Learning from COVID-19:Shaping a Health and Human Rights Agenda for our Region

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Learning from COVID-19:Shaping a Health and Human Rights Agenda for our Region

Groups around our community are coming together to build a strong people’s movement to ensure that we don’t go back to “normal” after the coronavirus pandemic subsides. The inequities and discrimination that existed prior to the pandemic have exacerbated the effects of the crisis, and historically oppressed groups have suffered disproportionately. We need to re-envision a society that prioritizes equity and the human right to health (including the social dimensions of health and well-being), so that every member of our community can live dignified lives. The Human Rights City Alliance and Global Studies Center (Pitt) are helping coordinate this forum along with our diverse partner organizations. Our aim is to promote dialogue and strategic learning that can advance ideas about how to build human rights cities.

Forum Co-sponsors: Pittsburgh Human Rights City Alliance, Global Studies Center (Pitt), Center for Health Equity (Pitt) Center for Urban Education (Pitt); Center for Bioethics and Health Law (Pitt); City of Pittsburgh Commission on Human Relations,UrbanKind Institute University Human Rights Working Group

Upcoming Forums

Watch for details!

Past Forums

Housing is Health Care! Why Housing Must Be Treated as a Human Right
Housing is increasingly unaffordable for people around the world and housing insecurity is rising. Together with the CMU Film Festival and other partners, we helped publicize the documentary film, Push, which tells the story of how global banks and investment firms control residential housing around the world and push out low-income residents, turning our communities into sources of private profit. But the film tells another story too: residents are coming together to demand that housing be protected as a human right.


  • February 2021 Cross-City Dialogue on Housing Rights Struggles in Atlanta, New York, and Pittsburgh Organizers with Pittsburgh's Penn Plaza Support and Action Coalition, Atlanta's Housing Justice League and Brooklyn's Riseboro Community Partnership. Co-Sponsors: Pittsburgh Human Rights City Alliance, Atlanta Housing Justice League, Organization for Human Rights & Democracy, University of Pittsburgh Global Studies Center & Urban Studies Program, Student Human Rights Task Force- Pitt & The New School (NYC) Collaboration.
  • View webinars with Leilani Farha, the focus of the film:
Webinar Part 1: Building a Global Movement to Protect the Right to Housing --Dialogue featuring Leilani Farha—former UN Special Rapporteur on the Human Right to Adequate Housing, joined by housing and human rights leaders from Atlanta, Pittsburgh, and New York view recording here. Panelists include: Carl Redwood Hill District Consensus Group. (Pittsburgh); Dr. Yolande Tomlinson Organization for Human Rights and Democracy & US Human Rights Cities Alliance(Atlanta); Rob Robinson (Facilitator), organizer with the US Human Rights Cities Alliance, International Alliance of Inhabitants, and Partners for Dignity and Rights.
Webinar Part 2: Movement building for the Human Right to Housing (Nov. 5, 2020) Local organizers from Philadelphia, Atlanta and Pittsburgh joined former UN Special Rapporteur on the Human Right to Housing, Leilani Farha, to discuss ideas for building a powerful cross-city movement for the human right to housing and an end to evictions. View recording. Panelists: Randall Taylor, Penn Plaza Support and Action Coalition & Pittsburgh Human Rights City Alliance Steering Committee member; Sanae Lahgazi-Alaoui, Housing Justice League (Atlanta); Regina Young, Democratic Candidate for PA State Representative (Philadelphia); Carl Redwood, Hill District Consensus Group (Pittsburgh)

