The global impact from local human-rights activism

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When it comes to human rights, the ethos "think globally, act locally" has been more than a slogan for some Minnesotans. It's been a call to action that improved the state — and to some degree, the state of the world.

The history of some of this advocacy is the subject of a new exhibit that opened Thursday at the University of Minnesota's Elmer L. Andersen Library. Based on the resources of the Minnesota Human Rights Archive, the project, titled "The Global Reach of Local Activism," has a particular focus on locals' contributions to end gender-based violence, racial discrimination, and torture, recounting a "slice of local-to-global history, replete with triumphs, setbacks, and ongoing challenges," according to a publication accompanying the exhibition.

Through three-plus decades starting in the 1960s, the curators state, "the increasing global consciousness of rights-based claims led to the establishment of an unprecedented number of Minnesota-based organizations working to demand human rights, both locally and globally." These institutions were created and led by internationally intensive activists, public officials and academics, and the transnational networks included groups of grassroots volunteers, policymakers, foundations, journalists and other opinion leaders.

The era saw the launch of consequential organizations like the Minnesota Coalition for Battered Women in 1978 (since renamed Violence Free Minnesota); the Minnesota Lawyers International Human Rights Committee in 1983 (since renamed the Advocates for Human Rights); the International Women's Rights Action Watch and the Center for Victims of Torture (both in 1985); the U's Human Rights Center (1988); the Roy Wilkins Center for Human Relations and Social Justice (1992); the Midwest Coalition for Human Rights (1996); and the U's Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies (1997), as well as other organizations.

"Often, the standard discourse and literature about human rights is about kind of top-down models, where it comes from Geneva, it comes from Washington, it comes from The Hague," Kathryn Sikkink, a Harvard professor of human rights policy, said in a keynote address opening the exhibition.

"I'm simply not aware of anything similar to this archive anyplace else in this country," Sikkink said, "celebrating the local activists and the links between the local and global activism commitments."

Similar archives may in fact not exist because a commensurate community of internationally invested activists may not exist outside of a national capital and its "top-down" approach.

And yet, the Human Rights Program states, "the stories we present are not intended to be simplistic or triumphalist. As we witness every day, the struggle for human rights engages with the most terrible issues facing our planet."

Including right here at home, where along with the extraordinary concentration of human rights activists, the highest per capita refugee resettlement in America, the birthplace of the American Indian Movement, as well as other advancements, there's been an extraordinary concentration of human-rights abuses — historically, with Indigenous populations, and more recently with antisemitic and anti-Muslim incidents, the murder of George Floyd, as well as other shameful episodes in between.

This duality, deemed the "Minnesota Paradox" by Samuel L. Myers Jr., the director of the Humphrey School's Roy Wilkins Center, is apparent in international gatherings, Sikkink said. "When I travel the world today, I am reminded that Minnesota is a place of human-rights activism, but also human-rights violations." People, she said, "are more likely to ask me about the murder of George Floyd than anything else."

Human rights, she said, "is about struggle — all human-rights victories have been the result of struggles, but not all struggles lead to victories." There are "no permanent victories, and we can never be complacent." Sikkink said she believes "it is helpful to know those stories" that serve as a reminder "of all the work that needs to be done; stories of passing the torch from one generation to another."

The stories are indeed impressive. And important. So the unflinching acknowledgment of the Minnesota paradox gives the exhibit extra efficacy by noting not only the great progress but the great problems in Minnesota that may have inspired such internationally important activism.

Having hope is important, imperative even, especially amid bleak geopolitical times. Sikkink acknowledged this, too, saying she wanted "to address the elephant in the room, and that is given all the awful events that are going on in the world, sometimes we feel like any gathering of human rights people is also going to say, 'How can we keep moving ahead? It seems like things are getting worse.' And so I think also the archives are important for us to think about the past struggles."

Many in the audience of advocates gave knowing nods, recalling the progress their local-turned-global activism accomplished. And how, despite bleak times, times change.

Sikkink recalled the first international-relations textbook she read in college in the 1970s. It detailed, she said, three intractable conflicts that involved many human-rights violations: South Africa, Northern Ireland and Israel/Palestine. While South Africa and Northern Ireland are far from perfect, she said they are not violent and intractable in the way they were viewed before. (Israel/Palestine, however … ) And after studying in Uruguay during her student years, when that country and most of South and Central America were "at the depth of dictatorship," much of the region is now under democratic rule, however flawed. Progress can and does occur.

Sikkink concluded by saying that "due to the human-rights movement, we know more about human rights, and we care more about human rights than ever before." But that brings a different kind of paradox: "By knowing more and caring more, we sometimes think everything is getting worse. So, the stakes in this debate over progress or retrogression, or if people around the world believe that their efforts to bring about change are ineffectual or counterproductive and retreat in inactivity, human progress could indeed stall."

To combat that, Sikkink counseled hope — "not silly or foolish hope; I'm arguing for reasoned, well-informed, patient hope."

Hope is indeed integral to advancing the cause of human rights, both locally and globally. Or in the case of an era of extraordinary Minnesotans, both. So, here's another reasoned, well-informed, patient hope: that some of the many students in the audience, as well as others on the U campus, tour the exhibit, pick up the torch and add their chapters to the think-local, act-global story.