Editor's note: Our founder, Saranah Holmes, is especially excited about this featured organization because of her personal connection. She spent almost eight years employed by RFKHR in the positions of Executive Assistant and Online Auction Manager. Saranah continues to work with RFKHR as a consultant. She is grateful for all of the support she received when she decided to venture out and start the Daily Do Good, and will always consider RFKHR family.
ROBERT F. KENNEDY: A LEGACY
In her first year teaching high school psychology, Fairfax County, Va. resident Katie Gould led a short unit on serial killers.
“Not my favorite,” she noted.
To balance the scales, she asked her students to name people who exhibited the exact opposite characteristics.
“It got really quiet,” she said. “They had just rattled off five serial killers, and they really didn’t have anyone they could come up with.”
Around the same time, her father, then research director at the American Federation of Teachers, mentioned the Robert F. Kennedy Center for Justice and Human Rights (now known as Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights).
“There’s an incredible organization,” he told her.
“I was looking for this hole to fill,” Gould said, “and I came across the curriculum for Speak Truth to Power online, and was absolutely delighted.
Speak Truth to Power is one of several programs at Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights. Founded in 1968 by Ethel Kennedy, the mission of RFK Human Rights is to continue Robert F. Kennedy’s legacy of fighting human rights injustices.
“Everything we do is geared toward realizing the legacy of Robert Kennedy,” said John Heffernan, executive director of Speak Truth to Power. “It’s about creating a citizenry dedicated to holding society to the highest standard of equality and justice. It’s about abandoning the role of bystander when it comes to human rights abuses.
Speak Truth to Power evolved from the book of the same name written by Kerry Kennedy, daughter of Robert and Ethel Kennedy, and president of RFK Human Rights. Featuring interviews with 51 human right activists and defenders, the 2000 tome spawned a photo exhibition and a play, which has been performed worldwide by renowned actors including Meryl Streep, Julianne Moore and Sean Penn, among many others.
But perhaps the most vital offspring of Kerry Kennedy’s book is the Speak Truth to Power curriculum.
SPEAK TRUTH TO POWER:
IN THE CLASSROOM AND BEYOND
Joseph Karb, a middle school social studies teacher in Springville, NY, is one of the educators who helped develop the STTP curriculum. He said one lesson he wants to impart to his students is that human rights advocacy doesn’t begin “over there.”
“I want them to leave with an understanding that there are human rights issues around the world,” he said, “and internalize the role of the defender, so when they have the opportunity, they are going to stand up for someone else.”
This word, defender, is key to the STTP program. Karb defines it as “standing up for others, sometimes at personal risk.” Defenders featured in Kerry Kennedy’s book, and as part of the curriculum include The Dalai Lama, Elie Wiesel, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, President Jimmy Carter, Malala Yousafzai and Nelson Mandela.
Christopher Buckley teaches high school American history and contemporary issues in Darien, Conn. He facilitates Speak Truth to Power leadership training with teachers: “We talk about educating the whole student and teaching students the importance of empathy and standing up for your conviction,” he said.
In his own classroom, Buckley has created what he calls the Ripple of Hope Project, inspired by RFK’s speech on apartheid, at the University of Capetown in 1966. Students examine the underlying tenets of the speech, and study STTP defenders as well as laureates who have won the Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights Award.
Part of the project is figuring out how high school students can be active participants.
“A suburban kid from Darien isn’t going to go rescue a kid out of the Congo, but what can they do,” Buckley said. “It’s about students becoming more aware of their surroundings and the impact their action has.”
After learning about LGBT activist Jamie Nabozny, Joe Karp said, a group of his students decided to launch an anti-bullying club. Some of Katie Gould’s students started a community garden after studying farmworkers’ rights and defenders like Librada Paz. Her students were invited to watch Paz receive the 2012 RFK Human Rights Award.
“The kids aren't just reading about some perfect person on a textbook,” Gould said. “Speak Truth to Power humanizes these folks who are total rock stars. I know it transformed not only the way (my students) saw the world, but it gave them a new perspective on how they saw themselves. It made them feel like 'why not me'?”
