The Politics of Difference and Identity. Abingdon and New York: Routledge.

IPC (n.d., a). Sydney 2000. Retrieved from:

IPC (n.d., b). Athens 2004. Retrieved from:

IPC (n.d., c). Beijing 2008. Retrieved from:

IPC (n.d., d). London 2012. Retrieved from:

IPC (n.d., e). Rio de Janeiro 2016. Retrieved from:

Junior, E. (2012). A história do esporte praticado por pessoas com deficiência no Brasil. Special Report, Radio Câmara. Retrieved from materias/reportagem-especial/411044-a-historia-do-esporte-praticado-por-pessoas-com-deficiencia-no-brasil-bloco-1.html

Marques, R.F. and Gutierrez, G.L. (2014). O Esporte Paralímpico no Brasil: Professionalismo, administração e classificação de atletas. São Paulo: Phorte editora.

Mauerberg-deCastro, E.; Campbell, D. F.; and Tavares, C.P. (2016). The global reality of the Paralympic Movement: Challenges and opportunities in disability sports. Motriz, 22(3), 111-123. DOI:

Miragaya, A. and DaCosta, L.(2007). Women in sport for all from multicultural perspectives. Paper presented at the Conference “From Greece to China: West meets East through Sport,” in Beijing, China. Retrieved September 20, 2017, from

Olenik, L. M; Matthews, J. M.; and Steadward, R. D. (1995). Women, disability and sport: Unheard voices. Canadian Woman Studies, 15(4), 54-57.

Olenik, L.M. (1998). Women in Disability Sport: Multidimensional Perspectives. PhD thesis, University of Alberta, Canada.

Passos, G. (2016, September 18). Paralimpíadas: confira o ranking de medalhistas brasileiros por estado e região [Press release]. Retrieved from:

Pereira, L.F., Neves, J.M.J., Albuquerque, M.S., and Fonseca, M.P.S. (2013). A Influência do Transporte e dos Espaços Urbanos no Acesso de Deficientes Físicos à Prática Esportiva. Universidade Federal do Rio de Janeiro.

SAGE/COPPE/UFRJ Research Team (2014). Olympic Games Impact (OGI) Study — Rio 2016 Initial Report to measure the impacts and the legacy of the Rio 2016 Games.

Seal, E.L. (2014). Juggling Identities: Elite Female Athletes’ Negotiation of Identities in Disability Sport. PhD thesis, University of Bath, UK.

Wikipedia (n.d.). Brazil at the 2000 Summer Paralympics. Retrieved from:

Lyusyena Kirakosyan currently serves as a Senior Project Associate at the Virginia Tech Institute for Policy and Governance and a governance and development consultant for nongovernmental organizations. Her research interests focus on critical disability studies, particularly in the context of Paralympic Games and Paralympics legacy. Since January 2016, she has been a research member of the Brazilian Paralympic Academy that focusses on inquiry into paralympic sports in Brazil and is formally a part of the Brazilian Paralympic Committee. She earned her Ph.D. in Social, Political, Ethical, and Cultural Thought (ASPECT) from Virginia Tech in 2013, her master’s degree in Management from the Hult International Business School in Boston, Massachusetts in 2001, and her bachelor’s degree in Economics from Yerevan State University in Armenia in 1997. She is the co-editor with Max Stephenson Jr. of the forthcoming edited book, RE: Reflections and Explorations: A Forum for Deliberative Dialogue, Virginia Tech Institute for Policy and Governance, 2017, Paper and ebook formats.



