Why I Choose to be a Human Rights Defender

As 2016 comes to a close, our staff and members are taking time to reflect. Read why they became human rights defenders, and why now more than ever, it’s time to speak out for human rights.

Mario Dagonel, Canvas Director, Los Angeles

My name is Mario and I’m a Human Rights Defender. I’ve spent the better part of the last decade dedicated to campaigning for equal rights and justice. I was introduced to the work of AIUSA in my junior year of high school. Mrs. Cates, my U.S. History teacher recommended that “I exercise my activist inclinations” by writing letters to free prisoners of conscience. At my High school chapter of AIUSA I found a cadre of like-minded individuals who were dedicating their lunch breaks to signing petitions, writing letters and brainstorming additional avenues to lend a hand. I was hooked instantly.

The root of my “activist inclinations” stems from my upbringing. In the 1960’s, my Grandmother emigrated to the United States from Panama where she immediately faced multiple tiers of discrimination. She was a single mother, a woman in the work force, a person of color and an immigrant speaking English as her second language. She instilled a drive, work ethic and relentlessness that permeate every fiber of my being today. She worked 3 jobs saving every penny, nickel and dime in an effort to secure a better future for herself and her children. Eventually she used those pennies to purchase her first home… defying the odds and stamping her imprint on the “American Dream”. When I ponder her experience, her story and all of the circumstances involved, I’m bothered by the simple fact that in today’s political climate her audacity and courage would be difficult to replicate. Racism, xenophobia and fear mongering may prevent that next generation of courageous single mothers from making their own “American Dreams” into reality.

The two words that fuel my work today are opportunity and justice. As a student I was given the opportunity to become an activist with Amnesty, enriching my reservoir of knowledge and enhancing my thirst to use my intellect to take action and demand change. As an adult I’ve been presented with the opportunity to give back to a cause that has given so much to me. Thus, it’s easy to see why opportunity rings so clear in my mind, but justice clangs loudly too and deserves equal mention. I want to live in a world where access to the conduits of pursuing justice are available to all. A world where women like my grandmother can look for a better way of life in a different nation without being denied access. A world where children can innocently play in the park without being shot dead by the police. With Amnesty International, I’m aligned with a collective of millions of people that take injustice personally and I’m happy to commit my life energy to this pursuit.

Emily Walsh, Campaigner, Individuals at Risk Program

I feel a deep personal stake in my work as a Campaigner with Amnesty International. I work with and for people who have been imprisoned, harassed or even killed just because of who they are, what they say or what they believe.

I’m a proud member of the LGBTQ community. My partner and I have experienced harassment and fear just for being who we are. But it’s very empowering to know that when people experience violations of their rights — to security, to be free from discrimination — we have the demonstrated ability to achieve justice and protection through our campaigning.

It gives me so much hope that millions of people around the world are willing to speak up in defense of the human rights of people they’ve never met. I’m honored every day to be able to do this work.

Nidya Sarria, Press Officer

My parents left Nicaragua during a civil war. It was a dangerous, but necessary journey. They didn’t want to go, but they had to. Since then, my parents have made their lives here in the United States, but never forgot the family, friends and life they left behind. They taught me that love doesn’t have borders — we’re just as connected to people abroad as we are to people right here.

That’s why I’m an activist. It’s easy to disconnect yourself from stories of human rights violations that happen to people far away, like refugees from Syria or prisoners of conscience in Azerbaijan. But when you realize these are people just like you, it’s impossible to look away.

Courtney Levine, Member Leader

It’s hard to pinpoint one particular story or moment that inspired my fervor for protecting human rights, as it has been intrinsic to my values and interests for almost as long as I can remember. I was first introduced to Amnesty International by one of my favorite teachers in high school. I was moved by the idea that I could help provide a voice for those who didn’t have one, and I began getting a bit more involved with the campus chapter while I was in college. It was during those years that I was exposed to so many different areas of focus that Amnesty addresses, and each of them struck a chord within me. While I was looking for ways to reach beyond academic discussions, Amnesty provided ways for me to act in defense of peoples’ freedoms and civil liberties.

After moving back to Miami, most of my involvement with Amnesty consisted of signing petitions and sending letters from my laptop, but I was always looking for more ways to participate in community efforts. In particular, over the last couple of years, as I watched the global refugee crisis intensify and the numbers of displaced persons throughout the world surge to over 60 million, I felt compelled to find more ways to take action. So, naturally when I found out that this past year’s national conference was being held in Miami, I knew that I needed to attend. It was there that I first learned about the Art for Amnesty program, and I was able to watch a few of the artists that exhibited at the conference put final touches on their works and ask them about what they were creating and what motivated their work. It was in that strange glass sided conference room as the first day of the general meeting was coming to a close that I had a real “light-bulb” moment, a sort of revelation: this program needed to be introduced in Miami.

Seeing how much the visual arts community has grown in Miami in the past few years, and the growing influence of art throughout the city, it was a no brainer to explore the use of art as a tool for motivating activism. So, I reached out to the local chapter and attended meetings, began the process of launching an Art for Amnesty program here, and started to make plans to host an event at a local gallery. I was encouraged by Amnesty’s interest in exploring artistic expression, both visual and performative, as a way of elevating stories and raising awareness. Art, in its myriad of forms, has the remarkable power of impacting people in deeply visceral and emotional ways, and when that power is directed towards human rights and social justice issues, it can be tremendously effective at reaching people and mobilizing them to take action. Given the rich tapestry of immigrants, refugees and asylees in South Florida, and the pertinence of the ongoing crises in Syria, in the Northern Triangle, in East Africa and other parts of the world, creating an art exhibit focusing on refugee and migrant rights seemed both well timed and relatable for so many members of the community. I firmly believe that the Art for Amnesty program is critically important to the grassroots work that Amnesty does, because it helps find creative ways to engage people with issues that might otherwise seem abstract or distant. Art has always been an important part of my life, so finding ways to use it to create change and champion the needs of others felt like a natural direction for me to focus my efforts to defend human rights.

Want to become a Human Rights Defender? You can! Join the fight here.

We've been fighting the bad guys since 1961 - you can join us! Official Amnesty International USA profile.

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store