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How Amnesty is Inspiring a New Generation of Human Rights Champions

How Amnesty is Inspiring a New Generation of Human Rights Champions

For Maggie Towse, having the confidence to stand up for one’s values and beliefs is a proud family tradition.

Her father was a conscientious objector in the Second World War and Maggie recalls that she was bullied by her peers because their fathers went to war, but hers stayed true to his values and refused to fight. Her mother was a nursery teacher who often found herself at odds with local parents for allowing boys to play with dolls and girls to play with bricks; for her, the most important thing was to let children be children.

Recalling her own school days, Maggie describes herself as something of a bolshy adolescent. She enjoyed challenging discussions with teachers and engaging them in constructive debate about the social issues of the day. Maggie left school and embarked upon a career as a psychiatrist and her bolshiness subsided.

Then, later in life, she found out that her mother was an Amnesty International supporter and had been writing letters in support of people being denied their rights. Maggie’s passion for challenging social injustice was reignited…

Amnesty School Speakers Programme

After a long history with Amnesty International, including serving as the charity’s volunteer coordinator for Zimbabwe, Maggie settled in North Wales and became chair of the local Amnesty group in Colwyn Bay, before joining the charity’s school speakers programme.

Amnesty school speakers form a vital part of the charity’s human rights education programme. School speakers provide schools with the opportunity to engage pupils in human rights issues by delivering thought-provoking sessions during lessons, assemblies or one-off workshops. The programme is possible thanks to funding from the People’s Postcode Lottery.

The local group had tried to engage local schools over the years, including organising a hustings for sixth formers prior to the 2014 General Election, but it was Amnesty’s publication of Dreams of Freedom in 2016 that became the catalyst to increasing their engagement with children and young people.

Talking in Primary Schools

The book contained a selection of quotations about freedom specifically chosen to be understood and appreciated by children. Volunteers reproduced some of the illustrations for an exhibition in the local library.

They contacted the speaker’s unit at Amnesty International, which provided training to the group to develop skills for speaking with children, which enabled them to develop an interactive workshop for primary schools based on the book. They visited eight or nine primary schools in pairs, primarily talking to children in Years 5 and 6 (aged 9-11).

Children responded well to the activities, which included asking them to stand up if they had curly hair or a pet, then being told they can’t join in with the activity, which led to discussions about equality and whether it was fair to exclude people on the basis of their appearance, culture or ethnic origin.

Volunteers showed children pictures of human rights heroes, such as Martin Luther King, and used the Right Up Your Street poster to introduce conversations about the human rights most relevant to primary aged children, such as the right to education or the right to a safe home.

Talking in High Schools

Following their success in speaking to primary aged children about human rights issues, Maggie began to adapt the materials to deliver talks in local high schools. Typically, the format includes a short video and slides about human rights issues and Maggie shares the Niemöller quote which ends “and then they came for me and there was no-one left to speak for me”, which she says usually produces a visible response from her young audiences.

Maggie takes great care to ensure that talks are current and age- appropriate, often preparing them from scratch, and topics covered have included forced abortions, death penalties and LGBT rights. Many of the themes selected are covered on Amnesty’s website, enabling students to follow up with their own research afterwards, or complement the local group’s activities, creating further opportunities to work with local schools.

At the end of each talk, students are offered a bilingual English/Welsh human rights passport, or any other literature that might be available, and it’s not uncommon for some pupils to stay and ask questions afterwards or enquire how they can offer support.

In February 2020, Steve met with students from two schools in North Wales to hear about their experiences of Amnesty’s school speakers programme and find out how it has impacted in their lives.

Eirias High School, Colwyn Bay

Maggie has visited the school on a number of occasions, speaking to large groups of students in assemblies and, more recently, delivering longer talks to smaller groups of Year 12 students. The school already has a thriving Amnesty Group which meets every Monday to discuss human rights and make plans to raise awareness amongst their peers and the wider community.