  • Building a Human Rights Cities Movement Against Structural Racism, Webinar recording from Thursday July 9, 2020. In response to Black resistances to dismantle violent police repression and the wider systemic forces that drive racial inequities, the global community has become activated like never before to demand accountability and transformative changes. This webinar reviews the oft-overlooked history of engagement in the United Nations by those struggling for Black emancipation, starting with the 1947 Appeal to the World, and continuing in last month’s unprecedented UN Human Rights Council Urgent Debate on racially inspired human rights violations which featured an opening speech by the brother of George Floyd. Longtime human rights organizers discuss how grassroots activists can engage with international human rights treaties and processes to build powerful networks of alliances against structural racism. Speakers: Dominique Day, Vice-chair, UN Working Group of Experts on People of African Descent; Ejim Dike, former Executive Director, US Human Rights Network; Jamil Dakwar ACLU Human Rights Program Director; Salimah Hankins, Acting Director, US Human Rights Network. Facilitators: Johnaca Dunlap-Ubuntu Institute & US Human Rights Cities Alliance Steering Committee; Rob Robinson-International Alliance of Inhabitants & US Human Rights Cities Alliance Steering Committee. View Recording. This forum was hosted in cooperation with the US Human Rights Cities Alliance

  • Treating Racism as a Public Health Emergency. (Recording) The COVID-19 crisis has heightened everyone’s vulnerabilities as those furthest behind economically are now visible as the frontline workers providing essential services for our communities. As we consider our post-pandemic future, how can we build our community's capacity to prevent and limit damage from future crises? This forum addresses systemic racism and its impacts. Both the City and County Councils have now passed motions naming racism as a "public health emergency." We consider both why it is necessary to make such public declarations, and how these political statements can inform and shape our advocacy work. While largely symbolic, can these measures be seen as openings for advancing more transformative efforts to eliminate systemic racism? How does this pandemic help clarify the urgent need for fundamental change? Confirmed speakers: Olivia "Liv" Bennett, Allegheny County Council member & sponsor of motion declaring racism a public health emergency; Frederica Phillips, Co-coordinator, Pittsburgh Healthcare Rights Committee-Put People First! PA; Gary Phillips, UPMC worker. Facilitator/Discussant: Dr. Dara D. Mendez, PhD, MPH. Assistant Professor of Epidemiology, University of Pittsburgh Graduate School of Public Health. View Recording of Treating Racism as a Public Health Emergency (Thursday May 28, 2020)
Our previous forum, “City Budgets in Tough Times: Ensuring Equity and Justice,” reinforced that development must put needs of “furthest behind first,” to ensure health and well-being for all of us. The needs of essential workers and their families must be central in planning and resource allocations. As public budgets shrink, our communities need to work to redirect spending priorities, bring greater transparency and public participation into the budget and planning process, and to reframe debates about taxation and governance. To achieve these goals, we need to build the collective power and unity of community residents. This community forum picks up threads from our previous 2 forums and provides updates on work in our community to address these challenges. Speakers: Jessie Ramey, Chair, City of Pittsburgh Gender Equity Commission; Randall Taylor, Penn Plaza Support & Action Coalition & former School Board member. Facilitator: Jam Hammond, City of Pittsburgh Commission on Human Relations (Thursday May 14, 2020)
  • City Budgets in Tough Times: Ensuring Equity and Justice Summary of analyses and lessons from this forum , Speakers: Jamil Bey, Urbankind Institute; Carl Redwood, Hill District Consensus Group; Laura Wiens, Pittsburghers for Public Transit. Facilitator: Jay Ting Walker, Green Party of Allegheny County. Recently Mayor Peduto warned of coming budget cuts in the tens of millions of dollars, calling on Pittsburghers to share the needed sacrifices over coming years. Yet, in “normal” times, public officials care little about equity and shared sacrifice, and low-income neighborhoods and communities of color have seen steady disinvestment and cuts to public services justified by government austerity. Those same communities are now disproportionately called on to perform the “essential work” needed to sustain life and livelihoods during this pandemic. A post-pandemic “normal” requires real equity in budgeting, where we put the needs of those furthest behind first when allocating public funds. For too long the scarcity narrative has dictated our politics. We’ve been told that government austerity is needed to support “economic growth” that will “trickle down” to benefit all. COVID-19 has demonstrated the fatal flaws of this system that fails to support the essential work of caring and providing for the basic needs of our communities. This forum will explore lessons from activism around economic development and equity that can help us reframe the new austerity conversation to prioritize the needs of those long neglected. By centering dignity, equity, and human rights in budget discussions, and by employing more democratic and participatory processes in development planning, we reinforce the robust foundations we need for resilient and just communities. (April 30, 2020)
  • Opening Session: Learning from COVID-19: Building an Agenda for Health & Human Rights: Panelists: Dr. Noble Maseru, Director, Center for Health Equity, University of Pittsburgh, Megan Stanley, Executive Director, City of Pittsburgh Commission on Human Relations, Dawn Plummer, Executive Director, Pittsburgh Food Policy Council, Monica Ruiz, Executive Director, Casa San José.
  • Summary: Panelists and discussion outlined key challenges around racial disparities, housing, food justice, and the needs and challenges faced in immigrant communities. We began to identify lessons and strategies for building more responsive politics that include voices of Black residents and experts and developing better social safety nets. Questions emerged about how to build broader consciousness about human rights conditions, build cross-sectional peoples movements, and build capacities of marginalized communities. (April 16, 2020 Forum)


