Kelly Carroll (KC): Where did you go to college?
John Prendergast (JP): Actually I went to five different undergraduate schools. My first one was Georgetown and my last one was Temple. And I went to two graduate schools, Penn and American U. So basically, I graduated from Temple so that’s my undergrad and American U is my graduate.
KC: Were you an activist or did these interests develop after college?
JP: I was obsessed in my late teens and early twenties with injustice in the United States and particularly how it played out when young people dropped out of the school system at an early age. How does our system respond to school dropouts, kids who are in the juvenile justice system, the first time, second time, what do we do to try to address that? So I was diving into all of that stuff. My undergraduate years were mostly focused on these kinds of things, education reform and employment policy and domestic stuff. There is a whole other sort of thing that happened that made me interested in international affairs.
KC: What was it that made you interested in international affairs?
JP: It was pretty superficial really. I injured my ankle so I was sitting and icing it and watching some basketball game. And the game ended and I didn’t want to hobble over and try and change the channel because I didn’t have the remote control. And so this, it must have been an ad, thirty years later I don’t know what the heck it was, but it was some footage from what was just beginning at the time, which was this famine that was unfolding in Ethiopia that then became world famous with Live Aid and We are the World, but at the time nobody knew what was going on there. And I saw this footage and I was just blown away by it. And I was like, ‘Oh my god how could this be?’ And I had never read anything on it; I mean I didn’t know anything about Africa, or about famine or about war, and stuff like that. But I really felt terribly compelled to at least understand it better. And I decided right there that I wanted to go. I just went and my life radically shifted from the direction it was going to the direction it went.
KC: Is it important for university level students to gain an education in human rights? How do you think this might prepare them differently than students without this education for life after college?
JP: I think it’s important to become aware of the inequalities and injustices that mark this world we live in, that have in fact driven major historical trends. To not understand the role that the respect for or the violation of human rights have played in the history of this country or the broader world we live in, you just have a very very narrow tunnel vision and understanding of what this world is all about. So each time as a young person you learn, whether it’s through a course, or an article you read, or a documentary, or whatever the heck learning mode, you widen that tunnel. And to be a well-rounded person to start with, to even just basically understand why history has unfolded the way it has, often as a result of terrible injustices, often gross human rights abuses being perpetrated against people in different societies and then a battle against that, a response to that, and that dialectic creating major shifts in world history. So if you don’t understand that, I don’t even understand what your worldview is about. It’s probably really warped and wrong and you’ll just play out the rest of your life making very bad decisions about how you vote and how you exercise citizenship because you won’t understand the world you’re living in.
KC: Do you think it is possible to teach compassion and a desire to make positive change?
JP: I don’t know the psychology of whether you can teach compassion, but I do believe that the vast majority of people that I’ve ever met, in my unscientific survey in response to this question, often just don’t know that something is happening. Or they are too busy to accept the fullness of it and to allow themselves to learn a little bit about it. So the first layer is just a pure innocent ignorance of the situation. Then the second obstacle is if they do know, so they learn about some terrible environmental problem, or a human rights issue or some war, they believe that there is nothing that can be done about it. So that’s the second challenge is then to show that in fact, throughout history over and over again, people have banded together against an injustice and fixed it, and ended it, stopped it, reversed it, changed it. And you know our own country’s history is full of these examples, where people discriminate against women and then people organize and change it, people discriminate against African Americans they organize and change it, labor, changed it, environment, fixed it. You know they’re all ongoing struggles. It’s not fixed, done, but they started and it’s a historical process. And so I think that the compassion then is not learning it so much, but activating it. First let me understand something, second let me know that in fact after I learn it and understand it, I will actually know that this thing can be addressed. And once that learning curve is established, I think people are much more willing and able to get engaged and involved in the world and trying to change things. I never blame people for not getting involved, because I do think that our education system by and large early on in our lives doesn’t encourage this kind of thing, so I expect that people are going to be defensive about learning about difficult things because a) it’s just overwhelming and b) what can I do about it anyways? So teaching about how change happens and how we as human beings are central to that change, and have done it over and over again throughout history, is probably the biggest enabler for allowing people to get engaged and involved and for their compassion to be activated.
KC: Do you believe learning about human rights in college prepares students to work in this field, either in the political realm, with non-governmental organizations, etc.? Or do you believe these must be learned through experience in the field?
JP: I think that both lived experience and learned knowledge are fundamentally important. I think if you stuck somebody in the middle of Ecuador, or Equatorial Guinea, or Egypt, I feel like they could be ready to address all the things they have experienced and their horizons are going to be dramatically widened and it’s going to be an incredible intense experience, but if they had prepared or in the aftermath of that get a chance then to reflect academically on the vast knowledge, accrued knowledge, of those who have thought a lot about these issues related to human rights, that the combination of experience and academic learning would be the best preparation for a career in this field. So I worry about folks that are dogmatic about one or the other being the only way to do it. I think I’ve learned a lot from teachers, professors, and books, and I’ve learned a heck of a lot from roaming around in these war zones for all these years. So I think I would be much less effective as an advocate for the issues that I care about if I had only done one or the other.
KC: Do you believe there is an importance in offering human rights courses at universities? If so, why?
