Even before she began her current work, Ellen Kennedy’s far-flung travel destinations shared a theme: Nazi death camps. Rwanda. Siberia. One year, Yom Kippur found her at the killing fields in Cambodia.
“I visited places where terrible things happened,” Kennedy said. “I think, in reflection, that was not by accident.”
Kennedy is the founder and executive director of World Without Genocide (World), which works to end mass atrocities against innocent people. World raises awareness through lectures, films, workshops and conferences, and advocates for anti-genocide legislation in Congress. Housed at William Mitchell College of Law, World was founded in 2006.
Women are disproportionately impacted by genocide, Kennedy noted. “Gender-based violence is a tool of war, particularly of genocide,” she said, adding that women and children constitute 80 percent of the 10 million people living in refugee camps around the world.
Many events steered Kennedy toward this work, beginning with childhood nightmares – her own.
“For years, I had what I called ‘Anne Frank dreams,'” she said. “I was being chased by Nazis and would wake up in absolute terror.”
Kennedy’s family came to the United States long before World War II, but some distant relatives remained behind. Her younger sister is named for a relative who perished in the Vilna ghetto. A friend of her mother’s had numbers tattooed on her arm. There was always “an awareness of what had happened.”
Kennedy, a sociologist, visited Rwanda in 2005 to study a coffee cooperative run by women survivors of the 1994 genocide. There she met Alice, who like Kennedy’s daughter was 14 during Rwanda’s tragedy. Kennedy asked about her family’s experience.
Alice recounted how her mother had sent her to the next village on an errand, telling her to return immediately. Instead, Alice stayed overnight at her cousin’s house. The next day, she returned to find the bodies of her parents, grandparents, sister and brothers.
“I had done nothing [to help stop the genocide] – I never contacted my elected officials – and in many ways, I felt her status as an orphan was my fault,” Kennedy said.
Now, World promotes the use of a toll-free number, 1-800-GENOCIDE, maintained by Genocide Intervention Network. Callers punch in their zip code and can be connected directly to the office of their congressperson, senator or the White House.
World also coordinates book clubs in the Twin Cities. “I tried to think broadly about ways to reach different groups of people,” Kennedy said. “I had been a book club member for years, so I thought – why not?”
Clubs meet monthly – including in St. Cloud, a city that’s struggled with hate crimes. Upcoming book selections focus on Congo, and include Barbara Kingsolver’s “The Poisonwood Bible.”
“I truly believe the 21st century will be even worse than the 20th [with regard to genocide] unless we take action,” Kennedy said. She points to such warning signs as worsening shortages of food, fuel and water; increased population; and increased trafficking in ever more deadly and cheaper weapons.
“I also, though, feel very hopeful,” she said. Her hope springs from World’s work with “young people who understand that we can prevent these atrocities – they are not natural disasters that we cannot control, like earthquakes and tsunamis.”
“Genocides happen for very complicated reasons,” Kennedy noted, “but also for a very simple reason: because we let them.”
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World Without Genocide provides speakers and designs/conducts workshops and panel discussions for classes, events and conferences to teach about topics related to genocide and human rights.