I wanted to start the year off in my freshman Honors World Studies course with a unit on human rights that also introduced the different political, economic, and social ideologies within the Social Science standards. My students read an article about defining human rights and had discussions about how to develop a truly just society. Then, students were divided into planning groups to create a society based on a list of definitions of different political, economic, and social theories.
After their initial planning session, students listened to Pulitzer Center grantees—journalists Simon Ostrovsky and Marcia Biggs—discuss their experiences reporting on human rights in Belarus and Venezuela, respectively. Through Google Meet, the journalists shared their insights based on their reporting, and students asked questions based on their general interest from the journalists’ presentations and to help them come up with realistic plans for their society project. From the examples of Belarus and Venezuela, students took notes on the "do nots" in terms of civil rights and public policies and used that information to imagine a society where policies protect the dignity of human beings.
After the students created their societies and the class discussed the best-presented ideas, we shared the class notes with Simon and Marcia before inviting them back to give the class feedback. The journalists read the students’ ideas, and in our meeting chose different aspects from the plans to discuss with the students. Students had the opportunity to explain their ideas and brainstorm solutions with journalists around potential political, economic, and social barriers in creating our societies.
From the teacher’s perspective, this was a really rewarding experience. Hearing the creativity of the students’ ideas of what could make a more free and just society was inspiring. As Chicago students, they have witnessed both injustices and the recent movements that are encouraging our society in the right direction. It was interesting to hear their take on what is needed to ensure human rights for all people. Of course, getting insights from two prominent journalists was also invaluable. Their generosity of time and willingness to interact with the students without treating them like fourteen or fifteen-year-olds created an experience that I would have been unable to provide myself.
Four students shared reflections on Simon Ostrovsky’s presentation:
“Mr. Ostrovsky has really informed me on how important journalism is for human rights. Without journalism, most of the world would never know when human rights are being violated and therefore would be unable to help. I think that countries like Belarus need better rights protection methods to prevent a dictatorship from forming again, and to make sure order is fully restored. I also see some small connections between Belarus and America. Belarus is throwing reporters in jail and deporting them in attempts to silence the media coverage, while what America is doing is not as extreme; the government has been trying to silence the press on some recent topics. I believe that if human rights are to be sustained there has to be a free press.”
“After hearing first hand accounts of human rights violations, my views have been more justified in my mind. I think that the situations in those two countries would have largely been avoided using methods described above. I believe that the citizens of the countries the speaker mentioned are entitled to the rights we have across our country and some parts of the world. The presentation opened my eyes in a sense, because although I’d heard of situations similar to those, I hadn’t heard in such detail what was happening and how the government was acting. I realized I do take for granted a lot of the freedoms I have in the United States. On the other hand, I did see a lot of similarities between the protests in Belarus and the ones in the United States, such as some journalists and reporters being arrested, and less-vulnerable people shielding the more vulnerable. Overall, the lecture was an enriching experience, and I’m sure it will impact how my group builds our society.”
“I was able to add more ideas to some of my answers by getting additional opinions in the class discussions. However, I thought that the question I was able to ask the journalist was much more insightful, and will be very important when I create my society. I learned that a free press is crucial in my society, so that citizens can be informed about political issues and make it harder to cover up controversy. My idea is that the government can sponsor journalism to make sure that reporters have jobs even though citizens can access the news for free. I also will include a robust education about government and political issues in school, so that everyone can learn about politics, since the speaker highlighted the importance of education. I will also set up a system to engage the public in world events and create safe spaces to protest so that everyone can try to make a change. This responds to the speaker’s view that public engagement is key in a fair society. I was really glad to meet and talk to Mr. Ostrovsky, and I hope to have more opportunities like this in the future.”
“I enjoyed the guest speaker because he was very knowledgeable and offered a lot of insight into places I have not previously known much about or were considered smaller places in my mind. It was very interesting to hear about Belarus and Burma because I had no idea that they had issues with their government and people. By listening to the speaker, I got to see a lot of examples of things that don’t work well for governments and how each place is unique. I think it is notable that Belarus has protestors, and that while the speaker was visiting Burma, many people were afraid to talk openly about their opinions of the government and would rather stay quiet to stay safe. I believe this reflects how poor the government is, for the people to be scared of their power and not be able to express their opinions. The fact that there are protestors and have been, even though they are being shut down, also shows that many people within these countries disagree with the government, yet nothing is being done. Through this conversation, I learned about the importance of expression. People should be able to express their unhappiness and governments should not censor their people. Additionally, there should be the ability for people to challenge the government or run in completely fair elections, which helps ensure one leader is not in charge for too long and doesn’t abuse power/take it away from the people.”
Two students shared their thoughts about their experience with Marcia Biggs:
“Ms. Biggs visited our class to give us a basic understanding of how the global societies she has visited are affected by their governments so we could create a society without malfunctions.
