The Scope of Human Rights

Frank Hutchins, a housing and tenant leader in New Jersey, greatly shaped Cory Booker as he entered politics. Booker recalls several stories of Mr. Hutchins in his book United and offers several quotes from Frank that shaped the way that Booker’s came to understand and approach the world. Regarding human rights, Booker shares the following thoughts, shaped by Hutchins, in United,

 

“Frank asserted that civil rights — indeed, human rights— were not just about equal access to public accommodations and equal employment opportunity. Human dignity, security, freedom from fear, environmental toxins, and physical deprivation were also rights that should be defended and fought for. It was then that he said to me, looking at me with his kind eyes, ‘Cory, housing is a human right.'”

 

We often think of civil rights in the context of the Civil Rights Movement which frames our thoughts through black and white television footage of marches to end segregation. The black and white tv and fuzzy audio recordings make the Civil Rights movement seem so far behind us, but the reality that Frank expressed to Booker is that civil rights issues continue to this day and continue beyond racial categories. Civil rights was never just about segregation as we mistakenly think about it today, but rather it was about everything Frank expressed to Booker, about sharing with everyone on the planet a life that we would find acceptable.

 

When we think about human dignity, security, freedom from fear, toxins, and physical deprivation we are thinking about the things that make us human. We have our differences and we are not born equal in terms of our biological abilities and economic opportunities. We will have different material advantages, different social advantages, and different genetic advantages, but despite our inequities we deserve to all be treated as human and not somehow be treated as less than human because of our differences and starting points. We all understand this, yet it is hard to recognize our inequities, see our advantages, and understand that the reality we experience is not shaped wholly by our own doing, but often by acts and circumstances over which we have no control.

 

The reason we have trouble viewing the expanded idea of human rights that Frank shared is the same reason that road cycling is hard. Even when we are biking with a tailwind, we still feel air against our face, and still feel resistance from the air ahead of us, even though we receive a push from behind. Recognizing our own advantages, accepting that others lack those advantages, and seeing that though we still struggle we are greatly helped by our circumstances is challenging and humbling. But it is necessary if we are to update our views of human rights and share our humanity with those across the world.

 

Tackling human rights issues require that we expand our visions of equality. We must also recognize how much we are impacted by the social world around us and how much our society influences the opportunities we have. It is easier, and often encouraged in the United States, to turn away from the true human rights shortcomings in our country and assume that everyone can overcome any obstacle on their path. It is much harder, but incredibly necessary, to recognize the ways in which environmental hazards or the lack of adequate housing impact the lives of millions of people living in our society and how that reflects back on those of us who have adequate housing and advantages within our system.
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A Poverty of Understanding

Author Corey Booker reflected on a conversation he had with a mentor of his, Frank Hutchins, in his book United. He goes into detail explaining some of the lessons Frank taught him and some of Frank’s views of the world. One big focus was on a lack of empathy, or shared understanding of each other’s circumstances, and how that impacts the way that we treat each other and approach the world. Describing Frank’s views, Booker wrote,

“What made … negative conditions persist, he believed, was an insidious poverty of understanding, a poverty of empathy. People’s inability to see what is going on in the lives of their fellow citizens, to understand what so many American’s endure, creates an atmosphere that allows injustice to fester and proliferate.”

Our American culture encourages us to think about ourselves before others and to focus on what the things and opportunities of our own before we think about how our choices impact the lives of others. We do not spend a lot of time thinking about the experiences of others and we hold up our own success as evidence of our greatness, proof that we are good people, and as an excuse to ignore those who are less fortunate than ourselves. Frank Hutchins would have argued that we need to listen and spend more time with those around us, in our neighborhood, at our children’s schools, and in our community and those communities near us to better understand the experiences and realities of other people. If we focus only on ourselves, the things we have, and the things we want, then we will never be able to develop a sense of empathy focused on other people and their well being. We will turn away from those in society who truly need help as we explore ways to have and achieve more for ourselves.

A major struggle of our politics today is determining how large a role personal responsibility should play in our success and how much assistance and aid we should receive from other people. When we fail to understand the experiences of others and generalize our experience to the rest of the world we can never reach an honest starting point to sort out the details of the personal responsibility discussion. Our success and our material desires drive us to seek more and seek what other people have, and it becomes tempting to believe that we achieved based on our own merit, and that those who do not enjoy our same comforts somehow lack personal responsibility or an industrious mind. This is the heart of the lack of understanding and empathy that Hutchins described.

Stepping beyond ourselves, our experiences, and our narrow perspectives requires truly interacting with other people and other communities that we often would not see. By putting our material desires and drive for success aside, we can look at other people and actually see them, and begin to think about the advantages we experience, the smart decisions we were able to make as a result, and how other people perhaps never had those advantages. Individually we won’t solve the question of how much personal responsibility plays into each person’s situation, but we will be better able to empathize and understand the realities of the lives of our fellow American’s.

