Young voices from Western New York focus on creating worldwide change
Students, teachers, and volunteers with the Academy for Human Rights aspire to shape a better future while addressing global issues
The Academy for Human Rights isn’t yet a household name. But teachers like Drew Beiter, Lori Raybold, and Tim Redmond, along with a host of students, alumni, fellow educators, and volunteers, are hoping to change that — not just in Buffalo, but around the world.
For the past 15 years, more than 700 students and hundreds of teachers have participated in programs offered through its educational outreach. Begun in Western New York, its mission is to spread social justice, expand across the country, and reach global hotspots like Syria and Darfur — where equality and freedom can often feel out of reach.
“Education is on the front lines of fighting the world’s problems,” said Beiter, a Springville Middle School social studies teacher who co-founded the Academy 15 years ago by partnering with educators from neighboring school districts. Beiter was motivated in part by a quote from author H.G. Wells, ”Civilization is a race between education and catastrophe.”
Originally called “The Summer Institute for Human Rights and Genocide Studies,” the AHR began as a seasonal program, but has evolved into a year-round effort to address some of the world’s most pressing problems.
“We’re an organization with a lot of moving parts,” Beiter reflected. “It started with a friendship that I developed with two Hamburg teachers, Lori Raybold and Matt Meader. We all took trainings at the Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C., about the importance of Holocaust education. We realized that what we were doing in our classes was commendable but not sufficient. This training was really about the future of humanity in so many ways. We needed to give it a booster dose of time in the summer.”
Beiter, 56, has taught for more than two decades. In 2020, he was inducted into the National Teachers Hall of Fame. He credits the Academy for Human Rights with steering his career in a different direction.
“When we started, we joked that this would be a win if we were able to invite a few Holocaust survivors, eat popcorn, and watch Schindler’s List,” he said. “But once we had scheduled several speakers and experts, we realized that we had an important product, even if it was strange to invite kids to spend part of their summer learning about genocide prevention.”
Raybold, an English teacher at Hamburg High School since 2001, helped co-found the original summer institute.
“Drew [Beiter] and I were both part of a local nonprofit called Buffalo for Africa,” she recalled. “That was inspired by the genocide in Darfur in the late 1990s. We were trying to raise awareness. Drew said, ‘Let’s not just admire the problem, let’s try to do something about it, to empower students to speak for those who don’t have a voice and make a difference in their communities.’ We came up with the idea to have a summer conference for students.”
If it sounds odd that high schoolers would register for a summer seminar to learn about genocide, Beiter agrees.
“The Holocaust resonates with people,” he said. “We were excited that we had captured the essence of the Holocaust and put it in the students’ hands. As we looked at issues in Darfur and Sudan — which was really the first genocide to be published on social media — it dismayed us. Here we were talking about the past, and asking kids what would they have done, but in our time something was happening where we could possibly have a small say in the solution. We wondered what 21st century skills could we give our students to put pressure on legislators?”
Dr. Timothy Redmond, a social studies teacher at Williamsville East High School, currently serves as Teacher Training Director for the AHR. He first became aware of the organization after one of his students had attended a seminar the prior summer.
“High school kids were giving up two weeks of their summer to learn about human rights,” Redmond noted. “As a teacher, I was impressed with the mix of activities and in-person speakers. They were covering stuff from the headlines that wasn’t part of the curriculum. There was a real hunger among our students for this kind of content. Kids were interested, and realized that issues are still happening.”
By their third year, the Academy connected with Erie 1 BOCES, and grew from 30 students per summer to 60 or 70.
“We expanded to contemporary human rights that aren’t being talked about in schools and probably won’t be for another decade,” Beiter said. “Issues like women’s equality, LGBTQ+ equality, and climate change. We started rolling out international speakers to these kids and they ate it up. We taught them skills where they can live contributory lives and use their talents as a social worker, or an architect, or a reporter, to focus on human rights. Quickly, over 15 years, we’ve trained more than 700 students. Now we have an alumni network of roughly 55 interns who spent two years with us after they went through the program. Many credit our work with changing the needle on their life. We have a massive network of young adults who are doing really positive things. It’s about getting inspired by the past to realize our lives matter, and to serve others.”
