Teaching human rights from below: towards solidarity, resistance and social justice.

Author:Canlas, Melissa


The call for human rights education (HRE) in schools is growing, but there remains a large gap in empirical research around HRE, particularly in the United States. There is an additional need for increased research focusing on human rights curricula and pedagogies that serve low-income students of color, and immigrants and refugees in the United States. In this article, we discuss our curricular and pedagogical strategies and student responses to lesson plans and activities that build solidarity, resistance to dominant and assimilative narratives, and promote social justice for a high school human rights club that serves immigrant and refugee youth. We are a professor (Monisha Bajaj) and two doctoral students (Amy Argenal and Melissa Canlas), who are involved in research collaboration with a public high school in a large urban area on the west coast of the United States. Our approach focuses on combining a transformative human rights perspective with the praxes of critical pedagogies and social justice with three key themes: student-centered human rights pedagogy, cultural wealth and HRE, and students' turning human rights language into action.

Conceptualizing a Human Rights from Below

Human rights cultures have long been in the making by the praxis of victims of violations, regardless of the mode of formulation of human rights standards and instruments. The single most critical source of human rights is the consciousness of peoples of the world who have waged the most persistent struggles for decolonization and self-determination, against racial discrimination, gender-based aggression and discrimination, denial of access to basic minimum needs, environmental degradation and destruction.... Clearly, Human Rights Education (HRE) must begin by a commissioning of a world history of people's struggles for rights and against injustice and tyranny (Baxi, 1997, 142).

Human rights offers a language that speaks to the basic dignity inherent in all human beings. Human rights education may take the form of the dissemination of knowledge around international conventions and treaties, the analysis of how nation states interact with the United Nations, and the examination of the intersections of human rights with social change movements. Because HRE in the United States primarily exists in law schools, there has been a legal focus-understanding international law and how it can be utilized. This is a technocratic understanding of human rights and affirms HRE scholar Andre Keet's critique of normative HRE as being overly "declarationist" (2007). Legal scholar Marie-Benedicte Dembour (2010) identifies four "schools" of human rights scholarship (natural, deliberative, protesting, and discursive); the struggle to close the gap between rights on paper and realities on the ground characterizes the "protest" school where we place our HRE work with scholars such as Upendra Baxi quoted above.

Agreeing with scholars who call for "critical" (Keet, 2007) and "transformative" HRE (Bajaj, 2012; Mackie, 2009; Tibbitts, 2005), we approach human rights education "from below" acknowledging the radical legacies of human rights movements that struggled against racism, xenophobia, oppressive regimes, and colonialism. For example, in the United States, American human rights history brings to light the use of human rights language in framing racial justice by such civil rights activists as Ella Baker and Malcolm X, and W.E.B. DuBois' and Paul Robeson's petition to the United Nations to investigate the widespread lynching of African Americans as a form of genocide (Anderson, 2003). Human rights offers a way to build solidarity to fight against repressive regimes and oppressive systems. Although HRE has been diluted or non-existent in education in the United States, there exists a radical history of activism and movement building using human rights language that educators can draw upon (Grant and Gibson, 2013).

Human rights education from below describes how marginalized communities have used human rights in their liberation struggles and offers a way to teach about human rights utilizing participatory and community-based methods. In this approach, human rights offers a shared language of resistance and solidarity that allows groups across borders to engage in similar struggles-with differing methods and contextual conditions-in the name of equal rights and social justice. Through human rights education grounded in critical analyses of power and unequal social conditions, students are able to engage with injustices and examine how individuals, groups, and larger movements have used human rights frameworks to reclaim dignity, expand rights, and develop solidarity as forms of critical resistance both locally and globally.

In 2014 our research team launched a Human Rights Club of five to ten students meeting weekly for 1 1/2 hour sessions in a high school for newcomer refugee and immigration youth. The club met over 30 times during the school year and took five field trips where students delved further into human rights issues. We developed interactive lessons related to human rights and prioritized students' experiences in the club's content, structure, and practice. Our curriculum was flexible and was revised to respond to students' interests and concerns. The research team also participated in school events as part of an ongoing collaboration rooted in the principles of community-engaged scholarship (Giles, 2008). As educators, we incorporated into our practice community building, self-reflection (for students and educators), critical dialogue, and "reading the world" (Freire, 1970), which meant examining the social, economic, and political conditions that shaped the experiences of students and their communities. We also encouraged students to articulate their understandings of a rights-based language that were relevant to them and their transnational communities.

Positionality and Relationship to the Research

We want a loving community across difference.... We commit to a vibrant, inclusive, and intersectional social justice movement that condemns racist patriarchy and works to end its daily brutality and injustice. Anything less is unacceptable.

(excerpt from African-American Policy Forum Statement on the Charleston massacre, 2015)

This statement of the African-American Policy Forum, co-founded by legal scholar Kimberle Crenshaw, theorizes intersectional analyses of power and social inequality and offers a concise statement of how we view our multiple identities and commitments in relation to human rights and racial justice. We are women of color, each with over ten years of experience teaching and working with immigrant, refugee, or international populations, and share a commitment to a radical and inclusive politics of human rights reflected in our educational, organizing, and scholarly work. Each of us is the child or grandchild of immigrants to the United States and has family stories of rights violations and discrimination both in our countries of origin (the Philippines, Nicaragua, and India respectively) as well as in the United States. This is significant because...

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