Gene NicholThis interview was conducted over email with Gene Nichol by Sarah Kerman, a freshman undergraduate student, majoring in Public Policy and working for the Duke Human Rights Center at the Franklin Humanities Institute. 

How did you become interested in the theme of poverty?

I’ve had the good fortune to be a constitutional lawyer — working on issues of equality and dignity — my whole professional life. If one takes equality seriously in the United States, it is impossible not to become somewhat consumed by the challenges of intense poverty in the world’s richest nation. We have allowed ourselves to become the richest, the poorest and the most unequal advanced nation in the world. We pledge, on a host of fronts, otherwise.

Do you think most North Carolinians think poverty is inevitable?

I’m convinced most North Carolinians have no idea of the extent and brutality of poverty in our state. I have the hope, most days, that if we knew how wrenching poverty, especially child poverty is here, we’d do something about it. As it is, most North Carolinians think we have such high levels of poverty because we are too generous to poor people. Nothing, of course, could be farther from the truth.

What does bringing human rights language to the issue of poverty do to your understanding?

In 2005, Nelson Mandela told 20,000 people in Trafalgar Square: “Overcoming poverty is not a gesture of charity. It is an act of justice … the protection of a human right, the right to dignity and a decent life. While poverty persists, there is not true freedom.” That’s pretty much the way I look at it.


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