Sitting with Laura Branca in Gimme Coffee, we look out the big front window at Martin Luther King, Jr. Street as the drizzle turns into sleet and back into drizzle. Laura's calm demeanor and warm eyes contrast with her energy and spark as she takes up the questions I had sent her by e-mail. She has some notes but laughs about how much there is to say and how hard it is to know where to start.
Her long, careful, descriptions and stories are magically woven and I hope to capture some of that quality in this retelling. Our conversations range over many subjects, but Human Rights connects them all. Right at the beginning Laura makes this clear:
"Human Rights covers just about everything that people need and can be relevant to work in any field. It is the large, encompassing umbrella through which I’m beginning to look at all my work and interests - it is a framework that is about everybody."
Though our conversation starts in the present, I want to begin the article by putting our discussion of projects and interests into a broader context. So I ask, "What people and experiences influenced you?"
Laura's history and influences go back a long way and cover a lot of ground. She acknowledges some of her more recent mentors but her parents, she says, were her strongest influence. Her father was a Black American and her mother was an Armenian- American.
Her paternal grandfather (father's father) was born into slavery. The generational closeness of this relationship to the present brings home how recently the institution of slavery existed in this country. We pause for a moment and acknowledge that there are worlds of things that could be said about this fact. Then she goes on:
LB: "My grandmother's father was murdered in Louisiana because he was organizing agricultural workers who continued to work on the plantations after emancipation. They got pennies, but they didn't know they had the right to find out how much they would be paid so they could try to work for those planters who paid the most or ask for higher wages. He was trying to help the workers understand their rights. So the white planters responded by organizing themselves into a posse and went around the community and killed everybody who was part of that movement. They shot my great-grandfather on the front porch of his house This was the violent suppression of the sharing of information. It was that powerful and that dangerous to do. These are some of the roots of The Labor Movement. People needed to understand each others’ conditions so they could move as a group toward something better. You can't do that if you don't talk to each other. If you don't share what's going on in your lives, you don't know that you have common cause."
"My dad became a playwright during the 1930s at a time in this country when the words 'black' and 'playwright' - would have been an oxymoron - you didn't hear those words together in the same sentence. He chose to write about the lives, conditions and struggles of black people and poor people - through both historical and contemporary dramas.. The political climate in the 30s and 40s was somewhat different from the McCarthy period of the post WW II 50s. Eventually my father was blacklisted. Many progressive, revolutionary voices were silenced and many (though not my father) were jailed. The suppression of art in this country was related to the suppression of progressive education - and many people lost their jobs."
"My mother was the first child in her family born in this country. Her parents escaped the Turkish massacres of Armenians. They were among the lucky ones who were able to get out, but most of the people in their families were killed. As a young adult during the Depression, my mom gravitated toward the progressive movement. Those were the only people who were speaking out about injustice; people were getting together across race, across class, across educational and economic differences, across ethnicity and supporting each other, speaking up for each other and taking a stand against racism, against Fascism, fighting for jobs and for each other. These were the people who were saying, 'Look, there's something really wrong going on here.' "
“My mom was a person who really lived her beliefs and really helped people in whatever ways she could."
At this point Laura goes on to tell a story about her mother's generosity and compassion, even under very difficult circumstances:
"'My mother worked on the defense of the Scottsboro Boys for a long time. She was living in up in Harlem when Ruby Bates, one of the two women who accused the Scottsboro Boys of rape, recanted her testimony and found refuge in the progressive community in Harlem . One of the attorneys asked my mother to help her. ‘Can you put her up for a while? She needs someone to take her to the dentist, and so forth' and my mom said, 'How can I help this woman who lied and got these guys arrested?’ But they said, 'You have to meet her. She's this poor, skinny woman; her teeth are all messed up - If you meet her then you'll understand.' And she did meet her and helped her out."
With such a personal connection to the struggle for human rights across generations, it makes sense that Laura makes this work the focus of her own life.
"What I'm trying to work my way into is making justice and human dignity central to what I do."
In this context I circle back to the beginning of our discussion about this primary focus in Laura's life and work. She is involved in many organizations and initiatives in the community and beyond. She is a partner at TFC (Training For Change) Associates with Kirby Edmonds, a company that provides anti-oppression workshops , consulting and training on organizational and leadership development, communication, conflict resolution, cultural competency, and other skills for public, private and grassroots organizations. . Lately her most visible work has been with the MRC project, Talking Circles on Race and Racism as a circle facilitator and trainer of facilitators.
