Lamisa M. is a first-year student studying human rights and sociology:
I am honored to be a delegate at Northwestern University Community for Human Rights’ 2018 conference on human rights. My flight is tomorrow, bright and early in the morning. I packed lots of winter gear because forecast shows that temperatures will be below freezing in Chicago this weekend. (My cold tolerance will be put to the test.) This is my first time traveling alone – exciting but also kind of terrifying.
I have been immersed in research in preparation for the conference. All student delegates are expected to read and watch materials beforehand to be fully engaged in conversations with the panelists and keynote speakers. Our readings, like our weekend, are centered around our conference theme of “deconstructing memory within human rights.” I wanted to share some excerpts before departing.
In “Grounds for Hope,” a foreword to the third edition of her book Hope in the Dark, Rebecca Solnit writes about the inextricability of hope and memory. Solnit is one of my favorite scholar-activists – the title of this blog post also comes from her. This was not a required reading for the conference, but I thought it was really fitting, especially as we begin a new year of possibilities.
“Memory produces hope in the same way that amnesia produces despair,” the theologian Walter Brueggeman noted. It’s an extraordinary statement, one that reminds us that though hope is about the future, grounds for hope lie in the records and recollections of the past. We can tell of a past that was nothing but defeats and cruelties and injustices, or of a past that was some lovely golden age now irretrievably lost. Or we can tell a more complicated and accurate story, one that has room for the best and worst, for atrocities and liberations, for grief and jubilation. A memory commensurate to the complexity of the past and the whole cast of participants, a memory that includes our power, produces that forward-directed energy called hope. Things don’t always change for the better, but they change, and we can play a role in that change if we act. Which is where hope comes in, and memory, the collective memory we call history.”
No wonder my first core human rights class (HRTS 3301 with Dr. Halperin) is a history class. There can be no fighting for an inclusive, compassionate and just future if we do not first address, confront and deconstruct our collective history. No, don’t rewrite the past. Build on it. Of course, it is important to remember that simply knowing something is not enough, but it is where we must start. Caring begins with knowing – with knowing the full complexity of our history, and, therefore, being prepared to act in the present. Head knowledge – learning by reading – lays the groundwork and foundation for heart knowledge – experiential learning, participatory change, and empathy.
I don’t think I ever fully realized how important memory is in the struggle for human rights. Recently, I have been thinking a lot about storytelling for social justice. Our stories are so powerful. They are the reason why I decided to attend this conference in the first place – to learn how I can better highlight and elevate inspiring stories that deserve to be shared. These stories are not always about the good, the true, and the beautiful. But the storytellers – the voices behind the stories – certainly have hope that their stories will inspire others (or else they wouldn’t have told them).
This brings me to “Intergenerational Trauma: Understanding Natives’ Inherited Pain,” an article by journalist Mary Annette Pember, about the theory of historical trauma, which explains that the effects of the traumatic events experienced by a group of people persist from one generation to another. Pember, decided to bravely “step out of [her] journalist’s role… [to] include some of [her] experiences and in the process care for [her] well being along the way.” Journalists and reporters are often discouraged from writing about their own experiences, but I find it incredibly moving when they choose to include what they were thinking and feeling in the field. It shows that they are not discounting their own humanity, and they are conceding that their reporting could not have existed in the same way if not for them – their whole selves, their worldviews. This article was a required reading for the conference along with other literature regarding the experiences of indigenous communities. I thought readers also would find the following thoughts from Pember as powerful as I did:
“‘And I rose in a rainy autumn and walked abroad in shower of all my days.’ I think of this bit of verse from Poem in October, by Dylan Thomas as I walk over the grounds where my mother and grandmother lived at the Sister School on the Bad River reservation, in Wisconsin. Life there was harsh, and often brutal. I don’t remember a time when I didn’t know about the trauma my relatives endured there; although they aren’t my direct experiences, their stories have always been with me. Today’s rain is also filled with a bitter shower of their days. I’m here to grieve those lost childhood days for them, something they were never permitted to do. Before I can begin I need to know the whole story… I thought I’d grown inured to trauma and believed my role as a journalist would protect me from its impact. But standing here on the ruins of the Sister School, I feel vulnerable and afraid.”
Pember’s words remind me that the dismantling of systems of inequity begins with respecting the stories of individuals and communities who have been excluded from our history textbooks. Building a better world begins with seeing our own role in that exclusion. Writing complete and inclusive narratives is not the easiest work, but it is so important.
I wish I could have included all of my favorite excerpts here. That’s it for now. I am off to do some last-minute packing. I truly can’t wait to share what I learn with you. I hope that this blog can encompass my experiences in a way that is meaningful to you.
In the meantime, I wish for all of you to “feel that enormous exhilaration of consciously living in history,” as Rebecca Solnit did right before the turn of the century. We are history-makers – what we do matters and affects those around us. Live knowing and remembering this truth, as I will do. History – the kind of history we are proud to remember – is made by those who dare to hope.
Here’s to those dreamers, yearning for something more. May we do right by you.