When Rosa Parks refused to yield her seat on an Alabama Bus, “she didn't know,” said Sleepy Hollow Junior Sophie Parens, but before anyone realized it, the small role she took, played a big part in changing the world. So could sum up a large part of the discussion and intent of the 10th annual Human Rights Institute for High School Student Leaders at Manhattanville College on March 16th.
Under the umbrella of the Holocaust and Human Rights Education Center, the event grouped students into topical workshops in which the spark of change would hopefully emerge from the discussions.
Back in Sophie Parens’ group, women’s rights in the Middle East was on the agenda. Facilitating the discussion with fellow Sleepy Hollow classmates, Kyle McGovern and
Alex Dopico, the trio was careful to keep the hope for change in a non-judgmental tone. “We have flaws in our own society,” said Kyle, so being productive is an exercise in exposing Middle Eastern culture to how men and women work together in this country, he added.
Blasting the message from up on high is also counterproductive, he asserted. It has to be their fight so you have to avoid looking like your riding in on a white horse to save them, he said.
Looking on and keeping her interaction limited as group advisor, Senior Historian Mary Johnson of Facing History and Ourselves was impressed with the facilitation skills of the three lead students. “Their understanding in the differences between our cultures was crucial because sensitivity is the first tool we have to combat prejudice,” she says.
Of course, it’s safe to say that the question of how one individual can impact grand human rights issues was not common to just this grouping. “This is a chance for kids all over the county to see what other human rights clubs are doing so it’s an inspiration to go back, brainstorm and start their own clubs,” says Donna Cohen, who founded the HHREC in order that the lessons of the holocaust would remain relevant today and in the future.
These future leaders came away with various ideas to consolidate their voice on Near Eastern Women’s Rights, speculated on the possibility of creating cultural exchange program with Middle Eastern countries and utilizing the power of social media but the realization of any scenario has one thing in common, according to Parens. “It starts at home,” she said, and the jumping off point she was alluding to was exemplified in the presentation of an Eastchester High School Student in his group.
Jimyang Gyaltsen grew up in Tibet and escaped over the Himalayas with his family into India. He arrived in America in 2007 and took this opportunity to tell his story, which included the oppression his land faces at the hands of China. “I’m not sure exactly how telling my story will lead to change in Tibet but everything begins with raising awareness,” says the senior honor student, who never attended school in Tibet and completed 17 years of education since his arrival.
Erica Getto of Scarsdale High School helped earn herself Manhattanville’s Richard Berman Award with a similar mind set. I’m the Editor-in-Chief at the school newspaper and informing students on human rights issues across the globe and right at home is where action begins, she says.
Otherwise, her involvement and inspiration hasn’t been limited to the friendly confines of an editor’s inbox. Out of an 8th grade trip to Africa, she became involved in Water For People, which provides well water to African communities through a merry go round system pumped by children, and now as the president of the school’s human rights coalition, money is being raised for education in India and relief efforts for Japan.
In receiving the award, her impromptu acceptance was emblematic of the center’s vision. “Get out there and be an up-stander,” she said to the obvious understanding of the audience.
Standing up instead of standing by (or by-standing) is the motion Ms. Cohen has them all aspiring to. So whether it’s taking a seat with the classmate who usually eats lunch alone or signing onto the anti-human trafficking Polaris Project with John Jay’s Arianna Rappy, Julia Baker and Noel Popoli, the day is a success in her estimation if only one more student chooses the “up” side of action.
Nonetheless, this kind of commitment does not correspond to the instant gratification that teenagers are just starting to learn to leave behind, according to Parens. “You have to be patient but eventually they have to hear you,” she concluded.
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