Amy Perkins teaches AP World History and U.S. History at Lakeshore High School in Stevensville, Michigan. A dedicated teacher and veteran traveler, she has visited Jordan, amongst other destinations, and applied the knowledge and skills acquired experientially and firsthand to her teaching. She is also a valued member in the cohort of the 2019-2020 MENA-SEA Teacher Program, a year-long Title VI-funded initiative offered jointly by the Center for Middle Eastern & North African Studies (CMENAS) and the Center for Southeast Asian Studies (CSEAS) and providing in-depth and nuanced training about the Middle East and Southeast Asia to Grade 6-12 educators from across our state.

When Perkins learned about the visit to the Donia Human Rights Center (DHRC) at U-M in November 2019 of the UN Commissioner for Human Rights (2014-18), Prince Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein of Jordan, she rightly saw it as a singular opportunity for her students. On the 6th he would give a distinguished lecture, “Global Challenges to Human Rights Today,” hosted by the DHRC. What better opportunity to extend what her students were learning in her classes, Perkins thought, than to listen in person to Al Hussein discuss real-world threats of racism, xenophobia, nationalism, and authoritarianism to human rights and stability across the world?

Perkins and I communicated over the next few weeks about the details and arrangements of the all-day excursion. “My students are looking forward to meeting you.... Thank you so much for helping me make this event a reality for them!” she wrote. Of course, of paramount importance for the out-of-towners was a dinner plan. “Please send me a list of your favorite 2-3 restaurants in Ann Arbor that serve ethnic cuisine and can seat a group of 15 people.”  

On the morning of the lecture, Perkins, Assistant Principal Jason Holok, and thirteen students drove eastward in two school vans from Stevensville, about 150 miles away from Ann Arbor. They came bearing gifts: a thank-you card signed by each visitor, and a box of honey walnut baklava made the day before by Perkins herself, who had followed the family recipe of an unexpected baker: her Dutch-American grandmother! My colleagues at the International Institute (II) all confirmed (through eager trial) that the baklava was delicious. More than a few came back for seconds and thirds.

Before the lecture, scheduled for 4 p.m., we took a tour of the II, and I introduced the group to my colleagues at all the centers on the three floors. A mix of juniors and seniors, the students were curious and excited about Al-Hussein’s upcoming lecture and about U-M; some even aspired to attend our university. Clearly, they loved learning about other cultures and languages; amongst them, more than six languages (including Arabic and Dari!) were spoken. 

By the time the lecture began on the tenth floor of Weiser Hall, the Lakeshore High visitors were on the edges of their reserved seats near the podium. The DHRC’s Distinguished Lecture series invites illustrious speakers with both expertise in, and skill to speak generally about, human rights. Introducing Al Hussein, DHRC Director and Sociology Professor Kiyoteru Tsutsui said, “I can’t think of a better spokesperson” to address this critical issue in today’s world. To an audience of about 200, Al Hussein argued that the safety and future of humanity would be secured only through vision, energy, and generosity of spirit. He identified nine main threats to human rights today, including authoritarianism, white supremacy, and economic elitism. “The devil of violence [slivers] through all of us,” he said, and codifying protections into law is more urgent than ever nowadays. Young people must lead the fight for human rights, he concluded. “We need people with a deep reservoir of ethical thinking and a conscience that will make a difference,” said Al Hussein. 

After the Q&A, DHRC’s benefactor, Bob Donia, was delighted to meet the students, impressed by their commitment to engage thoughtfully with global and real-world issues. We were all quite tickled when he asked for a photo with them. Admiring their zeal and determination about global justice, Al Hussein graciously and lengthily spoke to the students. He told them they reminded him of his own teenage daughter and applauded their exemplary and youthful leadership. 

The impact and inspiration of the entire experience for the Lakeshore High students are best captured by Perkins herself, whose words conclude my account:

“As we drove home last Wednesday, I had a chance to listen to our students' conversations about the evening. They felt honored by both your warm welcome and Prince Zeid Ra'ad Al Hussein's willingness to engage them in direct, meaningful conversation. 

Thank you for investing in my students, for allowing them to attend the event, and for making the evening so memorable. Too often our youngest generation is disregarded by adults. Their opinions are undervalued, and they feel powerless to provoke positive, lasting change. This trend discourages leadership and activism among our youth.  

Thankfully, your warm welcome and Zeid's investment of time demonstrated a different reality. My students left Ann Arbor feeling valued, respected, and inspired. Your interest in my students was sincere, and your actions showed them that you value them as scholars, leaders, and global citizens. I frequently tell them that they have the power to change the world, but your kindness and Zeid's words did more to convince them of this reality than my lectures ever will.  

I remain indebted to you, the Donia Center for Human Rights, and Prince Zeid Ra'ad Al Hussein.  I could not have asked for more impressive allies in this quest to cultivate competent, compassionate leaders in a chaotic world.”