“Food.”

“Shelter.”

“An education.”

The students in the room raised their hands one by one and gave answers to the question, what should all humans, regardless of location or wealth, be allowed to have?

Jean-Louis Peta Ikambana, the Area Director for the Middle Atlantic Region’s D.C. Peace and Economic Justice Program, has been teaching a human rights curriculum in D.C. area high schools since 2008.  He frequently challenges students with hard questions.

This exchange occured at Georgetown Day School during their annual Global Awareness Day, a time devoted to seminars about social issues, community-building, and reflection.

Jean-Louis and his colleague, Thomas Walker, a member of the D.C. Human Rights City Steering Committee, each led a workshop with about fifteen middle-school students. They discussed the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, a document adopted and proclaimed by the United Nations General Assembly in 1948 but one that lacks the power of law. The thirty-article document contains stipulations for freedom of expression, the right to life, and the right to marriage, among others. Thomas and Jean-Louis asked the students to think of examples they knew of in which certain rights had been violated. What followed was an interesting and lively discussion of health care, gay rights, border control, and other topics that did little to betray the actual ages of the eleven-to-thirteen-year-olds discussing them.

Jean-Louis began teaching about Human Rights when the Middle Atlantic Region started the Human Rights Learning Project, an initiative designed to educate youth and other members of society to understand their rights and fight for them. Jean-Louis had recently conducted a survey among 89 students from five different public and private D.C. high schools and had found that of all the students, only two of them had heard of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The project was created in response to that, and began with funding from the People’s Movement for Human Rights Learning, an international organization that works to establish Human Rights Cities across the world. A Human Rights City is one that strives, through citywide discussions and campaigns, towards educating its citizens about human rights and becoming more proactive in addressing issues of violations of these rights. In December of 2008, a citywide resolution declared Washington, D.C. to be the first Human Rights City in the United States. The fact that D.C. passed this resolution makes it all the more imperative to Jean-Louis and others that the city’s youth understand the significance of human rights—and realize the injustices that still beg to be addressed.

Given the short timeline of the Human Rights Learning Project, the amount of students that Jean-Louis has already reached is astounding. He teaches weekly classes in five local high schools, and has visited many more to teach special workshops. This past November, he addressed over 300 students in an auditorium at the Friends School of Baltimore, and led smaller group sessions with 30 more that afternoon. The Human Rights Learning Project’s goal is working—as more and more students learn about the injustices going on in their cities and elsewhere, more feel compelled to take action. As he was wrapping up his last workshop at the Friends School in November, Jean-Louis overheard a boy talking with a teacher.

“I think I’m going to start a Youth for Human Rights Club,” said the student. “Will you be the faculty advisor?”

By Mia Stange