Claire attended the “8th Annual International Leadership Training Programme: A Global Intergenerational Forum” from August 3rd to August 12th at the University of Connecticut.
Coming to the UNESCO conference I did not know what to expect. I certainly did not realize that I would meet human rights leaders from Saudi Arabia to St Kitts – that they would be from many backgrounds but with a common sense of purpose and passion. These inspiring, amazing young leaders were working on just about every issue on the planet – LGTQ rights, environmental rights, leadership, health, and they were eager to both share their experiences and learn from others’ experiences.
The conference really made me take a step back and think about why I went into human rights activism and how I practiced it in my daily life. The resounding message I took away from the conference is that to be a good human rights activist, I had to work from a place of love. As Dr Amii Omara-Otunnu, the UNESCO chair, stated in his opening speech, you can’t give what you don’t have. I can’t preach human rights if I don’t practice it – not just in my work, but in my interactions with my family, friends and acquaintances.
One of the speakers, China Keitetsi, a former child soldier, embodied the spirit of love in the face of adversity. As she talked about her trauma she had lived through for 10 years in Uganda, her small daughter bounced playfully and joyfully around the stage, offering a perfect, hopeful counterpoint to the darkness that she was talking about. In the face of such huge, overwhelming challenges, we often feel hopeless and unsure of what to do. When I look at the staggering amount of gender discrimination around the world, I also feel powerless. But as China reminded us, it’s OK to start small. Start by spreading awareness. Start by breaking the silence. Help one child soldier through rehabilitation. Empower one young woman to take a leadership course.
A screening of the documentary Emmanuel’s Gift, about a disabled Ghanian who changed the image and lives of the disabled community in Ghana, was both uplifting and humbling. Discussions after the movie reminded me that there is a huge support system behind every changemaker – and that we should remember to be thankful for their support. Human rights activism is not a lonely path – if anything, it’s a beautiful demonstration of collaboration.
Being at the conference also reminded me of the danger in going to far into cynicism or idealism. Looking at the broken world we live in, it is dangerously simple to want to tear it all down and start again. And it is tempting to say: let’s abolish borders! Scrap nations! Sometimes we do need a revolution. But more than anything, I believe in the power of people (leaders and followers) to create change within the system. If anything, all the different discussions around the depressing state of our world reinforced my belief in Women LEAD’s mission to empower leaders to create change in their own communities.
One of the biggest dangers in human rights activism is becoming so consumed and angry about the issue we’re working on that we lose empathy for the people we are trying to help – or even for the people perpetrating injustices. In one of our last workshops, the speaker quickly blew up in anger about his topic, defensively and disrespectfully responding to participants’ questions. It was a good moment for all of us to remember that being a human rights activist starts by being a good person and practicing what we preach. We can’t do human rights activism in our work and then abandon it in our personal lives. It is so easy to get wrapped into the issue we’re defending that we lose sight of the ability to empathize with the people we’re fighting with.
By the end of the conference, we had to think up of action plans we could bring back to the community we work in. My group created a short video of participants’ sharing their experiences in human rights activism. We asked them several questions (When was the moment you realized you were a human rights activist? What advice do you have for aspiring human rights activists?). The answers remind me of the wonderful community of activists I am honored to be a part of.
The conference gave me a beautiful gift of new friends and deep reflection. Reflecting on my journey and my role as a human rights activist reaffirmed my passion and belief in what I am doing. Have you taken the time to think about your path? How are you practicing your human rights activism? Please share with me below!