Youth Lighting the Way in Chicago

Chicago International Charter School's Ralph Ellison Campus, a college prepatory high school, stands on the south side of the city, a white-grey building with large blue glass windows in the middle of a residential neighborhood. Two blocks away are streets lined with liquor stores and fast-food restaurants, with a constant stream of police cruisers patrolling the area. This is a food desert among many on the south side, with only the Catholic Charity Food Bank to get fresh groceries. Between a few small houses and brick housing projects, boarded up, empty buildings fill in the neighborhood.

Just to the northeast of the school, there's a mural with the words from Invisible Man, "Light confirms my reality, gives birth to my form." Words like democracy and education create bridges between the painted cityscape of Chicago, and the faces of civil rights leaders.

Recently, Ralph Ellison students took a stand against the violence in their communities, and began by writing letters to the Chicago Tribune to shine light on the issues they and their classmates face. Poverty, unemployment, lack of access to healthcare, and feeling unsafe to commute to school for fear of getting caught in gang crossfire are daily realities for many young people on the south side of Chicago. Some have experienced homelessness, most have been stopped and searched by police, and all feel the effects of discrimination in one of the most segregated cities in the country.

So when Charon Gaskins, one of our Field Organizers, walked into the classroom to talk about human rights, she didn't have to say much to get the conversation going. She heard students talk about being shot at while playing outside. She heard stories about brothers, cousins, and friends who had been killed by the gun violence that has claimed over 1,000 lives of people under 25 in the last five years. They called out the names of victims, lamenting that the lives of their friends and family members would never make the news.

One student raised her hand to talk about the need to build community, and the importance of education in a city where 49 schools were closed last year, representing the largest school closure in U.S. history. Nearly 30,000 students, over 80 percent of whom are African-American will be displaced because of these decisions. Many of those students will now be forced to walk through unfamiliar neighborhoods, putting them at increased risk of the gun violence that plagues these communities.

But as she facilitated the discussion about the many human rights issues currently facing the city, Charon also heard defiance, urgency and hope. In the face of violence and fear, when dignity is on the line, it's standing up together that makes a difference. And these young people were among many who are ready to do just that, and to shine a light on what needs to change.

"Hearing their passion about ending gun violence in their communities, and seeing the articles they wrote is inspiring." Charon told me, "Though they may not feel valued in society, and think maybe nobody cares, they still write letters. They still stand up, still keep fighting, and make the case for the work that needs to be done. I know they won't stop until real change comes."

At the end of the class, when Charon asked who was ready to stand up for human rights in their communities and around the world, almost every hand in the room shot up.

We need to stand with these students, and by joining them we can help Bring Human Rights Home to Chicago. This violence is not inevitable, and together we can stop it. That's why in the past two weeks, Field Organizers and Amnesty member leaders have visited over 30 schools throughout the city, starting 20 new student groups and seeing over 300 young people stand up and commit to building the human rights movement. At the end of every class period, students were fired up, describing the ways that they want to lead, and talking about organizing for justice and dignity.

At the Chicago Virtual Charter School, where students only attend in person one day each week because it's unsafe to be outside, we saw youth leaders stand up and connect their activism to the legacy of civil rights leaders in the 1960's. At the Adler School of Professional Psychology, we heard great ideas about infusing policies with human rights, and connecting local issues with global challenges. And at the both Morgan Park High and Gage High School, students poured into the hallways immediately after a meeting to hand out Amnesty stickers and ask their classmates to get involved.

When we act together, we can make a difference. Our voices united are strong, and what Amnesty can add to these youth leaders and to Chicago's anti-gun violence movement is the power of our global membership and a track record of protecting human rights for over 50 years.

To end the violence in Chicago, youth leaders are supporting the federal Youth Promise Act, and I'm asking you to do the same. Let's amplify their voices. Together, we can make sure the city makes comprehensive, human rights-centered plans that include effective prevention, intervention, enforcement, rehabilitation, and re-entry programs.

Let us all join in bringing an end to gun violence. Sign this petition. Share this post. Come to Chicago for the Human Rights Conference. Stand with Chicago's youth leaders, and help make their light even brighter.

This post is part of a series produced by The Huffington Post and Amnesty International USA in the theme of "Bringing Human Rights Home." Read all posts in the series here. Visit here to learn more about Amnesty International USA's Human Rights Conference in Chicago. Follow Amnesty International USA on Facebook and @amnesty.