Much of our time in New York City was spent laying the foundations of human rights and traveling to different sites to see human rights work alive in NYC.
When referring to human rights work, it’s important to distinguish the difference between Human Rights (HR) at an institutional level versus human rights (hr) at a grassroots level. HR (top-down power) categorizes governmental/larger organizations that make laws and policies. A couple of the (HR) institutions we visited included the U.S. Mission to the United Nations and the Women and Children’s Refugee Commission. During these visits we talked to both government officials and corporate leaders about their positions in HR work.
On the other hand, human rights at a grassroots (bottom-up) level is where people in local organizations and movements organize and push for change. While it is important to have laws that reflect justice and equality, laws alone will not change the culture of systematic oppression. That is why the power of the people and locals unifying together is so important!
We visited some incredible grassroots organizations and met some amazing people. One place we visited was called Make the Road NYC. This is a safe haven and resource center for people who are discriminated against based on their legal status, skin color, gender, sex, etc. Another day, a small group of students and I had dinner with a local environmental activist who designed a public sustainable park full of fruit trees and different kinds of foods. Anyone can enter the park and pick food, or even plant their own seeds! During class, we also had a NYC police officer and a formerly incarcerated person come in and inform us about the violence, racism, and inhumane conditions of the prison system.
In addition to our site visits, one of my favorite parts of staying in NYC was our classroom space! One of our meeting spaces is called Mayday! This is a multi-story building with classrooms, an art room, a library, and a large open room with a kitchen upstairs. In that room local grassroots activists gather together to fight for various causes. One night, Mayday held a Housing Justice for All dinner to strategize lobbying against laws allowing landlords to continue raising rent prices. Gentrification in New York City is a huge problem. Landlords continue to raise the rent and draw in wealthier people to move into these “hipster” areas, forcing low income populations out of the places they have lived for years. People at the dinner talked about their ongoing battles with landlords and local state politicians in trying to change the laws so they would not be forced out of their homes.
Witnessing the unity and passion of people fighting for justice and equality in NYC has not only been encouraging, but has also challenged me to think about the causes that I am passionate about, and how I want to participate in supporting those causes!