Posts tagged human rights
Rigoberta Menchú

In the summer of 1990, I blundered into a bloody civil war that few people outside of Guatemala knew or cared about. I was in the country to learn Spanish, but after finding the beautiful colonial town of Antigua choking with Anglophone gringos – not the cultural experience I had in mind – I made my way to the out-of-the-way hill-town of Huehuetenango, the last stop before the Mexican border. 

There, I found myself in the heart of the Guatemalan Highlands, home to indigenous Mayan villages, each one a different orgy of color thanks to the residents' traje, or local dress. In addition to its own homespun costume, each village had a unique agricultural tradition, whether harvesting salt to growing maize to managing livestock to cultivating garlic. They traded amongst each other on designated market days of mostly women and children – able-bodied men were notably few. I vowed to visit every village I could in the three months I would be living there. I wanted to learn everything about the indigenous Maya and their way of life.

What I learned, immediately, was that they were on the verge of extinction. For over 30 years, the indigenous people of Guatemala had suffered violence under a succession of repressive, dictatorial governments – all propped up and trained by the United States.

That’s also when I learned how today’s hero accidentally brought three decades of genocidal crimes against humanity to the attention of the international community. She was only three years older than me, but she'd already witnessed extremes that most of us can never even imagine.

Here’s her story, and the context in which her journey would eventually lead to the Nobel Peace Prize…

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Survivors of the US Indian Boarding School System

From the vantage point of the 21st century, when we think or talk about “holocaust” – meaning slaughter on a mass scale – we think of Hitler’s extermination of 6 million Jews during World War II. But this was not history’s first genocide – and, sadly, it wasn't the last. In his book, Mein Kampf, Hitler states that he modeled his efforts on American’s treatment of slaves and native people. The approach hinged on breaking spirits by forcibly separating parents from children, rounding them up and making them live together in a concentrated way, and stripping them of the traditional signifiers of their culture and society.

Founding Father and US President, Thomas Jefferson, spoke of the need to “eliminate” or “extirpate” Native Americans. President Andrew Jackson promulgated the 1830 Indian Removal Act, resulting in the genocidal Trail of Tears. Civil War General, Philip Sheridan, was known for his slogan, “the only good Indian is a dead Indian.” 

This is the story of the unknown, unsung, nameless thousands who confronted the savage approach of their self-styled "civilizers." They are heroes simply because they endured.

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The Statue of Liberty

Some heroes can inspire through their mere existence, rather than by what they do. They are symbols, infused with a people's highest aspirations and most cherishes ideals.

That describes our hero today: Lady Liberty, the 225-ton statue that stands watch over New York harbour. She has greeted generations upon generations of despised and unwanted who made the New World their destination and who helped to build the America that many still revere today.

While she's now mainly a tourist attraction, Lady Liberty's biography harkens back to another battle over human rights that consumed the US for much of its history.

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Azucena Villaflor

This is not the first time in history that a government with terribly misguided intentions has tried to enforce its policies by breaking up families. And, sadly, it isn't the first time this has happened in the United States: for over 100 years beginning in the 1860s, Native American children were taken from their families and adopted into white families or brought up in boarding schools with the express purpose of robbing them of the language and culture of their birthright. It's also not the first time that parents have stood up to such abuse against humanity and fought back, even at the risk of torture or death.

Meet Azucena Villaflor. Hers is a short story. But an important one.

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Deitrich Bonhoeffer

The study of History most often focuses on the rise and fall of demagogues and dictators. But you can be sure that behind each one there are stories – some little known, others perhaps never told – of the brave individuals who made it their life's work to stop them. Even at their own peril.

This is one such story.

In the early 1930s in Germany, there arose to national prominence a man with very peculiar views. His name was Adolf Hitler and he blamed Germany’s post-WWI humiliation and economic failure on the Jews and the communists.

The country's economic distress was more realistically due to the harsh punishment Germany received for being on the losing side of “the war to end all wars” – a nickname for WWI. But paybacks imposed by the victors were so excessive they bankrupted the country and plunged its people into abject, crushing poverty. This created a witch’s brew of bitterness and pain: the perfect environment for a demagogue – a leader who seeks support through prejudice rather than rational argument – to exploit.

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William Barak

In public museums as well as private art galleries all over Australia, you will find the highly prized works of William Barak. With good reason: they are beautiful. They also tell the story of the culture of Australia's indigenous Kulin people before, during, and after the arrival of white European colonizers. It's a story Barak knew well because he lived it. 

