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Show Notes

In this episode, our hosts Bruce Lesley and Messellech “Selley” Looby speak with leading children’s rights expert Jonathan Todres. Todres, a professor at Georgia University College of Law, says rejecting children’s rights is an attack on human rights. He explains the divisiveness around children’s rights as the result of pitting them against parental rights and notes that they are, instead, a critical tool for parents. Diving deep into important policy debates, Todres considers why the United States is the only country that has not ratified the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child and emphasizes the urgent need for society to address issues like child housing insecurity, the youth mental health crisis, and lack of child participation in the government. 

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Full Transcript

Selley Looby  00:06

I am so excited to share a guest with everyone today.

Bruce Lesley  00:09

Yes, his name is Jonathan Todres. This guy is literally the guy. He was the editor of the Oxford Handbook of Children’s Rights Law.

Selley Looby  00:17

So in fact wrote the book on child rights.

Bruce Lesley  00:21

I’m in the middle of reading it right now on page 166. 

Selley Looby  00:24

You know, it’s truly a gift when someone can break down the complexities of an issue like child rights in a manner that’s so easy to understand, and even more so, actually relatable. I just found Jonathan’s perspective and worldview to just be so refreshing.

Bruce Lesley  00:40

Human rights is such a gnarly mess. And he’s able to take complicated arcane, nuanced philosophy. And he has that ability to draw you in and really make you be a part of it and be a part of the team.

Bruce Lesley  00:57

From First Focus on Children, this is Speaking of Kids, I’m Bruce Lesley,

Selley Looby  01:01

and I’m Messellech Looby. Speaking of Kids is a podcast that puts kids at the center of public policy.

Bruce Lesley  01:14

Selley, this guy’s so good. I just really think we should get into it.

Selley Looby  01:18

I completely agree. 

Bruce Lesley  01:19

Okay so tell us who he is.

Selley Looby  01:21

Jonathan Todres is a leading expert on children’s rights, and a distinguished Professor of Law at Georgia State University College of Law. His research focuses in particular on the implementation of children’s rights law, human rights education, youth participation, and human trafficking. Among his recent books are the Oxford Handbook of Children’s Rights Law, and Human Rights in Children’s Literature. He also currently serves as Chair of the Board on Children, Youth and Families of the National Academy of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. Welcome, Jonathan to Speaking of Kids.

Bruce Lesley  01:59

Thanks so much for being with us.

Jonathan Todres  02:00

Thank you so much for having me. 

Selley Looby  02:01

Absolutely. You know, we just kind of want to start with your backstory, you know why you became a lawyer? And why the focus on child rights?

Jonathan Todres  02:09

Yeah, sure. So in many respects, I’ve always been interested in children’s rights dating back to when I was a child, both my parents were born and raised in South Africa. And so human rights violations of the apartheid regime was a topic of concern and conversation from my earliest memories. As a child, I was a politically active, somewhat feisty teenager. And I had a number of jobs. But one of the jobs I had was also working at a youth center. In so many ways, dating back from when I was a child, I was interested in and concerned about children’s rights issues and human rights issues, even though I didn’t name them as a particular, right. And on a personal level, I also had some really difficult experiences as a child. And so that has helped me I think, today really have some understanding and empathy. When I see young people facing some of the challenges they’re facing today, their issues may be different from mine, but I can appreciate the struggles that often young people have. And as for why I became a lawyer, I studied international development at university at Clark University in Massachusetts, and I wanted to do development work immediately after college. So I joined the Peace Corps, I was sent to Thailand, I worked on children’s health programs. After that I worked at a university in Bangkok. After my Peace Corps experience, I worked on human rights issues in Thailand. And I also worked on some program development, I continued to work in health and human rights as I returned to the States. And I used to joke that I kept on having run ins with the law, not in that sort of policing sense of it. But in the sense that every project and program that I worked on, had a law component. Law was an integral part of it, and I couldn’t participate in and contribute to those dialogues in a way that I wanted to. So I ultimately decided that I really needed to go to law school to contribute in to the issues that in a way, I really want it to be able to contribute. And you know, as I tell my students law is really just a tool. And a law degree is a tool that it has been used to really uplift people across the globe. It’s also been used for some really horrible human rights violations. Nazi Germany was law based, the apartheid regime was law based. And so law is just a tool and we can choose to use it however we want. And what I tried to do is use it to elevate young people and help them secure their well being. 

Selley Looby  04:23

That’s beautiful.

Bruce Lesley  04:24

Yeah. So if you can sort of define for us like, what is child rights?

