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Facebook told about hate speech in secret groups for years

LOUISIANA WEEKLY — Facebook says its standards apply just as much in private groups as public posts, prohibiting most slurs and threats based on national origin, sex, race and immigration status. But dozens of hateful posts in a secret Facebook group for current and former Border Patrol agents raise questions about how well if at all the company is policing disturbing postings and comments made outside of public view.

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By Ariana Tobin, ProPublica

Facebook says its standards apply just as much in private groups as public posts, prohibiting most slurs and threats based on national origin, sex, race and immigration status.

But dozens of hateful posts in a secret Facebook group for current and former Border Patrol agents raise questions about how well if at all the company is policing disturbing postings and comments made outside of public view.

Many of the posts ProPublica obtained from the 9,500-member “I’m 10-15” group (10-15 is Border Patrol code for “alien in custody”) include violent or dehumanizing speech that appears to violate Facebook’s standards. For example, a thread of comments before a visit to a troubled Border Patrol facility in Texas by Democratic Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, of New York, and Veronica Escobar, of Texas, included “fuck the hoes” and “No mames [fist].” Another post encouraged Border Patrol agents to respond to the Latina lawmakers visit by hurling a “burrito at these bitches.” And yet another mocked a video of a migrant man trying to carry a child through a rushing river in a plastic bag. A commenter joked, “At least it’s already in a trash bag” — all probable violations of the rules.

Facebook, citing an open federal investigation into the group’s activities, declined to answer questions about whether any posts in the 10-15 group violated its terms of service or had been removed, or whether the company had begun scrutinizing the group’s postings since ProPublica’s story was published. It also refused to say whether it had previously flagged posts by group members or had received complaints.

Facebook’s only response, emailed by a spokeswoman who refused to let ProPublica use her name, was: “We want everyone using Facebook to feel safe. Our Community Standards apply across Facebook, including in secret Groups. We’re cooperating with federal authorities in their investigation.”

Since April, the company has been calling community groups “the center of Facebook.” It has put new emphasis on group activity in the newsfeed and has encouraged companies, communities and news organizations to shift resources into private messaging. These forums can give members a protected space to discuss painful topics like domestic violence, or to share a passion for cookbooks. Groups can be either private, which means they can be found in search results, or secret, which means they are hidden unless you have an invitation.

This is part of an intentional “pivot toward privacy.” In a March blog post, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg wrote, “Privacy gives people the freedom to be themselves and connect more naturally, which is why we build social networks.”

But this pivot also fosters hidden forums where people can share offensive, potentially inflammatory viewpoints. “Secret” groups such as 10-15 are completely hidden from non-members. Would-be participants need an invitation to even find the landing page, and administrators of the groups have full jurisdiction to remove a person’s access at any time.

When such groups operate out of sight, like 10-15, the public has a more limited view into how people are using, or misusing, the platform. In a secret group, only members can flag or report content that might be in violation of Facebook’s policies. The administrators of the group can set stricter policies for members’ internal conversations. They cannot, however, relax broader Facebook standards. They also can’t support terrorist organizations, hate groups, murderers, criminals, sell drugs or attack individuals.

Civil rights groups say they have been noticing and raising the issue of hateful posts in hidden forums for years — with limited response from Facebook.

Henry Fernandez, senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, a liberal think tank, and a member of Change the Terms, a coalition of civil rights groups pushing for better content moderation on Facebook, said the platform keeps creating features without “without vetting them for their implications for the use by hate groups or, in this case, Border Patrol agents acting in hateful ways.”

Posts in hidden groups have incited incidents of violence in the real world, most famously against Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar and at the 2017 white supremacist march in Charlottesville, Virginia. The military launched an investigation of a secret Facebook group in 2017 after Marines shared naked pictures of female service members. Facebook has acknowledged the problem and has made some efforts to address it with new initiatives, such as a proposed independent review board and consultations with a group of 90 organizations, most focusing on civil rights.

ProPublica’s Border Patrol story came out the day after Facebook released an audit of civil rights issues on the platform. Recommendations included strengthening hate speech policies around national origin, enforcing a stricter ban on the promotion of white supremacy and removing an exemption that had allowed humorous posts that contained offensive content.

