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Search The Fig Tree's stories of people who make a difference:

Human Rights Education Institute integrates into children's lives

In a historic brick building beside Coeur d’Alene’s city park, exhibits, programs and people energize area children, students, businesses, residents and visitors to integrate awareness of human rights into their lives.

Rachel Dolezal
Rachel Dolezal stands beside larger-than-life portrait of Martin Luther King Jr. at the HREI entry.

Commitment to human rights education and action has taken root in the region through the Human Rights Education Institute (HREI) as the area experiences incidents from a few white supremacists.

While some HREI founders envisioned expanding facilities, emphasis is on changing hearts and minds through education. 

As Rachel Dolezal, curator and director of education, develops education programs, writes curricula, creates artistic exhibits and networks with the community, Donna Cork serves as director of operations. 

When former director Bob Bennett left in 2008, HREI’s board of directors decided to divide the management between Rachel and Donna, combining Donna’s administration and business skills with Rachel’s experience in leadership, activism and education.

Despite media “sensationalizing the negative,” Donna finds North Idahoans more interested in listening and learning than in hating.

“What we have done and are doing is a model for communities facing and challenging bigotry,” she said.  “It is a model of what can happen when a community comes together and says ‘no’ to hate.”

Donna Cork
Donna Cork shows photographic books of past exhibits.

While some people focus on negative aspects of struggles, she calls for celebrating the area’s growing diversity and commitment to human rights.

The HREI’s education mission takes place through programs held throughout the region and exhibits in a large hall, a small exhibit area and a media/classroom. 

For the current exhibit, “Water, Sex, China,” three films present the impact of droughts, floods, global warming, erosion, deforestation and limited resources.

The exhibit’s installations—“100 cans of Coca Cola,” “Green Grass,” “The Closet,” “Dry Penny Pool” and “Fountain”—examine different aspects of human rights related to water usage and limited resources; population increase and gender issues, and Chinese culture and policies.

This is the second of four exhibits of “Fast Forward: Globalization and Human Rights” in 2009 and 2010.  The first, “Political Power:  Who’s in Control and Who Benefits?” ran January to June 2009 and featured historical propaganda posters with international flags. This one began in July and ends in December.  The upcoming exhibit, “Making ¢hange:  Economic Rights in the 21st Century,” runs January to June 2010.  The fourth on “Solutions: Alternatives to Globalization” runs July to December 2010.

Photographs in limited-edition books preserve past exhibits:

• For the Rights of the Child in 2007, Rachel worked with elementary school children and at-risk teens from Anchor House, a local transitional home for boys, to develop images and texts for display in April, which is Child Abuse Month.

• For Peace Advocates in 2008, Rachel painted 12-foot high profile portraits of peacemakers on the walls of the exhibit hall.

 • For “Living with Limits” also in 2008, Rachel and Dave Govedare, a Chewelah artist, designed temporary artistic creations with snow, water, twigs, moss and other elements in nature at the Cougar Bay Preserve.

K-12 education is a primary focus. 

The 2009 Young Advocates for Human Rights Camps held at the institute involved 30 students in studying human rights through speakers, field trips, role play and multimedia activities.  The camp has reached 70 students since 2008.

Guided by college-aged mentors, the teens developed year-long projects to implement rights they chose from the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Rachel, who founded and directs this program each year, described several projects:

• Kyle Mason started a drive to collect 300 books by April 2010 to expand literacy for local children.  By mid-November, he collected 517 books and distributed them through St. Vincent de Paul and women’s centers.

• By selling dishtowels, Sara Kladar pays medical expenses for children in Mexico to have access to free life-saving heart surgery. To date, 13 children have had surgeries.

• Angel Gonzalez seeks to hold businesses accountable through an “Anti-Discrimination Pledge Campaign,” with results at www.idahopledgepath.yolasite.com.

• Bekah Kastinig is distributing anti-racist educational materials with the slogan, “Not in my city, not in my generation, not anymore!”

Other projects include selling stainless-steel water bottles to raise funds to drill wells in India; raising money to provide goats for hungry families in Latin America; establishing more warming shelters for homeless people in Post Falls and doing a weekly classroom international briefing on human rights.   Information on other projects is at www.yahumanrights.blogspot.com.

“The camp is designed to have measurable results,” said Rachel, who keeps in touch with the students through the year to ensure the success of their projects.

Other programs for children include receiving class field trips at the center and taking mobile programs to the schools for classroom presentations and assemblies.

A recent program on the Masaai of Kenya reached 3,500 students with cultural awareness workshops on batik, dance, storytelling, and social and cultural differences in Kenya.

Rachel was born in Montana.  Her family moved to Colorado and then to Durbanville, South Africa.  She earned a bachelor’s degree in 2000 from Belhaven College in Jackson, Miss., and a master’s degree in 2002 from Howard University, an historically black university in Washington, D.C.  She taught at Howard for two years before moving to Idaho.

As she experienced racial tensions in Mississippi, she became even more passionate about peacemaking and civil rights as she engaged in community development, volunteer organizing and educational programs in black history, math and art.   She also helped Belhaven, a Presbyterian school, recruit diverse students and develop a sister relationship with Tougaloo College, a private black college also in Jackson. 

“I believe change is possible here,” said Rachel, who moved to Coeur d’Alene with her son in 2004. 

Seeking to promote civil rights and community action, she became involved with the HREI in 2004 as a contractor and volunteer, helping create exhibits on the Rights of the Child and a human rights fountain in 2005 to advertise the city’s 2006 Fountains of Wishes Community Art Project.

Rachel also teaches part-time at North Idaho College and has taught African, African-American, Native American and world art and art for K-12 education at Eastern Washington University.

“I come from an eclectic household with African-American, Native American, German, Czech, Swedish, Jewish and Arabic heritages and culture,” said Rachel, whose father hunted for meat with a bow and arrow and was a county commissioner who brought loggers, miners and environmentalists together.

Having friends of many faith traditions, she values the truth taught in all religions, balancing her spirituality with her passion for community action and human rights.

Rachel was familiar with North Idaho’s white supremacist reputation, but hoped hate crimes wouldn’t happen to her.  Last spring, three Neo-Nazis came to the HREI building and verbally harassed her about her biracial identity and school programs.  Later her home was burglarized. One morning, she found a noose on her porch and recently a swastika sticker was stuck on the HREI’s front door. 

“Despite experiencing both subtle and overt hate, I believe in the potential for the human spirit to be good and charitable, for people to love their neighbors as they love themselves,” she said.

“I choose to be shocked and appalled at this side of human nature, not set back by the incidents,” she said.  “If we do not speak out for truth, change will not happen. Education is my form of social advocacy.”

Donna grew up in Wyoming.  As a small child, she believed Martin Luther King’s ideals that people should be judged by character and not skin color. 

After attending Northwest Wyoming Community College in Powell, Wyo., she came to the Coeur d’Alene area in 1994, transferred to North Idaho College and decided to stay.  She worked for a financial institution and a nonprofit private school before coming to HREI.

“Out-of-town visitors are surprised to see an institute like ours because of stereotypes about North Idaho,” Donna said.  “People are now aware we are here and energized to move forward.”

For information, call 208-292-2359, email rdolezal@hrei.org or dcork@hrei.org, or visit www.hrei.org.

 

Copyright © December 2009 - The Fig Tree