NORTH EASTHAM - For nearly two decades, Nauset Regional High School teacher Lisa Brown has made annual visits to Haiti’s capital city, Port-au-Prince, with members of the school’s Human Rights Academy. Once there, the group boards a ferry and travels roughly 10 miles to the island of La Gonave, where they are greeted by locals with access to transportation. Depending on the size of Nauset’s traveling party, they load into a truck or hop on the back of motorcycles for an extended drive through the island’s mountains, continuing their journey until they reach the sparsely populated village of Matenwa, their final destination.
“I’ve been taking kids to Haiti for almost 20 years,” says Brown, the faculty advisor for the Human Rights Academy. “We go two hours way up into the mountains. There’s no running water and no electricity.” It’s in that remote village of Matenwa, tucked away on a mountainside on a tiny speck of an island off the coast of the poorest country in the western hemisphere, that Brown and Nauset’s Human Rights Academy have spearheaded remarkable change.
“We’ve helped start a food program there because there are kids that only eat three or four days a week,” says Brown, who’s taught at Nauset since 1998. “We have raised money and continue to raise money and have a partnership with the youth organization that rescues kids from child slavery. We support a safehouse for rescued child slaves, we provide and pay for education for up to 200 kids, and a friend and I raised money and created a big art center complex for women artists in the village.”
The Barnstable County Human Rights Advisory Commission honored Brown and Nauset’s Human Rights Academy for all of the work they’ve done — both in Haiti and domestically — during the commission’s annual Human Rights Advisory Commission awards breakfast on Dec. 10. Dr. Brian O’Malley presented Brown and the school’s Human Rights Academy with the second annual Tim McCarthy Human Rights Champion Award.
According to The Tim Fund’s website, the award is given to “an activist individual or organization with a Cape Cod connection, working effectively to promote Human Rights, as affirmed in the United Nations’ 1948 ‘Universal Declaration of Human Rights.’”
The namesake for the award is the late Tim McCarthy, who built a legacy as a prominent Outer Cape activist, filmmaker and historian before he died in 2018. During the awards presentation, which was conducted virtually, Dr. O’Malley said the decision to award the Nauset Human Rights Academy was unanimous.
“The Nauset Regional High School Human Rights Group and its longtime faculty advisor, Lisa Brown, are honored for their many years of active engagement in human rights work,” said O'Malley. “The Human Rights Academy participants studied issues of racial injustice, privilege, LGBTQ concerns and climate change, and have creatively communicated their work to other students through exhibits and presentations.”
The majority of Cape Cod high schools embraced the Human Rights Academy when the Barnstable County Human Rights Commission first introduced the program in 2007. The idea was for each school to offer its own academy and then for all of the schools to convene twice a year, once in the fall and once in the spring. Nauset, which had already offered its own human rights clubs under the guidance of Brown, has been among the leading schools since the program’s inception.
“It has created a deep connection between schools and youth activism,” Brown says of the Human Rights Academy. “When there’s a youth action — whether it’s a march or a standout or some kind of food drive or a concert for homelessness or something — the Human Rights Academy kids from across the Cape get together and really help each other out. It’s really an example for us all.”
Over the years, the students who once made up Nauset’s Human Rights Academy moved on to new challenges. Some continue to inspire change as teachers, lawyers and activists. Although the participants have changed, Brown, a 62-year-old Wellfleet native and 1976 graduate of Nauset, has continued to help lead the way. In addition to overseeing the Human Rights Academy’s after-school program, Brown currently teaches classes called “Exploring and Respecting Differences,” which examine stereotypes, the formations of hate groups, sexuality and gender, morals, values and ethics, as well as conflict resolution.
“I got runner-up for Massachusetts teacher of the Year in 2018,” says Brown. “I was nominated by former students unbeknownst to me. I think it was really because of the innovative program and curriculum that I’ve created at Nauset — it resonates deeply with people that care about other people.”
The coronavirus pandemic has limited the academy’s ability to meet this year and forced the cancellation of its biggest annual fundraiser, the Nauset Artisan Fair in Eastham, which is organized by Brown’s wife, Deirdre Oringer. Brown says the academy will instead make good use of the Tim McCarthy Human Rights Champion Award's monetary honor in the $2,000 range.
“The kids will probably want to give as much as possible to Haiti,” she says. “They recognize there’s a lot more bang for their buck when they dedicate it to causes that really matter.”
Among the commission’s other honorees were the Unsung Heroes, the essential frontline workers and organizations who are dedicated to servicing communities on the Cape during the pandemic. Those heroes included the entire staff at The Woodlands at Pleasant Bay in Brewster; staff members, including nurses, licensed therapists, hospice workers and health care aides at the Visiting Nurse Association of Cape Cod, Cape Cod Health Care and the Community Health Center of Cape Cod.