A Lesson for the School that Tried to Ban Amnesty International
By Elias Tyrrel-Walker
A high school in Ohio is making headlines for threatening to block students from forming an Amnesty International Club because, according to the principal, it would create “fear,” stir up “nothing but animosity,” and “bring negative attention to students.”
If you had to read that twice to make sure you got it right, you aren’t alone. This isn’t The Onion. It’s what the head of a public high school in Ohio actually said. He has since agreed to let the Amnesty chapter exist.
I coordinate the Amnesty International club at my high school in New Hampshire. One thing I’ve learned through my participation in Amnesty is that when you see an injustice, you shine a light on it — you speak out, and you speak your truth.
This is the truth: Amnesty International brings millions of people from all backgrounds together to accomplish one goal — defending human rights everywhere. Every day, on hundreds of high school and college campuses all across the United States, young people like me are learning about human rights and getting engaged in the fight for freedom.
What Amnesty International does is actually pretty simple. Researchers all around the world document human rights abuses, conduct in-depth analysis and issue recommendations to stop them, and then millions of people take part in campaigns to obtain justice in individual cases and change systemic policies. Last year alone, Amnesty International’s activists in the U.S. helped free 144 people who were being unjustly imprisoned, most often for speaking out against their government. Amnesty International activists also helped persuade Burkina Faso’s government to take action to end early and forced child marriage and helped free Albert Woodfox after more than 40 years in solitary confinement.
In 1977, Amnesty International received the Nobel Peace Prize because, in the words of the Nobel committee, it “…is committed to political and geographical impartiality; its eyes are open to coercion and injustice, wherever in the world these evils appear…“
That’s what I’m part of at my high school, and it’s what students at New Albany High School in Ohio want to be part of, too.
As a student chapter, we participate in letter-writing campaigns to help free prisoners of conscience around the world, and we also look at issues in the U.S. through a human rights lens. In the process, we learn about the culture and government of other countries, the human rights principles that connect us all, and how the U.S. fits into the global context. As the coordinator of my high school chapter, I participate in planning meetings for campaigns on individual cases and issues, and I attend regional and national leadership trainings.
That’s what Amnesty International’s high school chapters do — and none of it creates “fear” on campus or “bring[s] negative attention to students.” In fact, I’ve seen firsthand that it does the opposite. It creates understanding and compassion on campus, and it brings positive attention to students.
Just a few weeks ago, I organized a bus of other students and local volunteers to go from New Hampshire to New York City, as part of an annual human rights campaign called “Get on the Bus.” This was the 21st year that it happened — longer than I’ve been alive.
We woke up at 3 a.m. and got to Manhattan a few hours later. After meeting other activists who had also caravanned from across the Northeast, we visited about 10 different consulates and offices of foreign governments. At each location, we stood in the street and demanded freedom for people who are imprisoned because they peacefully exercised their human right to free expression — people like Raif Badawi, sentenced to 10 years in prison in Saudi Arabia for blogging. I met a man from Syria whose brother is being held unlawfully by the police, just because he spoke out against the government, and I stood shoulder-to-shoulder with him outside the Syrian consulate, demanding his brother’s release.
I’ve learned a lot in high school. What the Amnesty International club on my campus has taught me is that I can help change the world. That’s something that every young person should learn — and every school should welcome.
Elias Tyrrel-Walker is Student Activist Coordinator at John Stark Regional High School in Weare, New Hampshire.