By Joanna Moley, Human Rights Correspondent
Here at Adroit, we are passionate about supporting organizations that use the arts to promote change and further the pursuit of global human rights. I was lucky enough to speak with Sofia Roberts, a student at Victoria University of Wellington in New Zealand, who uses art and writing to try to change the world for the better.
Amnesty International is a global organization that uses various peaceful methods to fight injustice, and in particular, wrongful imprisonment. Sofia and her amazing, student-run Amnesty group show us what it means to take matters of human rights violations into our own hands. Through letter-writing, chalk-drawing, and other methods, Sofia and her peers are working to improve the world while embracing their creative sides. In our inaugural HumanWrites feature, Sofia speaks to us about the impact of snail mail, girl power, and the importance of her organization.
Joanna Moley, Human Rights Correspondent: How did you become involved with Amnesty International?
Sofia Roberts, Amnesty International: My mum joined our local Amnesty group when I was very young so I grew up around them. I started out just sitting at fundraising concerts stamping people’s hands, and helping out at collection day. The people in the group were hugely inspiring and really made me passionate about human rights.
JM: Is your AI branch student-run?
SR: It’s 100% student run. Occasionally we ask Amnesty International New Zealand’s head office for resources or permission to do something, but all the meetings are run by and participated in by university students.
JM: Letter writing is an art form. Do you have any advice for writing effective lobbying letters?
SR: Amnesty International has some pre-prepared letters on their website which I would recommend looking at. Essentially, lay out clearly what the problem is and what you think the desired outcome should be. Be firm but polite. Usually I say, “I am very concerned about [problem], [state why you think this is wrong, try using laws to back it up, e.g the Universal Declaration of Human Rights], I urge you to [clearly state desired outcome]. Also, if you’re writing to an authority figure, make sure to check the title you should use (your excellency, sir, etc).
JM: Do you think that the fact that letter writing/snail mail is a dying art form adds to its strength as a tool for lobbying/protest?
SR: I think there is something powerful about letter writing as a medium. Amnesty International mostly uses letter writing for prisoners of conscience (people who have been wrongly imprisoned, usually but not always on religious or political grounds). There’s something powerful about the captors being bombarded with hundreds of letters. It’s such a statement, basically making clear that the world is watching them and they won’t be able to unlawfully cut corners.
JM: Have you or any of your group members ever received responses to your letters?
SR: Not personally, but a lot of released prisoners do thank Amnesty International supporters for their efforts. Probably the most high-profile example being Aung San Suu Kyi*, who said that Amnesty International had “helped [her and fellow prisoners] to keep [their] small wick of self-respect alive.”
JM: Do you write letters to prisoners, government officials/prison administrators, or both?
SR: Basically both. It really depends on what contact details Amnesty chooses to put up on their website. We either write to prisoners letting them know that we know what has happened and that people are working on freeing them, or we write to the government officials calling for their release.
JM: How have your group’s letters and actions helped to enact change and further human rights?
SR: Amnesty International actually has a pretty good record of getting prisoners released via letter writing. One of the ones I remember was Ahmed Zaoui**. My Amnesty group back in Napier was one of the groups that had written to the New Zealand government urging them to release him. Though I was quite young, I remember him being released and thanking Amnesty supporters for their help.
JM: What has been your most rewarding or exciting experience as part of Amnesty International?
SR: Last year an Amnesty group at Wellington East Girls’ organized a chalking event, and they involved Amnesty groups from other high schools and Victoria University. It was part of Freedom Challenge week, which is basically an annual, themed event where young Amnesty groups fundraise and campaign throughout the week. Last year’s theme was women in Egypt, who had mostly been overlooked during the revolution despite incredibly alarming sexual violence statistics. Everyone met at the bottom of one of the main streets in town and we chalked drawings, slogans and statistics all the way up the street. For me it was one of the most rewarding experiences I’ve had with Amnesty because it garnered immediate attention from the public and raised a lot of awareness. It’s nice to see a group of young people not afraid to just roll up their sleeves and educate people.
JM: Do you have any advice for young people who want to get involved with human rights activism?
SR: Amnesty International groups are a great way to start. Being an international organization, there are community groups all over the world, and it’s an amazing way to get educated and make a difference, even if it’s just meeting monthly to do some letter writing at a potluck dinner.
*Aung San Suu Kyi is a Burmese politician who was placed under house arrest by her country’s military leaders for almost 15 years because of her commitment to democratic government. Aung San Suu Kyi received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1991, and has also received numerous other awards for her activism.
**Ahmed Zaoui is a member of the Islamic Salvation Front who suffered imprisonment in both Algeria and New Zealand (where he tried to seek asylum). Zaoui and his party were persecuted by his government, which eventually led to civil war within Algeria. Zaoui was granted citizenship in New Zealand in May of 2014, and his 2005 book of poetry titled Migrant Birds (containing poems inspired by his imprisonment) has received significant critical acclaim.