Our community forum series seeks to generate ideas and support for actions to enable us to learn from this crisis and better care for the people in our communities--particularly the most vulnerable residents.


UPDATE:Coronavirus Racial Equity Task Force Proposed in City Council May 5, 2020 Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

National Actions Pittsburgh's Human Rights City Alliance is a member of the US Human Rights Network (USHRN), and through this organization, we participate in national and global work to support human rights and "bring human rights home" to communities everywhere. The USHRN is active at this time to ensure that leaders are attentive to human rights during and following this pandemic.

  • On April 22, 2020, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights issued a statement warning that many States’ responses to COVID-19 have had devastating effects on people living in poverty.
  • On March 24, 2020, the Chairpersons of the ten U.N. Treaty Bodies called on States “to adopt measures to protect the rights to life and health, and to ensure access to health care to all who need it, without discrimination.” They urged governments to take extra care of those particularly vulnerable to the effects of COVID-19, including “older people, people with disabilities, minorities, indigenous peoples, refugees, asylum seekers and migrants, people deprived of their liberty, homeless people, and those living in poverty.” (emphasis added).

Resources and Links

Reports & Policy Proposals


Racial Justice

  • : Building Public and Political Momentum to Address Racism as a Public Health Crisis Organizing Toolkit page created by Salud America!, a national Latino-focused organization that creates culturally relevant and research-based stories and tools to inspire people to drive healthy changes to policies, systems, and environments for Latino children and families.
  • Southern Mayors: The South Has Something to Say About the 2020 Elections-A coalition of Black mayors in the US South are coming together to promote human rights and equity in their cities. They need our movements to support and expand this effort.
  • 1947 Appeal to the World W.E.B. DuBois and early NAACP organizers make this appeal to world leaders as the United Nations was in its early years of development. While this Appeal failed to be adopted by UN member governments, Black emancipation leaders have continued to look beyond U.S. borders to realize human rights and justice. Today we're seeing new gains in this regard.
  • UN Human Rights Council Urgent Debate on racially inspired human rights violations. Held on June 17, 2020--this was an unprecedented meeting reflecting the success of human rights activists in pushing world leaders to confront U.S. racism. The session opened with a powerful speech by the brother of George Floyd. The names of other victims were spoken here, and this important world body committed national leaders around the world to further action in response to police brutality and other forms of systemic racism.
  • Racism is a Public Health Crisis Public Health Newswire May 29, 2020. Georges Benjamin, executive director of the American Public Health Association, says in a statement responding to the killing of George Floyd and a pandemic: "Racism is a longstanding systemic structure in this country that must be dismantled, through brutally honest conversations, policy changes and practices. Racism attacks people’s physical and mental health. And racism is an ongoing public health crisis that needs our attention now!"
  • Lawmakers around the country are declaring racism a “public health emergency” The Guardian, June 12, 2020. Cleveland, Denver, Indianapolis, join Pittsburgh and Milwaukee in declaring health emergency. Counties and states (Ohio and Michigan) may follow. Dr Allison Agwu, an infectious disease specialist at Johns Hopkins School of Medicine observed, “If you declare something an emergency, you’re also saying it’s imperative to address the problem.”
  • Birmingham's Office of Peace and Policy-Advances a "Peace Strategy" that involves communities in work to #IncreasethePeace. transform how this city approaches public safety while addressing long-standing racial disparities and inequities.
  • Fighting Anti-Blackness Through Budget Justice By Marc Philpart and Chione L. Flegal, Policy Link
