Posts Tagged ‘Eleanor Roosevelt’

Cyrus Cylinder

IN THE SIXTH CENTURY BC, CYRUS THE GREAT OF PERSIA conquered the Middle East and a large part of Asia. Upon his entry into Babylon, he freed the many captive peoples found there. His magnanimous gesture liberated the Jewish nation and entitled her people to return to Jerusalem with their Temple treasures and begin rebuilding Solomon’s Temple destroyed by Nebuchadnezzar. The Prophet Isaiah referred to Cyrus as “anointed by the Lord.”

Cyrus’ legacy as a humanitarian monarch continues to this day. Xenophon, a student of Socrates, wrote The Cyropaedia, a biography of Cyrus which extolled his virtues. Alexander the Great and Julius Caesar carried copies with them. America was directly founded under the benevolent monarch model offered by Cyrus’ example. Thomas Jefferson read the Cyropaedia frequently.

Thomas Jefferson's copy of the Cyropaedia

Thomas Jefferson’s copy of the Cyropaedia

In 1879 a clay record of Cyrus’ decree was unearthed in the ruins of the ancient city of Babylon in Iraq. Known today as the Cyrus Cylinder this priceless account has been referred to as “the first Bill of Rights.” Our very concept of religious tolerance and personal freedom dates to the mind of the Great Persian King. To liberate slaves of a conquered nation and restore their birthright was an extraordinary concept.

Cyrus’ empire, which we now call the Middle East, was a far-reaching ménage of different cultures and faiths. The Cyrus Cylinder decreed a paradigm for coexistence — a blueprint which established an enlightened order.

Now, in a historic tour sponsored by IHF America, the original Cyrus Cylinder is on loan to the United States from the British Museum. Beginning at the Smithsonian in Washington, DC, the Cylinder will be on display in Houston, New York, and San Francisco, concluding its visit in Los Angeles in early December 2013. This historic effort is the culmination of almost twenty years of work by the Iran Heritage Foundation.

In addition to the influence of the Cyropaedia on the US founding fathers, its core principles resonate with those of the United Nations. The high-minded concepts fathered by Cyrus in Persia thousands of years ago have found expression in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Brought to life by John Peters Humphrey and the UN Commission on Human Rights chaired by Eleanor Roosevelt, the Declaration was adopted by the United Nations on December 10, 1948.

eleanor roosevelt - UDHR 2Disregard and contempt for Human Rights have resulted in barbarous acts which have outraged the conscience of mankind, and the advent of a world in which human beings shall enjoy freedom of speech and belief and freedom from fear and want has been proclaimed as the highest aspiration of the common people… All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. UDHR

In the aftermath of WWII, the United Nations created a Partition Plan for Palestine which called for an International Trusteeship for the city of Jerusalem. This plan was never given the chance to be implemented. In essence, the blueprint to create two states, with Jerusalem under UN auspices as a religious center for all faiths, was thwarted before it could be realized. Unfortunately for both Arabs and Jews, as well as the world at large, we have all lived with the tragic result.

Originally opposed to the creation of Israel, Eleanor Roosevelt reversed her position when faced with the sad realization that the world community was refusing to allow immigration for the victims of Hitler’s nightmare. The United States itself refused sanctuary after the war just as it had before the conflict. Eleanor supported the Partition Plan and was appalled when the Arab states refused to accept the two state solution.

As the clock ticked down toward the expiration of the British Mandate in Palestine in May of 1948, and under pressure to finalize the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Eleanor reached a tipping point when George C. Marshall’s State Department reversed its policy at the final moment and chose to appease the oil-producing states and oppose partition of Palestine. Eleanor then decided to resign from the US delegation to the UN. She famously stated in her letter to President Truman, “I cannot believe that war is the best solution. No one won the last war, and no one will win the next war.” Truman did not accept her resignation. But Eleanor realized, ahead of her time, that the United States’ refusal to back the Partition, which included international status for Jerusalem, would critically weaken the credibility of the UN and place the region itself in an untenable situation with regard to long-term stability.