Facebook did not say whether it will make all of the recommended changes. But in a blog post, COO Sheryl Sandberg wrote, “We will continue listening to feedback from the civil rights community and address the important issues they’ve raised so Facebook can better protect and promote the civil rights of everyone who uses our services.”

Jessica Gonzalez, vice president of strategy and senior counsel at Free Press and co-founder of Change the Terms, said that even after the back and forth with auditors, she was not surprised that the hateful posts in 10-15 were not flagged.

“What Facebook released on Sunday is an improvement,” she said, “but I think Facebook has engaged in this all along in an appeasement strategy. They’ll do what they need to do to get the bad publicity off [their] backs.”

The civil rights audit also called for better transparency about civil rights issues on Facebook’s advertising portal, which became a priority for the company after multiple ProPublica investigations and lawsuits by civil rights groups.

Bhaskar Chakravorti, dean of global business at Tufts’ Fletcher School of Business, said the new emphasis on privacy is part of Facebook’s attempt to keep users on the platform, while reassuring investors.

So to the extent that Facebook provides shelter to groups of all kinds — whether they are people who are sharing hateful messages or messages for the good of the world — it benefits their business model.”

Since we published our story, more people have gotten in touch to tell us about other secret groups that may warrant closer scrutiny.

We know there are members of groups who don’t agree with everything that is said in these forums. We need your guidance to do more reporting. We’d like to hear about what’s happening in your communities particularly from those of you who are concerned public servants. Fill out our questionnaire, or send an email toborderpatrol@propublica.org.

ProPublica is a nonprofit newsroom that investigates abuses of power.

This article originally appeared in the Louisiana Weekly.

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Black History

Former First Lady of New Orleans is honored by ACLU

LOUISIANA WEEKLY — On May 23, the ACLU of Louisiana honored longtime civil rights activist and community leader Sybil Haydel Morial with the organization’s Benjamin E. Smith Award. The 86-year-old Morial received the award at a ceremony at Felicity Church. The ACLU spoke effusively of her contributions to civil rights and the Louisiana community as a whole.

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Mrs. Sybil H. Morial (center), New Orleans former first lady and widow of the late Mayor Ernest “Dutch” Morial was honored by the ACLU of Louisiana on May23. Pictured with her are, from left, Alanah Odoms Hebert, executive director of the ACLU of La, and Michele Moore, its chief communications officer.

By Fritz Esker

On May 23, the ACLU of Louisiana honored longtime civil rights activist and community leader Sybil Haydel Morial with the organization’s Benjamin E. Smith Award.

The 86-year-old Morial received the award at a ceremony at Felicity Church. The ACLU spoke effusively of her contributions to civil rights and the Louisiana community as a whole.

“From challenging racial segregation during Jim Crow to empowering the next generation of civil rights leaders, Sybil Haydel Morial has helped shape the social and political landscape in Louisiana in permanent and profoundly positive ways,” said ACLU of Louisiana Executive Director Alanah Odoms Hebert. “We were proud to honor her with the Benjamin E. Smith Award in recognition of her outstanding contributions to the advancement of civil liberties in Louisiana.”

The Benjamin E. Smith Award has been given annually since 1976 in honor of one of its founding members, the civil rights attorney Ben Smith. Smith was arrested in 1963 under the pretense that he was a communist when his actual crime was simply working to end segregation. The award is given to an individual who has made “an outstanding contribution to civil liberties in Louisiana.”

For Morial, the award had a special significance to her because she knew its namesake personally.

“I knew Ben Smith and I knew what he went through,” Morial said.

Morial expressed a deep respect for the ACLU’s mission during segregation and in present-day America.

“The ACLU has been defending and protecting the civil rights and liberties of all Americans since 1920,” Morial said. “Today, they are even more relevant… We have to defend our civil rights because they are being eroded.”

The daughter of a respected physician, Morial experienced the harsh realities of the Jim Crow South growing up. She and childhood friend Andrew Young were chased out of what is now the New Orleans Museum of Art by a policeman for the crime of stepping inside.