One of those students is Rainah Umlauf. A 2013 graduate of Springville-Griffith Institute High School, she earned a degree in International Studies from Vassar College. She first connected with Beiter as a middle school student, where she participated in after-school events with the Human Rights Club.
“Drew encouraged a lot of us to dive deeper into issues about human rights and international politics,” Umlauf said. “I don’t know if we had been talking about those things in other classes. I can’t overstate how wonderful and nurturing this group was. That experience was the turning point in my life.”
Club members discussed global issues like climate change, equality and democracy. It was Umlauf’s first exposure to such concepts.
“With the Academy, it was not only exciting, but you could feel how important and weighty it was,” she said. “We all mattered and could be part of the conversation. It planted the seed to everything that I do today.”
Now 27, Umlauf lives in New York City, where she works as a project coordinator for the Obama Foundation Scholars Program. In conjunction with Columbia University, the Obama Foundation brings together a dozen rising leaders from around the world who are making social justice changes in their community. The scholars spend a year in New York City gaining skills in professional development, networking and mentorship so they can return home and continue to create positive change. Some participants are in their 20s, and the age range spans to people their 50s.
“In the Academy, we learned that even on a smaller level, your voice can have an impact in your community,” Umlauf said. “Everyone can make a difference in local government or in schools. It was a different kind of learning — preparation to be a global citizen and be civic minded.”
Umlauf is not the only alumnus who has been influenced by the Academy.
“We've had students go into the Peace Corps, speak at the United Nations about LGBTQ rights, and earn international law degrees,” said Melody LeBeau, the Summer Symposium Director for the AHR. “This is not a normal room of high school students. This is an accepting and passionate group of students going on to make a real difference. Even those students who don't go into human rights, we still see them being strong activists in their communities.”
“Drew is still training groups of people who are going to be actively engaged and eager participants in the world around them,” Umlauf noted. “Why do you go to school if not for that?”
Reaching the world
While the AHR has spread internationally, its roots are firmly in Western New York.
“The connections to Buffalo are immense,” Beiter reflected. “We’re standing on the shoulders of giants from this area, like Susan B. Anthony, Robert H. Jackson, and the incredible African American voices that started the Niagara Movement. We have a rich history to tap into for our students and our teachers.”
Several years ago, the AHR led a student excursion to the Robert H. Jackson Center in Jamestown. Jackson, best known as a prosecutor during the Nuremberg trials after World War II, attended Jamestown High School and later served on the Supreme Court. The Center, which opened in 2001, “envisions a global society where the universal principles of equality, fairness and justice prevail,” according to its website.
Beiter recalled that their group met with David M. Crane, a lawyer who was the Chief Prosecutor of the Special Court for Sierra Leone from 2002 until 2005. Crane led a team that indicted Charles Taylor, the president of Liberia, for a variety of crimes.
“We met right when Syria was starting to implode,” Beiter recalled. “David looked at me and said, ‘Drew, what can we do with your program?’ I immediately tried to get our interns involved. Within 48 hours, we had a website called ’I Am Syria.’”
“I Am Syria is no longer, but it was begun by summer students at the start of the Syrian conflict,” explained LeBeau. “We made a video with students to raise awareness about what was happening. The idea came about after a conversation with David Crane and others to connect Syrian youth with our youth.”
Members of the AHR wanted to point out that citizens of almost any nation could be displaced by a dictator. The AHR team created lesson plans for teachers that addressed the Syrian conflict. The website received 1 million hits in its first five years.
“We started to hear from classrooms about how we could do more, so we built tool kits for students on ways that they could make a difference,” LeBeau said.
