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Khalilah Harris and Kerry Kennedy discuss RFK Human Rights’ launch of the Speak Truth To Power education initiative; engaging young people in schools to be aware of and take action on global human rights issues; and, the need to support teachers with the right tools and resources to be effective in the classroom

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DR. KHALILAH M. HARRIS: I’m Dr. Khalilah Harris for The Real News Network, here with Kerry Kennedy, president of Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights, discussing an exciting initiative that they’ve just launched: The Speak Truth to Power Initiative. Good morning, Kerry, welcome.

KERRY KENNEDY: It’s great to be with you.

DR. KHALILAH M. HARRIS: Thank you. Will you talk a little bit about the Speak Truth to Power Initiative, and how it came about?

KERRY KENNEDY: Sure. So, Speak Truth to Power was a book that I wrote, and it’s been created into a human rights education program which is taught to about 1.2 million students across the globe. We are now launching a relationship with Discovery Education, which will bring this education program to 30 million students across the United States each year for the next three years. So we’re very, very excited about it.

But Speak Truth teaches human rights through human rights. And it really teaches students about community organizing; social emotional learning; how to create change in their classroom, their community, our country; and how to stop bullying in their lives. So it’s really stopping bullying, from the classroom to the presidential palace.

DR. KHALILAH M. HARRIS: Thanks so much. You mentioned the presidential palace. The current climate in the United States and in some parts of the world, we see a lot of vitriol in politics, and we see in some ways a diminishing of human rights and honoring of human rights and the fight for human rights. Will you talk about how this curriculum is intended to- and this tool, because it’s not just a curriculum, but this initiative will work to support educators in really talking about some of the issues that we see today, when we have people in the highest office in the United States of America in some ways engaging in behavior that we’re trying to teach our students to be better than?

KERRY KENNEDY: Yes, absolutely. So, we don’t go into a school and ask teachers to teach an whole course in an area which they, frankly, don’t know a lot about, the international human rights mechanisms. Rather we go and we say, what must you teach? And we integrate our lesson plans into what they’re already teaching.

So let me give you an example. In eighth grade, 12-year-olds take a course in language arts. So they have to learn about poetry. So we, our first lesson plan, we give them two or three articles about the manufacture of chocolate; 70 percent of the chocolate consumed in the United States is manufactured by children in slavery or child labor. Now, most kids are shocked to hear that the chocolate they’re eating is made by children in slavery or child labor, but that’s the reality. They read the two or three articles, and then they have to [write] a poem in iambic pentameter called Dear Bobby, a reference to my dad, and talking about what it feels like to be a child in child labor.

So they’re learning, they’re learning text analysis. They’re doing social emotional learning, because they’re learning how to empathize, put themselves in somebody else’s shoes. And they’re learning poetry and they’re writing this iambic pentameter. Then a few weeks later the second lesson plan is around expository writing. So we give them the two or three articles again, and we give them the name and address of the CEOs of Hershey’s, Mars, and Godiva. And then they have to write a letter stating the facts, and urging change. So again it’s social emotional learning, because- again, it’s text analysis. Then it’s social emotional learning, taking something that was an emotional issue and transforming that into facts and advocacy. And then a skill set, how to write a business letter. Where does the stamp go, where does the return address go.

Then The final lesson in that series is- this happens in end of October. We give them five by eight index card, and they write the problem in one sentence, and then they attach a piece of fair trade chocolate, and they say here’s the problem, there’s the solution. It’s using fair trade chocolate. And then on Halloween they do reverse trick or treat. So whenever somebody gives them a piece of chocolate, they say thank you very much, and they hand them back the card. And through that series of steps kids start to see themselves not as victims, not as people who see an overwhelming problem in the world that they can do nothing about, but they see themselves as the activists. That they can take a stand, that they can articulate a problem, and that they can do something about it. And that’s really what we’re trying to do. The most transformative piece of this education initiative is transforming not the world but how the child sees himself or herself in the world, and her ability to create change in her environment.

DR. KHALILAH M. HARRIS: Thank you. We see young people in organizations like the Baltimore Algebra Project in Baltimore, the Urban Youth Collaborative out of New York, and Zero Hour working on climate change, and young people really taking the reins around issues that are important to them. You have some amazing, amazing defenders that are highlighted in the tool. Is there a plan for RFK Human Rights to move the tool into a place where young people are seeing people working at the grassroots just like them, whether it be here in the United States, or around the globe. So not just the major figures, but some of the people in their own communities doing exactly what you just said, taking matters into their own hands and making sure that the world around them around them is a better place.

KERRY KENNEDY: So I’m so glad you asked that question. We have- this is a combination tool. So we have highlighted well-known defenders like Archbishop Tutu or Nelson Mandela or Malala and the like. But you also always have local defenders who are at the grassroots level creating change in their own communities, so that people don’t feel like you have to win the Nobel Peace Prize before you can become a human rights defender. But that everyday people who are changing things in their own small communities, or even their own classroom, are really creating a difference and making change.

DR. KHALILAH M. HARRIS: Great. You have in winter of 2018 a series of virtual viewings, or virtual field trips, as they’re called, scheduled. Will you talk a little bit about that, and how people should anticipate being able to use that to do some of this work?

KERRY KENNEDY: Absolutely. So this is, we’re so excited about our partnership with Discovery Education. This is going to reach 30 million students in classrooms all across- over 50 percent of the classrooms in the United States for middle school and high school. And in this tool you can turn on this 20-minute lesson and become a defender yourself. Watch what other people have done to create change. Learn about some of the great defenders in our country and around the world, and see what you can do about local issues. So there are people like Van Jones who started- now he’s well known, but at the time we met him he was just starting his career and really working on police brutality issues. You can learn about Malala, who has done so much work on the cutting edge trying to make sure that people have access, and girls in particular have access, to education. And you can learn about others who have made such an enormous difference in their countries.

