Last week, the Supreme Court took up a challenge to the racially gerrymandered congressional maps in South Carolina. It was the latest battle in what some activists see as an increasing attack on civil rights—and human rights—in the United States. “We’re seeing an assault on civil and human rights across the board on every possible subject,” Janai Nelson, president and director-counsel of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, said at the Fast Company Innovation Festival in New York City last month.
“We did have a Supreme Court victory last term that we’re very proud of,” Nelson said. “We were able to win in a redistricting case out of the state of Alabama.”
Recently, the Supreme Court again rejected Alabama’s request to keep its map that diluted the voting power of Black citizens, who make up 27% of the state’s voters. Earlier this month, federal judges chose a new congressional map for Alabama, giving the state a second district where Black voters comprise a substantial portion of voters.
“That is a bright spot,” said Nelson of the Supreme Court ruling, “but there are so many others that are deeply concerning, and we are continuing to be at the forefront of some of those fights.”
More than 500 anti-LGBTQ bills have been introduced across the United States; diversity, equity, and inclusion initiatives are under fire; and large swaths of the country now lack access to reproductive healthcare.
“Twenty-two states have criminalized the ability for people to essentially control their own bodies and their healthcare,” said Brianna Twofoot, national organizing director of Planned Parenthood Federation of America, who also spoke at the event. “What that means is we have patients in Texas who need abortion care or other reproductive care, and are having to drive two, three days or having to fly across states.”
At the Fast Company event, human rights advocates made the case for corporations to get more involved, noting that company leaders can have an outsize voice in protecting human rights.
“It’s not just about looking to the UN to fix everything on the global level or looking to our politicians. Corporations and companies have immense power” to make demands on the government, said Tirana Hassan, executive director of Human Rights Watch, adding, “Sometimes they wield more power than voters.”
Some companies are starting to recognize that supporting voter rights and human rights allows businesses to flourish, said María Teresa Kumar, founding president and CEO of Voto Latino, a nonprofit aimed at increasing civic participation among Latinx voters. When her organization helped launch National Voter Registration Day back in 2012, “there was a reticence to participate, because many companies were saying that it wasn’t our fight, and that our democracy was sound,” she said.
In recent years, more companies have participated. “The moment that there was a stress on democracy itself, what we have seen at Voto Latino is an incredible amount of corporations jumping into the game,” Kumar said. “I think it’s this understanding that democracy allows ideas and entrepreneurship to flourish.”
“If you were to ask why so many immigrants have come to this country, it’s because they were paying a dream tax in theirs,” she added. “The only way we can flourish is to ensure—whether it is business or the individual entrepreneur or the human rights activist, or the woman who wants to basically have agency over her body—[we] have that freedom. It wasn’t until our democracy was contested that people started realizing that it is absolutely their fight.”
Twofoot of Planned Parenthood suggested leaders start by examining their own company policies and how they can better take care of their employees. “And then at every opportunity using your platform, your voice, your credibility to speak out,” Twofoot said. “It can be publicly—and certainly public leadership is vital—but it can also be privately sometimes; that quiet call between two power brokers can actually move policy.”
Twofoot also suggested leaders get more hands-on. “People who are farthest from the problem can afford to philosophize about it,” she said. “So I would strongly encourage anyone who finds themselves thinking conceptually about problems to put yourself in direct connection with people living the problem. And I promise what you should do will become much clearer.”