If you see only one Oscar-nominated film this year, make it "13th."

Directed by Ava DuVernay, the stirring documentary explores America's long history of overpolicing and imprisoning black and brown people since the passing of the 13th Amendment. DuVernay sat down with scholars, educators, elected leaders, authors, and activists to tell this troubling but necessary story.

DuVernay (left) interviews scholar and activist Angela Davis for "13th." Image via Netflix.


While these issues are difficult, we need to talk about them and, better yet, do something about them. "13th" truly couldn't have come at a better time.

Here are 13 lessons everyone should learn from this from powerful must-see film.

1. The 13th Amendment had so much promise ... almost.

Section 1 of the 13th Amendment reads:

"Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction."

The clause, "except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted," was included so farmers and landowners could essentially continue a form of slavery to support their businesses — so long as the black men and women were deemed criminals. There's no such thing as a throwaway clause in the Constitution. This is an intentional legal loophole.

A political cartoon from 1865 featuring President Lincoln and an amended U.S. constitution. Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images.

2. The legal loophole in the 13th Amendment led to mass arrests and incarceration during the late 19th century.

It was the United States' first prison boom.

Black people were arrested en masse for petty crimes, like loitering or vagrancy, and incarcerated. Once labeled criminals, landowners and farmers could "lease" convicts from the state in exchange for full control of their lives.

These convicts were leased to harvest timber. Photo circa 1915, via World Digital Library/State Library and Archives of Florida.

3. While black men filled prisons, popular culture stoked fears.

Black men were portrayed in films as menacing, evil, and in relentless pursuit of white women.

In the 1915 film, "Birth of a Nation," which is essentially three hours of racist propaganda masking as a historical film, a white woman throws herself off a rocky cliff to save herself from being assaulted by a black man. Critics raved, drowning out mounting protests.

As a result of the popular film, membership in the Ku Klux Klan boomed.

Still image from "Birth of a Nation," (1915). Image via "Birth of a Nation"/Wikimedia Commons.

4. As the KKK grew, black people were terrorized and murdered.

Lynchings were used to reinforce white supremacy while traumatizing and terrorizing black people. There was a disgusting entertainment aspect to it, as mobs of white people — including elected officials and community leaders — gathered to watch victims get beaten, shot, and tortured. Picture postcards were made of the swinging, mutilated bodies.

More than 4,000 lynchings occurred between 1877 and 1950 across Texas and the American South.

A large crowd watches the lynching of 18-year-old Jesse Washington in Waco, Texas. Photo via Library of Congress.

5. The murder of Emmett Till kickstarted the Civil Rights movement.

14-year-old Emmett Till was brutally beaten and murdered by a group of white men for allegedly whistling at and flirting with a white woman in 1955. (The woman recently admitted she fabricated at least part of her testimony.) Photos from his open casket funeral and the face of Till's weeping mother sent shockwaves around the country, galvanizing black people and their allies in the fight for equality.

6. But then the War on Drugs started an unrelenting wave of mass incarceration.

Crime started to increase in the early 1960s, and many in power quickly blamed the uptick on the end of segregation. Before long, the word "crime" was a stand-in for the word "race."

Nixon appealed to southern Democrats with thinly-veiled racism and promises to clean up the streets. His rhetorical "War on Drugs" became very real in the 1980s under President Reagan, who threw money, resources, and the full weight of the executive branch behind the issue. A wide swath of an entire generation was essentially removed from the narrative.

President Ronald Reagan and his wife Nancy wave to supporters in November 1984. Photo by Don Rypka/AFP/Getty Images.

7. The numbers are astonishing. Full stop.

In 1970, there were 196,429 sentenced prisoners in state and federal prisons. In 1980, there were 329,821 people in state and federal prisons, and by 1990, that number more than doubled to 771,243.

Today, the American criminal justice system holds 2.3 million people. This is not normal. It is not OK.

