Karin Ryan, The Carter Center — Advancing Vision Through Dialogue

NOTE: This interview excerpt is transcript only

Photo Credit: The Carter Center

Photo Credit: The Carter Center

“A deep feeling of love is going to be required.”

Karin Ryan is the Senior Policy Adviser on Human Rights and Special Representative on Women and Girls for the The Carter Center, a nongovernmental organization that was founded in 1982 by former U.S. President Jimmy Carter and his wife, Rosalynn, to advance peace and health worldwide. Karin’s dedication has proven invaluable to the Center’s work resolving conflicts and supporting democracy and human rights in over 80 countries worldwide. She has coordinated the Human Rights Defenders Policy Forum for many years, and has represented the Carter Center in many international negotiations including the establishment of a U.N. Human Rights Council. An insightful and pioneering thought leader, Karin provides a unique voice in the global conversation as she stresses the importance of advancing women’s rights within the broader context of human rights. She illustrates restorative leadership in practice by bridging divides through deep listening as she unites progress for collective wellbeing.

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On Leading Transcript

Seana Lowe Steffen, host: Your work, Karin, around mobilizing faith for women is about engaging the power of religion and belief to advance dignity. It is predicated on bringing so much diversity to the table, to the conversation, to the room. I was wondering if you could speak to the diversity you have successfully engaged and what it took to do so?  

Karin Ryan, guest: The advantage that I have is that Jimmy Carter is a person that people know about his commitment to diversity, diversity of opinion and equality of human rights. We start out with this idea that we can host this conversation and that we want it to be more than a conversation. We want it to be a catalyst for new ideas, for challenging things, for controversy, dialogue, for pushing through tough issues. That excites people! You start out with an attractive invitation. What kind of conversation can we create where everybody feels a stake in it and will really be anxious to participate in it, and be anxious to be a part of what comes next? It has to be diverse. The Carter Center, is an institution that is committed to human rights in a universal way that includes our ability to be honest about our own country’s short comings. We feel that is difficult to do for American organizations. It invites people to really chime in and be a part of that conversation. There is a desire for honesty and truthfulness in this work. Composing a conversation like that is challenging, especially when you really can’t control what people are going to say. 

Seana: Given your experience, what would you say is distinct or unique about the leadership that’s needed at this time in our planet’s history? 

Karin: I think that most importantly, when you say leadership, I think what happens in the political realm… I don't know if you watch House of Cards on Netflix? There is this one scene where a young woman came forward to testify about rape in the military, trusting the woman who was actually married to the Vice President. She had this really forward leaning bill that was going to lead to reform so that this woman wouldn’t have to deal with retaliation. She (the Vice President’s wife) was the one who encouraged her to testify in the Senate about her abuser. When the wife of the Vice President told her: “We have to accept this bill because it’s all we can get politically. I know that I promised you that we would not stop until we fixed this. It’s a baby step but a step in the right direction.” …The woman whose life was ruined by the rape just looked at her like, “This is why people like me can’t stand Washington and people like you, because of statements like that, that is the best we can do.”  

The challenge is we mistake leadership for politics and political power. In a time where political power is old — it's an old way of doing things — because the system is so broken, it’s very difficult to make any real changes. Because of money and politics it’s very difficult to get any real change. I think that leadership should lead to ideas, concepts, movements, and alliances among like-minded people who have completely different visions of humanity, not splitting the baby the way politicians do, or taking baby steps to stop global warming, because it’s going to be too late. I feel that what’s shifting is that people are looking for different models of leadership where people are able to get together in smaller constellations, able to get together and mobilize around issues to develop alliances and to create movements that put a different kind of pressure on governments, a moral pressure to do what needs to be done. I think that individuals are going to become more important as leaders in their families, churches, mosques, synagogues, temples, and communities of any kind. They are becoming more educated and prepared to stand up for ideas in different ways – the democratization of media, the ability for people to create coalitions. We are just in the beginning stages of that. One of the things that I cherish is the ability to speak to students. When I speak to young people, there is just this excitement. Young people want to be involved with shifting and changing things. There is that energy there. There is a hunger for guidance. …There are lost of opportunities to engage with people. I try not to give up on any opportunity to have a great conversation with someone because you never know whether that person is going to be the person who starts something. Everyone person is valuable and has a potential role in the change that is needed. 

Seana: Is there an example of a time on this journey of your work that is a moment of significant breakthrough and progress? If you could share what you think it would be helpful to witness, what would you want us to learn from it?  

Karin: I was having a hard time keeping a narrow focus on women’s rights. I’m obviously quite committed to advancing women’s rights. For example, I went to the women’s conference in Beijing 20 years ago and I have been quite involved in the movement in different ways. One of the things I have always believed is that women’s rights don’t exist outside of the larger context of human organization. I struggled with this idea. If you become singularly focused on an issue such as child marriage, some groups focus just on that, their rationale being that we want to focus on this because we want to devote our energy to one issue to maximize impact. I chafe against this kind of thing because I feel that in order to make progress we actually have to have a larger lens to be able to see the intersections, so that we aren’t just looking at symptoms of a deeper problem. 

Seana: What will it take to bring out the best of our diverse humanity to ensure a sustainable future? 

Karin: I feel platitudes coming into my mind. It’s gonna take some fearlessness, determination, creativity of vision. Also respect for the views of everybody. A commitment to let everybody speak and to listen, fully listening so that people trust that when they come forward to speak and be involved, their contribution will be honored. It’s about love. If you are really open, not in a patronizing or tolerating way, you really have love for humanity. Coming to that challenge with a deep feeling of love is going to be required. Not just tactics and techniques and strategic planning.  


Advance Human Rights

In the highly acclaimed bestselling A Call to Action, President Jimmy Carter addresses the world’s most serious, pervasive, and ignored violation of basic human rights: the ongoing discrimination and violence against women and girls.


Photo Credit: The Carter Center

Photo Credit: The Carter Center

The Carter Center participates in hosting Human Rights Defenders Policy Forums, which bring together human rights activists from a number of countries. President and Mrs. Carter, the U. N. high commissioner for human rights, and the special representative on human rights defenders have keynoted these conferences.