Amy Herzfeld

I think it's important to talk about human rights as really the basic and fundamental protections that we all need to be able to take care of ourselves and our families.

Amy Herzfeld

Amy Herzfeld is the director of the Idaho Human Rights Education Center in Boise, which also includes the Idaho Anne Frank Human Rights Memorial. The center gives tours of the memorial, develops human rights training and curriculum for teachers, lobbies the legislature on various human rights issues and provides support for the Idaho Safe Schools Coalition, which tries to prevent bullying of LGBT students and teachers.

Marcia Franklin - How old is the center?

Amy Herzfeld -The center was founded in 1996 to construct the Idaho Anne Frank Human Rights Memorial and that was its sole purpose as an organization. The memorial was dedicated to the public in August of 2002 and it was really during construction that the organization transformed to be a statewide human rights education center.

Franklin: Why do you think that was?

Herzfeld: I think the founders who were involved in the creation of the memorial were really overwhelmed by community support and enthusiasm for a place that would elevate these themes around human rights and human dignity and as more support from teachers and students was evident they thought "wow, we really need an organization that can bring the message of the memorial to classrooms around the state" because not every student will be able to come to the memorial on a field trip.

Franklin: When you see the students come through what kind of feeling do you get?

Herzfeld: I feel like the memorial is as relevant as it has ever been. I feel like human rights are moving targets, so the impact of the memorial shifts depending on the audience, but the students who come through are always moved and we hear really touching stories.

A young man who came from Weiser High to see the memorial a couple of weeks ago said it was the first place he had been where he really felt like he was free of judgment.

And because the memorial is so multi-issue and hits on so many different themes throughout history and really current human rights attacks and challenges, every student can find something there that speaks to them, they can find a quote that moves them.

Herzfeld: Why is it so important to have the entire declaration of human rights written there?

Herzfeld: I feel like it is critical to have the full Universal Declaration of Human Rights at the memorial. It is neat that we can say the memorial is one of the few places in the world where the UDHR is on public display, but I also feel like the Universal Declaration of Human Rights undergirds our organization. It is really a system of values in a political framework that informs everything we do.

It also gives us an opportunity to talk to the public about what human rights are. They are both laws and a system of values. They are these universal values that every society shares. How can we use them to hold lawmakers accountable? How can we use them to articulate the kind of justice we want to see in the world? It is really a powerful document and a great place to start a conversation with people about what human rights are.

Franklin: Is this still the only memorial to Anne Frank in the country?

Herzfeld: As far as I know it is still the only memorial dedicated to Anne Frank in the country.

Franklin: And it grew out of the voluminous number of people who came to see that temporary exhibit, right?

Herzfeld: Right. There was an exhibition at the Idaho Historical Museum which is across the street from the Anne Frank Memorial. It came in 1994 and there were over 50,000 people who came to see it - mostly school children who came in busses from as far away as Idaho Falls. And that was really an overwhelming interest in the story of Anne Frank and it sparked a more permanent tribute.

Franklin: Do you have a favorite thought in the memorial?

Herzfeld: I really like the Universal Declaration of Human Rights because I love to be able to talk to people about why that is a useful framework for understanding social justice and how it helps to unite issues and constituencies.

I like talking to people about American exceptionalism to human rights. We don't have a lot of popular dialogue in this country about human rights so it is exciting to me to be able to talk about subsequent human rights treaties and covenants and where the United States fall in the global market of human rights.

I also love the quote wall and I think everybody has a favorite quote. There are a number that jump out to me. I of course like the Dr. Seuss quote but I also really like the Emiliano Zapata quote.

Franklin: What does that say?

Herzfeld: It says "it's better to die on your feet than to live on your knees," which I realize is pretty radical, but it has always stuck with me, especially someone who has grown up in Idaho and I've really since my youth worked on human rights issues including really marginalized issues like equality for the LGBT community. In doing that and what can be a hostile political climate I feel like it is important to give your voice - lend values to your voice even when it is difficult to do.

Visitor to Anne Frank Memorial in Boise

Visitor to Anne Frank Memorial in Boise

Franklin: Do you think Idaho deserves the reputation it has had nationally and internationally as a haven for hate?

Herzfeld: You know; I don't. I feel like when the Aryan Nations was at its most active point up in Northern Idaho in their compound - what, they had a couple dozen members and I feel like it is sad that that vocal minority achieved such main stream media notoriety. I understand why that was sensational for the media to cover and I think that human rights issues are obviously critical in Idaho and we have to address them but I do feel like that reputation was ill-deserved.

Franklin: You talked about the hostile political climate. What exists here that makes it difficult to work on human rights issues?

