Interview: Jack Healey
We speak with Jack Healy. Called ‘Mr. Human Rights‘ by U.S. News and World Report, Jack brought human rights to the global stage through his creative use of media and enlistment of world-class musical talent as advocates and spokespersons as Executive Director of Amnesty International USA for 12 years. Today, the 84-year old provides 'a voice for the voiceless' through The Human Rights Action Center (HRAC).
Jack Healey: a Schoolboy mocked for dyslexia, a priest, an activist, U2’s tour manager, a marcher alongside Dr. King. These are a few of the many hats worn by Mr.Human Rights, the 84-year-old icon who chatted with us from Washington.
“They stole our land, so we took their language”, Jack playfully riposted when eulogized on his storytelling mastery- instinctively crediting his skill to his cultural heritage. Healey makes his remarkable experiences relatable to the listener as if they weren't his all along but rather moments he just kept safely in his memory waiting for someone to give them to.
He illustrated all the movements he had partaken in, the initiatives he endorsed, as well as the change he was wishing upon at national and global scope but whichever was the theme he addressed- it was the agents of these memories that Jack consistently highlighted. Rightfully so, Mr. Human Rights spoke of these people with deep admiration: From activist trailblazers such as Dr. King and Malcolm X; to artists like Bono; to his indelible teachers, and friends- out of all the changemakers Healey has crossed paths with there were two women he cited for the motivators of his actions- his mother and his lady. The first one being the nurturer of his sense of justice and humbleness- and the latter, the widener of the geography of his actions.
Thinking about Jack’s experience with world leaders and movements around the world, we had some questions: How do you create the momentum for a movement to catch fire? Is it the leader? Is it the idea? Is it the coming together of both?
Jack’s answer was quite interesting, alluding to a piece of clothing: “You got to be able to put that on a t-shirt. If you can do that and you got a good, powerful, simple idea(…)hopefully, leadership would naturally come out of that group that responds to that basic idea.” Jack also stressed the importance of committing to a longer process than most expect. He stated that you have to “distrust answers, and trust your doubts…activists can't jump too fast into a movement, it has to have some kind of natural growth.”
Since Jack worked with the Black Panthers, a controversial movement by Black Americans in the 60s-70s, we wanted to know more about what it was like to actively go against the grain. He expounded: “I worked with Dick Gregory, in the Black community and he was one of the great workers for civil rights in the United States in 73 to 76… He was so credible to that movement and really one of the people that helped it a lot. But the Black Panthers really had the FBI on their back from the beginning…they were targets”.
Speaking on his school experience, Healey mentioned the struggles of being a child with Dyslexia on a half-serious note: “It was, it was not easy at all, because teachers tend to make you stupid. And that enraged me, gave me a fire, you know, that I did not need I'm Irish enough without being added to that. But they really insulted me regularly in school.”
Later in his youth, Jack made one of the toughest decisions of his life: leaving the priesthood. Upon being asked why, Jack said it boiled down to personal belief: “I felt the Ecumenical Council was meant to move our church into a progressive movement, and that failed the Conservatives. I was not on that side, I was on the opposite side, and we lost. [Plus] I felt like I was doing more important things in the civil rights movement”.
The UDHR was a recurring issue during our hour-long conversation, deservedly, for Jack’s trust in this document has indisputably been a perpetual fight in his career- from the promotion of its printing in passports through the 98-world tour to his persistent conviction that making UDHR a working document; with the amendment of putting women's rights as the lead of this motion could be the most effective step towards turning these ideas that have been theoretical for the past 74 years into a movement. Healey alerts the urgency for restitution in all sectors of social impact- whether it is politics, activism, or even religion. New leaders are a must- “We have been debating the same issues with the same folks since World War II”.
Why invest in this particular document? “There isn't any other document (…) We are not gonna get another one cause all they do is argue- the politicians- all they'd ever do is argue forever”, were Jack’s words as he elucidated how the effective dispersal of this document could be the key to finding new vital leaders.
