Human rights through history

A group of school children in Pliussa, Russia, wanted to know more about the Stalin era and what it was like to live under such a regime. They decided to ask the people who had actually lived through those years, so they met several times to decide how they should go about approaching people, conducting the interviews, and then collecting, collating and presenting the information to the public.

They conducted over 70 interviews with relatives, neighbours, teachers from schools and others who wanted to share reflections on a common history. The children then organised an exhibition in a number of villages in the Pskov region, with photographs and fragments from the different interviews. The interviewees were glad to be the subject of such interest and to be able to talk about times which had been difficult, but had represented formative years for them. Sometimes the narratives were painful and upsetting, both for the older generation and the younger. However, all sides came away with a deeper understanding and empathy for each other, and a deeper understanding of the events, the motivations, the impact on personal lives, and the human experiences of such difficult times.
The interviews can be viewed at

If you cry “Forward” you must without fail make it plain in what direction to go. Don’t you see that if, without doing so, you call out the word to both a monk and a revolutionary, they will go in precisely opposite directions?
Anton Chekhov

In general, any action, and certainly good activism requires planning. A planning session in the group will help you to focus on exactly what you want and are able to do, and what the best way is of achieving your objectives. For more ambitious aims, this is probably an advisable first move, since an action that doesn't achieve its desired results, or which runs up against unexpected problems can be discouraging. You need to make the first thing you do effective.

This section will take you through one way of structuring your plan, and will also help to focus the group on what is the most effective way of achieving the aim they have set themselves. The methods are useful for one-off actions, such as those discussed in the previous section, and they can also be used to think about a longer lasting campaign which might involve a number of different actions directed towards a single goal.

Before you start…

Know yourselves – a SWOT analysis

Question: Do you know which skills the participants in the group possess? Do you know their particular interests?

He is able who thinks he is able.

Every group has hidden talents, and every individual member of a group has likes and dislikes, particular skills, and other things that he or she can carry out only with great difficulty. In order to be sure that the group is making the most of the individual members' abilities and capabilities, it is useful to organise a session to look at this.
A SWOT analysis is an effective way of doing so. Such an analysis also looks at the circumstances outside the group which might influence what you are able to do.

The acronym SWOT stands for:

  • Strengths: the things the group is good at doing
  • Weaknesses: the things the group is not so good at doing
  • Opportunities: the possibilities outside the group that might be used to benefit the action
  • Threats: things outside the group that might get in the way of what the action aims to do.

To carry out the analysis, allow plenty of time; at least an hour is advisable. Divide the group into four smaller working groups, and allocate the tasks of drawing up Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities and Threats among them. Then bring the group back together and see if people agree with their colleagues' analyses. Refine and add to the different sections as appropriate.

The diagram below is one example of a completed analysis, and may be useful in prompting the group with ideas. However, do not let them stick to it too closely! Bear in mind that each group is unique, and there will be other strengths (and weaknesses) that they need to identify for themselves.

An example of a completed SWOT analysis
What are the strengths of our group? What are the weaknesses of our group?
• It’s big!
• We have time on our hands - and we’re keen to do something
• Misha’s father is a politician
• We have a meeting place in the centre of town
• Gabriela is good at public speaking
• Bojka has a computer
• Too many leaders!
• We haven’t got any money
• Very few boys
• We’ve never done anything like this before – and we’re nervous
• Some of us live a long way from the centre of town
• We don’t always work well as a group
What opportunities exist outside the group? What external threats exist to our activities?
• There are elections coming up
• There are some grants available for projects with refugees
• The European Court has just issued a judgment against this
country for its treatment of prisoners
• We have a new town hall that would be good for a theatrical event
• The economic situation is precarious
• Some of us have exams coming up
• The council is threatening to ban public meetings
• There’s a lot of hard feeling about refugees taking local jobs
• It’s too cold to do anything outside
• Our parents don’t want us doing anything risky

Making choices

Start with what is right rather than what is acceptable.
Franz Kafka

How does a group choose which issue to work on? In most cases, people in the group will have issues that they think are important and want to work on. These may be triggered by real events, such as the earthquake in Haiti, or famine in the Sudan, or the fact that a local family is being evicted from their home. The main difficulty may be in arriving at a common agreement about which issue to choose, and what the best way to approach it is.

