A conversation with… Kerry Kennedy

Wednesday 23 November 2022

In this interview, Kerry Kennedy, President of Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights, speaks to IBA Executive Director Mark Ellis about disenfranchisement in the US, hate speech restrictions and teaching future generations to be human rights defenders.

Mark Ellis (ME): In relation to human rights advocacy, there's been a particular focus on defenders and really ensuring that human rights defenders are protected as they do their work. How did you come about that [at the Robert F. Kennedy Foundation] and what are some of the examples that you've had now through the work?

Kerry Kennedy (KK): We learnt very quickly – even before we started, we understood that the way to be most effective would be working with partners. In the first years we gave awards, but we wouldn't go to India and say, ‘what are you doing on child brides?’ We would say instead, ‘who is the greatest advocate for social justice in this country?’ And then, ‘how can we help that person reach their goals?’ It wasn't really driven by the project or the substance. It was really having this belief that if you found the Martin Luther King or Mahatma Gandhi or Malala of that country and you helped that person, it would be most effective because when we leave, that person's going to be there.

ME: You've had a real focus here, in your work, with the concept ‘Speak Truth to Power’, a concept that I think many people probably have already heard about and will know. Tell us a little bit about what that is, because it coincides with finding and supporting those that are speaking out against human rights abuses.

The goal there is so that when they look in the mirror, they no longer see a victim or passer-by. They see a defender

KK: We have three large programmes at RFK Human Rights. One holds governments accountable. One works with the business sector. And then we believe if you get governments to behave and the businesses behave, if you don’t get the next generation, it'll be for nought because it'll fall apart. This is our human rights education training programme. We've trained about five million students worldwide; it goes from kindergarten through to law school.

An example of how it works is when a child is 12 years old, they have to take something called language arts. We give the students two or three articles about child slavery and child labour in the manufacture of chocolate. So, they read those articles, and then they have to write a poem called ‘Dear Bobby’, explaining what it feels like to be a child in slavery and in the chocolate fields. They're doing text analysis. They're doing social emotional learning, empathy, and they're learning the skill set. The teacher has to teach poetry. Then a few weeks later, they have to do expository writing. We give them the same three articles and now they have to write a business letter to those CEOs, explaining what the problem is and asking what their solutions are. So it's, again, text analysis, social, emotional learning – translating something that was an emotional issue into a fact-based argument and then a skill set.

Through that and classroom discussion, they start to see that they have a role to play in creating change on these big international issues. The goal there is so that when they look in the mirror, they no longer see a victim or passer-by. They see a defender. And that's what we want those kids to be. We need them to be human rights defenders.

ME: Quite remarkable to focus so early in this person's life, because that's where you really embed these concepts you've alluded to. The US has in the past, I think we could say, had the moral high ground on human rights. But that has changed pretty dramatically for me, at least, if you accept that premise that we have weakened our stand on human rights here in the US, and there’s kind of an American exceptionalism to human rights. How do we regain that here?

KK: I think that some of our leaders have been confused about what the greatest strength is that America has. Some people think it’s our economy, because we’ve had the strongest economy in the history of the world, but that’s not our greatest strength. Some people think it’s our military, the biggest army in the history of the world; that’s not our greatest strength. The greatest strength we have is the idea of America. And that idea is not exclusive to our country.

The greatest strength we have is the idea of America

But the idea of America is the idea that you can have a place of freedom, you can have a place that's a meritocracy. You can have a place where you are not judged by the colour of your skin, but by the content of your character, that you can live a decent life if you work hard, that your children will have a better life than you do. All of those types of things.

There was confusion about that. Carter was not my favourite president, but he was very big on human rights. And then Reagan came in and not so much, except for anti-communism, but terrible policies in Latin America. Then we had Clinton and you had this kind of strengthening of the human rights norms, and then you had Bush come in. The day of September 11, the day after September 11, headlines in France and in Iran and across the world. But Iran – think about this – said ‘We are all Americans’.

After the invasion of Iraq and not just disastrous war and all the death and destruction, the US was the most hated country on Earth. And that's insanity. Why would we do that to this country? And why would we do it to the world? Then you get Obama again, this kind of resurgence of commitment to these issues. And then we had Trump in. I mean, he was a complete disaster, as we all know.

We're at our best when we're open, when we're accepting, when we have faith in ourselves and in one another, in our communities and in the world, and that we really, truly believe in democracy and we want everybody to have a stake in the future. I would say that's part of it.