Herzfeld: I think we've faced some real challenges to organizing because our state is so vast and geographically diverse. It can take eight hours to drive from one community to the next so there is a lot of isolation that occurs in rural and remote communities so I think there are just some real practical barriers to organizing.

I think we're an under-resourced state when it comes to social justice organizations and that can be a challenge too.

We also know that we're a very conservative state and those values often conflict with the values of human rights. We've certainly found that in Idaho the two communities that are most often targeted for human rights attacks, at least in the last fifteen years are the Lesbian/Gay/Bi-Sexual/Transgender community - LGBT - as well as the immigrant community.

I think that happens for a few reasons. I think that those are communities that don't have enumerated civil rights protections in our anti-discrimination laws.

Franklin: Hispanics do have the protection in the civil rights law.

Herzfeld: That's true. Now race is a protected class in the state discrimination statute, but I think that xenophobia and fear of immigrants are so prevalent that that is an issue that is really conflated with race and really fueled by racist ideologies.

Franklin: Do you like the word "tolerance?"

Herzfeld: You know, I'm not crazy about the word tolerance. I think it is a little outdated. I understand that it had some utility initially as a word that could help brand these ideas around fairness and equality but I feel like I want my humanity to be more than tolerated, right? We all want to be celebrated and valued for our contributions.

One of my human rights mentors who has been active here for a number of years, Sam Byrd who runs the Centre de Comunidad de Justicia, he once said that you tolerate a root canal but I want my life to be more than tolerated and that resonated with me.

Franklin: How do you work on the fear issue?

Herzfeld: I think interpersonal relationships and personal stories and really humanizing experiences is what breaks down those fears and those barriers in a most effective way.

So a lot of our work focuses on bringing together students from across divided societies, both in Idaho and internationally and we found that human rights is a framework for education and democracy is really the best tool for bringing together youth from across conflict.

Franklin: So many people look at that word human rights and it is just really loaded for them.

Herzfeld: I think it's important to talk about human rights as really the basic and fundamental protections that we all need to be able to take care of ourselves and our families. It is about creating a community, laws and a culture that allows us all to be fully human and I think that is sensible enough.

And I think when we look at the different provisions in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights that are really just about protecting families, that that resonates in Idaho.

Kids who come to the memorial can find Articles that they are surprised by, that they didn't realize was a basic human right. They can look at it and find places where they feel like their country is doing really well and other places where we still have a ways to go.

There are a number of articles that relate to immigration. Articles 13, 14, and 15 talk about freedom of movement, the right to multiple nationalities, the right to leave your country if you don't feel safe, the right to belong to another country.

Students from Weiser High School read the Universal Declaration of Human Rights at the Anne Frank Memorial in Boise.

Weiser High School students read the Universal Declaration of
Human Rights at the Anne Frank Memorial in Boise.

Franklin: Tell me about some things you are most proud of.

Herzfeld: We're certainly proud of the network of educators we've built around the state who are committed to fostering a culture and climate of human rights in the school building. We've provided some really dynamic professional development to educators to increase human rights learning in the classroom to make sure that our schools are havens of social justice, that there is safety and inclusion for all students, and we hear from the teachers who have participated in our programs that it's has changed how they see their roles as an educator.

It has completely transformed their lens of how they teach, of how they walk into the classroom and we're really proud of that. We're really proud of that impact because we know that teachers can come into contact with as many as 100 students a day, so we feel like that is a place where we are really making a difference.

Franklin: If a lawmaker looked at your organization would they say you are trying to get these liberal themes into the classroom and into the minds of children?

Herzfeld: I don't think so. I don't think so. More often than not we hear from lawmakers and community members that our organization is really invaluable, that nobody else is doing the kind of work that we're doing.

And we really see human rights education as an umbrella for a number of other education areas including civic education, international education, Holocaust education, character education - that's all a piece of the puzzle and I think that those are areas that lawmakers really value.

Franklin: Idaho has a human rights curriculum in the schools that's the only one of its kind, right?

Herzfeld: As far as I know the K through 12 scope and sequence of human rights lessons that we developed is the only core human rights curriculum of its kind in the nation.

We developed it with Idaho teachers, they authored the lessons, it correlates to the state department of education standards for civic and character education and it is voluntary for teachers of course but there are a number of tremendous lessons that link to social studies, language arts and visual arts classrooms.

Franklin: What was your goal in developing a human rights curriculum?

Herzfeld: Our goal was to create a tool for teachers that would allow them to talk about human rights in a way that supported their other instruction in a way that crossed different curricular areas and would help them address controversial issues in the classroom help them identify tools for supporting human rights education as an over-arcing thing.

So if they are social studies teachers who are addressing world geography there are lessons that will talk about human rights issues in different countries they may be focusing on. If there are language arts teachers who are reading Holocaust literature there are lessons that will support them. If there are government teachers who are teaching about different laws there are lessons that will address the civil rights movement.

