Students need to be trained as human rights defenders, said M. Kerry Kennedy at an Askwith Forum event at the Graduate School of Education on Wednesday.
Kennedy serves as president of the Robert F. Kennedy Center for Justice and Human Rights, which she founded in memory of her father Robert F. Kennedy ’48.
Speak Truth to Power, one of the center’s projects, creates curricula to teach students about human rights and urge them to take action.
“Our goal there is that all kids identify as human rights defenders in the end,” she said.
Kennedy said schools that use these curricula have seen decreases in bullying.
The courses use the stories of human rights activists, like the Dalai Lama and Elie Wiesel, to inspire students.
“What we want to do is help that classroom of kids find something that makes their lives worth living,” she said. She said that for many kids this will translate into some form of service.
Kennedy also shared her personal evolution as a human rights activist, which she said was inspired by a succession of scarring events in her childhood.
“There were a handful of things that were egregious and terrifying and horrible,” she said.
These atrocities included the rapes of two of her friends and the deaths of her father, her uncle John F. Kennedy ’40, and family friend Martin Luther King.
“All these things weighed on me,” she said.
Kennedy said she had a revelation during an internship at Amnesty International as a sophomore at Brown University: she realized that all of the terrible things she witnessed as a child were violations of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
“Students who are in chaotic situations can say, ‘My gosh it doesn’t have to be this way,’” she said.
It is the role of teachers to empower students to be a part of something larger than themselves, Kennedy said.
She added that teachers must tell their students that speaking out against perceived injustices can be constructive.
“There are these kinds of people who are these Davids in a world full of Goliaths,” she said.
—Staff writer Elizabeth S. Auritt can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.