|As a sophomore in college I took a summer internship at Amnesty International, where I documented abuses committed by U.S. immigration officials against refugees from El Salvador. I was horrified that my country treated the most destitute with such disdain. But I was blessed to be living in a nation, born of revolution, where citizen activism can create dramatic change. That summer I learned about women and men around the world who, like me, were engaged in changing their government policies. But they faced imprisonment, torture and death for basic rights most Americans take for granted; the right to vote, the right to read a newspaper which criticizes the president, the right to engage in the political decisions that effect their lives. These people were the Mothers of the Disappeared in Argentina, demanding the whereabouts of their children who had been kidnapped by the military rulers; a laborer in South Korea tortured for trying to organize his factory; Jewish Refuseniks in Russia denied the right to travel to the Holy Land. They changed my life. I was so inspired by their courage and commitment, I decided that if they were willing to die for freedom, I could devote my life to helping them gain it.
I have always wanted to share that inspiration with others, and with Speak Truth to Power, in all its manifestations, I have found a way to do so. I believe their stories must be told because when people hear these tales, they too will take up a cause whether to stop child labor and sexual slavery, to assure free expression and the right to practice one's faith, or the right to credit for the poor and to a decent, healthy environment all causes which will make for a more just and decent world. And when you hear these stories, listen carefully. Do not be distracted by the horrors you will hear, the torture, the rape, the death threats, the harassment. This is not a compilation of victims. The real story is not the repression but the resistance, not terror but courage, not the futility but the power of one individual to instigate change. The people you will meet are today's heroes. They each have long records of accomplishment, and have extraordinary feats of bravery in the quest for a more just and decent world. A note of caution: there is a temptation to believe that we merely need to rid the world of the Haters those who perpetrate torture, launch military coups, prey on the poor, and then these violations will somehow cease to exist. But, as Elie Wiesel says, "The opposite of love is not hate, the opposite of love is indifference." Yes, we need to stop the haters, but that is only possible if we overcome our own indifference and get involved. That involvement may well stop a torture session, save a life. Amnesty International has forty years of proof of the power of letters to overcome evil. I spent two and half years traveling the globe, interviewing over fifty human right defenders. Some are well known, Vaclav Havel, the Archbishop Desmond Tutu, His holiness the Dalai Lama, Oscar Arias Sanchez, and seven other Nobel Peace Prize laureates and renowned people. But most were not well known beyond the borders of their countries or communities the as yet, unsung. The book started out as a survey of the human rights situation around the world. But it quickly became a spiritual journey about the best humanity has to offer, about human beings guided by their better angels when confronted with the very worst are species is capable of. I believe that this project will bring about change on a wide range of issues. But the far more revolutionary ambition is to change not a policy or position, but who we are at our very core.
Marian Wright Edelman addressed this issue in my interview with her. She spoke about how we measure success according to the accumulation of material possessions. She said we have a spiritual poverty problem in our country, which we are going to have to address. She speaks about having been blessed by a life in which she had cause so important that she was willing to die for it, and therefore she had a cause she was willing to live for, to devote her life to. All the people in this project speak with eloquence about the causes for which they are willing to sacrifice their lives and therefore for which life becomes meaningful and worth living. I think we, as a nation, have a lot to learn from the insight and wisdom of these people. I hope you will take the time to read and listen to their stories, and most of all, to take them to heart.
--Kerry Kennedy Cuomo