Jonathan Todres  04:28

You know, the field of children’s rights, international children’s rights, talks about the three P’s and now the three P’s that phrases is used in other contexts as well, but in the children’s rights context, they talk about provision, protection and participation. So provision rights are all the things that children need to survive and develop to their full potential. That’s health rights, that’s education rights, that’s housing. Protection is protection from abuse and exploitation. That’s child labor laws. That’s anti trafficking laws. That’s child abuse, child maltreatment laws. And then finally is participation, that under Children’s Rights Law, every child has a right to be heard on a matters that affect their lives. That’s, I think, a helpful way to think about children’s needs, what they need to be protected to thrive, what they need to be protected from, and then also their right to participate.

Bruce Lesley  05:17

I think that the question I’d have for you is in law, you could have done so many things and, and you chose to work on, you know, children’s rights, and there really isn’t in this country, there really isn’t much of that. So first of all, why did you pick that? And then second, you know, you really are one of the few child rights experts in the country, to be honest. And so why is there a dearth of that in the United States? 

Jonathan Todres  05:42

Yeah. So I mean, I think in some respects, you know, the why children’s rights is, how can you not right? I mean, I think that when we look around the globe, and we see young people, whether it’s, you know, in other countries or here in the United States struggling, how can you not be moved by that? And so, you know, everyone has certain issues that resonate with them. And for me, it was children’s issues. And that’s what resonates with me, that’s what moves me why there isn’t more uptick and uptake of the children’s rights in the United States is, is a question that sort of really puzzles me, because I think what we’ve seen in many instances is it’s not just in circles that are resistant to human rights generally. But it’s also in the Human Rights world, often we, we see relatively little attention to children’s rights issues. And the focus tends to be on adults. And I think a lot of the resistance or overlooking children’s rights, or a skepticism about children’s rights, really is actually a much bigger statement than I think a lot of people realize, when you reject the idea that children’s rights exist, or, or you’re skeptical about children’s rights, it’s really a challenge to the entire human rights movement. The core idea of human rights is that rights are inherent to all human beings. Now, whether you have believed that’s a religiously based philosophical basis, whatever it is, human rights as the following core concept. If you’re a human, you have rights. And that means rights exist from birth from the beginning of life. Conversely, not accepting children’s rights equates to you saying that rights are not inherent, that there are these things that governments grant to you when you reach adulthood. And that’s antithetical to the Human Rights idea. Rights cannot depend on the whims of government. I mean, we wouldn’t say, you know, everyone has a right not to be tortured. But you only get that right when you turn 18 years old. So obviously, rights exist from the beginning of life. So when people are really rejecting children’s rights, they’re saying something much more profound that I’m not sure everyone realizes that it’s rejecting the broader core idea of human rights. It’s also in conflict with the Declaration of Independence. The Declaration of Independence, although it was written at a time when they were thinking only of white men who, who were landowners, but it says that all individuals are created equal, and they’re endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights. So you those rights exist, because you’re human, and therefore children have to have rights if you’re going to believe in human rights.

Bruce Lesley  08:09

UN Convention on the Rights of the Child was drafted, in part by people in the United States. But now we’re at a point where every nation in the world has ratified it except for us, you know, we’re the only country in the world that now stands uniquely positioned as having not taken that action. So why is that? Why, why have we failed to do so? And why does that matter? 

