Question: If you see an injustice or don't believe a policy is fair, what do you do about it? How do you indicate to others what you feel?
This section looks at some of the approaches you might use to take HRE into the community. The suggestions are not radical, and you are likely to be already undertaking many of them in your existing work: designing banners, debating issues, organising cultural events, meeting different organisations, writing letters and so on. Such apparently simple methods are in fact the very same ones that are used by professional activists, and they are effective!
The list below barely touches on the number of things you could do with a group. It is intended to spark ideas, not to offer a recipe for action. Be creative, and ask the participants what they think would be most useful, or most interesting to do, and what would fit the skills of those who will be carrying it out.
Public actions, such as street theatre, a protest march, petitions, or sit-ins, have many different aims, but the following are probably the most important:
- Raising awareness of an issue
- Attracting others to a cause
- Getting the media talking
- Showing politicians or those in power that people are watching!
If you are thinking of a public action, bear in mind the importance of doing something which will attract attention: make people laugh, or make them stop and stare; you may even want to try to shock them. You need to get people talking!
In many European cities, normally on the last Friday of every month, tens and often hundreds of cyclists gather to reclaim the streets from the cars. The act is spontaneous: there are no organisers of the event and no planned route. The mass of cyclists ride together through the streets to slow down the traffic, to make a point about pollution or the dangers of cycling on car-filled roads, or simply to assert the power of people to slow down normal city life and celebrate the joy of a common purpose and shared ideals. People's motivations are various, and many of the riders will have their own banners or campaign that they are trying to bring to public attention.
What began as a few cyclists riding together has become a mass event, and a monthly tradition in many cities.
See www.critical-mass.info for more information.
Suggestions for the group:
- Write a song, or a musical, or your own play, and take it onto the street.
- Make a banner, and stage a demonstration outside a local company to protest about pollution, outsourcing jobs, labour rights, or whatever may be relevant.
- Create posters or leaflets about your issue, and hand them out or put them up in public places.
- Set up a Facebook page to talk about your issue; then use other forms of social networking to attract followers.
Question: People often say that demonstrations are a waste of time, but what message does it send if no-one demonstrates?
The voice of the "99%"
The "Occupy" Movement caught hold of nearly 1,000 cities in over 80 countries in 2011. Partly inspired by the "Arab Spring", where demonstrators refused to disperse until their demands were met, activists, young people, and many others set up tents and small self-sustaining communities, "occupying" open spaces within city centres across the globe. Using the slogan "We are the 99%" they aimed to highlight the enormous wealth possessed by the very few, the distortions of democracy this gives rise to, and the injustice of deep cuts to services affecting the majority.
Public actions, such as those in the previous section, are not really about educating; they are more about delivering an instant and uncomplicated message, raising awareness, and sowing seeds. Young people can make excellent educators and are often more effective in recruiting others to a cause or changing attitudes, particularly when the audience is their own peer group. Explaining an issue to others will also help young people both to clarify their own positions and gain greater confidence.
The Powerpod Project - http://www.edinburgh-powerpod.org
The Edinburgh Woodcraft Folk won a grant to take a trailer with solar panels and wind turbines, as a practical educational tool in the use of sustainable energy, to audiences of young people in the Lothians, Scotland. The trailer, known as the Powerpod, was built by students at a local university to demonstrate solar electric and solar thermal power, and the alternative of wind generation.
The first group of Woodcraft Folk peer-educators took a trip to the Centre of Alternative Technology where they learnt the scientific background and the technical aspects of the Powerpod. On their return they devised workshops to appeal to children and young people of their age. This led to a planned workshop schedule delivered to other Woodcraft groups in the area.
The workshops generated huge interest in both the formal and informal education sectors.
Suggestions for the group:
- Organise a public debate on an issue of interest, for instance cuts in education spending, whether criminals deserve human rights, or whether military programmes should be cut to reduce poverty. Invite public officials and friends to come along.
- Make your own video or organise a theatrical production on a human rights theme.
- Write an article for the local (or national) paper or ask the local radio / TV station for an interview. Can you provide a picture to make it into something eye-catching?
- Think of an issue which the group has a good understanding of, and set up a peer education programme with other groups, or pupils from the local school. Could you talk about human rights to a group of young people, or run an activity from Chapter 2?
A Living Library project
A group in Wroclaw, Poland, organised a Living Library, where books are represented by people from different cultural, social or other groups, and can be "borrowed" for a 30-minute conversation. The groups were those which tend to be excluded from society and that frequently experience violation of their human rights, for example, homosexuals, Roma, the disabled, religious minorities and so on.
During the 2 days of the library, 600 people visited, and over 100 borrowed a "book". The event was transmitted and reported by state and private television and radio networks, and by the printed press.
The idea of a Living Library is to break down prejudices, by allowing members of the public who may have a preconceived idea about individuals from particular communities to meet and talk and listen. The following comments were made by "readers" after chatting with the "books":
"It helped me to make decisions about my life."
"I got to know a lot of things; chats with some people really broke my stereotypes."
