The Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights Ripple of Hope Award ceremony on Thursday honored Dr. Anthony Fauci, Colin Kaepernick and others

By Virginia Chamlee and Sean Neumann
December 11, 2020 04:40 PM
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Kerry Kennedy and Ethel Kennedy
Kerry Kennedy (left) and Ethel Kennedy
| Credit: Robert F. Kennedy Ripple Of Hope Award Gala/Getty Images for Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights

Amid a time of contentious politics and tremendous loss due to the ongoing novel coronavirus pandemic, human courage endures and is worth celebrating — in fact, says Kerry Kennedy, acknowledging those making change and making hope is more important than ever.

As the daughter of Ethel Kennedy and the late Sen. Robert F. Kennedy explains to PEOPLE, honoring those making a difference demonstrates that change is possible with "just one person."

And that one person can create a ripple for countless others.

Held Thursday, the Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights 2020 Ripple of Hope Award ceremony honored five civic and business leaders who, according to a press release, exhibited courage in their "pursuit of racial and economic equality, social justice, and civil rights."

In an interview the morning after the event, held remotely out of coronavirus precautions, Kerry, 61, says she was "elated" at the gala's success.

"I felt like it was a revival — a much-needed revival meeting after the struggles that all of us have had in 2020," she says.

The annual awards are named for the 1966 speech delivered by Kerry's father in apartheid-era South Africa, in which the then-senator outlined the rights and freedoms he believed all people should be granted.

"Each time a man stands up for an ideal, or acts to improve the lot of others, or strikes out against injustice, he sends forth a tiny ripple of hope, and crossing each other from a million different centers of energy and daring those ripples build a current which can sweep down the mightiest walls of oppression and resistance," the former New York senator and 64th attorney general said in the speech.

Now in its 52nd year, the Ripple of Hope Awards were given at Thursday night's virtual gala featuring appearances by comedian Keegan-Michael Key, former Secretary of State John Kerry, CNN's Van Jones and others.

The five laureates this year were Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases and the leading voice for coronavirus prevention; activist and former NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick; co-founder of United Farm Workers of America Dolores Huerta; Payal CEO Dan Schulman; and DocuSign CEO Dan Springer.

Keegan-Michael Key
Keegan-Michael Key at the 2020 Ripple of Hope Award ceremony
| Credit: 2020 Robert F. Kennedy Ripple Of Hope Award Gala/Getty Images for Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights

All of those on hand at the awards noted the effect of the late Sen. Kennedy on their lives and careers. During a montage shown at the gala, President-elect Joe Biden could be heard noting that the late politician was one of his greatest heroes.

Kerry, who runs the human rights organization that bears her dad's name, tells PEOPLE that he could connect with others due, in large part, to his ability to empathize.

"I think the most important thing about him is his moral imagination," Kerry says of her father, who was assassinated in 1968 during his campaign for president. "It was his capacity to understand — and really understand — where people he was talking to were coming from, and to find common ground."

That ability to speak to people from all walks of life was on full display in his 1968 speech on the death of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., improvised just hours after the activist's death and delivered two months before he would be assassinated himself.

"When daddy was speaking to an all-Black audience in Indianapolis ... and telling them that their leader had been killed, he was able to speak his truth from his heart — to know what it’s like to have somebody from your family killed," Kerry says. "He was able to do that not because he had beautiful words, although he did, but also because he had worked in the Black community for the last five years and had been in the trenches. People knew him and understood he was on their side."

She continues: "I think that kind of beautiful caring ... appealed to the best in all of us. It's what makes him such an enduring figure."

As Kerry notes, the Kennedys are well-acquainted with loss, including the infamous assassinations of Robert and John F. Kennedy, five years apart.

There have been more recent deaths, including the 2019 accidental overdose of Kerry's 22-year-old niece, Saoirse Kennedy Hill, and the April 2020 drowning of another niece, Maeve McKean, along with McKean's 8-year-old son, Gideon.

Reflecting on the past year and the heartbreak endured by so many as the coronavirus spread around the world, Kerry says she has spent time ruminating on something she heard in the wake of the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill.

"We were in a community meeting in a small town in the Gulf, and this woman got up and she said, 'You know, they say we’re resilient, we always bounce back. Well I just want you to know that bouncing hurts,' " Kerry remembers. "I love that. It’s so honest — bouncing hurts. I think we just need to be attuned to that."

Despite the logistical challenges posed by a pandemic, Kerry says that the creativity required of organizing a remote event allowed her to connect with family both near and far.

"[Ethel] is at point in her life where she gets to just enjoy it and not worry about all the details," Kerry says of her 92-year-old mother."But my girls, my brothers, my cousins, my nieces and nephews — this is a full effort."  

And while the virus made the planning much different than in years past, the setup allowed it to be just as special.

Guests who simply wanted to view the gala live could do so for a $100 contribution. But those who purchased virtual "tables" for the event were able to watch, remotely, with 10 friends and a special guest.

"So you could text to each other during the event and once it ended, you and your friends got to actually speak to the special guest for thirty minutes," Kerry says.

One group's special guest, Keegan-Michael Key, wound up singing a a rendition of the Beatles' "Let It Be," while another watched remotely as part of his "table" played the piano.

"It was just a great group of people who have achieved greatly in different walks in life coming together and giving of themselves," Kerry says.

dr. fauci
Dr. Anthony Fauci at the 2020 Ripple of Hope Award ceremony
| Credit: 2020 Robert F. Kennedy Ripple Of Hope Award Gala/Getty Images for Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights
Colin Kaepernick
Colin Kaepernick at the 2020 Ripple of Hope Award ceremon
| Credit: Robert F. Kennedy Ripple Of Hope Award Gala/Getty Images for Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights

While all of the honorees offered heartfelt speeches, Kerry said she was especially drawn to something Kaepernick said, which mirrored her father's own famous address all those years ago.

"I loved what Colin Kaepernick just kept coming back to ... the history of this generation will be written in ways [in which] each of us create change. It’s not just one person doing something dramatic at a certain point," she says. "It’s the small acts of courage and daring and service of all of us. I think that really captures what the night was about."

RFK Human Rights will air the awards ceremony in its entirety on Dec. 17 (7 p.m. ET) on Facebook. The encore presentation will be free and available to the public for viewing.