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Learning Human Rights as a Student

I can admit that I never fully understood the importance of human rights until I became a student. Being a student provides individuals a chance to learn and see things from a different perspective, which they may otherwise not have. My experience as a student provided me the opportunity to learn and see human rights, or the lack of human rights, in action. The biggest eye opening experience that revealed my sheltered idea of human rights was my first time out of the country, on a study aboard trip. Children were on the street homeless without families, left with the decision of choosing to spend their day working for money instead of going to school. Others are left in the worst possible living conditions because the government will not allow them to get the proper identification to work or even move. In class, we learn through lectures, conversations, videos, and/or pictures of how human rights affect individuals around the world, but there is nothing compared to seeing it in real life. Being a witness to the lack of human rights in other countries is how I officially learned and saw the need for change.


Growing up in America as a member in the majority population, it was easy to fall in a trap of thinking everyone is protected by the basic human rights. In the past couple of years, I have grown to realize my naïve thinking and have actually become quite ashamed of those thoughts. I needed to take the blinders off and have a good look around to notice not only how people are treated in other countries but also our own. My internship, assisting homeless families has shown me that the human rights issues are not only affecting other countries but our home as well. The human right of adequate standard of living, including housing, has been a major issue in our communities. It may seem minimal compared to the lack of human rights in other countries but still an issue that many families face. Finding affordable housing is something families struggle to achieve even those who are working 40 plus hours a week.  In my specific county, great strides have been taken to tackle this concern but I cannot say the same for other areas. Many people may think that housing and a standard of living is earned, but in reality is it still a human right everyone deserves. I do believe that education is key to learning about the world around us and becoming more accepting and understanding.

Shelby Davey

Master of Social Work Candidate

West Chester University (PA)

Teaching Political Advocacy on Capitol Hill

In this post, we revisit an elective course introduced in the first post of this blog series focused on teaching during the Trump presidency. As previously described, the social work elective is centered on the social welfare and human rights implications of the first 100 days of the presidency. To say the least, it’s been a fast-paced course that has challenged my students and I to really pay attention to national politics and how such policies impact our country’s most vulnerable individuals at the local level. This post will highlight an experiential learning opportunity at the US Capitol.

On March 9, 2017, students boarded a chartered bus to Washington, DC to participate in the 3rd annual Social Work Students Advocacy Day on the Hill organized by the Congressional Research Institute for Social Work and Policy (CRISP). The event provided an opportunity for students to meet with Congressional members and their staff to advocate on federal legislation critical to social workers and the populations they serve. For all the students, this was their first time advocating on Capitol Hill.  To prepare, we spent time in class beforehand discussing what to expect and the students also watched an on-line tutorial developed by CRISP. As suggested by CRISP, students lobbied for the passage of H.R. 1290: Improving Access to Mental Health Act and H.R. 1289: The Dorothy I. Height and Whitney M. Young, Jr. Social Work Reinvestment Act. The students also lobbied against the passage of H.R. 610, which includes the Choices in Education Act of 2017 and No Hungry Kids Act.

Students also engaged in advocacy related to policies important to them. For example, students used personal stories to advocate for the prevention of the repeal and replacement of the Affordable Care Act (ACA) and “defunding” Planned Parenthood. Students were able to articulate how the ACA was an important social welfare policy that protected many citizen’s right to healthcare and other vital behavioral health services. Students also discussed how maintaining women’s rights to accessible healthcare was related to the services provided by Planned Parenthood. As the day went on, the students became more confident in their abilities to communicate with elected officials and their staff with some students even seeking out additional meetings on their own.

Participating in Advocacy Day was an important opportunity for my students to recognize that even at the federal level, politicians are just fellow citizens, who work for us. Students expressed this realization both during a debrief of the experience on the bus ride home and in class the next week. One student stated “that’s just what I needed to do” in regard to engaging in the political process. Some students even expressed their own political ambitions and participated in a mini-seminar focused on social workers running for office.

As educators, we must help students understand that while politicians have become “celebrities” they are not untouchable, meaning we have the right and duty to reach out to our elected officials and share our thoughts on how we want them to vote on policies important to us as citizens and professionals.  It is our responsibility, as those teaching about human rights, to also teach our students they play a role in advocating for policies that work toward human rights for all.

