Remembering Edward O’Brien

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Edward O’Brien (1945-2015)

Human rights education lost a vital advocate on July 2, 2015, with the sudden death of Edward O’Brien.

Ed came indirectly to human rights through his commitment to law-related education. Although a student at Georgetown Law School and an active opponent of the Vietnam War, Ed recalled that he “still didn’t know the term ‘human rights” though that is what opposition to the war was all about.”[1] His teaching of public interest courses led him in 1972 to co-found the first Street Law program at Georgetown, where law students went into inner-city DC public schools to teach criminal, consumer, torts, family, housing and constitutional law. He was awarded a Robert F. Kennedy Fellowship, from the RFK Centre for Justice & Human Rights, which helped launch Street Law, Inc. in 1975 by subsidizing Ed’s first year of paid Street Law employment. With Lee Arbetman he publish Street Law, ahigh school textbook now in its ninth edition, having sold over two million copies. Street Law developed a unique model of clinical education in law schools, supporting law students delivering interactive law-related education in secondary school and in other settings, such as prisons and homeless shelters, where access to this kind of information might be limited. The so-called “street law model” is now in practice in law schools throughout the world. However, as Ed has acknowledged, in the early days of Street Law, “We taught human rights, but we still didn’t use the words.”

A momentous turning point for Ed occurred in 1985 when Professor David McQuoid-Mason, Dean of the University of Natal Law School invited him to share the Street Law program and materials in South Africa. As Ed describes, when McQuoid-Mason examined Street Law, he asked, “Why are there no human rights in this book?” Ed admitted he didn’t know much about human rights, and that those words were used in the USA only to refer to violations in other countries. McQuoid-Mason so convinced Ed of the importance of human rights domestically as well as internationally, that the two decided to jointly write a human rights textbook that would be simultaneously be published in South Africa and the USA. This book is called Human Rights for All and is the only human rights textbook to be published for use by students in both countries.

After his experience in South Africa, Ed became an ardent human rights educator, rewriting Street Law to include a human rights perspective and joining forces with other activists to lay the foundations of human rights education in the United States. To mark the 50th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), Ed co-founded Human Rights USA, a coalition that included Amnesty International, the University of Minnesota Human Rights Center, and the Center for Human Rights Education in Atlanta. Funded by the Ford Foundation, the project sought to raise awareness of the UDHR nationwide, working in pilot cities, training teachers, and educating school (K-12) students and people in communities.

After his retirement as Executive Director of Street Law, Ed continued to be engaged in many educational and civic activities. He was a founding member of Human Rights Educators USA and served on its Steering Committee until his death. Ed was a strategic, passionate, human rights learner and educator, who dedicated his life to empower youth and adults to practice the core principles of equality, non-discrimination, and justice for all.

Those who had the privilege to know Ed as a colleague, friend, and mentor treasured his professional talents and his personal warmth, generosity, and integrity. As Shulamith Koenig, founder of the Peoples Decade for Human Rights Education, observed, Ed was “an original thinker, always looking for new ways and reforms.” He was an inspiration to many, both for his genuine kindness and fairness and his vision and commitment to social justice.

Ed is survived by his wife, May Yoneyama Gwinn O’Brien; brother, William; son, John and his wife, Saba; daughter, Beth and her husband, Marlon; stepson, Michael and his partner, Molly; and stepdaughter, Mary and her husband, Terry. Ed was a loving grandfather to his four grandchildren.

Ed’s own words best capture his understanding of the essential role of human rights in the education of the children of the world:
“I have learned that to teach law or democracy without teaching human rights is vastly inadequate. Human rights are a value system and a foundation on which law and democracy rests. Young people must be taught ethical behavior, and human rights are a set of ethical standards the world has agreed upon.”

By Nancy Flowers & Kristi Rudelius-Palmer

[1] All quotation in this tribute are from an essay Ed wrote, “Why I Am a Human Rights Educator?” for a forthcoming publication: Towards a Just Society: The Personal Journeys of Human Rights Educators, ed. Abraham Magendzo, et al.  (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Human Rights Center, forthcoming 2015). See