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Finding our way to great work: Eleanor Roosevelt and the life of public service

Call it an itch, a bug, or a calling.

As far back as she can remember my mom dreamed of becoming a missionary. Although she hasn't reached the depths of the Congo or the Amazon yet, she hasn't buried that dream completely. Despite her advanced age, recent career changes have provided just enough space to keep the embers smoldering.

A former roommate realized an engagement wasn't leading her in the right direction when she was unable to reconcile her fiancé's desire for stability with a vocation rooted in humanitarian work with the potential to take her to remote corners of the world.

Call it a modern trend or an age-old passion that is more feasible in today's world of intercontinental airlines and point-and-click internet bookings. The business of helping people is gathering steam. It seems that everyone is doing it, or wants to. Increasingly, recent graduates and career men and women alike are opting for stints abroad to simultaneously expand and satiate their penchants for social concern. The corporate world, too, is responding to increased awareness with social initiatives, humanitarian sponsorships, and charitable outreach.

What happens when this proclivity for people manifests itself in a desire to dedicate one's entire life to service for the public good?


When social concern is more than a penchant

In the years immediately following my exit from the university world, I caught a glimpse of this life while working for an international youth association committed to promoting respect for human dignity in policy and culture. With regional offices in New York, Manila, Mexico City, Brussels and Nairobi, the eight-year-old organization studies and lives the philosophy of the human person on a daily basis, while also applying it to a range of international policy issues, such as global health, foreign aid, development, and environment.

Our work within the organization took on countless forms that included international seminars, cultural scavenger hunts throughout New York City, outreach road trips to universities throughout North America, and, of course, policy drafting and advocacy at the United Nations (UN). Each day brought a new audience—UN diplomats, top-level physicians, middle school children, Germans, Italians, Mexicans, and Nigerians—possessing a wide range of backgrounds, knowledge and experiences. They had one thing in common: driven by something within, they sought a true understanding of the human person.

Life in public service springs from a genuine concern for people. Whether they come from a strong country or a weak one, a culture where marriage is undertaken for love or for practical reasons, or even with multiple spouses, those drawn to public service hold the sneaking suspicion that there might just be something that unites those of us forging ahead in the adventure we call life.

Public service in the advancement of human rights is a dynamic, exhilarating, frustrating, and rewarding life for anyone. In my experience as a woman, it has been particularly rewarding. Having identified similar tugs of service, wanderlust and—yes—love at the heartstrings of many of my female friends, I suspect that there may be something intrinsic to us that desires to know and to love people throughout the world. This mutually agreeable match isn't newfangled or uniquely contemporary, although it is more socially acceptable for women to participate in the field today. Women's dedication to the concept of human rights from its very roots in the years following the Second World War , was foundational to the contemporary human rights movement.


The supreme value of the human person

In April, 1945, responding to the horrific devastation wreaked by the Second World War, leaders of forty-eight countries gathered in a somber, San Francisco congress to determine what—if anything—could be done to prevent such horror from occurring again. Those in attendance would form the core of the United Nations.

As photographs and personal accounts revealed the shocking extent of Nazi horrors committed against Germans and Third Reich-occupied countries, the awareness of the fallibility of government came to the fore along with the revival of the idea that a certain order existed that transcended the state. A consensus congealed that all people possess a certain dignity or value simply by virtue of their membership in the human race; that every human person claims certain basic rights which the Nazi regime violated in ways virtually unimaginable or lost to human memory. In an effort to guarantee those rights and to prevent such state-sanctioned crimes, again, delegates agreed that they must be enumerated. In the aftermath of a war unrivalled in the extent of its destruction and crimes against humanity, could they agree upon a universal list of human rights?

The late President Franklin Delano Roosevelt (1933-1945) had conceived of what became the United Nations, but he had not lived to see it realized or to see the end of the war. His widow, the former First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt was of the firm conviction not only that such a list existed, but that to compile it would be one of the most important tasks of human history. In A World Made New: Eleanor Roosevelt and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Mary Ann Glendon exhaustively unpacks Eleanor Roosevelt's role in this historic process. As Glendon explains (in Roosevelt's words), to produce an official human rights document would be to achieve a "truly significant historic event in which a consensus had been reached as to the supreme value of the human person, a value that did not originate in the decision of a worldly power, but rather in the fact of existing."

