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OP-ED: Nobel Laureates and Students Defending Human Rights, One Step at a Time

CHICAGO, Illinois, U.S., Apr 25 2012 (IPS) - I spent Monday morning in the library of Chicago’s Lincoln Park High School, listening to students talk about what the word “hero” means to them. This wasn’t any normal school day – in a few moments they would meet Dr. Muhammad Yunus, the father of micro-lending and 2006 Nobel Peace Prize Laureate.

And these weren’t any ordinary students, for the last few months they’ve been studying human rights defenders like Professor Yunus through the RFK Center’s Speak Truth to Power curriculum, and learning to self-identify as human rights defenders themselves.

The students asked Professor Yunus, “How did you accomplish this? How did you turn Grameen Bank into a 25,000-person company with millions of borrowers, and a business model that has revolutionised the movement to end global poverty?”

And Professor Yunus shared with them an essential truth about activism: he said it didn’t begin with grand gestures or established alliances; his movement wasn’t led by a government or defended by a military.

Grameen Bank, today known around the world as the “bank of the poor”, started in the village of Jobra, Bangladesh, with a 27-dollar grant out of Professor Yunus’s own pocket, loaned to 42 women selling baskets in a market.

That conversation at Lincoln Park High School encapsulated the message we’re all gathered in Chicago to promote: we must impart to our young people an understanding that they already have the tools and opportunity to make a difference in the world today, if only they’re willing to take the first step.

Later in the afternoon, I was honoured to share my thoughts with the Summit as a whole at the University of Illinois Chicago. I spoke about the essence of moral courage, which is the willingness to stand up in the face of adversity combined with the compassion to do so on behalf of others. It’s the rarest form of courage in the adult world, but the form that faces young people every day when they see peers being bullied.

What struck me again and again throughout our first day was that I was by no means alone in feeling that this Summit is, at its heart, a message to our young people. At lunch, President Jimmy Carter said he wanted to direct his comments to youth joining us, and remind them that all the world’s religions are united in their quest to end suffering.

At our opening session, Mayor Rahm Emanuel spoke with pride about the involvement of Chicago’s public schools in this week’s events, and in the Speak Truth to Power curriculum that brought them here.

Before our first panel, 1997 Nobel Laureate Jody Williams called on the students to hear the stories of people like Professor Yunus and see themselves in his example. And President Mikhail Gorbachev reminded us all that our world is crying out for solutions, and that the leaders of today will one day have to turn the reins of our future over the next generation of revolutionaries.

But our audience this week is larger than the lucky high school students in the room with us at the University of Illinois Chicago. Fifteen area colleges are also joining our three-day conversation. We have thousands of young people tuning in to our live-cast with Scholastic.

And the Speak Truth to Power programme is spreading the stories of these human rights defenders in cities from New York and Florence to Hong Kong and Phnom Phen. In the next year, we’re working to expand the programme to classrooms in Sweden, South Africa, Canada, and Romania.

And throughout it all we will push a simple message to our young people: one person can make a difference and each of us has an obligation to try.

Dr. Yunus was right in the library at Lincoln Park High this morning; no one ever changed the world until they overcame the fear to take that first, small step away from our unequal present and toward our brighter future. And it all starts with young people.

*Today’s post is one in a series of dispatches from Kerry Kennedy during this week’s 12th Annual World Summit of Nobel Laureates in Chicago, Illinois.

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