"I personally believe that ignorance is the root of all conflict and so education is the only solution.” Wise words - especially considering they were coming from high school student Joe Church. His was just one of the many insightful comments offered at the District of Columbia’s Woodrow Wilson Senior High School as students debated issues related to human rights on a warm afternoon in early March.

Jean-Louis Peta Ikambana, the Middle Atlantic Region’s D.C. Peace and Economic Justice (DCP&EJ) Program Area Director, challenged the students to think critically and to dig into case studies about subjects including privacy, immigration, homelessness, and parenting.

The youths connected the studies to their own lives, talking about a friend who had been homeless, a parent who was not born in the United States and a cousin who was struggling at work. The students had a lively discussion about the various articles of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) including:

  • All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights.
  • Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression.
  • Everyone has the right to education.

In 2008 the Middle Atlantic Region initiated the D.C. Human Rights Learning Project (HRLP) to address a knowledge gap regarding human rights. Jean-Louis now teaches classes in seven area schools using the UDHR as the foundation of a project that is engaging youths in a participatory approach to societal change.

At Wilson High, the students have a lot of energy and a lot of strong opinions. At the close of the class, Jean-Louis asked everyone to write down ways that they can change the school or greater community to be more congruent with human rights learning. One student wrote, “Basically, human rights are all about freedom and justice. It means you can prevent unfairness in the world.”

By connecting human rights learning to issues that students care about, Jean- Louis is preparing them to shape tomorrow’s world. He agrees with Joe Church that education is the solution. Jean-Louis sees human rights learning as an opportunity to develop a thoughtful, critical, and socially responsible new generation of citizens. “You are preparing to become leaders,” he told the Wilson class.

The students at Wilson High and other schools participating in the D.C. Human Rights Learning Project are part of the necessary precursor to peace: a national dialogue about justice and human rights.