Power and principle

Her voice screams dedication. Filled with passion, she describes the joys and challenges of educating students and adults alike on universal human rights. Without a doubt, her voice is coming from the heart.

She is Dr. Allida Black, the director and editor of GW’s Eleanor Roosevelt Papers Project. The project, which receives government and private support, is part of the University’s history department and seeks to use the former first lady’s writings as a tool to teach human rights.

Black just returned from Geneva, Switzerland, where she participated in The Courage to Lead, a week-long conference for which she was a principal organizer. The event, which drew 100 participants from 50 countries, was dedicated to establishing a mentor-mentee relationship among women’s rights advocates as they seek to achieve social change.

Among the topics addressed were food security, shelter and political rights. Black said that for the conference to be productive it had to attract advocates dedicated to collaborative brainstorming, such as United Nations Deputy High Commissioner for Human Rights Kyung-wha Kang and representatives from international institutions such as the World Bank.

Though Black herself has made her name as an academic, having earned her Ph.D. in history at GW in 1993, she emphasized that the conference had a distinctly practical and applied focus.

“This was definitely not an academic conference. The last thing the world needs is another conference where people are sitting around talking to each other trying to sound smart. What we did was bring people together who were extraordinary pioneers in developing effective, real-world solutions to the crises women face,” said Black.

One such advocate was Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who addressed the conference’s closing ceremony via video from D.C. She received The Eleanor Roosevelt Lifetime Achievement Award for Leadership in Human Rights.

“I am such a great fan of Eleanor Roosevelt because she joined power and principle in a way that embodied American leadership at its very best… So I’m very humbled to receive an award that is named for her, but I think we all have a lot of work ahead of us to make good on the promise of what she really imbued us with during her lifetime,” said Clinton.

Although students were not present at the conference, many are active during the academic year assisting Black with the Eleanor Roosevelt Papers Project. The students who work at the project, Black said, not only learn about the former first lady’s place in United States history, but they also receive the mental training necessary to pursue their own goals in life.

“First, the students who work with us… have learned that you really can pull something off. They learn to not take ‘no’ for an answer, that if you have a vision, you have to figure out how to sell that vision and in what language necessary to keep different people at the table who all focus on the same goal,” said Black.

In addition to employing several undergraduate and graduate students as research assistants, Black frequently workshops with high school students across the country to promote awareness of human rights.

Advocating in the classroom and in the conference room may be tiresome, but for Black, the work brings great joy. With big aspirations for the project and a few financial worries, she attributes her perseverance to Eleanor Roosevelt and those around her.

“The thing that keeps some going is the courage of the people doing the work of the people, whether in the United States or around the world. We have an obligation to stand with them and if we don’t, and if I don’t take the risk, I’m not worthy to run a project that is dedicated to Eleanor Roosevelt, who took risks every day of her life,” said Black.

In the end, focus and dedication matter the most. With these attributes, Black said, students can achieve anything they desire.

“What I hope that students who work with us learn is that their opinions matter, that their visions matter… My role is to make the project happen, and to give courage and support to the students who work with us, who want to do that work. If we just sat on our asses all the time, the world would be a god-awful place and life is too short.”

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