When I reflect on why I became a human rights defender, I think a lot of it stems back to the way in which I was raised and the place I was raised in. My combined Quaker and Jewish upbringing taught me that there is light in everyone, that everyone deserves to be treated with respect and everyone should be treated equally. With this value base, as a young child it was hard for me to understand why some people had it so much harder than others. I grew up just outside of Washington, DC, a city with extreme socio-economic and geographic racial segregation, and record-high homelessness. Seeing so much inequality in my own hometown while believing in everyone’s equal access to opportunity led me to human rights work.
I first got involved with Amnesty during the first week of my first year in college. Amidst hundreds of clubs at my school’s “Club Fair,” I found the Amnesty table. Students told me about the work they did and handed me a postcard to sign to help free Filep Karma, an activist jailed for raising a flag. I went to the first meeting, and I was hooked. It was incredible to be surrounded by people who felt moved to fight for the rights of someone they might not even know. I loved how the Amnesty members were ready to work, I loved how many different kinds of actions could be taken to make a huge impact on someone’s life, and I loved that I could make a real difference outside of what I was learning in the classroom.
My focus in my schoolwork on human rights issues gave me even more of a drive to be involved with Amnesty. The more I read in the classroom, the more I learned about injustices, and the more ideas I had as to how to end them. That semester our Amnesty chapter focused on te Stop Torture and My Body, My Rights campaigns, and on ending gun violence. I planned expert panels and film screenings, lobbying and action days. Once I got involved, I could not stop, and Amnesty gave me so many opportunities to do more.
In 2016, at the annual conference, I was trained as a Sexual and Reproductive Rights Advocate Trainer. I now have the opportunity to work with groups all over New York City, to help them know and access their rights and to help ensure sexual and reproductive rights for all, in this country and abroad. Sexual and reproductive rights are personal to everyone, and as the political climate of the USA tightens, we need to work even harder to ensure that everyone, everywhere, is free to make their own decisions about their bodies and not the decisions that someone else chooses for them. This means fighting for consent education on college campuses, accurate, fact-based comprehensive sex education in public schools, ensuring that everyone can choose who their intimate partner is and when to marry that person, protecting and expanding sexual and reproductive-related health services, ensuring that people can live free from sexual violence and from discrimination based on their sex, gender, sexuality, perceived identity and so much more.
Amnesty has allowed me to work on so many different yet intersecting human rights issues that I am passionate about, from sexual and reproductive rights, to criminal justice, incarceration, immigration and refugee issues. With the reforms so many of us seek with regard to the rights of immigrants, asylum seekers, criminal defendants and detainees not on the near horizon, it is all the more important that we, as Human
Rights activists, remain committed, creative and tireless in advocating for the values we treasure — values protecting individual freedoms, equal access, due process and justice under the law.
I’m going to be abroad with limited Internet access for the first part of 2017, but that can’t stop me from being a human rights defender. For the next four years I plan on writing one letter a week to a US official on relevant human rights issues, to ask them to stand against harmful policies and to defend human rights themselves. I challenge you to join me in this endeavor. It is so easy to contact your elected officials, and working on a local level can be hugely effective in making change real.
Activism is hard work. Sometimes it feels that there are roadblocks at every turn and that nothing can be done. Challenges can seem insurmountable, and sometimes it can feel impossible to make a difference, so I want to share with you five easy steps you can take to create an action plan for change on whatever issue or set of issues you are passionate about.
1. Identify the specific issue you want to address. See if you can answer these three questions: “What needs to change?” “Why is it important?” “Who are the different stakeholders, and what can they do about it?”
2. Brainstorm. “You have to act as if it were possible to radically transform the world. And you have to do it all the time.” — Angela Davis. Think big, be creative, think about what you would do if you had an unlimited budget (Fly a blimp? Build an app? Create a human rights-focused company? Start a sex-ed program?). No idea is too far out there: anything goes. You can get realistic later, but often the best plans come out of a dream that might seem unattainable.
3. Create a 12-month plan, once you’ve settled on an idea to guide you and help you hold yourself accountable. Set goals that are S.M.A.R.T. —
Specific — what specific issue will you focus on?
Measurable — how will you measure your success?
Assignable — who will complete the task?
Realistic — what results can you achieve given your resources?
Timely — what’s your timetable?
4. Balance a Budget. How much will this endeavor cost both in money and in people’s time? Will you need to raise money? How will you keep people committed? How will you make this solution sustainable in the long term? Money can be a huge setback in taking action. Think about whether there may be local sponsors you can reach out to.
5. Prioritize and Pace Yourself. We have a long, hard and exciting road ahead to defend and advance human rights, so pick issues you are passionate about and can be committed to for the long haul, keep vigilant, take time for yourself, and
remember that you are not in this fight alone. People are ready and willing to fight alongside you; sometimes they just need to be asked to join in.
Once you break it down into steps like these, being a human rights defender isn’t hard. It’s all in the first word: simply being human, and standing up for what you think is right.
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