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At Human Rights Education Institute
Education entails changing people’s hearts, minds

By Kaye Hult

After recent conversations Tom Carter had with some people who thought their minds were made up on issues, three people came away expressing that he had challenged them to think further.  They emerged from the conversations with broadened perspectives.

“I never thought of it that way.”

“I never thought you could give me a reason to think differently than I did a few minutes ago.”

“I now see something I never thought existed.”

Tom Carter

Tom Carter breaks down barriers.

As the new executive director of the Human Rights Education Institute (HREI), Tom believes the way to solve problems is through communication, and that requires education.

He came to the HREI with a mandate from the institute’s board of directors to bring viability and sustainability to the organization.

So his job entails working with the board to raise funds, build community involvement and encourage visitors to stand up for human rights, tolerance and respect for everyone. 

The Kootenai County Task Force on Human Relations created the institute in 1998 as its educational arm.  Since 2005, the HREI has operated out of a historic downtown building at 414 W. Mullan Rd.

Tom resonates with HREI’s values: human rights, education, dignity, diversity, inclusivity and partnerships.  He and the board envision programs to help educators, support students and broaden businesses by teaching tolerance, diversity and cultural awareness in this community and beyond.

The institute began with an endowment that has funded the work since its inception.  Now, however, the board recognized the need for an executive director with business acumen, as well as a passion for human rights.

Tom brings more than 20 years of experience in education, business development and training.  He earned a bachelor’s in psychology from Gonzaga University in 1995 and a master’s in teaching from Whitworth University in 2001.  He was headmaster at a private boys school for more than 16 years.  He also previously owned a small business.

He has put his business skills to work by cutting spending 72 percent, turning down heat in the winter and opening windows in the summer.  He also finds grants to cover costs of the programs.

“Our goal is to raise money to keep the institute going,” he said.  “The HREI can no longer rely on the endowment.  We’re being efficient.  We receive no state or federal funding.  Our funds are from private donors or grants.”

He has put together a successful golf tournament and other benefits that have raised about $70,000, half of the annual budget.

Tom seeks to gain more community support through an annual fund drive, a monthly sustainability program and volunteer opportunities. To increase involvement, he set regular hours of operation.  The HREI is open 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday, and 10 a.m. to 2 p.m., Saturday.

 “Cultural diversity, awareness, support and understanding start with community involvement and branch out from there,” Tom said.

The HREI invites the community to four socials a year.  The next one is at 6 p.m., Monday, Dec. 10, at the institute, featuring  David Eubanks as speaker and presenting him with the Human Rights Education Award for his work as teacher at Lakes Middle School and organizer of the Mearly Multicultural Fair.  The events include socializing and speakers.

The community also participates in exhibits the HREI hosts or creates, programs for children and events that celebrate diversity. 

November events included African song and dance, tango lessons, an art show, the first Transgender Day of Remembrance Vigil in North Idaho, and a Human Rights Book Club.

The HREI’s two-year calendar has four six-month quarters.  The past two years, its programs focused on Mahatma Gandhi’s Seven Social Sins under the theme “Peace Lives Here.” 

In January, the theme shifts to Native Americans and Africans.

Programs include human rights education for children in K-12 school programs, using a curriculum the HREI offers.  It also hosts a Martin Luther King Jr. Children’s Week Program.

For middle school and high school students, its Young Advocates for Human Rights program offers speakers, field trips and community service.

The HREI provides global diversity training to businesses, teachers, schools, colleges and the wider community.

Tom’s passion for human rights began in his childhood. 

“I’ve seen it as an issue ever since I was a child,” he reflected.  “I grew up in a multicultural family.  My mother is Hispanic.  We lived in the Oakland, Calif., area, which was culturally diverse.  I saw people’s issues with diversity, but I never understood them.

“In my family, my father was bigoted.  He regularly offered racial slurs,” said Tom, who chose emulate his grandfather, Salvador Lopez Leiva.  “He worked for Chrysler, starting out working as a groundskeeper and working up to be vice president, despite being a Spanish immigrant.” 

From him, Tom learned the work ethic, doing things right and treating people well. 

When he was eight, he moved to Spokane.  Since then, the Northwest has been his home.  While serving in the Marines, he lived in South Korea.  He also spent time in Central America, Japan, Jamaica, Canada and Hawaii after he left the service. Tom and a friend worked with aborigines in the Australian Outback in 2005. 

Through these experiences, he learned to see each person as an individual.  He invites those with whom he interacts to do the same. 

Tom also lives his convictions through involvement with St. Mary’s Catholic Church in Spokane Valley, serving on the Catholic Diocese of Spokane executive board, participating on advisory boards of the Disability Action Center in Coeur d’Alene and Family Magazine, and mentoring youth to set goals.

He wants to help “people see people as people,” not as labels— Mormon, Latino, black, Joe the plumber, Sikh, Hindu or CEO—but simply as individuals.

“Interaction with people educates us.  Experience educates.  I’ve learned much from people who don’t have formal education, but have other kinds of wisdom,” Tom said. 

“To close off and not communicate with others allows minds to stagnate about what is reality and what is not reality,” he said.

“I want people to change themselves through awareness, information and choices,” he said.

For information, call 208-292-2359 or visit

Copyright © December 2012 - The Fig Tree,