The current Middle East fiasco should defer us once once again to Cyrus the Great for a history lesson. Cyrus’ vision of leadership was a forerunner to the UN 1947 resolution for the future of Palestine. Neil MacGregor, Director of the British Museum stated, “Cyrus set up a model of how you run a great multinational, multifaith, multicultural society . . . It left a dream of the Middle East as a unit, and a unit where people of different faiths could live together.”

Today we must revive that dream or, as history has already chronicled, face disastrous results. Just as a strain of music creates a distinct melody through repetition, we now hear clearly — yet again — the strains of war in the Middle East. It is time for a new refrain, in vision and deed.

Building upon Cyrus’ model, creating a social order which allows the expression of individual cultures and faiths is the avenue to peaceful co-existence and governance. Our present-day Middle East drama calls for us to recognize that we already have the seed for fostering that co-existence. Creating an international peace zone within the Old City of Jerusalem is the key. Those in the United Nations who originally conceived this idea were expressing the wisdom of governance by recognizing that a leap was necessary to actualize peace in the region. They were well aware that the area was of monumental importance to three world religions and that stabilizing Jerusalem was essential to maintaining peace.

               Jerusalem, sacred to the three great monotheistic religions, stands for something higher and more sublime than nationalism. It stands for the ideal which lies behind the very creation of the United Nations itself. Any attempt to oppose by force the internationalization of Jerusalem would be an affront to civilized men everywhere.” — From a letter sent by Reverend Charles T. Bridgeman, former Canon of St. George’s Cathedral in Jerusalem, to the President of the UN Trusteeship Council in January 1950

In his book, The Temple at Jerusalem: a Revelation, John Michell recognized the Old City of Jerusalem itself as the Temple. He saw it as the convergence point for all peoples of all cultures and faiths — Jewish, Muslim, Christian, as well as other spiritual traditions — to unite in peace, a United Nations for all religions.

Pure Vision covThat very concept, expounded by political and religious leaders throughout the world as well as by writers such as John Michell, has found expression through the arts. PURE VISION: The Magdalene Revelation is a novel based on a return to this noble ideal. With the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the creation of an international peace zone within Jerusalem as foundational elements, Pure Vision sparks a transformative dialogue. The aim is simple. Once openly discussed, powerful ideas reshape reality.

As Neil MacGregor, Director of the British museum asks, “What story of the Middle East, what story of the world, do you want to see reflecting what is said, what is expressed in this cylinder?”

That question resounds with a fundamental answer — human rights for all. The dramatic tale of the Middle East can change radically, as it has in the past. A region of trauma can once again be transformed into a land where religious freedom and individual dignity is honored. Then Jerusalem can finally become what it is meant to be: The City of Peace.


Article written by Angelina Perri Birney and Lawrence Birney


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Kathleen Durham

Entering the grounds of Val-Kill, one realizes its historic potency. The Hyde Park, NY home of the legendary and much admired “first lady of the world,” Val-Kill seems to resound with Eleanor Roosevelt’s nature . . . staunch, quiet, stately . . . a formidable presence.

The Eleanor Roosevelt Center, located on the site, is a nonprofit organization dedicated to Eleanor’s ideals, preserving and fostering her tenets of compassionate leadership dedicated to social change, justice and human dignity. Kathleen Durham, Executive Director, is its current guardian, making certain that Eleanor’s voice remains heard and her vision active.

Kathleen herself has walked her own evolutionary road which finally led to her current position at the center. She grew up in Richmond, Virginia and attended Howard University. “In my time, many women went to college to find a husband who was a doctor or a lawyer . . . and I didn’t find one. So I kind of took a circuitous route which eventually evolved into actually becoming a lawyer and having a family. I say that because I went to law school after I’d been out of college for twenty years . . . and the other interesting part of it is when I left Howard University, I still needed fifteen hours to complete my degree.”

But as it turned out, life provided Kathleen with the experiences that would literally bring her full circle.

