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It was a very risky idea, given how much he wanted Beats headphones ($200 headphones for a kid?) and a Wii.  But this past week I gave my tween-age son his holiday present, choosing to surprise him with the gift of an experience over a thing.

Here’s what came out of his 5-day art class (and I’ve got the pictures to prove it!)…

The night I handed my 11-year-old a handmade card describing his holiday gift from me, he glanced at it quickly then looked back in the envelope as if to say, “That’s it?  Is there cash in here at least?”  But that was it — five days with a small class in an artist’s studio in SoHo, NYC.

He was dubious.

When the elevator opened right into the studio the next morning, five other students turned to look at us.  There were two boys who appeared to be high school seniors (one of them sporting Beats), and a few adults who had the air of honest-to-goodness artists already.  The teacher seemed like he might need a second cup of coffee as he casually pointed to a table where my son should sit.

As I left, I said a desperate prayer to the holiday gods, asking for this not to be a total disaster.

My son called me several times that day asking what I was doing with his younger brother, who is also on school vacation.  “We’re sitting here doing absolutely NOTHING,” I replied, hoping not to make him jealous.  “You’d be BORED OUT OF YOUR MIND!

By the end of the first day, he brought home this:

Hand, Day 1

And this:

Copy of Picasso's portrait of Igor Stravinsky

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I think it’s the perfect gift for the holidays.  But how will my son react when he finds out where I’ll be sending him for the next five days?

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It happens every year around December 10th.  I’ll be standing at the stove cooking dinner, or simply waiting at the bus shelter when I suddenly get a little choked up.  Or a lot choked up, depending on the year.

This Saturday will be one of those days — International Human Rights Day, the anniversary of the first global expression of the rights to which all human beings are inherently entitled.   It was on that day in 1948, with Eleanor Roosevelt front and center, that the United Nations officially adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. 

In a world of grave abuses and daily bloodshed, it’s so easy to dismiss the day as one more marginally important commemoration for the overly-idealistic.

But this weekend, I plan to pause in the midst of the pre-holiday frenzy to remember the amazing human rights defenders I’ve been so fortunate to work with over the years.  I’d like to share a little about a few of them personally.  But please know that there are many other equally-deserving activists I will gladly bend your ear about any time.

Aminatou and I after her hunger strike

Aminatou Haidar, known as the Sahrawi Gandhi, is the leader of the nonviolent struggle to free the people of Western Sahara from Morocco’s 36-year occupation.

This is a tough battle to wage:  while the Moroccan government pours millions of dollars into lobbying and sophisticated pr to maintain control over the resource-rich land, the Sahrawi mainly live in refugee camps and impoverished desert towns patrolled by Moroccan military.   A UN-administered referendum, promised in 1988, has never been held to decide the issue, and peaceful Sahrawi activists like Aminatou herself have been imprisoned and brutally beaten.

I first met Aminatou in 2009 when she came to the U.S. to receive the prestigious Civil Courage Prize.  In between our meetings and briefings on the state of Western Sahara, we discovered we have so many things in common that Aminatou started calling me “sister.”

On her way home from her time here, she was deported by Morocco to the Canary Islands and nearly died on a hunger strike.  After 32 days, vomiting blood and suffering aggravated complications resulting from her time in Moroccan prisons, a victorious Aminatou was flown on a small medical transport plane to her awaiting family.

In her holiday letter, she summed up her approach to human rights and the importance of collective action in these situations:

No boundaries can stop the flood of noble and beautiful human feelings coming from all countries, crossing continents. Oh how powerful were those moments with all their strong symbolism, how warm they were, like the warmth of the affection of motherhood and fondness of the homeland, moments that express the most beautiful meanings life can have.”

Anna Politkovskaya, 1958-2006

Anna Politkovskaya was a fearless Russian journalist whose dispatches from the brutal war in Chechnya famously led to death threats and poisoning.

When I met Anna in 2005, she told me casually over our bowls of steaming Chinese noodles in midtown Manhattan: “They will probably kill me one day; I know that.  But I owe it to so many people who trusted me with their stories to make sure that I tell what’s happening.  I won’t be stopped by threats.

This story has a tragic ending. Anna Politkovskaya was shot to death in the elevator of her Moscow apartment on October 7, 2006, in what many call a politically motivated attempt to further squelch freedom of the press in Russia.

The former Soviet president Mikhail Gorbachev called her killing “a savage crime.” “It is a blow to the entire democratic, independent press,” he told the Interfax news agency. “It is a grave crime against the country, against all of us.”

Rafael with my kids

Rafael Marques de Morais is an Angolan journalist and human human rights activist whose reports on the diamond industry and government corruption have earned him international acclaim.

He’s got serious chutzpa — recently Rafael filed a criminal complaint in Angola against two diamond mining companies and their directors, who include a number of top military officers and others with substantial economic and political influence. He alleges that all of them have committed “crimes against humanity.”

Rafael also happens to be an amazingly warm person, with a wide smile and a deep and easy laugh.  My kids especially appreciate his fancy soccer footwork and specialty dish made with sweet plantains. Read the rest of this entry »

How can we instill in our children an appreciation for what they already have — especially when the people around them seem to have just about everything?  Here’s our family’s holiday tip…

This fall, my two children moved from a warm and caring New York City public school where a large percentage of the students live at or near the poverty level to a progressive private school comprised of many families in (or close to) that much-scrutinized 1%, to use the Occupy Wall Street parlance.

What has the change meant for the kids on a day to day level?

One of the most obvious things is that they have come face-to-face with the stark reality of America’s income inequality.  For them, this is most apparent in the size of their friends’ homes.  While many of their old playmates live in cramped apartments in government subsidized housing, a sizable number of their new friends live in cavernous lofts and single-family townhouses.  As is human nature for children and adults alike, my kids are prone to comparing what our family has to what they perceive is bigger and better.

I’ve been spending a lot of time lecturing them about the detriment of “keeping up with the Joneses” and the false trappings of materialism, but that tends to fall on deaf ears.  I also point out endless examples of good people really struggling, including the families who experienced massive loss during our recent storms here in the Northeast. Read the rest of this entry »

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