Roosevelt had invested years of public service working for women's equality—understood by Roosevelt as equal protection under the law but not "identical treatment" as insisted on by some feminist activists. She had also fought for an end to racial discrimination and to improve working and housing conditions. The experience of these efforts, combined with her own experiences of suffering as a child, had instilled in her a passion to defend the most vulnerable in society. Still, when she was asked by FDR's successor, Harry Truman, to accept an assignment to the newly formed UN, Roosevelt confessed feelings of inadequacy to her daughter, Anna, and asked, "How could I be a delegate to help organize the UN when I have no background or experience in international meetings?"

Roosevelt's natural gifts and talents acquired from years in social service, however, would prove more than adequate as she became a central figure in the human rights movement. Her innate humility, a willingness to work, and her ability to grasp technical material made her the ideal pupil, and earned her the admiration of other members of the U.S. delegation. In a personal letter, Durward Sandifer, Roosevelt's State Department aide, wrote that Roosevelt was leaving "a great impression on the advisers with her alertness and sincerity and her avid desire for information."

Such qualities quickly advanced Roosevelt to the newly-established Committee on Human Rights, a significant step from her seat on the Third Committee on Social, Humanitarian and Cultural Affairs. Roosevelt suspected that her "safe" appointment to the Third Committee had been proposed by a State Department that valued her name but feared her outspoken critique rooted in unabashed honesty, which had prompted her own husband to pray, "Dear God, please make Eleanor tired." Now, in a tribute to her personal qualities, the United Nations Economic and Social Committee nominated her to the Human Rights nuclear group after her dedicated and politically adept performance at the first meeting of the UN General Assembly in 1946. Almost immediately, the Committee on Human Rights elected Roosevelt its chair, a seat she would hold until Dwight D. Eisenhower's presidential inauguration on January 20th 1953, when she willingly resigned the post. Lacking the intimacy with the new Republican president that she believed the position required, she volunteered to cede the role to one with greater rapport with the new president.

Among her contemporaries, notably the Lebanese philosopher and diplomat Charles Malik, the French lawyer René Cassin, the Chinese sage and artist P. C. Chang, the Filipino General Carlos Romulo, the Indian legislator and independence activist Hansa Mehta, and the Chilean military judge Hernán Santa Cruz, Roosevelt navigated the choppy waters of a post-war period marked by ideological differences that prompted day-long, progress-halting debates. As the onset of the Cold War between the West and Soviet Russia incited Soviet attacks on U.S. racial discrimination and U.S. retaliation against Soviet oppression, Roosevelt led the Commission toward what would become "the most important achievement in her already distinguished public life": the production and adoption of the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights.


Extraordinary "people skills"

Roosevelt's achievement in this written charter depended, however, on attributes not included in the declaration. Her personal qualities included "leadership that kept the project moving along, the political influence that held the State Department on board, and the personal attentions that made each member of the Commission feel respected." Roosevelt's legendary people skills came to be regarded as one of the greatest contributions to the human rights movement. At afternoon teas and evening dinners hosted at Roosevelt's Hyde Park apartment, her guests found they made "more progress in reaching an understanding on some question before the UN" in this informal setting "than we had been able to achieve in the formal work of our committees." Although she admitted near defeat at the hands of the Russians in her attempt to humanize the delegates with each other, Soviet diplomat Alexei Pavlov momentarily succumbed in the absence of his assistant, who had run to fetch his hat: "Madame, you like the music of Tchaikovsky. So do I!" Pavlov's fleeting emotion, recalled Roosevelt, "was as close as I ever came to getting a frank and confidential expression of opinion from a Soviet official."

In her "My Day" column in the New York Times, Eleanor Roosevelt admitted that she had assumed her role at the UN because she "had always believed that women might have a better chance to bring about the understanding necessary to prevent future wars if they could serve in sufficient numbers in these international bodies." The feminism espoused and embodied by Eleanor Roosevelt understood the invaluable contributions women offer any field, but especially to public service. Chief among these gifts is women's extraordinary abilities to see the human person. This is fundamental in ensuring that the human rights movement conducts itself with the proper goal in mind.

Roosevelt's ability to see the human person enabled her to assist others in doing the same, whether it meant acknowledging the dignity of fellow delegates on the floor or seeing the world's needy, for which the government representatives were called to work. Her natural compassion ensured the prioritization of people over political interests, and she consistently refocused the discussion on the big picture in which the world's peoples struggle to move forward in a spirit of common humanity. Seeking the authentic development of all people, Eleanor Roosevelt called upon her experience as a mother of four children, and she assumed her place in the public service as a Mother to all Peoples.

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Megan Furman Megan Furman
Megan obtained her B.A. in English from the University of Notre Dame and her Masters in English from Oxford University. ... read more »

Posted in Politics, Vocation.

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