A Moment and an Experience

Senator Cory Booker wrote about a tenant leader and housing advocate in Newark that he met when he was part of the Newark City Council in his book, United. Booker met Frank Hutchins through advocacy work and events to help people living in areas of intensely concentrated poverty. Booker was with Frank during one of his last moments before his death and talking about the time he spent with Frank as cancer overcame him, Booker wrote, “When he looked at me it was as if his whole being was present and attuned to mine—it wasn’t just a moment, it was an experience.”

 

This quote brings me to an idea I think about frequently but don’t always manage to incorporate into my life in a meaningful way. Many of the books I have read focus on the idea of presence and being in the moment. An important component of being in the moment, one Booker truly understood and felt when he was with Frank, is a recognition of our emotions and allowing ourselves to truly feel and understand our emotions in the moment. Mindfulness allows us to think about how we are feeling and reacting to a situation, but it can sometimes take us away from the moment, and we can get caught up in our own thoughts to the point that we forget to experience the important moments where we are.

 

Booker’s time with Frank at the end of his life is an example of how to bring emotion into the present. Experience includes emotion and an awareness of those emotions, but it also involves being present in the moment. Booker did not just recognize his emotions but felt them and felt the enormity of the situation an was able to record and truly be present in the moment. When we are with others, we can be present and engaged by turning away from phones and screens and focusing on discussion and dialogue with the other person. Being present in this way involves truly focusing ones attention on the other person, and not on thoughts about how other people will think of us or thoughts of what we should or should not be doing, thinking, or feeling in the moment.

 

I am not the best at this even though it is something I think about often. I am working to improve and become better at understanding and feeling my emotions without being overcome by thoughts specifically about how I am feeling at any given moment. Becoming overcome with thoughts about how you are feeling and reacting takes you away from the present moment, where mindfulness helps you recognize your emotions and engage further in what you are doing at the moment.

Building a Purpose

Cory Booker starts one of the chapters in his book United with the following quote from George Bernard Shaw,

“This is the true joy in life, the being used for a purpose recognized by yourself as a mighty one; the being thoroughly worn out before you are thrown on the scrap heap; the being a force of Nature instead of a feverish selfish little clod of ailments and grievances complaining that the world will not devote itself to making you happy.”

Acting toward meaningful purposes is not easy and there is always a fear of the hard work, planning, and other people that will be part of the journey. Only by overcoming these initial fears and getting involved in the world can purpose and meaning be sparked in life.

The quote that Booker shares opens a conversation about a man named Frank Hutchins who was a longtime housing advocate and tenant organizer in New Jersey when Booker met him. In the story Booker explains that he dedicated himself to understanding people and helping them find true meaning in their life. Booker recalls his hero, and though he did not die as a hero surrounded by millions of people, he focused his life on something meaningful and impacted thousands of people though many likely never knew who he was.

By focusing on your wants and desires you miss the opportunity to do something meaningful to help improve the world for other people. You may find great success, live comfortably, and have lots of things, but wealth alone does not provide an answer for the purpose question. Only our actions and connection with the world can answer that question. I am not religious, but my wife is and I frequently go with her to community groups and church services, and even within Christianity purpose is built on the actions and connections we have with a world. Those actions and connections are guided by scripture 2,000 years old, but they are natural human tendencies that surely pre-date the idea of a monotheistic god. Developing relationships with others and working to make the world a better place, putting aside hedonistic tendencies and short term thinking was a focus of Marcus Aurelius in Meditations, and was so important that it became part of the Christian bible. It is so important yet often so paradoxical that Booker found the need to explore the idea in his life and book, and in our own lives we are still surprised by the idea.

Hope

Senator Cory Booker has an interesting thought about optimism and the future. He believes that you can’t simply look forward to the positives of the future and that you can’t ignore the negatives of the present that may persist into the future. What you must do, according to Booker, is be honest about the negativity that you wish to change and set out to make the world better through actions and deliberate choice. Intentional actions to drive toward a better world is what Booker calls hope, and it is about more than just believing things will be better one day. For Booker, hope is believing that one can struggle against the negativity, learn, grow, and make the world a better place. He writes, “Hope is the active conviction that despair will never have the last word.”

 

The power of Booker’s hopefulness lies in its practical manifestations in the real world. On an interview of the Ezra Klein Show, and again in an interview with Tim Ferris, Booker spoke about the word “optimism” and explained that optimism falls short of Booker’s ideas of hope. He sees optimism as empty beliefs that things will get better, leaving out the important decisions and efforts of the individual to make thing better. If one simply assumes the world will move in the right direction without looking at the specific areas that need to change, then one will never have a plan or roadmap to reach that better future. A positive outlook of the future needs to have more than just blind faith that one day things be great, it needs action items that one can relentlessly pursue to improve the world. This is the hope that Booker describes as a participant driven optimism.

 

Hope for Booker is the belief that one has the power to make the world a better place through awareness and action. If you fail to see what negativity exists, if you fail to think about how you could change what you dislike and understand to be unjust, if you fail to acknowledge the pain and suffering of now, then you won’t be able to live in a way that fights against such forces. Booker continues, “It does not ignore pain, agony, or injustice. It is not a saccharine optimism that refuses to see, face, or grapple with the wretchedness of reality. You can’t have hope without despair, because hope is a response.” Hope is the ability to look at the world, visualize a way to improve it, and take steps toward a better future. Hope does not run from the negative of the world today, but looks at the negative more closely to understand where it came from and how it can be overcome.

