Rachel Todd is passionate about women’s rights.
Tarik Durkowitz has a relative who is in and out of juvenile detention facilities; he is passionate about youth in solitary confinement.
Josh Uei wants to be in the military, he is passionate about fighting torture.
The three joined a group of 16 other student presenters, mostly freshmen, at the River City Academy for its sixth annual Human Rights Summit.
The annual summit is a milestone for students at the academy who learn about the Universal Declaration of Human Rights adopted by the United Nations.
“I wanted something that spoke to me,” Todd said. “My topic, although it was a child’s right, it’s women’s rights as well. Kids are being forced to be married, they’re forced to have sex, it’s disgusting.”
Each presenter showed case studies of people whose rights were being violated, as well as the articles of the declaration that were violated as part of their presentations.
Todd showed a video of a 13-year-old girl being rubbed in a paste designed to make her skin look “radiant,” as she was prepared to wed a man three times her age.
It was one of the more “tame” videos Todd found and she said it took her a long time to figure out what to show her fellow students and effectively communicate her message.
“I wanted something that the middle-schoolers could watch without feeling like they were going to vomit,” she said. “Something that could showcase how terrible it was without making them feel awful and guilty that it’s their fault that it’s happening.”
Todd said she thought it was important to be able to communicate her message without showing graphically disturbing imagery.
She recalled a presentation from the year she was in the seventh grade, “It was about female genital mutilation. I remember feeling like, I am so lucky I’m not one of those girls, but I feel guilty that they have to go through that and I don’t, just because of where I live.”
“It’s the opposite of jealousy that you feel,” she said.
Josh Uei had the opposite idea.
The freshman showed a graphic video of police torture in Syria as part of his presentation.
During the video a man was kicked and punched several times and the visible wounds on his video made several in the audience audibly cringe.
“Torture and execution is not right … and I feel like it should be stopped,” he said.
The freshman wants to be a sniper in the Army and said watching other countries’ military and police abuse citizens made him angry.
“They’re torturing and killing, they should be tortured and killed,” he said.
Uei said he was also moved by a presentation on artisan gold mining in Africa, which showed children being used in mining operations.
“I thought it was just like oil rigs that we have over here; I thought they just dug into the ground and had a machine doing it,” he said as he shook his head. “It’s a bunch of kids doing it.”
Each student presenter is a student in Anna Karron’s world history class.
She said she was impressed with their ability to empathize with their subjects and then incorporate current events into the topics.
“With the stuff that’s happening in Syria and around the world right now, they’re bringing in Syria and current events topics everyday saying ‘I’m doing this topic, and this is my research and look what just happened in the paper.’ It’s neat to see,” she said.
While most of the students picked topics about human rights abused in other countries, Durkowitz ended the day’s presentations with a speech on children kept in solitary confinement in the U.S.
Karron said she was surprised by his devotion to the topic, but Durkowitz said he was surprised by what he found as he researched juvenile detention.
Durkowitz said he has a family member who has been arrested several times.
“He’s 15, he’s had to spend five or six years in lockup,” Durkowtiz said. “I’m allowed to write him ... but right now he’s in a (program) where he can only write me and his mom. He doesn’t get any phone calls or anything, he’s pretty much under lockdown. I care about it a lot. I would like to put an end to it.”
During Durkowitz’s presentation he showed evidence that juveniles in solitary confinement suffer psychological damage as a result of being isolated.
“I know how much he hates it and how bad it is in there,” Durkowitz said.
Durkowitz said he could not believe he lived in a country where people could be locked in solitary confinement for 24 hours a day without seeing another person for sometimes years at a time.
Juveniles should not be punished as if they were adults, he said.
“I think that 13 or 14 is just way to young to decide what the rest of their life should be, based on one mistake they made when they were 12,” he said. “They shouldn’t decide that you’re going to be a bad person for the rest of your life and send you to prison that long.”
While he started off researching the topic as a school project, Durkowitz said he wanted to do something more.
“Maybe I’ll present it to other people,” he said. “I don’t know how I could help, I feel like I should do more than just donate to a (non-governmental organization). I feel like I should help people.”
Dawn Edwards-Smith, principal of the River City Academy, said she was excited students learned so much about the existence of different non-governmental organizations and how important they were to humanitarian work.
“One of the biggest things is that they can walk out of here and know what one is,” she said. “You now have 75 kids in the world that realize that there are nongovernmental groups out there making a huge difference.”
For Durkowitz, however, it is not enough to know that other people are making a difference, he wants to change the state of juvenile detention in the United States as well.
“It’s a little bit off-putting,” he said. “You’re not surprised when you see a picture of a foreign child, while it’s disturbing you’re not surprised that (they are abused) in a foreign country.”
But it should not be happening in the United State, he said.
“I that we should do something about this,” he said. “We’re working so hard to send donations to other countries where they have problems but doing nothing to deal with what we have going on right here ourselves.”
Rashah McChesney can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org