June 30, 2020

Human rights institute draws record participation of youth ready to change the world

Author: Liza Frenette
Source:  NYSUT Communications
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Caption: “The picture for human rights in the world is quite bleak,” said headline speaker Samantha Power, former United States ambassador to the United Nations, noting how important it is for countries to work through international organizations for equality. “Something is very, very broken.” Photo via @CapRegTeenInst.

More than 100 teens are spending three days learning about women’s rights, racism, how to access reliable news, and helping those less fortunate in a society troubled by a pandemic, deep economic woes and racial unrest.

“To say that we’re living in very difficult times is an understatement,” NYSUT Secretary-Treasurer Philippe Abraham, who directs social justice for the statewide organization, told the teens this morning. “Nothing is normal.”

The Capital Region Institute for Human Rights is hosting its sixth annual teen symposium through tomorrow. Typically held at NYSUT headquarters, the event was moved online due to the ongoing pandemic. This year has the most participants ever.

“We need you desperately,” said headline speaker Samantha Power, former United States ambassador to the United Nations. Power began her career as a war correspondent in Bosnia, followed by writing about genocide. She also served as human rights adviser for President Barack Obama. Her book, The Education of an Idealist, was provided to each participant at the institute as required reading.

“The picture for human rights in the world is quite bleak,” Power said, noting how important it is for countries to work through international organizations for equality. “Something is very, very broken.”

She urged teens to get involved and hopes for more accessibility to women for roles in national and international work. “Sending more signals to women has to start happening in high school and college,” she said.

Power urged the teens to avoid guilt about not being able to help in all the many causes that need support, while she acknowledged the critical role they play in advancing those causes. “Young people are at the vanguard of this movement,” she said.

She called on participants to register to vote, vote, get others to vote, and to get people engaged, calling these actions “a critical companion to the protest movement.”

Resources

Several resources for educators are available from NYSUT’s 53-member Civil and Human Rights Committee at nysut.org/socialjustice.

For lesson plans on the history of racism and economic suppression in the US, visit AFT Share My Lesson NEAEdjustice.

Teens are welcome to get involved with local lawmakers, in protest movements and in social media activism. Other avenues for engagement:

There is much at stake, beginning with the need to turn the tide on a long history of racial and economic disparity in this country.

Samantha Rini, political education program manager for the grassroots organization Citizen Action, explained how for every dollar a worker makes, CEOs at the country’s large corporations make $842. She compared that to 1970, when a CEO made 45 times what a worker made.

“Racism and capitalism are interconnected,” she said. “The racial wealth gap is critical to understanding inequality.”

Using charts from the U.S. Current Population Survey, the National Committee on Pay Equity, and the Bureau of Labor Statistics, Rini showed home ownership statistics by race and explained how accumulating wealth vs. income, is what helps people get through hard times, pay their children’s college education and count on retirement.

The corporate model has further harmed the average worker, and it has been strongly in place the last 40 years, Rini said, moving the narrative away from unionism and better wages to higher corporate profits.

Limited funding for schools in poor areas harms the coming generation as well, NYSUT’s Abraham explained. The statewide union continues to press for better funding for schools by calling for the ultrawealthy to pay more of their fair share. Impoverished areas do not have a big enough tax base to help pay for adequate funding, he explained, and that has become more evident than ever during the pandemic as some students do not have access to technology or high speed internet access to keep up with their studies.

Abraham urged the young activists to visit the NYSUT Vigil online to learn about specific action steps they can take to get involved.

“You are social justice warriors,” he said. “We’re not free unless we’re all free.”

Kelly Wetherbee, who organizes the summit along with fellow North Colonie Teachers Association member Thea MacFawn, also told students how they can make a difference by what they post on social media. She urged students to “think about what we amplify and why.” Along with the pandemic, there has been what she called an ‘infodemic,’ and people need to learn to evaluate their news sources for reliability.

“Misinformation is designed to manipulate emotions,” she cautioned. “Emotional responses override rational thought.” She advised students not to simply retweet or repost, but to investigate the source of information.

“News literacy is an essential life skill,” Wetherbee said. “It’s your civic responsibility, really.”

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