Beruk Barak was born near what is now Melbourne, Australia, in 1823, roughly 40 years after the British sailed into Melbourne Harbor. It wasn't long before the white settlers started pushing the native aboriginal people around, scamming them out of their land.

Barak's Wurundjeri clan was one of five tribes to form an alliance called the Kulin Nation. The Kulins referred to the land that had fed their people for millennia  60,000 to 100,000 years  as the "Yarra." To them, the Yarra was sacred. At the time of Barak's birth, it was deeply under threat. So too, therefore, was Kulin culture.

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Heroes of the First U.S. School Shooting

Today, we shine a light on ordinary people doing extraordinary things in the face of terror brought on by gun violence, while simultaneously tipping our hat to the youth now on the front lines of the #NeverAgain movement.

Enough is indeed enough. We applaud you. We stand by you. And to put the struggle for sensible gun control measures in greater context, we offer you the story of the first school shooting in US history...

...52 years ago.

Far too long for this deathly epidemic not to have been eradicated.

At first, no one realized what was happening...

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Ruth Bader Ginsburg

Hers was a long-tail plan: Chip away at the manifestations of social inequality one case at a time, plant “seeds” of social progress with powerful words, and provide ground-up support to the movements effecting positive change, all as a means toward constructing an unshakeable legal foundation for women’s rights and gender equality.

Celia Bader (née Amster) was brilliant. So smart, she graduated from high school at 15. But it was the early 1900s and her parents, unable to afford to further educate all their children, supported her brother’s future instead. Celia went to work to help put her brother through college. But she never forgot her love of learning or her dream of having a career. When it was her turn to be a mother, she took an active role in the education of her daughter, Joan Ruth, instilling in the girl a love of reading, and setting her on the path to becoming a teacher.

Ruth would not disappoint...

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Harriet Tubman

She risked her life to escape from slavery. Once free, she risked her life again... and again... to help others gain their freedom as well.

No one knows exactly when Araminta “Minty” Ross was born. Few bothered to record the origins of the enslaved. We know only that her mother was named Rit, a cook on the Brodess family plantation in Maryland. Rit had nine children. Three of her daughters were sold into the Deep South by her master and never heard from again. When her master attempted to sell her youngest son Moses, Rit hid him in her cabin and promised to split the head of the first man who entered to take him. That time, the sale was called off.

As a child, Harriet did chores for local white families. She was beaten frequently for working too slowly. On one occasion, a white man she offended struck the five-foot slip of a girl in the head with a two-pound weight, fracturing her skull. After that, she suffered seizures, likely from epilepsy, the remainder of her life.

In her 20s, Minty could no longer bear life. She proclaimed that she feared life in captivity more than death. She decided to run away to the North, where slavery had been abolished. Unable to openly tell her mother goodbye, she bid adieu with a song: "I'll meet you in the morning … I'm bound for the promised land." That's also when she changed her first name to Harriet, her mother's full name, and adopted the last name Tubman.

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Helen Keller & Anne Sullivan

Though robbed of speech, along with her hearing and sight, Helen Keller learned how to make herself heard more clearly than most of us, all thanks to Anne Sullivan.

Helen Keller was born on June 27, 1880, in Tuscumbia, Alabama. A perfectly healthy and thoroughly precocious child, she is said to have started speaking at 6 months old and was already walking by 1. But when she was just 19 months old, Helen was stricken by an illness -- called "brain fever" by the family doctor, it was likely Scarlet Fever or Meningitis. Whatever it was, it ravaged poor Helen. She survived, but she was left permanently deaf and blind.

At the time, disabled Americans like Helen were labeled "deaf and dumb" and more often than not committed to asylums for life where they were treated like caged animals. Helen's parents, however, though not particularly wealthy, were proud. They refused to give up on their daughter. They knew in their hearts that she was intelligent. It was just a matter of unlocking it.

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Mariama Ba

Being an oppressed, second-class citizen doesn't mean you don't have anything to say ,and that what you do have to say won't resonate with people all over the world. It might even spur them to action and change lives for the better.

Introducing... Mariama Bâ.

Mariama Bâ was born in Dakar in 1929, the capital of what is now Senegal, then French West Africa. Mariama's mother died shortly after she was born. That's when her father, a very busy high-profile civil servant for the French government, sent Mariama to live with her maternal grandparents.

As conservative Muslims, Mariama's grandparents did not believe that girls should be educated. However, though largely absent through her childhood, Mariama's father insisted that his daughter learn to read and write. He made it possible for her to attend a private French-language school.

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