Continuing need to teach about human rights

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This article was originally printed as a staff editorial by the Iowa City Press-Citizen Editorial Board.

Organizers for the “One Community, One Book” program have announced their selection of the book they hope all Johnson County residents will read in 2010: “Gardens of Water” by Alan Drew. The novel tells the story of a devout Muslim family and an American Christian family in Turkey during and after a massive earthquake near Istanbul.

At nearly any other time during the past decade, such a summertime announcement would be treated as a fairly standard news release. After all, the University of Iowa Center for Human Rights has been coordinating the “All Johnson County Reads” program since 2001. Past selections have included Ishmael Beah’s “A Long Way Gone” (2008), Timothy B. Tyson’s “Blood Done Sign My Name” (2007), Khaled Hosseini’s “The Kite Runner” (2004) and Tahar Djaout’s “The Last Summer of Reason” (2001).

But last fall — about the same time the center started holding celebrations for its 10-year-anniversary — UI officials announced the center will lose most of its funding by the end of the fiscal year. That meant the center wouldn’t be able to celebrate an 11th anniversary unless it raised its $110,301 budget — which covers salaries of three non-faculty staff members or 1.75 full-time equivalent positions — from other sources.

That staff members now are announcing this year’s book selection means they have successfully pushed off the center’s demise for at least another year. (The center won’t continue to see a 15th or 20th anniversary, however, unless it either secures a large enough endowment or finds sufficient additional streams of independent revenue.)

We’re glad the center does not have to cut back on the good work it has done to coordinate a human rights focus at UI and other universities. Throughout its history, the center has earned an impressive national reputation. An earlier justice department grant helped the center establish itself as a leader in child labor scholarship and advocacy. And in the past few years, it has begun to build a similar reputation in immigration rights.

And the center’s influence has been felt throughout the university and the surrounding community. There are human rights-focused classes being offered in departments across the campus. Some of that convergence has been the direct result of organized efforts by the center’s staff and affiliated faculty. But much of it has been the indirect result of the many classes, conferences and community connections that the center has helped to bring about.

We’re glad the center does not have to cut back on the good work it has done to coordinate a human rights focus at UI and other universities.

And the center’s mission — to help people learn more about human rights issues on a local, national and global scale — can be seen at work in this year’s book selection. As the story of Muslim-Christian cooperation in historic crossroads of the eastern and western world, “Gardens of Water” deviates somewhat from the war, torture and racial themes of the other books the center has chosen. But “Gardens of Water” will help illuminate the consequences and possibilities in our world’s clash of cultures and faiths.

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