Our Voices

How The Piney Woods School Honors Local Human Rights Defenders

“They damaged my leg. I said they damaged my leg. But I still walked in my purpose.”

As she raised her voice to emphasize her point, Takira Adams, a freshman at The Piney Woods School, fully and powerfully embodied the spirit of human rights defender Fannie Lou Hamer, a leader in the Civil Rights Movement and co-founder of the National Women’s Political Caucus.

Each of the 11 human rights defender monologues performed in the Piney Woods auditorium on this March afternoon was researched and written by students. Through that process, overseen by Dean Monica Crossley, students honed their research, storytelling, and oratory skills as they strove to do more than simply tell a powerful story — they sought to honor the defenders through the stories and use them to inspire others. The result was a moving performance featuring monologues interspersed with singing by the school’s Cotton Blossom Singers and dancing, all showcasing the school’s diverse student body.

For these Piney Woods students, an African American boarding school in rural Mississippi whose school motto is “Head, heart, hands,” the stories of human rights defenders became a pathway to bring history to life and connect the mind with stories of heartfelt service as a model for empowered action. One of the hallmarks of this performance was the focus on local human rights defenders, including Mississippi Civil Rights leaders Medgar Evers and Fannie Lou Hamer, and the school’s founder, Laurence Clifton Jones, who famously convinced a lynch mob not to hang him and to donate to the school instead.

Karen Robinson, Program Director of the Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights Human Rights Education Speak Truth to Power program, noted how much the students grew over the course of six weeks working on the monologues. “They started out shy. Hesitant. But now they are powerfully and fully using their voices.” Indeed, the energy and presence of the students was incredible and led to a standing ovation at the end of the performance, as well as a promise of a $25,000 gift to the school from the Fund II Foundation.

What stood out even more than the students’ confidence and talent, however, was an overwhelming and palpable sense of love and pride that permeated the school. Love, in fact, is one of the core values of Piney Woods, and the school sees it as its “primary job” to “create a campus culture in which all people feel that they have a voice, value, and visibility” and a “clear understanding” of the ways love “binds us all together.” Nurturing these students through monologue writing and performance was a way to help them find their voices and make more human rights stories visible so these students can follow in those footsteps, and become human rights defenders themselves.

At the end of the performance, President Will Crossley led students in the mantra they repeat each day, culminating with a rousing shout of “You are” to which students responded, “Empowered.”

These students are empowered, and they empowered the people who watched their performance that day and are now learning from their example.

To learn more about how to guide your students to research, write, and perform human rights defender monologues, visit our Voices From Beyond the Dark page, which includes a video sample and a how-to manual. Please share videos of your performances with us (or invite us to Zoom in!). If you have questions or if your students write monologues for local human rights defenders, please share them with us here: [email protected].