Shayna Plaut

Art as Storytelling and Resistance: “I love cats”

By Shayna Plaut, Contributing Editor, Human Rights

“Seeking Protection is Not a Crime” is a 5.5’ X 12’ foot mural commissioned by the Queer Arts Festival, a three-week multi media art festival that began in 2010. Festival coordinators reached out to Rainbow Refugee – a grassroots organization that works to support people with refugee claims in Canada on the basis of gender and sexual orientation. The piece made its debut in July 2014 at The Roundhouse, a community space in one of the more affluent areas of Vancouver. In one of the few sunny days in January, I sat down with Melanie Schambach, a social artist who served as the artistic coordinator, and Katherine Fobear, a community activist scholar who served as one of the project coordinators, to reflect on the process and ethics of bringing together art, scholarship, activism, and community to a public that is largely unaware of the realities facing queer refugees and even more unaware of the power and process of making social art.

Note: Mira Ghattas who was the other coordinator and helped envision and spearhead the community portion of the project – bringing together the refugees with the Queer Arts Festival – was unable to join us.

The Praxis of Human Rights from Ferguson to Guantanamo

By Shayna Plaut, Contributing Editor, Human Rights

Praxis is the intersection of theory and practice and, as we commemorate international human rights day, it is only fitting that we examine the praxis of human rights. How can we have laws – international laws, ratified by the vast majority of countries – outlawing discrimination on the basis of race or ethnicity, laws requiring states and communities to take proactive steps to ensure that all children are safe and laws that ban torture, at the same time that young black boys are being beaten and shot by police with impunity? Or at the same time that reports are being released, nine months late, detailing the systemic targeting and torture of Muslim men by US government officials? Does the failure of implementation mean the promise of human rights is false?

What Does It Take to Have an Open and Honest Conversation About Torture?

By Shayna Plaut, Contributing Editor, Human Rights

Peter W. Klein is the director of the Global Reporting Centre. He has won three Emmys and has been a journalist for over 25 years. He cut his teeth covering the war in Bosnia for NPR and then began to work for ABC Evening News and “60 Minutes.” He continues to be producer for “60 Minutes” and he also produces stories for The New York Times Retro Report. His parents were Holocaust survivors from Hungary, and he is the father of four children.

Klein is the current head of the UBC Graduate School of Journalism where I taught a course on the Ethics, Tactics and Tensions of Human Rights Reporting. We have known each other for over five years. In light of the recent release of the Senate Intelligence Committee Report on the CIA role in torture (“The Torture Report”) and International Human Rights Day, I asked Klein about his experience as a journalist covering torture – importantly what can be gained from interviewing torturers. As with any good journalism, there were more than two sides to the story.

On a rainy November evening I sat down with Klein to discuss his understanding of the role of journalism and the journalists in covering terrorism: what are the ethics and the responsibilities of interviewing a torturer? 

Labor Standards In The Sex Industry: One Sex Worker Shares Her Work and Vision

By Shayna Plaut, Contributing Editor, Human Rights

Female, with tattoos peeking out of her shirt partially covered by a black and white striped apron, Susan Davis is anything but a Hollywood image of a butcher. When you check out her Linked In profile you see she is much, much more: born and raised in Halifax, Nova Scotia she moved out to Vancouver in 1990. Her father was an environmental conservationist and her mom a marine biologist. Childhood summers were spent tracking down snails on the Atlantic seaboard or polishing rocks for her grandfather, the head of the Geology department at Dalhousie University. A conservatory trained musician, she’s played the piano, French horn and the flute for nearly 40 years. Susan has also practiced sex work since 1986, and she has been an advocate for sex workers internationally, nationally and locally for the past twelve years.

I sat down with Susan in her apartment in Vancouver above her butcher shop, which she runs with her partner. Bookshelves line the wall near the kitchen. I asked her if she had read Sin in the Second City, one of the most accessible texts about the clampdown on red light district and high-end brothels in Chicago. She pulled it off her shelf and a pack of lube serving as a bookmark fell out. We both laughed.

Memorabilia for a forthcoming sex workers museum 10 years in the making, including a parson’s bench and women’s bust from an old brothel, were placed throughout the apartment.  

Coming Full Circle: Creating Alternatives to Fear

By Shayna Plaut, Contributing Editor, Human Rights

I began traveling to Hungary in December of 2001. Every time I got on the plane my collective Jewish family would take in a deep breath. I was going back to “The Old Country” where “they” hate “us.” It didn’t matter that no one in my family is actually Hungarian, or that anyone alive at the time was actually born in Europe. The unquestioned truth is that “we,” as Jews, were not safe “there.” As soon as we thought we were safe, “they” would come and burn down our shtetl. This is what happened in Spain. In Germany. In the Middle East. And, according to my family, this is what will happen in the future if “we” are not careful.

Never. Never. Get complacent.

As someone who grew up with many identities (punk, political, wanna-be Chicana, Leo…oh yeah, and Jewish) I always assumed this was simply paranoia.

Because of my academic and activist work, as well as good friends, I travel to Central Eastern and South Eastern Europe about once a year. I recently returned from a short weeklong trip to Hungary in June, and in that week I began to wonder if perhaps my family was right.

