BYU’S Amnesty International receives prestigious award

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Lauren Nielsen-Hilton first heard about Amnesty International from her brother, who attended BYU’s chapter before the club disappeared in 2008. Based on his experiences, she decided to open a chapter of her own at her high school in California.

When she came to BYU in fall 2009, Nielsen-Hilton looked everywhere in vain for BYU’s chapter of the club dedicated to human rights advocacy.

Meanwhile, Craig Mangum returned May 2010 from his mission to war- and poverty-stricken Bolivia eager to help people in the conditions he became so familiar with there.

Much of this drive, Mangum said, was born from his faith.

“Human rights advocacy is an extension of my belief that we are all children of God,” Mangum said. “If we truly believed that and acted on that, everyone’s human rights would be maintained.”

Mangum surveyed many organizations before he chose to team with Amnesty International which, at the time, did not have a BYU chapter.

By the time homecoming came around, Amnesty was ready to launch.

Nielson-Hilton stood watching the homecoming parade with crowds of others when she noticed a single, lonely poster advertising BYU’s Amnesty International. Without hesitating, Nielsen-Hilton rushed into the parade to ask its holder, Justin Mann, what he knew about it. That semester, Amnesty International was reborn.

On the official website, the organization’s goal is “for every person to enjoy all the rights enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and other international human rights standards.”

Amnesty International works independently from any government or religion.

A year has passed since the club’s return to BYU. It only gained official status last week, however, when the David M. Kennedy Center for International Studies absorbed the club into its program.

Mangum attributed the lag due to the difficulty of finding a full-time professor willing to become the adviser for the club.

Autonomously, however, the club has been at work ever since its inception in raising awareness of human suffering in the Provo community. These efforts, coupled by their struggle, won the group the prestigious award as Amnesty International’s New Student Club of the Year just two weeks ago.

“That includes places like Berkeley where human rights causes are a major focus among students,” Mangum said. “It was extremely humbling to be recognized so nationally.”

Colleen McDermott is a newer member to the group, studying anthropology. She also attended the conference in California and said the award came as a surprise for the fledgling group.

“As they introduced the award we all kind of looked at each other and thought, ‘Hey, that sounds like us.’ Then they announced ‘BYU’ and we thought — ‘Oh, it is us!” McDermott said. “It took a minute for us to react — we were in such a state of shock.”

McDermott said they weren’t the only ones surprised by the attention.

“When people asked where we were from and we told them BYU they were always stunned,” McDermott said. “We’re just not known for social campaigning.”

Among the efforts of Mangum, Nielsen-Hilton and others was the collection of signatures at a U2 concert last summer on behalf of the Demand Dignity campaign.

“About 25 to 30 people helped out and we gathered more signatures than any other group,” Mangum said.

For this, Bono invited them to join him onstage during the concert as part of a song dedicated to social rights.

Plans for the future include letter-writing to government officials both nationally and internationally.

“It’s something International Amnesty is really into, letter-writing, because it puts pressure on government officials to resolve issues within their countries knowing that people are watching,” Nielsen-Hilton said.

The group, which meets Wednesdays at 7:30 p.m. in the Kennedy Center’s lecture hall, plans on hosting a film this semester raising awareness of maternal mortality and is currently forming a group of students to collaborate with Salt Lake’s immigrant rights campaign group called the Dream Team.

“Our goal is to host several campaigns a semester that will help give BYU students a voice in issues like the abolition of the death penalty,” Nielsen-Hilton said.

Mangum said he feels the work they are doing is naturally built upon BYU’s slogan.

“If the world is our campus,” he said, “we cannot be ignorant to the problems facing the world.”

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