Her most recent project - and the one that lights her face with enthusiasm - is as a Senior Fellow helping to develop the newly created Dorothy Cotton Institute a project of the Center for Transformative Action.
The project carries forward the legacy of work that Dorothy Cotton did during the Civil Rights Movement as Education Director of the Southern Christian Leadership Council when she ran the Citizenship Education Program to help people to understand their rights in the face of racist oppression and support each other to take action.
From the Vision Statement on the website: "The Dorothy Cotton Institute envisions the full realization of a just and peaceful beloved community in which all people understand, respect, protect and exercise full human rights."
Laura explained that the work of human rights can be done through any field of endeavor and is really for everyone's benefit. The Dorothy Cotton Institute will work to connect disparate human rights efforts to help support and bring visibility to the popular human rights movement on a global scale. It will work to develop an understanding here in the U.S. of the political, civil, economic, cultural, social and environmental rights to which all people are entitled under the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. There will be an education component that will help connect lessons learned from past struggles to present efforts for justice. And there will be a focus on young people, helping them to understand the power and importance of the human rights framework.
We discussed the way different pieces of the struggle for human rights become compartmentalized and can be dismissed as not relevant to the majority.
LB: "A lot of what happens in this country is that work on equity, dismantling racism or other anti-oppression work gets categorized as something to do when you've got extra resources and time on your hands. Or it's viewed as just for marginalized people who don't have anything to contribute. It gets devalued as not essential to the health of our society and labeled as ‘identity politics’ or ‘special interests.' There are so many pejorative ways of demeaning the work for social justice - there's so much mythology around what this work is about and who it will benefit, rather than being understood as something that everybody ought to have an interest in. Human Rights is a different frame to put around that work because justice and human dignity belong to everybody."
This is a very hopeful frame that joins people together regardless of what identities they claim or what particular part of the struggle is their primary focus.
LB: "Once people begin to learn what their rights are and compare that to what their life circumstances are - a light bulb goes off.' I thought human rights were for someone else, people in another country.' But, no. We can see the erosion of people's human rights going on daily in the news. When you look through that lens you see that, 'Oh, it's a human right to form a trade union? It's a human right to assemble and to express your grievances to the government? It's a human right to run for office or to have your vote counted? It's a human right to have health care and access to affordable, healthy food?' These are things that many people in this country don't think of as human rights. When you look through that lens, people are shocked. Our country has told us we're the most blessed nation on the planet, that we have freedoms that everybody else envies, , when, in fact in other places in the world people know a whole lot more about human rights than people here in the United States do."
"There is an international conversation going on about what a human being is entitled to, that we are responsible to each other to protect our rights and our countries are accountable to each other to help fulfill those rights. When people hear about that - when they understand it, they get excited about it."
"One of the things I'm noticing as people go through the human rights trainings that we're offering is that the language of human rights is showing up more often in the community. I'm not saying that we started that, but I'm seeing it as an idea whose time has come. It's rippling out because it has meaning to people. For example, going to the Food Security meeting recently and hearing people say 'food is a human right.' Hearing people in New England talking about health care as a human right. Imagine how different the dialog would have been during the national health care debate if President Obama had described what he was originally proposing to do by saying 'Health care is a human right and we are not protecting that or fulfilling that adequately for our citizens. Other countries are doing a better job of it than we are. You are entitled to this and our administration is going to fulfill this responsibility.' It would have been a completely different conversation."
"Human Rights are inalienable; they belong to you whether or not they are being protected in your life circumstance and environment. They are a part of what it is to be human. There are important conversations going on all over the world detailing 'what does this mean I'm entitled to, what does that mean we need to do for each other; how are we supposed to treat each other?'"
“Even though much of the language of human rights is in the language describing individual rights, there are also rights of groups of people, rights of indigenous peoples are being drafted, and there's work being done on the rights of the Earth, - It means we are each responsible for helping to create the kind of community, the kind of society, where those rights can be expressed and realized. That means we can't ignore each others conditions or suffering.”
