I thought I understood the definition of human rights and what it means to defend them. But all that I knew was a jumble of foreign headlines and a feeling of being powerless to make any meaningful difference in the world.
What could I, a mother of four boys in Virginia, do to stop genocide in Darfur or bring comfort to women there who forage for firewood and find rape instead?
It was Mary Robinson who made me realize I was asking the wrong questions. Ms. Robinson, who has held titles ranging from president of Ireland to United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, set me straight before a talk she gave recently at Old Dominion University.
I was there with my 12-year-old son, who was chosen, with a classmate from St. Patrick's Catholic School, to present a gift to Robinson. With a bagpiper leading them into the lecture hall and a choir of uniformed fourth graders singing "May the Road Rise Up to Meet You," it was an affair to remember.
Most memorable, however, were the passionate feelings she shared at the pre-lecture reception. In a parched, travel-weary brogue, Robinson deftly mingled her own convictions with the words of Eleanor Roosevelt – chairman of the United Nations Human Rights Commission of 1948 – between taking sips of water.
"Where, after all, do universal human rights begin? In small places, close to home – so close and so small that they cannot be seen on any maps of the world," she repeated Roosevelt's words, as if reciting a most beloved piece of scripture. "Yet they are the world of the individual person: the neighborhood he lives in; the school or college he attends; the factory, farm, or office where he works.... Unless these rights have meaning there, they have little meaning anywhere. Without concerted citizen action to uphold them close to home, we shall look in vain for progress in the larger world."
Dignity. So simple and yet so often absent from the human equation. How often do we tread on what we do not recognize as the human rights of those with whom we live and work?
I have always recognized large places on the map when in reality and practicality I was missing the simplest way to send my ripple into the pond of humanity, through the preservation of the rights of those around me.
How often has a co-worker been demeaned or the victimized by vicious talk while I stood idly by? Where was my voice when a good person running for public office was splattered with muck by an opponent? The ugliness spills into my mailbox, TV, and into my voice mail from candidates daily.
Did I object? No. I just let it go, as so many all around the world let go the small miseries until we became immune to the passage of grief on a wider scale.
"Human rights work begins here, working in preschools, buying fair-trade products and coffee not sold by those who profit for the abused in other lands where human rights are violated daily," Robinson said.
Again, I wondered: Where has my voice been? In my wallet, apparently, and misused. Buying coffee only from companies paying farmers a fair price and not treating them like sweatshop laborers was a contribution I had no idea I could make.
How cocooned had I become with four children and only the time to read the headlines that screamed of torture, but never coffee or fair trade? Now the moment of truth: When I saw the headlines of rape and torture, did I quickly turn the page?
Now, I pledge to slow down and read more than the headlines. I will check the labels of the goods I buy – and I will check the tones I use with friends and strangers alike. To answer Eleanor Roosevelt, I am where human rights begin and today, thanks to Mary, I'm on the way.
• Lisa Suhay has written seven children's books, including "The Mermaids and Yellow Jack."