Jonathan Todres  08:33

Yeah, so I think the why falls into sort of two primary reasons. First, this is sort of a historical approach that the United States takes to human rights treaties, the United States has long believed in and supported human rights treaties, but they’ve done it in the following way. They say, the world needs human rights, but we have our Bill of Rights and so we’re all set. What the US has long envisioned is that human rights are important, but they’re really intended largely for the rest of the world. And I think a really good example of that is the Convention on the Prevention of Genocide. It’s not hard to take a public statement that you’re opposed to genocide, but it took the United States 40. That’s four zero 40 years to ratify the Genocide Convention. And it wasn’t because there was objection to the content so much as that’s just not really what the US does. Everyone else needs to promise, we already know that we’re not going to do that, or at least that’s the presumption. And I think so there’s that general reluctance, but it’s, of course, and tied into that as questions about federalism. But the reality is, the US has ratified human rights treaties, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, for example, and it hasn’t had problems with federalism. It hasn’t conceded sovereignty to the United Nations. So those arguments don’t hold up when we look at not just other countries practices, but also the US practice. The other piece that’s really specific to the Convention on the Rights of the Child is a lot of the room resistance to children’s rights has painted this narrative that to be in favor of children’s rights is to be opposed to parents rights. And it’s this notion that rights are a zero sum game. If I recognize that you have rights, somehow I will lose something. That’s actually worked very effectively from a sort of political strategic standpoint, in the children’s rights context, when one claims that parents rights and children’s rights are opposed. And the only ones given a platform to make their argument are the adults, the parents, then children’s rights will be very quickly drowned out, and people won’t see the value in that. But in fact, children’s rights are a critical tool for parents. And I think one of the examples that I often point to is the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, the IDEA. It says that, if you have a child with a disability, that child has a right, just like any other child in the United States to a quality education, the state is required to develop the skills required to develop an IEP, an Individualized Education Program. And that’s to ensure a fair, equal access to education for children with disabilities. Now, when a parent goes to the school and says, I demand that you’ve created an IEP for my child, because they have a disability, or I demand that you follow the existing IEP, they’re not relying on parental rights. What they’re relying on, is the child’s right to that IEP, the child has a right to that education. Similarly when you seek health care for a child, as a parent, I’m a parent as well, you don’t go to the hospital and say, my right as a parent, includes you having to give care to my child, what you’re saying is my child has a right to see a doctor and to get the care they need. Now, that’s what children’s rights establishes that every child has a right to access health care when needed. Now, we don’t recognize the right to health care in the United States. But that’s what children’s rights can provide, not just for children, but for parents, who care about their children and really just want to see their children thrive. 

Selley Looby  12:06

I love the way that you just laid everything out. It was helpful for me to hear but then also going to be very helpful for our listeners. Based on everything you outlined, do you feel there’s an urgency for kids right now, in terms of the challenges they face both domestically and internationally?

Jonathan Todres  12:23

Yeah, I think there’s an urgency for all of us. And ironically, I think young people, children see the issues often more clearly than we do. But they’re big existential issues facing all of us, including children: climate change, AI, rising social divisions, mass scale migration, gun violence, the list goes on. And to me what’s striking when I speak to children and youth, I hear them talking about what they’re worried about. They’re worried about the climate, they’re worried about, can I go to school without being concerned that I might get shot while I’m at school? And then I turn around and you think, you know, I was struck by this when the incidents around Parkland happened and the the sort of really profound response of the kids at Parkland. When you turn around and you look at the adults, and including some policy makers, responding to children saying we want to be able to go to a school without worrying about shootings. What often adults say is, well, children aren’t really mature enough to participate in these debates. They’re not really right for the political arena. And yet, they’re the ones raising the important issues, why adults are engaging in name calling and hurling insults back and forth, what we really need to do is listen to young people, because, well, of course, children can be silly and immature in one moment, they also see what’s really happening in their communities. And it’s also the case that childrens have experience have lived experience with things that we just do not have experience with. They’re the only ones who know what it’s like to go to school in a global pandemic. None of us have done that, that lived experience is really important. It has value that’s can give us insights into how to respond more effectively. 

Bruce Lesley  12:43

On that point, you’ve done a lot of work on sort of youth participation and engagement. Why is that important? And then also, what laws do we have that prevent kids from engaging?

