AHS students revive Amnesty International

The last bell of the day rings. The halls of Ames High swell with students and empty within minutes. But one group of committed AHS kids is slaving away in a dark classroom, scribbling letters to faraway politicians. They are human rights activists, members of Amnesty International. Ever since Amnesty International started up again this year, attendance has fluctuated, though generally staying around 7 to 10. In years past, Amnesty International was closely tied to Progressive Club, but as Progressive Club gradually fizzled out, so did Amnesty International. Mr. Schmidt, Amnesty International’s sponsor, thinks these twin declines are probably a cyclical thing, possibly because the student leaders got busy with other things. He joked that “apparently we’re running out of progressive, liberal people.” This Ames High club is a branch of an international grassroots movement of the same name that spans over 150 countries and encompasses over 2.2 million supporters, volunteers, and activists. The organization is dedicated to standing up for humanity and human rights. Members learn to change the world through the power of individual people working collectively to bring about real change. Amnesty International works to secure the release of prisoners of conscience, ensure fair and prompt trials of political prisoners, and end all use of torture, political killing and the death penalty. They also defend the rights of immigrants, refugees, and asylum seekers, promote women’s rights as human rights, and defend the rights of gays and lesbians. Ames High’s club is primarily concerned with Urgent Actions. Every week, Amnesty International sends Mr. Schmidt briefs called Urgent Actions via email, informing him of human rights violations. Each Urgent Action is typically about a specific person or a specific violation. Recent ones have included an imprisoned pro-democracy activist from Myanmar in need of medical attention, a Yemeni journalist who was abducted after criticizing the government, and 150 Brazilian indigenous people in imminent danger of eviction from their ancestral lands. Urgent Actions are rarely a blanket condemnation of a country’s policies, although some have been about police brutality and violent government crackdowns. For example, Amnesty International sent an Urgent Action this summer regarding the unrest in Iran following their June presidential election. In a typical meeting, members read these Urgent Actions, talk about them a bit, and write letters on behalf of the people or groups in need. These letters are sent directly to the people in power in the countries where the human rights violations took place. Amnesty International is proud of the fact that they are a low-budget group. "We only need money for stamps and envelopes," Mr. Schmidt said. Mr. Schmidt took over Amnesty International five years ago from Mrs. Lapan since she had asked him to and since he wanted to be more involved with the school. “I’m a liberal,” said Schmidt, “but I’m not nearly as liberal as people think I am. I guess I’m more moderate, but I do believe strongly in human rights." He said he is present in name during meetings to offer his room. If he’s busy, he’ll grade homework, and if not, he’ll join students in writing letters. “Often,” he said, “the kids lead things.” The de facto president of Amnesty International is junior Kate Dobson. "There’s not much of a leadership role that’s required," she said. "I usually start and end the meetings, and in between, we all work together." Dobson helped to restart Amnesty International this year, and shares a lot of the organization’s values. "I think it’s a great organization," Dobson said. "It has great morals and ambitions for supporting human rights and human dignity. People need to be fought for-that’s why I do this." If you are a like-minded person, Amnesty International would love for you to join them Wednesdays after school in Mr. Schmidt’s room from 3:10 to 4:15.