Antigonish, Nova Scotia, Canada

Career path in human rights sparked at StFX, graduate says

July 22nd, 2014
Lisa Rankin

A few days can change your life. Just ask Lisa Rankin.

Six years ago, as a third year StFX student, the Mabou, Cape Breton native travelled to Guatemala for a week as a participant in StFX’s Immersion Service Learning program. Though always interested in social justice, the experience proved transformational.

“It cemented my direction in life,” says Ms. Rankin, who graduated from StFX in 2009 with an honours sociology degree and a subsidiary in political science, and has worked ever since as a human rights activist.

Ms. Rankin, back on campus for three weeks in July to start her master of adult education degree in social movement learning, is currently based in Guatemala as an interim coordinator with Breaking The Silence, the Maritime group she first encountered during that Service Learning trip in 2008.

“It really changed my life,” she says on the immersion experience, and the Service Learning directed study she did, writing a 30-page research paper on her experience.

“I’ll always be grateful for that opportunity. It’s an amazing program. It’s a great opportunity to broaden your mind and your knowledge about the world, to see outside our small little piece of the world and our own experiences.”

The immersion service learning trip worked in partnership with Breaking The Silence (formed in 1988 to support Guatemalans struggling for justice in the face of a civil war in the country in the 1980s), and focused on two parts, she says.

The first included visiting a small highland farmers committee, which works with coffee farmers to produce Just Us Breaking The Silence coffee. The second was a visit to Rabinal, one of the areas most effected by the genocide, to speak with survivors and to visit a school, started by survivors, which teaches the local indigenous language and the “real history of Guatemala.”

While in the country, her group met with international human rights accompanists, who work with people whose lives are threatened because of their work.

“When I heard about the work, I thought I could use my own privilege in a positive way to create a space where human rights defenders can do their work, to reduce the threats and intimidation.”

She says violence can sometimes be mitigated if those responsible believe their actions will be reported internationally.

Breaking The Silence accompaniers act as international observers and witnesses to human rights violations. They document intimidations, threats, and violence against those being accompanied and disseminate that information through their networks at an international level.

Inspired by their work, after her StFX graduation, Ms. Rankin twice returned to Guatemala as an accompanier and also served as an intern in the country with the Tatamagouche Centre and Breaking The Silence.

“Breaking The Silence is a very different organization,” she says. “It’s not a charity, it’s an idea of solidarity, there’s a quote that says ‘injustice anywhere threatens justice everywhere.’ We’re all being threatened, our way of being, when our neighbours are being threatened.”

She says the solidarity approach really inspired her to become involved.

“It’s been completely transformational. It’s an opportunity to reflect on my own place in the world and how I contribute to these systems…and how we live in Canada affects people in other countries.” 

It can be a very stressful environment, she says, “but how I feel pales in comparison to the threats to the Guatemalan people who we work with.

“It’s challenging, and sometimes it’s hard, but I think it’s really important, and I’m grateful to have a job where you’re trying to change things and challenge things.

“It allows me every day to work with people who inspire me, who challenge me, to reflect on my own place in the world, and now, having had these experiences, I can’t not continue.

“I can’t turn my back on all these people, my friends, my co-workers. It’s part of my identity.”

Now starting her master of adult education degree at StFX, completed mainly by distance, she says she is looking forward to deepening her theoretical knowledge to complement her practical experience.


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