Photos taken by the author in Washington, DC on March 9, 2017.

Christina M. Chiarelli-Helminiak

Human Rights and Social Work Elective Focused on Trump’s First 100 Days

Following the election of Donald Trump as the 45th US President, the Teaching Human Rights (THR) blog featured a series of posts focused on how we, as human rights educators at the college level,  addressed the election in our classrooms.  During the Spring 2017 semester, the THR blog will include posts focused on teaching about human rights during the first 100 days of the Trump Presidency.

The first post in this series features a new syllabus recently uploaded to the THR Syllabus Database.  The Spring 2017 elective entitled, Human Rights and Social Work: Responding to Domestic and International Crises, will focus on the human rights and social welfare policy implications of the first 100 days of the Trump presidency.  As outlined below, each week will feature a social justice issue as suggested by students in the course.  Students will be actively engaged in observing the political processes and advocating for the realization of social justice and human rights through policy advocacy.

The course outline includes:

  • Perspectives on Human Rights and Social Work
  • Human Rights and Social Justice
  • Rights-Based Approach
  • International and National Political Systems
  • Women’s Rights
  • LGBTI Rights
  • Racism as a Human Rights Issue
  • Social and Economic Rights
  • Immigrant Rights
  • Sustainability
  • Business Ethics
  • Foreign Relations

In addition, the course will include participation in Social Work Students Advocacy Day on the Hill and a PhotoVoice Community Exhibition.  During Advocacy Day, sponsored by the Congressional Research Institute for Social Work and Policy (CRISP), students will engage in policy advocacy on behalf of social welfare legislation.  More information available at:  The PhotoVoice Exhibition will provide students the opportunity to visually represent the human rights and social welfare policies studied over the course of the semester.  Subsequent  posts on the THR blog will provide reflections on the Advocacy Day and PhotoVoice Exhibition.

We would be remiss to say that human rights will not be impacted by President Trump and his administration.  It is up to us, as human rights educators, to teach our students, future human rights leaders, how to continue to promote the realization of human rights for all.

SW for SJ EyesWhite House

Photos taken by the author at the Women’s March in Washington, DC on January 21, 2017.

Christina M. Chiarelli-Helminiak


Human Rights, Government Power, and President-Elect Trump

This is the third entry in our post-election series of blogs here on Teaching Human Rights. We have read about teaching in a non-political course to a very diverse campus, as well as about a guest speaker addressing race and class with respect to the election. Much like Nicole discusses in her post, I have rather diverse classes and found myself talking to many students from marginalized groups who were terrified about the prospects of what Trump’s election means. However, unlike Nicole, I teach explicitly political classes about American government and American constitutional law, and I also teach in a fairly red part of a blue state. The former means students expect some discussion of the election, and the latter means that while I faced many students who were genuinely frightened about the future, these students were also in the room with others who remained civil, but were not at all upset by the election results.

This blending of political views in classes about American government created an interesting environment in which to discuss how the election turned out, but also what it means moving forward both for American politics and for human rights. Much of what I discussed with my introductory-level classes was dissecting the voting patterns as well as discussing policy implications at a basic level. This discussion involved some of my own input, but largely we had a very open-ended discussion where I tried to create a safe space for all to talk (much like Nicole described), and then spent time together answering their questions, addressing their fears, and dispelling rumors, myths, or otherwise fake accounts of what has happened and what will happen. This was part therapy, part education, and part fact-checking, which the students reported appreciating and finding beneficial. While I think it is important to share this experience, I am actually going to focus the rest of this post on teaching American constitutional law in light of the election, before relating these discussions to teaching about human rights.

One of the courses I am teaching this semester, which I regularly teach, is constitutional law. Typically at the undergraduate level American constitutional law is broken into two (or sometimes three) main areas: (1) government institutions and powers, and (2) civil rights and civil liberties (and if a third, rights of the accused). While I am teaching the second of these courses in the spring (which seems incredibly timely given the campaign rhetoric), I am teaching the first version this semester. This class largely focuses on what the federal and state governments can and cannot do under the constitution, as interpreted by the US Supreme Court. It is from within this context that I want to focus. The students in this class, by the time of the election, have read about how the various branches check the other branches, as well as various elements of governmental power over foreign and domestic policy. It is precisely this information that had this class discussing the implications of Trump being president-elect and broader concerns for human rights (the latter not normally a topic for this specific course).

