Helping students of all ages become human rights advocates has many challenges. We must somehow cultivate students’ interest in applying a human rights perspective to their personal lives, to their school and neighborhood, and in their national and international communities. We also must help them recognize the tools they already possess for effective action and help them identify the skills and knowledge they still need to develop. Finally, we must show students how to go about finding the resources and outside support needed to become effective advocates.
Students as Advocates for Human Rights
In Teaching for Human Dignity, (Betty A. Reardon, In Teaching for Human Dignity (Philadelphia: U of Penn., 1995) Betty Reardon outlines the phases in the development of an advocate. First, of course, people must become aware of human rights concerns. However, if they are to be more than mere spectators, their interest needs to be aroused. They need to start choosing to pay attention. They need to start seeking information about the social origins, history, and consequences of problems they are witnessing. At this step of the process, they are moving from being spectators to being active observers. As the learning process continues, observers begin to develop a greater concern about injustice. This greater concern leads people to want to make others aware. They may tell their friends and families about the problems they are seeing. In other words, they are becoming human rights witnesses.
From being witnesses they progress to being dissatisfied simply making others aware: they are moved to take action. They may choose to do community service or get involved in a service learning project. They may choose to become advocates, join an advocacy group or publicly campaign on human rights issues, write letters to government officials, participate in demonstrations or other awareness events. People’s involvement may progress to the point of starting their own advocacy group, planning their own awareness events, or coordinating with other organizations. As committed advocates, they can envision, plan, and carry out their own course of action to address an issue that they have come to care deeply about.
Helping Students Become Activists
Kathleen McGinnis in Educating for a Just Society (Kathleen McGinnis, Educating for a Just Society (St. Louis, MO: Institute for Peace and Justice, 1992) provides a methodology for educating students for peace and justice. Much of this methodology can be applied to teaching students to become human rights advocates.
Once students become aware of human rights issues, before they will be interested in and able to take effective action, they must have some confidence in their own gifts and abilities. It can be very helpful to start planning a project with an assessment of students’ abilities. Ask students to list their individual talents and strengths, and then compile a class list. Here, a teacher with a good knowledge of his or her students can point out strengths that students may not be aware of. Also, a teacher can point out the special talents of students that otherwise might not be acknowledged by the class. Throughout a community action project, teachers should help students articulate the skills they are developing. Students also need to learn appropriate ways to take a stand on an issue and assert their opinions. For young adolescents this can be particularly hard. It might be helpful to spend some time as a class examining the feelings involved in forming and publicly stating an opinion. You might also wish to explore the reasons it is important to speak up.
Equally important is that students have a solid understanding of the process by which change takes place. All students need to be able to identify decision-making powers and structures in their schools and communities. For older students, that understanding should be extended to regional, national, and international levels. For certain projects, an understanding of governmental bodies, economic markets, and legal frameworks might be critical. Students should also learn how political action groups and social justice groups can interact with these structures to bring about change. Adults need to familiarize students with appropriate channels for taking action on issues, and prepare them for the fact that often the most effective ways of bringing about change require patience and diplomacy.
Connecting on an Emotional Level
The transition from spectator to advocate is often rooted in the very personal. Students will be moved to take action on human rights issues to which they feel emotionally connected. Many will be particularly committed to working on issues with which they have direct experience. Thus teachers need to be sensitive to students’ life situations and experiences and be ready for the possibility that the issue the class is working on may hit very cose to home for some students.
Stories of people directly affected by human rights problems often can be powerful and important in motivating students. Videos are helpful; personal contact is even better, whenever possible. Inviting individuals to speak to the class, so that students can ask questions and get to know them, makes human rights less abstract, more personal and urgent for the students. These personal contacts can dispel stereotypes and empower students who are themselves struggling against injustice in some way. Inviting other activists, particularly students, can also be inspiring. Motivation and inspiration can come from students’ seeing themselves as part of a larger community of advocates. Opportunities for students to celebrate the classroom fellowship and social relationships fostered by working together on an action project are also very beneficial. Any connections with others working on similar projects can reinforce the importance and value of students’ efforts.
Although developing an action project with a class requires significant time and effort, the rewards are great. At times teachers may need to seek out background information on a particular topic, but they need not be human rights experts to work with students in mounting an effective project. Becoming an activist is a learning process in which adults participate along with young people. Students and adults can work together to gather information and plan effective strategies. Action projects are cooperative activities in which adults frequently are inspired by students’ enthusiasm, and students benefit from seeing the adults as learners.
Source: Human Rights Here and Now, University of Minnesota Human Rights Center
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