March 2010 Issue
The University of Dayton’s Human Rights Studies program trains students to make the world a better place.
Over the last decade or so, a growing number of activists, leaders and volunteers in Dayton have been working to establish a new image for the city, one that might knock aside the old rust-belt stereotype.
Their idea is to promote Dayton as a city of peace, building on the fact that in 1995 the Dayton Peace Accords were hammered out here, ending the war in the Balkans to wide acclaim. Since then, locals have established the internationally recognized Dayton Literary Peace Prize, awarded each year; have created the Dayton International Peace Museum; and the Missing Peace Art Space, a gallery near downtown focused on works that explore peace.
Add to that something more: At the University of Dayton, students are learning how to turn peace into a career.
Since 2006, the 10,000-student university has had an academic program in Human Rights Studies. It was one of the first, if not the first, such program in the country offering undergraduates a bachelor’s degree aimed at making human rights and social justice their life’s work. It remains one of the few, and the only one at a Roman Catholic school.
The program itself is the life’s work of its director, Mark Ensalaco, Ph.D., who created it and has watched it grow. He speaks excitedly about how the study of human rights fits perfectly into the community fabric of UD.
“Our students are the very best,” he says. “They come usually with some vague desire to do good in the world — a feeling that is very pronounced at UD, which is a Catholic, Marianist university with a strong leadership and social-justice component.
“We thought, let’s take this Catholic care-ism, if you will, and ... give students the ability to study human rights in a liberal-arts program with a pre-work component; let’s teach them the skills they will need to become human-rights professionals.
“We teach our students the language of ‘good,’ how it fits into their internal experience, and then send them into the real world.”
The program’s motto is, “Embracing the transcendent dignity of the human person,” and students take courses such as “Politics of Human Rights,” “Ethics and Modern War,” “Philosophy of Peace,” “Social Inequality” and “Liberation Theology,” along with a lot of sociology, political science, history and religion.
“Of course, the first thing parents ask is, ‘What kind of jobs can they get?’ Most of our students go on to law school,” Ensalaco says, “but to law schools with nationally recognized human rights programs — the University of Cincinnati, Notre Dame, Harvard, Minnesota, American. A lot of them go into nonprofits in a wide range of fields. We have a student in Haiti right now, who was in pre-med and went to operate a clinic there.
“One of our first graduates took a job with the U.S. Agency for International Development, based in Kenya, and was involved in the negotiations that ended the civil war in the south of the Sudan. We have a graduate working with a national religious campaign against torture.”
Torture, violence against women, extreme poverty, racial discrimination, genocide, women’s rights, issues of refugees and migrants — these are the sorts of uncomfortable, but vital, topics that fall under the Human Rights Studies umbrella. The newest among them is one of the oldest of crimes, human trafficking — the modern-day term for slavery, which is lately getting a lot of global media attention and was the subject of a special conference at the University of Dayton last fall. Participants signed the Dayton Human Trafficking Accords, calling for action.
“It’s a global problem, but it’s a problem even in Ohio, of girls being trafficked for sex,” Ensalaco says. “It’s an issue that really resonates with our students, who’ve formed a ‘New Abolitionists’ group. It’s the latest thing, but it’s been around forever.”
It was the same sort of passion and commitment that led Ensalaco to Dayton, a place he calls an “incredible environment” for the Human Rights program.
Originally from Buffalo, New York, Ensalaco, 52, studied theology at Harvard Divinity School but became interested in Latin American politics, and the repression that was often a part of them, while on a Fulbright scholarship in Bogota, Colombia. He immersed himself in studying and visiting Central American nations — Honduras, El Salvador, Nicaragua — when that region was torn by wars and revolutions, and ended up in Chile in 1991, the first year that South American country was returning to democracy after Augusto Pinochet’s long dictatorship. That’s a subject about which he’s already written one book (Chile Under Pinochet: Recovering the Truth, University of Pennsylvania Press) and is now writing another, on the prosecution that brought Pinochet to justice for his human-rights crimes. “I’m friends with the prosecutor, and have his files,” Ensalaco says.
He came to UD in the early 1990s, determined to set up a human rights program, and spent several years evolving it out of political science, international studies and other related fields. By 2006, it was under way with full trustee support, and now has 50 majors. “And it’s growing quickly.”
While the program has brought him considerable professional recognition, Ensalaco is proudest of a prize the university gives as part of the Human Rights program — the Monsignor Oscar Romero Award, given since 2000 to people and organizations that show leadership on international human rights issues. It’s named for Romero, an El Salvadoran archbishop who stood up to soldiers who were killing peasants in the revolution-wracked nation; for his stand, he was assassinated in 1980. Recipients include the co-founder of Doctors Without Borders, and the UN’s special adviser on stopping genocide.
But wait ... two major international peace prizes, based in one small Ohio city?
Not so surprising, Ensalaco says; it’s just something about Dayton. “It’s a small community that was put on the map because of the Peace Accords,” he says, “but it’s open, with Midwestern values; there are a lot of people here who really connect to global issues.”
Ensalaco understands his good fortune, and feels the energy that comes from doing what he can to make the world a better place. “For years I feel like I’ve been the captain of a pirate ship, sailing around between departments finding ways to do my own thing,” he says, employing an amusing metaphor for a man of peace. “Having this program... It’s gratifying for me and my own personal development, but I also feel that we’re doing something that connects very well with the mission of the university.”
Not to mention with the mission of the university’s hometown, an emerging city of peace.