“I was working as Director of Labor Relations for the U.S. Customs Service. People kept saying, ‘You should be a lawyer, you should be a lawyer.’ Because I didn’t know what I wanted to do with myself, I thought, ‘Well, okay, let me just try this.’ I was in my late thirties. I got into all the law schools I applied to and wound up going to Pepperdine in California. I was able to get in by making up the fifteen hours I never completed in college by writing this essay about using my life experiences. When I was graduating, someone said, ‘Come see me, and I’ll help you to become a producer.’ But there were others who told me, ‘Now you’ve got your license, so now you’ve got to go practice.’ The truth of it is my life’s passion would have been producing, but when you look at it, all of life is about producing something, just like I’m doing here at the Eleanor Roosevelt Center. Here I have the opportunity to do that constantly.”

Although after moving to the Hudson Valley in 1988 Kathleen learned  more about Eleanor Roosevelt, her intrigue with the former First Lady really began to grow in 1995.  “I started reading about Eleanor and I thought ‘I have a lot in common with this woman’. I just kept reading and reading and fell in love with her ideals. Eventually I got involved in doing talks here at ERVK for organizations and various trainings. In time, I moved away to Savanna but eventually came back to the area in 2006. In 2008, someone asked me to be on the ERVK Board. Shortly after, I became Interim Director of the center and then Director. So what really drew me here? Well this may sound crazy, but it’s kind of like the universe leads you. You don’ quite know why things are leading in a certain direction. You just kind of move along and sometimes you listen and sometimes you don’t, but when you really do, you may wind up where you’re supposed to be, and that’s what kind of happened to me.”

Inspired by her work and ERVK’s mission, Kathleen feels that the center can really make a difference. “I believe we are Eleanor Roosevelt’s voice and are channeling her ideals so to speak.”

And so it appears. Immersed in Eleanor’s vision and working at ERVK on a daily basis, Kathleen has seen a change in herself—in how she relates to people, how she listens to people, and how she’s more willing to shift her thinking. She takes note that Eleanor’s manner in handling life and work has definitely influenced her.

“When I’m really passionate about something, I go ahead and speak about it and let it be out there. Another important aspect for me is just the fact that Eleanor was able to overcome so many of the obstacles she faced. If I can’t do something like that, then what? She had much bigger obstacles during her time.”

Nonetheless, women today are still facing their hurdles. It’s programs like ERVK’s Girls’ Leadership Workshop that are providing young women with the support and nurturance they need to become leaders. “We’re developing little Eleanor’s,” Kathleen states. “The reason why we even have the workshop is because of Eleanor Roosevelt herself. Everybody talks about what Franklin accomplished, but behind Franklin was Eleanor. Had Eleanor not been there, honestly, I don’t believe Franklin would have done all that he did. Not to denigrate what he did do, but I think her consciousness, her thinking, was powerful. We want to give young people that type of strength to take out into society so they don’t just become consumers of what’s in the world, but they actually contribute to its well-being. And we see that occurring through the eight hundred girls we’ve brought through the program. We hear from them about what’s happening in their lives. One example is this fifteen-year old girl who started her own non-profit called Kids for Causes, where they’re passionate about helping the children of Haiti. At fifteen, was I thinking of anything like that?”

Nourishing and awakening ideas that may have otherwise remained dormant, the Girls’ Leadership Workshop provides not only the training and foundation for the girls to use in their personal growth, but a framework for how to use their confidence to move out into the world. “It’s a personal learning time that evolves into action based on Eleanor Roosevelt’s principles of leadership,” Kathleen explains. “And now we’re even expanding the idea of responsible leadership to include boys. The program is reaching out further.”

