Susan O'Rourke | May 18, 2022
On Tuesday, April 19, 2022, I had the pleasure of virtually interviewing Professor Robin Kirk in anticipation of the release of her exciting new book, Righting Wrongs: 20 Human Rights Heroes Around the World. Prof. Kirk is an activist, author, teacher, co-director of the Duke Human Rights Center, and “founding member of the Pauli Murray Project, an initiative of the Center that seeks to use the legacy of this Durham daughter to examine the region’s past of slavery, segregation and continuing economic inequality.” Prof. Kirk sat down with me virtually to discuss how Righting Wrongs introduces children and tweens to the diverse, amazing, and often unexpected experiences of human rights heroes from across the globe.
The interview has been edited for publication.
Susan O’Rourke: Could you tell us a bit about what inspired you to write Righting Wrongs?
Robin Kirk: I have been both a human rights practitioner and a human rights teacher, and I realized that I kept coming around to some of the same names without really understanding more than a superficial history of who they were. I realized that, in my teaching, I was talking to young people who also did not know much about those human rights figures. Yet, when I would talk about the lives of real people, students would really perk up. I realized that one way of teaching the history of human rights is not only to talk about treaties and conferences but also to discuss the individuals that developed new ideas about human rights.
One of the key themes I teach is that we don’t receive human rights, whole and complete. Every generation makes changes as to what human rights are, who gets them, and how we protect them. The individuals in Righting Wrongs are all people who grasped this idea that human rights are a living, changing set of ideas about how we protect human life. Many of their stories are shocking and amazing, and hopefully, they will inspire people to realize that they have an immense amount of power to make change.
Susan O’Rourke: Yes, when people can put a face and a story to an idea, it makes such a difference. What has your research revealed about the ways people become human rights activists?
Robin Kirk: There’s a mix of people featured in the book, including people who were the victims of rights abuses and who then advocated for their respective groups. For instance, one of the more amazing characters in the book is FannyAnn Eddy, who was a Sierra Leonean activist and lesbian who was very involved in advocating for LGBTQ rights as an African woman. That advocacy was not only incredibly brave, but it was also just incredibly clear-sighted. She saw the role that the international LGBTQ rights movement could play in Sierra Leone, even as, early on, Sierra Leone was still coming out of an incredibly bloody civil war. She did not just sit down and wait until peace settled in, but she instead asserted that LGBTQ rights are important even while the country was recovering from this conflict.
However, not everyone whom I profile in the book is the victim of human rights abuses. Another amazing character (who was just being interviewed by CNN) is Ben Ferencz, the last living prosecutor from Nuremberg. At a very young age, Ben became responsible for the largest murder trial in human history when he led the prosecution against the leaders of the Nazi special action units, or Einsatzgruppen, which were mass-murdering units active in Eastern Europe during WWII that were responsible for over a million murders (and likely more). This trial happened after the Nuremberg Trials and took place because Ferencz was absolutely adamant that these Nazi leaders needed to be prosecuted. Ferencz’s superiors in Nuremberg said that he could prosecute the case, but that Ferencz would have to do it all on his own—and so he did. He had studied the laws of war as a lawyer at Harvard, but he was just a young man. He was Jewish, so he had that connection with a number of the victims, but it wasn’t his Jewishness that really motivated him as much as his core belief in humanity. Ever since, Ferencz has been a passionate antiwar activist. He was recently interviewed as a result of the Russian invasion of Ukraine. At 102 years old, he is just as sharp and committed to human rights and peace as ever.
So, [when it comes to the human rights activists included in Righting Wrongs], I think there are at least two kinds of people [who became changemakers]: people who experienced discrimination and/or violence who then spoke out and then people like Ben Ferencz who were swept up into it because of their core humanity and [strong belief that] this is not how we should treat each other.
Susan O’Rourke: Absolutely. I saw quotes [from Ferencz] in headlines about his recent interview. I think it’s such a strong reminder of how important it is for people to keep studying this history.
When it came to creating Righting Wrongs, what made you want to write for this age group (children and tweens)?
Robin Kirk: Well, I am of the belief that the most important writing I can do is for kids. I don’t know if you have had this experience, but the books that really shaped me and stay with me are the books I read as a kid. Reading from Charlotte’s Web can make me cry almost instantaneously. It has immense power.
I think that kids are the perfect audience because they’re passionate about learning about the world, and they also feel a strong sense of right and wrong. They can see how we adults have messed up a little bit on that. I really want to empower kids by showing them these other examples. I want to show kids that they also have unique voices and can reshape the world in a way that’s better. So, for me, writing these stories for kids was really a no-brainer. By the time people get to university, there’s already a kind of a cynicism that’s taken root. With younger kids—say middle and high school kids—you really still have the ability to make a strong impression about how change is possible.
Susan O’Rourke: Could you tell us a little bit more about how you entered into this role as a writer (in addition to being a human rights advocate and researcher)?
Robin Kirk: I’ve always wanted to be a writer ever since I was a kid. I write fiction, nonfiction, and poetry, but I do think that stories, whether or not they’re in books, are such a powerful teaching tool. As human beings, we need stories. Our brains are hard-wired to understand the world through stories.
