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Stanford helps bring human rights to community college classrooms

The "Stanford Human Rights Education Initiative" hopes to bring a gritty subject to every college curriculum.

Melody Lu Helen Stacy

Helen Stacy

BY CYNTHIA HAVEN

Globalization has meant that the whole world is connected to the whole world's problems. Yet most of today's students live in a world no bigger than a cell phone keypad.

So how do you explain to them that the clothes on their backs may be sewn by slave labor in Asia, or how international human trafficking may be behind an Internet porn site?

Tim Maxwell, an award-winning poet who teaches at the College of San Mateo, said the basic task of reading is becoming harder each year for the Facebook generation. "To bring unpleasant and challenging ideas into their world is really difficult," he said.  He described "young people's increasing use of social media and other technologies that, rather [than] widening their worlds, effectively narrows them" to what is pleasurably entertaining.

The remedy? In an unusual move, Stanford is linking arms with educators in California community colleges for a four-year project called Stanford Human Rights Education Initiative.  Following a conference last June on "Teaching Human Rights in an International Context," which launched the project, Stanford has named eight new "Human Rights Fellows" from California's community colleges. Maxwell is one of them.

For more than 12.4 million young Americans, teaching takes place in one of the nearly 1,200 community colleges across the nation – and about a quarter of those community colleges are in California. But few major universities have engaged these institutions.

The new initiative will train students to be engaged as global citizens, said William Hanson, another fellow, who holds a law degree from Columbia and teaches at Chabot College. "We have to find a way to wriggle in."

With a stipend and "visiting scholar" status, the human rights fellows will work with the Stanford Program on International and Cross-Cultural Education (SPICE) and the Division of International Comparative and Area Studies (ICA) to develop human rights curricula, plan human rights conferences and develop the initiative's website. The human rights curriculum they design could, they hope, seed similar programs across the country and the world.

"My hope is that human rights will form a central part of every college curriculum" – not only as a topic, but as a lens through which to see all topics, said Helen Stacy, director of the program on human rights at the Center on Democracy, Development and the Rule of Law at Stanford's Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies.

She said that human rights is typically pigeonholed as a "soft subject" in the social sciences or humanities, but such funneling "misses engineering students and IT students and math students."

For example, she said, students of computer science or statistics could be engaged in mapping human trafficking or drug smuggling. Young economists could study the supply-and-demand dynamics of crime.

The effort "to speak a language that speaks to all of the disciplines" could result in a human rights curriculum that extends into the high school and even the elementary school level, Stacy said. Moreover, the planned website with an online curriculum could help educators the world over – even an isolated educator sitting in Uzbekistan, she said.

For the Stanford faculty and staff who created the course, the beginnings go back a long way and are the fruition of years of experience, research and thought.

Gary Mukai's experience of human rights violations was firsthand: the director of SPICE recalls a childhood as a farm worker whose Japanese-American parents, also farm workers, had been detained by their country during World War II. "I grew up puzzled about many of their stories, and their stories certainly influenced my interest in developing educational materials about civil and human rights for young students," he said.

For instance, he recalled uncles and other relatives who volunteered or were drafted by the U.S. Army from behind barbed wire. Or stories about his relatives who received posthumous medals for their sons' service while they still lived behind barbed wire.

Richard Roberts, a Stanford professor of history, remembered reading William Hinton's Fanshen: A Documentary of Revolution in a Chinese Village, years ago.  The questions it raised fascinated him: "Who will teach the teacher? Where do we learn? Who do we learn from? Who has the power to teach?"

He said universities typically teach an "isolated, really small segment" of the general population. Roberts, who studies domestic violence and human trafficking in Africa, said that when it comes to human rights, "That's not enough. We have to go beyond the rarefied segment."

One of the people on this frontline of teaching is Enrique Luna, a history instructor at Gilroy's Gavilan College. For him, Stanford represents something of a return: his father had been a cook at the university's dorms. Now Luna is an educator who looks for opportunities for students to participate with direct aid in their local communities and also with groups such as the Zapatistas of Chiapas and the Tarahumara of northern Mexico.

To reach his students, he said, he creates loops "back and forth between reading and doing." When students are doing, they have a reason to read, and when they read, they are able to fix their understandings through application. "They do their best work when they're doing something. That's where the other disciplines pour in," he said.

A lunchtime session last summer was popping with ideas: Hanson was enthusiastic about possibly broadcasting Stanford lectures on human rights on his college's television station.

Another human rights fellow, Sadie Reynolds from Cabrillo College in Aptos, was just happy for the time to think and reflect. "It's hard to articulate hopes this early in the planning. I have a selfish hope of learning about this model so I can apply it in the classroom." She said she will present what she's learned at Stanford to a workshop at Cabrillo.

Those on the frontline of teaching don't get such opportunities very often:  "It's difficult to find time to develop this at community colleges," she said.

Media Contact

Jonas Edman, SPICE, (650) 725-1480, jcedman@stanford.edu

Helen Stacy, director, Program on Human Rights, Center on Democracy, Development and the Rule of Law, (650) 724-7496 hstacy@stanford.edu

Cynthia Haven, Stanford News Service: (650) 724-6184, cynthia.haven@stanford.edu