  • The impact of COVID-19, and the response to the pandemic, on the human rights of people of African descent. International Coalition of People of African Descent Submission to UN Working Group on People of African Descent, May 2020. [English & Espanol] This document provides a global analysis of the experiences and living conditions of People of African Descent as these affect and are affected by COVID-19. It recognizes the International Decade of People of African Descent and makes concrete recommendations for national and global actions to remedy persistent, global racial inequities & injustice.
  • We Hurt. We Mourn. We Fight For Transformative Justice. Michael McAfee, Policy Link, June 1, 2020. " growing acknowledgment that traditional police reform—like training and body cameras—does not increase community safety and directs too many resources to bloated law enforcement budgets. Across the country, more people are demanding that these valuable public funds be invested in community infrastructure, services, and programs that address the root causes of poverty and historical trauma. The nation is waking up to the fact that—by design—policing is and will always be violent and unaccountable to oppressed people, including Black, Indigenous, and Latinx people, immigrants, LGBTQ people, and Muslims and other religious groups. The project of abolition involves more than eliminating the system—it means using our radical imagination to dream and create the world that we want to live in. But there are things we can do now. We must immediately defund from and reduce the harm of policing while we build the alternatives that can replace it..." Read more.
  • Anti-Racism Resources This document is intended to serve as a resource to white people and parents to deepen our anti-racism work. If you haven’t engaged in anti-racism work in the past, start now. Feel free to circulate this document on social media and with your friends, family, and colleagues.

Policing and International Law

Deadly Discretion: The Failure of Police Use of Force Policies to Meet Fundamental International Human Rights Law, University of Chicago Law School - International Human Rights Clinic (2020). International Human Rights Clinic. 14.
  • DEADLY FORCE: Police Use of Lethal Force in the United States, Amnesty International (2015). This report evaluates U.S. state level compliance with international human rights standards. It concludes that not a single U.S. state has laws that fully comply with globally established guidelines regarding police use of force.

The Human Right to Housing

UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights-Special Rapporteur on the Right to Adequate Housing

"Now that the world has seen exactly how important home is to the preservation of human life, States have a renewed obligation to protect the social function of housing. This requires concerted action to ensure housing is not reduced to a financial asset or a safe investment." -Leilani Farha, UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Adequate Housing
Examples of Urban Housing Solutions
“How can we build upon these emergency housing policies?” Could the coronavirus pandemic inspire newfound commitment to expanding America’s permanently affordable and socially owned housing stock? Could it force us to re-evaluate the possibility of funding more community land trusts or cooperative housing projects? Cities like Vienna and Brussels have embraced these models, with promising results.

Work, Life, and Environmental Justice

  • Frontline Green New Deal: Grassroots Global Justice Alliance and It Takes Roots—This report and organizing toolkit brings together ideas and lessons from movements led by indigenous, Black, immigrant and other frontline communities. It outlines a vision for a people-centered economic and political system and specifies 14 planks and policy recommendations to move us in the direction of a just and ecologically sound system.
  • #DEMOCRATIZINGWORK-Advocates released an op-ed calling for policy makers to "democratize firms; decommodify work; stop treating human beings as resources so that we can focus together on sustaining life on this planet." The op-ed was published in 41 media outlets, including Le Monde, The Guardian, Die Zeit, Boston Globe, across 36 countries, via 27 languages, and signed by more than 3,000 scholars and scientists from more than 650 universities across the globe democratizingwork.org

Budgets, Public Resources, and Democracy