When I was a researcher for Human Rights Watch for a number of years, I would write human rights reports. It was really hard to put stories into those reports because they were meant to document abuses. They were more focused on evidence and abuses and were more like legal briefs than stories. Yet, I also felt that there was another way to deal with that same material that would engage people on a deeper level. So the genesis of this book and some of the other books I’ve written about human rights is really getting to that human level—sharing stories of people’s lives and how they have both overcome but also have been bowled over by different kinds of violence. We obviously need the statistics about bad things that happened, but the numbers just very easily escape us because there’s nothing to hang on to. Having those stories and the human beings behind them really gives us an ability to make a connection.
Susan O’Rourke: Could you share a bit about how you envision educators will use Righting Wrongs in their classrooms? I know that the text include some features that will help teachers guide discussions, but I’d love to hear your vision for how teachers might share this text with their students.
Robin Kirk: I think that it might be interesting to have students delve into each of these figures and do a little bit of their own research. The book gives resources for how to dig into each character and relate their stories to certain issues that relate to the students’ own lives. For instance, [students could discuss] children’s rights. One of the people I profile in the book is Eglantyne Jebb, who is the founder of Save the Children and really the creator of this idea of children’s rights. Before her, no one thought that children should have rights since they were the property of their parents. This whole idea that children have separate, unique, and powerful rights is really interesting. I’d love to have a class hold a workshop on what rights do students think they have and what rights should they have. I really want it to be an engaging book that gives teachers and their students a lot of options for active learning.
In the book, we also include a list of places to visit. While not every teacher is going to have one of those places nearby, I want to encourage teachers to also think about the historical sites near them or where students could go that tell great stories. Here in Durham, we have Pauli Murray’s house. She is one of the people profiled in the book, and so to take students to Pauli Murray’s house and to talk about her legacy as an amazing human rights leader in the United States would be very powerful for all sorts of students. I think there’s a lot of possibility for the book to help teachers brainstorm how (to the extent that is possible), they can take learning out of the classroom, whether it be through field trips or independent research projects.
Susan O’Rourke: Can you talk a bit about the power of having students engage with both local and global figures when you’re talking about human rights?
Robin Kirk: If you start with Pauli Murray, for example, a lot of her early life has echoes of other people profiled in the book. I’m thinking particularly of Shirin Ebadi who is an Iranian lawyer. There are many things that Shirin and Pauli share, for instance, that neither of their families really forced them into gender-specific roles. Shirin could have been discriminated against by her family for being a woman, but she wasn’t. Her parents told her she could be anything she wanted. Pauli, though, was always struggling to be her whole self and to not be constrained either by prejudice against her for being mixed race, for being queer, or for being a woman. There are a lot of connections from the local to the international that you can make between figures in the book.
Another one of the characters I absolutely love is Fridtjof Nansen, who was the first UN High Commissioner for Refugees. What is so great and inspiring for students is that he did all sorts of different things in his life. He wasn’t just one “thing.” A lot of the people I profile did all sorts of things in their lives. Nansen started out as a scientist, then was a polar explorer, and next a diplomat. Only later in life did he come to the cause of refugees and then made an enormous contribution. So I want people, especially children, to think, “I might want to be a firefighter…I might want to be a writer…I might want to be a doctor—but, I could be these other things at the same time. I don’t have to choose just one thing to be in life.”
Susan O’Rourke: I think that it’s really important that children see they do not have to have just one single path. It is especially important, I think, for younger folks who might think they need to take all the right steps, in the exact right order, if they have a goal in mind. I agree that we can end up surprised, a lot of the times when we realize that there are many ways to become involved in a field or cause.
When it comes to selecting figures to be featured in the text, how did you put together this collection of stories?
Robin Kirk: I really wanted to focus on the lesser-known people from different parts of the world, periods of time, ethnicities, races, and religions to really show that human rights is a tool that can be used in all different ways. Another one of the people I profile is Berta Cáceres from Honduras, who really made human rights into an effective tool for indigenous rights and also climate activism. I also include Víctor Jara, who was a famous Chilean musician, theater director, and a passionate advocate for democracy in Chile. I wanted the book to have that broad-brush approach that shows different times, issues, and people that really gave us a sense of the breadth of human rights.
Susan O’Rourke: Lastly, is there anything that you would like to share with educators as they move forward in teaching global human rights?
Robin Kirk: Know that I would love to support teachers! My daughter is a high school teacher, and I think teaching is one of the most amazing and important careers. I know that there is a lot swirling around teaching these days, but I want teachers to know that they have huge advocates in the children’s book community, including writers, illustrators, content people, and creatives of all sorts. We are entirely in your corner! I want teachers to know that, if there is anything I can do, just let me know.
Righting Wrongs: 20 Human Rights Heroes Around the World is available online from Chicago Review Press. Chicago Review Press has offered a 20% discount on the paperback edition of Righting Wrongs for educators! Use the code HEROES20 when checking out on the Chicago Review Press website.
Righting Wrongs: 20 Human Rights Heroes Around the World is also available for pre-order at local North Carolina bookstores including Bookmarks (Winston-Salem, NC); Buxton Village Books (Buxton, NC); City Lights Bookstore (Sylva, NC); The Country Bookshop (Southern Pines, NC); Flyleaf Books (Chapel Hill, NC); Malaprop’s Bookstore (Asheville, NC); Park Road Books (Charlotte, NC); Quail Ridge Books (Raleigh, NC); Quarter Moon Books (Topsail Beach, NC) as well as at major online sellers like Amazon.
You can also learn more about these human rights heroes and get more ideas for incorporating them into your classroom by following Prof. Kirk’s free newsletter.