Thinking about Human Rights on Ordinary Days in Small Places Close to Home

A couple of weeks ago I got to see Audra McDonald perform in concert. The woman is breath-taking. She has such an amazing talent. She had such an open heart. As I listened to her sing, I found myself thinking about Eleanor Roosevelt – it is pretty odd the pathways that my mind is wont to wander, but for the most part they are happy trails, and so I am content to follow the yellow brick road.

So that night, one of the songs that Audra McDonald sang got me to thinking about Eleanor’s often quoted speech fragment from the tenth anniversary of the signing of the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Now, I suspect you will either have never heard of this, or you will have heard it SO many times that you can halfway recite it in your sleep. Either way, please give it a read, once more with feeling. Think about what her words are really suggesting as she challenges us to think about the roots of human rights:

Where, after all, do universal human rights begin? In small places, close to home — so close and so small that they cannot be seen on any map of the world. Yet they are the world of the individual person: the neighborhood he lives in; the school or college he attends; the factory, farm or office where he works. Such are the places where every man, woman, and child seeks equal justice, equal opportunity, equal dignity without discrimination. Unless these rights have meaning there, they have little meaning anywhere. Without concerted citizen action to uphold them close to home, we shall look in vain for progress in the larger world.

Every time I read that paragraph I remember E. F. Schumacher’s injunction to think globally but act locally.

And all of that reminds me that in many ways it is easy to be a verbal, maybe even a financial, advocate for people on the other side of the planet. Truth be told, I find it much harder to consistently be compassionate and to always respect the human dignity of the people I meet closer to home on ordinary days, those people who can frustrate the crap out of me. But I do believe that Miss Eleanor is saying it is those very people who live in the small places close to our homes where the presence and practice of human rights must take its roots. And then of course we should do all that we can to have it spread like kudzu!

So, what tune was it that Audra McDonald sang that got me thinking about all of this? The song is “I’ll be there” from an off Broadway Play called, “Ordinary Days.”  Have a listen.    And have a box of tissues with you. When she sang it, there was not a dry eye in the theater.

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