The World is Worth the Toil
November 30, 2004
The modest law office in the ancient city of Sanaa was crowded with Yemenis, many of whom had traveled a full day to meet with delegates from Amnesty International. With the help of an interpreter, Susan Waltz, '73, had been speaking with an aging woman whose eyes stared out from behind a full, black veil. Those eyes had become deep buckets of emotion, let down into the well of turmoil and angst. As the camera crew from the Saudi television station watched, they knew something special was happening. Across space and across culture, the two women shared an understanding of pain. Susan had come to Yemen with two Amnesty International staff members to investigate the disappearance of 200 men who were arrested but never charged with any crime. Earlier in the day she had met with diplomats and high-level government officials. Now she was meeting families of the human rights victims.
The Yemeni mother had responded to a call by local lawyers and had come, in some desperation, to see if someone could help establish the whereabouts of her son, the family's sole breadwinner. Though language remained a barrier, communication was clear. Susan's own eyes welled with tears as she clasped the black-gloved hand of the Yemeni mother. This was not the first time she had shared tears with such a mother in some other part of the world. But each time is special. Susan believes that everyone matters, everyone merits justice, and everyone deserves respect. Susan has worked to protect and promote human rights for almost 30 years, and she was the first American to chair the international governing board of Amnesty International.
Susan Waltz is professor of international relations and public policy at the Gerald R. Ford School of Public Policy, University of Michigan. "I deeply believe that there is a divine light within every person," she says, a belief that she has adopted from her association with Quaker faith. "This belief motivates me to call forth "that of God" in people I meet. This conviction is also why I believe in fundamental human equality, the idea that no one of us is worth any more, or any less, than any other." Since her half-time appointment with the University of Michigan obligates her to only teach during the fall semester, she has the ability to work on various projects of international concern during the other times of the year. Due to this arrangement, Susan is able to continue her work with Amnesty International.
She currently chairs a five-person committee that seeks to alleviate human rights abuses associated with the weapons trade. She spent last winter in Egypt, teaching at Cairo University under the aegis of a Fulbright grant. Next summer she will lead American social studies teachers on a Fulbright study tour to Morocco. And she has just agreed to chair the committee that oversees international programs and humanitarian assistance programs sponsored by the American Friends (Quaker) Service Committee, on whose national board she has served since 2000.
"In the '70s, I was driven by the hope that I could help build a better world," she says, "and I saw amazing things happen. I saw prison doors literally fling open in Morocco, and I felt my human rights work contributed to that. But I have also been disappointed many times, as with Rwanda and Yugoslavia. The promise of human rights and the assurance of 'never again' are repeatedly betrayed. Today the way I make sense of my actions is to remember the words of Jesus, who admonished us to take in the strangers and visit those in prison, reminding us that 'inasmuch as you have done it to one of the least of these, you have done it unto me.' My motivation is no longer to change the world, but to live out a testimony. It is so easy for us as Americans, on this huge island, to pay attention only to ourselves, our language, our needs, our security," she says. "For the generation coming into adulthood, I hope they open their minds, prepare themselves to listen, and exemplify humility rather than arrogance."
A maturity runs through Susan's voice, one that has taken her idealism into a problematic world and has wrestled down cynicism. Despite her more skeptic outlook of today, she still believes that the world is worth toiling within. She says that it was at OBU that she began to think about her faith, about the world, and about her relationship to both. She credits many of the professors at OBU for providing a place where she could ask questions and experience the world, as she and her roommate, Kay Wolf, journeyed to Paris for their junior year and made the readjustments upon return. This coming spring Susan and Kay plan to travel the pilgrimage route through northern Spain, honoring a pledge they made while at OBU, to "share an adventure when they were 50."
Susan and her husband, Jack Smith, live on the edge of the Red Cedar River in mid-Michigan, in a house that dates back to 1890.