Human Rights Activist Encourages Students to 'Make a Difference'

John Prendergast will give two more talks this week as part of a Nicholas School week-long residency

Human Rights activist John Prendergast is on campus in a week-long residency.
Human Rights activist John Prendergast is on campus in a week-long residency.

For nearly three decades, John Prendergast has worked with the likes of George Clooney, Don Cheadle, Bill Clinton and Nelson Mandela. But Prendergast's storied career as a human rights activist started in front of a television set.

"I had an injured foot and no remote control, so I decided to just watch whatever came on because I was too lazy to change the channel," Prendergast said. "I happened to see a television special on the famine in Ethiopia. It was then that I realized I had a passion for human rights, a need to know how some people could have so few in a world with so much."

Since watching that late-night TV program, Prendergast has headed up dozens of governmental and non-profit projects to combat human rights violations and violent conflicts in Africa, most recently the Enough Project.

But Prendergast's week-long residency with the Nicholas School of the Environment was intended to encourage young people to become activists themselves, said Erika Weinthal, an associate professor of environmental policy.

"The reason we invited John is because he is so good at connecting with students," Weinthal said. "He is uniquely able to engage and inspire them by not only telling his own story but by encouraging them to find their own ways to make an impact."

His first engagement as visiting practitioner in residence was Monday evening's "10 Lessons for Making a Difference Globally and Locally," a talk co-sponsored by the Duke Human Rights Center and the Franklin Humanities Institute (FHI).

Prendergast's week-long residency also includes a screening of his new documentary "Blood in the Mobile" and a Q&A in Love Auditorium in the Levine Science and Research Center (LSRC) on Wednesday evening and a panel discussion on conflict minerals in the Democratic Republic of the Congo on Friday in the LSRC. In 2012, Prendergast gave the Ferguson Family Distinguished Lectureship in the Environment and Society at the Nicholas School.

As he addressed the dozens of students, including a number of first-years in the Humanitarian Challenges FOCUS class, in the FHI Garage in Smith Warehouse, Prendergast focused on starting small.

His ten tips for making a difference included working with a team, harnessing the power of technology and celebrity to reach more people, tying abstract social causes to tangible solutions and actions and "embracing your inner Don Quixote."

"You've got to be willing to dream and fail on occasion -- maybe even often," Prendergast said. "For every book, every movie, every cause I'm known for, there's been dozens more [campaigns] that have not succeeded. I've learned as much from any of my failures as I have from the successes."

Using colorful personal anecdotes to underscore his strategies for increasing the effectiveness of a cause, Prendergast also urged attendees to remain positive and use their existing skillsets to start a new social movement.

"The first step is to try," Prendergast said. "Remember that you're going to have countless chances to be a bystander or an upstander. If enough of us choose to be upstanders, we can change the course of history."

Prendergast will give two more talks later this week. Visit the Nicholas School of the Environment website for more information.