In the thick of controversy over Brexit and the next general election, students in Bethany Barratt’s Urban Human Rights class traveled across the pond in a one-of-a-kind research opportunity.
The 10 Roosevelt University students visited “the mother of all democracies” over Thanksgiving break to study how populism arises and how it can be addressed. They learned directly from local leaders, human rights experts, and community members as Brexit debate ground into a stalemate and U.K. voters headed to the polls.
“It’s been a sheer privilege to be associated with a group that’s included second-year students, folks about to graduate, and those at every point in between,” said Barratt. Just three days after the course’s final presentation, one of her students, Haneen Hadid, became the first Palestinian woman in her family to graduate from college.
Before their London trip, Barratt’s students spent the semester in the Chicago communities most affected by U.S. populism. On the Southeast Side, students spoke with organizers about the post-industrial neighborhood, once home to the highest concentration of steel mills in the world. In Little Village, the class talked with community leaders about ICE enforcement and changing demographics.
In the weeklong run-up to the general election, students joined the campaign as canvassers with the Labour Party of Tooting. The class visited the Europe House and toured the Palace of Westminster and the House of Lords Library, gaining behind-the-scenes access while Parliament was out of session. Students also visited the East London Mosque, the largest Muslim place of worship in England.
Most pro-Brexit votes came from rural areas outside of London. Students left the capital for Nottingham, a post-industrial town in the East Midlands, to better understand the pressures and motivations on those who voted to leave the European Union.
The political science class earned rave reviews from the experts who met with them. One guest speaker wrote to Barratt that “I learned so much and thoroughly enjoyed meeting your students. They were very tuned in and very focused, especially given the jet lag and being thrust into a foreign environment. They did extremely well.”
The Urban Human Rights class is offered each fall as part of the Joseph Loundy Human Rights Project, a comparative research initiative. “The Loundy project is really unique in the country because of the opportunities it provides for students to engage in cross-national human rights research,” said Barratt. In past years, the class studied drug policy in Amsterdam, environmental policy in Vancouver, and police accountability in London. For about a quarter of students, it is their first time leaving the country. About a third of program alumni go on to graduate school or law school.
Students concluded the course by presenting projects to an expert panel and an audience of 50 students and faculty. The budding human rights researchers talked about post-truth, anti-immigrant attacks, hate crimes and comparisons of the two countries’ electoral systems.
Students grappled with big questions — What now? — and discussed the importance of open dialogue with people from different backgrounds. One quoted Imam Mohammed Mahmoud, of the East London Mosque: The only way forward is to “fight hate with love.”