Seeing human-ness in what we say and do

Dear Friends and Colleagues,

In our current Arroyo High School Rite of Passage class, the students have identified Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) as the one they want to focus on for their Community Action Project.

Article 19: Freedom of Expression & Opinion: “Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media regardless of frontiers.”

The students have noted that they have experienced or observed others experience a reluctance to speak up in and outside of class, to peers and teachers.  They fear they will be “canceled,” ostracized or targeted in some way if they say something to question another’s comments or actions.
The concerns raised by the students seem to be occurring in society at large, evidenced by increased polarization around social, political and economic issues, even among generally like-minded groups.  Consider this:

  • What is the impact on our sense of safety and well-being if we are fearful of speaking up to defend our own perspective, or of commenting on or criticizing a political leader or other authority figure for their words or actions?

With this question in mind, I recently re-read the following letter from a Holocaust Survivor presented to us in 2007 by Facing History and Ourselves during a discussion on their curriculum on the UDHR, as part of helping us develop our own curriculum:

Dear Teacher:
I am a survivor of a concentration camp.
My eyes saw what no man should witness:
Gas chambers built by learned engineers
Children poisoned by educated physicians.
Infants killed by trained nurses.
Women and babies shot and burned by high school and 
college graduates.
So I am suspicious of education.
My request is: Help your students become human.
Your efforts must never produce monsters, skilled psychopaths, 
educated Eichmanns.
Reading, writing, and arithmetic are important only if they serve to 
make our children more human.

This is an observation on the Holocaust rarely made so clearly. I believe its admonishment about education can be expanded upon to help connect some dots between how we carry out many aspects of our lives and the human element behind them, or, as may be the case, not behind them.

Many of us work in company offices, factories, schools, government agencies, and other environments where we not only carry out our job responsibilities, but also interact with co-workers, vendors and members of the public. We may have the technical knowledge and skills to carry out our work efficiently and proficiently, yet, consider these questions:

  • What is our way of acting toward and communicating with others?
  • Are we really doing our job well if we’re known for our high level of expertise or talent, yet are also known for bullying others or acting in a way that causes others to feel fearful or unsafe?

The foundation of the United States as a democratic republic, as framed by the Constitution, is the rule of law, where we all essentially agree to be bound by federal, state, regional and local laws. However, some laws have been enacted in our history, and even recently, that have limited access to the right to vote, to own property or hold a job based on gender and race. Consider this question:

  • What is the impact on our democracy if we have legislation today like the Jim Crow laws (enacted in the late 19th century and enforced until 1965,) that uphold racial segregation?

As we consider answers to these questions we are examining how objective constructs such as a classroom discussion, a work place, a law or policy connects to our human-ness and experience of being in an environment that supports equality, justice and dignity for all.

When I worked on the Newsletter Perspectives on Being Human, I had the goal of raising awareness of the ideas behind the human rights framework – that all endeavors to further positive change, such as civil rights or women’s rights, could be connected by recognizing their common goal of furthering every person’s human rights.  In these last 14 years of bringing attention to the UDHR, whose 30 Articles are the internationally agreed upon rights every human being everywhere ought to experience, I have come to see that knowledge of them can help bring the human element to our words and actions, whether in our homes, our work, or our community.

“Protect us from ourselves.
Let us have a vision of a world made new.”

—Eleanor Roosevelt (on the Universal Declaration of Human Rights)

The UDHR provides a frame of reference for evaluating how our systems for carrying out education, governance, justice and business are supporting our well-being as humans. Likewise, it illuminates how our social, political, and economic interactions are articulating and furthering the changes needed to resolve the contradictions in humanity we find around us.

I take to heart the words of the Holocaust survivor, as we carry out TWAICB endeavors.  We hope our curriculum and the other resources we offer help provide insights and tools to bring human-ness to what we say and do.

With appreciation and best regards,

Sandy Sohcot, Director

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