To put things in perspective, Trump has discussed drastically lowering if not completely stopping the number of refugees the US accepts, in addition to imposing a Muslim registry, authorizing waterboarding and other forms of torture because he “knows” they work (a position he is slightly stepping back), and using military force to indiscriminately target those whom he does not like. What the students in my class expressed is that these acts are fundamentally against the constitution, but not clearly beyond the President’s power to enact (even if for only for a short time). Korematsu, which upheld FDR’s plan of Japanese internment during World War II, has never been overturned and has been positively cited as supporting Trump’s Muslim registry ideas. While we have laws outlawing the use of torture, and the Supreme Court has said that the Geneva Conventions still apply to the U.S., that does not mean that Congress and former President George W. Bush did not try to circumvent both of these, and thus president-elect Trump and his Republican Congress could do the same.

Presidential power has been expanding for years, and much of it exists with few checks. President Obama, out of necessity from the intransigent Republican Congress, has extensively employed executive orders and executive agreements, all of which Trump can undo by simply signing his own executive orders and agreements. Most terrifying from a human rights standpoint is that the current Nobel-Peace-Prize-winning president has greatly expanded the use of drones, ordering over 500 strikes, often with little regard for citizen casualties. This is further complicated by the fact that the US policy arbitrarily designates all fighting-aged men killed by a drone are terrorists, unless evidence emerges after the fact that they were not. On top of this, Obama has overseen at least six US citizens killed with drones, although only one was specifically—and extra-judicially—targeted. This is especially concerning when considering the hostility many of Trump’s currently-named advisors and cabinet members have for much of the rest of the world, given Trump’s desire to blow up our enemies with reckless abandon, and given his seemingly thin-skinned reactions to anything he perceives as a slight (see almost anything on Trump’s Twitter feed). Remember, he will have the ability to, more or less, order these strikes at will. All of this without even discussing the domestic implications for human rights for discriminating against minorities, or anyone receiving government assistance as part of the U.S.’s social safety net that has been targeted by the incoming Republican-dominated government.

Our laws are not self-enforcing. Our institutions cannot stop authoritarianism if we lack the political will to do anything. Trump will not listen to Democrats, he’s made that clear, and Republicans, at least not openly and publicly, especially since the election outcome, are not pushing back against him (not that it is clear that he would listen). Nothing in our system works to check power without opposition. If the government does not oppose him, there is little that we, as US citizens, can really do. The naming of Bannon as his chief policy advisor and the Republican complacency over it is a very telling moment. Unless Republicans suddenly push back aggressively against Trump on this, things are not looking good for human rights in the US. To try to put this into context of teaching, my advice (and my approach) has been to be open and direct with students. Encourage them to ask questions, encourage them to speak out when they disagree with what the government is doing, and remind them that the US system is built on the premise of active citizens working as a check on the government, which is particularly necessary when the government will not check itself. These are difficult times for many and pedagogically challenging discussions to have, but we must have these discussions with students if we are to be involved in helping students develop into thoughtful individuals who will be responsible for the future.

Daniel Tagliarina

Trumped: Electoral politics and the clash of race and class

This is the second blog in a post-election mini-series on Teaching Human Rights. In the first blog, Teaching Human Rights Editor and Contributor, Nicole Coleman, shared her experience in the classroom the day after the general election. She highlighted the importance of creating understanding of why traditionally marginalized students might need support navigating the era of President-elect Trump. She also addressed the fact that it is the responsibility of white people to stand up to bigotry and in solidarity with those who have been targets of the President-elect’s campaign. In this post, I will present an example of how a guest lecturer guided students through a historical account of the electoral politics, race, and class.