8. Republicans are not solely to blame for this crisis. President Clinton did his part too.

In the wake of President Reagan and President George H.W. Bush, appearing "soft on crime" wasn't an option for President Bill Clinton. In 1994, he signed the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act. It expanded the list of death penalty eligible offenses and included a "three strikes" provision, which meant mandatory life sentences for people convicted of their third felony. It also funded new prisons and provided the budget for 100,000 police officers.

President Bill Clinton. Photo by Paul Richards/AFP/Getty Images.

9. Sadly, there's a lot of money to be made off mass incarceration.

Private correctional facilities made a reported $629 million in profits in 2014, and that's just scratching the surface. From the corporations building and maintaining prison facilities, to the food vendors, health care providers, and equipment and textile manufacturers who keep them running, many companies have a lot to gain from maintaining the status quo.

An inmate stands with handcuffs in San Quentin State Prison. Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images.

10. As mass incarceration starts to get a bad rap, the winds are shifting — and not necessarily for the better.

As mass incarceration and America's prison problem take center stage, legislators and businesses are looking for new ways to redefine the narrative while still making money. What does that look like? For starters, monetizing bail, probation, parole, and house arrest.

Photo by iStock.

11. We can't forget the people and families caught in the struggle.

In 2010, 16-year-old Kalief Browder was arrested for a robbery he insisted he did not commit. Browder was thrown into an adult correctional facility where he would spend nearly three years awaiting trial and almost two years in solitary confinement. In 2013, the district attorney dismissed the case against Browder, and he went home a free — but forever changed — young man.

After many attempts, Browder died by suicide in May 2015.

Browder's story is far too common. Many poor people, especially poor people of color, are locked up for years either awaiting trial or because they cannot afford bail.

ABC News' Juju Chang, Venida Browder, mother of Kalief Browder, and civil rights attorney Paul V. Prestia discuss Kalief Browder's life and death. Photo by Slaven Vlasic/Getty Images.

12. American prisons are intended to punish, but former felons continue to suffer after they have served their time.

Former felons are stripped of voting rights, have difficulty securing employment, applying for aid, and finding housing.

"Ban the box" campaigns that seek to end asking about felony convictions on job and aid applications are popping up across the country, and for many, these initiatives can't come soon enough.

Outreach materials at a press conference for a Ban the Box Petition Delivery to The White House in 2015. Photo by Larry French/Getty Images for ColorOfChange.org.

13. As President Trump settles into office, many are worried about his next moves — and rightfully so.

He repeatedly refers to parts of Chicago as lawless, dangerous, and worse than parts of the war-torn Middle East. He's threatened the city with federal intervention to get the "carnage" under control. His repeated calls to arrest and deport undocumented immigrants tend to include gross mischaracterizations of immigrants as gang members, rapists, or drug dealers.

His "law and order" catchphrase is the same dog whistle Nixon used to kickstart the War on Drugs. His comments about Chicago and other inner cities are stoking fears and playing to the imaginations of his base, much like the horrifying scenes in "Birth of a Nation."

Photo by Mario Tama/Getty Images.

These facts are alarming, but here's what you can do about it.

Use your privilege for good. Pass the mic to voices that may go unheard. Help others register to vote. Support Ban the Box initiatives and organizations that help people with criminal records land on their feet.

Ask to see the numbers. Plenty of police data is publicly available. Check out the numbers in your community. Look at the demographics of people being stopped, arrested, or convicted. Numbers don't lie. Hold your leaders accountable and make them answer for racial disparities.

Stay active in schools. Overpolicing and the criminalization of black people doesn't begin and end with police officers. Black children are nearly four times as likely to be suspended as white children. Ask tough questions of your child's teachers and administrators. Attend school board meetings.

Photo by iStock.

This is no ordinary crisis and it will require extraordinary solutions.

Watch the film, do your part. Let's get to work.

Images courtesy of Letters of Love
True

When Grace Berbig was 7 years old, her mom was diagnosed with leukemia, a cancer of the body’s blood-forming tissues. Being so young, Grace didn’t know what cancer was or why her mother was suddenly living in the hospital. But she did know this: that while her mom was in the hospital, she would always be assured that her family was thinking of her, supporting her and loving her every step of her journey.

