When you are knowledgeable, people pay attention

Naomi Barasa is the Campaign Coordinator for Amnesty International, Kenya.

How did you become campaign coordinator for Amnesty International?

I was 18 when I joined the mainstream human rights field. I encountered a group of women on hunger strike, agitating for the release of political prisoners; that incident opened my eyes to the connection between poverty, equality, politics and human rights.

But even before this, my interest and involvement in human rights had been sparked by the environment in which I was raised. Growing up in Korogocho meant that I witnessed human rights violations and injustices on a daily basis.

Through my work with different organisations, I got deeper into the field, and later, when there was an advert for the position of a campaign coordinator at Amnesty International, Nairobi office, I applied and got the job.

What skills does one need to succeed at a job like yours?

The most important factor is passion for the human rights cause. One also needs to read widely and have an in-depth, solid and broad understanding of the frameworks within which human rights issues operate, as well as skills in strategic campaigning. Media engagement and mobilisation, relations and alliance building among others are also important skills.

This is a gradual journey, and there are various appropriate degree and short courses that one can pursue to prepare them for this job. Amnesty International for example has many short courses on human rights for activists.

Is this an area that is open to young people?

The nature of human rights work evokes emotional and intellectual energy; risk-taking and influencing means that young people fit much better in this field. So yes, this is an area that is totally open to young people. Additionally, Amnesty has set up human rights clubs in secondary schools across the country and are actively involved in training the school fraternity in matters related to human rights as well. In universities across the country, we work closely with debates clubs.

We also accept requests from those who want to volunteer. We offer internships too. Amnesty also works with Youth Human Rights Networks. We just concluded a process of developing a Youth Strategy that will seek to mainstream young people at all levels in Amnesty.

What qualities do you think shaped you to the person that you are today?

I am naturally inquisitive and I get easily moved by other people’s suffering. I also very easily take risks that promise positive change, but the biggest of all is that my dad introduced me to books at a very young age, and this started to shape my ideas and world view on human rights and social justice.

I benefitted a lot from mentorship when I was starting out as a human rights defender: mentorship is critical in nurturing activists.

What needs to happen to improve the provision of basic needs such as water and sanitation in informal settlements?

People need to get outraged enough – Many of us pay taxes that should provide essential services to the masses. It is only rage that will drive action. We need to hold our leaders to account.

The other thing is developing a reading culture. Young people do not read, they instead listen to rumours. A person who does not read is an empty vessel that is vulnerable to manipulation. We need to understand our history; that is the only way to build a desired future. We tend to spend more time agonising instead of organising, and this means that we cannot speak collectively.

How do you think the youth can contribute to the quest towards social justice?

Though reading, understanding issues within the society and then knowledgeably speaking out. When you are knowledgeable and you speak out, people pay attention to you, that way, you begin to meaningfully contribute to change.

What has been the constant challenge in your 25 years of campaign work?

The culture of individualism whereby everyone wants to deal with an issue on their own instead of coming together as a bloc; power is greater when you negotiate as a bloc. Commercialisation of struggles has also remained a challenge.

What has been the greatest lesson that you have learnt in the course of your work?

There is never too high a mountain when you are well coordinated and your campaign is strategic. The other lesson has been that, while change is inevitable, real change will be brought about by involvement of the people who experience the problem

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