Disrupting rights to deliver real change


HUMAN rights practice changes when communities take the lead – that is the core message of a valuable new resource compiled by SCI Fellow Nicola Browne.

A wide international audience attended an online event co-hosted by SCI and the Ariadne Network to launch 'Disrupting Rights: Putting People at the Centre of Change'.

The new report is inspired by Nicola’s experience of working alongside grassroots communities and was produced during her participation in the SCI Fellowship Programme. 'Disrupting Rights' is the first resource produced on her new platform Change From The Ground Up.

Nicola is a human rights activist with almost 20 years of professional experience in academia, civil society and non-governmental organisations.

This includes her work in ‘Act Now’, a new people powered campaigning community for Northern Ireland. She was also a founder staff member of the ground-breaking Participation and the Practice of Rights (PPR) organisation in Belfast, including seven years as the Director (Policy). PPR supports communities impacted by poverty, poor housing and mental health services to campaign for change they want to see.

Nicola told the launch event: “As I read and researched for Disrupting Rights, I noticed how many times Eleanor Roosevelt’s famous quote was used as a conclusion to a speech, but much less frequently did we focus on what that looks like, or how organisations can do that.

“The SCI Fellowship gave me an opportunity to reflect on my work with PPR, to step back and place it into context and then try and put that learning down on paper.

“The future of human rights and building effective strategies around rights - is a huge topic and I don’t have all the answers - but hope this can be the start of a conversation about how we can expand the tools we have at our disposal to make change in the world and show the true potential of human rights.

“The story we learn and tell ourselves about human rights focuses on laws, treaties and international mechanisms, with the key protagonists as white western men.

“An alternative view, is that people on the ground, and communities involved in struggle are the true authors of human rights. People in social movements, in tight spaces, make claims of right which then become codified in treaties and laws.

“Placing communities at the heart of change in a meaningful way can be disruptive, because participation is about power and it requires a shift in power - and a shift in how human rights work traditionally happens."

Illustrations by Jayde Perkin

The launch event also heard important contributions from three guest speakers.

Clare MacGillivray is Interim Director of Making Rights Real, a newly established grassroots human rights organisation in Scotland. She spoke about effective work by local communities to secure tangible improvements in housing rights.

Samuel Olando is Executive Director at the Pamoja Trust. He detailed the work of the Kenyan non-profit organisation. It seeks to promote access to land, shelter and basic services for the urban poor, using action research as a key tool in its work.

Margaret Satterthwaite, Professor of Clinical Law and Director of the Global Justice Clinic at New York University, discussed the impact of human rights work on advocates. She is co-author of 'From A Culture of Unwellness to Sustainable Advocacy'.

The Disrupting Rights document includes 13 key lessons.

Three themes among those highlighted at the launch were:

  • How we reconsider our ‘advocacy’ when we are placing communities at the centre
  • How we hold up grassroots knowledge for the value it has
  • To consider our organisational structures and practices so we are not calling on others to adopt standards we are not living ourselves.

On ‘Organising For Change’ the primer recommends:

  • Starting Where People Are At - Our first conversation with a group is not about rights, but about them.
  • Providing Time and Care - In doing organising work, a longer period of time is required to organise a group than is often appreciated at the outset, both by organisations and by funders.
  • Navigating Tension and Resistance - Campaigning often involves invoking tension and it is in this discomfort where change happens.
  • Challenging the Narrative - The penny drops when people see that the source of their problems lies not within themselves but within a system which disregards their rights and needs.
  • Through this work we are ensuring that even When We Lose, We Win - Grassroots rights work instils the knowledge of challenge in communities and builds muscle memory of what it is to challenge effectively.

Read in full here: Disrupting Rights - Putting people at the centre of change.pdf

  • Since this article was published, Nicola has also launched 'Keeping the Peace: Conversations with Grassroots Activists'. Find it here.