Jonathan Todres  14:15

It’s important for a couple of reasons. One, there’s the mandate, right? Under Children’s Rights Law, children have a right, if they want to voice their opinion, they have a right to be heard. The second thing is what happens when you include more diverse voices, whether it’s children or others. Research has shown over and over again, that when you include more voices in generating ideas, identify identifying problems even and then generating ideas for how to respond to these issues, that you end up with better results. You end up identifying better ideas, you reject the ideas that won’t work, and you have greater buy in at the end when you’ve included people along the way. And the same is true with children and youth if you include them along the way, they’ll identify things that we won’t see. And we’ll end up with better ideas, better policies that are more responsible to the lives of children and families. What I’ve spent a lot of time in recent years doing this thinking about sort of what’s the legal framework around children’s participation rights. And I think you can think about sort of four different categories. I think the first everyone sees pretty readily that children don’t have the right to vote, they don’t have the right to serve in office. So there’s some ways that children just don’t have specific rights that adults have. The second that I think is useful to think about is there’s a set of rights that children have, they have effectively like a junior version of those rights, they don’t have the full rights that adults do. And I can think of a couple of examples off the top of my head. One is freedom of expression. What children have is not the same as adults, they do have the right to express themselves. But children speech can be restricted in schools if it’s perceived as disruptive to the school environments. Similarly, curfews and status offenses and things like that affect children’s freedom of association, their freedom of assembly, sometimes for reasons that are, that makes sense in terms of protecting children, of course, but it nonetheless is a restriction. The third is there’s a set of regulations and barriers to youth civic engagement and youth participation that is more indirect. And you know, economic power, we all know is a huge part of the political arena now and post-Citizens United, it’s it’s also clear, not just children, but many adults don’t have much political power anymore. But economic power, you know, we have child labor laws that restrict children from earning anything. And even when they’re old enough to work, they can work limited hours and limited context. Now, those are done for really thoughtful reasons, we should protect children in those instances. And I’m not suggesting we shouldn’t have child labor laws, absolutely the opposite we absolutely should have them. But we should see what the impact is. If it then means that children have no economic power, and they have no voting power, it’s very hard to get policymakers to listen to a group that has no voting power or economic power. Another good example, I think of that indirect impact, are driver’s license restrictions. Now, we should make sure someone’s trained and mature enough before they get behind the wheel. Again, absolutely. But we should recognize if young people can’t drive. That means that they’re more limited in being able to attend meetings or participate in civic engagement activities. And that’s not a suggestion that you change the driver’s license rules, it’s probably a suggestion that we need better public transportation so that young people can participate more meaningfully. But there are all those ways in which indirectly, the law is structured that further reduces children’s chances of participating and having their voice heard. And then finally, there’s this really limited set of rights in which children and adults can do the exact same thing. And that’s largely things like they can both write to and petition their congressman or, you know, write to the President. But that’s a really limited participation. So children have all these ideas, they’re seeing what’s wrong with their community, they’re wanting to participate, many of them, and yet we’ve given them very few avenues in which to do so.

Selley Looby  18:19

Jonathan framed children’s rights around the three P’s: provision, protection on participation.

Bruce Lesley  18:26

Coming up, we continue the conversation with Jonathan about how children can participate in advocating for their own rights.

Leila Nimatallah  18:36

Making the world a better place for all children can seem like an impossibly huge task. Some of you may be thinking, I’m just one person, what could I possibly do to make a difference? I’m Leila Nimatallah, Vice President of Advocacy and Mobilization at First Focus on Children. And I’m inviting you to join us and become one of our volunteer advocates, whom we call our Ambassadors for Children. Ambassadors are our most active child advocates who raise critical issues with the US Congress, and with the administration related to child policy and funding decisions, both for kids in the US and worldwide. But don’t take my word for it. We asked one of our ambassadors to share her experience.

Cady Landa  19:25

I am Cady Landa, I live in New York City. I currently work as a researcher for an institute called the Child and Family Research Center at the University of Illinois Urbana Champaign. I joined the ambassador program because it’s important to me to participate in working towards public policies that support children and their families. And I would encourage you to become an ambassador, if you would like to become a part of a very supportive and warm network of people that values teaching and learning and activism towards creating a more just and caring country.

Leila Nimatallah  20:16

Thank you. So please join us won’t you? Check out, on how to become a First Focus on Children Ambassador and to link up with our fabulous community of committed child advocates.

Selley Looby  20:43

First Focus on Children is a bipartisan advocacy organization dedicated to making children and families the priority in federal policy and budget decisions.

Bruce Lesley  20:53

First Focus on Children moves beyond individual issues to serve a more important role Children’s Advocacy. We educate lawmakers and the American public about the issues facing children. 

Selley Looby  21:04

To learn more about our work and ways you can become an ambassador, go to

Bruce Lesley  21:09

Coming up in State of Play. We’re inviting back Leila Nimatallah, to chat about human and children’s rights on the global stage.

Selley Looby  21:17

Let’s get back to Jonathan Todres. I want to ask him to talk more about human rights education. Oftentimes, when we think about human rights education, especially in the United States, we’re talking about educating policymakers. But you elevate the important role of educating Americans about their human rights. As it relates to children, what are their rights inherently? And as they grow and develop? Do you mind sharing a little bit more about your recent work on human rights education? 