Morial would go on to receive bachelor’s and master’s degrees at Boston University. She taught as an elementary school teacher throughout the 50s and 60s. She worked in impoverished areas like the Desire Housing Project. In 1962, Morial was the lone plaintiff in a successful challenge to a Louisiana statute prohibiting public school teachers from being involved in any organization promoting integration.

After a stellar career in the classroom, Morial moved on to become an administrator at Xavier University of Louisiana. During her tenure at Xavier, she produced an acclaimed documentary titled “A House Divided” that chronicled desegregation in the Crescent City. Xavier paid tribute to her in 2014 with an honorary Doctorate in Humane Letters.

Morial worked in many local boards and civic organizations. She became a founder of the interracial, non-partisan Louisiana League of Good Government, which promoted participation in Louisiana government by all of the state’s citizens.

During the 1984 World’s Fair, she served as president and chair of the I’ve Known Rivers Afro-American Pavilion. As the fair was being planned, Morial insisted it have an African-American presence in a city with as substantial an African-American population as New Orleans. She initiated funding and helped design the pavilion itself.

Morial chronicled the efforts of her and her contemporaries (including her friend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.) to challenge segregation in her 2015 memoir “Witness to Change: From Jim Crow to Political Empowerment.”

This article originally appeared in the Louisiana Weekly.

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Law

Black police chiefs come under sharp criticism

LOUISIANA WEEKLY — Black police superintendents in two of California’s largest cities have come under intense criticism for their officers’ handling of two high-profile incidents.

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By The Louisiana Weekly

Black police superintendents in two of California’s largest cities have come under intense criticism for their officers’ handling of two high-profile incidents.

San Francisco Police Chief Bill Scott recently defended his officers’ raid on the home of a freelance videographer who was suspected of stealing a police report concerning the death of public defender and San Francisco mayoral candidate Jeffrey Gordon Adachi. He was found dead of a drug overdose February 22 in his Telegraph Hill apartment.

Police critics charge the cops carried out a legally questionable raid May 10 at the home of Bryan Carmody, but Chief Scott defended the officers’ actions, arguing they executed search warrants issued against Carmody.

Scott argued Carmody exceeded his role as a journalist when he obtained and sold a police report concerning Adachi’s death. Carmody admits he sold the story of Adachi’s death to numerous news outlets, but he said he did not buy the report, according to various news reports.

The San Francisco PD has come under criticism for obtaining the search warrants, which is a possible violation of state and federal laws protecting journalists from having search warrants issued against them.

Scott declined to disclose the evidence against Carmody, who the San Francisco DA charged with being involved in a criminal conspiracy. Two judges had to approve the warrant.

In Sacramento, police have come under intense criticism for their arrest of a 12-year-old Black boy who was handcuffed and slammed face first to ground where he was then restrained by several cops.

The boy is 4’ 8” tall and weighs 80 pounds. Police also applied a spit mask over his face to prevent him from spitting at the cops after he allegedly threatened to spit on them.

A security guard at Walgreens charged that the boy was trespassing because he was asking shoppers to buy undisclosed items from him. Police arrested the boy on April 28.

Police said they are reviewing the child’s arrest. Police later released him to his mother. Daniel Hahn is chief of the Sacramento Police Department.

In March, Sacramento police shot to death an unarmed Stephon Clark.

This article originally appeared in the Louisiana Weekly.

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Environment

Communities of color speak out in push for Green New Deal

LOUISIANA WEEKLY — On Tuesday, May 7, hundreds gathered at Congo Square and marched to Mahalia Jackson Theater as part of the national Green New Deal tour. The Gulf Coast Center for Law and Policy and more than forty other local organizations sponsored the event, in conjunction with the Sunrise Movement, a group of youth advocates dedicated to advancing climate change legislation.

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By Meghan Holmes

On Tuesday, May 7, hundreds gathered at Congo Square and marched to Mahalia Jackson Theater as part of the national Green New Deal tour.

The Gulf Coast Center for Law and Policy and more than forty other local organizations sponsored the event, in conjunction with the Sunrise Movement, a group of youth advocates dedicated to advancing climate change legislation.

Indigenous and Black community leaders anchored the proceedings, with speakers highlighting the disproportionate impact environmental degradation and climate change have on communities of color, as well as insisting that future solutions to climate change honor Black and Indigenous communities.

