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Who’s Got Rights?

This year my internship placement for the Fellowship in Jewish Social Entrepreneurship is with The Advocacy Lab (AdLab), an organization whose mission is to empower youth to take action around human rights.  Twice a week, I co-facilitate a human rights course in a Brooklyn public high school to help 10th graders learn advocacy tools to fight for their own rights as well as for wider humanity.  During the first half of the year, we discuss various human rights issues including racial discrimination, children’s rights, environmental rights, gender and LGBT equality, and sex trafficking.  For each unit, we do an “Action Through Arts,” in which we incorporate an arts project so students can explore creative forms of advocacy. In December, the students will choose an issue we’ve been studying, and spend the rest of the year running a campaign to address it.

Working at AdLab uniquely combines many of my different interests.  I’m a Human Rights major at Barnard and I believe that everyone should be informed about human rights violations, so it’s really exciting to get to bring the topics I’ve been studying in college to a public high school classroom.  Public education is another one of my interests – this summer I participated in the Urban Education Leaders Internship Program with DC Public Schools, and I may want to go into education after college – so I jumped at the opportunity to get to become familiar with a NYC public school.  Most of my teaching experience before this was with younger students, so I wanted to try teaching high school students to find out if I like the older age group (turns out I do!). Lastly, the arts have always been an important part of my life, and I love that AdLab incorporates the arts into each unit as a way to spark students’ interest, as well as utilize their diverse talents.  Over the last two months, these classes have often, if not always, been the highlight of my week.

The school where we work is located in a low-income area, and my 10th graders are at a 6th-8th grade reading and writing level.  About half have learning disabilities, several are immigrants, and many have attendance problems.  One thing that’s special about human rights education is that unlike math, science, or literature, anyone can relate to the material, regardless of skill level.  It’s so inspiring to see the students that I know struggle in other subjects participate in our discussions and offer their understandings of various human rights issues.  In our unit on racial discrimination, many of the male students offered anecdotal comments about their experiences with Stop and Frisk.  I was beyond impressed with their Action Through Arts projects that week – they designed T-shirts with images or phrases protesting racial discrimination.  I was moved by both their artistic talent and their wit.

At our Fellowship orientation as well as in subsequent meetings, we’ve discussed how we each relate social justice to Judaism.  I feel that as Jews, we have a unique ability to relate to other groups that face oppression, discrimination, and other types of hardships.  Every Jew knows that his/her people spent most of history facing some sort of persecution, discrimination, or marginalization.  Fortunately, I don’t think I have ever experienced anti-Semitism or under-privilege because of my Jewishness, at least not directly.  But because memories of such hardship is so vivid in the Jewish collective memory, I feel both an ability and a responsibility to connect with groups currently going through such hardships.

We’ve also spent time in the Fellowship discussing the various “levels” at which we can engage in social justice.  I like working with AdLab because I feel I’m doing social justice work at two different levels.  One is that I’m working with students who are receiving less than adequate education.  The other is that the content of our course addresses serious human rights issues, and my students are taking action for them.  Two weeks ago, they wrote letters to the UN asking that all countries ratify the Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Rights of the Child on the involvement of children in armed conflict.  Next semester, during the campaign part of the course, they will spend three months working for social justice themselves.  Thus, through my students, I hopefully will be able to impact a larger social issue.

To learn more about AdLab, check out this great YouTube video! Amnesty International has also created a youth arm to bring young people into human rights advocacy – visit their site here to find out how high schoolers and college students are getting involved in this important work. For information on creating curricula that help teach human rights, the Carter Center has several high-school level lesson plans that are offered to as a free resource to teachers.