Amnesty International is a global human rights movement, with offices and chapters all over the world fighting against injustices and promoting human rights. It was started in 1961 by Peter Benenson when he read a newspaper story about two Portuguese students who were jailed for raising their glasses in a toast to freedom. Now, Amnesty has become one of the leading human rights organizations. With research chapters all over the world, Amnesty works with communities, local councils and governments to bring to light cases of unjust representation, hearings and imprisonment that may or may not be known. It gives a voice to the voiceless and a support network for those deprived of their family, friends and freedom. Through mass public media, letter-writing campaigns, monthly petitions and the Global Write-a-Thon, Amnesty mobilizes people in grassroots initiatives to stand up for their rights and effect change.
As Amnesty celebrated its 50th birthday this year, I’ve never been prouder to be a member. My dedication to this organization began back in 7th grade where I learned about Aung San Suu Kyi, the only female pro-democracy political leader in Myanmar who had been imprisoned for precisely that reason, and I heard of Amnesty’s efforts to free her. I began my research and simply fell in love. From then on I started a group at my school, organizing small events that weren’t well attended but raised awareness as much as possible! By my senior year we managed a letter-writing campaign, and a great sale of Amnesty holiday cards…but my dream of a Write-a-Thon never came true. Not until this week, that is.
The Global Write-a-Thon is typically the first week of December, and is, as the name states, a global initiative taken on by all A.I chapters. The concept is simple: a day-long letter writing event, where specific cases from around the world are highlighted. People come and go as they please, writing as many letters as they want and gathering for an important cause. This is one of the most successful strategies that Amnesty has in effecting global change and justice — hundreds of successful cases have come out from them alone, and people know of its reputation. At Emerson’s event, we completed 188 letters for five different cases as we enjoyed live music from fellow “Emersonians”. This first event kicked off a new passion for Amnesty International. We got great feedback as well so hopefully the event will continue for years to come.
Our Write-a-Thon was timely followed by the annual Northeast Conference that Amnesty holds at Boston University. Two friends and I dedicated our day to hearing, learning and acting on behalf of human rights. It’s the second time I’ve been to this conference, and yet again I was inspired and impressed by it. The day is structured into multiple workshops focusing on different topics ranging from child soldiers, to how to present human rights issues to your congressman, to discussing Middle East foreign policy, to kick-starting college activism. We were able to choose two workshops to attend and still hear briefs about all topics in the grand plenaries.
Some of my favorite moments from these conferences are from the plenaries because Amnesty (somehow) manages to bring such intriguing people together to discuss issues: this year’s plenary was dedicated to the Arab uprisings in the Middle East and North Africa, and all four members of the panel were either scholars in notable universities or communications directors in the region itself. I was blown away by their knowledge, passion and complete dedication to human rights: it makes such a difference to be surrounded by inspiring scholars that “infect” you with their knowledge and passion on specific issues. My interest in Middle Eastern/North African politics has grown over the past two years, and especially now with the ongoing crises, there is no better time to get more involved and advocate.
What Amnesty’s conference this week showed me was something I have been discussing in my communication theory class this past week: new forms of rhetoric, advocacy via social media and social influence. Amnesty works with creative activism — it’s a grassroots movement after all — and what better language is there of the people than that that comes directly from them. Minute after minute, Facebook statuses, Twitter feeds, Tumblr and all other forms of social media are updated with what’s on our minds and on our hearts: we’re actively engaging in mass communication and mass influence. We’re connecting cross-culturally, cross-linguistically and across boundaries, boundaries that have previously set us apart but now unite us. As social activists we must use this to our advantage and advocate for causes that we believe in. That is just what I hope to do.