The Thankful Turkey

It is Thanksgiving Day here in the United States.  This uniquely American holiday is supposed to remind us of all that we have to be thankful for, both as individuals and as a nation, but I fear that this sometimes gets lost in our collective national appetite for overindulgence (we don’t stop eating until we feel remorse) and entertainment (Macy’s Parade, football, holiday TV specials).  That we carry out these traditions in the company of our closest friends and family members is important and perhaps even the saving grace of the day, but have we lost the true spirit of Thanksgiving?

I was at my daughter’s school last week for Turkey Bingo. At this event, 25 lucky families won a turkey.  We did not, although we came within a B11 of winning.   As we were leaving, she grabbed my hand and said, “I want to show you something.” She led me out into the hall to a giant, colorful turkey on the wall.  She explained that each of the students had written what they were thankful for on a feather.

The thoughts expressed on the feathers give a picture of the typical things for which the average American kid is thankful.  I saw feathers that said things like:

“I am thankful for friends and family.”  “I am thankful for my mom.” “I am thankful for my sisters.”

“I am thankful for my grandma and grandpa.” “I’m thankful for my daddy.”

Other feathers said things like:

“I’m thankful for my cat” and “I am thankful for my xBox.”

I noticed a couple of feathers, though, that said things like:

“I’m thankful to be here”  and “I am thankful for America.”

“I am thankful to live in a place with no war.”

My daughter goes to a school that has a large number of English Language Learner students.  Many came to this country as refugees from Somalia or other countries in East Africa, but she also has friends who came to this country as refugees from Tibet or were adopted from orphanages in China.  There are also kids at her school from Central and South America.

Sometimes we forget that the Pilgrims were refugees.  In England, they were persecuted on account of their religious beliefs.  They took the tremendous risk of coming to this new land in order to be free to practice their own religion.  And giving thanks for their freedom was a big part of the first Thanksgiving.

As I looked at that turkey on the wall of my daughter’s school, I had a moment of inspiration. When all of those individual feathers, childishly and colorfully decorated, are put together, you get a lovely image.  But you also get much more.  When all of those truthful and thankful thoughts are put together, you feel the true spirit of Thanksgiving.

And that is the inspiration and the spirit in which I hope to celebrate this holiday.

Happy Thanksgiving to you and yours, from me and (one of) mine!

HUMAN RIGHTS: Speaking the Language

I’m over at World Moms Blog with this post today.  Check it out!

Sometimes I have trouble finding the words to talk to my kids about the violence that hear about in the news, the injustices that they see in our own community.  As a human rights lawyer, it is my job is to document and expose human rights abuses. But I have always struggled with how to communicate to my kids what human rights are and why they should care about them.

Recently, however, I was preparing for a project that involved interviewing children about their experiences.  Experts advise that interviewers use simple language when speaking with children about difficult topics.  “Simple language” means avoiding big words, of  course, but it also means using simple, direct sentences.  Straight-forward grammar – subject and predicate in sentences; basic speech parts – nouns and verbs and adjectives.  I suddenly realized what I was doing wrong in talking about human rights with my kids. Rather than explaining complicated concepts, what I needed to do was break it down to the core values that everyone needs to live fully in this world. I needed to start with the basic building blocks of language: words.

Once I realized this, I started to see human rights words all around me!  Words like:



Verbs like




Nouns were all around me!




I saw adjectives, too!


I started pointing out these words to my daughter, who is seven. Just last week, she was running past the table in the entryway where we put our mail.  Suddenly, she came to a screeching halt in front of the stamps.

“Look, mommy,” she said.  “The stamps are speaking the language of human rights!”

My daughter was exactly right.  The stamps said: equality, justice, freedom, liberty.  Powerful words that convey basic human rights concepts.

What human rights words do you see around you? Take a picture and post them on the World Moms Blog facebook page.

We can’t wait to see the human rights words in your community!

10 Things To Do With Your Kids on Human Rights Day!

This is a post that I wrote for World Moms Blog.  Originally published here.

Make your own human rights tapestry!

Human Rights Day is December 10! The date was chosen to honor the United Nations General Assembly‘s adoption on 10 December 1948 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), the first global statement of international human rights principles.  Here are some ideas for simple yet meaningful ways for your family to celebrate the rights and responsibilities that we all share as human beings.

