By Rich Monetti
When Rosa Parks refused to yield her seat on an Alabama Bus, “she didn’t know,” said Sleepy Hollow junior Sophie Parens. The short role Parks played, however, helped change the world. Such insights could sum up a large part of the discussion of the 10th annual Human Rights Institute for High School Student Leaders held at Manhattanville College on March 16th.
Under the umbrella of the Holocaust and Human Rights Education Center, the event grouped students into topical workshops during which the spark of change might emerge. “We’re trying to turn awareness into action,” said Croton-Harmon High School Social Studies teacher, Brett Bowden.
In Sophie Parens’ group, women’s rights in the Middle East were on the agenda. Facilitating the discussion with classmates Kyle McGovern and Alex Dopico, the trio was careful to keep the hope for change in a nonjudgmental tone. “We have flaws in our own society,” said McGovern. “Blasting the message from up on high is also counterproductive,” he asserted. “It has to be their fight so you can avoid looking like you’re riding in on a white horse to save them.”
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 of the differences between our cultures was crucial because sensitivity is the first tool we have to combat prejudice,” she says.
The question of how one individual can have an impact on human rights issues was not common to just this group. “This is a chance for kids all over the county to see what other human rights clubs are doing to inspire them to go back, brainstorm and start their own clubs,” says Donna Cohen, Executive Director of the HHREC.
These future leaders came away with a host of creative ideas about how best to consolidate their voices on Near Eastern women’s rights. They speculated on the possibility of creating a cultural exchange program with Middle Eastern countries and utilizing the power of social media. One realization was very important. “It starts at home,” Parens said.
The jumping off point to which Parens alluded was exemplified in the presentation of an Eastchester High School student. Jimyang Gyaltsen grew up in Tibet and escaped over the Himalayas with his family into India, later arriving in the United States in 2007. He 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,” said the senior honor student.
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, Getto’s involvement and inspiration hasn’t been limited to the confines of an editor’s inbox. After 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. She is now president of the school’s human rights coalition. Money is being raised for education in India and relief efforts in Japan. In receiving the award, her acceptance speech was emblematic of the Center’s vision. “Get out there and be an up-stander,” she said.
Getting students to take a stand instead of standing by is the goal of Ms. Cohen. So whether it’s taking a seat with the classmate who usually eats lunch alone or signing onto the anti-human trafficking Polaris Project, the day is a success if even one more student chooses the “up” side of action.
Although this kind of commitment does not correspond to the instant gratification that teenagers are just starting to learn to leave behind, Parens concluded, “you have to be patient but eventually they have to hear you.”