For the third year in a row, Amnesty International FSU, Florida State University’s chapter of the international human rights organization, is holding their annual Human Rights Conference, Born to Be Free, at the FSU College of Law this Saturday, March 31st. The conference will consist of education and training on a broad spectrum of human rights issues and include speakers who work in the field of human rights protection. Spire Magazine sat down with Ciara Bennese, one of the directors of Amnesty International FSU, to discuss what topics this year’s conference will tackle, as well as how the average student can get involved in human rights activism in their community or even wider.
Registration for the conference is free to the public, and includes breakfast and lunch. Register here: https://amnestyfsu2018hrc.eventbrite.com/
This year’s human rights conference is entitled “Born to Be Free” – what is the significance of this name?
In our planning process, we reflected on the past few years of human rights issues, specifically here in the US after the 2016 election. We chose this phrase as our conference title as a symbolization of what human rights are and what they mean. Human rights are not just inalienable, they are universal. Every individual in the world is imbued with these rights, whether they know it or not, meaning that we are all born to be free.
What will this year’s conference consist of in terms of speakers, workshops, etc.? Who will be there that is significant in the field of human rights activism, and what main topics will be covered? How will this be different from last year’s conference?
This year, we have a diverse set of topics that cover human rights issues both abroad and domestically. Our keynote speaker, Professor Lindsay Robertson from the University of Oklahoma College of Law is an expert on indigenous rights and has worked with the United Nations. We have a panel with Professor Piehler, Professor Twiss, and Professor Schlakman about the ethnic cleansing against the Rohingya people in Myanmar. After the panel and our lunch, we have two blocks of three workshops on topics including gun violence, sexual and reproductive rights, the death penalty, refugee policy, the crisis in Venezuela, and human rights defenders in Israel and Palestine. And our closing speaker will be Scott McCoy from the Southern Poverty Law Center who will talk about criminal justice reform and the rights restoration clause that will be on the ballot in Florida this fall. Last year’s conference focused on the theme of “An America I Believe In” and while some of the topics are similar, we have chosen to focus more intensively on human rights experiences that we face here in the US and specifically here in Florida, such as gun violence and the death penalty.
This is the third annual FSU human rights conference. Why did Amnesty International decide to start this tradition?
Ambar Martin and Lauren Watford, who were previously the Directors of Amnesty International FSU, felt that the best way to create awareness of different human rights issues was to have a dedicated space where experts can have discussions with students and community members. The goal of the conference is to engage individuals who would not have otherwise learned about human rights and give them the knowledge and tools to spread awareness. We continue this annual tradition because of the amazing feedback we get each time we host the conference. Students, teachers, and community members are so excited to learn about these issues and walk away at the end of the day with a new perspective and hope that they can make a difference in their communities.
What would be your best advice for the preliminary steps that people can take if they feel like they really want to make a change, but are not sure how to begin getting involved in activism and human rights?
It seems very intimidating to get involved with activism and human rights, but in reality, there are so many opportunities in every town and university campus, there are even opportunities online! Currently, I am a Legislative Coordinator for the state of Florida with Amnesty International USA, which is a volunteer position that allows me to work alongside country specialists, human rights experts, and other volunteers. It has been an extremely rewarding experience and has taught me a lot about community organizing and legislative activism. However, I wouldn’t have found out about this position if I hadn’t been involved with Amnesty FSU. Being a part of a student group that focuses on issues you care about, whether it be environmental sustainability or criminal justice reform, is a great way to get involved and learn more about activism. Student groups are extremely powerful in bringing awareness to different issues and mobilizing others to act, as seen with the amazing teenagers from Parkland following the shooting in February.