Say Something: A Lesson From The Canadian Museum For Human Rights

The world hurts my soul right now.

I’ve had this post in draft form for more than two weeks and every time I think I’m done with it, another news item breaks my heart. Then people take to social media to find new and innovative ways to be hateful and cruel.

It’s too much. I feel helpless. I’ve tried to listen, to engage, to see the other side, but hatred won’t stop screaming and it never seems to stop to take a breath. It’s coming for my friends now, my neighbors, coming right at me.

I don’t know what to say to people who can’t imagine a life or reality different form their own, people who think that their comfort, opinions and rights are more important than anything and anyone else. I’ve bounced back and forth between rage and sadness and now I can feel myself slowly going numb. I want to quit trying to figure out what the hell happened to my country, my world and our collective sense of empathy and reason, curl up in a ball and give up.


I know I’m not alone in feeling this way. My friend Liz and I were in Winnipeg a few weeks ago, during the aftermath of the Philando Castile shooting in our home state, a tragedy that hit way too close to home. We were getting ready to leave for the Canadian Museum For Human Rights one morning and Liz just couldn’t stop scrolling through the news reports, the comments, the outpouring of grief, the vitriol.

“Just ignore it,” I said lamely as I grabbed my purse. Watching her feel helpless was making me feel helpless. And I do not deal with that well.

She shot me a look like, “Yeah, right.” Neither of us could ignore it, even if we tried. But we couldn’t figure out what we were supposed to be doing about it, either. “I think,” she said slowly, “That this museum is either going to be the best thing to do today or the worst thing.”

It turned out to be the best thing.


I know it seems counterintuitive, but going a museum that openly acknowledges all the horrifying things people have done to each other over the centuries is actually healing. It’s helpful to see it all on display, in living, bleeding color. It somehow feels right to acknowledge that hatred and confusion and discomfort exist, to say the painful things out loud, to wrestle with the ugliness, to dissect it.

This place isn’t about facts, figures or policy. It’s a museum that wants us to open ourselves up to each other’s experiences. It wants us to really hear their stories, to sit with them, to turn them over in our hands. There is a peaceful reflection garden of rock and placid pools of water built into the space because the curators knew that contemplation is as important as information.

This is a museum that wants to change the way we think about ourselves and each other. The architecture literally and symbolically moves us from darkness to light along pathways of alabaster, a stone associated with connection and spiritual healing.

We start in the shadowy, quiet recesses of the lower levels and walk or ride together (the museum is accessible to guests of all physical abilities and to hearing and visually impaired folks as well) up through increasingly light-filled exhibits until we’re all standing on the top floor, gazing down at the city of Winnipeg from a tower of windows.


Most of us won’t write an expose that topples a brutal regime. We won’t win a Nobel Peace Prize. We won’t save thousands of people from genocide or shield our neighbors from the death squads with our bodies. That’s okay. That’s not the point. We just have to do what we can. We just have to start with ourselves.

The cheerful volunteer who walked along with our tour told me that one of the museum’s goals was to encourage people to be “upstanders, not bystanders.” I asked what she meant. She said that so many movements start when someone stands up and says something when they see something that doesn’t feel right, even if they don’t really know what to do next. You just have to be present and speak up. You do what you can, with whatever resources you have available.

The Canadian Museum for Human Rights celebrates and encourages this impulse at every turn. For every movie-worthy story that inspires a display, there are exhibits that honor ordinary people, an artist whose work remembers the kidnapped and murdered indigenous women of Canada, school children who donned pink shirts to support a classmate who was being bullied, students who made an effort to understand peers who practiced other religions by playing sports or studying together.


This idea gives me hope. And now when I get overwhelmed, I look for the upstanders. They’re everywhere once you know what to look for.

A band uses its time on stage to publicly support science and their LGBTQ friends, despite a hostile audience. A man isn’t afraid to ruin the party by saying that a joke isn’t appropriate. A business puts a sign in its window saying people who practice any religion (or none at all) are welcome inside.

For every person that stands up, there are others who are watching and listening. Last week a woman I’ve never met became my hero when our mutual Facebook friend said he wanted to run over protestors blocking the road in Minnesota. I hovered over my keyboard in a rage, trying to figure out how someone I knew, someone I’d previously thought was reasonable, could possibly think it was okay to kill innocent people.

Before I could type a single word, a woman fired off a reply. She didn’t wait until her timing was perfect or her logic was polished. She simply told him this was a hateful thing to say and if he believed that, then he was just as bad as the man who ran over all those people in France. She listened him attempt to justify his words, but she did not excuse him. She was firm and she did not back down. And eventually, he took the thread down.

Her comments disappeared too, but I saw them. I’ll remember them. And others will too. Tiny acts like that make a difference. She did what she could do, using what she had. She spoke up. She stood up.

If she can do it, we can too.

“Silence helps the oppressors.”
Leslie Meisels, Holocaust survivor


Canadian Museum For Human Rights
85 Israel Asper Way
Winnipeg, MB

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2 Replies to “Say Something: A Lesson From The Canadian Museum For Human Rights”

    1. It’s an amazing museum. I really recommend it. And it really did help improve our outlook on the world. Somehow just knowing that a team of people have made it their mission to stand up for human rights gives me so much hope.

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