Letter Home from New York City

A Letter Home from students on the IHP Human Rights: Foundations, Challenges, and Advocacy program:

“If you have come here to help me, you are wasting our time. But if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mind, then let us work together.”

Lilla Watson, Aboriginal activist from Australia

IHP Human Rights Group following a tour of the UN

IHP Human Rights Group following a tour of the UN

On August 28, 20 students, from all corners of the US, joined by two teaching faculty and one Trustees’ Fellow, from all over the world, arrived in New York City for the IHP pilot program Human Rights: Foundations, Challenges and Advocacy.  We settled into our accommodations at the Vanderbilt YMCA, our home for the next two weeks.

I really loved staying at the Y in New York. The communal kitchens and bathrooms allowed my classmates and I to get to know the other travelers through tooth-brushing small talk and sharing of the electric tea kettle. The conversation that I remember most clearly was one I had with an Iraqi investigative journalist. She told me about her experience being a female journalist in Iraq and about what it was like to be an Iraqi visiting New York for the first time. I felt so lucky to be staying in a place where I could get to know such a fascinating person.

The first few days were introductory and orientation sessions held in our classroom space at the Church Centre of the UN, where looking out the window we had the view of the colorful flying flags of different nations standing tall in front of the United Nations. On Labor Day, we began with a talk from Immanuel Ness, professor of political science at Brooklyn College of the City University of New York, at the historic Brecht Forum.  He spoke on a brief history and overview of labor rights and he spoke about how the freedom of association and right to organize is still something to struggle and fight for.

The Practitioner Dinner was an inspirational new element to the IHP program.  In small groups, we were able to experience the variety of New York City’s boroughs and specialty cuisines whilst spending time with professionals and practitioners in the fields of human rights law, education, women’s rights, arts and social justice, immigrant rights, environmental justice and indigenous rights.  Students loved having quality time to ask practitioners questions about their work as well as the path that led them to the work they have been doing.

The practitioner dinner was truly something special. It was so great to meet with a professional working in a field not only of our own specific interests, but also in the category of human rights. For me personally, this allowed for my interest in the environment to combine with our studies of human rights. Specifically, I had the opportunity to meet with an employee of the UN working on an anti-deforestation campaign to preserve indigenous rights around the globe. This not only provided fascinating conversation, but also opened new doors in terms of my future career considerations.

Panels were another highlight of the program. In the Decolonizing Media Panel, we met with Anthony Alessandrini, Co-Editor of Jadaliyya Ezine, Michael Busch, editor of Warscapes magazine, and Jarrett Martineau, co-founder and Creative Producer of Revolutions Per Minute.

We had the incredible privilege of hearing from [these] three individuals… about their experiences in representing human rights ideals outside of the mainstream media. They addressed the topics of alternative media sources, rejecting the subjective human rights perspectives that we have been taught, and the void in information provision. It was great to see people involved in the media who were also trying to do something differently and ethically; I think we all truly benefitted from seeing three different models and approaches to media.  

Riding the subway in NYC

Riding the subway in NYC

Another panel was the Civil Liberties Panel, where we met Sarah Hogarth, Human Rights Lawyer, Pardiss Kebriaei, Senior Staff Attorney at the Center for Constitutional Rights and Dr. Christina Heatherton, historian and scholar-activist who is working on issues related to racism, capitalism, civil rights and human rights.

The Civil Liberties Panel was extremely impressive. This was one of the first points of the trip where my privilege and perspective seemed to be challenged – in a positive sense of the word. We had the amazing opportunity to speak with a lawyer of several detainees at Guantanamo. It was jarring to hear of the horrible human rights violations occurring at this prison, and at several other federal prisons in the US, that were established to protect our own human rights. This experience definitely encouraged me to keep an open mind for the rest of the trip and to continue to recognize the source from which my perspectives have developed.

Site visits were another aspect of the program that became an amazing learning opportunity.  Particularly, one day we were split into smaller groups to meet with the following grassroots organizations:

–          Adhikaar, a New York-based nonprofit organization working with the Nepali-speaking community to promote human rights and social justice;

–          The New York Chapter of the Dignity in School Campaign, a citywide coalition of students, parents, advocates, educators and lawyers calling for positive, school-wide approaches to discipline that improve the school environment, reduce conflict and increase learning;

–          New York State Youth Leadership Council, a youth-led organization that empowers immigrant youth to challenge the broken immigration system through leadership development, grassroots organizing, educational advancement and a safe space of self-expression;

–          Communities United for Police Reform, a non-partisan campaign to promote public safety and end police discrimination in New York City

–           Restaurants Opportunities Center, an organization to improve wages and working conditions for New York City restaurant workers.

It was an awesome opportunity for us to learn more about the work in advocacy and organizing that is being done in New York City.

Finally, a foundational piece of our program was a fantastic and challenging session facilitated by our Program Manager, Chris Westcott.  In his session on Critical Perspectives on Travel and Privilege, we read “To Hell with Good Intentions” by Ivan Illich. The discussion that followed challenged our ideas of the work it takes to make positive change in the world, and it forced us to look at the privilege we come from and the ability we have to participate in a comparative study abroad program such as this.  The tensions between the ideas of universality and interconnectedness were highlighted.  We were pushed to set the intention for our semester– We are here to learn and ask ourselves, what is our role, not necessarily what can we do to help? We need people to transgress the cultural and economic differences to do this kind of work.

The Person of the Day facilitates a group energizer activity.

The Person of the Day facilitates a group energizer activity.

Combined with class lectures, guest speakers and site visits, our time in New York was also a time to build community within our group by way of Community Building Sessions, social activities and exploring The Big Apple on our own. There were boat trips across to Staten Island, relaxing in Prospect Park in Brooklyn, eating delicious food in Queens, getting amongst the tourists in Times Square and even celebrating one of our own’s 21st birthday! The time in New York went by quickly! While it was a lot of fun, our time here also set the foundation for our analysis of Human Rights around the world. We learned about groups of people and organizations fighting for human rights in the US, how to prepare ourselves to learn from our experiences overseas, and how to apply that knowledge to the work that needs to be done at home.

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