NEW YORK – Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights (RFKHR), an organization founded in 1968 by Robert Kennedy’s family and friends as a living memorial to carry forward his vision of a more just and peaceful world, presented its Ripple of Hope award to four international philanthropic leaders, including Marianna Vardinoyannis, Congressman John Lewis, Apple CEO Tim Cook, and investment banker Roger Altman on December 8.
Mainstream media and 700 people, stalwarts of the progressive community in New York, filled the Grand Ballroom of the New York Hilton to celebrate Robert F. Kennedy and to honor those who, in the words of numerous speakers, mark his legacy with deeds, not just words.
Speakers and videos informed guests about RFKHR programs including The Speak Truth To Power curriculum developed by the organization that is taught to millions of students around the world. It is based on the Universal Declaration of Human Rights which has deeply inspired RFK Human Rights President Kerry Kennedy.
Her daughter, Michaela Kerry Cuomo, shined the spotlight on a group of people, called Defenders, who exemplify the human rights dream and who were at the gala.
Later, noted actors like Sam Waterston read dramatizations of the trials and tribulations of human rights fighters around the world and across the U.S.
Robert Smith, RFKHR’s Chair, served as Emcee, and the well-planned event was spiced by Kerry Kennedy’s passion and humor, but the tone for the evening was set by the repeated invocations of two of Robert Kennedy’s speeches.
His 1966 speech in Cape Town, South Africa throwing down a gauntlet at apartheid and encouraging its opponents is the source of the title of the gala’s award: “Each time a man stands up for an ideal, or acts to improve the lot of others, or strikes out against injustice, he sends forth a tiny ripple of hope.”
Recent events around the world and in the U.S. have resurrected remarks of April 4, 1968, the night Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated, less than two months before his own murder:
“What we need in the United States is not division; what we need in the United States is not hatred; what we need in the United States is not violence and lawlessness, but is love, and wisdom, and compassion toward one another.”
Katherine Kennedy Townsend introduced Vardinoyannis and together with her mother, Ethel Kennedy, who sat at the head of the dais, presented the award to Vardinoyannis.
The honoree’s work and words are reminders that only the efforts of today’s adults can guarantee good futures for children, but the very children assisted by groups like RFKHR and the ELPIDA association created by Vardinoyannis inspire people to take action and make sacrifices.
That is why Vardinoyannis said that in addition to her family and her husband, Vardis, “I also wish to dedicate [the award] to the children suffering from cancer…being so close to them for 25 years through they have become a unique source of inspiration and determination to me through their unbelievable courage and strength. They are symbols of hope while they are battling for life.”
Turning to the special goals of RFKHR, she added, “They become symbols of a world that we dream of, a world of equal chances for all and of the right to live in dignity.”
Joining Vardinoyannis on the dais was Archbishop Demetrios. Nearby were seated friends including Greek UN Ambassador Catherine Bouras and TNH Publisher-Editor Antonis H. Diamataris and his wife Litsa.
When she arrived at the podium, she said “I feel humbled and deeply touched to receive this special award tonight…First of all, allow me to thank the founder…my dear friend, Ethel Kennedy, who has always been a role model for me…and Kerry Kennedy, for this inspiring award and for our continuous co-operation all these years.”
Vardinoyannis acknowledged that “It is a real challenge, under these difficult international circumstances, not only to focus on the leaders who fight for justice and democracy, but also to educate the new generations to recognize them and appreciate the values they stand for… Thank you, my dear Kerry, for keeping our hopes alive…I am completely sure that a better world for our children will rise one day! A world where we can leave our trace of peace and solidarity” she said.
Declaring that “The honor I feel today becomes even greater, as I stand among three great humanists: The Honorable John Lewis, Τim Cook and Roger Altman,” she said “I treasure this special award as one of the most important and touching moments of my life.”
Altman, who served as Deputy Treasury Secretary under President Bill Clinton and is Founder & Executive Chairman of the investment bank Evercore Partners, called Vardinoyannis a symbol of humanitarianism.
He is active in numerous philanthropic ventures, especially in the poverty-stricken South Bronx, and he reminded that even in America, citing the recent police shootings, the struggle for human rights continues.
Congressman Lewis held the audience spellbound with his passionate words about human rights and his memories of Robert Kennedy and Dr. King. According to his congressional biography “By 1963, he was dubbed one of the Big Six leaders of the Civil Rights Movement. At the age of 23, he was an architect of and a keynote speaker at the historic March on Washington in August 1963.”
Cook was honored for championing two causes, LBGT rights – he is the only openly gay Fortune 500 CEO – and corporate responsibility, including charitable giving. Challenged by an Apple shareholder about it, Cook boldly responded that he could sell his shares and invest elsewhere, but it is RFKHR’s position that companies that protect human and workers’ rights are more profitable in the long run.
Guests were touched by a striking photo of Robert Kennedy standing before the Parthenon graced by his quote: “only humanity and love can climb the hill of the Acropolis.”
The Hellenes and the audience were aslo moved by references to Robert Kennedy calling Aeschylus his favorite poet, making it clear that he faced the unique and terrible challenges in his life armed with two powerful forces, his Catholic faith, and the wisdom of ancient Greek philosophy.