Yet, Kathleen agrees, it’s still important to support women’s leadership roles in particular,  whether those are in government, politics, business, education or religion—in all walks of life. “We have more of a history to overcome. Women were not traditionally looked upon as leaders. Even today, I don’t think we’re quite there, even though we have managed to make our way very close to that glass ceiling. Therefore, it’s important that women see themselves as leaders. So whatever can be done to help nurture that, to build their confidence, matters. Women need to be able to say to each other, ‘Yes, you can be a leader.’ And by leadership it doesn’t necessarily mean that you’re a CEO of a company. Women can provide that leadership in their families as well. As wives and mothers, they’re influencing all the time, and that influence extends to the men and boys in their lives.”

Recently, the achievements of influential women throughout history were honored during the International Women’s Day luncheon (March 8th) at the White House. Praising the extraordinary accomplishments of those such as Dorothy Height [a leader in the African-American and women’s rights movements who passed away the day following this interview at the age of 98], President Obama extolled the great achievements of the many admirable women who offered their gifts to create political, social and economic reform. As an attendee, Kathleen recalls what she learned and how she was moved by the experience.

“I heard a woman from Afghanistan tell a story about how the women in her village were really horribly abused and that out of the experience, she wrote this song which conveyed their determination. Some of the words were something like ‘we will never give up’ and she sang it for us. I could really feel the power of it. Also, in that room there were three hundred women—thirty of them were young women in high school who had gotten the wonderful opportunity to sit down with Michelle Obama. It was just the thirty of them and Michelle. To see these women together from different countries and from all over the U.S. was amazing. During that luncheon, we learned that what might be considered a major issue regarding women’s leadership here in this country may be looked upon quite differently in Afghanistan. So how we as women could learn from each other’s experiences was important. It reminds me of a young woman who came to the Girls’ Workshop whose family had fled from Iraq to Jordan. While here in America, she was learning for the first time that people have human rights. Keeping this in mind, special days like the International Women’s Day are definitely a good thing.”

Although it’s certainly important that we’ve designated a day—International Women’s Day—as a mark of global appreciation for women and their achievements, there is still a long way to go in creating a more balanced paradigm where women are able to offer their talents. Following this current of thought, Kathleen takes a look at how and why more female leadership can strengthen our chances of really achieving and securing human rights.

“I think women are better mediators. Women, in general, are more willing to lay down the ego and look for solutions. They’re caregivers. Great multitaskers. More sensitive to people’s needs. I think they come more from a place where they can step into someone else’s shoes and see what’s going on for them and give up that sort of it’s gotta be this way kind of mentality,” she says, pounding on the table sternly. “I think women can see conciliation. They can be more conciliatory without thinking they’re giving up their you know what.”

And the proof of that exists globally as we connect that conciliation from human rights to the economic field. As more women become financed all over the world with micro loans to start their own businesses, they become assets in the creation and stabilization of peace and security throughout their native countries.

“Women who are developing their micro-businesses are actually strengthening their households,” Kathleen asserts. “They’re earning money. They’re learning how to take care of themselves. It may not necessarily be that they are becoming the head of that household, but because they are able to offer their skills, they are actually contributing to their households. They are empowering themselves and the more they do that, they are bringing a different kind of feeling into the home. At least that’s what people who work on these projects say. As the women become stronger in starting  their businesses, they’ve noticed the men being more supportive of them.”

Kathleen believes this phenomenon is actually helping to create more stabilization and security. “If you think about it, people are the meanest or most hostile when they are faced with needs that they think will never be filled, or that someone else is going to get something that they need as a matter of life and death.”

Throughout all the delicate balancing, and as the dynamics of gender equality swings the pendulum toward more fair and just-minded resolutions, Kathleen indicates women are maturing toward a new level in the process. Once women have built their own confidence more and have brought their voices forward, they’ve got to become inclusive, encourage men to actually enter into the picture. Otherwise it becomes a man vs. woman phenomenon. “And it shouldn’t be that way because what does that do? That’s not a peaceful resolution for anything. If you have great peace in a women’s group and great peace in a men’s group, but you aren’t really getting them together, then where’s the peace in that?”

