Mother of Cara, Mariah and Michaela, who have attended New York public schools, Kerry Kennedy is the author of the New York Times best-seller, Being Catholic Now: Prominent Americans talk about Change in the Church and the Quest for Meaning. Ms. Kennedy started working in the field of human rights in 1981 when she investigated abuses committed by U.S. immigration officials against refugees from El Salvador. Since then, her life has been devoted to the pursuit of justice, to the promotion and protection of basic rights, and to the preservation of the rule of law. She established the Robert F. Kennedy Center for Human Rights in 1988. She has led over 40 human rights delegations across the globe. Ms. Kennedy is chair of the Amnesty International USA Leadership Council and is the president of the RFK Center for Justice and Human Rights. She is the author of Speak Truth to Power: Human Rights Defenders Who Are Changing Our World.
Open these pages to a world of courage and hope, where students learn about social justice principles, and how they, too, can make a difference. They will learn that human rights are grounded in international and domestic law. Beyond theory, students are provided with a tool kit for action, so they, too, can create change in the classroom, community, country and our shared world. Our aim is for every student who uses this material to abandon the role of bystander, and instead, join today’s heroes as a human rights defender.
In a world where there is a common lament that there are no more heroes, too often cynicism and despair are perceived as evidence of the death of moral courage. That perception is wrong. People of great valor and heart, committed to noble purpose, with long records of personal sacrifice, walk among us in every country of the world. I spent two years traveling the globe to interview fifty-one individuals from nearly forty countries and five continents. In these pages and in the play by Ariel Dorfman, you will find people whose lives are filled with extraordinary feats of bravery. I’ve listened to them speak about the quality and nature of courage, and in their stories I found hope and inspiration, a vision of a better world.
For many of these heroes, their understanding of the abrogation of human rights has been profoundly shaped by their personal experiences: of death threats, imprisonment, and in some cases, bodily harm. However, this is not, by any measure, a compilation of victims. Rather, courage, with its affirmation of possibility and change, is what defines them, singly and together. Each spoke to me with compelling eloquence of the causes to which they have devoted their lives, and for which they are willing to sacrifice them-from freedom of expression to the rule of law, from environmental defense to eradicating bonded labor, from access to capital to the right to due process, from women’s rights to religious liberty. As the Mandelas, Gandhis, and Maathais of their countries, these leaders hold in common an inspiring record of accomplishment and a profound capacity to ignite change.
The defenders’ own voices provoke fundamental questions: why do people who face imprisonment, torture, and death continue to pursue their work when the chance of success is so remote and the personal consequences are so grave? Why did they become involved? What keeps them going? Where do they derive their strength and inspiration? How do they overcome their fear? How do they measure success? Out of the answers emerges a sympathetic and strength-giving portrait of the power of personal resolve and determination in the face of injustice. These voices are, most of all, a call to action, much needed because human rights violations often occur by cover of night, in remote and dark places. For many of those who suffer, isolation is their worst enemy, and exposure of the atrocities is their only hope. We must bring the international spotlight to violations and broaden the community of those who know and care about the individuals portrayed. This alone may well stop a disappearance, cancel a torture session, or even, some day, save a life. Included with each story is a resource guide of contact information for the defenders and their organizations in the hope that you, the reader, will take action, send a donation, ask for more information, get involved. The more voices are raised in protest, the greater the likelihood of change.
I grew up in the Judeo-Christian tradition, where we painted our prophets on ceilings and sealed our saints in stained glass. They were superhuman, untouchable, and so we were freed from the burden of their challenge. But here on earth, people like these and countless other defenders are living, breathing human beings in our midst. Their determination, valor, and commitment in the face of overwhelming danger challenge each of us to take up the torch for a more decent society. Today we are blessed by the presence of certain people who are gifts from God. They are teachers who show us not how to be saints, but how to be fully human.
Indeed, this project, a partnership between the Robert F. Kennedy Center for Justice and Human Rights and New York State United Teachers, has been developed by educators to whom we are profoundly grateful.
Robert F. Kennedy Center for Justice and Human Rights