Time: Variable

Materials: Copies of Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR)
Biographical sources such as Jacobs, W.J. Human Rights: Great Lives, 1990.

Setting: Middle school - Adult groups

This activity involves learning about the struggle for human rights through the study of biographies of rights activists in US history. This study serves as a bridge to identify human rights activists and issues in their own community.

PART A: Activists in American History

1. If participants are not already familiar with human rights and/or the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, begin by asking participants to offer definitions of human rights. Compare their definitions with those offered in the Human Rights Glossary, p. 99. Then briefly introduce the UDHR and distribute copies of it. (See p. 3 for a background reading which might be assigned for homework). Alternative: show the “Animated UDHR” video from Amnesty International. (See Resource List, p. 103.)

2. Ask participants what we mean when we call someone an “activist.” Record their responses. Explain that American History is filled with activists who brought significant social change. Have them generate a list from their experience. Assign each participant an activist figure to research. Note: Biographies for most of those listed below can be found in Jacobs, W.J. Human Rights: Great Lives, New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1990.

Ralph Abernathy
Mother Jones
Jane Addams
Chief Joseph
Susan B. Anthony
Martin Luther King, Jr.
Joan Baez
William Lloyd Garrison
Clara Barton
Emma Goldman
Ralph Bunche
Samuel Gompers
Stokley Carmichael/Kwame Touré
Sarah Moore & Angelina Emily Grimke
Cesar Chavez
Dolores Huerta

Henry Cisneros

Anne Hutchinson
Dorothy Day
Helen Keller
David Dellinger
Winona LaDuke
Dorothea Dix
Wilma Mankiller
Frederick Douglas
Thurgood Marshall
W.E.B. DuBois
Harvey Milk

3. Have each participant conduct research on her/his historical figure, obtaining basic biographical information as well as the following:

a. causes for which the person worked;

b. obstacles to be overcome;

c. her/his accomplishments and influence on others;

d. articles in the UDHR that match his/her efforts.

4. Have each participant write a summary of this research on a 5"x8" piece of paper or card with the person’s name at the top. This should include the relevant articles from the UDHR.

5. Create a list of the 30 Articles of the UDHR with a brief description of the principle, and write these on a chart or on the board. (See p. 97 for an abbreviated list.)

6. Have each participant introduce his/her historical figure without specifically naming the relevant human rights principles. The rest of the group THEN tries to match the activist’s work to particular UDHR principles. When done, affix the card to the appropriate Article on the chart. Where an activist worked for more than one right, write the name next to these other articles.

7. Engage the group in a discussion of the following questions:

  • Do these activists seem to have any similar sorts of experiences and/or personal qualities. List them on the board.
  • What are some of the ways they sought to achieve their goals? Who sought to achieve goals by nonviolent means?
  • How many of them appear in school history books or your library? If so, report what is said and what is left out. How would you explain their presence or absence?
  • Introduce the definitions of civil/political and social/economic/cultural rights. (See Glossary, p. 99.) How many activists focused on social and economic rights? How many on political and civil ones?
  • If you were a human rights activist, which rights would you focus on in the United States? What human rights still need to be achieved?
  • Which articles of the UDHR have many names on the chart? How do you explain this? Which articles of the UDHR have few or none? How do you explain this?

PART B: Activists in our Community

1. Explain to participants that there are human rights activists in their local community today who are doing important work for these human rights but probably will not make it into the history textbooks. Indicate that participants will try to uncover and report on some of these local activists.

2. Brainstorm some of the human rights issues that participants recognize in their own communities today. List these on the board. Ask participants to group these into two rights categories: CIVIL/POLITICAL and SOCIAL/ECONOMIC/CULTURAL. Define these terms if necessary.

3. Brainstorm the names of local people and organizations that are working on any issues on the SOCIAL/ECONOMIC/CULTURAL list. Encourage participants to think broadly and consider school and youth organizations and activists, adult organizations and activists, faculty and staff activists, and other community institutions (e.g., religious bodies, municipal services, local chapters of national organizations) and individuals (e.g., someone who has mobilized a community project).

4. Ask participants to match the work of these local organizations and individuals with specific articles of the UDHR. Write them next to each name.

5. Have participants choose an individual or organization to research and interview. Ask them to organize their research as they did for historical figures and summarize it on a 5"x8" card or paper. As a class or in small groups, prepare interview questions. Review and approve the questions before the interviews.

6. Have each participant report on his/her organization or individual and affix the card next to the appropriate article of the UDHR on the chart used in Part I.

Note: See Nancy Flowers (ed.), Human Rights: Here and Now (Minneapolis: Amnesty International USA, 1998) pp.102-104, for an expanded description of this activity.

1. Guest Speakers. You may want to invite some of these activists to visit the group and speak about their work.

2. Directory of Community Activism. Participants might compile their research into a directory of human rights activism in their community, including contact information.

3. Service Learning. Individual participants or the group as a whole may wish to volunteer with some of the organizations they have learned about.

4. Survey of School Community. Participants might gather data on the social activism of members of their school or work community. Their findings can be added to the charts the group has begun in Parts I and II above.

Source: Written by David Shiman.


Next: Section 3 - APPENDICES