Ellen Firestone is a human rights educator and activist, passionate about the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. We interviewed her about her background, vocation and faith, and the links to interfaith work for the UN’s Interfaith Harmony Week, February 1-7.
Tell us a bit about how your interest in human rights education and the UDHR developed.
For a long time, I knew I had a purpose but really did not know what that purpose was. I spent years trying to “figure it out” by reading books, taking classes, going to workshops and traveling around the world. I remember being about 34 years old and looked around one day and thought “this can’t be it, there has to be more to life”. Fast forward about 10 years, my son, who was starting his freshman year in high school, was invited to an International Youth for Human Rights Summit at UCLA in Los Angeles. He said to me “I’ll go, if you go.”
At the summit, we learned about the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), met amazing people from around the world. I remember seeing my son sitting between one student from Morocco and another from Germany and thought: what a great education that is! We also heard real live people speak about horrific human rights violations that occurred either to them or to people in their country. It was difficult to believe that human beings were doing these types of things to other human beings. I had not learned about the UDHR in school, and I remember thinking, someone needs to make this document known.
How do you see your faith to be connected to this vocation?
I was raised Catholic and went to Catholic school for 8 years. When I was in second grade, I remember a nun telling us that she had a calling. I thought I had a calling too, but was not sure what it was. I also remember a line from the Bible that impinged on me. It went something like, to whom much is given, much will be expected. Even though I was not a millionaire, I knew I was given a lot in many ways. So I thought, what is expected of me? I do think having and following a purpose is spiritual and keeps a person on the path of a more spiritual and happy life, no matter what your “day job” is.
I think the UDHR is as relevant today as it was when it was first adopted in 1948. Following that historical act, the General Assembly called upon all member countries for it to be disseminated and expounded, principally through educational institutions. Unfortunately, this has not occurred. Could you imagine what the world would look like had the UN followed through with this original intention? Part 2 of Article 26, Right to Education, says, Education shall be directed to the full development of the human personality and to the strengthening of respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms. It shall promote understanding, tolerance, and friendship among all nations, racial or religious groups and shall further the activities of the United Nations for the maintenance of peace. Education and dialogue are essential in order to have this document fully executed.
How do you see the UDHR, human rights education and interfaith work to be related to one another? What ways could they influence each other for the better?
They are connected, can and should influence each other for the better. Article 18 of the UDHR states: “Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance.”
I think the writers of the Declaration were very thoughtful about the words they used in each of the articles in the UDHR for us, in order to create and maintain a world of tolerance and peace - where all humans not only survive but thrive. Different people and cultures may have different views and that is okay - the key is to have safe spaces to communicate with each other, like what Interfaith Philadelphia does to foster more understanding. I love the tagline “Dare to Understand”. It sometimes really does take courage to listen to another’s viewpoint. It’s easy to listen to another’s view when they are similar to our own; it’s when we get into the differences that tolerance and courage are needed.
This post is in honor of the UN’s Interfaith Harmony Week. Many thanks to Ellen Firestone for celebrating this with us through sharing her experience and insights, and for her advocacy around human rights education. If you’d like to learn more, you can find more information on her website or listen to her podcast – Know Your 30 Human Rights with Ellen Firestone. You can also learn about your 30 Human Rights through this course from United Human Rights.