HRE USA Editorial team member Alseta Gholston interviewed Karen Robinson (pictured), Senior Education Manager at the Robert F. Kennedy Center for Justice and Human Rights. Read the highlights below.
AG: Can you tell me a little about your background in human rights education and how you first got started in the field?
KR: Community organizing and developing community service and service-learning programs provided me with an unbelievable foundation for the human rights education work I did with Amnesty International USA, as the Director of Human Rights Education.
Now at the Robert F. Kennedy Center for Justice and Human Rights and the Speak Truth to Power (STTP) project, I have the perfect place with this project to bring that all to life.
AG: Do students best learn about human rights through issues in their own world and then expand that to make global correlations?
KR: Absolutely. STTP has been around for many years, but in 2010 we revisited how the lessons were designed and one of the things we were very committed to is the power of these stories of human rights defenders around the world.
We always end each lesson with Become a Defender. We want our human rights education project to be round peg-round hole. It’s got to work. It’s got to be mapped in and make sense for the community that’s using it whether that’s a classroom, a community setting, or if we’re working at a church group, however it makes most sense.
We designed formal lessons, aligned with Common Core so that a teacher who may not be as exposed or comfortable with HRE concepts can still see where it fits into their curriculum.
We want stories of these defenders to be a point of entry and a point of understanding and learning about these issues and that sometimes you can be so far away, but when you read a story of Marian Wright Edelman or even of Desmond Tutu or the Dalai Lama. Students hear and see threads within those stories where they say “wow, I can see elements of me there. I can see elements and pieces of a life that are not far removed. Here I thought the Dalai Lama was way over there.”
Students say that the defender stories, the personal narratives, bring these issues a little closer than if they were to just learn about the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and these conventions. That’s exactly what we want. As Eleanor Roosevelt said “where, after all, do human right start? They start in small places.” They understand what they do in their communities through that lens of human rights, in their small places, as they define it. Then hopefully, as they experience STTP, our human rights ed program, they get to a point where their lens is very broad, long, and wide, but it’s still grounded in these ideas, values, and principles.
Then slowly they start to understand that not only is that a foundation that we all have a right to, and we need if we want a society that embodies all those ideals, but it’s also a framework for action. When they see these issues, there is actually a legal framework that is replicated in various ways in other countries and that they can take action. So, that’s kind of how we frame it and how we present it to teachers when we do our teacher training and then in developing our Youth Speaking Truth and Become a Defender [programs]. We try to help students see that path, not direct them, but to see that this is a path for them and to understand to speak their truth as they see it.
AG: Is STTP a curriculum for students or is it professional development training for teachers to know how to teach these lessons, or both?
KR: It’s all of it. We have a curriculum that you can access online. We don’t really print it out anymore, but it’s online and aligned with common core. We’re constantly adding new lessons. We have about 35 lessons now, primarily English/language arts, and social studies/social sciences. But we’re working with a few universities’ schools of ed to kind of expand that further to other areas. But we also offer something called Teach Truth to Power which is our professional development [program]. We have a whole training curriculum that can go from one day, or one afterschool session, that focuses just on Teach Truth to Power, or human rights education. This summer we did a 4-day institute that kind of was a Training of Trainers so we have kind of a range of support for teachers. Then the third element is what we call Youth Speaking Truth. That’s our youth platform and that’s the piece that we’re really starting to develop out this year. We partner with groups like Human Rights Watch. So, it’s like how can we work with them and not try to reinvent the wheel at all, but join together to collectively create that foundation for students so that they have access to the materials and resources to develop the skills and knowledge to be advocates in their communities for human rights?
AG: Is this training for teachers in the U.S. as well as teachers worldwide?
KR: Exactly. Currently we have active programs in Sweden, Cambodia, Italy, and South Africa. Starting in Canada, starting in Mexico, a bit of a program in Romania. So we’re growing slowly.
AG: That’s great. Sounds really good. So, how can teachers get involved with these training programs?
KR: The best thing to do would be to email me (firstname.lastname@example.org). Depending on where they are in the country, we have a whole group of educators across the U.S. who have gone through trainings and are available to either do trainings or help refine what this might look like in a school or school district. If they contact me first, we’ll set them on a path that works for them and connect them with the folks who are there that kind provide them support. We’re building out our Teach Truth to Power lead educators and they range from former superintendents and principals, school board members, classroom teachers, and school counselors.
AG: What do you think is the best way to advocate for human rights education to become a more integral part of the K-12 education system in the U.S.?
KR: I think that [it takes] working where we have those low-hanging fruit or those real allies like National Council on Social Studies (NCSS). I think we have really good friends in the union. For us, the New York State United Teachers (NYSUT), they’ve been incredible allies in bringing human rights education in the forefront for them… I think if we can find those allies and those like-minded organizations and associations and if we can have a clear, concise, and collective voice saying that this is needed, and then layer on to that all of the examples of where human rights education has been integrated into K-12 education and [show] those outcomes. We just did a very preliminary evaluation of two of our sites, and I think other partner organizations within HRE USA have done similar things. The reality of it is that human rights education adds value not only to our students’ ability to be global citizens, but to their social and emotional development as well- but we have to be able to be able to quantify it. Then we can legitimately say that human rights education meets many of the criteria for those assessments and metrics that folks are looking for. I think doing both, making sure we have all of our allies together and providing the data that shows and demonstrates the value of human rights ed. Then, I think we just have to keep going forward. As Marian Wright Edelman said, “if you can’t run, walk. If you can’t walk, crawl. If you can’t crawl, just keep moving.” This is where we have a path before us and it as open as I have never seen before, and we just have to keep moving.
AG: That’s right. HRE USA is so important and we’re at that first stepping stone. I, too, am looking forward to seeing things really take off here.
KR: I have to say. We get so many requests when we work in schools. One or two teachers may start doing this and then they share with their colleagues. There is a hunger for this. You know, human rights education is really interesting. It opens up the world in a way that so many other things don’t. … There is this solid content and learning that connects to so much. But there are also ways that it’s used to create change, and you see that and they understand that through the stories of defenders or through just studying history from that lens. It’s really powerful and people are getting it, and it’s exciting for teachers. We had a teacher from upstate New York who had so many things being cut from her district. I saw her at a conference and she said thank God for this work, otherwise I would be so depressed. Everything else is being cut, but I’m allowed to do this in my classroom and it’s keeping me motivated. So that’s human rights education.
AG: Thank you so much for talking with me. It has certainly been a pleasure.
KR: You’re welcome. Thank you for doing this.
Contributed by Alseta Gholston