“Music generates energy. If we attach music to our message, it will help create the interest and excitement that is necessary to move people out of inertia and into activism.”
How does an individual, moved by spirit and conscience, begin to stand up against systemic human rights violations around the world? For Jack Healey, a former Franciscan priest and pioneering head of the Washington, D.C.-based Human Rights Action Center, it is by harnessing the world’s leading musical talent to raise awareness and mobilize youth to engage in nonviolent action.
Called "Mr. Human Rights" by U.S. News and World Report, Jack for over 60 years has exponentially raised the visibility of human rights and inspired activism among youth and ordinary citizens. He has been described as having "helped move the topic of human rights from closed-door diplomatic negotiations to widespread awareness, public debate, and direct citizen action." Through creative use of media and enlistment of world-class rock performers, Jack has bridged art and activism with the ultimate mission to defend the rights of humanity everywhere.
Jack saw first-hand the power of music to inspire and galvanize while in South Africa during the freedom struggle. As director of the Peace Corps in Lesotho from 1977 to 1981, he witnessed people singing protest songs in the streets and was struck by the power of music to activate and empower a community. This vibrancy stayed with him long after the streets emptied, even past when the event details faded from memory. “The music brought the crowds together, and the music carried their message with more strength than words.” Jack came to the realization that artists – musicians, writers, performers – can be uniquely effective activists and activators, given their ability to reach wide audiences and to “capture and convey the emotional state of society and question what is right and what is wrong.”
Following his time with the Peace Corps, Jack became director of Amnesty International, USA, where he would lead the organization for twelve years through unprecedented growth and a complete overhaul. He experimented with and introduced to the world a new tool in human rights activism – organizing musical events to raise awareness about human rights, including concert tours with U2, The Police, Peter Gabriel, Bruce Springsteen, Tracy Chapman, and many other musicians. In the month following the first benefit concert tour that Jack produced with Amnesty, membership increased by 45,000. Concert-goers were asked to send appeals for freedom on behalf of six prisoners of conscience, and two were released soon after.
In 1994, Jack fulfilled his dream to create “a one-person organization that could be effective as a medium-sized human rights group with a lot less money,” with the Human Rights Action Center. HRAC devoted over a decade to supporting the pro-democracy movement in Burma and the release of leader Aung San Suu Kyi, through a variety of projects, including the benefit album For the Lady, a documentary film Douye!, and a 30-day YouTube campaign. It has long been Jack’s vision to have the Universal Declaration of Human Rights document printed in every passport; he has stressed that the wide recognition of a written pronouncement for rights can be the basis of innumerable movements for change. Another current HRAC effort is clemency for Leonard Peltier, a Native American activist.
Jack spent his young adulthood in seminary, training over a decade to become a Franciscan priest. Attending graduate school in Washington, D.C. during the height of the civil rights movement hugely influenced him; integration, inclusion, and equality would become central themes in his sermons and in his work at a college ministry center. Around the time of his ordination, Jack knew deep down that he would someday answer the call to be of service beyond the walls of the Catholic church.
In 1968, following four years as a Catholic priest, Jack left the priesthood to lead the youth division of the American Freedom from Hunger Foundation. Jack coordinated with local youth to produce over 300 “Walks for Development” across the nation – long before charity walks or races became commonplace in American culture – raising $12 million for national and international non-profits that help alleviate world hunger. Jack would later team up with comedian and activist Dick Gregory on his world hunger run from Los Angeles to New York City to raise awareness and funds.
Jack has spoken at over a thousand high schools and colleges, is the recipient of seven honorary doctorates, and is a contributor to Huffington Post, The New York Times, and independent blogs. He helped to start the Reebok Human Rights Foundation, which hands out the Reebok Human Rights Award each year, and two other non-profits, Witness (supporting citizen video documentation of human rights abuses) and Equality Now (supporting equality for women and girls).
Jack’s life is celebrated in the forthcoming documentary film, Keeper of the Flame. His memoir, Create Your Future, details his many innovative ideas on how to bring human rights into mainstream consciousness and effect positive change, as well as his adventures collaborating with rock musicians, actors, producers, and NGOs to make it all a reality.
Please join us in conversation with this innovative and tenacious activist and humanitarian.