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Taking note of human rights

Curriculum aims to bring an often-neglected topic into US classrooms

By Samar Farah Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / February 13, 2001



They're just words on a page. But when they're the harrowing account of a woman who fled her country to escape genital mutilation, or the thoughts of someone working with victims of police brutality, they could nudge students out of complacency.

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That's the hope of Kerry Kennedy Cuomo, who has just launched a curriculum that will be distributed to some 10,000 high schools and colleges. "I don't believe people are moved to action when they see horror," Ms. Kennedy Cuomo says. "They're moved to action when they see courage in the face of horror."

A longtime human-rights activist, Kennedy Cuomo worked with Amnesty International to create the curriculum. It's the most recent addendum to her broader initiative, "Speak Truth to Power" - an umbrella term for a website, a theater production, and a recently published book based on interviews with more than 50 human rights defenders.

A handful of the provocative interviews make up the bulk of the curriculum. There's a nun who fights the death penalty, and a man who battles bonded labor in India. There's also Juliana Dogbadzi, who was 7 when she became slave to a priest as part of a custom in Ghana known as Trokosi. She told Kennedy Cuomo: "Unlike most of the other girls and women, I got over the fear instilled by the Trokosi system. This was my weapon. Now that I have escaped, I help to diminish the women's fears by telling my story. I tell them what I am presently doing, that I am still alive."

It's a long way from a shrine in Ghana to a US classroom. But inner-city kids in often-dangerous zones can connect, for example, the fear of a girl forced to marry a stranger and the terror of a rape victim. "They suddenly see themselves as part of a larger continuum," says Nan Richardson, the curriculum's editor.

For students limited to an intellectual understanding of such grave injustices, the packet also includes a play by Ariel Dorfman, which provides an opportunity to step into the roles of human rights fighters.

But according to Karen Robinson, the director of Amnesty International's Human Rights Education Program who helped develop the curriculum, the biggest hurdle isn't student apathy - young people are more active now than ever. The real challenge is persuading parents and educators that human rights topics can be aligned with state standards. Many teachers are likely to view a human rights play - or any small divergence from core subjects - as an indulgence.

But history teachers, she suggests, can galvanize a lesson on Chinese dynasties with a discussion of human rights violations in today's Communist China. Injecting topics like the death penalty into a classroom will spur even the most relentless daydreamers to chime in.

Six years into the United Nation's Decade of Human Rights Education, countries like Germany and France have taken steps to develop national programs to teach human rights. In the United States, such decisions fall in the hands of local governments, and normally under the rubric of civic education.

But even states aren't doing their job. Experts say American students have only a crude knowledge of human rights issues - in part because civic education tends to be limited to political and religious issues. Human rights, on the other hand, spans topics like police brutality and poverty, they say.

Teachers often are just as uninformed as their charges. According to a 1997 survey for the University of Minnesota Human Rights Resource Center, only 8 percent of American adults are even aware of and can name the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Christy Hargesheimer, who runs a staff development course in Lincoln, Neb., is not surprised. "The teachers often enter assuming that human rights is something 'out there' that doesn't affect our lives in the Midwest.... They [then] begin to see the denial of human rights of people here as well, such as women (and men) raped in prison..."

Evie Hantzopolous is the director of programs for Global Kids, a New York City group that works with local schools to promote human rights. Ms. Hantzopolous agrees that a new curriculum should target teachers. "A lot [of teachers] want to do it, but don't know how to do it or don't have the materials," she says, adding that "human rights is not part of most school systems I know." With a primer on the history of human rights, the Speak Truth to Power curriculum is friendly to the uninitiated.

Hantzopolous plans to get it into New York classrooms and after-school programs through Global Kids. She has also contacted some of the "heroes" she hopes will appear as guest speakers at an annual Global Kids conference in March that usually draws 300 to 400 city youths.

E-mail farahs@csps.com

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society