Time: Variable

Materials: Copies of Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR)

Optional (for national/global data gathering): US Department of Commerce, Bureau of the Census, Statistical Abstract of the United States (yearly). United Nations Development Programme, Human Development Report, NY: Oxford University Press, (yearly). World Bank, World Development Report, NY: Oxford University Press, (yearly). Reddy, Marlita A. (ed). Statistical Abstract of the World, New York: Gale Research, 1994. UNICEF, The State of the World's Children (yearly). local community directories, telephone books.

Setting: Middle school - Adult groups

This activity enables participants to become knowledgeable about selected local and global human rights conditions. They research human rights problems in their community, analyze and report on data gathered, and develop an action plan to address problems related to social and economic rights. Although built around the issues of homelessness, hunger, lack of adequate health care, and inadequate employment wages and conditions, this format is adaptable to other human rights concerns.

Note: You might introduce this activity in a least three different ways depending on your goals, the time available, and/or the participants: 1) presenting the concept of social, economic, and cultural rights, as found in Articles 22-27 of the UDHR and then have the group try to identify rights problems in their community for each Article; 2) collecting newspaper articles or brainstorming about problems in the community and then moving to making links with social, economic, and cultural rights found in the UDHR; 3) identifying (alone or with a planning group) a few local problems and using them to frame the initial discussion and subsequent activity. This activity illustrates this third approach.

1. Read/Discuss:

Read the following quotation by Eleanor Roosevelt, Chair of the UN Human Rights Commission which created the UDHR, to participants:

Where, after all, do universal rights begin? In places, close to home— so close and so small that cannot be seen on any maps of the world. Yet they are the world of the individual person; the neighborhood he lives in; the school or college he attends; the factory, farm, or office where he works. Such are the places where every man, woman and child seeks equal justice, equal opportunity, equal dignity without discrimination. Unless these right have meaning there, they have little meaning anywhere. Without concerted citizen action to uphold them close to home, we shall look in vain for progress in the large world.

Eleanor Roosevelt, The Great Question (NY: United Nations, 1958).

2. Brainstorm:

Write the four problem areas (e.g., homelessness, hunger, lack of adequate health care, inadequate employment wages and conditions) on a chalkboard or chart paper. Discuss the following questions, recording responses as declarative sentences, (e.g. “People are homeless.”)

  • Do the problems exist in our community? Are they severe? What are our sources of information? Are they reliable and complete?
  • From what individuals, groups, or organizations can we get informed data about the problem in our community?
  • Are there other more pressing concerns that we should study rather than those suggested above?

3. Discuss:

Introduce the UDHR and indicate how this activity relates to this document. In particular, call the group's attention to Articles 22-27 in the UDHR. Have them identify those articles that refer to the issues being discussed, and, if time permits, have them read the relevant articles aloud. Discuss language that is unclear and identify definitional problems.

Note: For advanced groups, also introduce the International Covenant on Social, Economic and Cultural Rights. Explain briefly how it relates to the UDHR (e.g., the UDHR is a statement of principles while the International Covenant is a binding agreement.)

4. List:

Identify individuals, organizations, or agencies that address these societal problems and work to support or promote these human rights.

Note: This might be a small group research project. These will serve as sources of information (e.g., the interviewees, for the community research effort). Consider such organizations as food shelves, legal aid, homeless shelters, meals on wheels, labor unions, tenants rights associations, and “free” community health clinics.

5. Preparing for Research:

Divide the participants into research teams to explore one of these human rights issues. Each team should: a) identify individuals and groups from Step 4 to interview and set up these meetings, b) plan its interview questions, drawing on those provided below and developing questions of their own, and c) assign responsibilities (e.g., who will conduct interviews, gather background information from library and web sources).

6. Conduct Research:

Each team then researches its human rights issue. Some will conduct interviews in their community to determine the extent of the problem and what is being done to address it. Others might gather data through library research or on the World Wide Web, thus placing the local situation in a larger societal/global context. A member of each team should visit a site in the community that addresses its human rights issue.

7. Report Research Findings:

Each team submits a written report and develops a presentation highlighting its findings for the rest of the group. This might involve art, video, role-play, music, or any other medium to communicate their findings and indicate what actions need to be taken to address the problem. Teams might write an article for a local or school newspaper or invite “the press” to their presentations.

8. Plan to Act:

After discussing their findings and weighing their action options, participants decide on a human rights problem to adopt as a project. Brainstorm ways in which they can become involved and begin to develop of plan of action. This might involve joining with activists already working on the problem selected. December 10, which is Human Rights Day, might be designated as class project decision day.

9. Act:

The group then carries out its plan to address the human rights problem. Activities might include educating school and community via posters, plays, street theater, school assemblies and community speakers, newspaper articles, and public demonstrations. They can also engage in letter writing campaigns, organizing public consciousness-raising concerts, lobbying government officials and elected representatives, raising funds to support local and global relief and development agencies, and volunteering services to local or international organizations.

In a school, these activities can easily be connected to the participants' academic work. Participants can accomplish this by conducting research and recording, analyzing, and sharing their experiences through class presentations and written reports. There are also many opportunities for participants to express themselves through art, video, music, and drama, and to incorporate mathematics (e.g., percentages, graphs, and proportions) into their work.