Nearly every day, Grace and her two younger sisters would hand-make cards and fill them with drawings and messages of love, which their mother would hang all over the walls of her hospital room. These cherished letters brought immeasurable peace and joy to their mom during her sickness. Sadly, when Grace was just 10 years old, her mother lost her battle with cancer.“

Image courtesy of Letters of Love

Losing my mom put the world in a completely different perspective for me,” Grace says. “I realized that you never know when someone could leave you, so you have to love the people you love with your whole heart, every day.”

Grace’s father was instrumental in helping in the healing process of his daughters. “I distinctly remember my dad constantly reminding my two little sisters, Bella and Sophie, and I that happiness is a choice, and it was now our job to turn this heartbreaking event in our life into something positive.”

When she got to high school, Grace became involved in the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society and a handful of other organizations. But she never felt like she was doing enough.

“I wanted to create an opportunity for people to help beyond donating money, and one that anyone could be a part of, no matter their financial status.”

In October 2018, Grace started Letters of Love, a club at her high school in Long Lake, Minnesota, to emotionally support children battling cancer and other serious illnesses through letter-writing and craft-making.


Image courtesy of Letters of Love

Much to her surprise, more than 100 students showed up for the first club meeting. From then on, Letters of Love grew so fast that during her senior year in high school, Grace had to start a GoFundMe to help cover the cost of card-making materials.

Speaking about her nonprofit today, Grace says, “I can’t find enough words to explain how blessed I feel to have this organization. Beyond the amount of kids and families we are able to support, it allows me to feel so much closer and more connected to my mom.”

Since its inception, Letters of Love has grown to more than 25 clubs with more than 1,000 members providing emotional support to more than 60,000 patients in children’s hospitals around the world. And in the process it has become a full-time job for Grace.

“I do everything from training volunteers and club ambassadors, paying bills, designing merchandise, preparing financial predictions and overviews, applying for grants, to going through each and every card ensuring they are appropriate to send out to hospitals.”

Image courtesy of Letters of Love

In addition to running Letters of Love, Grace and her small team must also contend with the emotions inherent in their line of work.

“There have been many, many tears cried,” she says. “Working to support children who are battling cancer and other serious and sometimes chronic illnesses can absolutely be extremely difficult mentally. I feel so blessed to be an organization that focuses solely on bringing joy to these children, though. We do everything we can to simply put a smile on their face, and ensure they know that they are so loved, so strong, and so supported by people all around the world.”

Image courtesy of Letters of Love

Letters of Love has been particularly instrumental in offering emotional support to children who have been unable to see friends and family due to COVID-19. A video campaign in the summer of 2021 even saw members of the NFL’s Minnesota Vikings and the NHL’s Minnesota Wild offer short videos of hope and encouragement to affected children.

Grace is currently taking a gap year before she starts college so she can focus on growing Letters of Love as well as to work on various related projects, including the publication of a children’s book.

“The goal of the book is to teach children the immense impact that small acts of kindness can have, how to treat their peers who may be diagnosed with disabilities or illness, and how they are never too young to change the world,” she says.

Since she was 10, Grace has kept memories of her mother close to her, as a source of love and inspiration in her life and in the work she does with Letters of Love.

Image courtesy of Grace Berbig

“When I lost my mom, I felt like a section of my heart went with her, so ever since, I have been filling that piece with love and compassion towards others. Her smile and joy were infectious, and I try to mirror that in myself and touch people’s hearts as she did.”

For more information visit Letters of Love.

Please donate to Grace’s GoFundMe and help Letters of Love to expand, publish a children’s book and continue to reach more children in hospitals around the world.

