Young people want to engage with human rights: Interview with Kate Butler about human rights education for students
Published on 20/06/2018
Maytree’s Kate Butler spoke to Stephen Hurley, founder of VoicEd Radio, about teaching young people about human rights, and encouraging students to engage with their communities
[Stephen]: You’re listening to voicEd Radio. Welcome to Teaching the Heart with the Youth and Philanthropy Initiative. I’m Stephen Hurley. Welcome.
This is a podcast where we’re highlighting some of the work of YPI — Youth and Philanthropy Initiative — and so far we’ve spoken to Kate Gatto, who is the educational lead at YPI. And we’ve gone out and broadcast live from one of their final assemblies, which was rather exciting, if you were tuning in a couple weeks ago. If not, you can catch that in the stream.
And today I am thrilled to be speaking with another Kate — Kate Butler — and Kate is the Lead for Human Rights and Learning at Maytree. Kate, welcome to voicEd Radio and Teaching the Heart.
[Kate]: Thank you, I’m thrilled to be here.
[Stephen]: It’s great to find out about new people in my life. Maytree, I have not heard of, so we want to find out a bit about that organization, a bit about you, and some of how you found them, or how they found you, and the work you’re doing right now. So I’m going to turn the mic over to you with that long list of opportunities for conversation.
[Kate]: Well, why don’t I start with Maytree? Maytree was founded about 36 years ago, and the focus has been on poverty since the beginning. For a while, Maytree went quite deep on issues of immigration and refugees, and really worked to change policies, change programs, and change attitudes about immigration and refugees in Canada.
However, about three years ago, the decision was made to explore what other doors we can go through when we’re talking about poverty. And so we’ve really decided to focus on human rights as a way to see poverty violations, and to use human rights as a solution, of sorts, to poverty in our communities.
[Stephen]: So, how does Kate Butler find her way into that type of organization?
[Kate]: That’s a great question. I moved here from Victoria about three and a half years ago — so right as they were moving towards human rights — and that was a really nice fit with my past work. I really started working with young people about 18 years ago as an undergraduate in Queens University in Kingston, Ontario. I needed to volunteer to keep my scholarship, so I looked around and I found the Children’s Aid Society.
Without knowing very much about them, I started volunteering, and I quickly became fascinated by this organization that was very much a system, but was attempting to keep kids from falling through the cracks. And of course, we can talk about some of the challenges with the Children’s Aid Society, but there’s also a lot of really great work that’s done there about trying to make sure that vulnerable children have access to all the things they need to live a full life.
After that, I worked in the nonprofit sector around children and human rights and youth empowerment in Victoria, and I also began to conduct some academic research with young people leaving the foster care system. My interest for my dissertation for my doctoral research was on young people leaving foster care, and just seeing how they understand human rights, and how it affects their understanding of citizenship — and really, that’s citizenship as part of a community.
[Stephen]: And so, the Maytree work, then. It’s part policy research, it’s part advocacy, it’s part action. Am I right?
[Kate]: Absolutely, yes. That’s a great way to put it. Our starting point is this belief that, in order to protect social and economic rights for everyone, we need to strengthen the culture of rights in Canada. And so, really, the focus of our work is to advance systemic solutions to poverty by building a culture of rights. I think we do it in three ways, and you alluded to two of those ways.
First of all, we focus on the rules that protect the rights — so this is through the Charter, through legislation and policy. So we’re approaching our public policy through a lens of strengthening social and economic rights.
Secondly, we’re working to build the awareness and capacity of rights holders to access and claim their rights, so what we’re interested in is really developing and strengthening leaders within their communities, so that they can better meet their own human rights and make sure that everyone else in their orbit and their community can really realize their human rights.
And finally, the third thing that we do, we’re interested in promoting human rights education through the media and through partnerships, so we better understand our responsibilities at every level. What this really means is we want to make sure we have this shared understanding of social and economic rights. And a big part of that, of course, is talking to younger people as well, and seeing how young people think about rights, and talk about rights, and helping to build this idea that social and economic rights are really crucial.
[Stephen]: So, we started an edu-news broadcast here a few weeks back, and I think we’re a month old today. But on that first episode, we had an article. We’re trying to get in touch with Dylan Cohen from the West Coast. He wrote a fascinating article about educational support for kids and young people that have been in care, how they need a longer runway to get through post-secondary for example, some of the assumptions we make about kids that have been in care, and just the way they can navigate the system and move through the system. It’s not that they can’t do it. They, in many cases, need more time. So, when you were talking about advocacy and the rights of kids in foster care, it just reminded me of that particular article. I’m not sure if you’re familiar with that issue.
