“I love that The World As It Could Be Human Rights Education Program inspires people to take action, that leads to equality, justice, and dignity for all, building a better world. It really has a huge impact!”

—Greg Wientjes, PhD, Founder of SUpost, Stanford BS, MS EE, PhD

With the depth and breadth of positive impacts from the last fifteen years of work, the Program endeavors to widely distribute its high school curriculum that integrates the creative arts and a culminating celebratory presentation, and, consistent with the Common Core curriculum standards, promotes in-depth learning and critical thinking skills. With The World As It Could Be Is Within Reach, a rite of passage for youth in the Eden area of Alameda County, California, we endeavor to offer a model of positive initiation of youth that can be replicated in many communities. TWAICB also seeks to utilize its growing library of videos of student presentations and commentary about the UDHR to raise awareness and spur dialogue about the continuing relevance of the UDHR as part of enhancing the social emotional learning of youth, promoting positive community and civic engagement, and creating a culture of thinking and acting that fosters equality, justice and human dignity for all people.

As part of carrying out its initiatives, the Program seeks to contribute multiple levels of benefits beyond providing quality educational experiences and raising awareness about the UDHR by:

  • Encouraging people to know that their community involvements are vital to democracy;
  • Showcasing the importance and value of the creative arts as part of a quality education, as well as contributing to overall personal development and a vibrant culture;
  • Engaging youth, particularly those impacted by challenging socio-economic issues, such as widespread violence and injustices in their immediate communities, to pursue learning, critical thinking and positive social interactions;
  • Encouraging youth who are often marginalized due to learning or physical differences to enjoy participation in school-wide events;
  • Integrating human rights principles as part of public safety practices;
  • Engaging the broader community to support and celebrate accomplishments of youth.

Program information

The World As It Could Be, Human Rights Education Program - Overview by The World As It Could Be Human Rights Education Program

History of The World As It Could Be Human Rights Education Program

TWAICB grew out of a series of initiatives begun in 2006 at the Rex Foundation, the charitable non-profit organization founded by the Grateful Dead, a California Bay Area Rock and Roll Band that began in the late 1960’s. The Rex Foundation has provided grants to grass roots non-profits since 1984, supporting a wide range of efforts, including those for a healthy environment, the arts, education, protecting indigenous cultures, and strengthening communities.  In February 2006, the Foundation published the newsletter Perspectives on Being Human, to raise awareness about the human rights framework as a way of explaining the relationships among the issues supported by its grants.  The newsletter included the text of the UDHR.  With one of Rex’s goals being to serve as a catalyst for positive social change, and seeing the UDHR and the overall human rights framework as supportive of this goal, Sandy Sohcot, the Executive Director, decided to explore strategies to bring the newsletter to life in a way that would creatively involve youth, and provide a vehicle to connect with community leaders.

In April 2006, the director of the San Francisco Mime Troupe Youth Theater Project, a Rex grantee, was asked if their youth drama program could be involved in dramatizing the messages of the newsletter.  The response was positive, and with a suggestion to include other arts-based youth programs, meetings began.  The result was that the Rex Foundation commissioned the creation of an original production created by the high school youth participants of three arts-based non-profits, guided by a creative director, along with the leaders of each organization.  These organizations, one using drama, the other dance, and the third spoken word, use their art forms to help their youth constituents address social justice issues.

In an early planning meeting, one of the youth leaders, upon reading the UDHR in the Newsletter, stated, “I never heard of this document, yet it basically spells out the world as it could be!”  This led to the title of the production: The World As It Could Be – A Declaration of Human Rights.

On December 7, 2006, the production was performed for non-profit and community leaders.  On December 8th, the performance took place at Balboa High School in San Francisco, with a full auditorium of 1,200 students plus faculty and administrators.  The following experiences and observations led to development of The World As It Could Be curricula:

  • None of the adults or participating students had heard of the UDHR, even though it is supposed to be taught in 11th grade history, and can be taught in each high school year;
  • The youth, in particular, were markedly inspired by the idea that this document existed, and stated variations of, “This is something I can fight for!”
  • The creative arts exercises presented to the youth as part of helping them develop their presentation, were essential to helping them grasp and embody UDHR concepts, and then express their ideas about the significance of the UDHR via dance, song, spoken word and dramatization;
  • The student audience at Balboa High School was totally engaged in watching their peers perform and teach them about human rights;
  • The participating youth felt they gained a transformative sense of growth and empowerment by being the teachers, as they imparted to their peers and the adult audience the importance of the UDHR.

The resounding positive response among all participants led to the development of the TWAICB curriculum, further compelled by: 1) The excitement of the educators involved in the process to bring attention to the UDHR, as well as to have innovative ways to teach material that is otherwise considered dry; 2) The fact that funding for the arts in public schools was being cut or eliminated, and wanting to demonstrate the vital role the arts can play in effectively teaching academic subjects; 3) Knowing that youth benefit from having an opportunity to present what they learn to their community of peers and adults, and then be celebrated for their accomplishments.

A team of educators, including those involved in the production itself, as well as Andrea McEvoy Spero, a Ph.D. student at the University of San Francisco’s School of Education’s newly initiated Human Rights Education degree program, came together to develop curriculum specifically to teach about the UDHR. The curriculum included creative arts as part of each lesson plan, and a culminating, rite-of-passage component, geared to high school social studies and language arts classes that could include the UDHR as content.  Two Bay Area high schools agreed to help pilot the curriculum.  In 2010, after the successes of the two-year pilot, the curriculum was published. The first 3-day Institute, organized in collaboration with the University of San Francisco School of Education, provided training to educators and non-profit leaders on implementing the curriculum.

