Doing Well By Doing Good: An Interview with Kerry Kennedy, Author and Human Rights Advocate

10/04/2016 04:18 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017


We have perceptions about people in politics, even more so when they are the kids of famous politicians. Kerry Kennedy is nothing short of caring, smart and full of kindness. Before meeting her, I had read about her work as a lawyer in Washington D.C. and, like anyone else, was familiar with her father- the late Robert F. Kennedy's- history and career.

It was through meeting her that I learned about her devotion to justice and equality, her dedication to the advancement of human rights and her tireless work towards achieving all of this. You can feel how much she really cares about her mission in her words, reminding you that this is something directly connected to her Dad's vision.

I am happy to share with all of you an interview with my friend, Kerry Kennedy, and hope that you find her answers as profound and engaging as I did.

Your father, the late Robert F. Kennedy, devoted his life and career to social justice issues. How did he influence your path to human rights advocacy?

My earliest memories are of visiting the justice department. I have a letter from one of my visits. It is dated June 11, 1963 and reads:

Dear Kerry,

Today was a historic day, not only because of your visit. A few moments ago, over the objections of the governor, 2 negroes integrated the University of Alabama. I hope these troubles will be long over long before your pretty little head is at college.

Imagine the idealism of a man who, having sent in the National Guard in order to protect James Meredith, could say, only 5 years later, with heartfelt conviction, 40 years from now we will have an African American president of the United States.

My father championed the disenfranchised from Watts to the Mississippi Delta. He battled corrupt union bosses and protected Alabama freedom riders; He helped his brother avert nuclear war during the Cuban Missile Crisis and was an architect of the war on poverty; he fought against organized crime and he fought for juvenile justice reform; he settled Indian claims and passed the Criminal Justice Act, he sought the release of Cuban prisoners and brought about bail reform, he integrated the University of Mississippi, protected the march on Washington, and drafted the Voting Rights Act. He marched with Cesar Chavez and opposed the Vietnam War. He soothed those who suffered and he suffered himself. He fought racism, lauded courage, and called for peace.

I believe people identified with his unique mixture of passion and pragmatism, which complemented rather than contained each other. He allocated his energies to the attainable and useful, but his passion gave him a broader vision.

He could see things others considered unachievable and ask, why not? This mixture of compassion for those who suffer and real politik marked his public life and nothing illustrates this characteristic more than his devotion to the democratic system. My father loved democracy. He loved the ancient Greeks because they invented democracy, and he shared their contempt for those who refused to participate in the political process.

He believed that we face almost insurmountable problems as a nation and a planet, and that the only system that could hope to cope with these problems is a democratic one.

Democracy, he believed, is the only system that can harness the energies of all our diverse peoples. He understood that while democracy creates inefficiencies that are expensive for society, the alternatives, in the long term, are much more expensive--and deadly.

At least in part because of his efforts to guarantee a franchise to black citizens, constitutional democracy was realized in the United States for the first time in our history during his life.

His intellectual devotion to democracy supported his visceral passion for justice.
He knew that the democratic system was the creation of idealists, and so it would take enormous discipline to make such a system work

He believed that the rule of law holds a democratic society together and that justice delayed is democracy denied.

He quoted what Montesquieu wrote in 1748, that god created all men equal, but society, in its natural course, will rob them of their equality, which they can recover only by protection of the law.

As Attorney General, he sought to assure respect for the rule of law, but he understood that justice would require more than that.

He knew he would need to partner with Martin Luther King, John Lewis and others.

So today Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights partners with the bravest people on earth--human rights defenders who risk imprisonment, torture and death for basic rights--LGBT activists in Uganda, women leaders in Guatemala, farm workers and criminal justice reformers here at home-- through Speak Truth to Power we tell their stories. Everything we do is inspired by Robert F Kennedy

Talk about Speak Truth to Power. Why do we need to bring human rights to students in the classroom?

Through Speak Truth to Power, we educate and train the next generation of human rights defenders to stop the bullies from the playground to the presidential palace. Our curriculum is taught from kindergarten through law school. In addition, students perform a play, participate in music and video contests, read the book, and participate through on line learning materials. We reached about one million people a year, working with students to create change in their classrooms, communities, countries and our shared world. Our curriculum is consistent with the common core, and is integrated into the lessons teachers already are responsible for teaching.

