Yearlong Head of School Seminar Brings Human Rights into Focus
Joanne Miceli

Blair students are taking an in-depth look at the challenging issues surrounding human rights during a yearlong seminar led by Head of School Chris Fortunato. The outside-of-class series is an opportunity for students of every grade and every level of human-rights interest—from the curious to the passionate—to learn about the myriad topics related to human rights and to engage in meaningful conversation with outside experts, Blair teachers and one another. Nearly 20 students became involved in the seminar in the first months of school, and Mr. Fortunato is looking forward to continued learning alongside them and others who will join in as the year progresses.

"My goals for this seminar include giving students the information and background required to understand human rights issues and helping them develop the skills necessary to become better advocates for causes that are important to them," he said. "Through the year, I expect that participants will discover ideas, opportunities and challenges they've never considered before, and I hope this will lead them to ask questions and think deeply about what matters to them most."

Sessions in the CIC

The seminar got underway with two midday sessions in the Chiang Center for Innovation and Collaboration (CIC) in September and October aimed at beginning the campus conversation on global human rights and providing a foundation for thinking about and acting on issues. Harvard University Kennedy School professor and human rights activist Timothy Patrick McCarthy, PhD, who will work with seminar participants throughout the year, came to campus for the opening meeting and joined the group virtually on October 19. At that time, he described his work as a faculty member at the Kennedy School's Carr Center for Human Rights Policy and shared a brief overview of ideas about human rights through history.

"We tend to think of human rights in a modern sense, but we can detect ideas of people desiring to live outside of oppression and subordination that go back millennia," Dr. McCarthy said. He explained that the rights of human beings to live outside of oppressive systems are foundational, meaning they are inherent when we are born; inalienable, meaning they should not be taken away; interrelated to and indivisible from one another; and, finally, universal, in that all people should have them. "All of this is aspirational," he explained to students. "When we talk about human rights, we are always talking about an ideal."

Dr. McCarthy then described his own work with Free the Slaves, a global nonprofit dedicated to eradicating modern slavery, and answered students' many questions about the issue and the methodology behind Free the Slaves' work. He also offered down-to-earth suggestions on how students might become involved in causes that interest them, including becoming educated about the problems that need to be addressed and undertaking consciousness-raising activities, such as posting to social media or holding a fundraiser.

"Find your thing and go after it," he encouraged students as the meeting drew to a close. "None of us can eradicate slavery alone, but more of us can do more."

A Day at Harvard

Mr. Fortunato, Dean of Students Carm Mazza, Associate Dean of Admission Leucretia Shaw and 18 seminar participants had the opportunity to meet with Dr. McCarthy when they traveled to Harvard University on October 25 for a full day of human-rights learning experiences and activities. Arriving at the Carr Center mid-morning, students began by participating—along with Harvard graduate students—in a workshop titled "Contentious Communications: How to Talk About Hot Issues Without Getting Heated."

For Linda Tong '19, who is participating in the human rights seminar to explore her interest in the relationship between democracy and free speech, this workshop was a highpoint of the day. "I found the session informative and engaging, and it definitely gave me more confidence navigating controversial and uncomfortable issues," she said. "I hope to reorient the way I engage and keep the new skills I learned in mind for future round-table discussions."

The group then moved on to a luncheon discussion with Dr. McCarthy and two of his Carr Center colleagues, Zhijun Hu, an activist and leader in China's LGBT community, and retired General Counsel of the Department of the Navy Alberto Mora, who was among the first to insist that the interrogation techniques employed in the post-9/11 era be called "torture" and has since worked to eradicate this practice. As this session was ending, Blair students enjoyed a surprise visit and impromptu conversation about public service with Kennedy School visiting fellow and former chair of the Democratic National Committee Donna Brazile. The day also included a highlights-of-Harvard-Yard tour with Mr. Fortunato, a seminar on "Islam and Democracy" and a final panel discussion on violent and nonviolent resistance movements.

Both Cleary Waldo '19 and Madina Shabazz '20 were especially intrigued by the group's luncheon conversation with the renowned human-rights advocates. "We were free to ask questions, and it was fascinating to hear from people who have contributed personally to human rights advocacy and who are important across the world," Cleary said.

Madina found the discussion of LGBTQ issues in China eye-opening and described how, at one point, the Q&A with the human-rights experts became a conversation among students. "We asked questions of one another and offered thoughts and ideas," she said. "It was amazing to hear each person's individualized point of view or opinion." She noted that she loves hearing and learning about a variety of human-rights topics, such as events that involve racial and religious issues. Overall, the day at Harvard confirmed what she already knew: "Human rights issues are broad, complex and controversial, but they are so significant in the world and in people's everyday lives."

Cleary, too, enjoyed the Harvard experience and is looking forward to future seminar meetings where she can delve deeper into her interest in how human rights are tied into economics and how the prospect of financial success often leads to the violation of these rights by business owners or others in power over workers. "I've already learned so much, including the staggering number of people who are still enslaved worldwide and the different forms of enslavement," she said. "It has been a very rewarding experience thus far, and it's exciting to know I am becoming more informed about the problems in the world around me."

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