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Five Strategies for Human Rights Education

Editor's note: The Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), a seminal international document that outlines the 30 rights that all human beings are entitled to regardless of nationality or the absence of nationality, just celebrated its 70th anniversary. Since its adoption by the United Nations General Assembly in 1948, this aspirational document has served as the first comprehensive agreement of globally shared fundamental values and has led to other significant agreements that keep nations accountable for human rights at the international level. Today, Marissa Gutierrez-Vicario, the co-chair of Human Rights Educators USA (HRE USA) and the founder and executive director of Art and Resistance Through Education (ARTE), shares strategies for human rights education in schools and afterschool programs.

By Guest Blogger Marissa Gutierrez-Vicario

Despite the anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, earlier this year the Trump administration announced that it would withdraw from the United Nations Human Rights Council, "an inter-governmental body with the United Nations system made up of 47 States responsible for the promotion and protection of all human rights around the globe." Thus, never has there been a greater moment to teach about, uphold, and promote human rights education in the classroom or during afterschool programming. 

Human Rights Educators USA describes human rights education as a "lifelong process of teaching and learning that helps individuals develop the knowledge, skills, and values to fully exercise and protect the human rights of themselves and others; to fulfill their responsibilities in the context of internationally agreed upon human rights principles; and to achieve justice and peace in the world." Furthermore, this lifelong process of human rights education empowers communities and ishuman rights blog.png an important tool for creating a more equitable and just world, where individuals and their communities, once educated on their human rights, would be able to exercise and practice these rights.

Below are five strategies that educators can utilize to educate, inspire, and activate youth around human rights in their own communities.

1. Make Language Accessible

Educators can deepen students' understanding of the UDHR and human rights by making the language in the UDHR, including legal jargon, more accessible. As the most translated document in the world, the document can be found in most languages, and a simplified version is also available.

They can also use the UDHR to facilitate and strengthen the educational experiences of English-language learners in the classroom; students might be familiar with the concept of human rights, but they may not be familiar with certain words in English. For instance, a Spanish-speaking student might have difficulty defining the word "sweatshop" in English. However, this student may understand what the word is in their native language or might be able to better identify the concept if presented with an image alongside the English word to help further their understanding of the concept. While a simple technique, it can help create a more welcoming and human-rights-friendly classroom.

Additional Resources:

2. Include Visual Aids

Educators should use visuals whenever and wherever possible in their human rights curriculum. This might include photography, examples of artwork, infographics, media (particularly film or YouTube clips), which should be subtitled whenever possible. For instance, a lesson plan on human rights in national security should include the geographical context before a discussion on torture and the Guantanamo Bay Detention Camp. It may help further students' understanding by pinpointing on a map where the camp is located in Cuba and how far it is from the United States. Visuals are essential for making ambiguous human rights concepts more concrete, and even personal.

Additional Resources:

3. Encourage in Storytelling

Educators should cultivate safe, respectful, and exploratory spaces within their classrooms and programs for young people to share their own stories about human rights. Many students may be familiar with the concepts of human rights from their own experiences; however, exposure to human rights education might be the first opportunity they have to connect their own stories to a larger, human rights framework.

In order to encourage ethical storytelling, human rights educators can interview community members and then share those stories through personalized comic books and magazines or a classroom/program podcast.

In any activity or lesson plan that involves personal student storytelling, educators should be mindful of creating a safe and welcoming learning space for all of their students, including any immigrant students with undocumented status.

Additional Resources:

4. Use Art

Art-making involves critical thinking and provides space for creators to understand an issue from different vantage points, move away from stereotypes, and think about a particular issue on a different level. Educators can also use art to gauge student understanding of human rights issues that are being discussed in the classroom or program. For instance, educators frequently use tools like graphic novels (e.g., Persepolis, Maus) and political cartoons to help deepen student understanding about human rights and social issues. Students can also draw what they learned about a human rights issue after a discussion on a particular topic. They can also produce a public mural as a larger, culminating event. For mural projects, as students develop the messaging for a particular human rights issue that is especially meaningful to them, educators can gauge and assess how much students have learned about a topic and what aspects of the human rights issue have most resonated with them.

Additional Resources:

5. Invite Action

Educators can promote student action or advocacy on a particular human rights issue. Taking action imbues individuals with a sense of agency, and educators have an opportunity to encourage their students to interact with the world beyond their classroom or program, whether signing a petition or creating a community event to increase awareness about a specific local or global human rights issue.

Additional Resources:

  • Amnesty International has a wealth of resources focusing on student action. This includes letter-writing campaign templates that can be incorporated into lessons and action toolkits to support student-organizing campaigns.
  • The Advocates for Human Rights' lesson plans help high school youth understand the extent to which international human rights standards are being fulfilled in the United States and can be used as a foundation for creating action projects on human rights issues they care about.
  • The Center for Global Education's Global Leadership Performance Outcomes describe the knowledge and skills young people need to take action and make a difference in the world.  

Despite the United States' withdrawal from the United Nations Human Rights Council, educators can encourage and further human rights education in the classroom and in afterschool programs through these simple, but impactful, strategies. It is this very movement of human rights education that will keep the Universal Declaration of Human Rights alive for another 70 years.

Connect with HRE USAARTE, Heather, and the Center for Global Education on Twitter. 

Image created with Pablo.

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