Students recently organised a successful clothing collection to donate to local refugee families and are planning a campaign to raise awareness of forced marriage, having used their Facebook Messenger group chat to vote on themes they would like explore. Some students report that it was this talk which sparked their interest in human rights and inspired them to get involved in the group, one says the talk made them want to do something to help.

John Bright Comprehensive School, Llandudno

Maggie has visited the school on two occasions, firstly visiting selected students in Year 9 (aged 13-14) to deliver a general talk about Amnesty International and human rights. On the second occasion, Maggie delivered a talk to selected students in Year 11 (aged 15-16) who are part of a new programme aimed at improving educational engagement and attainment.

The talk focussed on modern slavery and a number of students (now in Years 11 and 13) recall that the talk made a lasting impression on them, particularly hearing about local examples.

“I was really surprised to learn that people were being trafficked and brought to Holyhead, just up the road, and that modern slavery is such a big problem in the UK.”

What worked well?

“Maggie spoke to us as if we weren’t kids, but weren’t quite adults yet. She didn’t dumb it down. It was good that she linked it to the UK, it made you realise that these things effect us here as well.”

“I think everyone can forget what goes on outside of their own life, so receiving a reminder is a good way to raise awareness, especially for the younger generation.”

“We learned about a woman who was forced into slavery; they threatened to kill her family if she didn’t do it.”

Young people at both schools say the talks are pitched at the right level; complex human rights issues are simplified, but students didn’t feel they were sugar-coated, or that they were being patronised. They were interested in hearing real- life examples of people being denied human rights, particularly local examples which increased the relevance of the talks.

Young people welcomed a clear call to action and found it helpful to receive a summary of how they can help or get involved and enjoyed receiving supporting materials such as the passport, leaflets or badges. They welcomed the opportunity to think about human rights, consider the issues raised and reflect on their own beliefs and values.

Young people suggest that the talks are well-timed, coming just before they are making key decisions, such as further or higher education options, and thinking about future careers or making their mark on the world. The students involved in the Amnesty group at Erias High School feel that working under a known brand is beneficial to their work as it gives their activities more gravitas and respect than if they worked as individuals.

For some, it’s personal

Two students shared that the talks had resonated with them on a more personal level as each of their families had experience of their human rights being denied prior to coming to live in the UK. In both cases, the students said they felt validated by hearing more about Amnesty International’s work

“Human rights feel particularly relevant to me because I was born in Iraq and lived there when I was little. Things were really dangerous there, but I’ve seen the contrast living here, so I feel like I want to do my bit to help people who may not know any different.”

“Human rights have always been important to me. My grandparents were from Uganda, but came to England to start a new life. I’ve heard lots of stories about what they struggled with, how people weren’t treated equally and how they had to work hard to get the same opportunities.”

What could be improved?

“Not everyone wants to get involved, maybe that should be Amnesty’s priority, get people to care first, then get them to do something, otherwise you’ll only ever work with the people who are the most motivated.”

Young people felt that not everyone was engaged in the talk, which was frustrating for those who were. They suggested a short introductory talk in assemblies, with a longer follow-up session for those who were more interested.

Students at Eirias High School would welcome additional advice from Amnesty International in running their local group, particularly around campaigning and fundraising. Young people at both schools suggest that students should be exposed to human rights issues at a younger age, both to increase general awareness and spark an interest which may enable them to get involved in future.

What else would young people like to learn about?

“School doesn’t really teach you about the real world. I’ve learned about human biology, but not about human rights. It’s empowering to receive a little more education about the world, what needs to be done and we can do to help.”

Young people at both schools identified a number of areas they would like to explore further, including human rights issues relevant to teenagers, such as being exploited to work for drug dealers or your right to defend yourself if you are physically attacked. Other issues young people would like to learn more about include families being separated due to immigration, human rights in the workplace and how to be a successful activist or advocate of human rights.

The talks have made lasting impact on some young people

“When you get into sixth form, you really become your own person and, if you’re the sort of person who’s really passionate about something and you’re not afraid to do something about it, then there’s no reason why you can’t make a difference, especially at school.”

