Going the Distance
When he was a high school student in Shaker Heights, Ohio, a spark ignited in Rowly Brucken that has been burning for twenty years. While reading a newspaper article he learned about an organization called Amnesty International. The more he read about their work, the more interested he became.
He joined Amnesty International in 1986 and started a chapter at his high school. Throughout his college years he remained active. Brucken, now a History Professor at Norwich University, currently serves as the organization's Zimbabwe Country Specialist.
The last time he was in Zimbabwe the country was still known as the jewel of Africa. Since then the quality of life there has taken a freefall. The country suffers from the world’s highest inflation rate and an 80 percent unemployment rate. Life expectancy has nearly been cut in half, falling from 62 in 1988 to 34 years of age.
The country is also widely considered to be, as President Bush recently stated, one of the most notorious human rights abusers in the world. In 2003 a statement from the White House in support of victims of torture in Zimbabwe and other countries stated that, "beating, burning, rape, and electric shock are some of the grisly tools such regimes use to terrorize their own citizens."
Brucken's latest Amnesty International project was to coordinate a strategic meeting to develop a plan to help the abused struggling in Zimbabwe. "We looked at different scenarios and planned out what we can do with the resources we have," he said. He said the group will move in some new directions as they follow a plan of action for the next two years. "We'll continue to focus on abuses of civil and political rights, but we will also look at the economic, social and cultural rights of Zimbabweans as well," Brucken said.
It's no surprise that on the Norwich campus, Brucken is committed to helping his students find their voice and make a difference in their community as well. For the last two years Brucken has been recognized as an innovative educator by the Vermont Campus Compact, a statewide coalition that promotes the integration of public service into the academic and student life.
Three Norwich work-study students assist Brucken with his Amnesty International work. "They research current events in Zimbabwe, draft letters for me. They even collect clothing for an orphanage there. They're getting a firsthand education on human rights activism," he said.
"I've watched Rowly transform students into passionate spokespersons on politically relevant issues," said Nicole DiDomenico, the Director of Volunteer Programs at Norwich. "I have seen, firsthand, how his teaching style inspires and enables his students to take an active role in their own learning," she said.
Brucken explains how he sometimes begins the first day of class. "I start some classes by asking how many people don't particularly want to be here, sometimes about one third of the hands go up," he said. "Then I tell them what the class is about. I explain that history is not about learning simplistic lessons or predicting the future. I try to illustrate long-term abstract changes with specific examples of people who lived during the times we're studying. This way students can better understand the dilemmas and choices some of these individuals had, some of which may be familiar," he said.
"The students here tend to be more conservative than most and it took me a couple of years to understand their environment and what motivates them," Brucken added. "They have a strong sense of right and wrong and so our discussions on world events and the human rights violations that are happening in many parts of the world today appealed to them. Some of them may find themselves involved in peacekeeping activities, and when we talked about these issues the students became interested to a degree I hadn't anticipated."
Brucken's boundless energy is also an asset in the classroom. A longtime runner, his efforts to stay fit developed into something more a few years ago. In the late '90s he met Todd Heady, an ultra-triathlete, who persuaded him to try a 50-mile run, and soon he was hooked. "Todd and I have done many races together. We finished a 100-mile run that took us 22 1/2 hours. We were out there arguing and bickering the whole time," he said smiling. "Even though we agree on very little, he's my best friend in the world," he added.
In Brucken's office, a poster on the wall reads, 'Human rights belong to everyone or they are guaranteed to no one.' Another one quotes Dante, 'The hottest places in hell are reserved for those who in times of great moral crisis maintain their neutrality.' Looking over those words, his thoughts often turn back to Zimbabwe.
"Hearing the stories of torture, rape, and beatings from survivors can be awfully depressing and emotionally deadening, but if I give in to those feelings, it would extinguish the drive I need to do the work," he said. "I don't think I could do it without the support of my wife, Elizabeth, and the inspiration I get from my daughter, Katherine. I have no illusions of what my impact on such a large problem might be, but in some small way," he said, "I'd like to try and make the world a little better for her."