Ten Issues to Watch in 2014

Wondering what’s up and coming on the cutting edge of progress? In 2014, those of us in the social justice world will keep these 10 hot issues on the front burner:

1. Income Inequality

Get ready, because 2014 will be the year that America’s widening income inequality takes front and center stage. The Occupy tents may have vanished from Zucotti Park, but the language and sentiment has stuck. Awareness of economic inequality is spreading, and Tuesday night, the President had no choice but to make it the theme of his State of the Union, promising to end economic disparity. His stated hopes to restore unemployment insurance, expand the Earned Income Tax Credit, and secure equal wages for women all reflect growing discontent across the nation. This year, expect to see more politicians running and winning on platforms of fighting inequality. And as the issue gains force, even globally, we can plan to see it take new forms; minimum wage battles, labor issues, and growing grassroots activity. As Frederick Douglass said, “Power concedes nothing without demand.” In 2014, expect our demands for economic justice to rise to a deafening roar.

2. Climate Change and the Carbon Bubble

The debate is over and the science is clear: climate change is real. But the planet isn’t the only thing heating up. As the devastating effects hit home – think extreme weather, drought and pollution – expect a fiery debate over the deadly cost of the fossil fuel. Will we kill our planet (and economy) by burning too much carbon – or accelerate the transition to clean energy? In 2014, look for Divestment and Carbon Bubble to become household terms.

3. Transgender Rights Under Assault

With a major tide turning for marriage equality in 2013, many are wondering what the next big LGBT issue might be. Already 2014 is shaping up to be a year of debate and struggle to protect and win rights and respect of transgender individuals. A referendum fight is brewing in CA around the rights of transgender students and even ESPN recently found itself amidst a debate when a Grantland story outed a transgender woman who later took her own life. The growing visibility of the transgender community in pop culture (have you checked out Laverne Cox on Orange is the New Black yet?) unfortunately means we can expect an increase in backlash or hate-mongering. And we should look forward to transgender rights causes and advocates growing in number and volume in the face of hate—transgender rights will be an issue to watch in 2014.

4. Action on Immigration

The movement for immigration reform is overflowing into 2014. Last year was record-breaking for deportations, but states also took an unprecedented stand and passed hundreds of immigration laws and resolutions. Undocumented immigrants are coming out of the shadows and a majority of the nation is in support. Our current, outdated pathway to citizenship does not only cost money, but also costs lives and opportunities. Families, students and young people are speaking up, putting their bodies on the lines, infiltrating detention centers and halting deportation buses. Due to demographic changes and near electoral necessity, some in the GOP are finally stepping up to support paths to legal status. Many wish to stall any action to avoid party fracturing before the midterm election. Even if they are successful, we can count on the immigration issue looming large. This one isn’t going to fade into the background until something gets done. America is impatient for change and momentum is only growing.

5. Trauma and Mental Wellness

Mental health was in the news a lot last year, but usually in the context of mental illness and gun control. This year, the conversation will rise above stigma and fear, and whole person wellness will take center stage. Thanks to the ‘mental health parity’ clause of Obamacare, our health care system will be compelled to care for us completely, instead of separating behavioral and physical health into artificial silos. In 2014, look for a push to make mental care more available, and for whole person health programs to gain strength. Brain science tells us that toxic stress in early childhood is a key trigger for health and behavior problems that last a lifetime. But breakthrough programs are proving that for children and adults, mindfulness and social emotional skills development can foster resiliency and improved health. Expect more scrutiny on ways our schools, foster care system, workplaces, and even prisons can promote recovery, resiliency, and mental wellbeing

6. Renewed Fight for Reproductive Freedom

This year, the right is lifting up its anti-choice message as a major campaign issue in both federal and state races.  It’s no surprise they are looking for a new frame, given that the issue derailed more than one Republican campaign in the last election. In 2014, look for the party to tie anti-choice politics to two of their hottest issues this year: government spending and the Affordable Care Act. Republicans hope this move will unite the right and turn out voters for the mid-term election. Look for pro-choice advocates to go on the offense by demonstrating how those who restrict abortion access are also more likely to restrict birth control and sex education. In 2014, as the restrictive laws passed last year in states like Texas, Ohio, and Arizona show their harm to women’s health, expect more of these misguided laws to land in court and on the debate floors. The series of women’s health showdowns likely to happen this year could spell the future of reproductive freedom in America.

7. School Discipline and the Civil Rights of Children

When kids are being dragged out of school in handcuffs for cutting in line or talking back, we know there is a problem. School policies play an instrumental role in tracking kids out of school and into the criminal justice system—a path advocates call the school-to-prison pipeline. And research shows that these policies penalize young men of color at disproportionately higher rates than their peers. School discipline reform is taking center stage on this year’s civil rights frontier. Expect to see fewer zero-tolerance policies and more restorative justice practices in 2014. School districts across the nation have already seen exemplary transformations in their school climates by focusing on righting the mistakes kids make, not arresting them. Now, with new guidelines issued directly from the Federal Administration, more schools across the nation will be propelled to do the same.

8. Net Neutrality and Free Speech

The net neutrality battle is far more than just obscure legal intrigue—it’s been called the most important free speech issue of our time. Imagine if content platforms, like Netflix or your favorite news blog, had to pay exorbitant fees to your broadband provider in order to deliver the content you want. And, imagine if your broadband provider could simply block or slow content you like because it competes with their offerings. These scenarios could become reality following a federal appeals court decision to strike down parts of the Federal Communications Commission’s Open Internet rules.

But, the net neutrality debate isn’t over. The recent court decision did maintain the FCC’s authority to regulate broadband services in some way. They just need to find a way to do so that will actually hold up in court. Can they?

9. Cost of College

A number of public conversations are taking place around the accessibility, role, and purpose of higher education, particularly for low-income and first generation college students. At the same time, the crushing student loan burden of recent college graduates, many of whom are unemployed or underemployed is of increasing concern. New measures are attempting to place a value on college—but skeptics doubt those efforts will lower costs. Americans are starting to ask: is pursuing higher education still worth it? And if college is still part of the American dream, what can be done sure it is not only within reach of those who want and need it most, but that it doesn’t cripple their – and our – economic future? The education space is ripe for disruption, and 2014 will show us if innovation can bring learning out of the ivory tower, and onto main street.

10. Lockups and Lockouts

The U.S. incarceration problem is astronomical, but progress is in sight. The justice department has changed its policies, and for the first time, we’re seeing across the aisle pushes to remove mandatory minimum sentencing requirements and to start emptying our prisons of nonviolent drug offenders, who currently crowd them by the hundreds of thousands. The mass prison experiment has only succeeded in gutting communities, shattering families, and leaving the taxpayers to foot the multi-billion dollar bill. Politicians in both parties now see how reform could pay off, and in 2014 those reforms should become a reality. As policies change, more communities are also waking up to ways to help former inmates get back into society and stay out of prison. The ‘ban the box’ movement and creative reentry programs are working on what the justice system hasn’t yet mastered—rehabilitation and reentry. This year, look for more news on justice reform, and thoughtful, cross-aisle conversations about better ways to keep people out of trouble, rather than locked up.

Photo Courtesy of the California Endowment