Youth Teams

“Yes, If You Have the Right Tools.”

-Health as Right ESL Class, Day 1
-Ron Lapitan, Community Outreach Coordinator
“If you had the power to change one thing about your community, what would you change?” I asked the students. This is the question student groups must answer on their first day with the Health as Right Program, which leads to the service projects they choose to create. Today it was the turn of Ms. Smiles’ ESL English class at Yorktown High School, which is incorporating the Health as Right Program into their curriculum this semester.
Students are always hesitant to answer at first, but once the first person speaks up, it becomes an outpouring. Youth have something to say; they just never get asked.
This board shows the ideas they came up with. The one that got voted for the problem they will address with their service project is racism.
“But that’s such a big problem. We can’t fix that,” commented Chinua.
“But I wanted to do something to help the poor,” said Ayla.
“There’s nothing to stop you from doing something about all of these problems, even those we don’t do as a group,” responded Ms. Smiles.
“But I’m only one person,” said Ayla.
Ms. Smiles stood in the front and got their attention. “Even if we can’t solve the whole problem, we can still solve small pieces of it. Even if we can only help one person, or 10 people, or 20 people, then that makes a difference to that one person. This isn’t just about this one problem, or about these seven problems. It’s about showing you that you have the power to make a difference. And every one of you will be involved in many things in your lifetimes where that power will carry over,” she said with conviction.
She paused, then added, “And remember that Ghandi was only one. Jesus Christ was only one. Muhammad was only one. Never doubt that each one of you has power.”
Kagumbo raised his hand. “Miss, can a person fly?” he asked half-jokingly. “You just said one person has power.” The class giggled.
Ms. Smiles looked at him and answered, “Yes, if they have the right tools.”
“A ship in harbor is safe – but that is not what ships are built for.”
-John A. Shedd
#healthasright #youthteams
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The Health as Right ESL Class

-Ron Lapitan, Community Outreach Coordinator
This week I observed the ESL English class of Ms. Smiles, the Yorktown High School teacher collaborating with CHHR to integrate the Health as Right Program into her curriculum this semester. If the school’s Office of Minority Achievement finds that the program has meaningfully empowered the students, it will be expanded to other ESL classes in the school next semester.
“Mr. Ron, is this your last week?” asked Gobinder from the desk next to me before class started, a student I have formed a friendship with.
“I’ll be here the whole semester,” I said with a smile. “I work for a program that will be doing service with your class. I’ll get to tell you about it next week.” We high-fived.
The class meets 5 days a week. The students will do the Health as Right Program on 2 of those days. On Mondays, they will work on planning and carrying out service projects which they will design to solve problems they want to change in the community. On Wednesdays, they will do our human rights curriculum, which strengthens their capacity to express their ideas about the kind of world they want to create.
I presented Ms. Smiles with the version of the curriculum tailored to this group after the week of observation. Parts of it are translated into Spanish, Mongolian, Turkish, Amharic, and Punjabi; the native languages of the group.
“Is this Turkish? Ayla will love this!” said Ms. Smiles of one of our students.
“We work with a lot of refugee groups who have found that an effective way to empower refugees is to strengthen their sense of cultural identity,” I described. “I want the students to be able to look at parts of the curriculum and say, ‘That belongs to me.”
Many cultures converge in our city. I imagine a world where youth of diverse backgrounds can find unity in a culture of meaningful conversations and service. A cheers to the experiment of turning dreams to reality.
“Where, after all do universal human rights begin? In small places, close to home, so close and so small that they cannot be seen on any map of the world.”
-Eleanor Roosevelt
#healthasright #youthteams
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A Movement Foments

-Ron Lapitan, Community Outreach Coordinator

Yesterday after school in the backroom of a cafeteria, the students of the George Mason High School Health as Right Club had their first meeting. For their first project, they will create a forum at school for students to discuss, “What do you think our school is missing?” They will use the insights from these conversations to plan service projects to improve the school.
“Can this count for service hours?” asked one of the students.
“I don’t want to advertise our club like that,” said another. “I want the members to join because they are genuinely passionate about creating change.”