In short, growth and confidence begin the process but the goal is inclusion and unity. “You’ve got to have that personal awareness first before you can reach out there to make any difference,” Kathleen explain, “and it’s that kind of foundation which many women  haven’t had. So what needs to be developed is the personal awareness that you can do anything. You can. You really, really can. The more that’s inside of you, the stronger you become and then you can take that out into the world. That’s what I’m talking about. That’s what  we do with our girls.  To create it in here,” Kathleen says, pointing to her heart. “Because if you got it in here and you channel it in the right direction, you can do the right thing out there.”

Building that strong foundation in women is the key. Then once they are fortified, then it’s back to inclusion. “It should always be about the inclusion thing,” Kathleen exhorts. “Men and women—everyone working together. It’s not just a me thing. The me thing doesn’t get you very far.”

That reflection underscores Eleanor Roosevelt’s core message. Wisdom, vision, leadership. Men and women working toward a peaceful world. Deeply underlying Eleanor’s achievements was a powerful spiritual foundation that fueled her practical applications. As chairperson for the Human Rights Commission, she helped foster the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) which sets the highest standard for human dignity and freedom. A political document, the Declaration has a profound spiritual basis. “I guess that spiritual foundation comes from just the basic premise, at least from Eleanor’s perspective, that you don’t have to earn human rights,” Kathleen explains. “They are inherently yours by the nature of your being born. So if you think of yourself being born into this universe, that is the spiritual connection right there—just by the fact that you are a child of God, you inherently have these human rights. And God, or whatever you wish to call [the divine], doesn’t withhold anything from anyone. It’s a giving presence, not a holding back presence. Now, man may give these rights to you in the form of a document, but if you could wake up in the morning and understand: I was born and I’m here. I’m a human being here as a gift from the universe, then that’s the spiritual foundation that I see behind the document.”

It is that very premise which historically always reasserts itself. After years and years of political or military solutions offered and put into practice, human consciousness often makes a leap. Spiritual movements such as those initiated by Gandhi and Martin Luther King invested in a vision that actually propelled humankind forward. Kathleen remarks that “while we’re certainly concerned about all the wars that are occurring, there may be growth that could eventually come out of all of it—there could be some forward movement. Perhaps we’ll get to a point where we will say, ‘Well, I don’t like the war, but what can come out of it now?’ As for the political aspect, you don’t have to view politics as a bad thing, even though it’s come to be seen that way these days. There may be good reason for that, but it doesn’t have to be that way. Eleanor Roosevelt was an amazingly astute political person. These days we’ve come to make political mean something bad. But if we think that being political could be a good thing, then that might move us to the place where we want to be. I can envision that happening.”

That’s what Eleanor was doing—taking the political and infusing it more with the spiritual, taking a look at how we govern and integrating it with humane values, not with a particular religious view, but with a spiritual one. “Somehow we’ve made spiritual and religious the same and they’re not,” Kathleen comments, “so there’s the fight about well there’s religion and state. But it’s not like that. There’s really the spirituality of it which is how you relate in this universe to another human being. If that could be the basis for your political statement, what a beautiful world that would be.”

It’s just that kind of statement that makes Eleanor’s message relevant to all of us—men and women alike.

“Take a look around you,” Kathleen states “The same things that Eleanor talked about so many years ago are still right here. So sometimes I say, ‘Well, let me go back and look at what Eleanor was thinking about this.’ Let’s say health care for example. What was she thinking about that? What was she thinking about unemployment? What was she thinking about women? How was she dealing with those issues and how are we dealing with them now? What can we learn from her about it all? She still stands out as being very much a relevant figure even though so many years have passed. She was a transformative person, and I think when you’re transformative, then your ideas have no relationship to time.”

Eleanor’s quotes seem timeless as well. In an era where fear-based dialogue jabbers its way through our political venues, both in government and in our society at large, Kathleen offers one of Eleanor’s quotes that seems especially pertinent:

He who builds with alarm never builds anything.

“If you think about things right now,” Kathleen enumerates, “the conversation in the world is all about,  ‘Oh my God, this is happening. That’s happening. We can’t do this. We don’t have that.’ Well, if that’s your conversation and you’re  scared of what’s going on around you, then how are you going to build anything. How are you going to do it?”

