From left, Susan L. Abrams, Illinois Holocaust Museum CEO; and Kerry Kennedy at the Speak Truth to Power exhibit.

By Ellen Braunstein, Special to Chicago Jewish News

Digna Ochoa, a nun and one of the foremost human rights defenders in Mexico, was searching for a woman’s husband. He had been secretly abducted by police, beaten badly and was rumored to be at a military hospital.

Like many union activists, he had been rounded up, tortured and thrown into jail. Ochoa walked past the entry guards during a shift change at the hospital. She opened the room door and with all the authority she could muster said to the room guards: “You get out of here right now. This is my client and I’m his lawyer. I get five minutes with him alone.” On her way out, she assumed a martial arts attack position and more guards backed away.

“They were so shocked to see a woman and a nun and an indigenous person,” said Kerry Kennedy, 58, an American human rights activist and writer, who is the seventh of 11 children of Robert F. Kennedy. She spoke recently at the Illinois Holocaust Museum and Education Center in Skokie. “Digna told me that she exhibited so much anger at what police have done to her, her family, her community and country, that it gave her a centering force. The guards backed off and that gave her the chance to escape.”

Kennedy interviewed Ochoa and nearly 50 other activists, who risk their lives to obtain social justice in over 35 countries. Kennedy’s book, ‘Speak Truth to Power: Human Rights Defenders Who Are Changing Our World,’ with its stunning portraits by Pulitzer-prize winning photographer Eddie Adams, is the basis for a new exhibit at the Holocaust museum’s Take a Stand Center.

Kennedy spoke to a crowd of 300 and gave a tour of the Speak Truth to Power exhibit. Those featured in the exhibit have defended justice in the areas of political rights, freedom of expression, honor killings, demilitarization, environmental activism, mental health, children’s rights and national self-determination. 

This year marks the 50th anniversary of Senator Robert Kennedy’s presidential campaign and assassination. Kerry Kennedy, who is president of Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights, peppered her talk with anecdotes about her father. She and her young siblings visited the FBI building on an historic day which her father noted in a letter to her. “Today two African- Americans were allowed to register at the University of Alabama over the objection of the Alabama governor. I hope these events are long passed by the time you get your pretty little head to college—love and kisses, Daddy.”

A turning point in Kerry Kennedy’s advocacy work came during a summer as a young teen volunteering for Amnesty International. She helped document abuses committed by U.S. immigration officials against refugees from El Salvador. “Immigration issues were not in any newspaper at the time. This was all new, shocking information. Somebody handed me a document called the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. I read that document and it changed my life.”

The historic document was adopted by the United Nations in 1948. “It came out of the horrors of the Holocaust, that there are certain rights that are so fundamental to being a human being that it doesn’t matter what the government is, we all have an obligation to uphold them.” For Kennedy, it explained at a young age shocking personal events that left her feeling outraged and confused– the rape of two of her best high school friends, the death of a friend from HIV-AIDS, one of the first victims. All were big secrets back then.

“I started to realize that all the crazy and insane things that were so hard in my life had one thing in common: they were all violations of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Reading that document, I turned from somebody who felt like a victim to somebody who felt like an activist. I found an agency and I could make a difference in using that document to stop those violations.”

Faith plays a strong role in the lives of many human rights defenders. People like Archbishop Desmond Tutu believe that “We don’t have a God who says ‘ah gotcha,’ but one who lifts us up, dusts us off and tells us to try again. To me, those are the defenders of human rights who on the one hand are trying to stop the atrocities and on the other hand have this faith in the capacity of the human spirit to triumph even under the worst of circumstances.”

They have profound lessons for all of us, she says. “These are actual real human beings who walk among us. I think that sometimes we sort of seal our saints in stained glass and they are so high above us we’re no longer challenged by their lives here on earth. But these are literally living, breathing human beings who challenge each of us to find the courage within, to create change and to make our communities and our country and our world the way it should be, one of justice and compassion.”

The Speak Truth to Power exhibit continues through June 24. Find out more at https://www.ilholocaustmuseum.org/ or call (847) 967-4800.

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