Our Voices

‘You are the human rights defenders not only of tomorrow, but today’

  • By
  • Melynda Shamie

There are myriad ways to make a difference in the world, but sometimes all it takes is just a few minutes and a great story.

And that’s what the Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights Speak Truth to Power video competition is all about.

Created in partnership with the American Federation of Teachers and the Tribeca Festival, the contest gives middle school and high school students from across the U.S. an opportunity to focus on a key human rights issue and engage the audience through creative storytelling.

The eight student finalists debuted their entries June 8, during the festival in New York. The videos – three to five minutes long – can include documentaries, narrative and experimental films. The contest is designed so students from all backgrounds can participate, whether or not they have previous filmmaking experience.

New this year was the inaugural Archewell Foundation Award for Gender Equity in Student Film, which recognizes exemplary student filmmakers whose videos profile women human rights defenders.

“Guns Down, Arms Up,” by Tohir Hodjakulov and Naba Sheikh from James Madison High School, Brooklyn, New York, earned the 2023 Grand Prize. The film explores the epidemic of school shootings in the United States and calls for gun reform, especially in educational environments.

Ella Daniel and Sam Record from Rock Canyon High School in Littleton, Colorado, took home the first Archewell Foundation Award for “Emma’s Recovery: A Journey to Congress,” which documents a young woman’s effort to combat eating disorders and fight for better mental health resources by serving as a patient ambassador for three new bills.

“These are students who might not be able to pass legislation themselves. They might not be able to vote yet. But let me tell you: From my perspective, your voice is extremely powerful,” RFK Human Rights President Kerry Kennedy told the young filmmakers. “You were some of the hardest hit by the pandemic – young people who missed extremely important years of middle and high school. And you have exhibited such bravery, talent, and skill in the creation of these films. We are proud to know you. You are the human rights defenders not only of tomorrow, but today.”

The contest’s other finalists include “Sonita Alizadeh” by Anna Long from Le Roy Jr.-Sr. High School, Le Roy, New York, and “Tender Hearts, Strong Spirits,” by Adrian Rosenfield from The Ramaz School, New York, New York, which tied for second place. “Guantanamo Bay,” by Aissata Diallo from James Madison High School, Brooklyn, New York, and “An Unarguable Freedom,” by Paola Perez from Coral Reef Senior High School, Miami, Florida, tied for third place.

This year’s judges were entrepreneur and social impact investor Jessica Sarowitz and Bonnie Abaunza, founder of the Abaunza Group. In previous years, judges have included Alec Baldwin, Kathryn Erbe, Keegan-Michael Key, Matt McCoy, Martin Sheen, Oliver Stone, Scott Wolf, and Alfre Woodard.