[Kate]: I’m certainly familiar with the issue. I don’t know Dylan Cohen’s work, but I’ll definitely check that out. But yeah, I think that’s a really good example. When we talk about equality, everyone can have the same opportunities to go to university, but not everyone comes ready in the same way, and so certainly having a longer time and more help, and help at different stages in order to allow people to fulfill that post-secondary education need is certainly crucial.
And when I think about that, I also think about the fact that very few parents would say to their child at the age of 18 and 19, “Okay, we’re going to kick you out. There’s no more support, we’re no longer here for anything.” And for many young people leaving the foster care system, of course, that is how it works, right? They’re kind of left on their own, and so, having better plans and more integrated services may help a lot of these young people.
[Stephen]: It’s deep, and I’m going to use the word “rich,” rich in the sense that there’s a complexity there. And it’s not just a matter of teaching kids about this or teaching adults about this, but there are some really important commitments that I know you’re willing to make, and you are making in the work you’re doing. Do you find that young people especially are more attuned to their, I guess, sense of efficacy when it comes to not only learning, but to advocating and working for human rights in Canada?
[Kate]: Yeah, I think so. I’m very hopeful about the future. One of the things I think about in North America more generally is what’s going on in Parkland in the States, the school in which there was, of course, the awful shooting a few months ago. The students have since responded by really becoming advocates around gun violence and keeping guns out of the schools. So, I think young people certainly do have a lot of sort of possibilities to affect change. One of the things I find interesting is the advent of social media and what this looks like, and how young people can share ideas and share the importance of certain issues through social media.
I was at a finals yesterday for the YPI-Maytree partnership that we’re doing, and one of the groups presented that they had become really passionate about the issue of eating disorders. They had tried to volunteer, but they were too young. So instead, they decided to start a hashtag campaign around eating disorders. They’re trying to raise awareness, and for them, that was a really important first step in advocacy and creating social change.
[Stephen]: You would be interested to hear and maybe to meet the folks, the kids from John McCrae Secondary School up in Ottawa. We just started a podcast series, a weekly broadcast series with them, and they are under the care, and enthusiastic and passionate care, I might add, of Rebecca Chambers, their teacher, who’s teaching grade 10 social studies, grade 11 intro to psych, and what’s the other one that fits into that? There’s another one.
[Stephen]: There’s three of them there. And then the world issues class, grade 12 — these students are invited, encouraged to go out into the community and look for things that require their attention, and you know, dramatically compel them to look and not look away, and then to respond. And it’s tough, because that’s not the way schools generally are set up, but more and more we’re starting to have these conversations.
[Kate]: That’s really interesting. That sounds really neat, and that’s encouraging to hear that there are more and more schools trying to give students the opportunities to go into their communities and learn about these issues, and, as you say, to really engage and to not look away; to try to figure out what they can do to effect change.
[Stephen]: You know, the “not look away” phrase I thought of as I was walking in downtown Toronto with my two young boys over March break, and of course, you encounter people that are sitting on the street and asking for money, and as adults, we tend to look away. With my kids, it was the exact opposite, to the point where we had to stop and go back and respond. Luke wanted to give some money to the man sitting there. But they can’t look away. It’s not a natural thing for them to do, and I’m wondering whether, somewhere along the line, we get so busy and so focused on our own lives that we do look away.
[Kate]: I think that’s a really great analogy. And it makes me think a little bit about this idea that too often is still present in many people, about the deserving poor and the undeserving poor. So too often, we can see people who are on the side of the road and we think, “Oh, they’re there because they want to be there. They’re there because, you know, they deserve to be poor.” And I think one thing that’s really refreshing about the perspective of your boys — and I also have three young kids, and they make me think of this all the time as we walk along the Danforth — is that the notion of who is deserving and who is undeserving is not there. They just see people who are living on the street, and they have questions about that, and they certainly see those individuals.
[Stephen]: I want to pick up on that Parkland school shooting thread a little bit, because I know it’s on your mind. When you look at the young people responding through protests and through demonstrations and walkouts and what not, what are they really saying? In your mind, what are they saying? Does it go beyond the event of Parkland? Is there something deeper, a deeper longing or a deeper sense of anxiety that they want us to hear?
[Kate]: Yeah, I think, certainly. I think it does have part of this anxiety about the future, and the feeling that sometimes things are out of our control as kids and as young people. Adults still are the ones that make the rules, and so I appreciate seeing kids and young people who are saying, “Hey, these rules were made, but the system’s not right. This isn’t working, this isn’t how it should be, and we’re going to shine a light on this. We’re going to call attention to some of the issues that have come up and the problems that exist in things like gun laws.”
