Annual Symposium and Reception Celebrating Human Rights Work
This past May, the UW Center for Human Rights (UWCHR) hosted its annual spring symposium and awards reception to celebrate the human rights work carried out by students, faculty and community organizations. The theme of this year’s symposium was: “Stories of Migration and Actions for Justice.” The evening began by honoring six students selected to receive fellowships for research or engagement in hands-on human rights projects over the summer. Coincident with the night’s theme, most of these students are addressing issues of im/migrant rights. For example, some students will be conducting research about migrants and refugees in Israel and Jordan, while others will be working locally with the Northwest Detention Center campaign in Tacoma.
The symposium progressed to feature a three-speaker panel presentation highlighting the ways in which migrants and their advocates here in Seattle are working to advance human rights. Miguel Rios, a freshman at the University of Washington (UW) spoke on behalf of the UW Purple Group, a support network for undocumented students at the University of Washington. The UW Purple Group was founded in 2008 by undocumented students with the support of Dr. Roberto Gonzales. Miguel, who came to the US at age six, only became aware of his status as an “undocumented person” when, in middle school, he wanted to participate in a service learning trip to Costa Rica, like the other students at his school. His parents had to sit him down and explain that he was not like the other students at school; if he ever left the US, Miguel would not be allowed back into the US to return to his family. Miguel was shocked. But in high school, he realized that he was not alone—there were indeed other students “like him”—and Miguel became actively involved in forming support networks for Latino and undocumented students. Thus, when he came to UW, the Purple Group was a place where Miguel naturally made connections as “a safe space for community building and a connecting point to resources, services, mentorship and peer-support” for undocumented students. “It’s a huge legal and financial challenge to attend school,” says Miguel. “But I’m not alone—there is a lot of support; the Purple Group provides this support network for me.”
Panelist Gilda Blanco represented the National Domestic Workers Alliance (NDWA) and spoke about her experience and her work with Casa Latina and the NDWA. Gilda came to the US in 2000 and moved to Washington State in 2008. She was a domestic worker for many years and describes her experience as isolating and difficult, especially with abusive employers who engaged in wage theft and other forms of exploitation due to her undocumented status. Gilda became a member of Casa Latina and discovered the National Domestic Workers Alliance in 2009 while she was looking for job opportunities in housecleaning. In 2010 she was hired by Casa Latina as Household Helper Program Coordinator and Popular Educator where she educated women in the cleaning industry about safety and health in the workplace. NDWA and its member organizations throughout the US, including Casa Latina, organize and serve domestic workers throughout the country by providing technical assistance and resources that support local initiatives to organize domestic worker. Currently, Gilda is the Dorothy Bolden Fellow with the National Domestic Workers Alliance where she works to organize immigrant nannies, caregivers and Black/Caribbean domestic workers, throughout the country, to demand basic rights.
The third panelist, Sara Vannini, and the moderator, Ricardo Gomez of the iSchool, spoke about their experience and their work on the FotoHistorias project, a participatory photography project and exhibit which was on display at the spring symposium. Members of several non-profit organizations for immigrants were invited to participate by submitting participatory photographs and life-stories imbricated with photography. Cumulatively, the pieces submitted by participants stand as “counter-narrative that demonstrates the power of their determination, re-valorizes their human dignity and their contribution to society.” Ricardo Gomez, who is also a UWCHR faculty associate and Director of FotoHistorias, described the challenge of gaining the trust of community members willing to participate because of past projects by academics who, as quickly and as quietly as they came, left participants with little to show for their contributions. Nevertheless, the project did launch, beginning in Seattle, where participants documented aspects of their lives through photography. FotoHistorias eventually expanded to include migrants from the US-Mexico border and Cali and Bahía Málaga, Colombia. Sara describes her experience as meaningful because “it is not the academics coming to tell their story.” “It is the participants who have the knowledge—not the academics.” People not only have a “right to be heard, but also a right to participate,” in this storytelling project. FotoHistorias became a book, which was sold at the event and its proceeds were donated to Casa Latina.
This event was generously sponsored by the Henry M. Jackson Foundation, the Henry M. Jackson School, the Center for Global Studies and the Information School.