Human Rights Conference calls on students to save the world

By: Dominic Sanfilippo—Staff Writer

Surveying the room in front of him, President Dan Curran broke into a smile as he leaned against a podium at the opening lunch of the second biannual Social Practice of Human Rights Conference Friday, framed by swirling red and brown leaves and a dense grove of trees that take up most of the University of Dayton’s River Campus.

“What a warm gathering…what a remarkable gathering of friends,” President Curran said. “It may be a bit cold out, but it feels wonderful in here.”

In one sense, the room was quite diverse. At each table, one could find undergraduate students posing questions to faculty and researchers from around the world. Across the aisle, activist lawyers and UN researchers chatted and debated animatedly. They were wholly different, in life experience and worldview and personal identity.

However, they came together for a singular purpose: to explore how to make change in a troubled world through research and advocacy and promote human rights in both the corridors of power and in the world’s margins.

“We’re inspired by Pope Francis’ call to reflect on how we treat the world and one another, really,” said Mark Ensalaco, the director for the University of Dayton’s new Human Rights Center. “We read his call for change in his encyclical ‘Laudato Si’,’ and we saw it in his speeches to Congress and the United Nations…the time is now.”

For two days, scores of students, researchers, advocates and global figures gave panel presentations, keynote addresses and reflected deeply about the human rights violations around the world—humanitarian aid, climate change, refugees and immigrants, inequality and many more—while also engaging with the practice of rights work itself in the hallways of schools and universities and in the field.

“If the history of the Earth was captured in a single day…we humans have lived here for only a few seconds; yet, we have caused so much damage,” lamented Tariq Banuri, Ph.D., a lecturer at the University of Utah and a member of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, during his address in the final panel on the environment. “There is hope yet. However, we must buy ourselves more time.”

The human cost of the planet’s rapidly debilitating environment set an undertone for much of the conference; though, the topics ranged widely from the threat of government surveillance to privacy rights to an examination of how much TOMS shoes actually help those in need.

One of the key takeaways of the conference was the need and call to reflect on how entire structures need to change to get to the root of problems, whether it be the pervasive inequality that has put strain on people in every country to the actual space in which human rights education operates at universities.
“Too often, those that care about the rights of others live a double life,” said Cesar Rodriguez Garavito, the executive director of the Center for Law, Justice, and Society (Dejusticia) in Colombia and the conference’s keynote speaker.

“Who counts as a human rights actor? Going to Washington or Geneva is no longer as effective in getting things done…we must look to those on the ground and those in the in-between spaces. We need a new narrative of human rights,” Garavito said.

And those carrying out the new narrative in the years and decades ahead will be students and young people. Although they held different roles in the world of human rights, almost all the presenters had a similar message and a wish for UD students and young, passionate people around the world.

“Jump! Just jump. That’s the only way,” said Diana Samarasan, the executive director of the Disability Rights Fund. “It’s a wide world out there, and before we change it, we have to let it change us. The world changed all of us here. Now, it’s your turn. We need you.”

“You don’t just need to work for Human Rights Watch or Amnesty International to care about these issues and make a difference, although [those organizations] do amazing work. You can work in business or in participatory giving, or in engineering —the possibilities are endless,” echoed Mona Chun, the executive director of the International Human Rights Funders Group.

“Right, what matters is that you try and learn how power works, in order to spread it around and harness it for others,” interjected Jason Franklin, the executive director of Bolder Giving.

Despite the optimism, many of these human rights problems can seem overwhelming. How can so much change for the better, when the world seems so vast and the power of ordinary people so small? How, indeed, can UD students make change on campus and in their lives post-graduation?

The answer, as Richard Hiskes, Ph.D., of Grand Valley State reminded the conference in his closing remarks on the environment, lies in the ability of human beings to make promises to one another.

“Pope Francis said that we have defaulted on a promissory note to future generations, and that now is the time to honor it,” Hiskes said. “We have time to make things right, if only we remember how to make promises to one another, promises to the Earth, and remember that we are all connected, no matter how much distance separates us.”

Sometimes, the inspiration to create and foster light in the dark spaces of the world can come from around the globe; other times, it can be born down the road on Brown Street, as Jason Pierce, dean of the college of arts and sciences, reminded conference-goers at the closing lunch on Saturday.

“In May, actor and activist Martin Sheen gave a stirring address at our university’s commencement, where he reminded us of our duty to ‘heal a broken world wherever we may find it’,” Pierce said. He then paused, and looked out the large picture window at the leaves and forests outside.

“Sheen was born right down the road from this building…right here, in Dayton. People often find this city and fall in love with it…I think, as you all meet more Daytonians and UD students, you’ll understand why,” he said.

“When I look at our students- their passion and their energy- I know change will happen. I believe in them.”

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