“The purpose of this event is simple,” said Colette Pichon Battle, executive director with the Gulf Coast Center for Law and Policy. “We are here to honor Indigenous and Black leadership around caring for each other and caring for this earth; we are here to create a safe, inclusive, space so we can connect the dots between climate change, disaster and jobs, and we are here to launch Gulf South for the Green New Deal, a multi-state effort rooted in the unique reality of the Gulf South.”

The event began with drumming at Congo Square. Members of the Houma nation, as well as Mardi Gras Indians from the Golden Feather Hunters tribe both, participated, and Principal Chief August Creppell spoke first. “We are standing on sacred ground,” he said. “We did ceremonial dances here in the 1700s. We were the first people here, but we are all here as one people. We have so much power when we are together.”

After speeches honoring both Indigenous and Black traditions, event-goers marched to Mahalia Jackson Theater, where several speakers as well, as a panel of youth activists, discussed the Green New Deal and its potential impacts on the Gulf South. Several short films also played, one of which highlighted the impacts of industry in St. James Parish.

“This is not just about reducing carbon emissions,” Pichon Battle said. “We are at the intersection of climate change and environmental justice, and we want good jobs and restitution and reparations to the communities forced to live in this. We have to look at what oil and gas in Louisiana does to our communities. We do not just get to be proud of the jobs. We have to stand with the people of St. James Parish.”

At the national level, more than 90 congressional representatives and 13 senators support Green New Deal legislation. Current policy is nebulous but focuses on mitigating future impacts of climate change while also creating high-paying, sustainable jobs. Republicans and many moderate Democrats dismiss the plans, but youth advocates and more than 600 organizations across the country insist that action must be taken to stop the impacts of climate change.

“We want to make climate action rooted in racial and economic justice a national priority in every corner of this country,” said Varshini Prakash, co-founder and executive director of the Sunrise Movement, who spoke at the event. “We have known about climate issues for twice as long as the people on this panel have been alive, and our politicians have failed us, and are collecting profits from industries that are jeopardizing our future.”

Last fall, members of the Sunrise Movement went to Nancy Pelosi’s office along with Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, demanding that the Democratic party embrace Green New Deal legislation. The movement has since begun traveling across the country and hosting events like the one at Mahalia Jackson Theater, encouraging communities to organize and demand action from local leaders.

“We have been here before,” said Flozell Daniels, executive director of Foundation for Louisiana. “This isn’t just Hurricane Katrina; this isn’t just the BP oil spill; this is decades of oppression and centuries of divestment and underinvestment in Black and Indigenous communities. Specific policies, especially those surrounding disaster recovery, make rich people richer, and poor people poorer. But, the good news is, because of this we have a history of resistance, and we know we have to protect marginalized people. Climate change isn’t just an environmental issue, there are consequences to tourism, transit, food access, and housing, as well as other sectors of our economy.”

Speakers stressed the Gulf South’s unique position in the fight to mitigate climate change and called on the community to advocate for Green New Deal policies to their local and national leaders.

“We rebuilt New Orleans and the Gulf Coast after Katrina, and we have learned what to do and what not to do,” Pichon Battle said. “We should be a leader rebuilding this country’s infrastructure, and creating millions of jobs while we do it.”

This article originally appeared in the Louisiana Weekly

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Entertainment

Jazz Fest started stormy but then nothin’ but blue skies prevailed

LOUISIANA WEEKLY — With some calculated planning matched by flexibility, Fest fans really could do well musically despite sudden cloud bursts that warranted taking shelter by most, but not all, folks. Crazy young and old music maniacs just stood out there in their boots and rain ponchos seemingly rejoicing in the experience. Been there, done that.

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Legendary Rocks of Harmony (Photo by: louisianaweekly.com)

By Geraldine Wyckoff

It’s impossible to ignore/forget how the first day, Thursday, April 25, of the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage’s 50th anniversary began. It rained torrentially, enough so that the opening of the festival’s gates was delayed for an hour and a half. That the festival organizers were able to get it all going again so fast was both remarkable and appreciated by attendees. Of course, Jazz Fest and many regular festival-goers have much experience with downpours and the resulting muddy conditions. Let the show go on!

