NEW YORK - In a new curriculum introduced last December, thousands of students in New York State are learning about modern-day human rights defenders, and that they too can make a positive difference in the world.
"Speak Truth to Power" consists of 17 teacher- developed lessons based on the personal stories of human rights advocates from all over the world, including the Dalai Lama from Tibet, Marina Pisklakova, woman's rights activist from Russia, and Desmond Tutu, a Nobel Laureate and a fighter against apartheid in South Africa.
The curriculum was created for sixth through twelfth grade students, and was launched in New York State by the Robert F. Kennedy Center for Justice and Human Rights (RFK Center) and the New York State United Teachers Union (NYSUT).
At Brentwood High School in Long Island, tenth and eleventh graders, led by their English teacher Pamela O'Brien, recently raised and donated 1,000 dollars to an organization that raises consumer awareness against child labor, after they had researched Kailash Satyarthi and his work for the abolition of child slavery in India.
Satyarthi is one of the human rights defenders in the Speak Truth to Power curriculum.
The students cut out water drops from paper and wrote "I am a ripple of hope" – a reference to a Robert F. Kennedy quote.
Whoever donated a dollar could then write his or her name on it. They taped up the drops on a wall in a main hallway in their school, and drop after drop created a visual wave.
O'Brien told IPS that while standing and looking at the completed wave, one of her students said, "I could never imagine that my voice could make such a difference."
The RFK Center says that the Speak Truth to Power curriculum has been taught to hundreds of thousands of students in the U.S., Europe, Africa and Asia.
It is based on the book "Speak Truth to Power" by Kerry Kennedy, president of the RFK Center and daughter of former U.S. senator and attorney general Robert F. Kennedy.
The curriculum introduced in New York was aligned with the teaching standards there so it would be easy to integrate it into the classroom. The aim, according to the RFK Center, is to "get students to self-identify as human rights defenders by taking on active roles in the work of creating a more just and peaceful world."
Students are given "a tool kit for action to create change in the classroom, the community, the country and globally", the RFK center states, with issues ranging from slavery to environmental activism.
Lee Cutler, the secretary treasurer for NYSUT, told IPS that they believe that there are thousands of students in the New York State whose teachers have used the Speak Truth to Power curriculum, in whole or part, in at least 30 different school districts.
The curriculum is not mandatory and can be taught like a 12-week course, a single lesson or integrated into the normal lessons.
Cutler says that it is still too early to say to what extent the teachers are using the human rights course in their classrooms, but the response from students and teachers has been positive and has inspired students to take action.
NYSUT wants more school districts to use it and in cooperation with the RFK center they will regularly update the curriculum with new lessons and new defenders.
In the future they would even like to expand it to elementary schools.
"We think children of all ages have to be taught as part of their education that they have a responsibility in a democracy and in the world that they live in, to stand up for those people who have no voice and have no basic rights," Cutler said.
"This curriculum is rich with content, very contemporary and full of resources. Young teachers and even veteran teachers who have never taught social justice and don't know how to do this, now have a resource that can really help them," he added.
Joi Chimera is a math and ELA, English, Language and Arts, teacher in Kenmore Middle School near Buffalo.
She told IPS that she introduced the Speak Truth to Power curriculum to her sixth graders at the beginning of this year.
Friday is now called "Fair Trade Friday" in her classroom, and she shares with her students stories about human right defenders and human rights. This year, Chimera has focused on the problem of child labor.
She makes the children participate and discuss ways to create change themselves, teaches them that no matter how young they are, they too can be human rights defenders just like in the stories they are learning about from the human rights course.
Chimera said that the constant thread in her Speak Truth to Power classes is "You're not too young to make a difference," which she said makes her students feel good about themselves.
"So many times they are being taught things out of a book. This allows them to have discussions, to think, to feel, to feel empowered, to make them feel like they are worthy," she said. "They are put in a situation where their opinions count. We have open discussions that allow them to speak what they think."
She has seen a change in her students since she introduced the curriculum.
She told the story of how a girl in one of her classes had been the victim of bullying, but then some students decided to go together on their own to do an intervention. They went as a group to talk with the bully and put a stop to it.
The students felt like it would mean more coming from students than a teacher. Now the girl seems to be doing much better.
"Empathy is something they have really developed during this year. They have started to understand what other people are going through more," Chimera said.
"I hope more people find out about it (the curriculum), when you develop young adults and help them to find something they believe in and want to fight for, that is creating positive leaders and role models for our future," she added.