“We’re becoming more diverse as a country, which is a good thing, but it also highlights differences and it’s important we understand each other.”

“Human rights is a big deal. I have my human rights, but people in minority groups or other countries may not have theirs and it’s important that we all have the same opportunities.”

Young people suggest that the lasting impact of the talk varied depending on the level of engagement, but for some the impact has been significant. Some young people suggest the talks have given them a broader understanding of what’s in the news and what’s going on in the world. A number of young people report feeling more confident about challenging negative attitudes towards minority groups as a result of the talks; both at school amongst peers and in the family environment.

At John Bright Comprehensive School, one student is going to Cambridge University where she will study to become a human rights lawyer. This is a significant achievement as she is one of only a small number of students from the school, and indeed the local area, to be accepted on the programme.

One student has since joined Amnesty International as a member, whilst another has joined Amnesty International’s Facebook group and a number of students are actively engaged in volunteering for local good causes. At Eirias High School, those students in the Amnesty group report feeling inspired by Maggie’s talk and have since gone on to organise a clothing collection for local refugees and are planning a campaign to raise awareness of the issues associated with forced marriages.

As for Maggie, she says her confidence has improved since becoming an Amnesty school speaker and the need to plan engaging talks for young people ensures that she maintains her own engagement in current issues. Just as she was inspired by a previous generation and her own schooldays, Maggie hopes to inspire the next generation of human rights champions.

“I just hope we can help them to stay engaged and involved and not become subsumed by the general mess. I hope this flow of enthusiasm for human rights can flow through me into the next generation.”

This case study was researched and written by Steve Allman in March 2020. It’s one of a number of case studies commissioned by Amnesty International to demonstrate the impact of its School Speaker’s programme, which is funded by The People’s Postcode Lottery.

How Good Neighbours Are Helping Suffolk Communities

How Good Neighbours Are Helping Suffolk Communities

Neighbours. Everybody needs good neighbours. I’m sorry, I couldn’t resist shoe-horning at least one reference to the Neighbours theme tune into this post! Across Suffolk, neighbours are coming together to provide much more than a friendly wave each morning (sorry), and offering practical and emotional support through the Suffolk Good Neighbour Network.

There are 43 Good Neighbour Schemes within the network, which is hosted by Community Action Suffolk and funded by the National Lottery Community Fund. People can request help from their local scheme, which matches them with a volunteer neighbour who can provide the help they need. Good Neighbours schemes can help with a wide range of tasks, from cutting the grass or walking dogs through to collecting shopping or providing a lift to a GP appointment.

Support from our neighbours has become even more important this year as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic and a number of Good Neighbour schemes have adapted quickly to help those who are shielding or self-isolating. Last Christmas, I visited a number of schemes to find out about their impact to help with the project evaluation. Writing this one year on, it seems strange to think we were all cooped up together in a cosy pub singing carols without a mask or hand gel bottle in sight!

Anyway, here’s a little snippet from that case study to give you a sense of how Good Neighbours are doing good in their community. This one is from Snape, a small village near the Suffolk coast, not too far from Woodbridge and Aldeburgh:

How did it start?

Snape Good Neighbour scheme launched in 2019 after the Parish Council identified a need to support older and vulnerable people in this particularly isolated part of Suffolk. The scheme has a team of 16 volunteers who have already completed over 140 jobs for their neighbours. Jobs include dog- walking, DIY, lifts to health appointments and the shops, but also providing friendship and social opportunities to overcome isolation. The group also organises a “Meet Up Monday” in the Golden Key pub.

What Clients Say

“I lost my husband recently and now I’m on my own. I don’t know how I’d cope without the Good Neighbours Scheme. I’m disabled and they arrange for someone to give me a lift to Meet Up Monday and help me get up the steps.
The best thing is the company and it gets me out. My family live a long way away and can only visit once a month. Without this, I’d be at home staring at the walls.”

