In the aftermath of the Second Liberian Civil War (1999-2003), what was the best way to teach the country’s people about their human rights? It wasn’t by teaching them about the French Revolution, says Visiting Assistant Professor of Education Tracey Holland, a scholar and author on human rights education (HRE) in post-conflict nations.
The subjects taught under the HRE umbrella are determined by the needs of specific communities, Holland says, noting that a common thread among its recipients is that each target audience experienced social exclusion if not also ongoing violence. During the conflicts and long into the post-conflict periods, marginalized communities often have not had access to healthcare, education, or legal protections and were not afforded opportunities such as political participation and employment, she says. The job of HRE is to provide discriminated populations with the knowledge and skills to navigate educational, political, and commercial systems—to empower themselves.
But it’s not always easy. “Recently, I was with a group of people from Syria…and they talked to me about human rights education and how they could do that in Syria. They asked how they are supposed to teach about human rights when there are bombs dropping. It’s a hard subject to teach,” Holland says.
Holland discusses these and other issues in her new book, co-authored by J. Paul Martin, a human rights studies professor at Barnard College and a scholar at Columbia University’s Institute for the Study of Human Rights. Titled Human Rights Education and Peacebuilding, the book is based on studies of HRE programs in eight post-conflict countries—including Colombia, Sierra Leone, Liberia, and Peru—and identifies where the programs were most successful and have had the greatest impact.
Holland began her HRE fieldwork in Nicaragua immediately following the revolution in 1989.
“I started a school for street children that was taken over by the United Nations. Then, I developed different schools around the country for demobilized and street children. I lived there for four years,” Holland says of her time in Nicaragua.
Holland followed that experience with similar work in other countries such as Mexico, Angola, and Liberia. Her fieldwork exposure educating people who have been displaced, marginalized, and subjected to violence is the bedrock of her expertise.
She went on to earn a graduate degree in international education and conducted additional fieldwork. Along the way, she became increasingly interested in how well HRE was being taught in post-conflict countries. In most instances, the United Nations and nonprofit groups have taken on the responsibilities of teaching in these hot zones, Holland says, and it was imperative to highlight the importance of HRE as a way to build peace and democracy in regions that have been plagued by violence.
“I was especially frustrated with the lack of development in the field and the lack of funding for human rights education programs. I wanted to show that it did have a positive impact,” Holland says. “We really wanted to understand, from the local perspective, from the perspective of folks who have been impacted by human rights education programs, how they saw the impact on their lives and the need for the role played by human rights education and peacebuilding.”
Though international agencies often implement HRE programs, it’s important to note that without local participation, these programs wouldn’t be possible, she says.
“All of the projects I’ve done, regardless of the place, have been community-based development projects. They’ve all responded to a need in the community and they always have local actors involved in all stages of the project,” Holland says.
It’s a model that also works closer to home. Along with her teaching responsibilities, Holland is the faculty director of Vassar’s Urban Education Initiative, which is composed of three programs: Exploring College, Vassar After School Tutoring (VAST), and Vassar English Language Learners Outreach Program (VELLOP). The Urban Education Initiative coordinates outreach programs between Vassar and local K-12 schools, helping students prepare for the rigors of college, while VAST and VELLOP provide tutoring to more than 250 Poughkeepsie youths with the help of more than 100 Vassar student mentors annually.
Volunteering gives students a chance to experience fieldwork, a vital aspect of their education, Holland says. It’s something she hopes they will continue to do.
“These fieldwork experiences are a really important part of figuring out who you are and what you want to do,” Holland says. “You can bring back so many new perspectives.”