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President's Blog: From the Heart

The Power of Sharing Our Stories

By Eric F. Spina

There is nothing more transformative than hearing people tell their stories in their own words.

Listening, we realize our shared humanity. We may see injustice illuminated in a new, sometimes stark, light. Or we may recognize courage or heroism previously unseen. In the case of the University of Dayton’s Human Rights Center and human rights studies program, faculty, staff, and students internalize these stories and become advocates for the marginalized and the vulnerable.

All of those thoughts ran through my head last week during the 2019 Saint Oscar Romero Human Rights Award symposium and ceremony, followed by the opening of the multimedia Moral Courage exhibit, “America the Borderland.” I applaud Shelley Inglis, executive director of the Human Rights Center, and her staff as well as the faculty associated with the Moral Courage Project for their work in pulling off this powerful day.

I listened to three lawyers, holding bronze statues of Saint Romero, explain why, nearly 40 years after the El Mozote massacre in El Salvador that claimed nearly 1,000 innocent lives, they relentlessly seek justice and accountability. David Morales from Cristosal and Ovidio Mauricio Gonzalez and Wilfredo Medrano from Tutela Legal are such worthy winners of the 2019 Romero Human Rights Awards. In their remarks, they spoke of the additional urgency they now feel because of this international recognition at UD — still more people who look to them to ensure justice.

Their voices matter. Their work matters. Their spirit of perseverance reminds us that the struggle for justice continues.

Ann Hudock '90 '93, executive vice president for Counterpart International, conversed with a panel of international human rights defenders about the connection among accountability in Central America for extremely high levels of violence; the rights of migrants, refugees, and asylum seekers at the border between the U.S. and Mexico coming from the region; and the role of grassroots humanitarian efforts.

This is deeply worthwhile, demanding, and complex work in a world filled with too much human suffering. But it demonstrates that there are many who choose to dedicate their lives to standing up for the rights and dignity of all people.

Finally, I was struck by the stories of courage, sorrow, love, and hope our students told from their 50 interviews with people living in the border cities of El Paso, Texas, and Cuidad Juarez, Chihauhua, Mexico.

In conjunction with Proof: Media for Social Justice, 15 undergraduates traveled with professors Joel Pruce, Natalie Hudson, and Glenna Jennings last May to document the experiences of those living on the border. They carried five cameras, seven tape recorders and scores of AA batteries in their backpacks. In a zine, they chronicled their meetings with “people in their living rooms, law offices, church pews, the border's riverbed, and in the spaces between the rungs of the border fence.” They left with a deeper understanding of the daily lives of people on both sides of the border — and of themselves.

Weaving these narratives with stunning photography, they created a video, interactive website, podcasts, and a traveling exhibit that will be on display in the Keller Hall atrium through May 12. The spring issue of the University of Dayton Magazine shines a light on their experience — one that Natalie Hudson, director of the human rights studies program, says cannot be replicated in a classroom. You have to go out into the field, listen to the stories, and put yourself in the shoes of others to fully comprehend the humanitarian issues behind the immigration debate.

These students, from various disciplines and backgrounds, learned that complex issues often do not lend themselves to black-and-white, simple solutions. Flyer News opinions editor Mary McLoughlin '20 may have summed up the experience best: "The Moral Courage Project has taught me that human rights work is more about leaning into a love that complicates our perspective rather than depending on answers to resolve our questions."

That’s the power of personal stories, the kind that open up our eyes for seeing the world with new understanding — and that motivate action in the defense of human rights.

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