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Meet Dr. Monisha Bajaj


Dr. Monisha Bajaj, Director of the Master of Arts in Human Rights Education (HRE) program.

In January 2014, USF’s International and Multicultural Education Department welcomed Dr. Monisha Bajaj as Director of the Master of Arts in Human Rights Education (HRE) program.  Dr. Bajaj joins USF from Columbia University’s Teachers College where she coordinated a concentration in Peace and Human Rights Education within the International and Comparative Education program for nearly a decade.  Her work in human rights education is inspired by her experience working with victims of horrific rights abuses. “Before pursuing doctoral studies, I worked in the field of human rights (for Human Rights Watch and other organizations) and became interested in the then-emerging field of human rights education. I wanted to be involved in more long-term efforts to stop issues of discriminatory treatment, rape, and torture before they happened.  In the nearly 20 years since then, human rights education has become a full-fledged field and the opportunity to direct the first Masters program in Human Rights Education in the United States was a tremendous draw to the University of San Francisco.”

The MA HRE program strives to provide students opportunities to explore, analyze and engage with educational injustices through a human rights framework. By viewing quality education as a right—not a social service or a privilege for a select few—students learn how local, national and international groups use the concepts of human rights to mobilize for reform and change.  Students go beyond learning about legal rights guarantees, to exploring how these frameworks affect the lived experiences of individuals and communities on the margins. 

Three relationships between human rights and education are central to the courses and experiences of MA HRE students. As Dr. Bajaj explains, “First, education as a human right - making sure all children and adult learners have access to schooling and non-formal learning opportunities. Second, education with human rights - teaching and learning experiences that are free from discrimination and respect the dignity of students; and third, education for human rights - examining how curriculum and pedagogy has been, and can be, designed to promote and respect economic, social, political and civil rights.”

Dr. Bajaj’s recent work exemplifies these relationships.  Her book, Schooling for Social Change, The rise and impact of human rights education in India (Bloomsbury, 2012), examines how India has engaged the discourse of human rights education through policy reforms and through the practice of non-governmental organizations. Visiting 80 classrooms across five states in India, Dr. Bajaj met with children, parents, educators, human rights activists and policy makers to build a comprehensive picture of how people in India localize human rights education in a variety of ways. “We often think of human rights as a Western concept – and a vibrant debate often ensues about whether these norms are universal or culturally relative – but, for me, the more interesting questions are how and why local activists and communities utilize rights concepts to frame diverse movements to address issues ranging from educational injustices to caste or racial discrimination to gender inequality to police abuse.” The book won the 2012 Jackie Kirk Outstanding Book Prize of the Comparative and International Education Society. 

Through two recent community-based projects focused on U.S. classrooms, Dr. Bajaj’s work continues to apply the relationships of human rights and education. The first project is an extensive curricular resource packet for educators to use to address the bullying of South Asian American youth.  “After September 11, many South Asian American and Muslim American youth have encountered bullying, harassment and hate crimes in school and in their communities. This is often rooted in fear, ignorance about the long history of these communities in the U.S., and frustration at U.S. policies overseas. Its manifestation—through verbal, physical, and psychological bullying—interferes with the rights of these young people to attend schools that protect them from harm.” The curriculum was published by the national advocacy organization South Asian Americans Leading Together (SAALT), and has since been distributed widely to educators and non-profit agencies.  California Congressmen Mike Honda who heads the Congressional Anti-Bullying Caucus circulated the open-access curriculum to members of Congress as a resource for their constituencies.

The second project, led by Professor Maria Hantzopoulos of Vassar College, examines how the Middle East is taught in high school history textbooks in the U.S.  After finding many misconceptions and simplistic presentations of issues related to gender, social movements, religion and identity, Dr. Bajaj worked with other professors of education to develop a research-based curricular resource (aligned with Common Core standards) and an extensive online educator portal (www.teach-mena.org) with numerous resources, lessons and primary source documents for use in U.S. classrooms. The project offers multiple perspectives and provides students an opportunity to engage with the diversity of the region through primary source materials. The project is funded by the “Our Shared Past” initiative for the Social Science Research Council and the British Council and will be disseminated widely.

Dr. Bajaj’s work resonates with the School of Education’s vision of engaged scholarship and, with her leadership, the MA HRE program will continue to move this vision forward in the coming months.  In June, the HRE program will partner with the Human Rights Educators USA network to offer a workshop on children’s rights.  USF will continue to host The World as it Could Be summer institute in August. At this institute, Bay Area educators learn about the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights and develop artistic productions with their students to engage them in human rights education.  The MA HRE program is also excited to welcome several visiting faculty to USF including Dr. Felisa Tibbitts, the founder of Human Rights Education Associates. Dr. Bajaj commented on her excitement for what is ahead saying, “Being part of the vibrant department of International and Multicultural Education and getting to know our amazing students has been a highlight of my time here so far. I look forward to deepening my connections and integrating more fully into the University.”