Good afternoon and thank you. I am thrilled to be here today at the launch of the Teaching Respect for All Initiative. I am excited to be a part of this incredible program and to share the stage with so many friends and colleagues.
At its core, this program poses a challenging question to today’s youth: are you – are any of us – capable of change? Are we able to not just confront other people’s bigotry, but to confront our own? I believe the answer to both questions is a resounding yes. Yes, we can change; yes, we can improve; and yes, we can build a more respectful world.
But confronting intolerance and creating change is much easier said than done. As an African-American woman, I know the difference between the rhetoric of our ideals and the reality of our daily actions.
When the American Constitution was drafted over two hundred years ago, slaves only counted as three-fifths of a person and women couldn’t vote. It took sixty years and a civil war to end slavery and over a century for us to grant voting rights to women.
It took another four decades for Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. – whose birthday would have been this week – to advance the campaign to end segregation in America. 49 years ago, Dr. King said: “I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.”
Yet today, we can see how much the United States has changed to reflect Dr. King’s vision. Three years ago the United States inaugurated its first African-American President, Barack Obama.
So, yes, change isn’t easy, but it is possible. As President Obama said in 2008: “working together, we can move beyond some of our old wounds, and to continue on the path [toward] a more perfect union… This union may never be perfect, but generation after generation has shown that it can always be perfected.”
The United States has grappled with intolerance, but this struggle is not uniquely American, and America stakes no claim to a magic solution. Brazil, India, Indonesia, South Africa… all have confronted similar challenges and made significant gains. Like us, Brazil – which is our partner in this initiative – has confronted the legacy of racial inequality, and in 2010, passed a comprehensive law to guarantee racial equality. Since 2008 we have also worked together to share our experiences.
While we have made advances, the need to address discrimination is no less urgent today. On Human Rights Day, Secretary Clinton gave a speech on the rights of LGBT persons – who continue to be persecuted because of who they are and who they love. Ethnic tension, religious intolerance, and acts of hatred can still be found in the United States and around the world.
All forms of intolerance are an affront to human dignity. And we must respond: as members of a global community and as members of our local communities. As we challenge our youth to respond to these problems and make a difference, we need to offer them every bit of support that we can.
Teaching Respect for All is about providing that support. UNESCO is building a comprehensive curriculum for teachers and will offer online platforms for both educators and students to talk about building respectful communities.
We are joined today by some of those incredible students – groups from both the United States and Brazil. Really, this is your project, not ours. As President Obama said, “Whenever I find myself feeling doubtful or cynical, what gives me the most hope is the next generation – the young people whose attitudes and beliefs and openness to change have already made history.”
In that spirit, and on behalf of the people of the United States, I encourage all of us to continue making history by remaining ever vigilant, challenging hatred and bigotry where we see it, and supporting initiatives like the one we are launching here today. Together, we will build a more respectful world.