In the evening 2 hours away in Richmond, students of the VCU Health as Right Club gathered in a library for their first meeting. A project they are passionate about is creating spaces of conversation about sexual assault.
“People don’t talk about sexual assault, then so many men are ignorant about what it is,” said one of the student leaders.

Today I spoke on the phone with an administrator from Walt Whitman Middle School. “A group of students were at a teacher’s house recently talking about how they could help immigrants,” she said. They will implement our program after school as a platform for their students to translate their desires for change into reality.

“We truly have more civic and human rights minded youth than we give them credit for,” commented the administrator.

All across Virginia, a culture of social action is fomenting, engaging young people of all ages. As it grows, it is changing the community’s perception of the youth, and the perception of the youth for themselves: from an image of distracted people with no deep thoughts about the community or the world to contribute to one of a generation yearning for change, swelling with ideas about how to create it and the will and passion to work for it.

“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.”

-Margaret Meade

(Image: project brainstorming at the VCU group.)

#healthasright #youthteams

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Kilmer Interest Booth

-Ron Lapitan, Community Outreach Coordinator

Doing an interest booth at Kilmer Middle School.

“If you had the power to change one thing about your community, that if it changed, it would make people live healthier and better lives, what would you change?” I ask the middle schoolers.

“Higher minimum wage,” answers Aryan quickly. “If people had a higher wage, they could stay in their jobs, and there would be less poverty.”

“More homeless aid,” answers Natalie. “There are so many homeless people, and there should be more shelters and places to get food to help them.”

“Less pollution in the air,” answers Lauren after a thoughtful pause. “If there were less toxins in the air we breathe, less people would get sick.”

“Discrimination. It’s just a really big problem,” answers Sophie.

“Put grates over the sewers,” answers Cid. “My science teacher says that a lot of pollution goes in the ocean through sewers, so we could prevent it with grates.”

“Don’t put so many pesticides in the grass,” answers Varun. “Because when it rains, it goes into natural environments and kills the fish.”

“Less pollution in watersheds,” answers Neil. “The watershed that provides water to Virginia also provides for 6 states, who all contribute a lot of pollution to it. We have to work on keeping our drinking water clean.”

“Poverty,” answers Zack after a pause. “A lot of people aren’t able to do the things they want just because they don’t have money. I want people to be able to have fun.”

“Our program is looking for youth with ideas like yours,” I tell the students. Many express interest to come to the interest meeting.

“Has anyone asked you that question before?” I ask Zack.
“No,” he answers.
“That’s a shame, because you’ve obviously thought about it. And you obviously have ideas,” I say with a smile.

“We already have everything we need… all the time our warmth and brilliance are right here. This is who we really are. We are one blink of an eye away from being fully awake.”

-Pema Chodron

#healthasright #youthteams

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To Make Youth Strong

-Ron Lapitan, Community Outreach Coordinator

Yorktown High School. I sat in the Director for Minority Achievement’s office as she advised a young senior at her desk.
“What’s the point anyway?” asked the senior of immigrant background. “I can’t go to college. I can’t work. There won’t be options for me.”
“I recommend staying in school one year longer. For one, school isn’t free after high school,” counseled the Director. “Also, it might give time for things to change…” A silent pause.

“Tell me about the background of the teachers I’m speaking to,” I asked the Director as we walked down the hall, laughing students running past us.
“They’re all ESL teachers,” she said. “Our ESL students get left out of most extracurricular activities. For one, many of them can’t stay after school. Your program would have to be during their class. We want it to be the thing at this school that is for them.”

“If you had the power to change one thing about your community, that if it changed, it would cause people to live healthier and better lives, what would you change?” I asked the teachers of the meeting the first question I ask students in our program. “Then after our students brainstorm problems in the places where they live that they would be passionate about changing, our Center provides them resources to create service projects to translate their wishes into reality,” I described.