Franklin: Are you able to address gay and lesbian issues?

Herzfeld: We are. We've added LGBT issues to the human rights curriculum over the years. We've developed a number of lessons around LGBT equity. We have over sixty lessons that we've developed, not all of which are in our curriculum but are available in other curricular handbooks.

Franklin: In a state like Idaho do you get any feedback or concern from the State Department of Education about that?

Herzfeld: No, we haven't had any negative feedback. A lot of our work is really to create a culture and climate of human rights in the school, so that means that every student should be able to expect safety and respect in a school building.

Every parent should be able to expect that their student will be treated with full dignity in the classroom so we come at LGBT equity in a school building from a place of school safety and leadership development. That has been a really needed and welcomed perspective because a lot of administrators don't have the tools to address anti-LGBT bullying and harassment in their schools.

Franklin: Why did you help start the Idaho Safe School Coalition?

Herzfeld: We were hearing from teachers and administrators around the state that anti -LGBT student bullying was a reality in their schools and they didn't know what to do about it. They didn't have the strategies and the resources they needed.

We were also hearing from parents of gay children or even gay parents of straight children that they didn't feel like their families were welcomed in the school building, that educators who were gay themselves didn't feel safe being out and being mentors to the students who were coming to them for support.

We also knew that there were a number of student activists around the state in different schools who were trying to establish gay-straight alliances and were facing really hostility from their administrators for doing that. So we saw a real need for it to be addressed with some practical resources, some in-service training for educators and just some basic education work.

For the most part teachers are on the front lines of creating safety in their schools and they want to make sure that all their kids feel like they can reach their full potential.

Youth Night 2010, sponsored by the Idaho Safe Schools Coalition.

"Youth Night" 2010, sponsored by the Idaho Safe Schools Coalition.

We also realize that when communities are targeted in the school building it is probably because they are targeted in the society at large and we still have a number of laws on the books that target lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender families limiting their equality and basic protections. Those families don't have the same protections that straight families do and so that trickles down to the school community.

When you have a state-wide ballot initiative that bans gay marriage, it legitimizes for young people that that is not a healthy or a valuable life.

Franklin: Where do you see the greatest challenges?

Herzfeld: There is a lot of room to grow and change when it comes to ensuring protection and fairness for our gay community but also our immigrant community. I think there is still a lot of racist and xenophobic ideology that we see in mainstream politics.

I think the issue that undocumented students who grow up in Idaho and graduate from Idaho high schools - often at the top of their class but can't go on to college in-state because they are undocumented -I think that is really a humanitarian tragedy and for us as a basic issue of education access. So I would like to see laws being more fair for everybody.

We certainly would like to see the Idaho Human Rights Act Amendment passed that would, add sexual orientation and gender identity as a protected class to our state antidiscrimination statute. That would protect people in a lot of fundamental ways. Right now it is still legal in Idaho to be fired for being gay or being perceived to be gay. There aren't protections in education and health care and public accommodation.

These are areas that impact people's lives in very real ways and we continue to see in polling among Idahoans that folks don't think it should be fair or legal to deny somebody a job or a house or access to higher education because of sexual orientation or gender identity.

We're certainly concerned about increased anti-immigrant sentiment in the state and seeing that reflected in policies that are introduced. We've seen a rash of anti-immigrant and xenophobic bills for the last few legislative sessions. For us it is important to talk about immigrant rights as human rights.

Franklin: Others would say that those illegal immigrants are taking away rights of Americans and other people who come here legally.

Herzfeld: We feel that that is a myth. We feel like undocumented immigrants contribute greatly to Idaho's economy and culture and society and that it isn't this sort of competition as if folks are taking things away from other community members, that in fact we're all contributing and it isn't a scarcity.

Franklin: David Duke came up and talked to north Idaho about white civil rights, white human rights and there are white people who feel like their human rights are getting lost.

Herzfeld: I think that that is the politics of fear and distraction. I also feel like a lot of what is fueling the current anti-immigrant debate - and to some extent the anti- LGBT movement - is this idea of who gets to call themselves an American, who gets to call themselves a family and this fear that what an American looks like and what a family looks like is shifting.

Franklin: And it is shifting.

Herzfeld: Absolutely -but it has always shifted, right? We've always been a country of immigrants and a country of different family combinations, but we do see over and over again wedge issues, very effective wedge issues that target communities that have nontraditional family structures as a way to turn out right wing voters.

Franklin: Do you monitor what hate groups are in the state and if you do is there any change in that right now?