With some calculated planning matched by flexibility, Fest fans really could do well musically despite sudden cloud bursts that warranted taking shelter by most, but not all, folks. Crazy young and old music maniacs just stood out there in their boots and rain ponchos seemingly rejoicing in the experience. Been there, done that.

The joyful voices of Arthur and the Friends Community Choir simply drowned out the sound of the rain pounding on the roof of the Gospel Tent. A powerful ensemble of some 40-plus members, it was driven by a great band of young musicians with the drummer really hitting on all cylinders. The ever in motion, Rosalie “The Tambourine Lady” Washington, added the ring of the tambourine to the percussive element of the set that included some screamin’ solo vocalists.

Even the Gospel Tent staff was dancing on Sunday when octogenarian Andrew Jackson Sr., the leader of the Legendary Rocks of Harmony, stood at the edge of the stage and with the strength of a much younger man belted out, “I’m Still Here.” His son, Andrew Jr., joined him and soon thereafter took off his deep green jacket and got down on the floor with his microphone. All the veterans in this group, which has been together for 60 years, got into the action and spirit. The fine guitarist offered a wonderful rendition of “Amazing Grace” and even the keyboardist jumped up to dance. “Do we look good?” Jackson asked the crowd. Wow, yes they looked as good as they sounded with their green suits and vests set off by their yellow shirts.

 

The Cultural Exchange Pavilion, the dancing-est spot at the Fest, was a great place to be, rain or shine. It must have been around 4 p.m. Thursday, just after drummer Gerald French & the Original Tuxedo Jazz Band’s exhilarating set in Economy Hall that blue skies appeared in the west. It was the perfect time to celebrate by jumping on Martinique’s Chouval Bwa’s fanciful carousel, located next to the Pavilion, while the band, complete with percussion instruments, an accordionist and vocalists, plays in its center. The music so beautifully accompanies the ride on the hand-carved and man-powered carousel that looks innocent enough until it really gets going. In this case, New Orleans’ term for a merry-go-round, flying-horses, suits the ride well. Whee…

New Orleans headliners took over the Jazz Tent on Friday including established groups such as trumpeter Terence Blanchard & the E-Collective and the all-star band, Astral Project. Lovers of those deep, low tones certainly dug on the group baritone saxophonist Roger Lewis (Dirty Dozen, Treme Brass Band) put together for his appropriately titled “Baritone Bliss,” that included Lewis, Tony Dagradi, Calvin Johnson, Khari Allen Lee and more on bari plus a bass saxophonist who really held down the bottom. Dedicated to the late saxophonist Tim Green, who once played with this unit, the Bliss’ selections offered an appealing variety of genre’s from Dagradi’s “Mandela” to old-school rhythm and blues.

Saxophonist Kidd Jordan, who performed with his four musical offspring on Saturday, sat in the front row of the Jazz Tent listening to pianist Ellis Marsalis and his hugely talented four sons close out the modern jazz fest mecca on Sunday. The set was dedicated to wife and mother Delores Marsalis, who passed away in 2017. Like the Rocks of Harmony’s lead vocalist, Andrew Jackson Sr. mentioned above, the Marsalis patriarch doesn’t lay back but continues to push the music forward with his improvisations. The show was one of great jazz ability and of the musicians’ visible admiration of each other’s intuitive and educated prowess.

The Marsalis Brothers: Brandford, Wynton and Delfeayo (Photo by:

Sunday began with a one-two punch of the blues starting with the Mississippi hill country dynamo singer, drummer and guitarist Cedric Burnside, the grandson of the late, legendary R.L. Burnside. Playing in a duo and switching from guitar to drums, Burnside happily attacked the snare and tom, putting his whole body into the song “Don’t Leave Me Girl.” Burnside’s stripped-down blues style stood in contrast to that of his fellow Mississippi native, guitarist/vocalist Mr. Sipp “The Mississippi Blues Child,” who played fronting a full band with horns in the Blues Tent the previous day. Nonetheless, that the two acts shared a common ancestry was evident. By the way, Mr. Sipp demanded that everyone in the crowd get on their feet, which is just what they always want to do in the often overly restricted Blues Tent.

