Amnesty Speech for ‘Voice Our Concern’ The Importance of Arts Education in Human Rights

I’m going to start out by introducing myself- hello. My name is Triona Brick. In my transition year in Mercy Secondary school Mounthawk, Tralee in 2006, I worked on a short human rights film centring around the experience for an immigrant in Ireland. I worked on this with an inspiring teacher called Mr. Redican, Amnesty International, and renowned Irish Director of ‘Hotel Rwanda’, Terry George. The experience influenced me to go on to study a BA in Communications Studies, and MA in Film and Television Studies, both at DCU. For the past two years, I have been the media manager of The Freshly Squeezed International Student Short Film Festival, a festival that has the importance of arts education at its core. Freshly Squeezed nurtures young film-makers by giving them somewhere to screen their work and in doing so, recognition and praise. We crowd-funded the project so that both submitting and attendance are completely free of charge, and therefore open to everyone. Upon completion of the MA, I went on to work in a human rights organisation: GLEN- The Gay and Lesbian Equality Network. As GLEN’s social media manager, I am in the thick of one of the most important human rights movements of my generation on a daily basis. There are infinite kinds of arts education, and infinite human rights issues, but my speech will centre around my own personal experiences of media arts education and of LGBT rights activism.

The first step in any process is seeing the possibility of a good result. Before you speak you must feel like you’ll at least be heard, hopefully listened to and respected. I was the youngest in a family of three. Growing up, it wasn’t always easy to feel listened to when I was always seen as the kid. In school you are assigned a similar role. You are the student, there to listen, not to speak. We’ve all had those inspiring teachers whose classes we looked forward to going to and who taught us life long lessons. But in my experience, those teachers were more often the exception than the rule. And even those teachers were confined by an educational system that does not encourage students to have a voice. To feel confidence in their opinions. To think critically. To challenge the culture around them. To realise that they don’t always have to accept what they’re told. I grew up in Kerry, which, when I was growing up, was still staunchly Catholic. Which meant accepting what you’re told was part and parcel of my education. This was in a time when access to different cultures and different ways of thinking was not just the click of a button away. While we had the mediums of film and television, these were seen as a bit of fun, nothing to be taken too seriously. Certainly not something to be studied. When I did my Leaving Cert, filling out your CAO form was all about how good the courses would be at getting you a job.

Having the confidence to think critically in ways that challenge hegemonic culture and to then express these thoughts, is essential to human rights activism. The Amnesty project was the first step of many in getting to where I am today. By definition, human rights activism usually involves mixing with and taking the side of the marginalised in society. Those looked down on. Those whose identity is a taboo issue. Had I not participated in the Amnesty film project and had I not then gone onto a degree and masters based on deconstructing culture through media, on asking the question of why certain topics or identities are taboo, I may never have had the confidence to stand up and say ‘You know what, no. I disagree with you. I see no reason a man can’t marry a man and a woman can’t marry a woman. I do not see it a sick, as sexually deviant, or as wrong in any way.’ Without arts education I may never have had the confidence to stand by such statements and put my weight behind them, despite any shaming statements or opposition.

The Amnesty Project was the first time film was presented to me as something other than a little fun. Something to be read, studied. A vehicle for meaning. And while LGBT issues frequently get pigeon holed into just being about marriage, there is so much more to it. LGBT people around the world still experience discrimination on a daily basis and are at a higher risk of suicide. Being encouraged to challenge discriminatory thoughts and culture is essential to human rights. An article I once read for college by Christian Quendler said,

‘The work of the camera eye, like the work of any verbal or nonverbal metaphor, is to bridge gaps or open up and accommodate spaces that seem foreign, uncanny or cognitively impenetrable to us.’

Arts offer us a sense of connectedness. A glimpse into the thoughts and experiences of someone we are completely unconnected to.

As I already mentioned, I’m from Kerry. And as we all know, Kerry is a big GAA county. So in the most cliched, American high school ‘jocks and geeks’ sort of fashion (and let’s remember, this was before ‘Glee’ etc, when there was no such thing as a cool geek) growing up there, it sometimes felt as though sport was the only hobby of value. My school was wonderful in many ways, and much more modern and progressive than most, but while any sports achievement was praised, when our choir placed 5th in Ireland, our trophy got displayed on a school desk in the middle of a hallway with a scribbled note beside it explaining what it was. But when the Amnesty Project came along, contrary to everything I’d been indirectly taught, here was Terry George, Oscar winning director taking time out of his schedule to work with us. Giving us the message that sporting achievements weren’t the only ones that mattered. Not only Terry George, but Amnesty, and my english teacher, were all investing their time, money and effort so we could achieve something different. That film project gave me a sense that an idea can go from being just that to something as permanent, tangible and meaningful as a film. And how this was all so much more achievable than it seemed in my head. This is the kind of thing that gives kids hope in the darkest, most confusing period of their life, the idea that ‘It Gets Better‘. I don’t know if you’ve ever hear of LGBT rights activist Dan Savage’s ‘It Gets Better’ Campaign, but Its website reads, ‘While many of these teens couldn’t see a positive future for themselves, we can. The It Gets Better Project was created to show young LGBT people the levels of happiness, potential, and positivity their lives will reach – if they can just get through their teen years. The It Gets Better Project wants to remind teenagers in the LGBT community that they are not alone — and it WILL get better.’ The Amnesty Project showed me that ‘It Gets Better’. That I didn’t need to disregard my desires to work in media and study something more ‘sensible’ instead. That I wouldn’t always live in a culture where art was not prioritised or praised. So as you can see, the Amnesty Film Project is not only essential for the future participation of those it affects in human rights activism, it is essential for the human rights of those very students themselves. The right to be happy. The right to feel a sense of belonging.

And this is exactly the point I would like to make today; a point that needs to made a lot more in a time of recession when everything that costs money needs to be fought for. We are not robots. We should not have to defend everything we do for our children in the narrow terms of how it will help them to become a worker in our society. We are people. We are nuanced beings that deserve to feel happy no matter what time or place we find ourselves living in. Art is what got me through some of the darkest times of my life and I know I am far from alone. Being able to incorporate that into my everyday life and schooling with projects such as the amnesty project and subjects such as English were something to look forward to and enjoy. Is preaching to our kids that their youth is ‘the best time of their lives’ only to cut the environments that make this statement possible not a bit hypocritical? An education should prompt people to think about others, and themselves in ways that are about more than their utilitarian value. As one of my inspiring lecturers once said, Arts education promotes empathy, understanding, and encourages people to celebrate difference and recognise similarities. To conclude, I’ll leave you with a quote from Pablo Picasso: ‘The purpose of art is washing the dust of daily life off our souls’

Thank you

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