You will need to keep all members of the group behind any decision, so do not rush a discussion about issues: give them plenty of time to air preferences and talk through the advantages of choosing one rather than another. Remind them that there may be opportunities to address other concerns at a different time. Remind them also that the most important thing is that the group stays together to work through an action, so if one person is strongly against a particular choice, it may not be worth pursuing. Try to reach consensus in the group, rather than going for a majority decision.

Question: How can you make sure that disagreements in the group are useful rather than destructive?

Knowing the problem

Problem tree

Trees and stones will teach you that which you can never learn from masters.
St Bernard of Clairvaux (c.1100)

A useful tool for understanding the issue you will be working on is the problem tree. This is a method of breaking down an issue, looking at the causes and consequences, and fitting it into the context of other problems in society. The tool can be useful both in providing a better understanding for the group, and in helping to approach a solution in a more strategic way.

A sample problem tree can be seen on the next page, taking the problem of street children as a starting point. This is the procedure a group would use to draw one up for their own issue:

  • Start by writing down the problem that you wish to tackle in the middle of a large sheet of paper.
  • Underneath it, write in all the factors that contribute to the problem, and link them up to form the roots of your original problem.
  • Take each root at a time and think about its causes, drawing in the factors that contribute to the problem.
  • Keep tackling each root until you can take the exercise no further: the tree may have deeper roots than you think.
  • You may also want to extend the "branches" of the tree in the same manner: these will be the consequences of your original problem. You may find that what you began with as your main concern is actually the root or branch of a different tree.
  • When you have finished, take a look at your tree. Should you tackle the task you originally set yourself or one of its contributing factors first? Has the tree helped you to think of ways to go about tackling this problem?

Image: A sample problem tree

Know the solution

It is important to know what you would like to be a result of your action! What would count as a success? Get the group to think about what they are trying to achieve, and how they will measure whether or not they have been successful. They may find it useful to go back to the problem tree and use this to identify concrete solutions. In general, attacking the roots will lead to solutions further up the tree, for example, if there was more social housing, or if rents were lower, many more young people could be given a roof over their heads.

The only thing that bothered me was that we waited so long to make this protest.
Rosa Parks

Remember that for a complicated issue, a change in policy is often difficult to bring about, and rarely follows from just one action. The group needs to be realistic about what it can hope for: remind them that even a "small" result can be an invaluable contribution to resolving a larger problem. Effective campaigns are nearly always built up from exactly such "small" actions, and anything achieved by your group can either be built on later on, or picked up by other activists concerned about the problem.

It may be helpful for the group to brainstorm some general reasons for taking action. This may help them to pick out those most relevant to their own issue, and identify a number of specific objectives that they feel it is realistic to achieve.

Question: Think of a protest action you witnessed or heard about recently: what do you think the organisers were trying to achieve? Were they successful? Why or why not?

Planning your action

Your group has now decided on an issue, and has an idea of what they might be trying to do. It is time to decide on the mechanism they will use to achieve their aim.

The flowchart below can be used as a step by step approach to making that decision, and towards ensuring that what they are trying to do can indeed be achieved by using the method they decide to employ. The flowchart takes you through 5 steps towards deciding on the most appropriate form of action, and illustrates how the process might work for 5 hypothetical examples.

Each step is explained in more detail in the following section.

Planning your action - diagram

Image: Planning your action - diagram

Which problem do you want to address?

Symbolic public acts as forms of protest
• Displays of flags and symbolic colours
• Wearing of symbols
• Prayer and worship
• Delivering symbolic objects
• Protest disrobings
• Destruction of own property
• Symbolic lights
• Displays of portraits
• Paint as protest
• New signs and names
• Symbolic sounds
• Symbolic reclamations
• Rude gestures
Taken from 198 Methods of Non-Violent Action:

This step is simple: it will be the result of the problem tree exercise that the group carried out. If you did not carry out the problem tree activity, try to get the group to formulate the problem they want to address as accurately as possible.

