July 13, 2015

At human rights summit, teens gear up to make change

Author: Liza Frenette
Source: NYSUT Communications
teen summit
Caption: Thea MacFawn (left), a member of the North Colonie Teachers Association who teaches English and journalism at Shaker High School, engages students at the teen symposium. Photo by El-Wise Noisette.

Sixty Capital Region high school students have chosen to spend three gorgeous summer days indoors, learning about sad and uncomfortable truths in the exploitation of human rights around the world.

There would have been even more, but the program had to be capped: there was a waiting list.

These teens are gearing up to make change.

That change begins now, with a swap of summer fun for a symposium being held Monday through Wednesday at NYSUT headquarters in Latham.

The day kicked off when students from seven different high schools aligned themselves with the poster that resonated most deeply with them; each one listed an article from the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Student Dan LaSalle from Shaker High stood next to Article #8: Your Human Rights are Protected by Law. He said he is concerned because "certain groups are given preferential treatment" when it comes to the law.

Article #18 snagged the attention of Sonal Lakhotia of Shaker High School. Freedom of Thought, she said, is a "big umbrella…it connects all other rights."

Leading the teens in the first-ever Capital Region Institute for Human Rights 2015 Teen Summer Symposium are a group of motivated teachers and a school librarian who have dedicated months of research and planning to fashion the program. Thea MacFawn, a member of the North Colonie Teachers Association who teaches English and journalism at Shaker High School, started the symposium with dedicated zeal. She used a symposium model from teacher Drew Beiter of the Springville Faculty Association, a teaching fellow she met as part of a fellowship she was granted at the US. Holocaust Memorial Museum.

"We wanted to create a space where students could deeply explore issues impacting people around the world; we also saw the symposium as a way of empowering students to be leaders in their communities," MacFawn said.

Her cohort for the symposium and numerous class projects is Shaker High School librarian Kelly Wetherbee, North Colonie TA, who is already hip deep in the human rights curriculum helping her peers and students with project-based work such as research, making videos and drafting PowerPoint presentations on social justice issues.

The goal of the symposium, she said, is to help students to see they have already made choices to help other people's lives, "and now (they can) take that and make it even bigger."

Students this morning heard from Carl Wilkens of Spokane, Wash., who in 1994 became the lone American who chose to remain in Rwanda when genocide swiftly broke out. He talked to students about The Power of One.

Although frightened, he wanted to help people, and he wanted to save the lives of two Tutsi Rwandans who had been living with and assisting his family for four years. The Hutu were murdering Tutsi with the goal of wiping out the tribe, and one-in-seven people were killed in that genocide. A Rwandan pastor and his wife came to his house to help save the pair. Wilkens said they took turns going to the gate and talking with Hutus who wanted the pair — each time somehow convincing the terrorists to allow them to stay. Once they passed them $100 through the gate.

Although frightened, Wilkens worked with authorities and got a pass to help out in an orphanage, where babies and youngsters were drying from dysentery from lack of food and water.

"That was my vaccination against fear," Wilkens said. He strongly believes fear and courage can co-exist. He is a living example of what he calls "the power of presence."

Today, Rwanda has come great lengths, he said. Law requires that 30 percent of decision-makers are women, but the Parliament is actually 64 percent women. Many, many men were murdered, along with women and children. This female empowerment has helped strengthen the country, Wilkens said. Hutu prisoners from the genocide murders help build schools, and they are given opportunities to redefine themselves.

Students also heard from teacher Bill Reilly, Bethlehem Central Teachers Association, and Mark Bertrand of the Giving Circle, on getting involved in global initiatives. Earlier in the day, Reilly stood in front of the poster for Article #13 of the Declaration of Human Rights: Workers Rights.

"I have a growing concern about the power of corporations over some of the world's most impoverished people," Reilly said. In Uganda, citizens of Kagoma Gate work the sugar cane fields for 11 cents a day. They work 364 days a year on land owned by huge corporations.

He works in Uganda with others to help build schools, orphanages and create sustainable farming. As founder of the Global Coalition for Peace, Education and Cultural Awareness, he helps students connect with each other in countries all over the world. Reilly weaves social justice into his social studies classes, and his school takes on fundraisers for Uganda.

Many teachers are helping students connect the events of the world with classroom learning. World history teacher Dan Weaver, North Colonie TA, who also helped create the teen symposium, uses current events as part of his regular curriculum, helping students learn about conflict in Syria, Russia, the Ukraine, and with ISIS.

Shaker High seniors will be able to sign up for a new class this fall: Literature and Human Rights. MacFawn will teach it, along with her accomplice Wetherbee. The school librarian has already helped Shaker students enter the Speak Truth to Power video contest highlighting human rights defenders, and they've snagged two honorable mentions for the national competition.

Further events at the symposium include hearing from Holocaust and Rwandan genocide survivors; learning more about Fair Trade; using social media to raise awareness; letter-writing campaigns; designing a website to change the world; and hearing from retired teacher Karen Flewelling about how she helps provide clean water to beleaguered people all over the world.