With the introduction of Ms. Biggs in our world studies class, it was apparent that learning and understanding our unit would be different. Before Ms. Biggs visited us, we watched one of her short video documentaries on the crisis in Venezuela. It became apparent that she was a person who actually understood what was going on in the failed systems because she was there, which allows her to have a better understanding of an event that is happening thousands of miles away. Asking Ms. Biggs questions about her experiences around the world gave me, and probably all my classmates, a sense of fascination.
Ms. Biggs has documented stories of people all over the world who are going through some of the most unimaginable circumstances. In one of her documentaries on the crisis in Venezuela, there were people who had so much oil in and around their house that could make them rich, yet it posed a risk to their home because the pipes that were supposed to transfer gas to their stove were filled with oil, creating a fire. Ms. Biggs is not a stranger to unfortunate situations such as those.
When she came to our virtual classroom and we got the chance to ask her questions about her journalistic experiences, I felt both a sense of wonder about how differently people are living around the world, and a sense of empathy for their conditions, many of which are out of their control.
Ms. Biggs described situations that seemed abnormal to us; she detailed her experience in Lebanon, where a lightning war was sparked in 2006. She explained how in Yemen, to get back home, she had put her safety in the hands of others. In Venezuela, she went undercover to report on the crumbling infrastructure of a Venezuelan hospital, where running water and electricity was non-existent, and the bathroom was a little cup. It showed us what could go so wrong in a government that did not function as intended.
When trying to understand how to make fictional societies that are not supposed to have the same pitfalls as the societies that others had fallen into, you need to ask someone who has witnessed the effects of said pitfalls. I am thankful that Ms. Biggs was able to come to our virtual classroom, help us better understand societies, and share the turn that some of them can take after a sometimes seemingly small slip up.” - Ameen Koya-Oyefuwa
“My ninth grade World Studies class had the privilege of discussing global human rights dilemmas with reporter and journalist Marcia Biggs. Ms. Biggs dedicated her time to provoke thought and discussion and to encourage a group of young people to go out into the world and make a difference. Ms. Biggs described herself as a witness of injustices and a voice for the voiceless. She said that she was the type of reporter that would wait until the shocking, dangerous, and dramatic events had passed before she would come to the scene. She prefers to listen and share stories from people who have had important experiences. To put it simply: she is a listener, reporter, and therapist of sorts. You know that someone has dedicated their life to the help and benefit of those in need when they speak about going to therapy after every work trip as if it is no big deal. Though therapy is a completely normal and recommended practice, the fact that she subjects herself to somewhat severe anxiety, stress, and guilt tells a lot about her character.
As she was speaking about the healthcare crisis in Venezuela, I was blown away by the severity of the situation. The fact that cancer patients would have to bring their own Chemotherapy drugs, IV bags and plastic gloves to Cancer treatment centers in Venezuela is astounding. One of the women that Ms. Biggs met with brought her own cup to urinate in because she feared infection and illness from the unsanitary bathrooms. Venezuela used to be a place of wealth, free health care, and adequate resources. The plummeting oil prices and governmental corruption ultimately led to their dilemmas. Despite all of this, the people still have hope that there will be change and by going to this place and telling this story Ms. Biggs has shown that she does as well. The way I see it is that she is using her rights to free speech and press to fight for the rights of those who are facing injustices.
Despite this, Ms. Biggs is not always granted the right to report to the public. Some corrupt officials attempt to hide their wrongdoings by keeping away the press. This is why Ms. Biggs had to go undercover into a Venezuelan hospital. The poor conditions in the healthcare system are obvious and known, yet nothing is being done. It is only because of reporters like Ms. Biggs that we know about these serious issues. She works to research and report on stories that are important and under-reported, yet it is stupefying that the crisis in Venezuela is under-reported based on the severity of the situation. There is still hope that change will come for the Venezuelans because people like me are becoming aware of their situation. Though we as humans have let injustices occur in the past like slavery and the Holocaust, we have always done what is right and destroyed these atrocious institutions in the end. The hope is that this realization of change comes soon for the Venezuelans and the other people of the world that have experienced injustice.
On the topic of guaranteeing basic rates for all people, one point that Ms. Biggs made stuck out to me. As a class, we had an assignment to create a civilization that grants basic human rights to all its citizens. One group of students made a civilization with designated areas for housing. When she heard this idea, Ms. Biggs proposed an interesting point. You have to find a balance when trying to give rights to citizens. You should give people access to reliable resources, shelter, job opportunities, and more, but if you are overcontrolling in your efforts to give them these rights then you risk infringing on their ability to have freedom of choice when it comes to their destinies. This all proves the point that making society fair and just is arduous, complex, and essential at the same time.
I am grateful that I had the opportunity to meet Ms. Biggs and learn more about the world. I hope that others in my generation have a chance to have the same experience. With this in mind, there is hope yet that the younger generation will stop being complacent and make this world a better place.” - Bridget Tiegler