“It was a moment when we realized that students are incredibly powerful social voices, and that in our digital world, we had a massive lever to expose the crisis and offer solutions,” Beiter said. “A Holocaust survivor, Joe Diamond, a longtime Buffalo resident and friend of the Academy, looked at the website, and in his thick Polish accent said, ‘Drew, that’s what somebody needed to do for us…’” Beiter paused. “I’m like, okay, this is good.”
For Redmond, the benefits of joining the Academy have been both professional and personal. He was inspired to teach an elective course about human rights, and spent the following summer writing curriculum. Years later, that program has been offered at all three Williamsville high schools, potentially influencing a generation of young activists.
But another important result was personal. “I became friends with Carl Wilkens,” he said.
Wilkens, a Maryland native now in his mid-60s, is a missionary and the only American who chose to remain in Rwanda during the genocide in 1994. He brought food and water to orphanages. But when an orphanage was surrounded by armed soldiers and many feared the children inside would be slaughtered, Wilkens personally met with the prime minister and urged everyone to stand down.
“Carl was able to get the attack called off and saved all those kids,” Redmond explained.
Several years ago, through his connections with the Academy, Redmond accompanied Wilkens and several other teachers on a return visit to Rwanda.
“We went to one of the orphanages, where Carl was leading a tour. We walked inside and the room was filled with all the orphans who had been saved when they were only 5 or 6 or 7 years old. Now they were all 25 years old. Each orphan spoke, and said their name and then introduced Carl to their own children. It was one of the most powerful moments I’ve ever experienced in my life.”
About five years ago, the AHR altered its focus, hoping to reach a wider audience. No longer were teachers simply talking with young people. Now they were communicating with fellow educators, confident that their message would spread.
“Working with Erie 1 BOCES, we started running seminars,” Beiter said. “We addressed contemporary issues, took bus tours to downtown Buffalo and looked at the Civil Rights movement here. We held a conference on climate change that had 150 educators, each of whom teaches 125 students. In one day, we reached an audience the size of those at Shea’s Buffalo Theatre. Training teachers matters. It’s rare when you have teachers training other teachers. We are educational entrepreneurs. We’re not selling books, we’re selling a concept.”
The program that began locally is now taking root in other parts of the country, and even the world. When the pandemic began in 2020, the AHR shifted to meeting over Zoom. Beiter was unsure if the new format would be effective. But this only helped to spread the message.
“One of our successes is also one of our challenges,” said Toni Amos, who has served as an AHR board member for the past year. Amos is the co-founder of Ragan and Amos, a cultural competency and diversity consulting firm in Buffalo that works with schools and businesses to help its members become more accepting of other cultures. She has presented seminars to the AHR about racism.
“Covid made it so we couldn’t have anything live and in-person,” Amos said. “But people were on Zoom calls. Our summer symposium and fundraisers have all been online. People who support the Academy for Human Rights are really dedicated. I wanted to be with them as they changed the world.”
Beiter was surprised at the rapid growth amid a global health crisis.
“We started getting registrations from Chicago and North Carolina,” he said. “Then we had people registering from Germany and Pakistan. We were stunned. The last few years have made us realize that the only limitation we face is that we are all full-time educators who have limited time to devote to the Academy. We’re trying to make sure we have a larger staff to accommodate our goals.”
Those goals include starting similar academies with teachers all over the world. Raybold, one of the co-founders of the original program, explained the benefits of participation.
“If students are passionate about a particular issue, they can actually take action and help others take action,” she reflected. “There are so many tools at their disposal to reach people around the world. You can reach the world with your phone. Students can understand, say, how to build a website, or run a fundraiser, or start an educational awareness campaign, and continue to build on that. The end goal is to make students feel empowered and understand that they have an important voice in their community and in the world going forward.”
To visit the Academy for Human Rights website, click here.
© 2022 by Jeff Schober
Uncredited photos courtesy of Drew Beiter.
Did you like what you read? If so, scroll to the top of the page and click “Login/Sign up" on the right. If you're social media savvy, follow us on Instagram. About once each month, we’ll send you a link to a new Buffalo-based story… for free. Please check our catalog of past stories too, which can be read below, with more choices on the home page.