Volunteering for the Grassroots Human Rights Project

By Clement Cheung
A first year Law student undertaking the UCL Dual Degree Programme with Hong Kong University. The mandatory Access to Justice placement, organised and overseen by the CAJ, forms an important part of the first year of the programme. Perhaps this blog post can begin with how disappointed I was initially, when assigned to the Grassroots Human Rights project. I considered approaching one of the CAJ members to request a switch, but recalling from a seminar that ‘the more I put in to my experience, the more I can get out of it’, I did my best to approach the experience with a positive attitude. Now that I have experienced the full spectrum of tasks involved in the project, I have gained insight into many issues of society and learnt valuable skills. I cannot imagine not having completed this project, and I am grateful that this experience was more meaningful than simply doing research and teaching children, as I first thought it would be.

My journey began with a research task for a new seminar, the ‘Right to be Free from Discrimination’, and I was responsible for the ‘Quotas Debate’ – whether universities should impose quotas to increase the number of state school students admitted. This involved researching laws on positive discrimination/action, the legal status of quotas, and gathering background information about the debate. Having only been in London for a few months, this was a challenging task, as I was unfamiliar with the types of schools in the UK and past news, such as the admissions controversy of the University of Bristol in 2003. Thanks to the internet and Rose’s guidance, I compiled some useful information which was suitable for the lesson plan.

The most meaningful moment of this research task was when Rose prompted me to think about the almost paradoxical wider picture. Financially well off families who can afford to send their children to fee paying schools can receive a higher quality education, and enter prestigious universities. Such qualifications allow for a relatively high income job, and thus can have their children attend fee paying schools too. This cycle repeats itself – those from a disadvantaged background who attend state schools and cannot compete against excellent A-level grades of their fee-paying school counterparts, may be denied a university place and remain relatively disadvantaged. Seeing my research in this light motivated me to plan the lesson well. Bringing up the idea of university and getting young people to think about it is one of the objectives of Grassroots, and is a starting point for improving societies. At this point, I also realised similar education and wealth gap problems are present too in Hong Kong and other Southeast Asian countries, potentially to an even greater extent. While the state and fee paying school distinctions are present too, this is complicated by the wide presence of tuition centres or ‘cram schools’. These are additional classes outside of normal school which teach exam techniques and help students ‘cram’ knowledge. Since many students enrol, those who cannot afford to attend or cannot afford the best tuition centres are at least somewhat disadvantaged from their wealthier peers. These thoughts of tackling the wealth gap encouraged me to deliver this lesson well, and think about what further contributions I can make in the field of education, even after leaving London.

After planning the lesson and attending training sessions, my teammates and I taught the first two seminars to a class of Year 9 students. I felt comfortable with the human rights material I was to present, but I was shocked to find the class uninterested and unresponsive. I adapted quickly by breaking the class into smaller groups and joining each group to discuss broader questions (instead of giving a lecture on human rights history). After the lesson, I felt I failed to bring the slightest positive change to their lives, and even felt somewhat remorseful for not capturing their interest. Despite this moment of disappointment, I learnt important lessons, which prompted me to make changes for the next session. Most importantly, I learnt that how much I know becomes irrelevant if I cannot communicate it to my audience. Part of this requires simplifying technical points and avoiding jargon; the other element involves maintaining their interest.

During the team meeting in preparation for the next teaching session, we made changes to the ‘Right to Life’ and ‘Right to Freedom from Discrimination’ seminar plans to suit our class better. Since they were quiet in whole class discussions but more active in small groups, we planned to spend more time with a volunteer leading discussions in each group. The students also seemed tired and uninterested in the first session, so we selected short videos as introductions to each discussion topic, such as extracts from Terry Pratchett’s documentary on euthanasia. A day before the seminar, Donald Trump made his so called ‘Muslim ban’ executive order, and we decided to discuss this as an introduction to the ‘Right to Freedom from Discrimination’ seminar.

Although the lesson was imperfect again, our changes improved the experience for everyone. The group discussions seemed effective, especially since the topics this session may have been more interesting (death penalty). The students were more active and some discussions became quite passionate and heated! I particularly enjoyed challenging the views of students who seemed certain of their stance, as some had ‘eureka moments’ which gave them more ideas, or left them considering arguments from both sides. After ending each discussion, the students appeared less sure of their response. This made me feel more successful, as I believe my task was to expose them to differing views and teach them to evaluate before coming to their own view – a valuable skill regardless of what they grow up to do.

The video also proved to be excellent introductions to each topic. After discussions of the death penalty, the video was a good transition tool which recaptured their attention while giving time to rest. In the next seminar, articles on Trump’s ‘Muslim ban’ made students surprisingly excited for the ‘Right to be Free from Discrimination’! Leading this seminar, I capitalized on their interest by encouraging the students to apply the content, such as the distinction between direct and indirect discrimination, to the executive order. This worked well and I believe the students genuinely enjoyed this part of the lesson and gained something from it.

Unexpectedly, the university ‘quotas debate’ was difficult to execute. I was shocked that the Year 9 students did not know the distinction between state and fee paying schools. They were also unaware of the existence of top universities such as Oxford and Cambridge, and after talking to the students, most have not considered attending university. After the lesson, the teacher explained that around 80% of the students were entitled to free school meals, and many may be the first generation of their family to even graduate from high school. This was the moment which affected me the most – I felt helpless. Education is immensely powerful, and if these young people cannot even afford to think about university, how can they bring changes to their families and communities? On one hand, I could have shared more about my university life and stories to inspire them, but on the other, I think the ‘quotas debate’ was a good starting point for them to think about university, being in Y9 and thinking about GCSEs. I feel we planted the seed which will hopefully grow in the future, but it is a process that unfortunately none of us can accelerate.

If I were to repeat the placement, I would be more of a friend than a teacher. The students have many teachers, but may have lacked a role model they could be inspired by. Regrettably, I focussed too much on delivering content and teaching them, and missed chances to connect with them on a personal and emotional level. The teacher noted it often takes time for students to trust a ‘guest teacher’, but I could have tried to learn names and make sessions more informal. I also followed seminar plans too rigidly, and should have used them as guidelines instead. To improve experiences for everyone, I wrote some brief notes and comments to the next volunteer group which should help them with their planning – I feel continuity by communicating like this will help in the future.

These lessons I learnt will be useful for my future and are transferrable skills. As mentioned, I have learnt to communicate effectively, and there is no better audience for practicing this than a class of impatient young people going through puberty! Even outside the classroom, I can use analogies, anecdotes, and current affairs to communicate a message effectively. This is likely to be helpful when working as a lawyer for example, as I might need to explain complex law in a way ordinary people would understand.

The Grassroots Human Rights project was a truly valuable experience, and I now see far more meaning in it than simply teaching children. I plan to participate in this again next year to improve the experiences of students, and to learn more life lessons in the classroom.

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