Manchester University
Oak Leaves

November 8, 2019

Prendergast Addresses Students about Human Rights Work

Chloe Leckrone


John Prendergast, a human rights activist who has worked with celebrities like George Clooney, Angelina Jolie and Ryan Gosling, held a VIA titled “10 Building Blocks for Making a Difference in the World and in Your Neighborhood” on Tuesday, Oct. 29, to talk about the work he has done in multiple African countries, including Sudan, Mali and the Congo.

Prendergast is the founder of the Enough Project, an organization that fights against genocide and crimes against humanity, as well as The Sentry, an organization that “follows the dirty money connected to African war criminals and transnational war profiteers and seeks to shut those benefiting from violence out of the international financial system,” according to the official Sentry website. Prendergast co-founded The Sentry with actor George Clooney.

Before the VIA began at 3:30 p.m., Prendergast roamed around Cordier Auditorium, shaking hands and holding friendly conversations with students. He then began his speech by talking about one of his first memories at Manchester. The first time Prendergast visited campus, he met a young man, a peace studies major, who had broken the Guiness World Record at the time for the most weight benchpressed.

When Prendergast asked the student how he had done it, the student replied that he “worked hard and put his mind to it.” That idea was the central theme of Prendergast’s speech.

Prendergast told the audience 10 stories from throughout his long and tumultuous career and shared 10 things he learned along the way. His first story was about how he first got involved with human rights work. When he was a college student in Philadelphia, he saw a show or commercial (to this day he still doesn’t know what it was) about a famine in Ethiopia. Prendergast immediately felt called to action, saying, “I thought, ‘Why can’t the most powerful country in the world make a difference somehow?’”

He tried to book a trip to Ethiopia, but was denied, and proceeded to be denied by two other countries. Eventually, he got into Mali and began his career as a human rights activist.

Throughout the hour he shared many more stories and lessons learned, including how being a participant in the blood diamond movement in South Africa, a student-led movement that altered the fate of three African countries, helped him understand people power and the influence of mass protests. He went on to explain that people power can be used for a wide range of campaigns, including environmental, LGBT, civil rights, and women’s issues. “People power isn’t always the answer to everything, but it is an incredibly potent force,” Prendergast said.

Prendergast’s speech left students, particularly those in peace studies, feeling motivated. “I thought it was inspirational to see where he started and the change he has been able to make,” said Kendall Brown, sophomore peace studies and Spanish major.

The unique style of Prendergast’s speech left an impression on Virginia Rendler, senior peace studies and philosophy major. "It was very interesting to see how he used the format of storytelling to engage with the audience, and I liked how he slipped some lessons in with his stories,” Rendler said. “We are fortunate at Manchester to have such amazing speakers and activists to campus for us to learn from.”

This was at least Prendergast’s third time visiting campus, and his second time as a VIA speaker. He also spoke at Commencement in 2017. Prendergast was brought to campus this time through the Peace Studies Institute. Caraline Feairheller, peace studies coordinator, was excited for students to hear his inspirational story.

“John is at the top of his field, and the story of how he got there is a unique one,” Feairheller said. “It’s important to uplift the different ways we can reach top positions in peace work because the ability to resolve conflict is a necessary skill no matter where you work and at what level.”