Jonathan Todres  21:46

Sure my work on human rights education came out of this idea that’s started really in the early years of my academic career, I think when you’re a lawyer, you come in and you see a social issue. And I think it’s common in a lot of countries, you see wrongs happening in the community, that’s one of the first things we think about is we look to criminal law and say can criminal law punish and account for these wrongs. It’s an important piece of it, but it’s a really limited piece, right? So holding perpetrators accountable is important. But it also means every time we hold a perpetrator accountable for some human rights violation, that some harm has occurred. And we’re after the fact so very early in my career, I shifted my focus to thinking about prevention. How can the law be used to move upstream and prevent harm from occurring to children in the first place. And out of that I’ve worked and done research on human trafficking in particular, child trafficking for 25 years now, in that context had been very prevention focused. But I also started to think that it’s not just about trafficking, it’s what we need is not just preventing harms early, but what we really need to do is start to build rights respecting communities. What we have now in many communities in the United States, is increasing fractures in communities. There’s social divisions, there’s people talking past you, somebody says, my rights are violated. And the immediate response is, yeah, but. Yeah, but my rights, right, and then we’re just talking past each other, and we’re not healing anyone, or building rights respecting communities. And so that’s what I’ve really been focused on for the last dozen years or so on, how do you build rights respecting communities, and in many ways, it started, almost accidentally looking at children’s literature. And what I found when I looked again, as an adult at children’s literature is they’re these extraordinary human rights discourses and children’s rights discourses in children’s literature. And that resonated with me. Human rights education is critically important. If you look at the research on human rights education, it says that children who are exposed to and participate in human rights education, learn the fundamentals of good citizenship. And really importantly, they learn to link rights and responsibilities, kids who have been part of a human rights education curriculum, they see that their rights are linked to their responsibilities to respect the rights of others. And conversely, children who are not exposed to human rights education do not participate. They tend to talk about rights as entitlements just for themselves. So human rights education has this really powerful community building outcome. And so I started to think, you know, we need to go beyond. And there’s some really wonderful programs. UNICEF has one and the international has one of how do you sort of do human rights education in schools, but we can’t think only about schools. We can’t just rely on the social studies class every year to do one, one week on human rights. We need to really integrate it in a way that’s meaningful. And we also in the, the phrase I often use is meeting children where they are we need to think about where young people already engage. School works for a lot of kids, but there are also a lot of kids for whom it doesn’t really resonate. They don’t feel connected, but they might be feel connected reading or in visual arts or in other ways and so I started with children’s literature, and exploring human rights themes in children’s literature. And I can talk more about that there’s sort of fun stories, what kids that we read to saw in different books and, and then I brought it to thinking about the arts more generally, you know, music is incredibly powerful and a lot of visual arts, and they’ve been used in human rights movements, and freedom slung during slavery. I mean, music has been a part of human rights movements for a long, long time, but used much less than the children’s rights movement, much less than around children’s rights. So we’ve moved into thinking about the arts more broadly. And now the most recent piece of this is to think about the sports world. Because if you think about meeting young people where they are, there are lots of kids who are obsessed about sports, and that’s what resonates with them. And so we ought to think about what are the opportunities for them to learn about their rights and the rights of others in the sports context. And so that’s the last piece of that project. But it’s fun, it’s uplifting, it’s hopeful, it’s really exciting to work with young people thinking about human rights education. And I think that’s really where we have to go, we have to be spending more of our energy not not ignoring immediate rights violations. But we also have to add in that we need to be thinking, medium term, long term about how do we build rights respecting community, so harms don’t happen in the first place.

Bruce Lesley  26:15

I guess that gets into to your new book. So we’d love to hear about that project. And where you think that’s heading?

Jonathan Todres  26:22

The new book is working with a colleague, and when she’d be out in the middle of next year, a book for NYU Press. And what we’re looking to do is bring together children’s rights experts and child development experts in this project. And it’s very early stages in the following sense. This is really the first foray into bringing children’s rights experts and child development experts together in really having them engage in dialogue across the two disciplines, and look for ways to bring the two together. I think most people working on children’s issues, recognize that child development science is critically important to advancing child wellbeing. I think it’s also the case that most recognize that children’s rights are critical to advancing children’s healthy development. But the two fields have largely proceeded on parallel tracks not really engaging each other too often. And what we’ve tried to do here is move to a more nuanced understanding of childhood, and think about how that has an impact on children’s rights. So for example, over the last 30 years, one of the big developments in the law is we now clearly recognize that children are different from adults, we’ve seen this in Supreme Court jurisprudence around the death penalty, as applied to juveniles life sentences without parole. The Supreme Court has said now a number of times, children are different from adults. But where we still need a lot of work is to think about how do we implement rights for a 15 year old versus a 5 year old? Let’s take the right to participate, we say that every child has a right to participate in matters that affect their lives. But how a 5 year old does that is obviously going to be very different from how a 15 year old does it how much weight we give to their views is going to be different. And we’re still very early stages in thinking as a field. How do we operationalize? How do we apply rights at different stages of childhood? What’s critically important early childhood, middle childhood and adolescence? And where do rights come in at each of these stages? And how do they operate differently in each of these stages. So that’s what the book is really trying to do. 