What is your target audience?

Unless you are hoping to resolve the problem immediately, the target audience for your action may not be the person or people who can make the final change that you are looking for. Your action is quite likely to be no more than a step towards making the change; for example, you may be trying to alert the public to an issue in order to put pressure on the government. Or you may be trying to set up a local group so that the group can work on the issue you are concerned about.

Your target audience in box B will be the group of people you are directing your action towards. It may consist of more than one group of people; for example, in the first case in the flowchart, people in the town and the company directors are both target audiences for the action. The action depends on people in the town signing a petition which is then presented to the directors of the company, in the hope that they will be influenced by it, and be forced to clean up the river.

Which changes do you hope to see?

This question again relates to your action, but not necessarily to the final change you might be aiming for. It is unlikely, for example, that an action by your group will be able to end exploitation of child workers by multinational companies! However, you may be able to generate interest in the problem, which will encourage others to take action in different ways, and that, in turn, may be enough to bring about a change in company policy or in government regulations applying to those companies.

In this box you need to think about what the action is meant to achieve, and how you will know whether or not you have succeeded. Try to encourage the group to be as specific as possible, to think about what it might mean for the action to go well or badly. Use the prompts in the previous "Know the Solution".

How is change expected to come about?

This question is not yet about the mechanism that the group decides to use, it is about how the action is supposed to work, and will often relate to the psychology of changing people's minds or making people realise that they need to do something differently. It is a very important question that is often forgotten, and ignoring it could affect the impact of your action.

Suppose, for example, that a group is worried by the rise in popularity of nationalist or proto-fascist organisations, and wants to address that issue. They might think of putting information leaflets through the doors of people living in an area where support for these organisations is high. However, if they do not recognise why people are turning to nationalist organisations, the leaflets may even have the opposite effect from that intended. The group will need to think about how a leaflet might change someone's mind, and which messages will be powerful for the target group intended. They will need to be aware of some of the reasons and concerns which lie behind the growing support for nationalist organisations.

This box is really a "checking" box, to think about what needs to happen to make the "result" inevitably follow from the situation now.

Pupils against racism: helping the school administration

In a rural school in Portugal, new pupils from Romania and Ukraine began to be the subject of racist comments and actions from others in the school. The teachers and school board did not know how to react because this was an entirely new problem in the region.

A number of pupils, concerned by what was happening, turned to the youth worker at the local leisure centre for help and advice. Together they set up a campaign in the school, lasting one week, called Different outsides, Equal inside (Diferente por fora, Igual por dentro). Every moment in the children's day was used – mealtimes, lessons, leisure time – and different activities were organised to address the problem. The theatre club used forum theatre, hand-made posters and badges were given out, artistic activities were organised in the leisure centre, films were shown, and cakes from different countries were served in the cafeteria. The week was such a success that the school decided to organise a similar event each year.

What means will you use to influence your audience?

This is where the flowchart is leading to! The choices by this stage for what exactly should be done by the group will have been narrowed down by moving through the previous steps. The group should now be able to draw up a list of possible actions which will help to bring about the transition identified in the previous box. Encourage them to think creatively, look back at some of the suggestions in Section 2 of this chapter – and at the case studies – and remind them to recall the particular characteristics of their group. Try again to reach consensus over the final choice.

 New Tactics in Human Rights

New Tactics is a diverse group of international organisations, advisors and practitioners which exists to promote tactical innovation and strategic thinking within the international human rights community. Since 1999, the New Tactics in Human Rights project has created unique resources, organised around potential solutions rather than around specific issues, geographic regions or target groups. The resources allow activists to identify the unique elements of their situation and to look for approaches that have worked elsewhere which may be relevant. The resource helps activists to combine diverse tactics into complex strategies.

Many of the resources can be found, in different languages, on their web-site

Getting organised

There is one final stage before taking the ideas of the group out onto the street. Before the practical business can get underway, it is highly recommended that the group draws up an action plan to decide on the organisational questions. Although this may not be essential for a simple action, it is a useful habit for the group, and will ensure that tasks are divided out equally, according to skills and preferences. It should also ensure that nothing is forgotten!