Constructing his argument on adjusting the UDHR to place Women’s rights as head of the movement, Healey shared some of his experiences in Haiti where the government made infeasible the accountability process of several rape cases- “We knew who the rapists were...”- Jack repeated, still ravaged by his impotence in the face of this atrocity. This is just one example of how unbalanced the application of these rights is worldwide. He surmised by pointing out the relevance of government cooperation- Even in the USA which is part of the UN's security council, Jack encountered a stonewall of resistance in the exercise of what should be an obvious move towards implementing these rights: “Harry Truman didn’t go along with it, now the ink is well dried and so seems to be the morale.”
Regarding the recent Roe V. Wade overturned in the civil court, we were quite eager to hear what Jack had to say. He stated the following: “It's a fearsomely big mistake by the Supreme Court. Because the people in the United States do believe in that right. So we have a traumatic moment, our country is in a deep turmoil of major questions- Racism, economic justice, women's rights, these are all being challenged terribly; minority rights, gay rights across the board- Those are all going to be rechallenge. We're in for a big battle in our country. I hope we win.”.
Shifting topics, Healey expressed his apprehension concerning the possibly extensive fight Ukraine has ahead, linking similarities between this conflict and the one endured by the Irish republic in Northern Ireland in the previous century (being that both circumstances resulted from conjectures of centuries of quarrels and deeply rooted rivalry). On this note, Jack voiced his pining for the resolution of this conflict through discussion and diplomacy- discrediting the use of armed force as a long-term fix by mentioning past failures of that brute method such as Saudi Arabia in Yemen or even the US in Vietnam- “[They] still can't beat them(…) because people will always stand up to their own beliefs.”.
When questioned on the reason for choosing music as his favorite way to advocate, this was Healey´s response: “There's the aspiration of human rights and the debasement of human rights.” Healey praised the first, saying that “oftentimes human rights groups feel the need to report on the debasement. Not many of them deal with the aspiration of it. I did music because I believed we should be aspirational, as well as looking at the data because the data will depress the hell out of you.”
How Jack actually got into running concerts is a whole story itself… Jack’s friend had an extra ticket and invited him to a concert where U2 was performing. This was Jack’s first concert, and U2 weren’t that well known at the time, but according to Jack, after seeing them perform, it “was obvious they were going to be a very big band. I didn't know much about music at all, but I thought- this is my band.” His activist spirit took the best of him, he thought “I can talk to Irish guys into anything, I can work with them.”. So that's what he did. Jack went to meet the band, got the agreement with U2, and was back in his cab after eight minutes. “I had an agreement for them to play anywhere in the world for two weeks.”.- That was the start of Jack’s world tours for Human Rights.
As our time with Jack was ending, we teased him with one massive question in the search of closing on a striking piece of advice- like you would when romanticizing your presence in the world by painting people as mentors and their casual words as mottos...
“Jack, how do you find what's right for you, where your help is better fitted in the sea of movements and organizations and initiatives we are flooded by? How do you not drown?”
“That's a good question...- Jack reflected before bursting into laughter- I think the one thing I need to tell you is that- almost every job I ever had they wanted to fire me (…) They wanted to get rid of me in no time because when you bring change, you are a threat (…)”, Jack would go on to speak of the period after he left priesthood when he felt completely lost “I had to sit in a tub of warm water just to...feel better.”
There was really no other way to describe the success of this transition from one job to the next - as national leader of a project for hunger in which he raised 15 million dollars- except, for a matter of luck. “The guy that was supposed to take the job didn't show up.” Healey bridged to consolidate that the one thing people can control and could potentially influence the course of anything, was to show up. Go there. Be there. This was the mentality that allowed Jack Healey to be one of the few people today that was physically able to witness Martin Luther King’s mesmerizing speech, I have a dream.
“My life looks organized, but it isn’t...” - Jack chuckled before sportingly making the lifelong invitation to lunch with him if we happened to be in Washington.