1.  Learn about the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Check out the UDHR plain language version  or the Amnesty International UK book We Are All Born Free (15 of the illustrated pages of the book can be found on The Guardian’s website if you want to look at them online or print them out). You can also watch  a short video together and talk about it with your kids. My kids loved this animated video version of the UDHR even back when they couldn’t understand what the words meant. For a more historical view, check out The Story of Human Rights.

2.  Exercise your right to freedom of expression! Draw pictures together of the rights and freedoms that are important to you. You can make your own family “Human Rights Tapestry” by drawing on index cards and using a hole punch to make holes in each corner.  Use yarn to tie together the cards to make a tapestry. (See the picture above of the Human Rights Tapestry conceived of by Chanida Phaengdara Potter and created by visitors to The Advocates for Human Rights‘ booth at the Minnesota State Fair.) You can alsomake posters or collages together.  Help your kids write a poem or story about human rights.  Older kids can even make a video!

3.  Listen to some human rights music with your kids. Here are a few suggestions, but you might also want to check out the folk music songbook Rise Up Singing.  The book contains the chords and lyrics for more than the 1200 songs on a wide variety of social justice issues.

  • The Rainbow Connection – Kermit the Frog  Someday we’ll find it!
  • If I Had a Hammer – Pete Seeger   Really, anything by Pete Seeger.  Pete is my own personal antidote to Barney.
  • Free to Be You and Me   – Marlo Thomas & Friends     In my opinion, one of the best things about being a kid in the 70s.
  • The Preamble – Schoolhouse Rock      Did you know that the U.S. Constitution is one of the first documents to establish universal principles of human rights?
  • Star Wars Main Title/Rebel Blockade Runner – John Williams   People say Star Wars was a Western set in space, but I see it as a movie about the fight for human rights against the Empire.

4.  Same and Different.  I started doing this activity in my childrens’ classrooms and really learned a lot from the kids about tolerance and respect.  Show your kids a photo and have them point out what they see in the picture that is the same in their lives and what is different.  Here’s an example but more can be found on my blog post Same and Different:

photo by Dulce Foster

The kids’ responses:  ”I like that bracelet.”  ”I sometimes wear my hair in braids, too.” “They have dark skin and I have white skin.”  ”We have different trees here, like conifers.”  ”We have snow here right now.”  ”Is that corn growing behind them?  Because I LOVE to eat corn, too.”  ”Is that a house? It’s not like my house.”  ”You couldn’t live in that house in Minnesota.  You would get too cold.”

5.  Let your kids use their screen time to learn about human rights!  Play games and quizzes on the UN cyberschoolbus.  Check out these free, downloadable video games:

  • Against All Odds  Experience life as a refugee, for ages 7+.
  • Stop Disasters!  Learn how to respond to different humanitarian disasters.
  • Food Force   Gamers ages 8-16 undertake 6 virtual missions to stop world hunger. Download the game in English, French, Norwegian, Portuguese, Korean, etc. (I’ll be testing newly launched Food Force 2  with my 12 year old gamer son. Something tells me he’s going to kick my butt at saving the world!)

Photo from Food Force 2

6.  Talk to someone you know who is from another country.  Where are they from?  What was their life like there?  What language did they speak?  Did they go to school? What do they miss?  What do they like about their new country?

7.  Make a Helping Hands Wreath to symbolize the responsibility we all have to help each other.  Trace your hands on different color construction paper.  Cut out the hand shapes and glue or staple them on a paper plate to make a wreath.

8.  Act out a skit with puppets.  You can use any puppets or even make your own paper bag or sock puppets.  This skit is from RAISING CHILDREN WITH ROOTS, RIGHTS, & RESPONSIBILITIES , but you can also write your own skit, using a problem that your children have had to deal with themselves.