As a sports manager and social scientist, Sam Geijer is passionate about the power of sports and is dedicated to research the effects of sports on excluded groups. As such, he intends to pursue his doctoral research at the University of Amsterdam where his research will focuse on social inclusion of people with a disability as part of the legacy of the Paralympic Games in Rio de Janeiro in 2016. Sam received his Bachelor’s degree in 2011 in Sport, Management and Business from the University of Applied Sciences in Amsterdam and concluded his pre-Master’s program in 2014 in Latin American and Caribbean Studies at the Utrecht University, the Netherlands. Sam has recently authored and published the first volume of the Paralympic Stars Magazine that focused on adapted sports in Brazil:





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Planning for Communication with Non-English Speakers in Disaster Situations

Empathy for underserved communities is vital to planning and making decisions that will be inclusive, particularly during emergency situations and disasters. Hurricane Harvey is now in the history books as one of the most damaging storms the United States has experienced in decades. Thousands of Houston, Texas-area residents, for example, are now addressing its effects, which included more than 50 inches of rain, when that city typically only receives 48 inches of precipitation in an entire year (Erdman, 2017). More than 31 people in Houston died as a result of the storm (, 2017). Many homes in its path were damaged or washed away completely, some individuals lost family members and friends and there is a long road ahead for many whose properties were devastated by wind, rain or flooding. As those directly affected continue to assess the damage, public officials at all levels of government and nonprofit organization leaders have begun to ask, “What could we have done better?”

In that spirit, this essay will focus on one vital aspect of emergency management and planning; communicating with residents with limited English proficiency. Specifically, it will discuss the following concerns related to this imperative and use Houston’s emergency management planning efforts as an example:

  1. Language barriers to emergency communication
  2. Distrust of law enforcement and government representatives within communities with language barriers, which include unauthorized immigrants
  3. Solutions that combine community feedback and emergency management best practices.

Communicating with residents who may not speak or understand English entails more than translating English into their native language or offering an interpreter’s services when necessary. It requires sensitivity to the cultures and specific needs of the residents of such communities. These populations frequently have legitimate cultural concerns that make their members nervous about trusting local authorities. Meanwhile, municipal and county governments have often made assumptions about communities’ needs, in lieu of asking those affected to share them. How can policymakers and communities work together to address the unique challenges linked to natural disaster preparation and recovery amidst lingual and cultural heterogeneity?

Recognizing and Addressing Language Barriers

Spanish and Vietnamese are two of the top five languages spoken in Houston. Houston has the fourth highest population of Hispanic residents (2.3 million) among cities in the United States and about 39 percent of that number are foreign-born (Pew, 2017). The city also has the third highest population of Vietnamese residents (120,000) among cities in the United States. Approximately 37.9 percent of Vietnamese-speaking residents in the Houston metropolitan area have limited English proficiency, defined as having difficulty reading, writing, speaking or understanding English (City of Houston, 2013).

The U.S. Census defines a household as “linguistically isolated” if its members 14 or older evidence difficulty with English and speak a different native language (Shin, 2003). People with limited English proficiency may struggle or adapt differently to tasks than fluent English speakers. For example, they often navigate public transit by memorizing symbols on signs and notable features of a station, since they are unable to read the words on them (Community Transportation Association of America, 2016). City transit officials should work to communicate changes in bus or subway routing or timetables broadly and in multiple languages in areas where different languages are spoken. Appropriate transit information sharing is necessary to ensure that all can adjust. Emergency management efforts are no different. They, too, must be offered and planned in ways that seek to involve all of a community’s population, regardless of its members’ capacity to speak or write English.

Existing language barriers in a community can be exacerbated during natural disasters when government officials assume high-level English fluency when sharing emergency information. In an interview with Good Magazine in 2014, for example, Thomas Phelan, an emergency management researcher, suggested that emergency messages and warnings are often written at the college level, which is far too complex to be understood by non-English speakers, children and a share of the elderly (Hennefer, 2015). Moreover, most people do not know how to read a satellite image, irrespective of their relative language proficiency. If fluent speakers struggle with messages such as the one below, one may well imagine how much more challenging they are likely to be for those with limited English skills:

