Human Rights Day and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights
On December 10th, 1948, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) was adopted by the UN General Assembly.[i] This document is “based on the idea that there are a few common standards of decency that can and should be accepted by people of all nations and cultures.”[ii] To this end, the UDHR set out the rights and liberties to which people everywhere are entitled as human beings and citizens of the world. This document even broke the Guinness World Record for the most widely translated and disseminated in the world—as of 2011, the UDHR had been translated into more than 380 languages and dialects from Abkhaz to Zulu.[iii]
The UDHR was conceived of and written in the wake of World War II. As the world learned in greater detail the atrocities of Nazi Germany, it was decided that the UN Charter had not been explicit enough in defining in detail the rights to which it referred and those to whom they applied. [iv] So, in a world that had recently been deeply divided and damaged, one of the first acts of the “newly created” UN was to task the Human Rights Commission, a multinational group of 18 members, to specifically lay out the provisions for human rights for all, a “set of principles that all member states could pledge to implement.”[v]
The “foundation blocks” for the entire document are “dignity, liberty, equality, and brotherhood.” All the rights set out in the UDHR are based upon this foundation. Rights are described in detail—the rights of individuals, the rights of individuals in relation to others and to larger groups—and fall into various spheres: spiritual, public, political, economic, social, and cultural. [vi]
Alright, alright, I get it. I recognize that pursuing a degree in International Studies, with a concentration in Ethics and International Social Justice, I may be more enthusiastic about Human Rights Day and the details and structure of the UDHR a bit more than other people you know. I also realize that end notes probably aren’t necessary in a blog post about my volunteer experience, entertaining as it may be. The reason I’m going through all of this is to underline my belief that the UDHR, and the rights it outlines, are of vital importance! This was true upon its adoption and remains equally (or perhaps more!) true today, for everyone around the world. As volunteers, and members of the greater Lasallian tradition, we see the real status of these human rights every day in the communities we serve.
Some highlights from the document & the Lasallian mission
While I won’t elaborate on every single point of this document, I will provide a few especially relevant highlights. The UDHR begins with the powerful declaration:
“All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood” (Article 1).
This firmly establishes the freedom, equality, and dignity of all persons, regardless of the ways in which we may perceive our differences from one another. This is integral to the Lasallian mission which likewise strives to achieve this equality. Lasallians treat all they meet with this even-handedness. Through the work of Lasallians everywhere, every day brings us closer to achieving this equality in dignity and rights for all peoples. As for acting towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood? That could have been written by St. John Baptist de la Salle himself! Relating to one another as brothers and sisters in one great community, we can bridge real and invented gaps between groups of people, creating a new society founded of the kind of equality and respect set out in the UDHR.
The stated mission of the Lasallian Volunteers, as an organization, is to provide “dedicated, well-trained Volunteers” to those schools and agencies affiliated with the De La Salle Christian Brothers whose mission is to serve the underserved and disadvantaged, the overlooked and often forgotten among us. The primary way Lasallians do this is through education.
We hear over and over again that education is the most direct way to level the playing field, to be successful, to lead richer and deeper lives, and so on. These claims come from economic studies, from world leaders, from educational professionals…you get the picture. As the daughter of two lifelong educators, the significance of education, its intrinsic value, and its ability to shape lives and futures was instilled in me at an early age and was a huge part of my formation (as well as part of how I found myself in Portland). The value of education is espoused in the Lasallian mission and in Article 26 of the UDHR, which describes the universal right to education. This article states that “Everyone has the right to education” and that
“Education shall be directed to the full development of the human personality and to the strengthening of respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms. It shall promote understanding, tolerance and friendship among all nations, racial or religious groups, and shall further the activities of the United Nations for the maintenance of peace.”[vii]
This Article aligns with De La Salle North Catholic’s mission. As a school, DLSN seeks to provide a faith-based, high quality, college preparatory education to underserved students in Portland. The primary goal of the school is “to develop tomorrow’s community leaders by making high-quality education accessible to motivated young people in a learning environment that values cultural, spiritual, and ethnic diversity.” The school “provides each student with the opportunity to succeed” through a combination of “small classes, high expectations, and active participation in our Corporate Internship Program.”[viii]
Though I fill many roles, that Corporate Internship Program office is where I work most of the time. A few of my primary responsibilities are to: ensure students’ success at their internships, maintain positive relationships with our corporate and nonprofit partners, and to help train and retrain students as needed. On any given day, I might work with unplaced students on a lesson I’ve planned to further their personal and professional development, set up meetings with nonprofit partners, and drive students home from their job sites. Recently I’ve been working more and more with the nonprofit partnerships, but previously I had spent the majority of my time with the students who do not have job placements yet. Because of this, I have had much more time directly working with the students in a school setting than I ever expected, connecting with them, hearing their troubles and victories, sharing in their stories from the frustrating to the encouraging.
