Law Students Teach Dynamic Human Rights Curriculum in Community High Schools

Successful First Semester of Speak Truth to Power (STTP) Human Rights Teaching Fellows Program Draws to a Close


Annandale High Schools students & STTP Human Rights Teaching Fellows Alli Assiter and Nicole Weinstock with Kerry Kennedy, president of the Robert F. Kennedy Center for Justice and Human Rights.

The Kennedy Caucus Room at the Russell Senate Building on Capitol Hill is a grand room.  With tall ceilings, chandeliers, and deep red drapes, it has a commanding presence. 

The room also has a rich history.  If walls could talk, they would tell of events like the McCarthy Hearings and U.S. Supreme Court nominations.  

In mid-November, guests gathered there for the annual RFK Human Rights Award Ceremony, an event recognizing those individuals striving for social justice throughout the world in honor of one of the room’s namesakes – Robert F. Kennedy. 

American University Washington College of Law JD students Nicole Weinstock ’14 and Alli Assiter ’14 were among the guests at the awards ceremony that day.   

They are two of the first law students to participate in the Speak Truth to Power (STTP) Human Rights Teaching Fellows Program at American University Washington College of Law, a pilot program coordinated by the law school’s Center of Human Rights & Humanitarian Law in partnership with the RFK Center for Justice & Human Rights

Weinstock and Assiter and eight of their law school colleagues spent the fall 2012 semester learning about effective communication techniques for conveying human rights to diverse audiences in preparation for teaching this subject to high school students from a variety of communities in the Washington, D.C. area.

Raising Awareness, Inspiring Action

The STTP Human Rights Teaching Fellows began the first weeks of the fall semester learning about different types of pedagogies in human rights education.  For example, the fellows discussed using facilitated discussion to address genocide. 

The law students then spent seven weeks team-teaching high school students lessons from the STTP curriculum, a method developed by the RFK Center and used worldwide.  

“The RFK Center has designed an incredible human rights education curriculum based on the stories and experiences of human rights defenders from around the world, including Nobel laureates and many other human rights defenders,” said Melissa del Aguila, assistant director, Center for Human Rights & Humanitarian Law at the law school. “The lessons cover topics ranging from modern slavery, human trafficking and bullying, to political participation, the right to vote, the right to water, and the right to food.” 

According to del Aguila, the STTP curriculum is focused not only on raising awareness about human rights issues around the world, but it has also been specifically designed to inspire action.   

 “We’ve learned that every person that fights for human rights, no matter how little they do, does something that will impact the world in some way.”

On the day of the RFK Human Rights Award Ceremony, Assiter and Weinstock were joined by their class of more than 30 students from Annandale High School.

Together, the fellows and students listened as prominent human rights defenders—Ethel Kennedy, Kerry Kennedy, and Dolores Huerta—spoke of the progress made and challenges faced in promoting and protecting human rights around the world. 

The students looked on as this year’s human rights award was given to Librada Paz, a leader in New York’s farmworker human rights movement and an advocate for the rights of farmworkers across the United States.

“These people have emphasized what we learned in class,” said Nick Ursini, a senior from Annandale High School in Annandale, Virginia and one of Assiter’s and Weinstock’s students. “Human rights issues are faced by everyday people. We’ve learned how difficult it is to understand human rights and to fight for human rights, because it’s sometimes hard to define what human rights are and when they’re being broken.” 

“To see the room as packed as it is with such amazing people—and notable names—shows our students that one person can make a difference in defending human rights," said Weinstock.

"This event illustrates all of the things that we learned in the classroom," added Assiter. "Seeing the impact of these defenders proves that this is a big field, and there are many opportunities."

Beatrice Ohene-Okae, also a senior from Annandale High School said the class and experience has caused her to take other cultures into consideration.

 “Coming from a school such as Annandale, I knew a lot about diversity,” said Ohene-Okae.  “Now I also recognize that there are people suffering, and problems actually happening, and there are things that we can do about it.  And I think it’s important for everyone to help out. Now I know that I want to pursue a college major related to human rights.”

“With some creative methods to make information relatable to each individual, I can share my passion."

According to Weinstock, the fellowship has helped to prepare her for a career in the field of human rights after law school.

 “Seeing the enthusiasm of the students reminded me why human rights work is so important and why I am so passionate about it,” said Weinstock.  “This class, and teaching, improved my communication skills and reminded me that everyone learns differently.  Not everyone will start off with the same level of knowledge, or desire to make the world a better place. However, with some creative methods to make information relatable to each individual, I can share my passion.”

Now at the end of its pilot semester, the Program envisions an innovative, replicable model for experiential learning and teaching of human rights, which will be expanded into additional law schools and school districts across the country in the coming years.

“Together with the RFK Center, we’re very committed to making that happen,” said del Aguila of expanding the program.  “Law students have such unique skills and energy to bring to the schools. I think AUWCL students in particular have an incredible diversity of experiences to share with their students.”