Dr. Andrew Conteh is living proof that an education can take you anywhere. Fluent in over five languages and having studied or taught at institutions across three continents, his passion for education and human rights has led him from Sierra Leone, Africa to a position as chair of the political science department at Moorhead State University. It has been a journey of nearly half a century, including nineteen years as a professor at Moorhead State University in Moorhead, Minnesota. After years of teaching students to think critically about global human rights issues, it is interesting that Conteh’s efforts to promote basic human rights as a Human Rights Center Fellow took place in his own Moorhead community. For Conteh, however, it was just a chance to apply the academic concepts he teaches in the classroom to the very realistic problem at hand.
“It was an opportunity to keep doing what I was doing,” he explains, “There was a great need in our community for human rights education.”
Conteh received an Upper Midwest International Human Rights Fellowship Grant in the spring of 2001 to design and direct a series of educational workshops to foster human rights sensitivity in the Moorhead community. Conteh designed his proposal in response to a report sponsored by the Minnesota Advisory Committee to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, which had reached unsettling conclusions about the “status of equal opportunity for minorities in Moorhead, Minnesota.” The report found that Moorhead’s small minority community felt that fair police services and judicial proceedings were not available to them, and that the community held a general ethnic and racial prejudice.
Conteh’s program targeted many groups in the Moorhead community, hoping to increase their understanding of basic human rights: “One way of dealing with human rights was through education. We exposed our community to what human rights were and cultivated a good understanding of the philosophical, historical, and cultural basis of human rights.”
The Moorhead city council saw the relevance of Conteh’s project and helped him organize seminars for different segments of the community including high school teachers and students, the police force, and city employees. He also trained members of the Moorhead Human Rights Commission, for whom he had a firm message: “We have a responsibility to teach others that human rights belong to everyone. Human rights are those rights which you enjoy simply because you are a human being. They are not a privilege. They are a responsibility.”
The series of lectures and training sessions initiated by Conteh concluded in the fall of 2001, but Conteh is hopeful that they had a lasting effect on minority relations in his community. “I cannot say what [the effect of my program] was, but it was a starting point. Education is a continual process. The important thing is to keep it alive! It is a process that ceases only when you die.”
These are the words of a man whose passion for education has been a life-long commitment. Conteh was born in Freetown, Sierra Leone, where the education he received at a local parochial school opened his mind to endless opportunities not previously available to him; “Education was first. Our parents were ready to sell anything to invest in our education. We saw it as a tool of liberation and integral to the anti-colonial movement. We believed education was an opportunity to participate in the global world. I still believe that.”
Conteh believed so strongly in this message that he followed this commitment to education out of his native Sierra Leone at the age of eighteen. He studied at Oxford University and received his Ph. D. in international law from Kiev University. He has since taught at Columbia, the University of Kansas, and Moorhead State.
Although human rights had always been an integral part of Conteh’s passion, it was his training in international law that allowed him to focus on human rights as the central message of his teaching. “Sometimes, what people think is right is not. They are misinformed about certain dubious things they do. Unless you educate people they will not know what human rights are. People must talk about human rights.”
The Human Rights Center Fellowship allowed Conteh to use his extensive experience as a human rights activist and educator in his local Moorhead community at a time when it was most needed. Conteh, however, is quick to emphasize that the education process must continue: “When you teach, you learn as well. When you approach students for their thoughts and ideas, you are better for it. We have learned that the community must be communicating on a regular basis rather than waiting until there is a dilemma. It is crucial to remember that human rights issues exist in every society. The U.S. is not an exception.”
Conteh will continue to encourage such communication in his courses at Moorhead State and plans to travel internationally in the near future to help other communities establish human rights clinics. When asked what advice he had for the next generation of human rights activists, the ever-optimistic Conteh replied, “Believe in what you do, and do it because you believe in it. Don’t be scared of anything. That’s all.”