September 2016 Issue
September 29, 2016

Union-backed human rights program inspires teens

Author: By Liza Frenette
Source: NYSUT United
From left, students Ashley Davidson, Jordan Scull, Rebecca Hyatt and Braeden Arthur use NYSUT’s Why in 5 cards to start a conversation about various social justice topics. Photo by El-Wise Noisette.
Caption: : From left, students Ashley Davidson, Jordan Scull, Rebecca Hyatt and Braeden Arthur use NYSUT’s Why in 5 cards to start a conversation about various social justice topics. Photo by El-Wise Noisette.

For children who are wanting, and adults who are waiting, help is on the way from students who care about human rights.

In just two years, about 100 students now have ways to help through programs they learned about at the Capital Region Institute for Human Rights Teen Symposium.

The symposium provides students the opportunity to meet speakers from around the world who are making change, and then to find pathways to determine how they can help, including working with students from other schools.

"We keep it open enough ... so no matter what they are interested in in human rights they can pursue it," said Bill Reilly, Bethlehem Teachers Association member and one of the symposium leaders. "We have to reach across the world with education instead of guns and bombs."

The program is modeled after the Summer Institute for Human Rights and Genocide Study in West Seneca, which completed its ninth year opening up the world to high school students who want to make positive changes.

The Capital Region symposium is run by educators who teach about human rights. North Colonie TA members Thea MacFawn and Kelly Wetherbee co-direct the institute and team with Reilly and James Bell, North Colonie TA, to run the symposium. "We want to give [students] strategies," Wetherbee said.

MacFawn uses her extensive knowledge of the Holocaust to help students understand the complex issues that arise when human rights are violated. Many people make decisions to either do nothing to help, or to increase the tragedy.

Many powerful, corrective actions have come from the energy of the symposium. Student Bethany DeZolt organized a first-ever Human Rights Day at her school with the support of social studies teacher Anthony Mucilli, a Broadalbin-Perth TA member.

Students from the 2015 symposium raised $5,000 to help build a farm in Uganda working with the Giving Circle, Inc. The charity's founder, Mark Bertrand told students the organization has helped Hurricane Katrina survivors; empowered a Code Blue program for the homeless in Saratoga; and helps children in Africa with schools and basic needs.

Recent high school graduate Raina Briggs raised money to help educate impoverished students in Belize via the Worlds Windows charity through a weekend event with bands and crafts. Each year she donates a portrait of a social justice leader to an art auction that raises money for schools around the world.

North Colonie student Caroline Kremer started The Book Shelf to raise money to buy books for students in need. Jack Einstein presented on transgender rights and the I AM HUMAN human rights campaign he created. Students are raising money to purchase hearing aids for children in a new school for the deaf in Uganda. One group is encouraging schools to include more mental health issues in the curriculum and in library literature. A student-led Closets are for Clothes campaign has teens working with the Pride Center to advocate within the high schools for the LGBTQ community.

Students worked with a local restaurant to sponsor a night in August where a percentage of revenues went to the Southend Children's Cafe, which serves children with food insecurities.

A symposium student who is now a freshman at UAlbany is interning with the Global Institute for Health and Human Rights, founded by professors Kamiar Alaei and Arash Alaei, both members of United Universty Professions, a NYSUT higher education affiliate.

Students are welcome to pursue their own ideas. "Any action on any scale," said Bell. "They don't have to start an organization or fly to the end of the globe."

In West Seneca, teacher Andrew Beiter, Springville TA, directs the Summer Institute of Buffalo with the help of teachers Lori Raybold and Jim Gang, Hamburg TA; Stephanie O'Donnell, Newfane TA; and Michael Baronich, Springville TA. Students there have spread activism across the globe.

NYSUT is a sponsor of the Buffalo Institute, and the Capital Region symposium. Teens are taught how unions pursue wage equity for all and how they build support for racial equality. Unions also fight against child labor, and advocate for education for all.

"When you're educated you're more likely to be involved in community," said student Braeden Arthur of Saratoga Springs.

Social Justice Info

NYSUT's Social Justice initiative, created by the union's Civil and Human Rights Committee, draws attention to the many issues our members and their communities face. For information and resources for the classroom and local action, visit Here's a sample:

● The Start the Conversation campaign for racial equality offers resources and questions.

● The "Why in 5" campaign offers a short set of talking points NYSUT members can use to educate others about social justice. Convenient cards can easily be passed on to family, friends and strangers alike.

● The Ken Kurzweil Social Justice Recognition Award honors locals, chapters and retiree councils that support social justice causes. The award is named in honor of Retiree Council 15 member Ken Kurzweil, former longtime chair of the Civil and Human Rights Committee. The deadline for submissions is March 17. Download a form at