“Another thing I like about this concept is that nations are accountable for respecting human rights, whether they sign these treaties or not. If they're violating human rights, international response or intervention has to happen, even if that country doesn’t agree that they are responsible or in violation. For those countries that do sign the international covenants, every level of their governments and every public body is obligated to be aware of its responsibility to make human rights realized in people's lives. It's a very thorough and accessible way of understanding how to build community. It really resonates and I think that people are deeply affected by it when they start having human rights conversations.”
I asked Laura who in the community she would like to see me interview - who she would like to learn more about. We generated quite a list which prompted Laura to mention a couple of initiatives that have happened in the community recently that have to do with human rights and are indicative of the momentum being generated as more and more people become familiar with this way of viewing the world.
"Community people teamed up with some Ithaca College (IC) professors to provide community-based cultural competency training for IC students before they were connected to organizations and programs to what is usually known as service learning. That way they could learn something about the cultures of the organizations and communities where they were going to work..”
“At Ithaca High School, for the MLK Community Build kick-off, 17 facilitators (either Human Rights training alumni or Talking Circle alumni) were invited to the high school. Each facilitator took a class and had students share personal human rights stories about their experience of injustice. People who were in those sessions are saying that students have been coming up to them and saying, ‘That was really great! We never get to talk about that stuff.’"
Our list of people and projects became so long that it would take years to explore them all. It feels hopeful that so many people are working toward an equitable and sustainable world from so many different angles. I asked Laura what we could do to better support each other without sapping vital energy for each project.
LB: "One of the things that I find most frustrating about being a part of the Ithaca community for so many years is the tendency among people who are working for social change, for justice, and trying to make life better - to easily turn on each other. It's demoralizing and such a waste to indulge in these dramas with each other. We are not enemies. What would it mean to behave as though we truly care for and support one another?"
As she speaks, I nod my head. I have noticed this tendency and it has been a topic of discussion again and again in many circles. She goes on:
LB: "In every family, in every friendship, in every community we're going to have people that we don't get along with, but that doesn't mean that that's where we focus our energy - on devaluing, criticizing, judging and calling people out and hanging them out to dry. It's so unskillful if we ever hope to make change in the world to indulge in gossip or to imply that our neighbors are not worthy of doing this work - it's ridiculous. When we’re not producing good results fast enough we turn on each other. I've seen a lot of really great campaigns, committees, councils, action groups implode because of this dynamic. The drama starts to suck all the energy, and people feel pressured to take sides and wonder where the finger of accusation is going to point next, and people get scared off from taking a stand about things."
Part of my motivation for doing these interviews is to help us all feel connected regardless of which piece of this work we are involved in, and to help us see the humanity in each other so there is maybe less inclination to attack and blame.
As Laura says, "People are not perfect, but we could be a lot worse!"
I know that Laura, like so many other people who do social change work, feels the weight of this work in her heart and in her body. Activists put attention on the suffering that still exists and there is a pull to use every breath and every waking moment to try to make it better. But that path leads to burnout. So I asked Laura how she maintains her energy and balance in the face of a seemingly endless task - "What do you do to recharge?"
"Hang out with friends, talk to my family, my ancestors- surround myself with beauty, light a lot of candles, listen to music, meditate, read books, I love movies."
Though she says her favorite books are “too many to list” they include Song of Solomon by Toni Morrison, Teachings on Love by Thicht Nhat Hanh and The Bean Trees by Barbara Kingsolver. Some favorites in the music category are Hamza El Din's A Wish, Djivan Gasparian's I Will Not Be Sad In This World, Bob Marley's Concrete Jungle, Celia Cruz's Raices and Sweet Honey in the Rock's Joanne Little.
As we have been talking, the room has been filling with coffee-drinkers seeking refuge from a chilly, wet spring day. As we prepare to say goodbye, we see Michelle at the next table and go over to exchange hugs and hellos. It occurs to me that if we filled this cafe with all the people in our community working for an equitable, sustainable world they might not all fit!
On the printout of the questions that I e-mailed to Laura when we made this appointment I see that she has made some notes about ways that activists can support each other in the community:
Work across race, class, place and age. Turn out for each others events. Notice interconnections.
This looks like a good prescription for strengthening and celebrating the vibrancy and commitment of activism in our community.