Emotional Wounds

One of the things I often think about at work is whether I am helping make the office a more enjoyable place for everyone to be. Am I helping to create an environment where people actually want to be, or am I in some ways contributing to an atmosphere that people dislike and don’t look forward to being at? These thoughts require that I take the focus off myself and instead shift it to those around me. It helps me look at my frustrations and move past them or see how they are opportunities for me to help others and make the day better for someone else.

Thinking in that manner is not easy, but I think it is something our society needs a little more of.  Whether we are in the office, on the freeway, at the gym, or in our neighborhood, we can think more of others and focus on how we can make a place better for others rather than selfishly thinking of ourselves.

A short passage from Cory Booker’s United helps me see why thinking of others and how I contribute to the world around me is so important. “For the eight years that I lived in Brick Towers, and during my almost twenty years as a Newark resident, my neighbors struggled with the emotional wounds of violence. This is not America; it is not who we are. It is a cancer on the soul of our nation. Like many cancers, the true peril comes from not detecting it, not recognizing the threat and the thus not taking the appropriate action.”

Our society often recognizes that everyone has problems that they are dealing with, but we never take time to think about the emotional wounds that many are going through. Booker refers specifically to emotional wounds brought on from violent experiences, but we all know people who have suffered intense emotional wounds without necessarily experiencing direct physicial violence. Putting thoughts of others and thinking of how you are helping the world be a nicer place for others helps us begin to heal the emotional wounds that Booker is discussing no matter where those wounds came from.

In regards to violence, we never spend much time thinking about how the victim will move on, continue life, and reintegrate with the world. We become singularly focused on how we wish to punish the violent offender but we don’t spend much time thinking about how we can minimize the emotional wounds that everyone involved will surely experience. I do not have a perfect answer for how we bind these emotional wounds, but I think that a crucial first step is to stop focusing on ourselves, what we want, and what is best for us in any given moment. We need to focus on other people, on how other people will react to our decisions and actions, and we need to focus on showing others that they are just as valuable as we are, and that we care about them. This does not mean we can never be self-centered and do things for ourselves, but rather that we will be more conscious of how our decisions impact other people, and we will find the appropriate time and place for ourselves.

Just as I think about the environment my decisions at work create, we should think about how our actions help to heal the emotional wounds that people in society face, or whether our attitudes further the strain those wounds.

Challenges Today

In Cory Booker’s United, the U.S. Senator relives moments from his past that shaped him and his politics. In his book he shares the story of a night when he and his father were out for drinks, and heard gunfire on their walk back home. Booker rushed toward the sound of the gunfire, arrived as one of the first people at the scene, and attempted to stabilize a man who had been shot. He explains the almost shock-like state that he was in following the incident, and examines a thought that he and his father wrestled with after the shooting.

Booker’s father was born in 1936 to a poor family. He was bright and hard working and rose to be a regional sales leader for a large company. Booker’s mother was also a trail blazer, running up the ranks in another company, and together Booker’s parents moved from poverty to wealth and to a suburb in New Jersey that had been almost exclusively white. Booker’s parents pushed to give their children new opportunities and pushed to make the United States better for black people, but the thought which challenged Booker’s father was this: “All this work, advancement, and progress, yet a kid like I was faces more challenges today than ever before. How could it come to this?”

It is very popular to write about the death of the American Dream and many people feel as though current generations do not have the same opportunity today to live better lives than their parents. Throughout American history my sense is that people believed their lives would be better than the lives of their parents, but this seems to no longer be the case, and seems to contribute to the sense that the American Dream is dead or dying. My personal sense is that this is especially true among black and minority families. The pressure we put on minority youth and the social decisions we have made regarding our responses to crime, education, and support have created a system where the American Dream is not equally encouraged and provided to everyone, but instead limited and offered to only a few.

I don’t want to say that any single factor has contributed to the sense that American across the country share regarding the death of the American Dream, and I don’t want to say that minority populations have a greater claim to the feeling of despair than others. I think we must take a more nuanced approach to the way we think about the opportunities we provide to children today, and recognize areas where we can make a difference. There is indication that we live in neighborhoods today that may be less racially segregated in the past, but are far more financially segregated, and research supports the idea that economic segregation leads to a stagnation in social mobility. There is also research suggesting that there are fewer social groups and community groups proving services, help, and support to people in local communities today, and this may further the isolation that so many people (especially young people) feel.

What is important to do in regards to our nations racial challenges, our sense of the decline in the American Dream, and the thought that Booker’s father wrestled with is to recognize that we are united, that we share a common future, and that we will be in that future with other people from our community. We must recognize and try to understand how people are thinking and feeling, even if we think their thoughts are misplaced. By learning to listen and understand others, by pushing past the urge to tell someone that their feelings and interpretations of the world are wrong, we can connect and begin to help and aid people in personal ways, even if that is just by listening and acknowledging the challenges they face.