SPEAK TRUTH TO POWER:
ACTION AND INSPIRATION
The Speak Truth to Power program also provides students with the opportunity to engage in human rights through media via music and video contests.
“Kids learn in different ways,” said Heffernan “What better way to get these kids interested in academics and to show they can make a difference. (These works) create empathy.”
RFK Human Rights leads the video contest in cooperation with the American Federation of Teachers and the Tribeca Film Institute. The grand prize winning video is screened at the Tribeca Film Festival in New York.
Following a unit on the muckrakers of the Progressive era, Joe Karb leads his students in the creation of a short documentary, focused on a modern day defender. A group of his students had the opportunity to speak via Skype with 2014 Nobel Peace Prize winner Kailash Satyarthi about his work fighting child labor.
“For some of the students,” he said, “it’s really transformative for them. We live in a pretty rural, isolated area. It’s easy to think in terms of numbers, not personal stories. When they hear the stories of people who stood up to others, it’s changed their outlook on life, they realize the world is a big place.”
The video contest, he said, challenges students to create something that can inspire others to action. “In a way, they’re becoming modern muckrakers themselves.”
Speak Truth to Power has helped educate and inspire countless young people to action, from the students who learned about child labor in cacao fields and launched a “reverse trick-or-treat” project, in which they distributed fair trade chocolate and informational cards in their neighborhoods, to the high school junior who was on the verge of dropping out before he became involved with the creation of an STTP video about Wangari Maathai, who created the Green Belt Movement to fight deforestation in Kenya. That video, from the Washington-Saratoga-Warren-Hamilton-Essex BOCES school in upstate New York, won the grand prize in the STTP video contest in 2012.
“I am convinced that by education,” Heffernan said, “we can prevent human rights abuses if we bring together students who can form a citizenry that holds their governments accountable.”
In the words of Robert Kennedy: “Few will have the greatness to bend history itself; but each of us can work to change a small portion of events, and in the total; of all those acts will be written the history of this generation.
ADDITIONAL PROGRAMS & AWARDS AT
ROBERT F. KENNEDY HUMAN RIGHTS*
RFK Compass - Engaging the investment community at the intersection of business and human rights.
Partners for Human Rights - Our lawyers and experts join with our partners in the field to create real change, fulfilling Robert Kennedy’s pledge that those with the courage to enter the moral conflict will find themselves with companions in every corner of the globe.
RFK Young Leaders - Robert Kennedy called young people “the world’s hope.” He believed in their energy, talent, and idealism — qualities that define the RFK Young Leaders, a group of innovative, influential, and philanthropic young adults dedicated to creating a more just and peaceful world.
Health eVillages - Bringing lifesaving technology to those who need it most.
RFK Training Institute - Welcoming human rights defenders, government employees, NGOs, and members of civil society from all over the world to learn new skills, strengthen their capacities, and share their knowledge.
RFK Book Awards - The Robert F. Kennedy Book Award honors authors whose writing, in illuminating past or present injustice, acts as a beacon towards a more just society.
RFK Journalism Awards - Drawing from both national and international candidate pools, the RFK Journalism Awards recognize writing in the public interest on the issues of poverty, political inclusion, and justice. The twelve award categories honor exceptional works of journalism and social critique in many forms: including documentary film, photography, radio, and cartoons.
RFK Human Rights Award - In 1984, Robert F. Kennedy’s eldest child, Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, saw a need to celebrate and support activists whose work reflected his conviction that one person can make a difference and that each of us should try. That year, Kathleen founded the Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights Award to honor courageous activists who spoke truth to power.
RFK Ripple of Hope Award - The Robert F. Kennedy Ripple of Hope Award celebraties leaders of the international business, entertainment, and activist communities who have demonstrated a commitment to social change.
* Descriptions copied and pasted from the Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights website
About the Author: Holly Leber is the editorial director of the Daily Do Good. A human rights defender she greatly admired in her youth was Elizabeth Glaser (now deceased) for her work in pediatric AIDS awareness and research. She wants to see more girls and boys looking up to a rock star like Malala than to insert-name-of-latest-celebrity-making-tabloid-headlines-here.