Bruce Lesley  28:33

It’s great that you’re really taking the field to a new place. So it’s the evolving rights of kids, but also the evolving rights of the even this movement, that that you’re really leading is really exciting to, to watch, you know, every time you you publish something, I’m learning new things. So really appreciate that. 

Jonathan Todres  28:52

Thank you. And maybe it will help not just those working in the field, but those who have questions about children’s rights, because what we’re saying is the rights of a 5 year old, or a 15 year old or a 5 month old, do operate differently. And you shouldn’t worry that if you think about the right to participate and the right to be heard, that suddenly it means your 5 year old can demand certain things. 

Bruce Lesley  29:19

Right. Right. 

Jonathan Todres  29:20

Rather that, you know, a lot of what we’re doing and participation rates are often the thing that people have questions around. But what’s interesting is, I find that when I talked to parents, and teachers, a lot of them are doing this work already. They’re not naming it as children’s rights work. But most of us as parents have consulted with our kids, not on every single issue, but on lots of issues, right? Around, you know, day to day activities. What are they feeling how, you know, what are they concerned about? Do what do they want for dinner, that’s letting them exercise their right to be heard. This isn’t some, you know, radical change to that, where it’s really missing with children’s opportunity to express and contribute is really missing is in the policy arena, that they are not included in those discussions. And there, I think we have a whole lot more work to do. 

Selley Looby  30:10


Bruce Lesley  30:10

Now, I’d love to give you an opportunity to talk about that, like I would love your perspective on kind of what are things that you think are important in this moment in time that we should be focusing on for kids like, we talk at First Focus a lot about kids are in crisis, right. And we’re in a moment in time where infant and child mortality is rising, we have a children’s mental health crisis. In the last year, the uninsured rate for every other population went down, it went up for kids. So we’ve got these like moment here, where kids are facing lots of challenges. And yet at the federal level, we’re actually divesting in them. So there’s this litany of things. And so we’d love your perspective on things you think, are really critical for us to tackle from a policy perspective, at this critical juncture. 

Jonathan Todres  31:03

It is really stark, how many children in the United States, a country with such resources are really struggling with basic things like accessing quality education, having secure housing, you know, the housing crisis in the eviction cliff that people talked about in the pandemic, was largely talked about as an issue affecting adults. And we spent very little time drawing attention to the fact that that has devastating consequences for children experiencing housing insecurity, possibly switching schools two or three times during the year, because they’re bouncing around from shelter to shelter. And we’re not really talking about the basic needs. And in the children’s rights world, we don’t see those only as needs, we see those as rights, that everyone is entitled to this sort of basic necessities to be able to thrive. So there are a host of things in you know that you mentioned mental health crisis, there’s a lot that needs to be addressed. The dream, of course, is that we take some omnibus approach, and we have a really thoughtful, comprehensive, integrated response to children’s issues and really give them the support that they need to thrive and give everyone an opportunity to thrive. The reality is, we know in this this or really any other political environment, it’s going to happen piecemeal, we’ll have to look for opportunities where we can make progress. I think the other piece is really making meaningful progress on children’s participation. What I’m struck by when I think about the organizations and young people who are so thoughtfully opining on what the world needs to do, what their community’s needs to do, is most of that is happening in spite of government, what they’re doing is outside of government, outside of any formal channels, there are some exceptions to that. But for the most part, they’re having to work outside the system, instead of giving them opportunities to participate and contribute to our political process and our, our process of improving our communities. One small step is to stop hosting events where you say, today we’ll hear from three experts and one youth, right? Let’s start saying we’re going to hear from four experts, right? The lived experiences, expertise, I didn’t grow up in the social media era, I have no idea what that’s really like when you’re 12, 13, 15 years old to experience that. And we ought to hear from them as experts. And so I think if we can build processes for young people to be heard, we’ll develop better ideas, we’ll see more of the problems, we’ll see solutions that young people are seeing that we we don’t see yet, and will have a better chance of developing responsive policies. 

