Oslo Scholars Program

enabling tomorrow's human rights leaders, today

“YOLO”: Measuring Success in the Human Rights World

The following post is written by Saman Nargund. Saman is a rising senior from Tufts University majoring in International Relations. She is a 2013 Oslo Scholar and is currently working with Maryam Nayeb Yazdi.

In my previous blog post, I discussed the question of emotional capability, concluding that sensitivity remains an imperative in the process of making a difference. Meanwhile, college campuses, talk shows, and the Twitter universe alike are all buzzing with one key term: YOLO. If there is any need to explain, YOLO is an acronym for “You Only Live Once,” derived from marshmallow-hearted rapper Drake’s song “The Motto.” (Irrelevant side note: I think it’s great that Drake doesn’t hide behind overly macho “big boys don’t cry” façade, and marshmallows are not negative descriptors). YOLO implies insensitivity. It transfers a certain weightlessness to all of our actions. Whatever we do will fade into the vacuum of deeds of the past, so why don’t we enjoy the moment?

The concept is not novel; synonyms include carpe diem and momento mori. The lesson is clear. Life is ephemeral. Most of us live from experience to experience, piecing incidents together and making meaning out of them.

However, many critics argue that this worldview leaves us directionless. If we are unsure of what difference any of our actions will make in the long term, why do we act at all?

Enter the Oslo Freedom Forum. Previously described as the by The Daily Beast as The Davos for Do-Gooding Dissidents, the forum taught me that if anything, “YOLO” does not imply that we must approach our purpose casually.

Here, I bring in my case in point. Maryam Nayeb Yazdi is an Iranian-Canadian human rights activist that I have been working with in Toronto as an aftermath of the forum. Among many other relentlessly brave activities, Maryam works tirelessly to defend political prisoners and student rights in Iran. Let me define my use of the word “defend”—Maryam’s efforts (alongside those of other activists) led the Islamic Republic of Iran (IRI) to suspend the death sentence of Saeed Malekpour, who was being held on false charges. Maryam fights to save lives.

I started to think of what Maryam’s definition of YOLO must be. What defines her success as an activist? What does she think is a well-accomplished job? I remember she mentioned in conversation once that despite saving Saeed Malekpour his death sentence, she didn’t consider the campaign a full success. After all, Malekpour is still being held unfairly as a prisoner. It is a harsh reality. How does she stay motivated?

I asked her, and she answered as follows:

“I am continuously striving for bigger and better results in my work, because I’m rarely completely satisfied with my efforts and the results of those efforts. Due to a lack of resources and staff, I am always conscious of the fact that I’m not maximizing on my efforts. As a result, I hardly expect optimal results from my work– instead I expect a form of progress in the right direction. The human rights world doesn’t often produce instant optimal results. Human rights advocacy is a journey that activists are on, and they are constantly learning and honing their skills along the way. And, of course, a certain degree of reoccurring struggle is a normal part of the process.

A victory in advocacy work is when an activist spends sleepless nights working on a campaign in order to save a prisoner from death row and their efforts results in the suspension of a death sentence. Though, a death sentence suspension is just a short-term victory, because more often than none, the prisoner remains imprisoned awaiting a new judicial sentence (and normally they are issued a life imprisonment sentence).

Long-term victories require fundamental changes to be made to governance and world policies.  Activists are always thinking about long-term goals, however, unfortunately, the short-term goal of saving lives takes a tremendous amount of time and emotional and mental energy– which makes it difficult for activists to focus on a proper long-term plan when lacking the proper resources and staff.

I am currently in the process of taking my advocacy to a new level through acquiring adequate funding that will aid in creating and developing an effective long-term plan. Through my work one of my main goals is to shed more of a global light on human rights issues and at the same time influence government policy making so it may be more focused on issues related to the rights of people.

I gain my motivation from knowing that I’m in a field of work that provides me with possibilities to create positive changes toward the way people view humanity and each other. I sustain my motivation by continuing to believe in myself and the work that I am doing, even if sometimes it feels like I have hit a wall or lack adequate financial or psychological support.”

My conclusions from this response are that if we truly are “YOLO”-ing, our eyes should only be opening to how much we do not know. YOLO should not imply lightness and a lack of purpose. Instead, it should remind us to persevere with patience and a thirst for growth.

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