But in a lot of other issues around North America as well, we do see young people who are pushing for change. And I think that, to an extent, might be new in some ways, but young people have long been leaders in social change. We can look at how young people have been involved in the women’s movement and the LGBTQ movement, and Indigenous movements as well. We see lots of young voices as central to this idea that we don’t have to accept the status quo as our forever situation.
[Stephen]: Interesting. Let’s draw some connections between your work and the work of YPI. Tell me a little bit more about how you got involved with that and what that connection is.
[Kate]: Sure, I’d love to. We’ve really enjoyed our opportunities to be partners with YPI in their program. I think when we were made familiar with what they do, we thought this was such a wonderful opportunity to talk to kids about what it would mean to use a human rights lens to look at social issues.
When I say human rights lens, I don’t mean anything too complicated. I mean that we acknowledge that every individual has human rights, no matter where they live; that human beings have dignity, and they need to live their lives in dignified ways, so they need to have access to their human rights; and that all of us as individuals have a responsibility to each other to make sure that our fellow human beings can meet their rights.
So, when we first started meeting with YPI and figuring out how we could partner with them, we started talking about the ways that many of the social issues the students were looking at are all connected. It’s not as though homelessness just happens in a vacuum. Homelessness is very connected to poverty, and to food insecurity, and to access to decent work. One of the things that talking about human rights allows us to do is to see how these are all connected, so they aren’t just issues that happen in isolation. Instead, when you don’t have a home, when you don’t have an education, it can be really hard to access your right to decent work, for example.
That was what was initially very compelling about working with YPI. We really appreciate that they allow students to go deep on an issue, and to really think about the different solutions that might exist to an issue like homelessness, and also to go into the community and to interact with a nonprofit organization that’s doing really amazing work to try to find solutions to this issue.
[Stephen]: And that’s different than just handing money over or raising money and sending it off via an indirect bank transfer to an organization. Getting in and seeing what they do and becoming immersed, almost, in the narrative that they live by.
[Kate]: Yeah, certainly, and I know you’ve been to a finals, Stephen, and I’ve been to a few finals, and one of the things I love is seeing the young people as they are describing their experience going to the charity. There was one group at the final yesterday where they’d taken some photos of everything they really liked about what the nonprofit organization was doing, and said, “Hey, I thought it was really cool that there was a place to play ping pong,” or “I think it’s really neat that one of the things the nonprofit organization’s going to do is they want to build a community garden.” And so, just how that passion comes out, in part because they’re able to see the organization in action.
[Stephen]: Tell me about the role of stories in all of this. Because, you know, when I was younger, I was in a position, I was studying theology, and one of the terms we had to spend in a community organization, and I was assigned to a hospital. And I was deathly afraid of hospital, ironically, or not, and it was the last place in the world I wanted to go because I was afraid. But once I got in there, and once I started to hear the stories of people that I spent time with, things changed, and I’m sure you’ve experienced that in your own work, when you get in and hear the stories. But sometimes we forget just how powerful they are. So, what stories are powerful for you, and what has been the power of story in the work that you do?
[Kate]: That’s a great question. I think it’s so important to talk about stories and to do it in an ethical way, so that everybody’s stories are really respected as part of this narrative towards building a truth. For me, one of the stories that I think about was, I was familiar with one of the refugee centres in Toronto and all the wonderful work they were doing around resettling refugees, but I never really connected to how much this really shaped and influenced the lives of young people until I had an opportunity to sit down with a couple of young people from the organization.
And just hearing them tell their stories about what it was like to come to Canada and to not even be able to go to school because they weren’t here legally, and so they didn’t have the right documentation. And so, to feel like they couldn’t even access education, and that they had to just rely on this refugee centre as a place that they could, you know, learn English, interact with other people their own age, get some support from mentors, even access things like food banks, really start to become acclimatized to community and society. And you can read about these things, but seeing it in person, talking to young people, and hearing about those stories is so crucial.
[Stephen]: And I think what you said about respecting the stories and the people behind them, and I guess sometimes the tendency is to think we know the story. Oh, I know that, I know what’s going on in that person’s life, and I guess that’s where empathy comes in as opposed to sympathy. I think it’s an interesting dynamic, you know, that relationship between being sympathetic and being empathic.