More information on the Living Library methodology at www.coe.int/compass.
There are a number of ways that your group may be able to bring about a change directly, without having to go through politicians, or the public, or other intermediaries. This can be the most rewarding of all actions, because the result is immediately visible, and the group can see that it was their action that made change possible.
Many youth groups, for example, are active in offering direct assistance to vulnerable people whose rights are not being respected. Such people often should be assisted by the state, because it is the state, after all, which is responsible for making sure that rights are not infringed. However, society often needs to step in to offer immediate help when the state fails to fulfil its obligations.
Young people can help to fill this gap – often just by being around, meeting regularly with those who are experiencing difficulties, listening to their issues, or by providing company or conversation. That is always an enriching experience for both sides. Visiting the vulnerable and noticing failures by the state can also put them in a stronger position to lobby those who are responsible, or to bring the failures to public light by contacting the media.
Question: Think of a particular group: which human rights issues could a visit from young people help to address?
Other suggestions for the group:
- Take charge of a derelict part of the local community: plant flowers or vegetables and make the space one that people will want to be around.
- Offer your gardening services, or other skills, to people in the community. Can your group become a centre of learning like the Free University described at the start of this chapter?
- Ask around for old paint and decorating tools: spruce up the youth centre, or the local community centre, or even someone's house!
- Do some baking and take it round to a homeless shelter or a neighbour living alone. Or hand it out with leaflets as a way of drawing attention to your cause.
There are initiatives in many countries around the world to reclaim derelict public space and create gardens. This is sometimes known as "guerrilla gardening", from the Spanish word guerrilla meaning "a little war". May 1st has been declared International Sunflower Guerrilla Gardening Day by a group called the Brussels Farmers. In 2010, about 5,000 people around the world took part in the event, sowing sunflower seeds around their local area.
Remembering that it is the state, or representatives of the state, who are obliged to ensure that human rights are respected, a change in policy or in a law or regulation is often the final target of a human rights campaign.
This may seem too "serious" an area for young people, or an area where they are unlikely to make a difference. However, policy change comes about – whether at national, international or local level – as a result of a number of pressures, often one after another, from various sources. Young people starting out on human rights may be just as capable of inputting to this process as the seasoned activist. They are perhaps more likely to see success at local level, or at the level of institutions, because networks are smaller and access to those in power is more of a reality. However, do not rule out working at national or even at international level if that is what the group decides to try.
Sometimes the best way to exert pressure on representatives of the state is through co-operation, trying to get the representatives to understand your arguments. Sometimes it is through protest or pressure. Generally, policies are changed as a result of influences coming from a number of directions, both collaborative and confrontational.
Question: Do the young people you work with know who their political representatives are – at local, national and European level?
Education reforms postponed as a result of student protest
There is a strong history of student protest in many countries and the actions of students have often been seen to have had a direct influence on policy, or to be the trigger for other groups feeling able to express their dissatisfaction with political decisions.
In 2008, the French government proposed a series of changes to the educational curriculum, including substantial job cuts in the teaching profession and a reduction in teaching hours. Students took to the streets in towns all over the country and the government was forced to postpone the reforms.
Suggestions for the group:
- Contact local figures responsible for a particular decision; contact opposition politicians or others with influence over policy. Ask for a meeting or organise a public hearing and invite them all to attend.
- Draw up a petition and gather as many signatures as possible. Invite the media to be present when you deliver it to the individual you are hoping to influence.
- Find out about the legal obligations the government has to respect human rights, and which treaties it has signed. You may want to contact a lawyer or NGO active in the field and ask for their advice. Then write a letter to your MP, or the local politician concerned, asking what they are doing to make sure these obligations are fulfilled. Tell the media!
- Look at other mechanisms – either national or international – which you can use to complain about your issue, or to request that it be looked into by an official body.
Watching the police
"LegalTeam" is a group of young legal consultants, activists and experts working in Russia. They specialise in providing legal assistance and defending the rights of people taking part in public assemblies or demonstrations, many of whom experience pressure from the police as a result of their participation. Similar initiatives exist in many countries.
The group in Russia was initially created to monitor and prevent human rights abuses around the G8 summit in Saint Petersburg in 2006. It then developed into a collective which educates activists about the law concerning protest and on how to bring charges against authorities that may have abused their powers. The group run seminars and have produced a range of informational materials. Their LiveJournal page has become a virtual meeting point for discussion and consultation, and acts as a co-ordinating tool for actions.
Although it is useful for young people to initiate their own actions, there can also be benefit in taking action as part of a larger movement, or gaining experience by working with other organisations. There are numerous organisations, both "professional" NGOs and spontaneous grass roots movements, engaged in working for human rights, and many will be glad to bring young people on board, and glad to have their support. Remember that an organisation may not always refer to its work as "human rights" work; however, an organisation working on homelessness, child poverty, domestic violence, racism and discrimination, or many other issues, is, of course working on human rights, whether or not it states it explicitly.