It is especially difficult for those with limited English proficiency to obtain medical help during times of emergency. Meischke, et al. (2010) surveyed professionals at health call centers and found that 80 percent of respondents encountered callers with limited English skills more than once a week. Meischke, et. al. (2010) also found that during these calls, dispatchers had to repeat information. In consequence, these researchers found a significant difference in the time it took to dispatch different types of emergency medical technician crews to those with limited English skills compared to those who were fluent, the consequences of which will need to be investigated further. Mieschke et. al. (2010) did suggest, however, that dispatchers’ techniques for communicating with callers of limited English proficiency may not be as effective, since the language barrier can negate the usefulness of a technique, such as repeating a question or statement, in order to calm a distressed caller.

Understanding distrust and gaining trust are important

Another barrier in Houston and other cities that arises during and following natural disasters between those with no or limited English facility, including unauthorized immigrants, and government representatives, is distrust. The Migration Policy Institute has reported that a majority of Houston area immigrants lack English proficiency, which means there is significant overlap between those populations and unauthorized immigrant populations on this critical criterion (Capps, et. al., 2015). These two factors together exacerbate distrust of government representatives. Put yourself in an unauthorized immigrant’s shoes and imagine you had just lost your home and belongings or had otherwise suffered catastrophically from a storm or fire and a complete stranger with a government-agency logo on their shirt walked up to you speaking a language you do not command. During a vulnerable time, such as in the aftermath of such a disaster, how would you know whether that person is trustworthy?

The Department of Homeland Security has defined unauthorized immigrants as, “foreign-born non-citizens who are not legal residents” (Department of Homeland Security, 2017). There are about 575,000 unauthorized immigrants in the Houston area (Sacchetti, 2017). This translates to 1 in 10 Houston metro residents being unauthorized (Florido, 2017).

For this reason alone, it is important for Houston’s emergency managers to consider how immigrant communities could be apprehensive and fearful of government activities, rather than assume that public officials will be received with open arms during relief and recovery efforts. Residents may not know how to identify official emergency responders, they may be unauthorized to be in the country or they may have previous life experiences that have sown a distrust in police or other government representatives (Florida Department of Health Office of Minority Health, 2013). For example, many unauthorized immigrants in Houston were afraid to seek shelter following Hurricane Harvey because they feared U.S. Customs and Border Protection employees, who were assisting with search and rescue. As a result, many residents waited in contaminated water for the storm to abate, when they could have obtained warm and dry shelter. Indeed, representatives of Familias Inmigrantes y Estudiantes en la Lucha (Spanish “For Families and Their Education,” or FIEL), a Houston, a nonprofit immigrant advocacy group, received dozens of calls from residents asking whom they could trust, as relief efforts were underway (Florido, 2017).

As a general rule, non-English speakers did not trust federal immigration and emergency management officials. More, many did not trust Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner, even as he insisted that those receiving assistance would not be subject to identification checks. The Federal Emergency Management Agency, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement and U.S. Customs and Border Protection also announced they would not check immigration documents at shelters. Nonetheless, these statements did little to allay residents’ fears predicated on the fact that prior to Hurricane Harvey, there were widespread reports of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents arresting and detaining at least 6,500 immigrants in the Houston area (Straw, 2017).

      Solutions for local governments

Language and cultural barriers can exacerbate a complicated recovery. Houston officially provides services in five languages, including Spanish and Vietnamese, but interpreters are often stretched thin during emergencies. Families may have members who are fluent in English, but these may be children and it is unrealistic to rely on young people to interpret information accurately and convey it to their families. Local governments should focus their planning on programs that will increase language proficiency in both directions.  For Houston, this implies that the city should work to provide opportunities for its residents needing to acquire more English proficiency and, also, train responders fluent in English to speak and read Spanish and Vietnamese.

