Kennedy Speaks Truth to Power at Askwith ForumBy Jill Anderson
All of today’s children should learn to become human rights defenders, Kerry Kennedy, president of the Robert F. Kennedy Center for Justice and Human Rights, told the Askwith Forum audience on Tuesday.
Kennedy came to the forum to talk about Speak Truth to Power, a global initiative that uses the experiences of courageous defenders from around the world to educate people about human rights, and urge them to take action.
“It’s an empowering message for them to have because [often people] say you can’t do something about it. But yes, we can,” she said. “It is so important for the next generation to know that and understand it and believe it. And, it’s up to all of us as teachers to convey that.”
It was Kennedy’s own experiences as a child and adolescent that shaped her future as an activist and defender. While Kennedy admitted she had a mostly idyllic childhood, she highlighted how the assassinations of her father, Robert Kennedy; her uncle, John F. Kennedy; and Martin Luther King, followed by traumatic experiences faced by some of her friends who have been raped, grown up in abusive homes, and died of AIDS, made her question why these things happen.
During a college internship at Amnesty International, Kennedy’s discovery of the International Declaration of Human Rights motivated her to take action.
“Everything that was a source of confusion and chaos for me [as a child] had something in common – everything was a violation of international human rights. And, there were laws against it,” she said. “And, there is a whole slew of people around the world – lawyers and activists — who are working to protect those rights. That was so transformative for me and such an extraordinary revelation.”
The goal behind Speak Truth to Power is to provide a learning platform for students who may find themselves in chaotic situations or oppressive communities whether in school, home, or society. Speak Truth to Power hopes to convey that there is a way out, she said.
The way out is by becoming a “defender.” Most of us, Kennedy said, are not born “civil rights defenders” but instead fall into one of four different roles: perpetrator, victim, bystander, or defender. She cautioned that often the position you learn to play as a youth will continue into adulthood. Therefore, students must be trained to become defenders. Speak Truth to Power’s innovative curriculum and programs stretch from kindergarten all the way to law school in an effort to do so.
“We want to train people to identify emotions and use it to create a world that is fair,” she said.
Kennedy acknowledged that there are roadblocks to schools adopting the Speak Truth to Power curriculum, citing as example how social studies loses its place in an era of standardized testing.
“Students are human beings and need to be treated and see themselves as something more than just test takers, especially if they come from oppressive communities,” Kennedy said. “You want them to come to school. You want them to feel involved. You want them to feel like they have a stake. That’s what I think the value of Speak Truth to Power is.”