Choate 50th Reunion

On May 3, 2011 Jonathan Fanton reflected upon his career experiences and political development at a reunion with fellow Choate classmates. 

Dave has opened a window on a fascinating chapter of his career, all illustration of how talented people give back through public service.

Another way many us have helped others is through our volunteer work, in our local communities, for schools and colleges and sometimes through organizations that address poverty and injustice all over the world.

I want to talk with you for a few minutes about my 30 year association with Human Rights Watch.  In a moment I will show you a short video.

Who I am was very much shaped by my years at Choate.  My family settled in Weston, Connecticut in the 1600’s and never left, indeed my 95 year old father lives within a 5 minutes drive of the of the family farm.  So I came to Choate as a provincial from a very Republican family.  But my horizons broadened here with great teachers like Herb Coursen, Gordon Stillman, Alan Low, Owen Morgan, not to mention, forces of nature like E. Stanley Pratt, Paul Julio and Pauline Anderson.

It was here I came to saw the first televised Presidential debate in Fred and Marion Thompson’s Long House living room.  And, found myself drawn to Choate’s own Jack Kennedy.  I was inspired by Adlai Stevenson’s model of public service and completely won over by his friend, Eleanor Roosevelt when she spoke here.  She invited members of the Choate History Club to visit her cottage in Hyde Park.  I can still remember the conversation about the U.S. obligation to promote human rights worldwide.  I trace my lifelong involvement in human rights to that conversation and to Eleanor Roosevelt.

My world view was shaped at Choate, by conversations with classmates, exposure to public figures and by the sessions in daily chapel.  Values like fairness, integrity, a responsibility to help others, an obligation to make a difference with privileges of a Choate education became animating forces in my life thanks to Choate.

I have tried to live by those values in my work at Yale, The University of Chicago, as President of the New School and the MacArthur Foundation.  But I have to say the most rewarding work I have done has been as a volunteer at Human Rights Watch.  My work at the New School brought me in contact with dissident scholars in Eastern and Central Europe in the 1980’s, scholars who were also leaders of local human rights movements.  To help them I joined a new organization called Human Rights Watch and gradually took on responsibility for its work in that region and the Soviet Union.

Some of the most memorable experiences of my life came from that work — being present at the start of the Velvet revolution in Prague’s Wenceslas Square, bearing witness to the overthrow of the Ceausescu regime in Romania, marching into Slobodan Milosevic’s office with evidence of war crimes, which ultimately brought him to an international tribunal, visiting each of the Baltic countries in February 1991 to investigate the Soviet crackdown.  It was in Tallinn, Estonia on a cold early February day that I reached the conclusion that the Soviet Union was finished.  You recall the challenges to the Soviet Union began in The Balkans and I could feel the sense of movement for change as I walked around the streets of Tallinn’s old town.

In those days Human Rights Watch was small, focused mainly on Europe and Latin America.  Later I had the privilege of serving as Chair during a period of rapid expansion.  Here is a short video on Human Rights Watch today.


In our lifetime we have seen the U.N. Declaration of Human Rights – which Eleanor Roosevelt fought for – take on real meaning.

Human Rights Watch along with Amnesty, Physicians for Human Rights is joined by thousands of local human rights organizations around the world fighting discrimination, police abuse and for freedom of speech and the press.  And a robust system of international justice, anchored by the new ICC, in moving the world from an era of impunity to an age of accountability.

My modest contribution to this profound change comes mainly through my volunteer work.  As we approach a new phase in our lives where we will have more time, I think it is important to increase rather than diminish our volunteer work.  So recently I have joined the Coalition to Support the ICC, became Chair of HRW’s Africa Division and just last month agreed to Chair the Scholars at Risk Network rescuing dissident Scholars from all over the world.

Let me stop here and give the floor over for a conversation about my talk and your own experiences.