Q and A with the EarthRights School Team.

The EarthRights School prepares the next generation of earth rights defenders to use the power of their communities to protect human rights and the environment. The school is over 20 years old, and hundreds of young activists have graduated from the program. Many have started their own organizations and are leaders in their communities.

This year the school looks different. EarthRights is taking extra precautions to ensure the safety of our students during the global pandemic and heightened threats against earth rights defenders. Last year, we pivoted quickly to host school sessions through zoom calls, and this year we plan to see our students in person. With students arriving in late September, we’re gearing up for a year of building people power and community. 

What makes the school so unique? We talked to our colleagues at the Mitharsuu Center for Leadership and Justice to learn how they equip students with the tools, resources, and support they need to advocate for their communities. Macy is an Earth Rights School teacher, and Khin Nanda, an alumnus of the program, leads the Earth Rights School.

The EarthRights School lit up for graduation night in 2018.

Q: How long have you been an EarthRights School teacher?

Khin Nanda: I first joined EarthRights as a student in 2000 and was in the second class of students of EarthRights School. After I graduated from the EarthRights School, I joined as a full-time staff member in May of 2001. I have been with EarthRights for about 20 years.

Macy: Two years. I started at the EarthRights School in September of 2019.

Q: Why are you a teacher with EarthRights? 

Khin Nanda: I do not see myself as a teacher even though most of the students call me “Teacher.” . I see myself as a caretaker, providing mentorship support to the students in both personal and professional life. 

When I came to Thailand for the first time, I went to the refugee camps in 1999. It was an eye-opener. I was so shocked to see people from Myanmar living as refugees in Thailand. Back in Myanmar, I had been working with the government, and my life was mostly school and home growing up, and then the government job, later. I never had an opportunity to interact with different communities. I didn’t understand why people had to stay in camps as refugees. Then I learned about all the fighting that was going on in different parts of Myanmar and the discrimination against ethnic minorities. 

When I talked to the people in the refugee camps, I felt like I wanted to be part of the movement for justice. I realized that something wasn’t going right and that I had to pick a path that geared toward justice. That was the change in me, and it made me think about what I could do to support people defending their rights to land. Then I got a chance to attend the EarthRights School Burma, and that’s how I started out on my new journey.

Macy: The reason I came to Southeast Asia was to connect to my Southeast Asian roots and to broaden my own understandings and strategies of activism beyond an American context in order to engage in and exchange cross-cultural solutions. My place in this movement-making led me to EarthRights School, where the students and I are given the opportunity to build a vision for the future that is full of justice, compassion, and hope; a vision that the students then share with their communities to demand collective change and accountability for their peoples and for their environment. I am a teacher at EarthRights School because I believe deeply in this vision and that it must be shaped by the hands of those most impacted by earth rights abuses. 

Q: What is your favorite thing about being a teacher? 

Khin Nanda: My job is to oversee the whole EarthRights School program, making sure all the activities run smoothly and meet our goals. My favorite thing about working with students is the diverse background experiences that students bring with them as they work into our school. There are so many things to learn. We call ourselves teachers, but they are also our teachers. I felt I had been given so many opportunities in life to meet all these smart students who are facing many challenges in life. Many students had difficult lives and uncertain futures. But while we are together, we create a safe space and caring and trusting relationships, and that is where I find the most meaning in my life.

Macy: I am deeply inspired and driven by the lessons that my students have taught me about revolutionizing, people-power, and being in relationship with the Earth. Despite coming from different cultures and life experiences, I love that we can all come together to share our knowledge, learn from each other, and see our place as stewards of the Earth. 

Q: What do you want supporters to know about EarthRights School and the work that you do as a teacher?

Khin Nanda: The knowledge and skills that EarthRights School provides is fundamental and essential for all individual students who join the program, it is a long struggle. And so, we also need long-term commitment and support. The violation of earth rights has been going on since before we were born. And the fight is going to be a long one, so we need long-term support, as we won’t be able to achieve our goals overnight. Our students need a lot of knowledge and skills to be able to adapt and fit themselves into situations and to care about themselves as much as others. If you don’t care about yourself, caring for others won’t be sustainable. 

Macy: Some of these students have never had the chance to travel, exchange ideas with people from different cultural backgrounds, and/or access regional and global resources and networks for their local movements. Your support is invaluable to shaping this transformative opportunity for students to grow as activists and community leaders to stand up for the rights of their communities and environment. 

Q: What is unique about this year’s EarthRights School session? 

Khin Nanda: EarthRights School is the in-person residential program that develops trust and strong relationships, which is the important foundation of the growing network. Due to the global pandemic, there are many difficulties to bring the students to Thailand, but we are trying to adapt to the new normal situation to have an-in-person school for 2021. 

Macy: This year’s program will only be five-and-half months long, shorter than in past years. This year we confronted many unprecedented challenges in starting the program, including COVID-19 and unstable political contexts; yet, we are still making it come to life despite these challenges.

Q: Favorite memory at EarthRights School? 

Khin Nanda: There are so many best memories at the EarthRights School as I have been a student and a teacher in my 20 year journey with EarthRights. The EarthRights School made me change my mindset, thinking from individualism to collective through the shared value that we develop among students and colleagues. Network, support, sharing experiences, and listening is very important because you don’t just listen, but listen to understand. It has to come with willingness from yourself. Individuals cannot change society alone, so you have to learn from other people and work together. You put yourself in their shoes. And do it as teamwork. This is not about self-promotion but about understanding the people we work with.

Macy: Every year, EarthRights School students will visit the community in Kaeng Sua Ten– a remarkable community that has been successfully coordinating an anti-dam campaign for more than 30 years, blocking construction of a hydropower dam on their lands. One of my favorite memories was on this field trip, during the Kaeng Sua Ten campaign’s 30th year anniversary. One afternoon, we went to the Yom river, and it felt like a magical afternoon full of joy and celebration in which we honored the river, our relationship to it, and our relationship with each other. Swimming in the river, dancing around the campfire, and squatting next to my students relishing in the taste of freshly grilled fish, I felt so deeply connected to the Earth, the rich community around me, and my place in it all. 

Q: What is the biggest challenge at the EarthRights School?

Khin Nanda: Due to the global pandemic, there are a lot of travel restrictions within the country and international travel. There are so many requirements on travel policy and details in every step that we move forward. With shortening the program from seven-and-a-half months to five-and-a-half months, it is quite hard to have a selection of classes with the current curriculum framework. Ensuring the personal safety and security of students who come from politically high-risk countries is also a challenge. 

Macy: How fast-paced it is! Students are constantly in class, traveling on field trips, working on assignments, and before you know it, it’s graduation time! It’s super exciting, but sometimes it’s hard to find time to catch your breath. With this year being the shortest program year we’ve had, this may prove to be an even bigger challenge than usual. 

Q: Is there anything else you want to add or want to share with our supporters?

Khin Nanda: I believe that knowledge is power. I want to see more local people educated on earth rights issues; my long-term vision is to see “mini EarthRights Schools” that are run by our alumni–the students bring back the model of EarthRights School into their communities to run themselves. This would enable people to be in a leading role, exemplifying community leadership for earth rights in the future. Thank you so much.

Macy: Thank you!!! You make this work possible! 

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