Herzfeld: We monitor organized hate groups in a very limited way. We're not an organization that has the kind of anonymity to be able to do opposition research. We're a very public organization obviously with the Idaho Anne Frank Human Rights Memorial and we have a high profile in the schools and organization that are able to do effective opposition research on white supremacist movements need to have a little more security and privacy than we do as an organization.

So certainly we talk with other organizations that share our values to make sure we know what kind of white supremacist and neo-Nazi organizing is occurring. We will hear from our partners in human rights task forces around the state if there are neo-Nazi flyers or leaflets that are found in their community.

Franklin: You had vandalism on the side of your building?

Herzfeld: We have experienced vandalism at both our center and the memorial. In both cases we didn't feel like it was an ideological attack. If somebody was targeting our organization or the memorial because they disagreed with our mission they would have left some statement to claim that.

The most significant vandalism we experienced was when the bronze statue of Anne Frank was tipped over, but again, the Boise police didn't characterize that as a hate crime because there wasn't any message left to that effect.

Franklin: Do you think if we hadn't been tagged as a state that promoted hate that ironically the memorial and center wouldn't have happened?

Herzfeld: It could be. The notoriety of the Aryan Nations compound in northern Idaho is certainly part of the narrative of why the memorial and the center is here, but it is not the only piece of that story. In fact when some of the memorial founders first got together to talk about creating a human rights monument in our area it was in 1994, around the same time as the statewide anti-gay initiative and that was very much on their minds.

And when they brought the Anne Frank in the World exhibit to the Idaho Historical Museum there were a number of protesters, some white supremacist protesters. One of our docents always says that those protesters pissed off the wrong three women and those founding mothers decided that they couldn't let that reputation stand.

Franklin: Does the memorial make a statement about Idaho?

Herzfeld: Absolutely. Absolutely. We're trying to rewrite the story of Idaho with the memorial.
to a place that is, that values inclusion and diversity and human dignity and wants to protect and promote everyone's human rights.

Ulises Sanchez of Weiser High talks with Holocaust survivor Rose Beal at the Anne Frank Memorial in Boise.

Ulises Sanchez of Weiser High talks with Holocaust survivor Rose Beal
at the Anne Frank Memorial in Boise.

Franklin: Is Idaho changing?

Herzfeld: I think so. I think so. I think the conversations that are happening at the school level are really, really powerful and really positive and I think - we have this network of teachers around the state who care about human rights that want to make that vision a reality in their classrooms. So I see positive movement.

We've also seen laws expand in the state to be more inclusive of communities that have been left out so while there are a lot of challenges ahead I do see that in the time that I've grown up in Idaho that there has been forward momentum and there are a number of strong organizations that work on social justice and human rights issues.

We're particularly grateful at the Human Rights Education Center that even in a time of economic crisis there is enough support from the community to sustain our work so we feel like the community is invested in these ideas and these programs.

Franklin: So you are privately funded?

Herzfeld: We are entirely privately funded. We don't receive any money from the government. So it is always a struggle to sustain our work but we feel like the community doesn't want to let us go away.

Franklin: Why are you so passionate about what you do?

Herzfeld: My passion for social justice probably started in my youth. I started volunteering for different organizations that I believed in, working on different campaigns, particularly ballot initiatives when I saw that communities I cared about were being attacked.

Initially working on campaigns and organizations as a young person was a place where I could be taken seriously, which isn't always the case in junior high, especially when you already feel marginalized. And from there I built a community of activists that I really felt comfortable with and social justice I feel like is core to my being.

Franklin: Where does that come from?

Herzfeld: I think some of it comes from my family. I grew up in a family that talked about social justice issues around the dinner table and I think that contributed to my value system and my intellectual curiosity.

I also am personally passionate about human rights and social justice because I feel like I belong to a community that is targeted. I identify as a queer woman. I also have tremendous empathy and relationships with other communities that are targeted for institutional oppression so it is a personal and professional commitment.

Social justice has always been a core part of my identity. I feel like I'd be doing this work no matter what. I feel really lucky to be paid as a human rights advocate.

Franklin: Is this next generation just going to go full bore ahead and some of these things will fall by the wayside?

Herzfeld: I certainly hope so. I see tremendous confidence and optimism in the youth that we work with, that they can change the world, they can influence public policy, they can shift the paradigm. And that's what we want to see. We want every Idaho student to grow up feeling like they can make a difference; they can reach their full potential. So that is the hopefulness that we like to hear. They're going to change the laws.

Franklin: Are you proud to be from Idaho?

Herzfeld: I am. I am absolutely proud to be an Idahoan. I'm still here and there were times in my twenties as a young professional where I felt like I probably had better opportunities as an advocate in bigger communities but this is where I want to be. This is where the change needs to happen. I really feel like the struggle is here for me and it is right where I want to be.