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How Amnesty is Inspiring a New Generation of Human Rights Champions

by Steve Allman

Coach for purpose-powered people & consultant to non-profits. Enabling you to develop the methods & mindset to make a positive impact, in your own life & the lives of others.
1 December 2020

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.


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