Social Education 58(7), 1994, pp. 430-431
National Council for the Social?Studies

One Common Heart

Daniel P. Moynihan
For ten days in June 1993, four students (two from seventh grade and two from eighth grade) from Gideon Welles School, a public middle school in Glastonbury, Connecticut, were participants at the World Youth Conference on Human Rights in Vienna, Austria. Organized to run in conjunction with the United Nations Conference on Human Rights, the Youth Conference attracted almost 200 children aged 9 to 18 from around the world. The young delegates came from such varied regions as Siberia, Central and South America, the Philippines, and the West Bank. They represented diverse experiences, bringing with them stories of living in war zones and on reservations, or living in the demanding environment of poverty and isolation.
From the start of the conference, students quickly went to work. Through trained facilitators and consensus-building techniques, individual study groups grappled with the problems of sustainable development, poverty, and the environment, and their effects on human rights.

The sessions ended in the drawing up of a final document of children's concerns. Sleepy Eye Sharon La Frombose, from the Sioux Nation of North America, and Rosa Perla Anaya, from El Salvador, were chosen to speak for the children. Both represented a deliberate election process that respected leadership qualities and speaking abilities.

With great pride and excitement, the students presented the more than forty-page document at the General Assembly Hall in the Vienna Conference Center. The message of the two young ambassadors was straightforward and direct. Sleepy Eye called on all to forget prejudices based on past attitudes or appearance and to listen to the sameness of one common heart; Rosa called on all to stop war as she held up a tattered picture of her father, "who had died a hero trying to stop the fighting!" All at the conference appeared moved as the children were given a standing ovation.

For my students as well as many others in attendance, the experience went far beyond any exchange program or children's conference. With little available lead time, the way through the political and administrative process was creatively engineered by our principal. The Glastonbury community enthusiastically supported the students' journey to Vienna as more than $6,000 was raised in a little over four weeks. Parents were involved in preparation for their children's trip and presentations. Once in Vienna, the children developed more than new friendships as they quickly learned how to work together (Arab and Jew, Croatian, Serb, and Muslim) to create goals based on common interests and reason.

Beyond the interaction of the Children's Conference itself, each day was a real and exciting learning experience that only a historic event such as a UN conference could provide. Outside the Austrian Center, student concepts were challenged by peaceful demonstrators: Sikhs demanding more international action to stop "their betrayal in the Punjab," supporters of the Dalai Lama simply awaiting his arrival, as well as the sole efforts of one wife to plead that the world not forget the MIA's-from the Korean conflict!

Once inside, the children were further challenged to differentiate between research and propaganda, fact or fiction. Treated like world dignitaries, they attended private conferences and listened to and questioned leaders from UNICEF, Habitat for Humanity, and other non-governmental organizations. Outside, the charm and excitement of the inner city of Vienna further enriched the students' experience.

Upon returning to the States, the four students were immediately encouraged to summarize their experiences. They decided to forward a letter of concern to President Clinton. The letter contained an urgent appeal that the president review and consider signing the Convention on the Rights of the Child. They became empowered with initiative. They maintained their language studies throughout the year. They shared their experiences with elementary school classes, the local Board of Education, and the audience on a local cable program. Perhaps the most unexpected reward was an invitation from Governor Lowell Weicker for a meeting to detail their achievements and to receive citations for their efforts on behalf of the State of Connecticut and the State Legislature.

Some of the Vienna students used their experience with the UN when they accompanied younger students from the school on a visit to the UN, and helped them to interview staff members involved with the Fiftieth Anniversary celebrations. They then produced an international newsletter on the UN and environmental and peace issues, as well as their own literary work.

A School Tradition
For past UN anniversaries, interdisciplinary efforts among music, home economics, art, history, and language classes have combined to create after-school celebrations attended by hundreds of students with speakers, story tellers, and moving spirituals sung by the school chorus. For the forty-fifth anniversary, the Gideon Welles chorus was invited to sing in the General Assembly building at UN headquarters. The children put on an extraordinary effort and were mesmerized about the prospect of representing their country on international property. Their efforts were rewarded when they were interviewed by CNN news as they presented UN officials with a forty-five foot birthday card that they had designed themselves in more than five languages.

Students have always volunteered their efforts for both local and international causes. In social studies they have further researched the inhumanity of genocide in Cambodia, constructed and written letters of concern, and promulgated these letters to the embassies of the world. More recently they have researched and written letters on issues related to Burma (Myanmar) and the desperate needs of its people and of Nobel prize winner Aung Sun Su Kyi, a project greatly assisted by information provided through the UN and non-governmental organizations affiliated with the UN.

Daniel P. Moynihan teaches at Gideon Welles School, Glastonbury, Connecticut.