“This semester, I can teach books on the themes of justice and human rights to go along with your curriculum,” said the English teacher whose class will serve as the pilot for the in-class version of the Health as Right Program this semester.
“And if it empowers the students, we can expand it to the other ESL classes next semester. These students can be the ambassadors,” added the Director. Next week, I will attend the English teacher’s class every day to get a sense of how she teachers and how the students learn. Then we will consult on how to organically integrate our program into her lessons.
“See you next week!” said the English teacher excitedly. We shook hands and parted.

I walked out of the school, a background check application in hand now that I will be a regular presence, pausing to reflect, and appreciating my smallness in the face of our charge. To make our youth stronger, by helping them discover in themselves those things which no one in this world can steal; their convictions about the value of human beings, their imagination of a different kind of world, and their sense of possibility that they can create that world through service to humanity. To give them permission to express these treasures folded inside them in layers of uncertainty and fear, to normalize them until they become a culture.

I am not worthy to be the one to shape a young person’s mind. But I am here, so I’ll do my best. Friends on their way to their next classes laugh as I walk through the hallway, full of dreams and a sense of possibility about the way the world can be. My dreams for the future are wrapped up in these young people.

“Unless someone like you cares a whole awful lot, nothing is going to get better, it’s not.”

-Yorktown student art in the hallway

#healthasright #youthteams

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“Virginia Medical Update”

An interview Center for Health and Human Rights did which aired a month ago on local TV, where we explained our Health as Right School Program. There were 8 schools in our program at the time of the interview. To date, the program is engaging student community builders in 15 high schools, middle schools, and colleges.
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The Desire for Excellence

-Ron Lapitan, Community Outreach Coordinator

“Next week, Center for Health and Human Rights will go to one of the schools in our program to give free sports physicals, so the students can enroll in sports,” I told my mom at breakfast this morning.

The International High School at Langley Park in Prince George’s County, MD, is 100% immigrants and refugees.

“That makes sense. That’s a low income area,” commented Mom. She paused at her own comment, then said, “It’s funny how we categorize things, like ‘low income’ and ‘high income.’ You live here, so that must mean you act this way.”

“The coach who is also the vice-principal told me that he always feels anxious during sports practices. Since none of the students have health insurance, if someone gets injured, it is a lot more complicated,” I said. “And yet, the students push themselves just as hard to develop their skills as the youth in any of our other schools. No matter what our circumstances, it is inspiring to see that we all have the same desire to be excellent.”

The dream of CHHR is to help people be excellent. We do it through medicine, and now we’re doing it through a high school program.

“It’s hard to change a way of thinking,” said Mom as she washed her plate in the sink. “First you have to notice your perspective, then make a shift. The easiest way is to just go with the way you’ve been taught to see without questions,” she said. Is it not the same with everything we wish to change to build a culture of health and human rights?

“Perfection is not attainable, but if we chase perfection we can catch excellence.”

-Vince Lombardi

#healthasright #youthteams

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Students Take Initiative

-Ron Lapitan, Community Outreach Coordinator

When Center for Health and Human Rights first developed our high school program, which empowers teams of students to create their own service projects to solve health problems they notice in their community, we expanded by outreaching to teachers and administrators to explain our vision. Increasingly, it is students themselves from schools where we have not yet started the program who are arising to initiate it.

Like Aravindan, president of the Biology Club at Southlakes High School, who contacted me this summer to ask if their group could take on the program so they could apply their theoretical knowledge to create practical change in the community.

And Aundia and Sogand from Virginia Commonwealth University who posted a question to their classmates in their school’s Facebook pages: “What would you change in our community if you had the power?” Their questions have sparked numerous responses from students passionate about problems such as homelessness in their area, whom they will now invite to become a Health as Right team.

We are also beginning to expand to different states through students such as Jackson from Hillsborough High School in Tampa, Florida, who is bringing together a group of friends passionate about service to form a team. The image is the poster they made for Club Rush Week, when the clubs talk with new students about their activities.

“If you want to build a ship, don’t drum up the men to gather wood and give orders. Instead, teach them to yearn for the vast and endless sea.”


