The Payson chapter of Amnesty International is just beginning its fourth year of operation, but it has put more than a few feathers in its cap over its short life.
It was awarded the 2011 Sister Laola Hironaka Award. The award is presented annually to one Amnesty International USA local group that has demonstrated innovation, courage and effective campaigning strategy. The award serves to honor and recognize the most outstanding chapter in the country.
More recently, it was selected as the representative rural group in the western region to be visited by Steven Hawkins, the new executive director of Amnesty International USA.
“This is another incredible honor for our little chapter, an a great start to our busiest time — December is Human Rights Awareness Month and (the) Global Write-a-Thon (takes place in December as well),” said Penny Navis-Schmidt, who is one of the group’s founders.
At the invitation-only potluck, held at the chapter’s new meeting space, the Payson United Methodist Church, 414 N. Easy St., Hawkins told the group, “You’re amazing! I love to see small groups form and learn about their outreach, how they’re organized and how they leverage their assets.”
He said the group in Payson reminds him of a Massachusetts group that is out there making itself known in the community by doing such things as marching in the 4th of July parade. The Payson chapter is a regular participant in the big rodeo parade in August and this year hosted a potluck picnic for the community and representatives from other Amnesty chapters from around Arizona.
Hawkins told the group he believes Amnesty is at a crossroads, so he has two primary goals for Amnesty USA as its executive director:
• Chart a course for six long-term projects and incorporate a greater outreach, with a special focus on developing strong youth participation using the tools of technology.
• Build a social media platform to make Amnesty the go-to source for human rights.
Amnesty International, as well as Amnesty USA and the local chapters, continue efforts on behalf of prisoners of conscious, women’s and workers’ rights, and extending and expanding efforts in regard to the abuse of migrants. Efforts also continue against the abuse of human rights, especially of use of drones and acts of war.
“We want to get the U.S. and its citizens to be less insular and realize their rights are human rights,” Hawkins said.
Hawkins said he believes collaboration strengthens (the efforts) of all and the more (Amnesty) connects with people locally and gets them thinking and connected with others they will realize every issue is global.
“Trying to organize the poor women working in factories in Bangladesh is the same as trying to organize the poor women working on catfish farms in Mississippi,” he said.
The Amnesty organization believes human rights are universal and indivisible, said Navis-Schmidt, and that belief is what drew her to the group. Other Payson chapter members said they were drawn in because they were against the Vietnam War, against the death penalty or concerned about migrant rights.
Hawkins grew up in Ossining, N.Y. According to his biography, a visit to Sing Sing prison as a high school student opened his eyes and inspired his lifelong commitment to social justice advocacy. He has a law degree from New York University School of Law; worked with the NAACP, including serving as its executive vice president and chief program officer; and served as executive director of the National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty. He became the executive director of Amnesty International USA in August.