Using dialogue to promote human rights: Thoughts from Dr. John Young, CEO of the Canadian Museum for Human Rights

Using dialogue to promote human rights with Dr. John Young, CEO of the Canadian Museum for Human Rights

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Global Health is known for bringing passionate advocates, policymakers, researchers and managers together to tackle some of the world’s most pressing health challenges. And within all of this, the underlying goal is ensuring that every person around the world has a fair shot at living and enjoying a healthy life.

Why? Because health is a fundamental human right.

That mission is the driving force for many of our partner organizations, from Partners in Health to Action Canada. In other words, no matter where someone lives, or what conditions they were born into, organizations and people are working hard each day to ensure that everyone has a basic right to good health.

One organization that is all too familiar with pushing and advocating for human rights is the Canadian Museum for Human Rights. It is the first and only museum in the world solely dedicated to human rights.

Dignity, respect and inclusion for all.

These themes are powerfully placed throughout the Winnipeg museum. And they are humble reminders of the basic tenets of humanity that we all need to collectively strive for.

Dr. John Young is the Museum’s President and CEO. He stepped into the position in August 2015 after working for 20 years as a respected academic, educator and leader. This included serving as Dean of the College of Arts, Social and Health Sciences at the University of Northern British Columbia, to working with the Canadian Parliamentary Centre and as a member of the Board of Directors of the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC).

Since taking up his position at the Museum, Dr. Young has been devoted to building up its long-term growth and raising the visibility of the Museum throughout Canada and the world.

We had the privilege of sitting down with Dr. Young to learn about his work at the Museum and to gain his perspectives on why human rights are so important to advocate for today.

Q: Thank you for joining us, Dr. Young! To start off, can you tell me about the Canadian Museum of Human Rights? Specifically, what is its mandate and why was it created?

The Museum was created by an act of federal legislation in 2008. Our mandate is to cultivate dialogue and reflection on human rights themes.  With that mandate, we’re a little different than traditional museums.

We don’t have a large collection of artifacts or art pieces. We have some, but our collection is really based on stories related to human rights experiences in Canada and around the world. So our collection consists of the stories we tell and the dialogue we generate from telling those stories. That’s a little different than traditional museums, which have a strong focus on a collection of historical artifacts.

Q: Thank you for clarifying that. So with that said, what inspired you to transition from academia – where you previously worked at UNBC – and apply to become the CEO of the Museum?

I had been involved with the Museum for three years. I was a member of the Board of Trustees, and I became very passionate about the Museum and making sure it opened. And I found the Museum attracted most of my attention and long-term concerns. And so when an opportunity came, I stepped down from the Board and competed for this position. And here we are!

I came at a time – after opening – where a lot of the focus had been on the opening, and my perspective was on the challenges that lay ahead. But perhaps what was the most compelling thing for me was the vision for the Museum and what it can be in terms of drawing our attention to respecting the dignity and rights of other people: how we can do that, why we should do that, and how critical it is to defend the differences among us.

Q: That vision must have been motivating. So I want to take a quick step back here. Human rights is a term that we can often throw around rather loosely. Most people can understand that it’s important to push for human rights. But what exactly are human rights and why are they so important?

I think that language from the Universal Declaration of Human Rights suggests that it’s aspirational. That we’re meant to be born equal in dignity and rights.  Some can say that that doesn’t describe the world around us – and yes [that’s true] – but it’s aspirational. It’s what we aspire we do.

Defining the concept of human rights invites us to recognize that at the core of the human desire is the desire for agency – the desire to make our own choices.

And if we cultivate respect for agency, then I think we also have to respect the consequences of agency. In other words, when people have opportunities and rights to make choices then there’s going to be different outcomes or different consequences of those choices.

Michael Ignatieff suggested that those who are interested in defending human rights have to be determined to defend difference.  And I think that’s a very relevant and valuable definition of what we mean by human rights. It’s not just one thing or another claim.

We [at the Museum] work with a very inclusive definition of human rights and embrace a wide variety of human rights with an aim to improve the world around us – whether they be democratic rights, individual rights, environmental group rights, cultural rights, health rights, et cetera. And defending the differences among us is a key part of that.

Q: That’s a great point – it’s very nuanced. Going off your last point there, do you feel there are any specific human rights issues that are particularly concerning today?

Yes, there is quite a number – lists of them! There are rights that are well documented and connected with our history, whether they be freedom of expression or freedom of religious conviction and religious beliefs. These may seem less relevant today than they have been through our collective history. Yet depending on the geography of the world they can perhaps be critically important rights [today].

In addition to that, we recognize there is much work to do with respect to educational rights, health rights, the right to a secure environment, and rights associated with sexual orientation. Human rights and security have very broad applications across a broad spectrum of definitions.

And again, the requirement we have to respect the differences among us is not just a one-way avenue. It’s two-way traffic on all of these issues.

Q: Overall, from your perspective Dr. Young, do you feel we’ve made significant progress in reducing human rights violations recently? Or is it getting worse?

Well I think if we take a broad look over time, I’d say most areas – not all – most areas we’ve made some significant progress. That’s not to suggest there isn’t a long road ahead of us, or a long climb.

It will be interesting to see what two generations down the road think about our time. We can sometimes be critical of the past. But certainly we seek to learn from it.  We also need to recognize that we stand on the shoulders of giants who advocated and courageously defended the rights of others. And so the time in which we’re in benefits greatly from the courageous acts of others.  I hope that future generations can say the same about our time.

Q: Based on what you’re saying, it seems to be an incredible time for opportunity. So I’m going to shift gears here and bring this back to Global Health. The core mandate of Global Health is ensuring that every person in the world has a fair chance at good health. This is something that Global Health workers are fundamentally striving to push for – to uphold health as a human right. So given what you’ve seen Dr. Young in your work so far, for practitioners who are entering into fields like Global Health, what do you feel are the key tools or skills they need in order to do this work well?

I think an understanding of the responsibilities and rights associated with health is part of it, as it is with any rights issues. Also understanding the different political contexts and cultural environments that exist around the world, And how those political contexts and cultural environments shape health outcomes.

But the right to access is probably the most critical. We can talk in Canada about universal standards of care, accessibility – there are wide disparities across different demographics and different provinces that need to be addressed [here] as well.

Q: That’s an important point. Just wrapping things up here, what is one piece of career advice that you would give to the next generation of human rights activists?

Well I think very often we like to see the conclusion at the beginning of a journey. You know, we can have a very fixed destination – and yet many of the journeys we pursue are best characterized as feeling for the stones as we cross the stream.

So that fixed destination at the beginning of the journey – it’s clear, you know, we want to have that focus and that end in mind – but the journey itself is a critical part of the equation.

So crossing the stream by feeling for the stones is very often, if not always, a more appropriate description of the journey. 

Q: Absolutely! With that said, is there anything else that you would like to share?

Often when we talk about human rights, people want to engage in debates seeking levels of prioritization with an assumption that one right is more critical than another. And on that, at the Museum, we aim to cultivate dialogue than debate. Rather than “I will be right and you will be wrong,” dialogue is more about learning and listening to other perspectives, and allowing those perspectives to shape our understanding.

And again, as a Museum, we’re charged to cultivate that dialogue.

That’s an incredible mission, and it couldn’t be more relevant than right now. So with that said, thank you again Dr. Young for taking the time to share your insights with us today!

About the Author:

Hayley Mundeva is ThriveHire’s Founder & CEO. In her work, Hayley loves combining technology, business and creativity to address community needs. Hayley was inspired to found ThriveHire after working for 4 years in Global Health research where she realized few resources existed to help people land Global Health opportunities.

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