Dr. Agosin at the podium

Chilean-American activist shares call for humanity during celebration for Human Rights Center

November 2, 2023
By: Nancy Sheehan

Acclaimed author, human rights activist, and educator Dr. Marjorie Agosín says there is only one side we should take in any conflict, such as the Gaza/Israeli war currently raging in the Middle East.

We should not take a side based on nationality or political affiliation, she said during a talk at Worcester State recently, but instead we should take the side of humanity and mourn the loss of innocent lives.

Dr. Agosín was the keynote speaker at a celebration of the 40th anniversary of the Dennis Brutus/Merrill Goldwyn Human Rights Center at Worcester State on Oct. 26. Campus colleagues who have helped steward the center over the years also spoke about its history and its ongoing efforts to promote awareness about human rights issues around the world. 

Ross Griffiths at the podium

Ross Griffiths giving introductory remarks

Speakers included former Human Rights Center coordinators Henry C. Theriault, associate vice president for academic affairs; Alison Okuda, associate professor of history; and Ross Griffiths, archives and special collections librarian who oversees the extensive Dennis Brutus Collection of papers and memorabilia housed in the Learning Resource Center at Worcester State. Also, Charlotte Haller, History and Political Science Department chair, read written remarks from former center coordinator Aldo Garcia-Guevara, a professor in her department, who was unable to attend the event.

Brutus, a native of South Africa and a poet, dedicated his life to struggles for social, racial, and environmental justice, starting with the fight against the segregation of sports during his country’s apartheid era. He played an important role in globalizing the anti-apartheid movement, suffering assassination attempts, imprisonment, and political exile.

Brutus had a long association with Worcester State. In 1982, he delivered the inaugural address for the newly created Center for the Study of Human Rights and the University awarded him an Honorary Doctorate of Humane Letters. The center also carries the name of its co-founder, the late Merrill Goldwyn, a Worcester State English professor.

Over the years, the center has hosted many people influential in the field of human rights including Shirley Chisholm, Noam Chomsky, and Elie Wiesel, as well as Agosín, who has been invited as a featured speaker since the center’s early days. 

A Chilean-American writer who gained an international reputation for her deeply affecting poetry and her outspokenness for women’s rights in Chile, Dr. Agosín currently is a professor at Wellesley College. She has received many honors for her work on human rights, including awards from the United Nations and, in 2000, the Chilean government which had driven her family into exile when she was a child.

At the Oct. 26 event, Agosín reflected on the conflicts happening around the world and emphasized the importance of warmth, empathy, and compassion in addressing human rights issues.

“We are seeing on the news, Ukraine, Israel, Gaza, and their search for the missing,” she said. “When my students say to me, ‘I don’t know which side to be on. Do I take the side of the Russian, the Ukrainian, the Israeli, the Palestinians? The answer is very simple. You don’t need to be on anybody’s side but the side of humanity. A dead child that has never had the chance to live is a dead child no matter what nationality and should be mourned.”

She shared personal experiences of growing up in a Jewish family that survived the Holocaust and feeling like an outsider in the different countries her family lived in as her father pursued his profession as an academic. Being an outsider has given her the opportunity to look at the world from the margins and understand issues of power and vulnerability, she said.

Dr. Agosín said that art, specifically poetry, has the power to heal and alleviate human suffering and that just a gentle word or small act of kindness can have a profound impact. She said art reconciles, transcends borders, and is stateless and emphasized its ability to bring people together and promote understanding.

To highlight that point, Dr. Agosín read three of her poems, including one about a hibiscus growing in the dead of winter as a symbol of hope and creativity during difficult times.

The poem goes, in part, “… a hibiscus transplanted and in exile in an uncertain land and a foreign climate where the earth does not smile. You bloom at midnight in February amid the mist and the shadows where I discover you open like a generous love, hiding nothing.”

The hibiscus in the poem symbolizes beauty, resilience, and the ability to bloom in difficult circumstances, she said, and represents finding joy and hope even in the midst of darkness and uncertainty such as the world currently is facing.

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