The commonality shared by Burnside and Mr. Sipp also, unexpectedly, prevailed when Mdou Moctar, a resident of Niger, Africa, who as a guitarist, songwriter and vocalist specializes in electrifying and modernizing the music of the Saharan Tuareg people, performed directly after Burnside. Highly influenced by guitarist Jimi Hendrix with deep roots in the tradition of his people, Moctar demonstrated the full circle of the African diaspora. The music and rhythms were, through those enslaved, brought from the continent to points west including the Southern United States and remain a strong element in the blues. Moctar embraced the influences of Black American artists thus he returned their music to its homeland. Burnside’s drumming and the forceful style of Moctar’s drummer spoke of their rhythmic roots. Music is one world.

This article originally appeared in the Louisiana Weekly

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Art

Local teen poet wins gold medal at national arts competition

LOUISIANA WEEKLY — When Lusher Charter School senior Raven Little began writing poetry in a seventh-grade creative writing class, her work covered many of the usual subjects in a teenager’s life, like love poems and sports. But after a while, 17-year-old Raven’s focus shifted as she matured and became more aware of the troubles causing strife, disunity and injustice in the society around her. She soon felt the need to tackle those social, political and racial challenges.

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Raven Little

By Ryan Whirty

When Lusher Charter School senior Raven Little began writing poetry in a seventh-grade creative writing class, her work covered many of the usual subjects in a teenager’s life, like love poems and sports.

But after a while, 17-year-old Raven’s focus shifted as she matured and became more aware of the troubles causing strife, disunity and injustice in the society around her. She soon felt the need to tackle those social, political and racial challenges.

She simply felt she had to.

“I realized there we bigger things I started to care more about,” she said, “and I wanted to shine a light on them.”

 

Raven gradually built up a strong portfolio of her socially conscious poetry, with encouragement from creative writing teacher Brad Richard, who noticed her talent and her passion for writing.

“Early on she had a great imagination, but most of all she really cared about her writing,” Richard said.

With such support, Raven entered her portfolio in the 96th annual Scholastic Art & Writing Awards competition, and it ended up receiving a Gold Medal and being picked as one of only 16 received entrees to earn top honors.

From the portfolio’s title, “In This One, the Black Boy Only Dies Once,” through to its conclusion, the eight-poem work reflects years of dedication to sharpening her craft and incorporating themes of racial justice, equality and awareness of the world around her.

She said that hopefully, while the work describes her own situation, other people of all backgrounds can be inspired by it.

“It’s all about religion, who I am and my place in America as an African American, but it can be applied to anyone,” she said.

Raven said with her portfolio, she ponders serious questions about race and identity. “I try to figure out whether I’m free or trapped in America, and if I feel discriminated against,” she said.

Richard said Raven’s writing taps into very personal emotions and experiences, but he added that she’s also keenly studied other contemporary writers and applied what she learned from them into her work.

“Her style is contemporary and conversational, but it’s also very nuanced,” he said. “There’s a lot of it that’s very understated, but she’s also able to address something directly.”

This year, students in seventh to 12th grade from across the country submitted more than 340,000 works of visual art and writing. The contest is supported by the nonprofit Alliance for Young Artists and Writers.

“For 96 years, the Awards have recognized the creative promise of individuals like Andy Warhol, Kay WalkingStick, Sylvia Plath, Stephen King, Richard Avedon and Zac Posen, and today we honor more than 2,700 teens as they receive national recognition in the 2019 Scholastic Art & Writing Awards,” Alliance Executive Director Virginia McEnerney said in a statement. “These students join a legacy of teens facilitating important dialogue through their art and writing, and we celebrate their creativity and innovation as the next generation of great American artists and writers.”

Raven’s selection as one of the competition’s 16 best entrants includes a $10,000 college scholarship in addition to the recognition of her talent. Raven said she was surprised with how well her portfolio did in the competition.

“It’s exciting, and it was completely unexpected,” she said. “I didn’t think my portfolio would get that far. But I’m very proud of my work. I’ve been writing for a long time, and it’s uplifting to receive an award for it.”

