Speaking Truth To Power: What The Annual Human Rights Conference Means For UD

Mary McLoughlin
Opinion Editor

On Oct. 3, Anand Giridharadas, author of “Winners Take All,” gave a keynote address as part of the annual UD Human Rights Center’s Social Practice of Human Rights conference. The conference spanned four days and brought academics, activists, and community members together to talk about human rights, justice, and what it would mean to take on Pope Francis’ imperative that our lives should be “going against the grain.”

After three days of discussing human rights and development work, Giridharadas challenged the idea that charities are always good. Giridharadas told the audience about his time as an Aspen Fellow, a program that organizes a cohort of elite and wealthy business leaders and encourages them to consider how they can do good by setting up philanthropic organizations. But this didn’t sit well with Giridharadas. When so many of the business practices that gave the elite their status also creates the wealth inequality at the source of injustices, he realizes that setting up charities on the side isn’t enough. 

So when Giridharadas was invited to speak to his cohort of Aspen Fellows, he told them, “I love this community, and I fear for all of us – myself very much included – that we may not be as virtuous as we think we are, that history may not be as kind to us as we hope it will, that in the final analysis our role in the inequities of our age may not be remembered well.”

His speech turned into a book where he argues that not only is philanthropy failing to solve inequality but that giving often makes things worse. He writes that philanthropy was a way for the elites to extend their political power. If they gave the resources to organizations working toward justice, they then had the authority to set the agendas. When governments provide social services, democracy works to ensure that these services are in line with the American people. But when elites decide which causes get money to spend which ways, no one holds them accountable. And, ultimately, the rich are not the group best equipped to protect the interests of the poor.

Just like Giridharadas did not let the Aspen Fellows ignore their positionality, the audience was reminded of ours. The question and answer portion of Giridharadas’ address started with a question from the moderator, Nayyera Haq: “Since we’re at a Catholic University, I have to ask. How much of what you’re doing is out of guilt?” 

We all laughed about Catholic guilt, and at one point in his talk Giridharadas made it pretty clear– “Jesus wouldn’t have liked the plutocrats.” But I wondered what it meant to listen to Giridharadas’ ideas about charity at a Catholic University. 

At one point in his address, Giridharadas pointed toward Pope Francis as a leader whose courage he admired. While the elites that Giridharadas criticizes practice philanthropy in ways that protect the institutions that give them power, Giridharadas noted that again and again Pope Francis has been vulnerable enough to challenge capitalism, environmental degradation, and militarism.  

Giridharadas said that Pope Francis’ courageous leadership inspired him to go through with his speech at the Aspen conference, even if it meant offending and isolating his powerful friends. He explained, “What’s the point of reaching the top of the mountain if you’re not going to say things those at the bottom of the mountain can’t say?” 

Listening to Giridharadas talk about the bravery in which Pope Francis practices his Catholicism made me think about my own position, both ideologically as part of the Catholic tradition and physically in the room we were in. The conference was being held at Curran Place, which houses University of Dayton’s Research Institute (UDRI). To get into the space each day, we walked past an Air Force plane parked outside. I wondered what it meant to talk about human rights and critique militarism in a building where tens of millions of dollars worth of research funding came from the Air Force.  

When Pope Francis visited the United States of America, he said, “Why do so many powerful people not want peace? Because they live off war, the arms industry is a serious matter! The powerful earn a living by producing and selling arms to countries: it is the industry of death, they make money from it.” His papacy reminds us that we cannot paint charity onto a church whose structure isn’t built upon foundations of justice. 

During his speech at the conference, Giridharadas explained that “woke capitalism,” the idea that businesses can do good through donations and foundations,“is a smoke-screen that masks a hypercapitalism that has already eradicated the American dream.” The same thing holds true about universities. Giridharadas told us that, “We create the culture that determines how we get ruled.” It cannot be enough to give thousands of dollars to human rights if millions of dollars are going toward war. 

Messages like Giridharadas’ and Pope Francis’ about “going against the grain” are hard to hear because they ask a lot of us by reminding us that we cannot just do good and justice on the side when we are done with the business of our everyday lives. Instead, we need to live our lives in a way where the choices we make at work, home, and school are all consistent with the values we commit to. 

When an audience member asked Giridharadas what we are supposed to do in the face of the unjust institutions that we might work with, in, and for, Giridharadas told us that we must make sure we take every opportunity possible to “Speak truth to power.” It’s on all of us to ask the same hard questions of the University of Dayton. We will only be the University for the Common Good when every dollar we earn, spend, and are given is used in the name of human rights, peace, and justice and against powers of capitalistic and militaristic violence and greed.

Photos courtesy of Christian Cubacub

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