Kerry Kennedy Inspires, Dazzles at Inaugural Lecture on Human Rights at Faneuil Hall


Kerry Kennedy (Jirair Hovsespian photo)

By Alin K. Gregorian
Mirror-Spectator Staff

BOSTON — Kerry Kennedy lived up to her family name at the inaugural lecture in the human rights series sponsored by the K. George and Dr. Carolann Najarian Fund on Thursday, September 23. The annual lecture series is an endowed public program of the Armenian Heritage Foundation, which is funding the construction of the Armenian Heritage Park.

Kennedy spoke for less than 20 minutes, but during that short time, she recited several anecdotes and inspirational stories, which in turn charmed, inspired and touched the audience.

Dr. Carolann Najarian, with Peter Balakian

A surprise to the organizers was the presence of her mother, Ethel Kennedy, the widow of the late senator and attorney general, Robert F. Kennedy. She received tremendous applause and after the program, patiently accommodated the many fans that wanted to have their pictures taken with them.

Kerry Kennedy is a veteran campaigner for human rights. She established the Robert F. Kennedy Memorial Center for Human Rights in 1988 and has worked on diverse human rights issues such as children’s rights, child labor, disappearances, indigenous land rights, judicial independence, freedom of expression, ethnic violence, impunity and the environment. She is the author of Speak Truth to Power: Human Rights Defenders Who Are Changing Our World, which features interviews with human rights activists including Marian Wright Edelman, the Dalai Lama, Archbishop Desmond Tutu and more.

Kerry Kennedy

Kennedy started her talk by expressing her happiness at being a part of the program, since serving on the board of the lecture series were a host of people who were old friends and colleagues, including Margot Stern Strom and Adam Strom of the Brookline-based Facing History and Ourselves.

She praised Facing History’s teaching tools on the Armenian Genocide and suggested that all those present should try to get local schools to teach it using that program. From that point, she launched into the importance of freedom of expression, which should not be taken for granted, and which does not exist everywhere, including Turkey, where speaking about the Genocide could get one arrested or worse — killed.

Peter Balakian addresses the audience.

She said we in the US owe the right to free expression “thanks in large part to the people who have spoken in this very hall” during the time of the American Revolution, she said.

“If we were in Istanbul, we could be arrested, tortured or if freed, targeted for death,” as was Hrant Dink, Kennedy said.

She noted that last year she spent a day in Istanbul with Delal Dink, the late Agos founder’s daughter.

“He dared to speak truth to power,” she said of Dink.

Kennedy was able to go back and forth between serious and humorous topics in her brief talk, holding the crowd’s attention.

Kennedy said that she got interested as a child in human rights because “I had seven brothers,” much to the delight of the audience.

She stressed that in her household growing up, little separation was made between work life and home life. Her mother, she recalled, would pile all the children, two dogs and a football in the family car and head to her husband’s office at the Justice Department. She recalled that she and her siblings took particular pleasure pretending to be spies in the tunnels linking the Justice Department with the offices of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI). One day, her spunky mother noted an incongruous suggestion box in the FBI building and quickly dashed off a note in “her distinctive handwriting.” By the time the children and their mother were at Robert Kennedy’s office, he was holding the note, which had been forwarded to him by his nemesis, FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover. Roaring with laughter, he shared Ethel Kennedy’s note, in which she had suggested that the FBI “get a new director.”

In another incident, she recalled, on June 11, 1963, her father sent her a note, sharing the good news that two African-American students had registered at the University of Alabama.

Other incidents early in her life, she said, helped shape her dedication to the issue of civil rights. She had a close friend who was gay, and in fact, became one of the first people in the US to have died of AIDS early on in the wake of the epidemic. Other friends were victims of date rape, or the parents of other friends were engaged in a violent relationship.

“I didn’t put these things together until I worked at Amnesty International,” she said.

Kennedy, who has worked to combat abuses by the Salvadoran government against workers and opposition activists, praised the change in the region. “All of Latin America was under a right-wing military dictatorship,” she said. Thanks to grassroots activists, she said, not only is Latin America free of military dictatorships, but so is the former Eastern Bloc in Europe as well as South Africa, where apartheid ended.

Also, thanks to similar grassroots actions, she said, women’s rights issues have entered the international arena. Kennedy highlighted some people whose dedication to the cause of human rights in their respective fields have made global changes, including Eli Wiesel, Margaret Mead and Digna Ochoa.

She quoted Wiesel: “It’s up to you now, and we shall help you — that my past does not become your future.”

Also speaking at the program was James Kalustian, the president of the Heritage Park Foundation. In his opening remarks, Kalustian said that it was a proud moment for the Armenian community, a group that “has experienced and triumphed over injustice” and now is responsible for erecting a monument that aims to pay tribute to its own and others’ suffering through this lecture series.

Author, poet and professor Peter Balakian congratulated the Massachusetts-Armenian community for the success of Heritage Park as well as the lecture series.

“It is a great honor to be on this stage,” sharing it with Kerry Kennedy, he said.

He added that in particular, it was a delight to be at that particular venue, where the first international outreach — toward Armenian victims of the Ottoman massacres and then outright Genocide — by the US was born, as well as the suffragette and abolitionist movements.

“It is a forum of humanistic thought,” he said. Balakian paid tribute to people like Alice Stone Blackwell, who worked hard to draw attention to the Armenian situation.

In her comments, Dr. Carolann Najarian, who along with her husband, K. George Najarian, has endowed the lecture series, paid tribute to her late father, Avedis Abrahamian, a Genocide survivor who fled to the US at age 15. “Injustice affects us all. In order to be effective in the struggle for the abrogation of human rights for one, you have to fight all of them,” she said. She praised the speaker, Kerry Kennedy, as someone who has “for 30 years been a tireless advocate for human rights.”

Dr. Carolann Najarian and her husband, K. George Najarian, with their grandson, George

Final speaker state Rep. Peter Koutoujian (DNewton/ Waltham), visibly moved, praised Kennedy as someone who does “not rest on the laurels of a great legacy [but has gone on] to create a new legacy every day.”

Kennedy, after the program, said she was “very deeply moved” with the event. “It was inspiring to see what the Armenian community has given to the community and the effort the community is making to bring together all the immigrant groups.”

A reception followed at the Old State House.