  • Example skit: Puppet 1: Hi everybody, my name is Jan.Puppet 2: Hi, everybody! I’m Sam, and I’m building a bridge. (Puppet is working with blocks.) Jan: Hey, Sam, I need those blocks for the airport I’m building. (Jan takes some blocks.) Sam: Hey! Don’t do that! You’re taking away my right to play!  (Puppets tussle over a block.)
  • Discussion:  What do you think Jan could have done differently? Has anyone ever interfered with your play?  How did that make you feel?
  • “Can you do a different ending to the story?” Choose children to act out the play again with the puppets, but coach them in some respectful ways to play together to share, take turns, or use other solutions they think of themselves.
  • “I know you can act very respectfully and responsibly toward each other. In fact, I’ve seen ________________________ (give examples of a time when acted responsibly).

9.  Read a book about human rights.   There are so many, but for young children, I like  Horton Hears a Who by Dr. Seuss, The Giving Tree by Shel Silverstein,  Giving Hand, For Every Child, A Better World by Kermit the Frog. (Yes, I have a thing for Kermit.)

Photo from Wiki Muppets

Older kids may enjoy books more like The Hunger Games and Diary of Anne Frank.  For more ideas for books for teens and tweens, see the Discover Human Rights Institute resources, especially the Peace and Justice booklist and the  Equality and Tolerance booklist.

10.  Take action!  Teach your kids that they really can make a difference in the world.  Collect food and bring it to a local foodshelf.  Write a letter or sign a petition on behalf of a prisoner of conscience. Volunteer to help serve a meal at a homeless shelter.  Raise money from friends or neighbors for UNICEF or another organization working on human rights. (Remember to Trick-or-Treat for UNICEF next Halloween.)  Check out additional service learning ideas for kids in grades K-12 at 160 Ways To Help The World

ADDITIONAL RESOURCES:  You’re on your way to a great Human Rights Day!  If you are a classroom teacher or homeschooling your kids (or if you just want to dig deeper), you can find tons more ideas through the following resources:




ABC – Teaching Human Rights – practical activities in English, French, Russian, Arabic, Chinese, and Spanish

The Advocates for Human Rights’ Discover Human Rights Institute – human rights education lesson plans and curriculum

Human Rights Here and Now  – human rights lesson plans and resources

Raising Children With Roots, Rights and Responsibilities – activities for preschool and young elementary children

Rise Up Singing!

Pete Seeger died yesterday at the age of 94.  I can’t remember a time before I knew his voice; his songs are part of the soundtrack of my childhood.  I began listening to Pete Seeger’s music again more recently, when my own children were young.  Together, we sang his songs “Goodnight, Irene” and “We Shall Overcome” and  “If I Had a Hammer.  Yet, in spite of the fact that Pete Seeger gave thousands of performances during my lifetime, I only saw him in person once.   He was not on a stage.   Pete Seeger was standing alone in the rain on the side of the highway near his home in New York’s Hudson Valley.  He was holding not a banjo or guitar, but a sign protesting the Iraq War.   As we drove by, I noticed that his mouth was open and moving.  “Hey, I think that’s Pete Seeger!”  I said, turning in my seat to continue watching him.

And I realized that his mouth was moving because – alone in the rain, on the side of a highway- Pete Seeger was singing his heart out for peace.

I’m thankful to Pete Seeger for his music and his activism – and for being someone who who really does make me believe, deep in my heart, that “We Shall Overcome” one day.

Rise Up Singing!

(Originally published on October 14, 2011 and updated on January 28, 2014)

History shows the incredible power of music to inspire and influence, to energize and heal.  The power of song can be seen in its impact on movement-building,  from the anti-slavery and  labor union movements in the 1800s to the civil rights and anti-war movements in the 1960s.  Liberation music has been important throughout the world, including songs of resistance during the anti-Apartheid struggle in South Africa.  Most recently, music has been part of this year’s Arab Spring.  In protests against Hosni Mubarak in Egypt, for example, music was a powerful way to convey the voice of the people.  (NPR story did a great story on The Songs of The Egyptian Protest)

I absolutely love Rise Up Singing, the folk music group singing songbook.  The book contains the chords and lyrics to more than the 1200 songs.  When you flip through it, you get a sense of how many songs there are out there that speak to such a wide variety of social justice issues.  Rise Up Singing grew out of Peoples Songs, Inc., Sing Out! The Folk Song Magazine and the post-World War II American folk song movement led by Pete Seeger and Woody Guthrie, and many others who sought to combine political activism with music.

