This week, 400 delegates from all over the world will meet in Geneva, Switzerland to talk about ways minorities can get more involved in the political process in their countries.
Rep. Barbara Lee (D-Ca.), the head of the Congressional Black Caucus, will chair the conference.
"I am extremely honored," said Lee, who spoke with BET.com Friday afternoon. "I look forward to working in this capacity to promote dialogue and cooperation."
Our conversation also broke into Lee’s busy schedule that included a rally for health care reform and more politicking that helped the Democrats pass the House version of the health care bill this weekend.
What’s the goal of the forum in Geneva?
The forum is sponsored by the Human Rights Council. The mandate is to provide a platform for minorities who belong to linguistic, cultural, national, religious or ethnic minorities. It’s also to learn best practices and see what other countries have done that works and can be replicated. The head of the Human Rights Council asked me to be the chair.
How do you hope to use what you learn at the conference to impact the political process here?
I think what’s important is for me to be able to talk to minority groups here about getting connected to some of the movements across the world. The world is getting much smaller and we’ll have to work with others from across the world. We can share what we’ve done wrong and what we’ve done right. We can share creative ideas about organizing with Afro-Europeans or minorities in Brazil. I think I can learn a lot about Blacks in Great Britain, for example, where I lived in 1964 and 1965. We can see what they’re doing right and effectively and share that information with groups like the NAACP and Urban League.
Considering this will be a pretty diverse group, what do you think is one challenge the delegates will have in common – something everyone at the conference will be able to relate to?
That’s what we will be seeking: What is universal about freedom of speech? What are the universal principles of human rights and Democratic rights and how can we apply them to the political process? We will look at how the media influence the role of minorities in the political process. And we will leave with an action plan.
What unique insights do you think American minorities can share with minorities from other parts of the world to help negotiate some of the political challenges they are facing?
I’m going with Mike Honda, who is Japanese-American and chairman of the Asian Pacific American Caucus. As a child, he lived in an internment camp in Colorado. My ancestors were slaves. I can share the history of struggle - of the Middle Passage, slavery, Jim Crow segregation. We’ve come so far but it took work and movements of people pushing for justice. By no means have we completed the business. Segregation has ended, but we just faced a foreclosure crisis as a result of a campaign that specifically targeted African Americans with bad mortgages. We have high incarceration, health disparities. While the unemployment rate for the country is around 10 percent, for African Americans it’s about 20 percent.
On to a different topic: Health care is down to the wire. Are you confident you’ll get the 218 votes you need to pass it in the House?
We’re working hard.