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Images courtesy of AFutureSuperhero and Friends and Balance Dance Project
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The day was scorching hot, but the weather wasn’t going to stop a Star Wars Stormtrooper from handing out school supplies to a long line of eager children. “You guys don’t have anything illegal back there - any droids or anything?” the Stormtrooper asks, making sure he was safe from enemies before handing over a colorful backpack to a smiling boy.

The man inside the costume is Yuri Williams, founder of AFutureSuperhero And Friends, a Los Angeles nonprofit that uplifts and inspires marginalized people with small acts of kindness.

Yuri’s organization is one of four inaugural grant winners from the Upworthy Kindness Fund, a joint initiative between Upworthy and GoFundMe that celebrates kindness and everyday actions inspired by the best of humanity. This year, the Upworthy Kindness Fund is giving $100,000 to grassroots changemakers across the world.

To apply, campaign organizers simply tell Upworthy how their kindness project is making a difference. Between now and the end of 2021, each accepted individual or organization will receive $500 towards an existing GoFundMe and a shout-out on Upworthy.

Meet the first four winners:

1: Balance Dance Project: This studio aims to bring accessible dance to all in the Sacramento, CA area. Lead fundraiser Miranda Macias says many dancers spend hours a day at Balance practicing contemporary, lyrical, hip-hop, and ballet. Balance started a GoFundMe to raise money to cover tuition for dancers from low-income communities, buy dance team uniforms, and update its facility. The $500 contribution from the Kindness Fund nudged Balance closer to its $5,000 goal.

2: Citizens of the World Mar Vista Robotics Team: In Los Angeles, middle school teacher James Pike is introducing his students to the field of robotics via a Lego-building team dedicated to solving real-world problems.

James started a GoFundMe to crowdfund supplies for his students’ team ahead of the First Lego League, a school-against-school matchup that includes robotics competitions. The team, James explained, needed help to cover half the cost of the pricey $4,000 robotics kit. Thanks to help from the Upworthy Kindness Fund and the generosity of the Citizens of the World Middle School community, the team exceeded its initial fundraising goal.

Citizens of the World Mar Vista Robotics Team video update youtu.be

3: Black Fluidity Tattoo Club: Kiara Mills and Tann Parker want to fix a big problem in the tattoo industry: there are too few Black tattoo artists. To tackle the issue, the duo founded the Black Fluidity Tattoo Club to inspire and support Black tattooers. While the Brooklyn organization is open to any Black person, Kiara and Tann specifically want to encourage dark-skinned artists to train in an affirming space among people with similar identities.

To make room for newcomers, the club recently moved into a larger studio with a third station for apprentices or guest artists. Unlike a traditional fundraiser that supports the organization exclusively, Black Fluidity Tattoo Club will distribute proceeds from GoFundMe directly to emerging Black tattoo artists who are starting their own businesses. The small grants, supported in part with a $500 contribution from the Upworthy Kindness Fund, will go towards artists’ equipment, supplies, furnishings, and other start-up costs.

4: AFutureSuperhero And Friends’ “Hope For The Holidays”: Founder Yuri Williams is fundraising for a holiday trip to spread cheer to people in need across all fifty states.

Along with collaborator Rodney Smith Jr., Yuri will be handing out gifts to children, adults, and animals dressed as a Star Wars’ Stormtrooper, Spiderman, Deadpool, and other movie or comic book characters. Starting this month, the crew will be visiting children with disabilities or serious illnesses, bringing leashes and toys to animal shelters for people taking home a new pet, and spreading blessings to unhoused people—all while in superhero costume. This will be the third time Yuri and his nonprofit have taken this journey.

AFutureSuperhero started a GoFundMe in July to cover the cost of gifts as well as travel expenses like hotels and rental cars. To help the nonprofit reach its $15,000 goal, the Upworthy Kindness Fund contributed $500 towards this good cause.

Think you qualify for the fund? Tell us how you’re bringing kindness to your community. Grants will be awarded on a rolling basis from now through the end of 2021. For questions and more information, please check out our FAQ's and the Kindness Toolkit for resources on how to start your own kindness fundraiser.

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