“I used to be a coach driver and travel all over the country. You never knew where you were going to go next we used to come to Snape on holiday and we decided to make it our home. It’s a great place when you’re young, but isolating when you’re older, especially since I lost my wife. Good Neighbours have been wonderful, it’s real companionship. I can’t get here on my own, so they arrange a lift for me. The volunteers are so helpful and friendly, I can’t fault them.”

“I drive five miles to get here from Aldeburgh because it’s a real community atmosphere. I’ve got to know everyone and I like the friendliness and the continuity of seeing the same faces each time. If I didn’t come here, I’d have nowhere else to go, there’s nothing quite like this where I live.”

What Volunteers Say

Snape Parish Council held a meeting about the Village Plan and they’d done a survey which said there was a level of isolation in the village and we could do more to help. There are only about 500 homes in Snape, so a group of us got together to set up a Good Neighbour Scheme, with support from Snape Parish Council. Now, we have a small number of people who use it very regularly and we have around two dozen volunteers who also help with lifts to the doctors and hospital. We’ve had a lot of support from Community Action Suffolk and been to some of their training, and they also arranged for us to visit Wickham Market, which is more established, to see how it all works.”

Paul, GNS Secretary

“When the Parish Council wrote our community plan, we recognised a big void in day to day support for older and vulnerable people and the level of demand was increasing. Community Action Suffolk came to visit and inspired us to set up a Good Neighbours Scheme and we were very fortunate that a number of people stepped up to join the committee. The Parish Council gave the scheme some additional funding and we’ve also raised money from other sources, such as Waitrose. We’ve got a good mix of people on the committee, including Parish Councillors and the local Reverend, which is important as it prevents people from burning out. When you get that first call from someone who needs help, you never know what to expect, but between us we know who can help out with various things and we all look out for each other.”

Tim, Chair, Snape Parish Council

“However nice and affluent a a village may seem, there is always loneliness. Not many people round here are short of a bob or two, but they might be short of company and friendship. Snape is lovely, but very isolated. In days gone by, we’d pop to the local shops or meet friends, but nowadays there are no shops and no buses. Yes, you can shop online or ask your family to do it, but it’s very isolating and it stops you from being independent. The Good Neighbours Scheme, and Meet Up Mondays, enables people to come here and get to know other people. Some of the main issues are isolation and difficulties with mobility, but we also get to hear about people who are having problems and put them in touch with those who can help.”

Rev. Rachel Cornish, Rector of the Alde River Benefice

What Works?

Support from the Parish Council is key to the success of the Good Neighbour Scheme, with Councillors providing financial support, practical support and ensuring that the GNS is an intrinsic part of the local plan. It also helps that Snape is a small community and other supporters, such as the landlord of the Golden Key where Meet Up Mondays are held, are keen to get involved.

How has COVID-19 Impacted the Scheme?

Since the start of lockdown, Snape Good Neighbours has been tirelessly working to help residents with befriending, shopping, prescription collection, hospital trips, even clearing guttering! Thanks to the generosity of Snape residents, who donated both money and goods, they were able to fully stock the village larder each week for those who needed food donations.

Meet Up Monday has been temporarily suspended, but all those who used to attend the group have been spoken to every Monday, either by phone or from the doorstep. They’ve also been given a plant to nurture over the Winter months, which will all be planted around the village in the Spring, increasing biodiversity and creating a colourful display.

Find out more:

Snape Good Neighbour Scheme

Helping Homeless People Get On The Right Path

PATH is a partnership working to help those who are experiencing homelessness, or are at risk of it, across North and West Kent. Seven charities, led by Citizens Advice North & West Kent, are working together to provide a range of services including emergency hostel accommodation, housing advice, debt advice, mediation and mental health support.

I’ve been working with partners during 2020 to evaluate the impact of the project, which is funded by Help Through Crisis, a National Lottery Community Fund programme. It was a challenging time for both of us; PATH was adapting to deliver its services during the COVID-19 pandemic and I was adapting my own methods as the UK went into lockdown shortly after I was commissioned, which meant we had to quickly adapt our plans for workshops, face to face interviews, etc.