They will need to decide:

  • Which tasks need to be carried out?
  • Who is going to undertake the different task(s)?
  • When are they going to be done?

Creating a table of tasks

The table below illustrates an imaginary action, with the tasks laid out according to the three questions. Draw it up with the group, using the following points as a guide:

  1. Make sure that everything is written down to keep a check on how the plans are going. You will need two large sheets of paper and a felt tip pen.
  2. Make sure everyone is clear about the question being discussed. Choose one person to be the scribe and write a heading at the top of the paper. Brainstorm a list of all the jobs that need doing, and write them on one of the large pieces of paper so that everyone can see.
  3. Think through the day with the group, imagine what is going to happen, and double-check that you have thought of all the jobs.
  4. Now go through the list deciding whether jobs need to be done Now, Soon or Later: put either N, S, or L by each job.
  5. Use the second sheet of paper as a "decision sheet". List all the tasks to be done in order down the left-hand side; then in the next column write down who is going to do each one. Finally, in the third column note the deadlines for getting the jobs done.
  6. Share out the jobs among you: do not leave it all to one or two people. Think what would happen if they were ill or got overloaded with other work!


Sample decision sheet
Event: Street action on minority rights
Task Who does it When
Design leaflets to hand out Sally, John, Meetings on Sept 10th, 17th
Organise publishing Rumen, Ben After 20th Sept
Make banners / placards All Week beginning 24th Sept
Buy materials for banners, etc. Shila, Karen, Ivan Week beginning 17th
Get other people interested Shila, Moca, Tania Week beginning 17th
Contact local council Damien, Sue When date is confirmed
Tell police Damien, Sue  
Try to get influential local figure to attend Tim, Hannah  
Inform minority groups Lucy, Sanchita  
Draft speeches Natalie, Ben, Sally  
Organise refreshments Petra, Paul  
Clearing up afterwards

Natalie, Ben, Rumen, Sanchita



Debriefing and evaluation

As with any HRE activity – and indeed, with any action – it is vital to take some time after the action is finished in order to debrief the group and assess what went well, and what could have gone better. The group are likely to have finished an action with high emotions, either negative or positive. It is important to give them a chance to talk about these and share them with the group. It will also help in planning any further actions.  

The following questions may be useful as a framework for conducting the debriefing.

  • What are your feelings after the day of action? (This can be done as a brief run round the group.)
  • What did you feel went well?
  • Was anything more difficult than you had imagined it to be?
  • Was there anything unexpected?
  • Do you think there are any lessons we could learn for next time?
  • Did we achieve what we set out to do?
  • Did we achieve anything else that perhaps we had not foreseen?
  • Do you feel satisfied with yourselves, and would you like to try something like this again?
  • What shall we do now?!

Football boots to Africa

Emil was a grade 7 pupil at Frederiksberg skole in Sorø, Denmark, and Anaclayto was a guest teacher from South Africa at the school. During a discussion with the class about home and school life, Anaclayto commented on how many opportunities and possessions he thought children and young people in Denmark have. He said that at home, in South Africa, his pupils didn't have a proper football field let alone football boots. This gave the pupils the idea of making a collection of second hand football boots to send to Anaclayto's school. They asked him what he thought of the idea; the reply was positive so the pupils put up posters in their own and in neighbouring schools asking for donations. The local football club heard about the scheme and donated several pairs from their lost property cupboard.

Suddenly Emil and his friends had a big pile of 100 pairs of boots, which they discovered to their dismay would cost DKK 500. (€67) to send to Johannesburg! So they had to start thinking about what to do next. First they sorted through the shoes to see whether or not they were all really worth sending. They were left with 75 pairs. Then they had to find the money for the postage, so the class wrote letters to several aid agencies and the local council, and they got publicity in the local paper and on radio to ask for sponsorship. After several disappointments the chairman of a local travel association, which organises travel to South Africa, contacted the paper and offered to help. So finally, after six months of effort, Emil was able to take the parcels to the post office and send the shoes on their way to Johannesburg and Anaclayto's pupils.

Source: The Global Guest Teacher, AFS Interkultur, Denmark