In January 2014, TWAICB became a program of the Alameda County Deputy Sheriff’s Activities League (DSAL), continuing to be directed by Sandy Sohcot.  This move took place to act on the opportunity to create an after school Rite of Passage program for the youth of the REACH Ashland Youth Center, as well as to provide a pathway to bring attention to the human rights framework among the public safety officials of the Alameda County Sheriff’s Department. The World As It Could Be Is Within Reach Rite of Passage program was introduced in 2014.

TWAICB maintains close relationships with the Bay Area high schools involved in the curriculum pilot, and has presented annual 3-day Institutes on the curriculum through 2019.  The World As It Could Be Is Within Reach Rite of Passage program curriculum has been implemented since the initiation of its first class in the 2014/15 school year, taken on by Arroyo High School in 2017.

About the UDHR and Human Rights Education

  • Definition of Human Rights

Human rights are held by all persons equally, universally, and forever. Human rights are the basic standards without which people cannot live in dignity. These rights are inalienable. This means you cannot lose these rights just as you cannot cease to be a human being. Human rights are indivisible. In other words, no right is more important than another. Human rights are interdependent. Each right is connected with other rights.

The UDHR is both inspirational and practical. Human rights principles hold the vision of a free, just, and peaceful world. On a practical level, the UDHR sets minimum standards of how individuals and institutions everywhere should treat people. To promote human rights is to demand that the human dignity of all people is respected. By accepting universal human rights, ones also accept duties to the community to defend human dignity.

Human rights should not be understood as only issues that occur in far-away places. Human rights are present in our everyday lives and in our local community.

  • Historical Context of the UDHR

The UDHR grew from a global commitment to prevent future atrocities experienced during World War II. The concept of defending human dignity based on a sense of shared community has its roots in many cultural and religious traditions. Sacred texts such as the Koran and the bible, as well as civic documents, such as the Magna Carta (1215) and the US Constitution and Bill of Rights (1791) provide a foundation for human rights.

At the end of World War II, nations came together to create the United Nations with a charter to promote international peace and prevent conflict. Calls from across the globe voiced their demand for mechanisms beyond international conflict resolution. Strong support for an international framework to protect citizens from abuses by their government and to hold nations accountable for the treatment of those living in their borders culminated in the drafting of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Drafting and Adoption of the UDHR

  • Human Rights Commission

Eleanor Roosevelt with UDHRA Human Rights Commission was created with members including human rights experts from around the world. In 1945 over 5,000 participants attended the conference in San Francisco (1945) to address the role of individual rights within the United Nations. The Commission elected Eleanor Roosevelt as their chairperson because of her political stature and personal commitment to social justice. Under the leadership of the “First Lady of the World” the document survived various iterations, attacks and political pressure stemming from the emerging Cold War.

On December 10, 1948, The Universal Declaration of Human Rights was adopted by forty-eight of the fifty-six members of the United Nations, with eight abstentions.  The abstaining members were Byelorussia, Czechoslovakia, Poland, Ukraine, The USSR, Yugoslavia, South Africa and Saudi Arabia. The language of the document was designed to not simply suggest or recommend, but to proclaim a universal vision. By creating it as a universal declaration, not a treaty, it was intended not to be legally binding, but morally binding. Over the last 72 years, the influence of the document has been substantial. Its principles have been incorporated by most of the more than 185 nations in the UN. The UDHR has become an international standard for all people and nations.

  • Clarification of differences between Declaration and Convention/Covenant/Treaty

Convention, covenant and treaty are synonymous and refer to a legally binding agreement between governments that have signed them. In the United States a treaty may be signed by the President, but must be ratified by the US Senate. A Declaration is a document stating agreed upon standards, but it is not legally binding.  While the UDHR is a Declaration, it has led to the ratification of a number of treaties, and, in and of itself, is now considered Customary Law, again, as noted above, as the international standard for all people and nations.

Relevance of the UDHR to Current Civic Dialogue and Engagement

  • Since 1948 the document has served to articulate a promise of all countries to create a world described by its words
  • While the document calls for widespread education to make its message known, only 8% of the U.S. population are aware of its existence
  • The document provides a framework to see current endeavors, whether civil rights, women’s rights, or workplace safety, inclusion and opportunity, share a common goal of achieving fairness, equality and dignity for all.
  • Requires individual and local action to realize its words.

Definition of Human Rights Education

  • In proclaiming the United Nations Decade for Human Rights Education in December 1994, the General Assembly defined human rights education as “a life-long process by which people at all levels of development and in all strata of society learn respect for the dignity of others and the means and methods of ensuring that respect in all societies.” The Assembly emphasized that the responsibility for human rights education rested with all elements of society–government, nongovernmental organizations, professional associations, and all other sectors of civil society, as well as individuals.
  • Human rights education and training encompasses:
    • Education about human rights, which includes providing knowledge and understanding of human rights norms and principles, the values that underpin them and the mechanisms for their protection;
    • Education through human rights, which includes learning and teaching in a way that respects the rights of both educators and learners;
    • Education for human rights, which includes empowering persons to enjoy and exercise their rights and to respect and uphold the rights of others.
  • On December 11, 2011, the UN General Assembly adopted the Declaration of Human Rights Education and Training that spells out the importance of Human Rights Education at every level of community, from schools to public agencies, based on the principles of the UDHR.

As Eleanor Roosevelt said, “Where, after all, do universal rights begin? In small places, close to home…Such are the places where every man, woman, and child seeks equal justice, equal opportunity, equal dignity without discrimination. Unless these rights have meaning there, they have little meaning anywhere.”


Prepared by Sandy Sohcot, Director of The World As It Could Be Human Rights Education Program © with content credit to Andrea McEvoy Spero as of September 2020.

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.