Thankfully, with good communication and careful planning, it all worked out in the end and PATH was able to continue it’s much-needed services and I was able to complete the evaluation remotely, meeting partners through Zoom, interviewing clients by phone and delivering the final presentation online.

It’s a fantastic project providing much-needed support, but one interesting aspect was that we began to see the early signs of how the pandemic might impact on vulnerable and disadvantaged people, particulalry where housing and advice is concerned. For example, emergency legislation passed by the government prevented landlords from chasing tenants for rent arrears during the pandemic. This was good news, but would it lead to a “bottleneck” of evictions and legal action further down the line?

We also heard how the extended lockdown was beginning to create more pressure at home, particularly for those experiencing domestic abuse or mental health difficulties. Unemployment seemed likely to rise as companies reduce staff to save costs and, whilst some partners reported a rise in issues concerning loans and credit cards, Citizens Advice North & West Kent had seen a 50% downturn in people requesting help with debt problems, presumably because of consumer protection measures.

However, when these temporary measures are lifted, it seems highly likely that the partnership will see a sudden increase in people facing debt, which will also impact on housing security, potentially increasing hardship for people at risk of homelessness.

The Homelessness Reduction Act supports the need for continuing support for people facing homelessness or threatened homelessness, in addition to encouraging organisations to work together to improve advice and support for those most at risk. However, some partners reported that it has not been entirely effective and, in some cases, has presented clients with alternative problems, such as downgrading their level of risk and therefore reducing the support from local authorities.

These are just some of the issues we explored as part of our evaluation, which also made recommendations as to how the project could adapt to meet these changing needs and attract further investment to continue its support to those in need.

One thing is for certain, it’s clear from this small snapshot that the pandemic has created a number of challenges for people who were already under considerable pressure and, whilst the full social and economic impact is yet to be known, the support and advice provided by PATH, and other similar projects, will be essential in getting people back on their feet and on the right path.

3 Simple Strategies To Reduce Stress You Can Start Today

3 Simple Strategies To Reduce Stress You Can Start Today

This is a simple post, deliberately so. There is lots of advice out there about reducing stress, so much so that even finding it can be a stress-inducing experience!

Some ideas are easy to implement, some are more difficult and some require commitment – and patience. Even coaches can fall off the wagon sometimes and whenever I feel my own stress levels creeping up, I go straight for my own “Big Three“, which nearly always have a positive impact in quickly reducing stress.

Increase Activity

Note that I’m not calling it exercise. Exercise is great, but it sounds like a bigger commitment than simply committing to being more active. Now, I’m a keen cyclist and I’ll move heaven and earth to get my lycra time but, in previous jobs, I can honestly say that I didn’t have time to exercise. When you’ve got a long commute, or when your diary’s littered with early starts and evening meetings, it can feel nigh on impossible to maintain any kind of fitness regime, but you can still be more active.

Increasing activity levels is known to be an effective strategy for managing stress. Physical activity produces endorphins in the brain, which can lift our mood and improve motivation, performance and concentration. Increasing activity can be a positive goal as we start to think about the new you, and it can also serve as a good motivator as it’s easy to measure and the results can be tangible – once your shin splints subside.

If you want to go all in, then join the gym, buy a bike or invest in some snazzy running shoes. If you want to start simple, try upping the amount of walking you do, either at home or near your workplace and try and increase it over a few weeks. I have a couple of simple rules I follow; when I’m at home or away, I’ll walk any distance up to about 30 minutes. When I’m in London, I try not to use the tube for any journey less than 2-3 stops. You can often spend longer getting to the platform!

In fact, when I first worked in London in my twenties, I would get off the train in Liverpool Street, cross to the underground and wait patiently for a Northern Line train to Moorgate so I could head up to the office near Angel. After a couple of weeks, I realised I could walk to Moorgate in less than 5 minutes, less time than it took me to change platforms and wait! After a couple more weeks, I realised I could walk the whole way to work in less than half an hour, which was a great way to get some bonus activity into an otherwise busy day.

