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In SPA Human Rights Class Student Campaigns Bring Real Change

class photo

Sometimes classwork can apply to students’ own lives, as a new SPA class, “The Politics of Human Rights,” demonstrates.

“Most human rights classes have an international focus, particularly regarding the developing world,” said Professor Bill Davies. “I wanted to bring home the message that human rights issues also affect 21st century students.”

The honors colloquium fuses theory and practice. Professor Davies’s students build grassroots campaigns built on the theoretical and legal foundations they are learning in class. This spring, three campaign topics were chosen: renters’ rights, reproductive rights, and digital privacy. One of the first orders of class business is to debate why each topic constitutes a human rights issue.

One enterprising team launched the Students for Renters’ Rights this March to educate AU students about their rights as tenants. As the centerpiece of its campaign, the seven-person team drafted a Renter’s Bill of Rights, which includes such basic principles as the right to a fair security deposit and the right to live in a clean, safe and well-kept property. It includes a list of resources tenants can turn to if their rights have been violated.

Just a few weeks into the campaign, the group is well on its way to meeting its goal of getting 500 students to sign the bill of rights, according to an article in the Eagle. The article noted that student scores on a simple quiz about tenants’ rights were shockingly low, averaging 55 out of 100 points.

AU’s Housing and Dining Programs took note of the campaign, and asked the Students for Renters’ Rights to collaborate on a website and a printed resource guide for students living off-campus. The students hope these resources will help the campaign to have an impact far beyond the life of the course.

Meanwhile, a second class campaign entitled Digital Privacy Reality touches on a topic sure to get student participation: Facebook. The team created a website to inform students of their rights to privacy online and the loopholes that permit them to be violated. The group organized a film screening of “The Net” attended by around 100 students, and hosted an expert panel on career-threatening mistakes students make on Facebook and other social networking sites.

The third class team tackled the difficult and divisive issue of reproductive rights by creating a comprehensive online resource for sexually active students. The site gives information about local institutions offering contraceptives, abortion services, and alternatives to abortion. It also gives an overview of the local and federal laws that could affect a student's reproductive decisions.

Given the success of its inaugural semester, Davies plans to keep the same format when he teaches the course again in Spring 2011.

“It’s an ambitious syllabus – while students are out doing their campaigns, they are still doing rigorous theoretical work in the classroom,” said Davies. “Students found it challenging, but you can see from the results, it was worthwhile to them.”