Let me share an example.

In eighth grade, students study language arts. We give them materials on bonded child labor in coco fields in Africa. They then write poems from the perspective of the child slaves, as though they were writing to Robert Kennedy.

Here's an example...

Where are you Bobby?

My family is all I think about

We are marginalized

Like an abandoned dog

I taste the tears dripping down my dirty face

My legs feel like collapsing

From how much pain I am in

I hope that someone would come and save me

Like Bobby, a real hero.

I see the red blood dripping, because I fell again

I wish I had my mom, to give me a band aid

However, all I have is a man screaming

Get up! Get up! Get up!

Never again will I feel the joy and happiness I once had .

The students learn text analysis, empathy and poetry. Their next lesson plan is on expository writing.

We give them the names and addresses of the CEO's of Mars and Hershey, and the students write in perfect business letter format, asking what those companies are doing to assure there is no child labor in their products.

Finally, students make post cards describing conditions for coco workers, describing the problem in a sentence or two, and that there is a solution. Then they tape free trade chocolates to each post card.On Halloween, whenever they are handed a chocolate, they give back the post card- reverse trick or treat.

At the end of the course, the kids self-identify as human rights defenders.

This has monumental implications for their sense of self esteem and their belief in their own capacity to create change

And that's what the RFKennedy Human Rights is all about- it's Robert Kennedy's commitment to social justice his commitment to youth, and his belief in the capacity of one person to make a difference.

I'm sure you have many, but who is your favorite human rights defender?

It is not possible to say who my favorite is, I am so inspired by all the people with whom we work--champions like Malala Yousafzai who dedicated her life for the right of girls to attain an education, Holocaust survivor, Elie Wiesel who devoted his life to reminding the horror and to stopping genocides across our globe and people like Kofi Woods from Liberia.

Under the tyrant Samuel Doe, Kofi had been imprisoned and tortured by the Minister of Justice and his three thugs. When Doe was exiled and his arch enemy, the tyrant Charles Taylor took charge, those four men found themselves in the very cell where Kofi had been left to rot. He visited them in prison, and asked if they had been tortured. The answer: "Not yet." After Kofi assured them they would not be mistreated, the former Justice Minister lamented that he had squandered the opportunity to reform the prison system, and was now left to reap the horror he had sowed. When no lawyer in the country was willing to defend them at trial, Kofi Woods took their case. Kofi knew he would be considered a traitor by his constituents, and an enemy of the new regime, never the less, he represented the very men who had tortured him. Why? "Because," he said, "a system of justice has to be a system of justice for everyone."

How has your political background/knowledge influenced your activism?

I grew up outside of Washington D.C., a town in which the largest industry is government and in which almost everyone I knew was involved in creating policies which impact people across our country and around the globe. I understood at a young age that administrations come and go, but laws stay. So I decided to become a lawyer in order to help create a more just and peaceful world, not just in a fleeting moment but in a way that will endure from one generation to the next.

For over thirty years, you've devoted your work to human rights. Outside of that, what accomplishment are you most proud of?

Raising my three daughters, Cara, Mariah and Michaela.

What can the average individual do to raise awareness of a human rights issue important to him/her?

First thing is to gain an understanding of the issue involved; read the papers, research the issues, gain some expertise. Second, learn skill sets that will make you be effective in creating change, you can do that through Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights Speak Truth to Power education program, through Amnesty International, or any number of ways. Third, it's important to overcome the intimidation factor, that voice in our heads that keeps telling us why we can't do something "we don't have time, we don't have knowledge, we don't have enough expertise." The truth is the people who are suffering likely do not have as great a voice as you do, as much power to create change as you do, so in a sense it is up to all of us to work and try to create justice in our society.

Finally, do you think by doing good, you're more successful?

I suppose for me my work is not measured by traditional notions of success. Don't get me wrong, I am as competitive as the next person, probably more so, and I am laser-focused on winning our cases and winning over our adversaries. That said, my work is not merely a profession, it's a calling. And so I feel that I need to do this, kind of like Sisyphus, I am going to roll the boulder up the hill, no matter how many times it rolls down because that I why I am here on earth.