A look at ‘Human Rights Skills & Advocacy’ with Jo Becker

I took Human Rights Skills & Advocacy with Adjunct Associate Professor Jo Becker this Fall 2015 semester, and it proved to be one of my favorite courses at SIPA. Professor Becker is the advocacy director for Human Rights Watch’s children’s rights division, and she brought a wealth of knowledge and experience to the class. I have enjoyed the course for several reasons, but most notably for the fact that I learned tangible skills related to advocacy work that I will be able to use in future work. The course examines the efficacy of strategies used in past human rights campaigns all over the world, and specifically looks at ways of using traditional and new media to influence advocacy targets.

The course focuses on teaching practical advocacy skills to promote human rights. By the third class, each student had chosen a particular human rights issue to build an advocacy strategy around for the remainder of the semester. Every assignment builds toward the different campaigns, so each student focused on their unique topic throughout the course. The first assignment was an initial outline of your advocacy strategy, and the final assignment was a revised, more robust final paper that incorporates the strategies, platforms, and tools learned throughout the semester. Other assignments included advocacy letters, op-eds and submissions to UN mechanisms or treaty bodies. We also had the opportunity to conduct a faux meeting with one of our advocacy targets to practice speaking on our issue with policy makers.

I thoroughly enjoyed learning about the issues other students chose as some of them focused on human rights issues I knew very little about at the start of the course.

Grades are based on in-class participation, class presentations and written assignments. The syllabus is very thorough with all readings outlined from the first week. While there are other readings specific to the topic of the week, most of the case studies we discussed in class came from Campaigning for Justice: Human Rights Advocacy in Practice. The book was written by Professor Becker after teaching the course for a few years and wishing that there was a resource for students wanting to do human rights advocacy work that provided practical lessons learned from the field. The book examines a variety of advocacy strategies through the lens of what current advocates can learn from past campaigns. Just reading the case studies was helpful and encouraging for those of us interested in pursuing similar work, but the real value came in discussing the campaigns’ successes and pitfalls with one another and the professor. Professor Becker did a great job of fostering conversations that covered the course readings. She also encouraged us to get advice and learn from one another.

Preference is given to second-year students to enroll in the course. If you’re interested in taking the class, it is not necessary that you have a background in human rights advocacy work, but it is helpful if you have an issue that you are passionate enough about to spend a whole semester crafting a campaign around.

At first, it seemed odd for each student to be working on very distinct issues that require different kinds of strategies, but by the end of the course, each of us became closer to being experts in the human rights issue we chose, and we had the added bonus of being familiar with our peers’ topics. I thoroughly enjoyed learning about the issues other students chose as some of them focused on human rights issues I knew very little about at the start of the course. If you are interested in doing human rights, this course will give you a solid understanding of how the field operates and what tools and strategies are available to you as an advocate.

[Photo courtesy of Allison Walker | Allison’s ‘Human Rights Skills & Advocacy’ class visits Human Rights Watch’s office in the Empire State Building.]
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