But music that inspires me to stand up for human rights is not just about protest songs or folk music.  Music speaks to the individual. Inspiration is personal.   In 2006, I was in Geneva with representatives from dozens of U.S. human rights groups to participate in the UN’s review of  US compliance with the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.  We were all working on different issues and we came from all over the country, from Florida to Hawaii.

As an icebreaker at our first meeting, we were asked, “What is your favorite human rights song?”  I remember being amazed as we went around the room at the tremendous variety in terms of songs, genres, languages, meanings that had inspired this group of activists.   I told the group that my song was “If I Had a Hammer”.  (My kids were still quite young at the time and we were listening to a lot of Pete Seeger, who is my own personal antidote to Barney.)

Since then, I’ve been making a mental playlist of the songs that have inspired me over the years.   My list of songs is actually long enough for several playlists, but I decided to pull out just a few songs from each of the eras of my life so far.  This was a real challenge and there are a lot of obvious omissions.  Maybe I’ll just have to do another playlist someday.

In the meantime, I’ve got the HUMAN RIGHTS WARRIOR PLAYLIST for you on YouTube.  You can also link to each song individually below.   Enjoy!

From My Childhood

  1. If I Had a HammerPete Seeger      (See above. Pete >Barney.)
  2. Free to Be You and Me   – Marlo Thomas & Friends     In my opinion, one of the best things about being a kid in the 70s.
  3. The PreambleSchoolhouse Rock      Did you know that the U.S. Constitution is one of the first documents to establish universal principles of human rights?
  4. Star Wars Main Title/Rebel Blockade Runner – John Williams   People say Star Wars was a Western set in space, but I saw the Empire for the police state that it was. Extrajudicial execution of Luke’s family,  arbitrary detention of Han Solo et al. Not to mention the genocide on Alderaan.
  5. FreedomRichie Havens         My parents had the Woodstock album.  I think I know this and every other song on it by heart.
From My Youth 
  1.  Sunday Bloody SundayU2       I first heard this on my high school radio station WBRH. I went right to the library and looked up the 1972 Bloody Sunday Massacre in Northern Ireland. (Yes, I’m a nerd. I know.)
  2. Holiday in CambodiaDead Kennedys      I went through a big DK phase in high school.  Also, I knew a family that had fled the Pol Pot regime.  I still think of them when I hear this song.
  3. Talkin’ Bout a Revolution Tracy Chapman    Growing up in Louisiana, I had seen poverty.   But it didn’t prepare me for the mid-80s urban poverty I saw when I went to college in New Haven.  This song still rings true 25 years later.
  4. Tell Me Why  – Bronski Beat      I remember this as the first song I heard that directly addressed prejudice against LGBT persons. Rock on!
  5. Waiting for the Great Leap ForwardBilly Bragg     The lyrics have changed since I first bought Worker’s Playtime (on cassette!) in college, but I think it is possible that I have listened it to 1,000,000 times.
From My Adulthood
  1. All You Facists (Are Going to Lose) – Lyrics by Woody Guthrie, Music by Billy Bragg & Wilco     From the Mermaid Avenue album.  Yes, the Facists are bound to lose some day.
  2. HurricaneBob Dylan       Rubin “Hurricane” Carter did an event for us to help raise money for our Death Penalty project.   If anyone ever wants to make a movie about your life, he highly recommends that you ask that they get Denzel Washington to play you.
  3. Living Like a Refugee –  Sierra Leone’s Refugee All Star Band                     I spent the first 5 years of my career working with asylum seekers.   This song captures many of the things I heard about their experiences.
  4. Face Down  – Red Jumpsuit Apparatus     Violence against women is the most common human rights violation in the world – 1 in 3 women will experience abuse in her lifetime.   In the US, a woman is beaten or assaulted every 9 seconds.  Kudos to these guys for singing about it.
  5. MinorityGreen Day      Sometimes I have to remind myself that not everyone thinks the way I do about human rights – yet.
  6. Sons & DaughtersThe Decemberists        This is kind of where I am right now.  With sons and daughter.  Hoping to “Hear all the bombs fade away.”