by Bonnie Mager, OLLI member

Some people are born with exceptional abilities in math, or music, or painting. Rita Maran was born with an exceptional empathy for the human condition, human rights, and freedom.

Born on West Avenue in Manhattan, a neighborhood of second-generation Jewish families, she grew up with a feeling of responsibility for her world. During the days of World War II, she was fearful and acutely aware of the danger and deprivations of those involved in the struggle in Europe. She handed out leaflets, sold war bonds, and did volunteer work for Russian relief as a young teenager while her friends were going on dates.

Her three years at Hunter College High School were what she considers her most challenging and inspirational academic experience. "They just expected the best of us." After high school she moved quickly through the New York City College system and finished in three years with a B.A. in Romance languages. She also continued working for peace, involving herself with groups labeled by some as communists. As she explains it, she was never interested in the political side of that movement, but in the ideals of individual freedom and international human rights.

Just out of college, she plunged into marriage and, soon after, motherhood--raising her son and daughter in Manhattan. She became involved in the art world in New York and worked for a major gallery for many years. In the late 1960s, the family moved to London for her husband’s career. She found work as a private art dealer but soon came to dislike the atmosphere and commercialism of that world.

Her passion, however, remained the international peace movement. She worked for a campaign for war resisters, a group active in both England and Western Europe, and for the International Fellowship of Reconciliation, a Quaker-sponsored group. Her experience with these organizations drove her back to school in pursuit of greater understanding of human rights and the threats to peace and freedom. She found the approach she was looking for at the London School of Economics focused on non-violence as theory and in application. She was hooked.

In the early1980s, Rita came to a crossroad in her life. She was being considered for a job with Amnesty International and decided that if it was offered to her she would stay in England forever. If not, she would try living in the U.S. again. Thus, she found her way to a strange and unknown land called Berkeley, California.

Needing an income and health insurance, she secured a job at the law school at Berkeley, where she made contacts and many friends including Frank Newman, an eminent law professor and who later became a judge. Her experience there encouraged her to apply to the Ph.D. program at UC Santa Cruz in International Human Rights. The program at UCSC proved to be a good fit, as it emphasized individual human rights and international rule of law. During the five years of her Ph.D. studies, she continued to work for Dr. Newman at the law school in Berkeley.

Her achievements include a Senior Fulbright Scholarship to teach at the University of Indonesia in Jakarta. She worked as a human rights analyst for the State Department and the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) in Bosnia and Kosovo. She also helped to begin a non-government organization concerned with human rights which continues its efforts today. Rita is the author of the book Torture: the Role of Ideology in the French-Algerian War.

She taught at UC Berkeley for fourteen years, and the University of San Francisco also invited her to teach. To her delight, her daughter lives nearby. She has four grandchildren and a great-grandchild.

OLLI has involved her in this semester’s course on Corporate Personhood, a concept initiated by a Supreme Court decision in January, which many find offensive and threatening. Rita and UC Berkeley professor Richard Abrams have coordinated a panel of six speakers, a different speaker each week to examine this issue from the perspectives of history, law, economics, and politics. As a sort of mistress of ceremonies, Rita would like to encourage expressions of dissenting views. As she says, "We must find a place for honest dissent and civility."

Rita Maran--whose age was not discussed--is clearly speaking from the perspective of a long and challenging life, guided by her single-minded purpose that as long as we know there is injustice in the world, we must do something about it. She loves Berkeley, especially for its importance as a center of thinking, a place where many views from many incredible people can come together.