City officials should also focus on partnering with radio, television and other media companies already serving immigrant communities to distribute important emergency messages in their native languages and to build trust by engaging with them outside of disaster situations to describe city structures and programs aimed at relief and recovery. That is, put more generally, Houston should work with firms with ties to non-English speaking communities to help them develop and maintain emergency communication programs. Vietnamese Americans in Houston, for example, have access to only one radio station that broadcasts in Vietnamese. And that outlet, Saigon Radio (KREH 900-AM), briefly stopped broadcasting during Hurricane Harvey. If Saigon Radio had not been able to resume service, many members of the city’s Vietnamese community would have been unable to obtain information and receive updates from public officials in their preferred language (Lam, 2017). The Houston Police Department cooperated with Saigon Radio in summer 2017 to discuss crime prevention efforts in the community, suggesting that such collaboration can occur. Such efforts should be expanded (Kragie, 2017). To help alleviate the burden on a single broadcasting outlet when only one such exists, Houston and other cities confronting a similar scenario should work to incentivize new forms of emergency broadcasting targeted to non-English speaking residents.

To address the distrust among residents arising from the language divide and unauthorized immigration status, public officials need to work with churches, community centers and local immigrant advocacy organizations, such as FIEL Houston to develop ties and ongoing communication channels. Words need to be backed up with actions. In 2011, Houston’s Department of Health and Human Services partnered with community organizations to explore ways to communicate more effectively with citizens and residents. Today, many of the city’s preparedness guides are published online in several languages as a result. For its part, the Federal Emergency Management Agency has recommended community mapping as a way to investigate empirically a neighborhood’s resources and capabilities. Such efforts involve documenting critical infrastructure, resident makeup and types of buildings and businesses that could store supplies or be used to feed responders and residents during or following emergencies (Federal Emergency Management Agency, 2011). Houston should also recruit members of the community to be trained in emergency response as bridges between government representatives, first responders and residents. This step is key because when disaster strikes, residents are often the first to help other residents. Houston has conducted disaster preparedness classes in Spanish for several years and began to do so in Vietnamese in 2014 (Ready Houston, 2014).  These initiatives should be strongly supported and expanded.

Finally, any city-sponsored emergency management planning should reflect the needs of Houston’s immigrant communities and address them in practical ways, including continuing efforts to address the lingual divide. Communities with low English proficiency and significant populations of unauthorized immigrants in Houston are especially vulnerable to natural disasters, and public safety requires that city officials take this situation into consideration in their planning. Indeed, emergency response planning for communities evidencing language and cultural barriers requires managers to think beyond an English language-centric perspective. It requires them to consider the many reasons why they must work harder to gain the trust of community members, and how vital those efforts are for effective response to emergencies.


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Dallas News Staff, 2017. Harvey death toll grows as floodwaters drop in Houston, rise in Beaumont. Dallas Morning News. [Online] [Accessed October 9, 2017]

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Straw, B., 2017. ICE Back To Making Arrests In Houston. Houston Public Media. [Online] [Accessed October 9, 2017]

Florido, A., 2017. Advocates struggle to help undocumented immigrants find relief after Harvey. NPR. [Online] [Accessed October 1, 2017]

Lam, A., 2017. Saigon-Houston radio: Our community rescued itself when Harvey came. New America Media. [Online] [Accessed October 1, 2017]

Kragie, A., 2017. Houston police reach out to Vietnamese community on local Saigon Radio. Houston Chronicle. [Online] [Accessed October 1, 2017]

Federal Emergency Management Agency, 2011. A whole community approach to emergency management: Principles, themes, and pathways for action. [Online] [Accessed October 1, 2017]

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Joanne Tang is currently pursuing her Master of Public Administration and a Graduate Certificate in Homeland Security. During her time at Virginia Tech, she has begun to explore the connections among affordable housing, environmental protection and emergency management. She is particularly interested in city resilience and protecting critical infrastructure from natural and human-made disasters. She currently works in strategic communication and policy within the homeland security community. In addition to her professional focus, she enjoys writing, hiking and photography. She can be found on Twitter at @joanneliveshere.




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