“Being Told No is Never a Reason to Give Up”

Recognizing HRP undergraduate staff member Madison Plemens-Schunk for outstanding service to human rights

The Human Rights Program is thrilled to recognize undergraduate student Madison Plemens-Schunk (CLA ’24) with the inaugural Outstanding Service to Human Rights award for their contributions to the Human Rights Program and work in the human rights advocacy field. The award honors one graduating undergraduate student who has demonstrated outstanding service to the Human Rights Program, dedication to the field of human rights, and/or made significant contributions to human rights related programming and activities at the University of Minnesota or in the greater Twin Cities community. 

Madison Plemens-Schunk (CLA '24)

Madison is a graduating senior majoring in Global Studies and Political Science with a minor in Spanish language studies. They have worked for the Human Rights Program as an undergraduate communications assistant for the past two years, contributing to human rights-oriented projects and research. Since first starting with the HRP, Madison has been promoted to program assistant and has helped to create social media posts, compile the bi-weekly newsletter, and write features for the website with interviews from students and supporters. 

Strong Roots in Activism

Madison’s love for human rights bloomed during their upbringing in Mankato, Minnesota, where they grew up with two mothers. “LGBTQ+ rights have always been a part of my life,” they say. “Mankato has their own Pride Festival during the Labor Day weekend. I attended that every year growing up. It was one of the first spaces in which I felt like I could truly be myself without restriction.” Madison cites attending protests for  same-sex marriage legalization in Minnesota and engaging with Mankato’s Somali immigrant community at the local Islamic Center as inspiration for getting involved in human rights. In high school, they volunteered for a St. Paul-based organization, Common Hope, which works to strengthen communities and end generational poverty by supporting high-school students’ graduation in Guatemala. According to Madison, the organization takes a holistic-based approach to assisting local Guatemalan communities, focusing on educational support, social workers, health care, and housing. “Working with them opened my eyes to the interrelated nature of human rights,” Madison explains. “You can’t ensure education for children if they don’t first have access to health care, food, and adequate shelter.”

Madison Plemens-Schunk (CLA '24) volunteering in Guatemala

As an undergraduate student at the University of Minnesota, Madison began working for the Human Rights Program in January of 2022, concentrating on program communications, which remained a large part of their job duties. They also had the opportunity to work on several major Human Rights Program projects, including the Global Reach of Local Activism exhibit that opened for the first time at the Elmer L. Andersen Library in February. The exhibit utilizes archival materials to chronicle the history of local human rights efforts in Minnesota and their impact in the larger global community. “I began by processing about twenty boxes of materials from the Advocates for Human Rights before transitioning to help create panels for the Global Reach of Local Activism exhibit on the history of domestic violence prevention,” Madison says. “I designed many of the event materials, including a booklet that details the content of the exhibition.” They also worked to create the “30 Articles 30 Impacts UDHR 75th Anniversary” campaign that highlights the thirty ways that the HRP has produced knowledge and fostered programs that advance human rights.

Passion for Community 

In addition to helping keep the program running, Madison has also been involved in event-planning work, participating in the HRP Undergraduate Working Group as a founding member. Established by the Director Carrie Booth Walling in 2023, the Human Rights Program Working Group is a collective of undergraduate students who advise the HRP on its curriculum and work to engage other students on campus in human rights related programs and events. With the support of the Working Group, Madison and their colleague Bridget Thuli (CLA ’24) hosted the “Brewing Justice” series, a bi-weekly coffee hour event that centers discussions around human rights. 

Undergraduate students gathered at Bordertown Coffee for the Brewing Justice: Human Rights Coffee Hours

It is this project that Madison is the most proud of. “When I came to the U, it was difficult to find a space where I could meet other undergraduate students who were interested in human rights,” they explain. “The Working Group was a wonderful addition to my undergraduate career, despite being established during my final year. The coffee hours have been an amazing space to gather like-minded students and show people that there is a place for them at UMN. It was a small idea and not something we intended to be a big event, but the feedback we have received is truly amazing.” 

Aside from the Brewing Justice series, Madison takes pride in their senior thesis focusing on violence prevention with Guatemalan women. “My time volunteering with Common Hope and my interest in violence against women prevention led me to develop my research on how local organizations in Guatemala are working to prevent the underlying causes of violence against women,” they say. “If women are in situations of violence but are financially dependent on their husbands, you can’t just move them out of the home because they will have no means to support themselves. Instead, you have to find ways to make them economically independent so that they can leave situations of violence. Organizations are doing this by providing technical training to women so they can obtain jobs or start a small business.”

Looking to the Future

While Madison doesn’t have any specific plans for post-graduation, they are interested in gaining more experience in the human rights advocacy field before possibly attending grad school. They are particularly passionate about hands-on work with an NGO or non-profit organization. “While the institutions that uphold human rights are important, I have found it much more rewarding to work directly with people in need,” they say. “I think there is so much to learn about the way that human rights non-profit organizations function, and I think I can learn a lot from organizations that are community and victim-centered in their work. While I have learned a lot through my university education, I think I still have so much to learn from others.” 

Madison credits the Human Rights Program for assisting the development of their professional and critical thinking skills. “Not only have I developed my skills in graphic design, website editing, and writing, I have also learned how to advocate for myself and others. I now know how to use the tools at my disposal to develop advocacy strategies and make change,” they say. The Human Rights Program also taught them “patience,” and that “timing is important, but it is also important to have a fully fledged out plan if you want your action to be meaningful and impactful.”

When asked why human rights are necessary, Madison replied, “Human rights exist in every part of our lives. They are the foundation upon which humans can live rather than survive. While human rights doctrines and bodies have not always recognized the rights of all people, human rights as a framework is the justification for ensuring the well-being of everyone.” Madison urges incoming UMN students interested in human rights work to seek out people and faculty who will be supportive of that passion. “Attending college, especially at a school as big as the UMN, can feel very isolating at times and it can be really intimidating to get involved with people or groups that already seem so well established. But when you see a person who may be able to assist in any way, don’t be afraid to reach out and see if they have the capacity to do so. The worst anyone will tell you is no. But,” Madison firmly adds, “being told no is never a reason to give up.”

The Human Rights Program thanks Madison for being an indispensable member of the HRP student staff. Madison has not only contributed in essential ways to HRP’s communications, they have also helped to organize programs and shape policy. The program can’t wait to see what they will do next!

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