Dr. Ellen Narotzky Kennedy received the 2023 Distinguished Alumni Award from Northern Michigan University, Marquette, Michigan, on Sept. 15.
Education and social justice have been closely intertwined throughout most of her adult life.
The Ishpeming, Mich. native holds six degrees: a bachelor of arts from the University of Michigan; two masters' degrees from Northern Michigan University; and a master's and two doctorates from the University of Minnesota.
Kennedy spent more than 30 years as a professor at Minnesota universities, and she also taught at institutions in China, Ukraine, Australia, Israel, Poland, the UK, Costa Rica and India.
She received many awards for her extensive academic research and for campus programs she administered, but her work took an unusual turn in 2005.
That year, Kennedy traveled to post-genocide Rwanda. She met a young woman who was orphaned at age 14, her family among nearly a million people who had perished during the 1994 genocide. The experience impacted Kennedy deeply, and she shared it at one of her classes, prompting a student to ask, “What are we going to DO about this?”
Kennedy's response was to found World Without Genocide. Originally begun with a dedicated and gifted group of students more than 18 years ago, the nonprofit organization is currently headquartered at Mitchell Hamline School of Law in St. Paul, Minn. The mission of World Without Genocide is advocacy at local, state and national levels for policies and legislation to protect innocent people, prevent genocide by combating racism and prejudice, prosecute perpetrators and remember those whose lives and cultures have been affected by violence. Education is a core component.
“Knowledge is not power; knowledge plus action equals power,” Kennedy said. “We focus on giving people background on human rights issues and then engage them in simple steps for their own communities that will impact the big picture.”
As an example, Kennedy said addressing sexual violence against women on a global scale—such as during mass atrocities in foreign countries, where women and girls are targeted and attacked—might prove too overwhelming for some Americans to comprehend. But if she relays that one woman is raped every nine seconds in the U.S., that there were 400,000 untested rape kits in the country a few years ago, and then talks about assaults and trafficking at the community level, the topic is likely to hit closer to home and motivate people to take action.
Kennedy has published more than 100 op-eds and has spoken in most U.S. states and in eight countries about human rights issues. She is a representative to the United Nations Department of Global Communications.
World Without Genocide offers webinars, fellowships and internships; extensive resources including documentary films, plays, a traveling exhibit and books on genocides and justice; and a speakers' bureau.
World Without Genocide received Special Consultative Status from the United Nations in 2022, which provides non-governmental organizations with “remarkable access” to high-level UN meetings on issues such as sustainable development, women's rights, and international justice.
“We are able to learn in a very immediate way about global affairs by participating in what is going on directly at the UN. It expands our reach, so when important human rights issues are being brought forward to the U.S. president and Congress, we're often asked to support those efforts as sponsors or co-sponsors of human rights initiatives at a global level.”
She continues her commitment to the classroom as an adjunct professor at Mitchell Hamline School of Law, where she teaches courses on transgender rights and on genocide prevention, and she supervises law student interns from schools in Canada, California and Minnesota.
Kennedy said she was “truly honored” to receive NMU's Distinguished Alumni Award during the university's Homecoming celebration.