#healthasright #youthteams

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Gender Equality Unit

-Ron Lapitan, Community Outreach Coordinator

This week we’re developing the Gender Equality unit of the curriculum for the high schoolers in our Health as Right after school program, which teaches them about developing communities towards a culture of health and human rights.

One social action principle they will learn about is that complete cultural change can only occur with a mutual transformation of both structures and values, and development is incomplete if change only centers on one. For example, 28 African countries practice female genital mutilation (FGM), the painful circumcision of girls’ reproductive organs as a rite of passage into womanhood, leading to several health problems throughout life. Many of these countries have had laws banning this practice for decades, yet it continues for a majority of women because it is a deeply ingrained part of peoples’ family values and social norms.

Another social action principle students will learn about is consultation. When it comes to promoting often contentious ideals such as supporting girls to get their education, to choose when and who they marry, and abolishing practices such as FGM, consultation is a method of engaging universal participation of a community’s members to talk about its own reality, and to make educated decisions based on their desires for the well-being of the place where they live. Consultation creates the needed transformation at the level of values, and ensures that communities are united in implementing changes in culture.

To learn what these principles might look like in practice, the students will do a case study of Tostan, a West-African organization which addresses FGM by starting participatory conversations about FGM with the generality of a community’s members, educating them about its health impacts, engaging them to express their own experiences of gender inequality and learn from the experiences of others, and then trusting in their capacity to make positive decisions for their community once they are educated about the reality of gender issues.

As a result of their participatory models, Tostan boasts:
*3m+ communities that have publicly declared an end to FGM.
*7500+ communities that have publicly declared their daughters will not marry before they are 18.
*20k+ women who have been selected for leadership roles in their communities.

“Women aren’t the problem but the solution. The plight of girls is no more a tragedy than an opportunity.”

-Half the Sky, journalists Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn

#healthasright #youthteams

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Office Victories

-Ron Lapitan, Community Outreach Coordinator

The other day I met with a friend who founded a non-profit to teach local refugees English through language immersion, to consult with her about how to improve our high school curriculum for our cohort of ESL students. Our program empowers teams of students to create service projects to address the public health problems they notice in the community, and also to cultivate their power of expression to talk about the kind of world they want to create.

“One thing you should realize is that different backgrounds have different conceptions about things such as government, law, and rights,” she commented as we went through the part of the curriculum where students learn their legal protections according to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

She told a story told to her by one of the Syrian wives in her program of a time her husband was pulled over by police. In Syria, it is customary to get out of one’s car and walk to the officer out of respect. When this husband did it in Maryland, an entire squad was called on him. “Perhaps part of your curriculum could just be educating immigrant and refugee students about the social norms and conceptions of law here,” she suggested. It is fraught with tension, this process of diverse peoples learning to live together. Perhaps we can play our part in making this movement of the world and mixing of cultures a little easier, I thought to myself.

“What have you learned doing this curriculum with students?” she asked. I paused.
“When you ask a question such as, ‘What would you change about the community if you had the power?” I began, “there is usually silence, because youth aren’t used to being asked these questions. But once the first person speaks, it becomes an outpouring,” I described. It’s a question that deep down, youth yearn to be asked, but when someone finally does, they don’t expect it. What kind of world do you want to live in? But once they discover their power to express their imagination of the future, they get excited, and fall in love with that power of expression. And a person who has imagined the world they want to live in and put it into words has accomplished the first step in creating it. That is the vision of our program; to create a culture of conversation about the future of our communities.

“It reminds me of when we ask our Syrian wives what they want in this country,” said the friend. “When they talk about the present, it is about finding good schools and transportation. When they talk about the future, it is about the hope that their children will help create a better world. Because they suffered from the condition of this world as it is now,” she said.

In the afternoon, I had a phone call with the director of after school activities in Fairfax county middle schools. “Service learning is a big part of what we want for our students,” said the director. “Will you speak at our meeting next month? We would like to help you expand this program to our 27 middle schools.”

Here’s to a new culture of health and human rights.

“There is only one admirable form of the imagination: the imagination that is so intense that it creates a new reality, that it makes things happen.”

-Sean O’Faolain, short story writer

#healthasright #youthteams

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