Young people can take part in campaigns organised by such organisations, or for more substantial involvement they may want to offer to help with the planning and organisation of an event. Grass-roots organisations without proper funding will always be glad of extra hands from willing volunteers, and in general they will provide greater opportunity for volunteers to take the initiative themselves. Larger NGOs may be able to offer hands-on experience in return for some part-time voluntary assistance. In this way, young people may be given the opportunity of working with professional activists in the field and gaining useful work experience, as well as obtaining an insight into the work of the third sector.
Question: Do you know of local organisations working on human rights issues? Are there particular issues which are not addressed effectively?
Food not Bombs
Food not Bombs is a grass-roots peace movement which began in the United States and now exists in many countries around the world. Small groups of volunteers, armed with information about food and bombs, offer free vegetarian meals not only to the homeless, but to anyone else, without restriction. They do this not only to help those unable to feed themselves, but also to draw attention to the fact that redirecting military spending and putting an end to food waste could eliminate world hunger. The movement has no official organisation, but encourages people to set up "local chapters" in their own towns, and to start feeding others as a political gesture. Food not Bombs chapters exist all over the United States and also in many towns in Europe. See http://www.foodnotbombs.net/ for more information.
"I think Food Not Bombs endures because it has the component of seeing results and that people are changed when they see that they can collect food and have direct impact on people's lives by sharing meals and groceries. Another aspect that promotes its longevity can be found in our principle of having no leaders and encouraging each group to strive to make decisions using consensus. Volunteers don't feel they are being ordered to do something or feel someone in the office is getting paid while they are doing the work. They take personal responsibility for making Food Not Bombs happen." Keith McHenry, founder of Food not Bombs
- Find out which local organisations are working on issues that interest the group: organise a meeting with representatives, and get the group to think about how they could become involved.
- Look at the campaigns being organised by larger well-known human rights organisations, such as Médecins sans Frontières, Amnesty International, Save the Children, International Federation of Human Rights League (FIDH), or Greenpeace, and discuss with the group which issues or campaigns they might like to work on.
- Look at the section on Planning your action in this chapter, and see whether the group would like to set up their own organisation to work on a particular issue. They may want to contact other youth groups or invite friends along to bring in new skills and ideas, and swell the numbers. That, after all, is how human rights organisations start out!
The International Youth Human Rights Movement
The International Youth Human Rights Movement (YHRM) is an international network of young people and organisations primarily from Central and Eastern Europe. Young people work together to protect and promote the ideas and principles of human rights, support each others' actions and form a new generation of human rights defenders. The YHRM began in 1998 as the initiative of a small group of young people. Today it unites more than 1000 people from 37 countries. More information is available at www.yhrm.org.
Young people and participation - "What do you need?"
In a small city in Poland, a local youth association was concerned about low levels of participation among young people. They knew that the local authorities had little idea about the needs and profile of young people in the city, so they decided to gather information in order to create a fuller picture. They used a number of different tools and methods, for example social networks, text messages, interviews in the streets, and talking to their own friends, colleagues and families. Then the group organised a public exhibition with the results of the surveys. With the help of an expert, they drew up an official document outlining the results and sent it to the local Mayor. This was the first time that the voices of young people had been heard in the town.
Research and monitoring are important tools for any activist, both in order to provide a picture of needs and issues for a group concerned to take action, as well as a lobbying tool or means of informing the public. Understanding the different aspects of an issue is essential in order to be able to plan effective actions. Or, as in the example above, the information itself can be a useful way of influencing those in power.
How can groups engage in information gathering such as in the one outlined above, and make sure that the information is useful not only to themselves, but also in addressing a particular issue? In other words, how can information gathering be the beginning of an action, as well as an educational activity?
- By making sure that the information is fresh, or shocking, or not very well known – for example, the number of young people sleeping rough in your home town, their ages, how they found themselves on the street, and what they say about their needs.
- By thinking about who needs to know the information, and what you would like them to do with it. Will you use it to persuade a local politician, or will you try to exert pressure using public opinion, or international organisations?
- By thinking about how the information is presented: an exhibition, such as that organised by the Polish group, can be more attractive to the general public than a row of statistics!
- By also informing the media about the results of your research, even if they are not the direct target. They will make sure the issue is not simply "disappeared".
Young people monitoring elections
The parliamentary elections in Armenia presented an opportunity for young people from that country and from others to take part in election monitoring. First of all, a Young monitor's handbook was produced, containing all the information the participants might need to monitor the election process. The handbook covered legal issues, the concept and need for elections, political parties in Armenia, and the tasks of a monitoring mission.
About 82 young people took part in observing the elections. Afterwards they published a report on their findings, which was disseminated amongst concerned parties.
This can be viewed online at the website of the Federation of Youth Clubs in Armenia: www.youthclubs.am.
- Chapter 1 - Human Rights Education and Compass: an introduction
- Chapter 2 - Practical Activities and Methods for Human Rights Education
- Chapter 3 - Taking Action for Human Rights
- Chapter 4 - Understanding Human Rights
- Chapter 5 - Background Information on Global Human Rights Themes