Former President Jimmy Carter delivered a speech. So did Mikhail Gorbachev, one-time leader of the former Soviet Union. All told, 21 Nobel Peace Laureates gathered in Chicago recently for the first World Summit of Nobel Peace Laureates hosted on U.S. soil.
Taking it all in were Maine West High School social science teacher Randy Harper and 12 West students, members of Voice for the Nameless, the school's human rights activist group. For the students, hearing these dignitaries speak reinforced their commitment to human rights work.
"I was inspired by (Jody Williams, noted activist against anti-personnel land mines) because she talked about how you don't have to work full time at the causes you support to make a difference; you can devote a little time of each day," said senior Leah Urias. "That made me more passionate about what we can do, because she's right -- high school students are very busy."
Maine West's Voice for the Nameless students were acknowledged during an Amnesty International reception held after the Summit and were asked to pose in a group photo with the Executive Director of Amnesty International USA, Suzanne Nossel.
Like Urias, seniors Angela Remus and Becky Levin were introduced to human rights concepts as sophomores through Harper's History of the Western World, which he has built around the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Both said attending the summit, in addition to the work they've done with Voice for the Nameless, have inspired them to continue their efforts through college and beyond.
Members of Voice for the Nameless have learned that patience is a virtue in dealing with these issues. Laureates attending the Chicago summit lauded 1991 Nobel Peace Prize recipient Aung San Suu Kyi, recently elected to Burma's parliament after spending more than 15 years under house arrest for her opposition to authoritarian leaders in Myanmar.
"We love quick fixes and take an attitude of 'Let's get this done now,'" Harper said, "but I explained to the students that the years of activists' support for Aung San Suu Kyi were crucial because the government did not want to make her a martyr."
Voice for the Nameless students also are learning that hard work does not always produce the results they seek. Last fall, West's Voice for the Nameless members worked on behalf of Troy Davis, who eventually was executed in September 2011, in Georgia, for his 1991 conviction of murdering a police officer. The execution came after months of intense lobbying by human rights activists who asserted that Davis was entitled to a fair and unbiased new trial. "We put in so much time and effort, and then people would ask us what happened, and I'd have to say, 'It didn't work,'" Remus said.
Nonetheless, Voice for the Nameless members plan to carry their interest in human rights beyond Maine West. Remus plans to create her own social justice major at the University of Rochester. Urias plans to major in education at Illinois State University, with the idea of one day using her post as a school principal to advocate for human rights. And Levin will head for American University, where she plans to study political science in preparation for becoming a human rights attorney.
Harper thinks the human rights work his students have done in high school will place them ahead of the curve in college.
"I think they'll be actively looking for opportunities," he said, "instead of waiting for some chance encounter that enlists their help."
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