Star-Studded Performance, Human Rights Conference Inspires Educators

News Story:

Sacred Heart University hosted a two-day human rights conference on June 10-11, which  featured a play and photo exhibit illuminating abject human rights abuses around the globe and the stories of those who rose above oppression.

The conference, sponsored by the International Federation of Catholic Universities (IFCU), Sacred Heart University, and The Robert F. Kennedy Memorial, focused on the juxtaposition between Catholic social justice principles and international human rights advocacy.


 Multimedia from Speak Truth to Power

“We immediately saw a connection with what [Sacred Heart University President Anthony Cernera, Ph.D.] is doing on this campus by giving students a tool kit for action so they can not only have the knowledge but the capacity to create change,” said Kerry Kennedy, a co-founder of Speak Truth to Power and daughter of former attorney general and New York Sen. Robert F. Kennedy, who was assassinated in California 40 years ago after winning that state’s Democratic primary for president of the United States.

The play, Ariel Dorfman’s Speak Truth to Power: Voices from Beyond the Dark, conveys stories of suffering and survival by 51 men and women from around the globe who were brutalized but fought despotism in non-violent ways.  

During the play, the actors repeated a rhetorical question imploring people to challenge human rights abuses: “If we don’t do this, who will?”

“We hope that this is an opportunity to enhance that vision of a more just and peaceful world,” said Kennedy, who is president of the memorial named in her father’s honor.

Shvonne L. Johnson, an outreach coordinator from the College of St. Catherine in Minneapolis, Minn., was attending the play and conference to gain a new perspective on fighting off subjugation.

“I’m looking to gain language that truly articulates how systems of oppression manifest themselves,” she said.

Sacred Heart is also home to a photography exhibit that accompanied the play, which was performed by a well-known cast of 10. The cast included Martin Sheen, Carolyn Baeumler, Megan Byrne, Patrick Fitzgerald, Joel Garland,  Lois Markle, Ellen McLauglin, Gloria Reuben, Danton Stone, and Waleed F. Zuaiter. The play was directed by Terry Kinney and produced by Katrin MacMillan and Kerry Kennedy.

“This is the kind of work that is ideal for uniting the will of the spirit and the working of the flesh,” said Sheen, who serves on the Robert F. Kennedy Memorial’s board of directors and appeared in the play. “We can realize our true selves in each other, realize God’s promise…that the genius of God is being human. This work celebrates that in every culture, every continent all over the world.”

“This play will invite a conversion of heart,” said Cernera, who is also IFCU president.

Indeed, one monologue focused on Jordanian Rana Husseini, who exposed the practice of “honor-killings” in her country. She was inspired to speak out when she heard of a 16-year-old girl who had been killed by her family because her brother had raped her. When Husseini had asked the girl’s uncles why she was killed, they said that the girl had seduced her brother and dishonored her family.

“The real story is not the oppression, but the resistance,” Kennedy said.

Ethel Kennedy, widow of Sen. Robert F. Kennedy, said the play is a call to action.

“It’s powerful; it makes you want to get out there and do something,” she said. “Kerry has done the same. Her message really resonates and it impels people to act.”

Sacred Heart is training leaders to achieve the justice sought by RFK, according to Kerry Kennedy. Her father traveled to South Africa in 1966 when few had heard of Apartheid, that country’s system of legalized segregation and oppression that didn’t end until 1990.

“He devoted his life to issues of justice for those who did not have the reins of power,” Kerry Kennedy said.  “We see this [program] as an essential part of that [education].”