Kerry Kennedy

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 17 April, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 17 April, 2011, 12:00am


CHILD OF THE TIMES My father [Robert Kennedy] was the attorney general of the United States [1961 to 1964] during the height of the civil rights movement. There were many people coming through our household who were in civil rights in the US: African-Americans who were trying to advocate for the right to vote, the right to travel, the right to sit at a lunch counter and eat food. That had a strong influence on me. I'm the seventh child. Coming that far down the line in a family also gives you a keen awareness of human rights at a young age. I had a wonderful, privileged childhood, but I was witness to a series of very difficult tragedies. My uncle [US president John F. Kennedy], my father and our great hero Martin Luther King were all killed because of their political beliefs.

When I was in fifth grade, about 10 years old, a dear friend told me that her father was beating up her mother. I felt terrible about it but I didn't know what to say to her or my mother. Then, in high school, one of my best friends was gay. He became one of the first people in the US to die of Aids. He died in large part because he felt uncomfortable talking to people about his sexual orientation, something over which he had no control. When I was in college, two of my friends were on a double date with two men they had just met, and they were taken back to the apartment and raped.

All these things were happening and I didn't know what to do and how to put it together. Then, as a sophomore in college, I took a summer internship at Amnesty International and was documenting abuses of US government officials against refugees from El Salvador. I learned that there was a whole series of laws called the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and that virtually everything that was truly horrifying in my life was a violation of those laws. I also realised there were many people advocating against [these violations] and there were ways of stopping it. I wanted to work with them and that's what I've been doing for 30 years.

THE POWER OF ONE I could have really benefited from a course like Speak Truth to Power [Kennedy's human rights education initiative] as a kid. The central message is simple, that one person can make a difference. We launched it in 2000. It includes a play, literature and an adaptable course that teaches people in college and high school about international human rights and how students can create change. Our goal for kids is to self-identify as human rights defenders. We find that it empowers them not only to work on these issues, but it changes the atmosphere within a school. It decreases racist jokes and bullying and other types of abuse. It helps them stand up for themselves and for others.

UNIVERSAL RIGHTS What I find is governments will often say, 'You can't understand our people. You have a different culture; they are not used to that.' But when I talk to somebody who is a victim of torture or unable to get health care or decent housing, or somebody who wants their child educated, they don't have any problem with the universality of human rights. They are pretty clear about it. The support we get changes from one place to another; in Italy, we have federal government support from the ministry of education, but our primary funding there is from regional governments. In South Africa, we have some government support, but mainly from Ireland; in Romania, we work with the ministry of education, but it's financed through NGOs. In the US, it's primarily through teachers' unions. It's important to come to Hong Kong because it is the gateway not only to China but to Asia. So we feel we can start an opening here that's going to give us a greater opportunity to look at China and other countries.

MAKING CHANGE When I started working in human rights, all of Latin America was under right-wing dictatorships; today there's not one left. All of Eastern Europe was under communism; today that doesn't exist. South Africa was under apartheid; today it doesn't exist. All those changes came about not because governments or military or multinational corporations wanted them to - they tried to stop the change - it came about because small groups of determined people made changes. And that's what most recently happened in Egypt and Tunisia and that's what's happening right now in Bahrain, Libya and Iran.

WHAT IF I've taken my kids on human rights trips and they've seen Speak Truth to Power [the play] all over the world. At home, we say a prayer before meals: 'Thank you God, for this good food, for the hands that made it,' and that's a starting point of discussion. Who are the hands that made it? Where does our food come from? Who actually picks the food? And what if you were a teenager and you couldn't go to school because you were needed in the fields? What would that mean in terms of your sense of community and your education? Would that be fun, or awful?

BEING BRAVE Catholicism is central to my activist work. Jesus challenged the Pharisees and the scribes - and look what happened to him [laughs]. He travelled around with women during a time when that wasn't really done. After his resurrection, the first person he spoke to was a woman. And he said to the men, go and cook food, which was completely not done at the time. So that's where it starts. I was always getting into trouble when I was in Catholic school because of these rules that I didn't understand or pay attention to. I was forever talking in the halls and getting sent to the reverend mother, who was this wonderful French woman. She never asked what I did wrong; she'd give me a lollipop, ask after my mother and start talking about how terrible the war in Vietnam was. One day she said to me, 'Silence is golden, but sometimes it's just plain yellow.' To be yellow is another word for cowardly. And that really stuck with me, that you need to stand up when you see something that is unjust. I don't always do it, but I try.