Contextualizing Social Issues as Human Rights Issues
January 30, 2019
by – Jackie Burns, PhD
I recently had the privilege of participating in the Globalization of the Curriculum Faculty Learning Community. It was an extended professional learning community spanning an entire academic year (2017- 2018), meeting monthly from 9am – 12 noon and a kick off meet and greet gathering. I know what you are thinking, wow what a time commitment, but honestly from start to finish, the experiences were thought provoking and I looked forward to the next meet up. The agenda for each meeting was structured similarly: Guest speakers from University of Texas (UT) speaking on diverse global issues, followed by collegial exploration of our own globalization of discipline content. Facilitators were previous participants of the learning community with first hand insight into developing ideas. Take away from these interactions – globalizing your course content could be elegantly simplistic. Our mentors had successfully, and by no means without effort and a great deal of thought, created topic modules within their discipline that contextualized their topic within a larger global framework. The guest speakers from UT each shared a lecture on their area of expertise, all focused on international topics ranging from LBGTQ challenges in Russia, the culture of the Roma, anti-black policing in Brazil, to surrogacy and human rights of women. Each could easily lend themselves as case studies within content areas of sociology. An insight I plan to pursue immediately for Fall 2018 classes.
My own project followed a trajectory similar to other social scientists within the globalization of the curriculum movement; addressing human rights issues within the context of our discipline. For decades I have taught sociology through a framework of social stratification or social inequality. It allows students to see what works and doesn’t work for social organization. What doesn’t work is usually termed “social problems”. I found that adding an additional analytical layer of Universal Declaration of Human Rights to the examination of social problems is transformative to the student learning process. Human Rights Education (HRE) is particularly relevant, “… because the students who attend these institutions are likely to have human rights violated and would benefit from a holistic, action-oriented pedagogy.” HRE also works very well with my course emphasis on social entrepreneurship and a final project requiring developing a business to solve a social need. Almost always the social need is associated with a basic human right. Social Entrepreneurs, “… [create] innovative models to drive equilibrium change—the disruption of social, economic, and political forces that enable inequality, injustice, and other thorny social and environmental problems to persist. By disrupting the status quo, social entrepreneurs open up the space for solutions to take root, scale, and become the foundation of profound social transformation and a more peaceful and prosperous world.” Social Entrepreneurship is introduced through numerous case studies of social enterprises affiliated with the SKOLL Foundation, ASHOKA , and Skandalaris Center for Interdisciplinary Innovation and Entrepreneurship.
I piloted my project spring 2018 in one of my Introduction to Sociology courses (N=18) and the results were quite positive. The students were able to contextualize social issues as human rights issues much more intentionally. Dominant cultural ideologies dissipated under the declaration of basic human rights, “their” social problems became “our” challenges and opportunities to do good. Here are just a few of the student comments:
“I really like the idea of the social enterprise project. Using Skoll and ASHOKA as resources was eye opening and really beneficial.”
“It was interesting to learn about people doing positive things in a world full of negativity.”
“Discovering other organizations made me open my mind for problems that happen throughout the world.”
“Having a project also helped with the insight of sociology. This helped tune in and give real life examples to make it easier to understand sociology.”
Admittedly, my course content was already teetering on the globalization side before my journey began. The social entrepreneur movement is a global social movement by definition. The vast majority of social enterprises were innovative solutions to human rights abuse; poverty being the most prevalent catalyst of abuse world-wide. The epiphany, or transformative idea was the intentionality and focus on the Universal Declaration of Human Rights as a fundamental organizing principle for understanding and action. Mohammad Yunis was motivated to start the Grameen Bank from his observation of people dying from famine in India as he taught classic economic theory at the university. He states, “What is the good of knowledge if it is not useful?” Of course, the corollary human rights issue can be found in Article 25, section 1:
Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, including food, clothing, housing and medical care and necessary social services, and the right to security in the event of unemployment, sickness, disability, widowhood, old age or other lack of livelihood in circumstances beyond his control.
In summary, the Globalizing the Curriculum Faculty Learning Community was a journey of intentionality, of engaging in the discourse of globalizing the curriculum in higher education. We were then engaged in observing implementation of ideas through our mentors and colleagues and being validated that we were on the right path in our curriculum design.