Healing divisions with human rights education, from the Bronx to the Balkans

Packed inside of the United Federation of Teachers’ Manhattan union headquarters on a gray December morning, the energy was so infectious it bubbled over.

The representatives present weren’t there to negotiate a fair contract. Instead, 100 students from New York City schools gathered to meet with human rights defenders from around the world, former state officials from the Balkans, and actors-activists Katie Erbe (Law and Order) and Trevor Donovan (90210), to share experiences, ask questions, and celebrate the impact of the Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights’ Speak Truth to Power (STTP) program.

Among the highlights was Joel Mercedes, a senior from Bronx School for Law, Government and Justice, who blew attendees away with a moving spoken word performance. “We share the same vision … forget the divisions,” he declared in an original rap that reflected the key tenets of the STTP curriculum. His audience included fellow students, union members, and leaders of the Balkans who have been instrumental in bringing the educational program to their homeland, a region that has suffered from genocide and human rights abuses.

STTP seeks to reach students where they are, by providing materials, resources, and inspiration to empower them to become the next generation of human rights defenders.

Based on RFK Human Rights president Kerry Kennedy’s book of the same name, Speak Truth to Power trains students to have the effective mindsets, attitudes, and behaviors needed to defend and advance human rights with actions, small or large, every single day.

Key to STTP’s successes are its partnerships, and the belief that students are at the center of a larger educational ecosystem.

“From the educator in the classroom, to the community that provides guidance and support, to those whose funding ensures resources are available to all participants, partners are at the heart of our work,” Kennedy said.

UFT serves as both a key educational partner and a community partner, as they support our work throughout New York City public schools. The union hosts events and trainings, and work to make sure educators throughout the city know about the program.

On this December 2019 day, the lessons reached far beyond the city’s limits. Leaders from the Balkans were on hand — including the former presidents of Bosnia and Herzegovina, Zlatko Lagumdzija and Malden Ivanic, and Boris Tadic, the former president of Serbia — who have been instrumental in bringing the curriculum and program to the region.

The world leaders first became interested in bringing Speak Truth to Power to students in the Balkans, in March 2019, when leaders at the Baku Forum on Intercultural World Dialogue read monologues from the Speak Truth to Power. Later, conversations evolved from the mechanics of the curriculum and program to how to get the work to the Balkans.

Given the Balkan’s history of genocide and human rights abuses, the leaders saw human rights education as a means to prevent history from repeating itself. “Tolerance is very important, but tolerance is not enough,” Tadic said. “We have to respect each other.” Given STTP’s mission of creating an empathetic and emboldened citizenry of human rights defenders, the program was a perfect fit for the region.

As the UFT workshop broke, emails and phone numbers were exchanged, students headed for the subway, and Lagumdzija, Ivanic, and Tadic began their journeys home. Though today, with nearly 5,000 miles between them, the Balkan leaders, UFT, and the students are forever linked to the ever-expanding circle of defenders, as real ripples of hope.

“In engaging youth and opening their minds and hearts, human rights education has the power to change the world,” Kennedy said.