One of the greatest joys I’ve had this year has been helping these students with their writing, a task that brings out my inner English teacher (it must run in the family). While it’s wonderful to see students bring their essay grades up two whole letter grades, my favorite kind of essays to see are the college essays. On one student’s common application essay, she begins with this line: “This is me, this is my story, and this is me going into the war.” The war she’s talking about is her fight against her situation, the struggles both at home and in society, the very real violence in her environment, the disparity and discrimination against which she has pushed back her whole life.
In spite of all of this adversity, this young woman is determined to be the first from her family “to walk across that stage with [her] ticket to the future and a college education” in her hand. She’s realized that education is her escape from replicating the cycle of dysfunction and chaos, her way to freedom. Over and over, this is what I’ve heard from my students—education is freedom. On my most challenging of days, this is what I try to remember. These students are fighting for something so basic, something to which they are entitled but which is obscured by obstacle after obstacle.
This student in particular has so internalized this idea that education is freedom, that she began volunteering as a mentor for younger students in her community, helping them with everything from homework to standing up to the voracious monsters that rear their ugly heads in the lives of too many of our young people. Her empathy for others and desire to pave the way for and help more young people arrive at the success she’s struggled to find over the years is so encouraging to those who have been charged with the education of this child. When we see a student go out to love and serve the world in this way, it stands as a tangible reminder of why we do what we do: a student has had her heart and mind touched by the power of a quality education, by the nurturing love and care of her teachers and mentors, and has taken the next step on her own. None of us told her to volunteer in her local community center, to participate in service trips with the youth ministry group, to give back to the organizations that helped set her on the right path. She simply is doing what she thinks is just, necessary, and wise. This student tells me she wants to study youth development or social work, with the hope of coming back to her neighborhood in Portland and making it a safer, healthier, and happier environment for the next generation of youth.
This is one of the reasons we are proud of our students, enthusiastic and optimistic about their futures, and take great satisfaction from our work, challenging and sometimes endless as it may seem. Yes, our students may be disadvantaged and underserved, but they are not helpless or hopeless. Some of them are up against every single odd you or I could conjure, but they are also stronger and braver than I could ever have pictured. They are passionate and dedicated about everything that they do, working hard every day to achieve their dreams, laugh at the darkness, and make a brighter day possible. All of this begins with the sort of education offered by DLSN and other schools where LV’s serve. This is why we are where we are; this is why we do what we do. We do have a grand goal, an idealized vision of the “bigger picture” in which we establish equality, break down barriers to success, act out of a spirit of unity, contribute positively to society, and build a global community. Yes, service is about that, but it’s really about people, like this student, who are going into the war and will come out victorious. Maybe nobody ever told them they were born to win, to overcome, to conquer every challenge, but this is why we are here—to encourage and to witness every day they take one step closer to their own goals. It is through education focused on the “full development of the human personality” That they are able to do this. Through these first steps of educating and caring for the whole person, we can together arrive at the broad goals enshrined in the UDHR of increased “respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms, …understanding, tolerance and friendship among all nations, racial or religious groups, …and the maintenance of peace.” [i]
Mairead McNameeKing, 12-13, De La Salle North Catholic High School, Portland, OR
[i] with 48 in favor, 0 against, and 8 abstentions.
[ii] Mary Ann Glendon, “The Rule of Law in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights,” 2. Retrieved on 9 November 2012 from http://www.law.northwestern.edu/journals/jihr/v2/5/5.pdf.
[v] Mary Ann Glendon, “The Rule of Law in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights,” 2-3.
[vi] Mary Ann Glendon, quoting René Cassin in “The Rule of Law in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights,” 3.
[vii] Article 26, 1-2. http://www.un.org/en/documents/udhr/index.shtml#a26
[ix] Article 26, 1-2. http://www.un.org/en/documents/udhr/index.shtml#a26