Spread out around several tables in the dining room, Berkshire Hills Music Academy students are in their weekly Self-Advocacy Group session. They begin by sharing how they have advocated for themselves in the past week. Naturally, the answers vary—from choosing to spend time with friends, to telling someone when they did not feel well. The underlying theme is that they are discussing the topic of human rights in an accessible and relatable way. Self-Advocacy Group is “a collective of students and staff who meet weekly to discuss student-chosen topics pertaining to human rights,” says Residential Advisor Jennie Ochterski, the staff facilitator. Despite the staff presence, much of the meeting is student-run, and students learn self-advocacy skills through role-play, group discussion, and an interactive web platform called Nearpod. It is through the Nearpod interface that students can opt for the topics they would like to focus on next; recent subjects of interest include politics and Donald Trump, as well as Valentine's Day and love. Another conversation centered on the idea of advocating without speaking, and was seamlessly connected to BHMA’s musical purpose by student Emily’s response, “music is a great way to communicate.” Self-Advocacy Group operates as an extension of BHMA’s Human Rights Committee (HRC). The HRC, an initiative started a few years after BHMA opened in 2001, ensures students’ human rights are considered and respected. It also serves to uphold the regulations set by the Department of Developmental Services (DDS). DDS’ Office for Human Rights aims to engage individuals “to the maximum extent feasible in directing their own lives.” It is not just about avoiding mistreatment, but leading “vital and satisfying lives.” Entities like the HRC and Self-Advocacy Group work in tandem to educate and promote the human rights of BHMA students, and to allow them to have a fulfilling life. The HRC acts as a reviewing body, as it approves meeting minutes generated at the weekly Self-Advocacy Group session, and has student representatives share in greater detail what happens at each student meeting.
Involvement in Self-Advocacy Group works to build students’ awareness about the human rights that they are entitled to, as well as the broader conversation that exists around the topic. The quest for a life with dignity is an idea that is discussed in Self-Advocacy Group. Students share their knowledge on topics such as workers’ rights, fair wages, and privacy. They talk about their families, and what they have observed about people in general. Students continually relate the conversation back to the topic of their own rights as well, as demonstrated by Joey stating, “people with disabilities have their own lives too and they need money to make their dreams come true.” Efforts like Self-Advocacy Group help students to connect human rights to their daily lives. They are able to “advocate for themselves with staff, peers, and community members,” says Ochterski, and thus they reaffirm their human rights each time. The results are clear, as students have successfully changed some of the rules here at BHMA. The tangible effects are telling, but what is more significant is students’ ability to develop their individual advocacy, and agency.