For those of us outside of London, you can apply the same logic to your own commute, whether you can jump off the bus two stops early or maybe leave the car at home if it’s easy enough to walk or cycle. It all depends on your personal circumstances of course but, if you can get your activity up, it’s also a good way of improving mental health and unwinding after a busy day. How about meetings? Do you have to be in the board room, or can you walk and talk in the park?

Improve Nutrition

Note that I’m not saying go on a diet. That may work for some, but for others it’s unrealistic and can make things worse by putting yourself under pressure to change everything overnight, or from Monday, which is when most diets tend to start. More simply, this is about making different choices, small changes you can make throughout the day which may have a knock on effect in reducing stress.

We all know that poor nutrition can not only exacerbate stress, but it can also lead to long-term physical problems such as heart disease, diabetes or obesity, so a few small changes here and there can also help your overall health and wellbeing.

For example, cutting down on sugar can help to reduce stress. Sugar can impact on our levels of adrenaline, the hormone which increases stress by inducing a “fight or flight” reaction within our body, making us feel on edge, irritable or anxious. If you can reduce sugar in hot drinks, switch to diet soft drinks or cut down on chocolate or processed foods, it can all help towards reducing stress.

Being more choosy about what you eat can help too. Certainly in the charity sector, which is where I’ve spent most of my career, dry sandwiches are the order of the day – especially at board meetings, conferences and other events. Working into the evening can also be commonplace, so grabbing a quick something at the supermarket or even fast food (guilty, your honour!) may fill the gap for a while, but you may wind up eating more before bed if you’re still hungry when you get home.

Some folk find a little time to prepare a packed lunch, rather than rely on the local supermarket to feed them. That way, you can be more mindful about your choices, take a little more time to include fruit or veg and try and get the right balance. If you don’t live too far from work, maybe you can make time to pop home for lunch or dinner so you get at least one good meal or, if you must eat out, try making time to sit and eat a little something properly rather than grab and go.

Improving Sleep

We all know that we need sleep, which provides our bodies and brains with an opportunity to rest and restore after another busy day and can help us wake up feeling refreshed and ready to go again. If you’re not one of the people writing on Linkedin about how you wake up at 4am and get another novel written before the dawn chorus, maybe you’re not getting enough sleep?

The frustrating thing about improving sleep, for me anyway, is that some of the potential strategies to help us get a good night’s rest are so obvious, but it’s so easy to forget all about them as we crash out on the sofa after another busy day! A good small change to start with is reducing caffeine, which can help to both reduce stress and improve sleep.

Caffeine can induce a similar stress response to sugar as it stimulates our adrenal gland, producing adrenaline – the flight or fight response – which, unless you’re about to be eaten by a bear, or run away from one, is going nowhere and can make you feel edgy or anxious. It goes without saying that you don’t want to feel like this at bedtime, so take it easy on the caffeine.

Now, here’s the bit where I get to crow about how I quit caffeine and turned my life around… No, not quite, but I did drink up to 10 cups of coffee per day, at one point. One of the problems of working in the charity sector is that people tend to be very nice and will often make you a cup if they’re making one for themselves, even if you don’t want one or haven’t asked for one.

In those days, I was rushing about all over the place and it no doubt contributed to my stress levels. I struggled to sleep, I was tired the next day, a bit sluggish and, I can admit it now, more than a little grumpy sometimes. These days I’m down to just 2-3 cups a day, rarely after 12pm and I’ve definitely noticed a reduction in stress. This works for me, but you need to find out what works for you.

Other strategies for improving sleep include developing a better bedtime routine, which might include things like taking a relaxing bath before bed, not working or checking emails for at least an hour before bedtime and, shocker, no phones in bed! Some people find it useful to practice breathing techniques when you get in bed to encourage your body to relax, whilst others find it useful to use imagery, such as picturing yourself asleep or imagining how awesome you’ll be tomorrow after a good night’s rest.

That’s it. Three simple strategies to reduce stress which you can start today. What small changes could you make that might help? Do you have go-to strategies to help reduce stress? What works for you?