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Students “Pop Up” A Human Rights Museum

As a hijab-wearing high schooler, Yasmin Abuhatab wanted to protest the Trump administration’s travel ban and dispel the far-right's portrayal of Islam as a violent religion. But until recently, she’d been scared to be an activist.

Then she researched Linda Sarsour, a prominent Palestinian-American activist, for a class project at Metropolitan Business Academy. That inspired her to stand up for causes the way Sarsour has shown up for racial justice and gender equality, not just her own religion.

Abuhatab's findings went up on display in a pop-up Human Rights Defenders Museum in Metro's lecture hall, beside other profiles of activists and not-for-profits posted up on the walls like New Jim Crow author Michelle Alexander, abortion provider Willie Parker and State Sen. Gary Winfield.

The public presentation is one of the three major projects that 27 Metro seniors complete as part of teacher Leslie Blatteau's year-long elective on contemporary international issues.

They started off the year by analyzing the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights and its applicability today. For their first paper, they looked at one issue in context of international law.

Now, to put the museum together, the students picked out advocates to profile. For their final project, they'll investigate causes for a single issue and recommend solutions in a college-level research paper.

Some plan on looking at the same topic for all three projects, as one student is doing with child soldiers, while others are skipping around to get a truly global view of the issues.

Emphasizing solutions, Blatteau said, is an antidote to all the news of warfare, famine and disease that otherwise dominates the headlines.

"Without looking at defenders, it can get depressing, "she said." By the year's end, I want my students to know that people are out there resisting oppression and making a better world. They don't have to be complacent."

On Friday, the final day of the three-day pop-up exhibit, the auditorium's walls were plastered with colorful displays, grouped into five categories: children's issues, health and safety, equal protection under the law, resisting government oppression, and women's rights. In total, the presentations touched on organizations from 15 countries in five continents.

Student "docents" led guests on a tour of the room, stopping at each area for a short spiel about what the student learned. They also ran an interactive section where guests could answer three questions on Post-It notes and then pledge support for defending the U.N. Declaration.

Wherever in the globe it took them, Blatteau urged students to follow their interests — what educators call "student-centered learning." Sometimes, that meant finding out about a topic they always wanted to learn. Odalys Hernandez, who is of Puerto Rican descent, wanted to find out more about Latin America, so she's been researching issues in El Salvador all year. Her project focused on Morena Herrera, a reproductive rights activist. Herrera's rallied against the predominantly Catholic country's strict abortion restrictions, which make no exceptions for rape or incest. The rules are so tough that 17 women were locked up after having miscarriages. Hernandez thought the laws seemed "unfair." She pointed to one of Herrera's slogans to explain why: "Mi cuerpo is mio," or My body is mine.

Other times, the stories touched closer to home. Victoria Romprey chose to look at Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD), after an off-duty police officer driving at four times the legal limit hit her and killed her sister. Researching the issue helped her realize accidents are "so common," killing 10,265 people in 2015, and how many accidents still happen while drivers are tipsy but still technically legal. Romprey had raised money for MADD's local chapter, but she said the project made her want to get even more involved.

After his walk-around, Carlos Torre, an outgoing school board member, praised the museum for tapping into student's inborn curiosity to learn about the world around them.

"That's what education should be," he said.

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