January 2011 Issue
December 19, 2010

Web event teaches lessons on human rights

Author: Betsy Sandberg
Source: NYSUT United
Caption: Students join NYSUT officers Kathleen Donahue and Lee Cutler, left, Kerry Kennedy, center, and filmmaker Roberto Romano and migrant worker advocate Lucas Benitez, right, in cheering human rights defenders. Photo by Maria R. Bastone.

Building on a successful Web event that exposed truths about child labor in West Africa and the United States, students from Buffalo to Brentwood are resolving to defend human rights and to promote Fair Trade.

"It's all about getting Jessica Rios and the other kids we saw in the film out of the fields and back into school," said Kathleen Donahue, a NYSUT vice president, who, along with Secretary-Treasurer Lee Cutler, was part of a webinar last month that introduced New York state students to children who work to feed America.

The webinar launched a new human rights curriculum that was developed by NYSUT in collaboration with the Robert F. Kennedy Center for Justice and Human Rights. The event originated from the classroom of teacher Diane Gonzalez at Chestnut Ridge Middle School in Spring Valley and was seen simultaneously by hundreds of students.

Kerry Kennedy, daughter of the late U.S. Sen. Robert Kennedy, spoke to students about human rights. Based on Kerry Kennedy's book Speak Truth to Power: Human Rights Defenders Who are Changing the World, the curriculum includes 17 teacher-developed lesson plans for students in grades 6-12.

Lucas Benitez, a founder of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, which fights for better wages and working conditions for migrant workers in Florida, shared his experiences with child labor, slave labor and exploited migrant farm labor.

The event "has lit a spark in our students," said Joanne Casella, who teaches eighth-graders at the Dodson School in Yonkers.

Chris Radez, who teaches 10th-grade global history at Coxsackie-Athens High School, said the webinar fit perfectly with her instruction. "This ties directly into what the students are learning. They've been studying the human price of efficiency," Radez said.

Pam Pleszewski, who teaches at a Dunkirk elementary school, said her fifth-grade students are very concerned about child labor and the trafficking of children, some of whom are their age. "After the webcast, we continued to discuss human rights and how we can help to make a difference," she said.

Schools in Dunkirk, Coxsackie-Athens and Yonkers were among the 20 school districts across New York that participated and among those noted for efforts to defend human rights, such as collecting food and clothing for families in need and drawing attention to the illegal use of child labor in chocolate production in Ghana and the Ivory Coast.

"Students' efforts this fall also helped spread the word about human rights," Cutler said.

Students petitioned Hershey to stop using child labor and forced labor in West Africa; discussed the documentary The Dark Side of Chocolate; and participated in "reverse trick or treating" on Halloween, to give out Fair Trade chocolate and related information.