DR. KHALILAH M. HARRIS: Kerry, you have been an activist for much of your life, in addition to being an attorney. Your father Robert F. Kennedy was attorney general, and often was willing to take a position, even when friends, colleagues, people around him were asking him to toe the party line, so to speak, was willing to take the right position. We have teachers around the country who are active in movements like the EduColor movement, or using tools like Teaching Tolerance and Facing History, Facing Ourselves to really facilitate exactly what you’re saying with our young people. Why is it so important for us to support educators having not only the tools, but the context and climates from district leadership and school leadership to engage our young people in this way?

KERRY KENNEDY: You know, I think educators are under attack like no time in our entire history. Teachers unions are being blamed for everything that’s going wrong in the education system. Teachers are underpaid, they don’t have the tools that they need in order to create change. So many teachers across our country take money out of their own paychecks just to make sure that their students have the tools that they need to come to school every day, pencils and paper and books, sometimes. So this is really a way to support educators who need that support, or who are looking for ways to make the classroom relevant to the students who are in it.

So I’ll tell you another example of that lesson plan that I really love. This is a mathematics question for a fifth grader. We say to them, there are 10,000 tomato pickers in south Florida working with the Coalition of Immokalee Workers. They each want a penny more per pound for every tomato that they pick. They work for 80 hours a week, and they work 180 days per year. How much- then 40 percent of those tomatoes are bought by Burger King. Burger King is owned 60 percent by by Goldman Sachs. How much would it cost Goldman Sachs to give them that penny more per pound? And how does that compare with the with the bonus paid to the top ten Goldman Sachs employees last year?

This was a really fun interesting lesson plan. Suddenly math, you’re going, wow, this is interesting, this is significant, this has resonance. If I can apply it to the tomato pickers in Florida, can I apply it to the teachers in my school district? Or you know, what else does this have meaning for? So I think these are ways of getting students to see that they have a role to play in our society, and that things are- and that these basic skill sets are applicable to real issues in their lives.

DR. KHALILAH M. HARRIS: That’s an amazing example. I mentioned the Baltimore Algebra Project earlier, and you know, Bob Moses is a proponent of how mathematics and social justice are so deeply connected. And the example you shared also talks about how young people can be engaged in the conversation around capitalism, and the ways that corporations or the 1 percent, for example, have access to resources, and what it means where people working to live their best lives every day want more to make sure they can live their best lives, and that their families have what they need. So that’s, that’s an amazing example.

KERRY KENNEDY: Absolutely. Let me just say on that example, I didn’t have those numbers exactly correct, so I don’t want anyone from Goldman Sachs calling me.

DR. KHALILAH M. HARRIS: I won’t check you for the math. Like you, I am also a lawyer. So whatever you just said made perfect sense to me. So what’s next for RFK Human Rights? What should we expect beyond the Speak Truth to Power Initiative, or how it might expand so that the mission that you seek around using education as a vehicle for young people to really get engaged can come to life?

KERRY KENNEDY: Well, the work we’re doing with Discovery is very, very exciting. But it’s also complementary to other work that we do with Speak Truth to Power. So for instance, we have a music contest that we do with the Grammy Awards, in which we challenge students to make music on social justice issues. And the winning musician, the winning song each year gets to play at a concert with, you know, famous stars. We have a video contest, where the winning video is played at the Tribeca Film Festival. And that’s really a launchpad for video careers. We also have a play that students put on called Speak Truth to Power, where they take on the roles of the human rights defenders.

So there’s a whole- there’s a whole world of additional tools that students can use, that teachers can use, that schools can use in school or afterschool programs that we’re so excited about. And then other things RFK Human Rights is doing- we are working very, very hard on mass incarceration, and specifically bail reform. So we’ve just had the largest bailout in the history of Texas last, in the last two weeks, which we’re really very, very excited about. You know, these are people who were in jail for no other reason than they’re too poor to make bail. So if you’re rich, you get out. If you’re poor, you get thrown in jail just for the only, the only reason is that are too poor to make bail. So we’re working on those initiatives across the country.

DR. KHALILAH M. HARRIS: That’s amazing. Kerry, will you tell us how educators or everyday citizens can get in touch with RFK Human Rights to either use any of the tools we talked about today, or just find out more about what you’re doing?

KERRY KENNEDY: Sure. You can just go online to Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights and look up our education page, or you can look up And either of those will bring you right to us, and we’ll get all of our materials out to you. It’s free. And we have education workshops that are also free across the country during the summer where teachers get certified, and it’s part of their continuing education certification. So these are all tools though we are sharing with teachers, and we’d love your help and participation. And the more the merrier.

DR. KHALILAH M. HARRIS: Kerry Kennedy, president of Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights, thank you so much for joining us this morning.


DR. KHALILAH M. HARRIS: I’m Dr. Khalilah Harris for The Real News Network. Stay with us as we continue to bring you independent news for the people by the people.

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Khalilah M. Harris is a host and executive producer at the Real News Network focused on the Baltimore Bureau, education reporting, and social commentary. Khalilah brings a unique perspective to curating content from an extensive career working to expand access to opportunity through an equity lens in community organizing, education, education policy, youth advocacy, and building an inclusive workforce. In addition to her background as an attorney and researcher, Khalilah brings experiences from the grassroots as a founder of a Baltimore City school focused on social justice, to co-founding a local community collaborative called the Coalition of Black Leaders in Education. She organizes nationally with the EduColor movement and served as the first Deputy Director of the White House Initiative on Educational Excellence for African-Americans. A proud alum of Morgan State University, Khalilah also obtained her doctorate in Educational Leadership from the University of Pennsylvania, and her law degree from the University of Maryland School of Law.