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Making a difference; The Summer Institute for Human Rights and Genocide Studies gives teens a place to work together to discuss ways to stop oppression

Teens were called to activism recently when they were made aware of the atrocities of Ugandan warlord Joseph Kony in a documentary that was posted on YouTube. This 30-minute video produced by Invisible Children, a nonprofit group, has been viewed by more than 85 million people so far. This is not the first time teens have come together to discuss ways to help stop oppression.

There is a place where teenagers from all over Western New York come together to discuss human rights; listen to Holocaust survivors and genocide resistors; sketch; act; write; and collaborate with one another to work toward a more peaceful and just world.

The Summer Institute for Human Rights and Genocide Studies was founded by Andrew Beiter, who is also the director along with program coordinator Lori Raybold.

Last year's program, "Women's Rights are Human Rights," included conversations with Holocaust survivors; an Eleanor Roosevelt impersonator; trips to the Women's Rights National Historical Park in Seneca Falls, the Susan B. Anthony House in Rochester and the Robert H. Jackson Center in Jamestown; the fifth annual International Law Dialogues at the Chautauqua Institute; and much more.

One of the most moving events of the program came during a visit from Syracuse University professor David Crane, former chief prosecutor of the Special Court of Sierra Leone. Crane engaged the students and teachers in a role-playing exercise where students took on the role of "child soldiers" as Crane explained the types of abuses they suffer in war. At the conclusion, Crane asked each participant to draw a red line on their wrist to signify the loss of life and limb and to remember the children who experienced this kind of torture.

This unique program speaks to teens in a variety of ways. It was clear by the end of the sessions, the teens felt empowered to change the world in some way.

Ted McKnight, a junior at Frontier High School, was motivated to participate in the Summer Institute to interact with others who also feel passionate about human rights issues.

Currently a Life Scout, one step below an Eagle Scout, Ted is currently working on earning his next badge. His project, aimed at helping pregnant women in Africa, involves the creation of birthing kits, which include a plastic bag with gloves, plastic tarp, umbilical cord cutters, a razor, soap and gauze. These birthing kits will be sent to the Muhunda District in Rwanda.

"Being involved in human rights and activism and the way I am, I wouldn't be able to sleep knowing that I didn't help as much as I possibly could," Ted said.

He said his favorite part of being a participant in the Summer Institute is "... how un-school-like the program was, and [the facilitators] listened to our views.

"Whenever I go through the Summer Institute I become culturally enriched and am around like-minded people."

Ted shares advice for other teenagers who desire to help the world: "I firmly believe that activism is a lifestyle, whether it's the product you [buy and] use to wash your hair, every little bit counts."

"I want to be able to tell my grandkids that I made a difference," Ted said.


The Summer Institute of Human Rights and Genocide Studies runs from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. July 16-19 and July 23-26 at the Erie 1 BOCES Center on Harlem Road in West Seneca. The theme this year is "The Power of One: Civil Rights are Human Rights." It will address topics on Native American history, gay and lesbian history, contemporary genocide issues and Holocaust studies.

For an outline of the program, visit

For registration information, contact Stephanie Brown at summerinstituteadmissions@gmail .com.

Eliza Lefebvre is a sophomore at Sweet Home High School.