In Search of the Activist Academic

By Shayna Plaut, Contributing Editor, Human Rights

When people ask me “what do you do?” meaning “what do you do for a living?” I find I have two options for how to respond. One is to look proudly in their eyes and say, “I teach human rights to journalists!” which is true, but unfortunately this is not what I spend most of my time doing, nor does it pay my rent. The other is to look down at my boots and mumble, “I drank the academic Kool-Aid” which is also true, but leaves me unsettled; I feel like I am no longer really part of the struggle for human rights. My brains are active but my hands are clean. I’ve sold out.

Both answers feel dishonest. I don’t know how to answer – because such boxes have always been blurred. The truth is, I find it fun to hopscotch categories. But when it comes to academic work such hopscotching can be seen as a sign of immaturity and non-professionalism. Or worse, activism and attachment to an issue is an indication that you are not serious about your work; and consequently should not be taken seriously.

Having always been too academic for the activists and too activist for the academics I have spent most of my time trying to create a new understanding by straddling both worlds. I knew I was not alone…but I had a hard time understanding if there was a “we.” I knew there were people around who seemed to engage in activism in spite of their academic standing but it was harder to identify people who used their academic training and resources as part of their activism, and vice versa. Those whom I heard about and admired from a distance seemed far away and scattered – big names but not real. People whom I could read or listen to but not people with whom I could sit down and have a cup of coffee and learn with.

The Starting Point Of Death and Justice

By Shayna Plaut, Contributing Editor, Human Rights

It was Wednesday night.

My friend Malin, who is from Sweden, temporarily living in Edmonton and en route to Taiwan, was staying at my house for a few days in Vancouver. We are both in a transitional time period in our lives, and, after eating dinner and catching up on our uncertainties we decided to curb our anxieties by drinking tea and watching the news.

We flipped on The National, Canadian Broadcasting Corporations (CBC’s) leading news program. First, it was slightly sensationalized and un-contextualized footage of Eastern Ukraine. Next, a teaser about Vancouver’s hockey team, the Canucks, firing their coach. Nothing too out of the norm for Canadian media. Then, the third leading story on Canada’s public network was about the botched execution of Clayton Lockett in Oklahoma.

The voiceover was clear: “Will this botched execution finally lead Americans to challenge their unquestioned commitment to capital punishment?”

As the anchorman said “states have made botches of executions before.” What was surprising to me was seeing how the Canadian television news covered the story. After detailing the case itself, The National showed a map of the US highlighting the thirty-two states (as well as the federal government and military) that “still have” this “irreversible punishment,” and outlined the methods of execution in order of prevalence.

Freedom through Exile: The Unfolding Stories of Cambodian Son

By Shayna Plaut, Contributing Editor, Human Rights

Three years after a meeting in the bustling streets of Phnom Phen when the co-founders of Studio Revolt, Masahiro Sugano and Anida Yoeu Ali, first “experienced” Kosal Khiev’s poetry, a documentary about his life is coming to the big screens throughout America – a country Kosal calls home but is barred from returning. Khiev was born in a refugee camp in Thailand after his family had escaped from the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia. At the age of one he began his new life, resettled in Southern California growing up eating fried chicken and enjoying pumpkin pie for Thanksgiving. As a teenager Khiev got involved in street life and when he was 15 years old he was charged with attempted murder and tried and convicted as an adult. Khiev served 16 years in prison, including solitary confinement. Through a prison writing program he found his voice and power, and spoken word poetry became his means of redemption.

After serving his sentence, when he was thirty-two years old, Khiev was released from prison and deported to the Kingdom of Cambodia: a country he had never known. He became one of the thousands of people who, after doing their time, were exiled from America. And this is where the worlds of Studio Revolt and Kosal Khiev came together. Khiev became an artist in residence with Studio Revolt offering his time and talent in return for their mentorship and management in the world of art.  Although Sugano identifies as an experimental filmmaker who had never previously considered documentary, he “decided to take on the responsibility to do it.”


By Shayna Plaut

In 1971, a long time staffer of the Department of Defense leaked confidential documents to the Washington Post and the New York Times in what is now known as the Pentagon Papers. Later that year, a group of eight people (including a husband and wife team who were parents of three young children) concocted and executed a plan to steal FBI documents and sent them to journalists throughout the USA. And about six months after, in 1972 two reporters began pounding the pavement after the Watergate Hotel was broken into and a psychiatrist’s office bugged. Investigative journalistic digging unearthed the executive government’s internal spying program as a means of maintaining political power in a shadowy world of “us” versus “them.”

These events – and the whistleblowers and journalists involved – are now spoken of in terms of “courage,” “conviction” and even “patriotism.” But at the time they were “communists” and “radicals” – terms that were synonymous with “criminals.” FBI warrants sought the arrests of the perpetrators; court injunctions were ordered to cease newspaper publications; and COINTELPRO carried out various covert operations including tapping phones and opening mail of their alleged suspects. National secrets – including the US government spying on its own citizens – had been exposed and state powers argued that the nation’s safety was in peril. Like today, “security”, “privacy”, “protection” and “right to know” were seen as impossibly co-existent. Dissent was assumed to be dangerous; people were scared and stayed silent.

John and Bonnie Raines, two of the eight “burglars”, kept their democratic actions silent for 43 years knowing that they could be criminally charged and convicted as consequence of their actions. They were part of a loose team who broke into the FBI office in