As she approaches graduation, Raven said she’s looking at several universities to further her education and writing, such as the University of Louisiana-Lafayette, Xavier University and Southern Mississippi University. She hopes to major in journalism and creative writing, but she’s also keeping pre-law as a possibility, too.

At this point, Raven is keeping her goals modest but with a desire for further success.

“I want to keep writing,” she said. “I hope I can get published. But I realize I might have to do something else until that comes along.”

Richard said that the Scholastic Award and the recognition that comes with it should give Raven a big boost and help open up collegiate opportunities and beyond.

“As a writer she could go just about anywhere she wants to,” he said. “It’ll be interesting to see how she does.”

This article originally appeared in the Louisiana Weekly

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Louisiana Weekly

Facebook won’t let employers, landlords or lenders discriminate in ads anymore

LOUISIANA WEEKLY — Facebook advertisers can no longer target users by age, gender and ZIP code for housing, employment and credit offers, the company announced last Tuesday as part of a major settlement with civil rights organizations.

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By Jack Gillum and Ariana Tobin, ProPublica

Facebook advertisers can no longer target users by age, gender and ZIP code for housing, employment and credit offers, the company announced last Tuesday as part of a major settlement with civil rights organizations.

The wide-ranging agreement follows reporting by ProPublica since 2016 that found Facebook let advertisers exclude users by race and other categories that are protected by federal law. It is illegal for housing, job and credit advertisers to discriminate against protected groups.

ProPublica had been able to buy housing-related ads on Facebook that excluded groups such as African Americans and Jews, and it previously found job ads excluding users by age and gender placed by companies that are household names, like Uber and Verizon Wireless.

“This settlement is a shot across the bow to all tech companies and platforms,” said Peter Romer-Friedman, a lawyer with Outten & Golden in Washington who represented the plaintiffs along with the ACLU. “They need to understand that civil rights apply to the internet, and it’s not a civil rights-free zone.”

The changes apply to advertisers who offer housing, employment and credit offers to U.S.-based users of Facebook, Instagram and Messenger. Facebook said it hopes to implement the requirements by the end of the year.

The agreement also will create a separate online portal for housing, credit and employment offers. Those advertisers will not be able to target users in a geographic area smaller than a 15-mile radius, which advocates say tamps down on “digital” neighborhood redlining.

Housing, job and credit advertisers will also now only be able to choose from a few hundred interest categories to target consumers, down from several thousand. Critics have said such a swath of finely tuned categories, like people interested in wheelchair ramps, are essentially proxies to find and exclude certain groups. Facebook said it will keep more generic interests like “real estate,” “apartment” and “job interview.”

Facebook also said it will create a page where users can see all current housing ads whether or not the users were among those targeted. The agreement says Facebook will also study how algorithms can be biased.

“There is a long history of discrimination in the areas of housing, employment and credit, and this harmful behavior should not happen through Facebook ads,” Facebook Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg wrote in a statement on Tuesday of last week.

The changes are part of Facebook’s settlement in five discrimination lawsuits. Plaintiffs included the Communications Workers of America and several fair-housing organizations, as well as individual consumers and job seekers. The settlement includes a payout of about $5 million to plaintiffs, mostly to defray legal costs.

The company agreed last year to limit advertisers’ ability to target by some demographic categories, following a complaint by Washington state.

Facebook has previously said that it was being held to an unreasonably high standard, and that ads excluding users by age and gender were not discriminatory. “We completely reject the allegation that these advertisements are discriminatory,” Vice President of Ads Rob Goldman wrote in a December 2017 post. “Used responsibly, age-based targeting for employment purposes is an accepted industry practice and for good reason: it helps employers recruit and people of all ages find work.” The post was titled: “This Time, ProPublica, We Disagree.”

Facebook said Tuesday it had “not seen the kind of explicit discriminatory behavior that civil rights groups are concerned about.” But ProPublica used a crowdsourcing project to find dozens examples of job ads that excluded workers over 40, women and other protected groups.

Facebook has made another move recently that resulted in less transparency around ads. This year, it moved to block a ProPublica project that allowed the public to see how political ads are being targeted on Facebook.

The company said it was simply enforcing its terms of service.

This article originally appeared in the Louisiana Weekly.

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