Students put up a tent and placed a few bare essentials inside -- a bowl,
a spoon, a blanket. The purpose of the tent was to show students the living
conditions of refugees in other parts of the world.
"For kids in particular to see that a whole family would live in a tent
with virtually just enough to survive is pretty eye-opening," says Suzanne
Trimel. She's the media relations director for Amnesty International USA.
Raising awareness of human rights issues is what Amnesty International
does. Student volunteers are a big part of this movement to free prisoners
of conscience, abolish the death penalty, stop violence against women, and
ensure everyone around the world enjoys human rights.
"We give [students] advice, we suggest things ... but they do all kinds
of other things on their own that are sometimes very creative, guided by their
passion on whatever issue they choose to focus on," says Trimel.
Students organize dances, marathons and other events at their schools to
raise money for local refugee groups. They hand out literature at shopping
centers to raise awareness of human rights abuses. They hold rallies and teach-ins
on their campuses to highlight the issues.
Amnesty's signature program involves letter writing campaigns to release
prisoners of conscience -- citizens held in prisons by governments for speaking
out against unjust situations. Letters go to government representatives in
the country involved and to America's ambassador -- to make sure that people
aren't forgotten in their prison cells.
Founded in 1961, Amnesty International has more than 2.2 million members
globally. Amnesty groups exist at high schools, colleges and universities
throughout the country. Others have joined Amnesty as individuals.
"What we want to see is more youth leadership within the whole movement,"
says Lily Mah-Sen. She's a grassroots coordinator of community activism for
Amnesty International. "They just add so much new creativity, enthusiasm and
a whole breath of fresh air...."
"They become engaged in the most important issues of the day," adds Trimel.
There's no minimum age to get involved with Amnesty. For $15 a year, students
and youth can become Amnesty members and receive regular updates.
"It's really never too early for children to understand what this is all
about," says Trimel. "Kids have this basic sense of right and wrong."
In seventh grade, Ethan took a Holocaust class through his temple. On
the last day of class, he received his final exam. He turned over the exam
and found just one question. It read, "Your final exam is how you conduct
the rest of your lives. Can it happen again? The answer is up to you and to
your choices. Will you choose to get involved or will you be a bystander?"
His exam paper still hangs in his room. That final question had a big impact
on him. It's a reason he became an activist for Amnesty International.
"I've taken that to heart and tried to fulfill that obligation in my high
school years," says Ethan. He's now a high school senior in Chicago, Illinois.
"I guess I've always felt like it's the responsibility of everyone to better
the lives of others."
As the leader of his high school's Amnesty group, he often leads group
meetings and organizes events at the school to raise awareness about human
rights issues. Last year, he helped organize a letter-writing campaign to
free prisoners of conscience. His school sent 400 letters.
"As a result of all the letters that people from around the country sent,
one of those prisoners was freed," says Ethan. "And so that's really powerful
to know that the actions we took are now allowing this person to live a fulfilling
life -- otherwise he'd be locked up for the rest of his life."
He says that it can be challenging to motivate people to get involved.
Still, he finds his volunteer work incredibly rewarding. "Seeing the difference
people can make -- whether it's one person or 100 people -- is the most powerful
part of doing any activism."
In 2007, Katherine Cioch and two other university students walked into
their congressman's office to meet with his aide. Their purpose: to ask for
greater support for the situation in Darfur, Sudan, where widespread killings
"I was pretty scared about leading the delegation," says Cioch. "It was
my first time doing something like this."
As a delegation leader with Amnesty, Cioch briefed the congressman's staff
on the status of Darfur. She conveyed Amnesty's concerns. Then she asked the
congressman to support legislation going to congress that would put pressure
on China -- to pressure the Sudanese government to improve the situation in
Darfur. The legislation later passed.
Now a volunteer intern at Amnesty's Chicago Midwest regional office, Cioch
organizes local events and speaker tours to promote Amnesty's campaigns to
protect human rights. A full-time master's student in international and comparative
politics, Cioch volunteers two days a week.
"I know a lot of people who choose career paths that are solely based on
monetary issues," she says. "A lot of people that really aren't passionate
about what they do, but it's just kind of the default. I feel privileged ...
to be [part of an] organization that is closer in line with my own ideals.
"I just feel that the atmosphere is so positive and wonderful to work in
that it makes going into work every day such a positive experience. It absolutely
does not feel like work."
During his high school years, Matthew Ponsford wrote about a hundred letters
to governments, urging them to protect human rights. Oftentimes he received
no response. But on a few occasions, he received letters back -- with governments
saying they'd look into the issues. In those cases, he felt he was having
Now a third-year university student in biology, Ponsford volunteers as
a regional representative for Amnesty. He's trained to work with Amnesty groups
throughout his region. He provides them with information and acts as a liaison
between Amnesty and the groups. "It gives a more personal approach to people
who want to volunteer," he says.
Ponsford finds his biology studies complementary to Amnesty's work. "Amnesty
encompasses so many different issues ... it encompasses access to health services
-- and biology is very health-oriented. So it's all very relevant no matter
what you're studying or doing."
Through his work with Amnesty, Ponsford says he has gained tremendous networking
skills. He's not afraid to collaborate with people of different backgrounds
"I'm friends with people in their 60s or 70s," he says. "I knew networking
was important, but I never thought it would work like it has. It drives you
to do more and more each day because you see how much these people do and
how much time they put into it. You're just surrounded by a lot of people
who have the same sort of philosophy as you do."
How to Get Involved
Join your local Amnesty International group -- through your high school
or college/university. If a group doesn't exist, visit Amnesty's website to
find out how you can start your own group.
You don't have to be part of a group to get involved. Visit Amnesty's website
to learn how individuals can help.
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