[Kate]: I think you’re definitely right. I completely agree and I think when we talk about building a culture of rights, that’s one of the things that’s really challenging to change. We really want to, you know, we want people to think that they deserve their human rights, and so does everyone else around them, and so it doesn’t just make someone else’s life better if they’re able to realize their human rights, it makes your own life better. We’re all affected by these violations of human rights that lead to poverty, and so, it’s not so much necessarily helping someone as it is kind of empowering and allowing them to claim those rights for themselves.
[Stephen]: So, I’m wondering, Kate, it probably rolls off your tongue quite easily, the phrase poverty and human rights or human rights and poverty. But I don’t want to miss the subtlety, the subtle difference between the two. Let’s unpack that connection a little bit. They’re not the same.
[Kate]: Oh, no, definitely not. I think that’s a good idea to unpack them a little bit more. So, I would start by saying that poverty is a violation of human rights. We have these human rights that we can find in a number of different places — the Universal Declaration on Human Rights, we can talk about the Convention on the Rights of the Child. In the Canadian context, we can talk about our Charter and rights and freedoms, or in Ontario, the Ontario Human Rights Code. So, we have all these different documents that sort of shape our lives, to a degree, and we can find different places where our human rights are found.
So, for example, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights talks about the right to housing. What we don’t necessarily know is what that is actually going to look like in practice. So, how is Canada —we signed this Universal Declaration of Human Rights — how do we actually change our policies and our legislation to ensure that Canadians can have a right to housing? And there’s a lot of stuff going on right now with the National Housing Strategy federally, in terms of what it’s going to look like to have this kind of right to housing.
But in terms of how it relates to poverty, I’ll just go back a second, I think when people can’t meet their human rights, these very basic rights to things we need to have an adequate standard of living, we find that people live in poverty. So, they’re not able to meet those human rights to housing, to food, to water, to education, to decent work. Too often, they are experiencing poverty.
[Stephen]: That was an intentional pause there, because I think it’s powerful. And I’m thinking back to my own undergrad in philosophy, and we talked a lot about rights, and an ethic of rights, and moral rights. Who decides in Canada, and is it a changing landscape, the idea of rights? Are these universally accepted, inalienable principles for our culture and society, and all societies, indeed?
[Kate]: I think that’s a great question. I believe that, in terms of who decides what our rights are — as Canadians, we do have the potential to engage our fellow citizens on questions of what human rights do we believe Canadians need. So, something like the right to housing has gained a lot of currency and has gained a lot of support in recent years, and that’s maybe why it’s interesting that the federal government is now trying to use a right to housing lens when they talk about what they’re going to do around housing policy federally. So I think these things do change, and we see that shift in an understanding of rights over time.
The example I like to give in schools is we talk about who has the right to vote. And if we were having this conversation, you and I, 100 years ago, there’d be a lot of people who wouldn’t necessarily be able to vote, such as women, such as people of color, Indigenous peoples. Lots of different people may not have had the right to vote, but our understanding of that as a democratic right has shifted a lot over the last 100 years or so.
[Stephen]: I’m just wondering. There are some rights that are considered to be universally acceptable, inalienable, as it pertains to us being human beings. So, by virtue of the fact that we’re humans, we have this set of rights. I’m intrigued by that. When you step back and look at it, how that happens, is that still in flux, that whole conversation?
[Kate]: When we look at the academic literature at times, people can talk about cultural relativism and whether or not some rights that we might accept in the West are not necessarily applicable all over the world. But I’m a little bit less concerned with some rights that are super specific, and instead interested generally in what we all accept in our society, in our community, to be the rights that people need to live their life with dignity. And to have equal opportunities to live their life to the best they can among their families.
So, I think about one of the exercises that I engaged in with the students in the YPI project. We asked them to draw what is a home. What do people need to have in a home? And so, of course, you know, the different high schools we were in, students might have a slightly different idea of what that looked like. You know, one person might say I need my music, my music is a necessity at my home, and someone else might say, well, I am a person of faith, I need to have a cross in my home, or I need to have something else that represents my faith in my home. Most people mention something to do with food, some of these basic necessities, access to public transportation, or to some kind of transportation.
So I think what you can do is you can start to extrapolate. You can look at these needs and say, okay, these are the needs that people have. These become our very basic human rights, and so how do we structure our society in such a way that people can meet those human rights?
[Stephen]: It’s interesting, and I should bring you back even further to the YPI, because that’s why we’re here. And I could spend hours just talking to you about your other work. But tell me, when you talk to young people about poverty and human rights, and let’s just say poverty, because that’s one that is talked about a lot. Do we still, as I did when I was growing up, see that as an issue that is kind of over there, it’s not here, and therefore, in keeping it at a distance, I effectively keep it at a distance? Or are young people more attuned to the idea that poverty is an issue that exists among us and lives with us in our own communities?
