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Shaker High School teachers organize teen summer symposium on human rights

| July 20, 2015
Symposium attendees listen to guest speaker Eugenie Mukeshimana, Founder and Executive Director of Genocide Survivors Support Network

Symposium attendees listen to guest speaker Eugenie Mukeshimana, Founder and Executive Director of Genocide Survivors Support Network

For 60 students, this summer will have involved learning how to advocate for human rights through the “power of one.”

From July 13-15, students in grades 9-12, representative from seven Capital Region school districts attended a Teen Summer Symposium, hosted at NYSUT in Latham. The symposium was created and organized by Shaker High School English teacher Thea MacFawn and Shaker High School Librarian, Kelly Wetherbee, with the assistance of Social Studies teacher Dan Weaver and English teacher Siobhan Matrose. Through their design work and planning, the idea of “how can one person make a difference” was kept at the forefront.

Over the past few years, MacFawn and Wetherbee worked on human rights projects with students in MacFawn’s 10R English classes. Students created movies about Human Rights Defenders as part of the RFK Center for Justice and Human Rights Speak Truth to Power video contest; developed advocacy projects including anti-bullying commercials for morning announcements and anti-bullying presentations for elementary students; and joined in local community service work at the Regional Food Bank as well as a food pantry in downtown Troy. The creation of the symposium took this curriculum and programming to a much bigger scale.

“Our hope was to give the students background information on important world problems, and then provide them with the tools to become advocates for issues about which they feel passionate,” said Wetherbee. “We hope that each participant left with a plan, or at least the start of one.”

One of the goals of the symposium was to help increase students’ global awareness through engaging them in discussion of topics that impact people all over the world, like access to clean water and education.

Guest speakers were part of every day’s agenda, including Carl Wilkens, Co-Founder and Director of “World Outside My Shoes” and the only American who chose to remain in Rwanda after the genocide began; Eugenie Mukeshimana, Rwandan Genocide survivor and Founder and Executive Director of Genocide Survivors Support Network; and Shaker High School 2007 graduate and 2015 Harvard Kennedy School of Government graduate, Rory Gerberg.

“The end goal was to provide them with tools to develop an advocacy project to address a human rights issue important to them,” said MacFawn.

MacFawn said one of the symposium’s other major goals was to help students develop tools to address a human rights issue important to them, using social media and websites. Students attended multiple break-out sessions in small groups focusing on these topics.

“The symposium allowed students to evolve as strong leaders on social justice issues with passion and commitment and take with them a sense of pride, responsibility and perseverance to ensure their goals to be workable,” said Weaver. “This experience was empowering for all involved.”

Students will attend a follow-up day on October 3, where their progress will be documented, and support will be offered to help further develop their ideas. During that day, students will also watch a movie related to social justice and complete a service project.

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