Our Voices

Human Rights Filmmaking: The 2024 Speak Truth to Power Video Contest

“Give ‘em hell,” was the impassioned rallying cry of Roswell Goransson and Ellison Martin as they accepted the 2024 Grand Prize at this year’s Speak Truth to Power video contest for the film “Don’t Mess With Texas: An Abortion Story.” An exploration of the devastating impact of the overturning of Roe v. Wade, the film features personal interviews with Amanda Zoraski, a woman suing Texas because she was denied timely access to a medically necessary abortion, and Wendy Russell Davis, a former Texas senator. 

The video contest, now in its twelfth year, was created in partnership with the American Federation of Teachers and the Tribeca Festival to encourage students to use film to shine a light on human rights issues, celebrate human rights defenders, and create social change. “These amazing students use film to share their passions, express their views, and learn more about issues close to their hearts, which is truly incredible to witness,” said Karen Robinson, Program Director of Human Rights Education. With over 500 entries this year alone, the contest’s impact on students, teachers, and communities continues to grow. 

At the awards ceremony, the energy in the standing room only screening room was palpable as the students saw their films on the big screen for the first time. “It felt very surreal,” recalled Sofia Petrov, co-director of this year’s collegiate winner “I Would Have.” Bedecked in cowboy boots as an homage to her native Texas, Ellison Martin said that for her, seeing everyone watch her film and be moved by it “was incredible. I loved seeing everyone’s reactions.” 

Donzaleigh Abernathy, the subject of “Born Trembling,” filmed by Honor Carrell from George School, was also in attendance. The youngest daughter of Dr. Ralph Abernathy, Donzaleigh recounted in the film what it was like to be born shortly after the bombing of her parents’ home in Montgomery, Alabama, and to grow up at the epicenter of the Civil Rights movement. This film, which also highlighted Donzaleigh’s inspiring contributions to the arts, education, and social justice, showcases how this contest encourages students to lift up the stories of human rights defenders, providing students a pathway to become human rights defenders themselves. 

Contest co-creator Ben Higgins reflected on the impact of the contest, emphasizing that if you “‘Give a man a fish, you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish, and you feed him for a lifetime.’ The contest in my opinion has always been about teaching our students to become fisherman and fisherwomen for human rights.” Petrov agrees, stating that she is “incredibly passionate about human rights” and this contest helped her to be able to illuminate important human rights issues. 

While compiling the 3-5 minute films often requires long hours of interviewing and editing, the winners all agreed that the end result was more than worth the effort. Interacting with human rights defenders and learning more about human rights issues empowered them to see the role they and others can have in shifting the world “in a direction of peace, of love, of compassion,” said Sam Brusven of the University of Missouri. Goransson, a student at the Ann Richards School for Young Women Leaders in Austin, Texas, echoed that sentiment as she considered what she wanted viewers to take away from the film. She hopes their film will encourage people “not to look away. . . . It is difficult. It is heartbreaking. It is terrifying, but you need to stay focused on [human rights issues] because it is the most important thing you will do on this earth to ensure that yourself and your fellow humans have rights.”

Several of the educators who inspired these students had the opportunity to introduce the student films, including Prescott Seraydarian and Meredith Baldi of George School and Robin Kovat of James Madison High School. These educators not only teach about human rights, but they provide students with instruction about how to research and interview human rights defenders. Kovat, who teaches 120 students a year and assigns all of them to create a video, stated that “we need to help students understand that human rights issues are part of our lives. . . . and hopefully help them do something about it.” One way that educators can do that is through this contest because it engages and empowers students and their communities. Kovat encouraged other educators to “take a chance” and learn how to teach human rights in the classroom. 

Higgins also wants to inspire students who are considering entering the contest to “be courageous, take chances through our safe environment, and reach for the stars.”

 “When we see an injustice collectively, we should do something about it. . . . Use your voice to create change and take action,” encouraged Martin. 

If you or your students are excited to use film to create change, view the contest guidelines and resources and submit your video to the 2025 Speak Truth to Power video contest. 

Questions? Email Benjamin Higgins at Higgins@rfkhumanrights.org or Karen Robinson at Robinson@rfkhumanrights.org.

Winners Include: 

Grand Prize: 

“Don’t Mess With Texas: An Abortion Story” filmed by Ellison Leticia Martin, Qui Li Too-Hurt, and Roswell Goransson from Ann Richards School for Young Women Leaders in Austin, TX

Collegiate Winner: 

“I Would Have” filmed by Sam Brusven, Sofia Petrov, and Eric Kiekeben from the University of Missouri

Second Place: 

NYC Migrant Crisis: Families’ Journey to Hope” filmed by Charles Thomas Lavalle from Packer Collegiate Institute in Brooklyn, NY

“Behind Bars Too Soon” filmed by Ellie Remus and Emery Mooney from George School in Newtown, PA

Third Place: 

The Cheat Code: How Modern Slavery is Disguised as Forced Labor” filmed by Gabrielle Levine, Joseph Goodman, and Olivia Faces from James Madison High School in Brooklyn, NY