Cody Garrett, Josie DeLaCruz and Cary Olson know being citizens of the United States means having rights and privileges much of the rest of the world doesn’t enjoy.
But the Albany Options School students said they never really thought about those rights until joining an Amnesty International letter-writing campaign designed to raise awareness about worldwide prisoners of conscience.
This is the second year the alternative high school has joined the human rights organization’s Global Write #4Rights campaign as a schoolwide project.
Groups of students were given different struggles to study, and then chose one or more to write about. Each group wrote at least one letter of protest to the government in question, and often added a letter of support to the people involved.
Anna Sokolov, the school’s business-to-school liaison, suggested the campaign last year as a way to connect writing practice for state assessment tests with a global community service project.
Together, students wrote more than 50 letters, Sokolov said. In the process, they learned about geography, world cultures and the power of the written word as part of the project — but they also learned more about their own country.
DeLaCruz said her group chose to write to the Ministry of Justice and Islamic Affairs in Bahrain on behalf of human rights activist Nabeel Rajab.
Rajab is serving a three-year sentence in Bahrain for “disturbing public order,” according to Amnesty International. Last May, one of his actions included tweeting something critical about the country’s prime minister.
“We can say stuff about our government, but he got sent to jail for it,” DeLaCruz said. “Really, all he did was send a tweet, and he got locked up in prison for a long time.”
“After this,” she added, “I realized how much we really do take for granted.”
Olson and Garrett said they learned the United States comes under human-rights scrutiny, too.
Olson’s group wrote letters on behalf of a Yemeni man who has been held at the U.S. naval base in Guantanamo Bay since 2003 on suspicion of being an al-Qaida terrorist. The evidence to date is largely circumstantial, he said.
Garrett’s took on the Shell Oil company in connection with large spills of crude oil in the Niger delta. The company has refused to clean them up, saying oil thieves and sabotage are to blame.
“Own up, pay up and clean up — that’s what our message is to Shell,” Garrett said.
Ariana Munoz’s group wrote letters of protest to the government of China and of support to Gao Zhisheng, a human rights lawyer and dissident currently imprisoned there. She read one of the letters, penned by classmate Tiffaney Brown, aloud Thursday afternoon at the all-school assembly on the writing campaign.
“”We are trying to help you, and we are here supporting you and the work you do,” Munoz read. “Stay strong and keep fighting.”
Students acknowledged nothing may come of their efforts, but said they believed it’s important to add their voices to the chorus from Amnesty International.
Shelby Lucero wasn’t able to write a letter to the victim of the situation she chose to study because the person had been murdered. But she said the story of Noxolo Nogwaza of South Africa, a lesbian and gay rights activist who was raped and stabbed to death in 2011, shocked and outraged her. She urged the government to find her killer.
“It’s an injustice. It’s unbelievable that someone could be murdered for being gay,” Lucero said. “It’s important to get your thoughts out there for something that you really care about. You never know. Something could happen because of one letter. You never know.”