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Human Rights is a Local Issue

I'm increasingly convinced that the reason why human equality, human dignity, and social pluralism are illusive in American society is that we do not have what Miguel de Unamuno called "el público" and Alexis de Tocqueville called "the public spirit." Instead, American communities, towns and cities are segregated by race, class, and citizenship status, with withered downtowns, and with no spaces for people to discuss, argue, and talk across those divides of race, class and citizenship. It is sometimes said that Americans live, worship and work in their individuals silos, with a silo for each neighborhood, each church, and each workplace. There can be no deep shared conception under these circumstances of collective solidarity or the common good, and of authentic pluralism. 

True, within each community, parishioners in dozens of churches may celebrate one another's equality every Sunday, and during the week, co-workers in hundreds of work settings may affirm one another's dignity, but these celebrations and affirmations of shared humanity are within tiny homogenous clusters of people, and do nothing to advance the collective solidarity, the common good, and social pluralism. In these silos people simply affirm the equality and dignity of people who are just like themselves. It is far from the cacaphonous el público that Unamuno described and the vibrant public spirit that Tocqueville found in American communities early in the 20th century.  

As a scholar-activist, I have run repeatedly into constraints to spark conditions that would promote deep forms of equality, publicness, inclusion and social pluralism. Part of the problem has to do with local governments and people themselves viewing human rights as political and potentially divisive, but for the most part the fractionalization of the population by race, class, and citizenship is the major obstacle. 

Where is the public space anyway? To distribute fliers on a city plaza, one needs two permits, one from the Police Department and another from City Hall. At least this is the case in Chapel Hill, and I suspect it is widespread practice. Most residential communities and all shopping malls prohibit the distribution of fliers to announce an event. There are no free spaces in town to hold a community-wide meeting, although there are abundant sports fields that are free. Therefore, having a public meeting about, say, the rights of migrants or the rights of members of the GLBT community, is not easy. The constraints are: first, the silo problem; second, anxiety that these are "political" issues and therefore inherently divisive; and, third, city ordinances and property rights.  

Once we have cleared all these constraints our events have been successful, small, but attracting a broad cross-section of the community, including immigrants and people of color. The Human Rights Center of Chapel Hill & Carrboro, is unique in that it is a community-based, not a university-based human rights center. There are now quite a few university human rights centers, but their priorities are research and scholarship, whereas ours are advocacy for marginalized groups and to provide popular education in the community. The Center officially opened in Carrboro in February 2009, in the poorest immigrant housing community in the county, although it has been functioning, thanks to undergraduates, for nearly a year.  

By adopting the Center's proposal on April 21, 2009, the Town of Carrboro became a "human rights city," only the second city in the U.S. to do so, after Washington, D.C. Specifically this declaration by the town accompanied the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The significance of this decision will become clearer over time, but for the Center it means legitimacy and that we can now get to work in a focused way, to pursue our twin objectives of advocacy and popular education.  

What is the larger context? Carrboro is one city among seventeen in the world that has declared itself a Human Rights City, and the second in the U.S., after Washington, D.C., on December 10, 2007. This is part of a global movement, spearheaded by Shulamith Koenig, recipient of the 2003 UN Human Rights Achievement Award and president of The Peoples Movement for Human Rights Learning. By adopting the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the Town of Carrboro has explicitly embraced the principles of equality, inclusion, social pluralism, and the recognition of universal human dignity. Moreover, by adopting the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the town has elevated human rights to uncontestable superior standing and depoliticized their content. This is the place to start. That is, it is the beginning of the pursuit of human rights.  

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Judith Blau

Judith Blau is a professor of sociology at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, president of Sociologists without Borders, U.S. and director of The Human Rights Center of Chapel Hill & Carrboro. Her email is

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