Selley Looby  33:38

This has been so great. Thank you so much, Jonathan, as a mom of a almost five year old and seven and a half year old, we debate a lot. And there are a lot of demands. But you know, I do believe that they see the world in a different way. And they have a unique perspective and outlook on things that, you know, even like you said, when we were all growing up, I couldn’t appreciate because I don’t know what it’s like to go to school and have to worry about a school shooting or, you know, worry about the environment in a way that they are thinking about it and you have to consider it now. I have a feeling you’re gonna have a really good answer for this last question. We’re developing a Speaking of Kids playlist, which so far is pretty strong. And so, you know, this work is hard and you’re in it, you’re developing, you know, so much innovation in this space. When you have hard days or when you have good days, like, is there a song or you know, an anthem or an album that you lean on to to brighten your spirits or kind of keep you motivated?

Jonathan Todres  34:42

I mean, there’s so many actually, you know, is there a volume two to this album?

Selley Looby  34:47

Top three top three.

Jonathan Todres  34:49

Black Eyed Peas Where’s The Love U2 Beautiful Day but like, I’m going to be pushy and go with a two part answer. One is I’m gonna go old school, and I’m going with Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On like that just gets me, there’s so much important in it. And it’s so inspiring. And like that’s an emotional journey every time I listen to it, and I feel so inspired after. But the second thing that won’t make it on your playlist, but I’d say that, that inspires me, is seeing how my kids, I have two children, seing how they respond to music. We have a lot of music playing frequently in the house. And I love seeing how when music plays, whether it’s hip hop, r&b, soul, jazz, whatever it is, they have to move, right? They literally have to move. And that’s what’s amazing about music, it compels us to move to dance to share joy with one another. It compels us to act. And for my kids, it’s physical, they have to get up and move. Music does that for me in the children’s rights context, I listen to the songs that inspire me. And then I walk away from that thinking, I have to act

Selley Looby  35:50

I love I think you might have inspired like the album cover.

Bruce Lesley  35:56

So Jonathan, thank you so much. And we love all the work you do and looking forward to your book and continued collaboration on all these issues. So thank you so much.

Jonathan Todres  36:06

Thank you very much.

Selley Looby  36:07

So we just heard from Jonathan, who laid out, you know, and gave us a good frame for what child rights means today. And here with us. As promised, we’d like to introduce Leila Nimatallah, the Vice President of Advocacy and Mobilization here at First Focus. Hi, Leila.

Leila Nimatallah  36:27

Hi, Messellech. Nice to be with you.

Selley Looby  36:29

I’m so glad you’re here. And you know, I know we’re gonna kind of jump in and you’re gonna give us more of like the global perspective, you heard to Jonathan was just simply amazing. I love his frame and his perspective, it’s so refreshing. But you know, we just want to kick things off and say, What is us poverty, focus development and humanitarian assistance do for children living in poor countries?

Leila Nimatallah  36:53

Yes, thanks for that question, Selley, I have had the luxury of working in the global space for over 20 years. I didn’t think of it the way Jonathan spoke about it today. But I was attracted to it because the work of US foreign assistance primarily is to ensure that children survive, that they can thrive and grow up to their greatest potential access to primary education, clean water, and nutritious food. And not only is it the right thing to do, but it promotes individual rights. And it comes back to benefit the United States as well, in many, many ways, of course, for example, when kids grow up and they can thrive, and they can earn more money and stay alive longer and live healthier lives, their countries become greater trade and partners with the US. So over the years, it’s shown that it really benefits us. You know, the small amount of money that we’ve put into foreign assistance really benefits us in the long term.

Bruce Lesley  38:06

Building on that, like, what are some of the misconceptions about US foreign assistance?

Leila Nimatallah  38:11

Oh, thanks, Bruce. I love that question. Maybe I’ll start with, there have been a number of polls done of the American public. And when most people answer these polls about how much do you think the US provides to foreign assistance? Well, just guess maybe, like what proportion of our budget that we give to foreign assistance? Do you think most people think?

Bruce Lesley  38:34

I would guess it’s way, way more than we really do.

Leila Nimatallah  38:38

It’s way more. So the average American thinks that we give about 25% of our budget to foreign assistance. And then the second question that we’ve asked is, you know, well, then, okay, if you think it’s 25, what do you think, but the proportion should be? And they say, Oh, 10% or so is about fair. But you know what the number really is? It’s less than one-half of 1%.

Selley Looby  39:04

And we know that well to right, Leyla, because children don’t even get 10% of the federal budget, yet they make up 25% of the population.

Leila Nimatallah  39:12

Yes. When you look at the overall budget for what we spend on kids, it’s just out of proportion out of whack. And then when you look at the foreign assistance budget, it’s even worse so internationally, there’s more tends to be more children, young people internationally than there are in the US. They make up about 30 to sometimes 50% of a population of a country. And unfortunately, nine cents of every $1 goes to kids, nine cents. 

