I have always been in awe of the Kennedy family’s continuous contribution to the human rights world. As a summer intern at Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights, I was excited to be situated in our nation’s capital, having just finished my sophomore year at Kenyon College in Ohio. I was mainly excited to gain a new perspective on how to approach human rights issues. After the 2016 presidential election, the first one I got to vote in, the political passion my peers and I experienced became depleted. I fulfilled my yearning for some progress by watching political satire until the wee hours of the night, and I was lucky to have my isolated institution as a distraction from the wrongdoings that were occurring daily in our nation. I became frustrated at the oblivion that my peers and I carried, and thus, this opportunity to intern at Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights in Washington D.C. only seemed right to put me back on an optimistic path.
I found my momentum via Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights’ Award ceremony. Every year, Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights honors individuals who stand up to oppression in pursuit of human rights. This year, the honorees were youth activists from Color of Change, the International Indigenous Youth Council, March For Our Lives, and United We Dream. The night before the award ceremony, the organization held a dinner for the laureates, giving them the opportunity to meet before the big day and share their work. We concluded the night with a large group hug, as United We Dream lead us in empowering cheers. I left feeling enthusiastic, but still unsure of my place and capability as just one human in the grand scheme of things. I started to familiarize myself more with Robert Kennedy’s historic words on issues such as gun violence, indigenous rights, and other human rights issues. The day of the ceremony led to a new conversation, originally sparked by Robert F. Kennedy, yet emphasized by my peers.
Given that this was the 50th anniversary honoring Robert F. Kennedy’s historic run for office, it felt particularly fitting to honor the next generation of activists: youth leaders. Between the ceremony and the Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights Youth Town Hall, which followed later that afternoon, I felt my optimism returning because of the words of my peers and those of one of my American heros, Congressman John Lewis! It was refreshing to hear his personal remarks about his journey from an activist working with Robert F. Kennedy and MLK Jr. to his career as a politician. In particular, Congressman Lewis said, “Young people, when you see something that is not right, not fair, not just, you have a moral obligation to stand up, speak up, and find a way to get in the way, to get in trouble - good trouble - necessary trouble.” I finally felt like my representatives were listening to us, but more particularly, I had never heard a politician tell me to get into “trouble”. I was witness to the youth being awarded in front of me who had been breaking rules and working every day to implement some change, or just to get someone to listen.
I am lucky enough to have the privilege to get into trouble without dire consequences; and to my peers, we have the obligation to educate ourselves on the malfunctions of our society so that we can change them. Congressman Lewis put it best stating, “those of us that are still here, we have a moral obligation, a mission, and a mandate to stand up! To speak up! And speak out! And rescue our country and save our democracy. We must do it.” There are no excuses for the passivity and helplessness other youth and I endured a year ago after the election. As Congressman Lewis pointed out, youth have been leading the movement towards progress for years and it is our responsibility to continue. Thus, we have “to go out and do the necessary good for all humankind in the name of Bobby Kennedy”.
Viola Herzig is a rising junior at Kenyon College and is interning with Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights’ litigation and advocacy team this summer.