What does it mean to do the work of human rights? This summer eight Ohio State University students got the amazing chance to see first hand where human rights work is happening in New York City and beyond. The group of stellar students, including Caeli Barnes, Kate Clark, Sabrina Jamal-Eddine, Farida Moalim, Lauren Roush, Nneke Slade, Rachel Tomasello, and Kyle Williams, have diverse academic backgrounds but came together with a common interest in human rights.
Facilitated by Professors Wendy Hesford (English), Amy Shuman (English), and Jennifer Suchland (Slavic/WGSS), the five day trip centered around the Human Rights Watch film festival, entitled this year “Change Starts Here.” Each evening we embarked on the Walter Reade Theatre at the Lincoln Center, while during our days we explored many sites and venues relevant to human rights, including visiting Witness (a non-profit dedicated to documentary human rights practices), the African Burial Ground National Monument, Stonewall National Monument, Columbia University’s Human Rights Archive, a tour of key sites in Harlem as well as visiting Ground Zero.
Here are a few examples and comments from students to give a richer sense of the experience.
The Power of Documentary Film
All of the students were highly engaged and moved by the Human Rights Watch film festival. The talk-backs after the films with the directors and people involved with the film was a huge bonus of watching the films at the festival. With that unique experience, we gained greater appreciation and knowledge of the work of making documentary films and their impact. In addition, one evening we had the privilege to listen to a panel discussion on “From Audience to Activist” featuring Amy Goodman, host and executive producer of Democracy Now!, Denis Flores (artist, activist, and educator), Jennifer MacArthur (director of several films including the recent documentary Whose Streets?), Courtney Radsch (Advocacy Director at the Committee to Protect Journalists), and Jackie Zammuto (Program Manager at Witness).
Two students responded to the questions raised by this and other conversations about documentary media and human rights:
“I am a firm believer in the ability of art to serve as an engine of expression in the quest of progressing towards attaining human rights, and this trip truly showed me the power of film as one medium for doing so. Each night we viewed films that skillfully unmask human rights issues and then had the opportunity to engage in the dialog panels with the directors of each film. The beauty in art is that each medium and each piece affects everyone uniquely. I was perhaps most touched by the film Complicit which shed light upon our cell phone/electronic industry which abuses foreign (Chinese) workers, not only with extreme underpayment (a manifestation of the many ways in which America and western countries exploit “developing” countries in their placement within the global economic system), but also through the use of toxic chemicals such as benzene and n-hexane which are illegal in America. I had known about this exploitation but watching a film that put faces to stories was very powerful. I am so grateful to have had the opportunity to watch films and discuss them with my peers who all came from different backgrounds yet share a passion for human rights.”
“The Human Rights in Transit summer program completely changed my understanding regarding how the average person can become involved in witnessing and documenting human rights violations. Prior to this trip, I was always extremely angry when I saw videos of human rights offenses, like those of unarmed black men being maimed and killed by ‘omnipotent’ policemen, or those of minorities being dragged off the flights of different airlines. I had always wondered, how can someone simply film this, without getting up, and physically trying to do something, or trying to change the situation? How can they just sit there and watch? Surprisingly to me, on this trip I found my answer in the paradox that ‘sitting and watching’ is so much more than what it seems.”
Human Rights, for Whom?
Across our experiences, many questions emerged about why some incidents of violence are focused on over others, who gets to speak about human rights, and who listens. The vital issue of exposing hidden violations is one dimension of this, but there is also the question of how society relates to other people’s suffering. These complicated issues were raised in several films as well as in our visits to the African Burial Ground National Monument, Witness, and the Columbia University archive.
“Visiting the African Burial Ground was both infuriating and enlightening. As an African American my heritage is not readily available to me. Even after my father traced our ancestry there was a point where no more information about my family could be found, let alone any type of culture or rituals that belonged to my ancestors. Slavery is taught with limited information and never explores the culture that many of the African slaves brought with them. It was interesting to learn how they cared for their dead and how they buried them. The element of the African Burial Grounds that I found infuriating was how they still built upon the graves of these people who composed a profound part of America’s history. It caused me to question, if they had been anyone else, if they had not been slaves, would the same lack of empathy and respect been applied? The African Burial Ground Memorial was a compromise but it should have been the only structure built on the graves as it honors the people who died enslaved against their will.”
