Empowerment and Rights

If young people are not feeling safe—if we are not making sure racism, sexism, homophobia and other forms of exclusion are addressed—then our efforts to place young people front and centre and develop their leadership capacities will be affected. Freedom is critical, but if safety is not part of that it won’t work.

– Community educator

In its programs and resources, COPA consistently refers to the basic right of young people and all human beings to be safe, strong and free, a concept that encapsulates the notion of empowerment, linking it to human rights.

Note: This slogan was created for the Child Assault Prevention (CAP) Project in 1978 by staff at the Columbus, Ohio sexual assault centre. It remains relevant as an expression of the fundamental human right to live free from all forms of assault. It represents the conceptual basis of the work of COPA and the Safe@School initiative.

Many of us are comfortable with the notion of young people having the right to be "safe" and even "strong", recognizing that these rights are fundamental to the right to live free of abuse. More struggle with the idea of endorsing young people’s right to be "free".

Consequently, while it is somewhat more common and acceptable to talk about ensuring young people’s safety and building their strength, we rarely hear about efforts to guarantee their freedom. In fact, talk of safety typically leads us away from guaranteeing more freedom.

Yet we would argue that these three rights are inalienable—indivisible—and that without freedom, safety and strength are not possible. Unless they have freedom to be part of decisions in their own interest (appropriate to their developmental stage), young people remain more vulnerable to abuse and less likely to fulfil their potential. The right to be free relates to the importance of personal agency, opportunities to reflect, make decisions and take action, to ask questions, to think critically, to follow one’s interests and goals, or if necessary, to protect oneself or others. The right to be free is defined by parameters such as the rights and safety of others, and one’s own safety.

Coming from a silent past, I have really found my voice. And when you find that voice you are free because not only have I kept those ideas to myself but I’ve told other people and if I have an idea or something that I want to accomplish in my community, these people are helping me so it’s freeing for me, giving freedom to my thoughts so they can be accomplished.

– High school student

Character development is only possible when students’ (and all people’s) rights to be safe, strong and free are actively promoted and fully respected.

Character development can neither be done to [students] nor can it be successful without them… Character must be developed through active participation and supported by dialogue, reflection and action.

Finding Common Ground, p. 8.