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UI Human Rights Center vows to hang on

BY EMILY BUSSE | NOVEMBER 16, 2009 7:22 AM

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They’re going to fight.

With recent budget cuts and setbacks from flooding, the UI Center for Human Rights’ staff and student members are concerned about the facility’s future. It’ll take about $100,000 each year for the center to survive.

And though the money might not be easily attainable, the support is there.

Near the end of an hour-long retrospective presentation on the facility’s 10th-anniversary celebration, founder Burns Weston held up his hand to ask a question.

“I want to know how many hands would be willing to actually do something to … keep the center alive,” said Weston, also the senior scholar at the center.

Several people raised their hands high.

“That’s every student in the room,” Director Gregory Hamot said softly.

They clearly found importance in the facility, which UI geography Professor Rex Honey, who also helped found the center, said is invaluable to the university and that its members will keep its legacy alive.

“We’re not going to accept no,” Honey said. “We’re going to find ways to make this succeed. We’ve got to be able to get a lot more things done.”

With roughly 50 students, faculty, and staff in the room at the University Capitol Centre on Nov. 14, four of the center’s founding members sat at the head table surrounded by 11 large posters showcasing the center’s accomplishments.

They spoke of the dream they had a decade ago, of their humble beginnings, of 10 years making a global difference, and of an uncertain but determined attitude toward the future.

“We’ve had an impact like this,” Weston said, stretching his arms wide in front of him. “None of these things happened without sacrifice. You either do it because you believe in it, or you don’t.”

Without an office, without university approval, and without any money, they started the facility anyway.

The idea for the center came after the success of the celebration of the 50th anniversary of the U.N.’s Declaration of Human Rights when Gina Crosheck, a director in the Division of Sponsored Programs, suggested forming a permanent facility.

“I said, ‘You’ve got to be kidding me. We could never do something like that, especially in the Midwest,’ ” Burns said. “But Gina, she kicked me in the butt and said, ‘Do something.’ ”

Burns then called Honey, the chairman of global studies, and persuaded him to secure them an office in his building that consisted of one desk, a phone jack, and a sign on the door.

“Before the center, the very words ‘human rights’ were hardly even breathed on this campus,” Burns said.

As they “scrambled to raise money,” Burns said he went to friends to get $25 or $50 donations at a time.

“When we founded the center, we were just trying to feel our way, and we got lucky,” Burns said.

They ultimately received a grant with the aid of Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, which helped the fledgling center open and active on campus.

The founders noted the center’s initiatives over the past 10 years, such as addressing child labor, protecting immigrants, and sexual violence. Locally, the center offers several opportunities such as scholarships, community projects, and human rights-oriented curriculum at the UI. They all agreed the program has had a positive influence not only on the UI campus, but globally.

“[It’s] an impact I’ve never dreamed we would have, but it happened,” Burns said. “You never know the ripples that are out there.”


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