By Denise Gee
It had been planned months in advance, but when hundreds of city and county leaders gathered at SMU July 9 for the first Human Rights Dallas summit, the city was openly grieving the July 7 murders of five police officers in downtown Dallas after what had been a peaceful protest march. That march was in response to controversial police shootings of two African-American men in Louisiana and Minnesota – incidents that had produced anger, anxiety and grief.
In taking “unified steps forward,” Embrey Human Rights Program (EHRP) Director Rick Halperin emphasized his event’s goal would not be “to focus on your work, or my work, but our work – to ensure everyone is afforded human dignity, protection and advocacy of their inherent rights.”
What resonated most for Human Rights Dallas participant Toya Walker, a senior-level paralegal for SMU and the Sabre Corporation, “was getting to openly share thoughts on what a human rights culture could look like, and how we, as a diverse group, could make it a reality.”
During larger group discussions and smaller breakout sessions guided by innovative coaching from Journeyman Ink, attendees tackled issues and solutions related to concerns ranging from human trafficking crimes to racial, sexual and religious discrimination.
Leaders from business, law enforcement, education, faith, non-profit and other groups expressed overwhelming support “for an official referendum to establish human rights as a top-level concern for Dallas government leaders,” said EHRP Assistant Director Brad Klein. “We also would like to see a public forum for citizens to regularly address their concerns with people who actually can do something about them.”
Summit participants vowed to continue the dialogue by staying connected via social media outlets and creating educational opportunities that could start with initiatives as small as a neighborhood gatherings for coffee and conversation.
The ultimate question, met with resounding applause, was posed by Tri-Cities NAACP Director Carmelita Pope-Freeman, who summarized the feelings of those at her table: “How can we replace fear with empathy?”
While the timing of the long-planned event came on the heels of tragic circumstances, Walker said, “I believe it awakened the soul of Dallas and America to know human rights matter.” Leaving the event motivated and inspired, she added, “I believe we have an opportunity to truly enable the change the world so desperately needs.”
Progress on Human Rights Dallas efforts will be shared via future EHRP communications and also at its “Triumph of the Spirit” Awards event November 16 at the Kessler Theater in Dallas. The celebration will commemorate the 10th anniversary of the program at SMU — only the seventh university in the nation to offer an undergraduate degree in human rights and also a master’s level degree in human rights and social justice.