Our Voices

Human Rights Education inspiration Prejean talks social justice, activism, on her 84th Birthday

On her 84th birthday, Sister Helen Prejean showed few, if any, signs of slowing down.

Prejean – the subject of a Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights Speak Truth to Power lesson plan that has reached roughly 5 million students since 2000 – is the nun who wrote the best-selling book Dead Man Walking and, later, was portrayed by Susan Sarandon in the Oscar-winning movie based on the book.

She appeared at DePaul University in Chicago to discuss social justice and decarceration with activist and author Barbara Crain Major, who recently co-wrote the book Deconstructing Racism: A Path Toward Lasting Change. The two met at a housing project in Louisiana, where Crain Major began one of the first workshops focused on white privilege.

Over the years, the pair have marched together, demanding change, both against the death penalty and mass incarceration.

Prejean, who joined the Sisters of St. Joseph of Medaille in 1957, was uncompromising in her criticism of the Catholic Church’s perpetuation of racism in the past. However, she also noted the late Pope John XXIII’s issuance of the encyclical Pacem in Terris (Peace on Earth) in 1963, which cited the Universal Declaration of Human Rights as a grounding principle and beacon for the future. “Man has the right to live,” he wrote. “He has the right to bodily integrity and to the means necessary for the proper development of life, particularly food, clothing, shelter, medical care, rest, and, finally, the necessary social services. In consequence, he has the right to be looked after in the event of ill health; disability stemming from his work; widowhood; old age; enforced unemployment; or whenever through no fault of his own he is deprived of the means of livelihood.”

“It’s human rights that becomes the path toward truth and justice,” Prejean said.

Crain Major herself is on that path. She describes herself as an anti-racist community organizer, echoing the frequent words of Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights President Kerry Kennedy: “Every positive change in the United States (and beyond) has happened through organizing.”

Still, she noted, “We have to be more intense through our organizing. Sometimes, it feels that this country desegregated, but it never integrated.”

A copy of Prejean’s lesson plan can be found here.