Human Rights Certificate Student Hannah Collins (’19) joined a cohort of 48 undergraduate and graduate delegates this January at the Northwestern University Community for Human Rights Conference.

By Hannah Collins (’19)

“How many of you would agree that 9/11 was the first act of terrorism in the US?”

There was silence as a room full of over 45 undergraduate students nervously looked around before confidently keeping their hands lowered. The question was posed by Dr. Lee Bitsoi, the Chief Diversity Officer at Stony Brook University. He was asking delegates from all around the country, who had gathered for Northwestern University Community for Human Rights’ conference. I had the pleasure of attending the 15th annual conference, the largest student-run and student-attended human rights conference in the country.  It posed one question: “Do you remember?”

Over the course of three days, which included three panels, two keynote addresses, site visits, and student research presentations, we tackled the issue of collective memory as it relates to human rights. The weekend of telling stories began with a keynote from Paul Rusesabagina, former Rwandan hotel manager who saved over a thousand lives in the Rwandan genocide, as depicted in the film Hotel Rwanda. Rusesabagina argued, “There are millions of stories to be told.” Over the weekend, we discussed the seizure of indigenous lands by colonizers in what is now Chicago. We learned that after the Holocaust, US and British forces recommended that homosexual men from concentration camps be re-imprisoned because homosexuality was still illegal; therefore, very few gay men came out to share their stories from concentration camps. We heard a talk about how a history of starvation and food dependence of indigenous peoples has led to high rates of eating disorders in those populations today. The important historical revelations continued hourly.

Carmen Perez, one of the Women’s March organizers, addresses students

As Carmen Perez, one of the four organizers of the women’s march, told the students, “We sometimes have amnesia when it comes to the work that we do.” However, before we begin to remember the forgotten stories of our past, we must understand why we forgot them in the first place. On a visit to the StoryCorps, an organization in Chicago which has collected and shared the stories of thousands, I heard from Danny, a member of their partner organization, Unsilence. There are three forms of silencing, he told us: institutional, cultural, and personal. Danny promoted creating safe spaces for young students to talk and to ask questions. These, he argued, are the first step to unsilencing. Furthermore, many students I met in the program posed the fact that often stories are remembered; however, these stories are remembered by people who are powerless to do anything about them.

How, then, do we begin to remember? Christian Correa, a legal advisor for a commission of the Presidency of Chile responsible for identifying the disappeared, told us that, “It’s all about restoring trust.” He painted the picture of discovering the truth as an icebreaker. One must first crack the ice, and then follow the crack where it leads. Skyla Hearn, intentional archivist at Chicago’s DuSable museum, stressed to us the importance of opening archives to the public, and exploring them to learn one’s own history.

While the conference was based in the Chicago area, North Carolina became a topic of discussion in the student research presentations. Maddy Bratt, an undergraduate student at Yale University, spent her summer with the North Carolina Commision of Inquiry on Torture. Bratt shared her experiences and feelings she had while uncovering acts of torture committed in North Carolina from 2001-2004. While she said it could be extremely discouraging at times, she ultimately believes that the report will help spark reparations and future change in state policy.

The conference concluded with lessons about how to use memory to look to the future. Sierra Sims, a middle school history teacher, is pushing for change in education, including making history personal and relevant to students. She encouraged us all to do the same. The students at the conference, from universities all over the country, left with tools and strength to promote accurate memory at their own institutions. Many people often say that we are the future. Carmen Perez disagrees. She says, “You are the present.”