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Teaching Human Rights Inside and Outside the Classroom: Education Without Borders

By Shayna Plaut, Human Rights Contributing Editor

Roundtable discussion (Photo credit: Youssef Farhat)

Nearly 300 activists, academics, funders, students and clergy, and people who identify as some combination of these came together at the University of Dayton for the second bi-annual Social Practice of Human Rights conference earlier this month. I organized and facilitated a roundtable bringing together an eclectic array of educators who teach human rights inside and outside the classroom. Our goal was to discuss how we do what we do.

University courses addressing various human rights issues have grown exponentially at the undergraduate and graduate levels over the past 20 years. Most of these courses focus on specific issues and many programs require fieldwork and/or internships. Increasingly, international human rights language is being integrated into professional training programs centered on social issues like labor, immigration or domestic violence. What is lacking here, despite the resonance and inclusion of human rights issues, is conversation regarding the “doing” of human rights work: guidelines informed by common mistakes and best practices. One must recognize the ethics that are involved in doing such work. In this way, one can develop best practices as well as note concerns in current practice.

This roundtable sought to bring together people engaged in human rights scholarship, teaching, and organizing to explore the particular skills that are needed to do theoretical and applied research on human rights, human rights violations and advocacy. It also discussed the ethics and methods of human rights work, including the consequences of teaching and doing such research poorly. As the title said, “how do you teach education inside and outside the classroom?”

This roundtable had a selfish motive for me as well. I am designing and teaching a course, “the Ethics and Methods of Human Rights Work,” next semester, and I wanted to learn from those who are also engaged in this work.

We were an eclectic crew:

  • Lisa Brock (Doc Brock), Academic Director of the Arcus Center for Social Justice Leadership and Founding Editor of Praxis Center;
  • Alice Kim, Editor of Praxis Center, who is currently teaching at a maximum security prison and is a long-time anti-death penalty and prison activist;
  • William Simmons, Associate Professor of Women and Gender Studies and Director of a forthcoming BA and MA in Human Rights at University of Arizona;
  • Carol Gray, a graduate student and an attorney who was a public defender and also worked on death penalty cases, including that of Troy Davis.  She is currently spearheading in an oral history of one of Egypt’s leading human rights organizations;
  • me, Shayna Plaut, an academic-activist-journalist who has taught human rights at the university level for over 15 years in five countries.

We had some guiding questions, but we also encouraged the natural flow of conversation. As Alice Kim explained when referencing her teaching, we chose to “trust the wisdom in the room that things would go in the right direction.”

We intentionally limited our opening remarks to five minutes each to kick things off. As William Simmons explained, we were guided by the principles of both “building community and decentering knowledge.” And the questions came:

  • How do we handle inviting guest speakers to come talk to our class if we know they have financial needs but we have limited resources?
  • Why do we use the term human rights vs. social justice or vice versa – how do we understand the differences?
  • Are there certain things that cross the line of “free speech” and debate in a classroom? What if we feel alienated at our institutions – how do we find allies?
  • Can you do this type of work if you don’t have tenure?

Image by: Kunal Mehta / Shutterstock

In the spirit of flipping the classroom, here is a blog post from one of the audience participants, Michelle Allendoerfer, Assistant Professor of Political Science and Director of the Women’s Leadership Programat George Washington University. This was written minutes after she attended the roundtable, where she asked a stimulating question about what to do about the presumed “liberal bias” within human rights.  I have interspersed some of her reflections from the blog below:

A common theme was how to engage students in practice and the community, globally and locally. One example of this is using problem-based learning to get students excited about the material. Beyond problem-based learning in the classroom, William Simmons of the University of Arizona discussed how he brings community members into the classroom.

Currently, William is working on a project for sex workers’ rights, and his goal for mid-semester is “to get to a point where none of us can distinguish between the community members and the students.” His main motivation is to de-center knowledge as a way of decentering power.

Shayna Plaut at Social Practice of Human Rights Conference(Photo credit: Youssef Farhat)

Alice Kim offered another example where the “decentering of knowledge” can lead to both a sharing of power and increased learning and efficacy. So often, community members – activists and those who have experienced human rights abuses – are asked to share their stories, to give their time and energy and story, often for little to no financial compensation. Alice said that the community also has to be comfortable making demands for their time. What this looks like may be surprising. In Alice’s case, in response to a request for her and Chicago police torture survivors to speak at a local high school, she asked the class to attend a public City Council hearing on proposed legislation seeking reparations for Chicago torture survivors. This process not only engaged the students and teachers, but also the parents who had to sign the permission slips for the students to attend the hearing, thus enabling even further conversations about social justice in the classroom, the lunch room, and the dinner table.

“Current events and cases to engage students in discussions of social justice and human rights issues was another recurring theme in the roundtable’s discussion,” as Michelle’s blog post pointed out. Carol Gray discussed the value of using specific cases and, in particular, primary sources and documentaries so that students hear about experiences in the voice of the people involved. “We are explicitly teaching critical thinking through controversy,” she explained. “We are training people how to be critically engaged.”

Alice Kim shared examples of creating curriculum around current events, such as the #TeachBurge website, featuring curricula, resources, and an historical timeline on the Chicago police torture case, which was developed as part of the reparations campaign. In addition, Alice and a fellow activist launched Educators for Troy, an initiative that mobilized educators to interrupt their regular teaching schedules to “Teach Troy.”

This is not neutral education – but no one was apologizing.

 Engaging in Human Rights Education: Questions for Consideration:

  • Why do we do what we do?
  • How do we understand human rights education?
  • What ethical challenges have you encountered while teaching human rights across borders and how have you dealt with these challenges?
  • What are the benefits and drawbacks of having students involved with human rights issues affecting a community of which they are not a part of?
  • What is the role of the classroom in human rights education? What is human rights education outside of the classroom?
  • What are some examples of building/creating institutions that enable human rights education to take place?

“I don’t think academia is objective – it never has been,“ Lisa Brock explained. “Claim your space. Be transparent and you will find your allies. A lot of people are looking for someone to be brave.” With that said, it is rare to be asked to fuse academia and activism. For Lisa, this meant that she chose to be strategic – to seek out institutions that will encourage the synergy.

As I listened to my colleagues, I reflected on my own experience as an instructor. I try to model open and critical thinking. Sometimes this is as simple as reminding students that “just because I assign an article doesn’t mean you have to agree with it. [But] You need to have the language and framework to argue against it well.” That said, I also want to ensure that students understand that not all knowledge is found in books or academic articles; knowledge is created by people. For this reason, in the vast majority of the classes I teach, I mandate that every student interview at least one person that is affected by or actively working on the issue that they have selected as their final project. For example, if a student’s final project is focusing on the possibility of prescription heroin in Canada, the student could interview a heroin user, a doctor, a safe injection site worker, or a pharmacist.

But the student must be taught how to identify a potential interviewee and do so in a respectful way that benefits all. What are we building with this knowledge? “It is not just what you don’t want or don’t agree with,” Lisa said, “but what you do want.” I followed up by stating that my goal is to teach a basic literacy of human rights; I want to work with my students so they know “how to question” and how to imagine something different.

This can be uncomfortable work.

What does it mean to be “respectful” in a space of controversy? According to Alice, it means creating a “brave space rather than a safe space.” Recognizing that there is blatant (or covert) racism, homophobia or xenophobia in our classroom, we model how to respond. What was interesting, however, was that all of us also recognized that it is often the students who will choose to challenge their classmates into thinking differently by choosing to share their own lived realities.