Kathleen indicates the foundation is already faulty. “When you’re starting from fear to build anything, it’s going to crumble. You’re not really putting courage or persistence or persuasiveness into it. You’re not fueling the situation properly.”

Some sage counsel, but there’s more to come. Kathleen offers yet another of Eleanor’s quotes she holds dear.

Do one thing everyday that scares you.

“That one has a lot of power for me,” Kathleen divulges. “Do one thing everyday that scares you.”

A little sound guidance coming through the ages from the steward of Eleanor Roosevelt’s legacy .

“It kind of gives me some joy to just think about it,” Kathleen says with a smile. “Okay, what’s one thing I can do today that scares me?”

Perhaps it’s time for all of us to ask.


The Eleanor Roosevelt Center at Val-Kill is a nonprofit organization that fully embraces Eleanor Roosevelt’s call to build a better world through far-reaching programs that touch people worldwide – to be her heart, hand, and voice in realizing that better world.

Visit the ERVK site to find out more about their programs and upcoming events.

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The power of women to change the world is evident.  Former First Lady of the United States, Eleanor Roosevelt never stopped working for “the common man.”  Famous for her social and political beliefs, she did not hesitate for a moment to back reforms which were unpopular and risky. The Civil Rights Movement, Women’s rights, Social  Rights of the poor and disenfranchised—Eleanor always found her voice, speaking out and delivering a clear message regarding her stance.

                Strong and independent, Eleanor was a woman of great compassion and generosity. Her love of humanity reached the highest of levels as the first U.S. representative in the United Nations and as a chairperson and highly regarded member of the UN Commission on Human Rights. While in that position, she helped create the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Beyond her status as former First Lady, Eleanor’s qualifications for such a monumental task was her conviction that every person’s dignity and rights had to be protected. Her hope was that the Declaration would eventually be recognized throughout the world and that all nations would come to honor it.

                But Eleanor Roosevelt’s assertions represented only the beginning of a long and ongoing effort for women to become more involved in peace issues at an international level. Over sixty years after the Declaration of Human Rights was adopted by the United Nations, the struggle for international rights continues. As far as female activists are concerned, that  long and arduous road has led to the modern heroine—a dedicated, passionate woman who understands her involvement with the world’s struggle for peace and equality isn’t just a choice. It’s a must. The days of listening to devastating news reports and shaking our heads are over.  It’s time to put our hearts on the front line.

                Angelina Jolie, an academy award-winning actress, proves over and over again that she is in touch with the world and does not hesitate to use her status as a superstar to voice her concerns. A global citizen, she works tirelessly as a Goodwill Ambassador for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), a UN agency that delivers assistance to tens of millions of refugees around the globe.

                A powerful woman who uses her voice . . . you bet. Angelina uses her ability to draw high media coverage to raise awareness of the tragic and heart-breaking conditions of  refugees, conditions so often not given proper media attention. If anyone is to be characterized as fearless, we must give credit where credit is due. Although we can probably be certain that Angelina has been in quite dangerous circumstances because of her beliefs and her desire to help, she has nonetheless gone beyond her fear, which is the true meaning of being fearless.

                As women, that’s our test. Can we go beyond our fear? Can we assert our beliefs and become voices of peace even when the situation is risky and will most definitely be be met with resistance?

                One thing is certain: It is imperative that more women become part of the peace process no matter where that is. In Israel, Afghanistan, Iraq, Darfur. The list, unfortunately, seems endless. But it is certainly time for women to be active, not only talking about resolution, but willing to get out there and stand in the streets, offering their presence wherever necessary.

                Now, does it mean that women are  waging war against men if they take such a stance?

                Of course not.

                Does it mean we would be waging peace, trying to balance the feminine with the masculine to create a saner and safer world?

                Yes, exactly.

                No doubt Eleanor would agree.  “No one won the last war, and no one will win the next war.”

                Sometimes the simple truth says it all.

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