When Bob Marley's voice floated down from the ceiling, his reggae lilt urging everyone to "get together and feel all right," it was clear this wasn't going to be your ordinary academic conference. Sure, the dias was flanked with flags, and phrases like "distinguished guest" punctuated each introduction. But in the audience, there were as many teens as professors. And for both groups, personal stories brought life to the subject at hand: "Education for human rights."
The Oct. 16 conference at the University of Connecticut in Storrs was an outgrowth of the school's developing partnership with South Africa. It drew speakers from not only that country, but also China, Israel, and the United Nations.
Conference organizer Prof. Amii Omara-Otunnu encouraged the young people to share with peers what they were learning. "Human rights is really about practical idealism," he said.
Few of the high-schoolers had known much about South Africa's history of apartheid when they'd filed onto campus. But by lunchtime, they were beginning to understand its legacy. One South African official said that 46,000 schools in her country have no toilets, and some aren't even within a mile of water. That hit home to a water-bottle generation.
The teens perked up with each story of political struggle:
Mukesh Vassen, a South African student leader in the 1980s, told about missing two years of high school because he had to hide out from police.
Lionel Basil Davis, a South African artist and antiapartheid activist, said he got his real education while in prison for seven years on Robben Island. He now serves as a tour guide at an interactive museum there.
Xiao Qiang spoke about being inspired to take a break from studies in the US and go back to China after the Tiananmen Square massacre in 1989. Now a full-time human rights advocate, he lives in exile.
"It's kind of shocking to hear some of the things going on," said Jesse Fuhrmann, an 11th-grader who came with his Norwich (Conn.) Free Academy Amnesty International club.
"One reason kids are frequently turned off to history ... is that they don't relate to the abstract; they rarely even relate to the event, until it can be brought to them that somebody cried, somebody felt disadvantaged," said Tim Weinland, a professor emeritus at UConn's education school who is involved in the partnership with South Africa's University of Ft. Hare.
When the subject matter became heavy during a discussion, Mr. Weinland reminded the students that South Africa has made great progress: Twenty years ago, it was unimaginable that a black political prisoner would share a stage with a white leader from a formerly whites-only university.
"This makes what we teach more practical," said Cordelia Isiofia, a Nigerian native and UConn alumna who brought her social studies students from Harborside Middle School in nearby Milford. The academic language may have gone over their heads, but she wanted them "to see positive role models, people who have done good work in society - locally and internationally."