Bruce Lesley  39:40

Yeah it’s a very low percentage of the federal budget, right? Like you said less than 1% and then compounding it it’s like then kids get only 9% of the half a percent right so it’s a teeny tiny

Leila Nimatallah  39:55

Exactly! It’s teeny tiny so when Americans find that out in these polls that we’ve done, they’re overwhelmingly supportive of what this type of foreign assistance does, you know that it provides very low cost, modest investment in keeping kids alive and healthy, ensuring they live past their fifth birthday and showing they have access to education, all those great things. Most Americans, as I’ve said before, are very, very generous. Overall. Overall, we’re a very warm and generous culture. And Americans overwhelmingly support this type of foreign assistance. And in fact, it’s enjoyed a lot of bipartisan support in Congress to historically.

Selley Looby  40:38

Yeah and so, you know, what are you watching right now in terms of foreign assistance, foreign policy, what’s on your radar?

Leila Nimatallah  40:45

The thing that I am watching and most concerned about is one of our success stories and a place where we have huge bragging rights globally. George W. Bush’s signature Global Health program called the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief, he launched that 20 years ago, and it is the single biggest investment in any one disease that any country has ever made. And his global HIV AIDS program has done astounding work over the past 20 years. When he started it, HIV was a death sentence in especially Sub-Saharan Africa, but in other countries as well. Over the years, it’s saved the lives of 25 million people, including children, it has ensured that 5.5 million babies were born without HIV. So HIV negative from mothers who are HIV positive. And where my heart is, is the fact that it’s also provided these gold standard wraparound services for vulnerable children who are affected by HIV to ensure that they stay protected from HIV by staying in school by having access to nutrition. And if they are HIV positive, connecting them to services. These programs are called Orphans and Vulnerable Children Programs. And they serve 7.2 million orphans and their caregivers right now, back in the day, less so now. But back in the day, HIV wiped out a whole generation of adults. And these children either were left on their own, you know, in child-headed households, or their grandparents who were elderly, taking on a bunch of their grandchildren to care for them. So that was the genesis of this type of program. But even now, it’s very, very important because there are still these kids out there who need this kind of strategic and clever kind of response that ensures that these kids stay protected. And unfortunately, our Congress for the first time ever has failed to reauthorize PEPFAR. It comes up for consideration to be reauthorized every five years. And Congress allowed it to expire at the end of September of this year. And they’re still dilly dallying around and not reauthorizing it.

Selley Looby  43:16

Thank you, Leila for that overview that was really helpful. And, you know, in true First Focus fashion, you know, we want to know how people can get engaged, you know, what’s the ask how do we start to get policymakers to start to change their minds. And as a leader of our advocacy and mobilization efforts, you know, what do you want people to do?

Leila Nimatallah  43:37

Oh, thank you, Selley, I really want you to join us, we need your support, we need your voice. Members of Congress really care about their constituents opinions. So when you say I, you know, I care about kids internationally, or I care about kids domestically, you know, these kids are not able to speak for themselves, obviously. So they need you. And we need you to amplify our voice here in DC and around the country. So please join us. There’s more about the ambassador program in the show notes on this episode. And also, you can find more information on our first focus campaign for children website.

Selley Looby  44:15

Thank you so much for joining us, Leila. It was such a pleasure to have you here.

Bruce Lesley  44:19

Yeah. Thank you so much.

Bruce Lesley  44:20

This is Speaking of Kids. Thanks for listening. I’m Bruce Lesley.

Selley Looby  44:29

And I’m Messellech Looby special thanks to our guests Jonathan Todres and Leila Nimatallah.

Bruce Lesley  44:35

Speaking of Kids is a podcast by First Focus on Children. 

Selley Looby  44:39

Elizabeth Windom is the Supervising Producer and Julia Windham is the Associate Producer.

Bruce Lesley  44:44

Leila Nimatallah is the Advocacy and Mobilizing Producer and the Senior Producer is J. Woodward.

Selley Looby  44:50

Our theme music is Don’t Look Twice by Sam Farsh. 

Bruce Lesley  44:53

For more information about this week’s episode, go to You can find all of our links in our show notes.

Bruce Lesley  44:59

And please follow rate and review on Apple podcasts, Spotify, or YouTube. 

Selley Looby  44:59

If you have any thoughts questions or interest in becoming a First Focus on Children Ambassador, email us at

Selley Looby  45:13

Speaking of Kids is produced by Windhaven Productions and Blue Jay Atlantic.