USHRN was formed in 2003 after a series of meetings involving more than sixty of the most prominent and influential human rights and social justice activists in the United States. A key gathering, the U.S. Human Rights Leadership Summit "Ending Exceptionalism: Strengthening Human Rights in the United States," held July 12-14, 2002 at Howard University Law School, brought together leading activists from a variety of different disciplines and issue areas to assess human rights work in the United States and identify ways to strengthen the domestic human rights agenda. The Summit broke new ground, fostering dialogue and strategic thinking across issue areas as well as sectors of work. It was the first time that many of these visionary activists had come together to discuss an emerging U.S. human rights movement. The Summit generated tremendous energy and excitement.
Summit participants agreed that a “network” would be the most useful way to enable a broad array of organizations and individuals to work collaboratively to strengthen human rights efforts in the United States, thus the genesis of the US Human Rights Network.
During those initial meetings, a consensus emerged that a new model for US-based human rights advocacy was needed in order to achieve full U.S. compliance with universal human rights standards. This new model would be “people-centered” - informed by and responding to the needs, aspirations and perspective of the communities and groups directly impacted by human rights violations. It would seek to raise awareness of the human rights frame within the broader social justice movement, to create linkages between human rights and social justice organizations, and to facilitate sharing of information and resources among a broader network of activists.
Four national gatherings and more than thirty regional, state and local gatherings have been held since USHRN's inception, mobilizing thousands of human rights activists around the country.