A guest lecturer was scheduled to speak two days after the general election on the satellite campus of a public state university. The satellite campus is located in a major urban city in the United States where a majority of the students identify with communities traditionally marginalized and who were targeted during the campaign season, i.e. women, African Americans, working class, inner city residents, of Muslim faith, and/or immigrants. Only after the election did the organizers of the event realize how timely the lecture would be.

The presentation was entitled, “Trumped: Electoral politics and the clash of race and class.” The speaker, Ewuare Osayande (, is a community organizer, accomplished author, student of history, and self-proclaimed rebel.

Mr. Osayande began his presentation with a series of questions, including why Trump, why now? Why would the white working class get behind a man who has spent his career getting rich on the backs of the white working class? Why would the white poor vote against their own best interests? Why is there not an alliance within the working class, regardless of race? He responded that we must appreciate where we are at this point in American history. And this election exposes why logical answers are not always found in individual votes.

Mr. Osayande highlighted that a real democracy would recognize the popular vote; the lie for him is within the Electoral College. The Electoral College was established through the Three-Fifths Compromise proposed during the drafting of the U.S. Constitution. At that time, it was agreed that a system needed to be put into place to ensure that the Northern states with more population did not sway the vote away from the less populated Southern states. Slaves within a state were counted as three-fifths of a white person’s vote ( To this day, the Electoral College continues to discount votes from black and brown voters which I realized particularly when my 18-year-old niece’s boyfriend told me that his vote did not count because he was brown. The Three-Fifths Compromise is just one of many laws that empowered the white colonists and contributed to what we now call white privilege.

Mr. Osayande pulled more history in to the discussion and highlighted that in Black Reconstruction, W.E.B. DuBois (1935) emphasized that the white working man was often as impoverished as the black man who was enslaved. Specifically, in the chapter entitled, “The White Worker,” DuBois forecasted how even today capitalists pit white workers against “others.” During the 2016 election campaign, the rhetoric was that “immigrants are taking away jobs” as a way to redirect anger felt by the un- and underemployed workers towards immigrants; instead the narrative needed to be shifted to the necessity of a living wage in the United States. From DuBois to Bernie Sanders workers must recognize the power is in their numbers and need to unite despite their differences.

Mr. Osayande related this psychological game of whiteness between capitalists and workers to the seeds of fascism nurtured during the 2016 U.S. Presidential Election. Theories of race contribute to the white working class not understanding that the commonalities they have with black and brown communities are more relevant than the similarities they have with the rich and elite. The poor whites, at least those who bothered to vote, voted for Trump because we still hold tight to the American Dream. Yet, poor white Americans’ lives are more similar to the black and brown urban poor Americans’ lives than they are willing to admit. Does this really mean that poor white voters decided Trump offered them the best opportunity?

As Mr. Osayande stated, President-elect Trump’s political base represented the bald face of capitalism and is propelled by the “alt-right,” a movement made up of neo-Nazi, paramilitary, and Tea party voters. The 2016 election exposed to the liberal leaning voters that the mask is off and the new movement does not need politicians to represent them, they can represent themselves through self-funded campaigns bolstered by Citizen’s United v. FEC which gives businesses unlimited ability to finance campaigns and political advertisements.

Mr. Osayande pointed out that the 2016 election also exposed that women in the United States are still not united. Black women overwhelmingly voted for Hillary Clinton. This vote wasn’t because Black women were overly excited for another Clinton presidency, but because Black women understood the larger context of how politics will impact individual lives. White women, on the other hand, voted against their own best interests and based their vote on white privilege.

Mr. Osayande also highlighted that there is hope though in our future. Young Americans (18-25 years old) overwhelmingly voted for Clinton. This voter bloc also polled highly in favor of policies that secure economic rights Since the Civil Rights Movement, America has slowly moved towards a democratic nation. Within two generations the first Black President was elected. There is hope in the realization of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s call for a revolution of values that will ensure all people in the United States have opportunity.

Perhaps it was serendipitous that Mr. Osayande’s lecture was scheduled post-election, but as instructors interested in teaching human rights, we must engage with community experts to expose students to a variety of voices and viewpoints. Teaching human rights goes beyond international laws and history, as such we must be prepared to utilize pivotal current events as teachable moments.

Christina Chiarelli-Helminiak