JP: I think the battle for human rights is world history. It doesn’t have to be hived off. The same for women, for many, many years, why is there women’s studies? It should be integrated into the curriculum of all things. Similarly human rights seems to me should be fundamentally important and central to any history class you ever take, though it often isn’t. So I guess I would say one doesn’t have to major in human rights, but I think students would benefit greatly at schools around the country and around the world if course offerings just integrated a better understanding of the fundamental importance of human rights to why we’re here, why things happened the way they did, and that battle, the struggle for human rights being a core aspiration that has driven human history. So having students get a chance to take even a class in something that allowed them to see that more directly than they normally do in most classes, even though they might be learning about human rights in effect or things that human rights struggles impacted, and they may not even know that because the way it’s being taught isn’t even explaining or understanding that level of detail or nuance. So to get a chance to do that through coursework is something that in most universities I go to and speak around the country they don’t have. So it’s a special place that understands how important that is and allows the course catalogue to have some of these offerings.
KC: Are there things you hope such a curriculum might teach or un-teach in students before they pursue a career in human rights? Or even if they choose not to pursue a career in human rights?
JP: If I was the czar of college education, I would mandate the study of popular movements for human rights around the world because first of all, unless the professor or the author is plugged into an understanding of history in that way, it’s often understated, the role that people who were fighting against whatever injustice was occurring, the role that they play. So first of all just to get an accurate rendition. Sort of like the People’s History of the United States book that came along and everyone was like “oh wow” because it was really understanding in a much different way than most textbooks had portrayed U.S history up until then. But the more important reason I would want to do that is if you read things like this, you understand that your voice matters, your vote counts, your taking an interest and an action on an issue that matters to you can actually potentially make an impact, especially if you are working with many other people who care about the same things. And so I guess it’s empowerment of students that is of most interest to me. It’s that if you read history in a certain way, and understand the importance of social movements, than you can learn as a student that you can, as part of these larger efforts, help change the course of human history. So I would hope for many people it would motivate them to want to get involved as opposed to feeling that this world is too big and the problems are too immense and I can’t do anything about them, which is what I think often you walk away from when you read history or read about some of the current problems we are facing in the world, it seems like too great and too much to handle and you sort of turn the switch off. But if you can read it a different way, and the historical context a different way, you can come to a much different conclusion and say “oh yeah, that is a big problem but it isn’t much different than what they faced in this other thing, and they fixed that,” or “they addressed that and they started to change that, and so I would like to get involved in trying to make a difference here.”
KC: Are there things you wished you had learned in college that may have helped you in all of your projects and work in human rights?
JP: Honestly I don’t know if this is a superficial answer, but I think about this all the time and if I went back to school now, so I’m going to answer it that way, if I went back to school now I would take a lot of courses in, I don’t know what I would major in because there are so many things that I’m interested in, but I would definitely take a lot of courses in marketing, social marketing, public relations, communications, that whole basket of issues because throughout my work, my career over the last almost thirty years now I don’t think I’ve been in a job which hasn’t involved trying to convince people to do something different. Whether I was working in the White House and trying to argue with the President, “No doing nothing is going to be worse than actually acting here,” I had to sell it, to work within the United Nations system, my work in the nongovernmental arena, testifying in front of Congress, being in the middle of war zones and talking to warlords and militia leaders and dictators. In every situation I’m trying to sell somebody something. My dad was a frozen food salesman and I probably learned more from him on this than I did in college because that guy had so many great ways to sell a corn dog and a pork tenderloin fritter. Whatever the heck he was peddling back then it was carcinogenic. And people would buy it. Schools, and hospitals would buy things that would kill them and so I guess it would be to take some courses in things that… I’m like a liberal, hopefully progressive socially, justice seeking young person when I was going to school, but I wish I would have taken a few more classes where skills could be built. I just wanted to learn about new things and history and political science, and I would take all that now, but I would add some things that would give me additional skills then to achieve the things that I was interested in accomplishing.
KC: Do schools in the areas you work, including elementary schools and schools in refugee camps, teach human rights?
JP: We have started this program with one of my basketball buddies and former NBA player named Tracy McGrady, and we got this program that supports education in the refugee camps of people who have been displaced from Darfur and when I’ve gone there and others have gone there, a number of us did a lot of things with local Darfuri teachers on how they can teach human rights issues. More again along the lines of this is the history of this area or of other parts of Africa and let’s go back and look at that history and introduce the concept of people who are struggling for their human rights. You could read the history of Darfur if you are a refugee kid in Darfur and it could be about the colonial administration, about the Egyptians, about the British, and on and on. Then if you take it a level deeper, you can look at the movements that organized against all of these oppressive systems that were there to extract or use people’s labor or whatever their reasons were over the course of the last few centuries, and so those were human rights movements in effect. They were protest movements, they were rebellions, but they were fighting against gross human rights injustices. So we’ve tried to integrate some of the stuff into the curriculum, into the way that some of the teachers that are in those schools are doing it. And I understand from other people that I know, this is not my arena, that some of this kind of stuff is being done in many other places too. So I think the sky is the limit in terms of what you could do in this regard, but everywhere I’ve ever gone where people actually care about this stuff, they are trying to do this kind of thing. It may not be formally part of the writing, reading, arithmetic type thing, but people are trying to introduce this kind of stuff so that students can learn the real history of the places that they are coming from.