10. Evaluate:

The group evaluates the experience in terms of impact on them personally, effect of their efforts on improving a condition, and lessons learned about trying to make a change.

Source: Written by Karen Kraco and David Shiman, Center for World Education, University of Vermont. Adapted from Human Rights Education: The Fourth R (Chicago: Human Rights Educators' Network, Amnesty International USA, Spring 1998).

Common Interview Questions (For All Issues)

Describing the Problem

  • What is the problem as you see it?
  • How does the problem manifest itself locally? Nationally? Globally? (See suggested sources above for national/global data.)
  • Do those members of the community who do not have ____________________ (insert appropriate theme) tend to come from particular groups (e.g., income, sections of town, age, race/ethnicity, gender, ability/disability, citizenship status, language)? Do they share any other similarities (e.g., attitude, legal status)?
  • What is being done locally, nationally, and globally to address this issue? (See suggested sources above for national/global data.)
  • What services exist in your community to support people denied this human right? Who provides these services (e.g., public funding, private agencies, individuals)?
  • Do the services reach those in need? Have the services be expanded or curtailed in recent years? If so, to what effect?

Uncovering Associated Conditions

  • What policies and practices contribute to the violation or denial of this human right?
  • How are these four human rights issues (e.g., homelessness, hunger, lack of ade quate health care, and inadequate employment wages and conditions) interrelated?
  • Are there some who benefit and others who suffer, directly or indirectly, as a result of the situation that presently exists?
  • How do people justify or explain that certain people have this basic need met (and much more!) while others do not? Do you find these explanations convincing? Explain.
  • Do you consider _________________(insert topic) to be a human right to which everyone is entitled?
  • Do you think it is appropriate and/or fair that some in the community lack this condition and others have it?

Planning for Change

  • Identify policies, practices, and/or attitudes that need to be modified, strengthened, or eliminated and new ones that need to be initiated.
  • What might the participants do to help promote these human rights in their community?

Issue-Specific Interview Questions


  • Are there homeless people in this community? How many?
  • How many are served by shelters? How many are not?
  • How accurate are these numbers? How are they determined?
  • Have the numbers of homeless been going up or down? Explain
  • Are there characteristics that many homeless people have in common? Is there a typical age? Gender? Racial or ethnic group? How do they become homeless?
  • Has the composition of the homeless population been changing? Explain.
  • What effect have government policies had on creating homelessness?
  • What's the likelihood that those who are homeless also share other characteristics (e.g., have been deinstitutionalized, have substance abuse problem, have experienced domestic violence, have a mental or physical disability, are unemployed, and/or are under 18 years of age)?
  • What permanent housing is available? What factors help them find housing?
  • Is the housing adequate (e.g., number of units, conditions)? Are there people on waiting lists?
  • Are conditions in this housing healthy and safe (e.g., free of rats, lead paint, structural damage, environmental pollution, electrical/fire hazards, gang/drug related violence)?
  • Are services provided in a respectful way to those in need?


  • Are there people in this community who are hungry on a regular basis? Who are they?
  • How accurate are these numbers? How are they determined?
  • Have the number of hungry people been going up or down? Explain.
  • Are there characteristics that many hungry people have in common? Is there a typical age? Gender? Racial or ethnic group?
  • Has the composition of the hungry population been changing? Explain.
  • Are there people who hold full-time employment but whose family are still hungry and malnourished? How is this possible?
  • What factors have contributed to their lacking food?
  • What services are available to help hungry people in our community?
  • Who offers these services? Are they funded by the government or private institutions or agencies?
  • Are services provided in a respectful way to those in need?
  • Have the numbers needing food assistance increased on decrease recently? Explain.
  • Have food assistance programs been expanding or contracting recently? Explain.

Lack of Adequate Health Care

  • Are there people in this community who need health care but are unable to get it?
  • Are there people denied health care or insurance? What do these people do when they are sick or injured?
  • Are there people who receive inadequate care?
  • How accurate are these numbers? How are they determined?
  • Have the numbers of those with inadequate health care been going up or down? Explain.
  • Are there characteristics that those lacking adequate health care have in common? Is there a typical age? Gender? Racial or ethnic group? How do they become lacking in health care?
  • Has the composition of the population lacking adequate health care been changing? Explain.
  • What services are available for people who cannot afford to pay for health care? Are they funded by the government or private institutions or agencies?
  • What pre- and post-natal services are available for low income mothers? Are services provided in a respectful way to those in need?
  • Has the number of people lacking health care and insurance increased or decreased recently?

Inadequate Employment Wages and Conditions

  • How would you define a living wage?
  • Are there people employed in this community who do not receive a living wage?
  • Are there people forced to work in dangerous or unhealthy conditions?
  • Are working conditions fair for all (male/female, black/white)?
  • Is there equal pay for equal work?
  • Are there people denied the right to organize at their place of work?
  • Are there people denied opportunities for advancement and professional development?
  • Are people forced to work to obtain public assistance benefits?
  • What are the child care concerns of low wage earners? Are they being addressed? If so, how? If not, why?