[Kate]: I think young people today are very aware of the fact that there is a lot of poverty in our communities. However, I think you make a good point that we can all have the tendency to live our own little lives and not think beyond our day-to-day existence. I think one of the things YPI really taught me, and seeing the students in action taught me, is that there is this hunger to learn more about poverty and to figure out what’s being done, and what people can do about it. When I speak to the students and I ask them what social issue they’re interested in, they’re quite ready to talk about the issues.
What’s really neat is checking in with them after they’ve started to do the research, and when they start to realize how many nonprofit organizations are out there that are working on this issue. And so, I think that, with the internet, and with social media, there are so many ways that people can really be in touch with all these different organizations that are doing such great work. That’s one of the things that’s changed a lot for young people in the last 30 years or so; this advent of a community and solutions at your fingertips.
[Stephen]: You know, my own kids are getting to the point — one is beyond it, but the other is just approaching that idea — that fairness, and he doesn’t use the word “equity,” but the phrase “that’s not fair” is emerging more and more in our conversations. How do you make the jump, if indeed it is a jump, between the idea of fairness and the idea of rights? Is it a natural connection?
[Kate]: I think, certainly, yes. I think a great way to start any conversation about rights is to think about fairness and what’s fair for the people we live around and the people in our communities. So if we see something that’s not fair, to start to think about ways to remedy that.
And I’m glad you brought up this notion of equity, and this idea that people come to the table from very different backgrounds, and so how do we recognize the place of privilege, the place of coming to certain situations with the kind of social capital and cultural capital that some people already have and others don’t. How do you create a community in which, you know, what’s fair for one person is fair for everyone?
I guess what I would maybe say is — just talking about and recognizing fairness. What it might mean is things look slightly different for each individual, and we don’t just have one kind of standard of what’s fair. We really work to find ways to build a system that’s stronger, and that empowers people, no matter who they are or where they live.
[Stephen]: One thing I always say is that a 30-minute conversation on voicEd Radio always seems like 15. I don’t want to take a whole lot more of your time, but I do have a final question for you.
[Stephen]: And it’s one that’s on my mind, because it came up in another conversation earlier today, and there is some pushback. When we start to talk about social justice, issues of social consequence, philanthropy, activism, in schools, there’s a group of people who will push back and say, “No, schools are not the place to do this.” How would you argue against that, and do you, in fact, believe that schools are a viable context for introducing young people to this? Should it be a place for these conversations?
[Kate]: Yes, I certainly think the schools should have a place in these conversations, and they need to. One of the keys of having a right to an education is an education that is adaptable, and part of that adaptability is recognizing that social justice is something that can and should be in schools because it prepares students for the world when they leave school. It’s not just about knowing your math, and your reading, and your writing. You also need to know how to make the community around you stronger.
In terms of the second part of your question, a little bit about how to deal with some of that pushback around, you know, what the roles of schools should be. I’d say that, if schools do not address issues of social justice and if they’re not in these spaces, that is also a political choice, and they’re not allowing their students to engage in these issues that they care about and want to be engaged in.
I think that there’s a way for schools to do this that’s not preachy, that’s not ideological, and instead is about providing opportunities for kids to learn about how to make a difference in the world around them. And I think, no matter what sort of political stripe you are, the future of democracy is that we want young people to be engaged in our community. We may want them to vote, sure, that’s great, that’s one thing, but we also want them to do more than that, right? We want them to really care, and to be part of these conversations about the direction that we see our communities going in the future.
[Stephen]: Well, I can now clearly see why Maytree, and you in particular, Kate, are connected with YPI. Their commitment to connecting students, not only with the folks in communities that are addressing social problems, but also to actually become participants in those solutions, is compelling. And the connections you’re making on all fronts with Maytree are also compelling. It’s a match made in Heaven, isn’t it?
[Kate]: It really is. And thank you so much for giving me the opportunity to talk with you today, Stephen. I really enjoyed our conversation.
[Stephen]: My guest today has been Kate Butler, the Lead for Human Rights and Learning at Maytree. You can find out more about Maytree by visiting maytree.com. Find out about Kate’s work and the work of her teammates in a very powerful organization. You’ve been listening to Teaching the Heart with YPI, the Youth and Philanthropy Initiative, on voicEd Radio. I’m Stephen Hurley. Thanks for joining us.
This transcript has been edited for clarity. The interview, Teaching The Heart With YPI – Kate Butler (Maytree), was originally posted by voicEd.ca on SoundCloud and has been reposted with permission.