There is another part which is about the elections and what's going on in our country and why is there this stark division between Democrats and Republicans today. And that begins with: there is a large group of Americans, mostly white, mostly undereducated, mostly men, who believe that they had a deal with America, a deal with our country. And that deal was, if you get through high school, maybe some college if you don't get into huge trouble, we'll give you a job and it will be a backbreaking, mind-numbing job. They’re either going to throw you down a coal mine at the age of 20 and not bring you up until you're 65 and you'll emerge with black lung disease and you'll die by 67. Or we're going to put you in a factory every day for the next 45 years, but if you do that, you're going to get certain things. You're going to get job security for the rest of your life. You're going to be in a union, so you will have good benefits. You'll have healthcare, you'll have a retirement package. You'll get two weeks off a year where you can go on vacation. You'll make enough money to buy a house that you can pass onto your children, we’ll educate your children so they'll have a better job than you do. You'll live in a community you can be proud of, that you'll help build and you'll build the richest, most powerful country on earth. And that's a good life, you're doing something very positive.

Part one is really understanding that we're at our best when we're open, when we're accepting, when we have faith in ourselves and in one another, in our communities and in the world

So they took that deal and then once their back was broken or their lungs were full of black lung disease, the factory moved overseas or the coal mine shut down. And then the unions had been broken. There were no more union jobs. They could only go to Walmart and get a job [at] minimum wage, which is what their 13-year-old daughter was doing. And then they are in 2008 in the housing crisis. They found out their house was underwater. They don't own their house and they're not going to be able to pass it onto their kids. And then [the US government] didn't invest in education, so their kids are not going to have a better education than they do and are not going to be able to have better lives. People are mad. Then at the same time there is this huge economic collapse in their lives and in the lives of everybody they know. There's all of this social upheaval going on.

ME: If we are in this kind of darkness, which has been the catalyst to the rise of populism, nationalism – certainly it's existed in this country as it exists in other countries – that's a pretty big gap between the reality that you're setting and where we need to get back to. Is that possible or are we in this situation, [in the US], for the foreseeable future?

KK: At the same time as there is this economic collapse, there's also this social upheaval. On the social side, this is the anger [directed] at Hillary Clinton, but it's personified by a woman who's [wagging] her finger right in their nose. She's the smartest kid in the class, and she's saying girls are as good as boys and Blacks are as good as whites. And that guy, that immigrant who used to mow your lawn, is now your boss and you better be grateful that you even have a job. Your 13-year-old daughter can get pregnant and walk down the street and get an abortion. She doesn't even need to tell you about it. You have to pay for it out of your taxes. And men can marry men and women can marry women. And people can be called they/them. And [this group of Americans are] saying, ‘What is all that? That doesn't make sense. Where is this all coming from?’

So, one day they walk down the street and they get six sticks of dynamite and they throw it down the toilet and they light it on fire. And they say, ‘This might blow up my apartment, but it's going to get your attention, not Donald Trump’. And that's the anger. People feel it's an anger, it's frustration, and it's directed at the social issues because the economic ones are impossible to fix.

We need to have conversations. We need to understand each other. We need to start to fix the structural issues and have more open dialogue about the social issues

I think that's what's going on now. What do we need to do to change that? We need to understand that people are in a lot of pain, people who would disagree with people on every social issue. I'm on the other side. But I see that pain and I empathise with it and want to try and figure out ways to work together to address that. And that's what we need to do. We need to have conversations. We need to understand each other. We need to start to fix the structural issues and have more open dialogue about the social issues. You can see the changes that are happening. And people's hearts can be softened.

Audience questions

Q: I would like to go back to the beginning of your presentation. I was impacted by how you describe the pain that society feels as the deal that was promised to them is not delivered. If we accept this premise that meritocracy was a policy that was brought for political reasons, how can we resolve this?

KK: I'm understanding you're saying that the idea, the myth, of meritocracy was just put out there for political gain. But it was never true. I wouldn't quite agree with that. The US as a meritocracy – it's never been true. We've never lived up to our potential in this country. We've never lived up to all of our dreams. We all have to work towards making this country what it must be. And that's true not just for our country, but it's true for the whole world. We must stop climate change. We must treat women with dignity. We must take care of our children all over the world. We must have access to healthcare – these are all dreams. And there are structures in our societies that are structures of oppression that we need to break down bit by bit, piece by piece, that are stopping those dreams from being realised. That's the quest for all of us.

Q: The question that I have for you is related to hate speech and the intersection between hate speech restrictions and human rights. As we know in our country, our First Amendment protects almost all speech, but in many parts of the world, there are greater restrictions on hate speech. And I'm very interested in knowing your thoughts about that.

KK: I'm against the open marketplace for hate speech. Even Elon Musk said he's against that for Twitter this week. Imagine that. A lot of human rights issues are difficult because they're a conflict of rights. You have legitimate rights by one person asserted by one person or a group versus legitimate rights asserted by another group. And then you're trying to figure out what the balance is. I can't tell you exactly what the balance should be, but we don't have it right. That becomes especially tricky when it's mixed up with criminal law, because that's different from policy. That's different from Twitter's policy. That's different from what somebody is going to do, what the corporation will allow or not allow, what educational institutions will allow or not allow. I think there are really complicated issues.

This is an abridged version of the interview with Kerry Kennedy. The filmed interview can be viewed here.