“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.”
That’s how Costa Rican President Oscar Arias started his speech at the summit of Nobel Peace Prize laureates this week. Twenty-six laureates convened in Bogota, Colombia to discuss the state of humanitarian work in the world. Bogota was a fitting place for the event: Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos accepted the Peace Prize in December 2016, in recognition of his leadership ending a 52 year civil war that claimed the lives of over 220,000 people and injured 7 million more.
We live in a time of destruction across the globe, where the greatest threat to peace is not an army or a nuclear war, but hate itself. Hate takes so many forms - Boko Haram in Nigeria, ISIS in Iraq and Syria, Islamophobia and anti-Semitism in Europe, anti-immigrant and anti-refugee policies across the globe.
Hate manifests in China destroying Tibet and Myanmar against the Rohingya, 168 million children are denied school so they can pick cocoa pods for chocolate, and engage in other insidious forms of slavery and labor. In the United States, it is Donald Trump and the rising walls of fear he champions.
In the midst of this desert of destruction, Colombia is an oasis of optimism and hope. Here the forces of evil are giving way to the might of good, war is bending to peace, fear and its fraternal twin, hate, are succumbing to the undeniable power of love. Today, Colombia stands as an example to all the world, and we must do all we can to help the country succeed in its quest for reconciliation - not only for the sake of the Colombian people, but because of the much-needed hope, confidence and belief it inspires in the rest of the world.
My daughter Michaela and I attended to this year’s summit, where 1995 RFKennedy Human Rights Award winner and Nobel Peace Prize laureate Kailash Satyarthi presented me with the Nobel Laureates’ Activism Prize for our Speak Truth to Power Human Rights education program.
Kailash recalled that, on his first day of school, he walked past a six year old child selling shoes. Neither his teacher nor his mother could explain why a boy his age was selling shoes instead of attending school. The boy’s father said, “We are Untouchable, and we were born to work.”
Even at the tender age of six, Kailash knew child labor was wrong. He went on to emancipate more children from slavery than any human being on earth.
It was a full circle.
Starting in 1999, I spent two and half years interviewing the bravest people on earth: human rights heroes, many whom faced imprisonment, torture and death for basic rights all humanity should take for granted. My first interviews were at the Nobel Peace summit in Charlottesville, Virginia. The responses were deep and full of meaning.
Through the stories of human rights defenders, students learn that they need not be victims of circumstance. Each of us has a role to play in creating a more just and peaceful world.
We partner with educators and create lesson plans that fully integrate into the lessons they already teach. Students learning language arts read the story of Kailash Satyarthi. They learn of child slaves on cocoa plantations, and how 70% of their chocolate is made this awful way. They write poems entitled “Dear Bobby,” explaining what it feels like to be a child slave. They learn text analysis, empathy, and iambic pentameter.
Students draft letters to the CEOs of the world’s largest chocolate companies explaining the abuses they’ve learned and demanding change. Beyond writing in proper business format, kids are empowered by learning to craft a cogent argument from an emotional issue.
Finally, students write the issue in one sentence on an index card along with their solutions, and attach a piece of Fair Trade chocolate to the card. On Halloween, students take to their communities, handing the card to any household that offers them chocolate. Over the course of the lesson, students grow from receivers of knowledge to activists.
Speak Truth to Power’s lessons fit any subject, teaching students that they, too, can be human rights defenders in their own communities and globally. Over the years, Speak Truth to Power has taught millions of children worldwide that their voices matter and that they can be change agents.
Colombia is a nation celebrating its own human rights victories, with a student population ripe for development into informed, engaged world citizens. The country is facing a unique opportunity, paid for in blood and turmoil over decades of war. To be in Colombia at this special time fills me with optimism. The next great human rights advocates are here today, in the schools of Bogota, Medellin and Cali.
We can help them find their voices.