“My other favorite experience was dissecting the archives at Columbia University. I am passionate about access to healthcare as a human right rather than a privilege. Having history at my fingertips was a one-of-a-kind experience: I learned about the pro-apartheid hierarchy and oppression affecting South African patients and nurses. I read the corresponding letters which threatened the nurses for going on strike against abusive, unfair treatment, as well as reading the letters of support and solidarity. The files became my time machine and served as yet another tool conducive to achieving change. It has been said that history is never dead, as it is history which dictates the future. This trip truly stressed the importance, necessity, and effectiveness of sharing one’s story and making visible what has been skillfully masked. This trip served as a meeting ground and a breeding ground for scholarly student intellectuals and I will always value this growth-inducing experience.”
“After going on this trip and reading Sam Gregory’s article [from Witness], I have come to understand how important it is to be a witness to human rights but I also understand how difficult it is to do it in an ethical way. Witnessing human rights issues is a complex action where many different variables need to be considered. That being said, now more than ever, it is important to be a witness to issues of human rights. The current political climate has made it a responsibility that all individuals have to stand up to and be a witness for human rights issues. While we might not be able to always act as a direct witness to human rights, we all have the opportunity to act as distant witnesses whenever we see a livestream or a video of a protest or human rights violation. In addition to acting as a witness by watching the video or livestream, we should also take the opportunity to share the video with others so that more people can act as a witness and become aware of the human rights issue that is taking place.”
Change Starts Here — Student Projects
Inspired by our time in New York City, students are gearing up to infuse Ohio State with critical conversations about human rights. Some students have taken on independent or group projects for the coming year.
Moved by the power of documentary film and citizen resistance to power, several of the students hope to bring the film City of Ghosts (2017), dir., Matthew Heinman, to campus. The film follows the brave efforts of anonymous activists in Syria who banded together to form a group called “Raqqa is Being Slaughtered Silently” after their city was taken over by the Islamic State (ISIS) in 2014. Chronicling their struggles to expose the truth of terror in their city, the film reveals the power of citizen resistance and our desperate need to find collectivity against ISIS and anti-refugee sentiment.
Inspired by the Columbia University human rights collections, and the special exhibit on gay and lesbian student activism at the university, Kyle Williams will research the history of student activism at Ohio State University. Working with Professor Wendy Hesford, he will look into OSU’s historical role in social justice movements from the Women’s Suffrage movement to the Black Lives Matter movement. Through his archival work , he intends to gather materials for a display case on campus.
In addition, Kate Clark intends to research news and social media representations of populations affected by the global refugee crisis, specifically the Syrian refugee crisis. She is particularly interested in understanding U.S. resistance to opening its borders to Syrian refugees and how the current political climate and U.S. policies reinforce images of refugees as national threats and potential terrorists and in doing so not only deny Syrian refugees security from war but minimize the profound losses to the Syrian community.
“I especially enjoyed visiting Ground Zero. It was amazing to see how one nation came together on that day years ago despite their racial or religious backgrounds; to morn and stand together for the human rights of Americans. To me it goes hand in hand with this year’s theme “The Change Starts Here” because truly it starts within each of us. We owe it to ourselves and to the rest of the community to stand up for what is right. After completing this year’s human rights summer program it encouraged me to get more involved in my community. The Linden community in greater Columbus is facing major food insecurities with locals not having access to affordable, healthy, and safe food. Affordable and healthy food is a human right and should be guaranteed to everyone. To learn more information on food deserts and what you can do to become involved visit freshImpact.net.”
I am excited to see what these motivated students do in the coming year to spur dialogue and greater consciousness about human rights at Ohio State. Later in August, we will meet-up at the Wexner to watch the film Whose Streets? (2017), a documentary we learned about at the film festival that chronicles the uprisings in Ferguson and St. Louis, MO after the shooting death of Michael Brown. See you there?