Putting human rights ideas into action
By Sarah Galer
Photo courtesy of Julia Coburn
The Human Rights Program encourages a very broad, interdisciplinary understanding of human rights.”
Many South African schoolchildren learn early on about the realities of HIV/AIDS, but Stephanie Bell, AB’08, was surprised to hear them use scientific terms like “seroconversion” and “CD4 counts” in casual conversations.
As Bell learned during her 2007 Human Rights Program internship, South Africans often use such jargon to navigate an otherwise taboo subject—a tactic adopted even by advertisers like Levi Strauss & Co. Yet Bell found that many government groups and academics were using the wrong terminology in formulating HIV education strategies.
“The qualitative and quantitative researchers were working toward the same goals but were incapable of fusing their insights. They appeared to speak different languages,” says Bell, who credits the internship with helping her develop ideas about advocacy and scholarship that led her to win a Rhodes scholarship. She will begin work on her M.Phil in Development Studies at Oxford University next fall.
Bell’s story illustrates the value of cultural insights in promoting human rights. That’s a hallmark of the Human Rights Program, which has pioneered the idea that the liberal arts can be a central part of human rights education. The program’s emphasis on interdisciplinary scholarship and hands-on engagement has made it a model among similar liberal arts programs across the nation. It also has shaped an impressive cadre of alumni, including four Rhodes scholars, two Truman scholars, and one Marshall scholar in the past five years alone.
“We like to call it theory-practice integration,” says Michael Geyer, the Samuel N. Harper Professor in History, a founding member and current director of the program’s 25-member faculty board. “This is an emergent model of a good undergraduate education that integrates academic and public-civic education without becoming vocational.”
The Human Rights Program was created in 1997 during a utopian moment for universal rights, as many formerly communist nations were opening their societies. It was also a time when human rights research was moving beyond pure legal scholarship, and many scholars thought educational practices should follow.
“There are all sorts of human rights problems that cannot necessarily be solved by court judgments or that need additional approaches,” says Susan Gzesh, Executive Director of the Human Rights Program.
“To deal with broad social practices like employment discrimination against women in the Ukraine, for example, you need the understanding of historians, anthropologists, scholars of religion, and philosophers to analyze the problem. Then you also need writers, filmmakers, and artists to address solutions that are not only about court orders but are about changing the ways people behave.”
More than 200 undergraduate and graduate students have participated in the program’s internships over the last 13 years, and more than 1,000 students have taken Human Rights courses. The College approved a Human Rights minor in Winter 2009. The first students to graduate with Human Rights minors included two degree recipients each from biology, the humanities, and social sciences. Among the four recent Rhodes Scholars, Bell was an anthropology major; Andrew Hammond, AB’07, and Andrew Kim, AB’04, concentrated in political science; and Nick Juravich, AB’06, focused on history.
“The Human Rights Program encourages a very broad, interdisciplinary understanding of human rights,” says Juravich, who took advantage of the program’s offerings. “It makes room for the humanities and sciences as well as law and politics, and understands that human rights abuses take place in Chicago as well as Darfur.”
The day Juravich arrived in Johannesburg on his human rights internship, he was told that he would be spending his 10 weeks tracking forced evictions all over Africa—not just South Africa, as he had thought.
“I was starting at square one,” says Juravich, who was a rising third-year at the time. “I actually Googled ’forced evictions Africa,’ if memory serves, but I learned as I went. A month later I could tell you about almost every major refugee or internal displacement situation in Africa, as well as the smaller incidences of forced eviction taking place in almost all 52 countries.”
Through donations from alumni and other University units, the Human Rights Program annually funds 25-30 internship placements around the world to expose students to the inherent difficulties in putting human rights into practice. They have worked with organizations from Los Angeles to Spain and Nigeria to Pakistan, and pursued issues from AIDS to women’s rights and poverty to refugee issues.
Juravich’s internship was a bit off the beaten track for a scholar of American history who had never left North America. Yet he credits the experience with helping push the boundaries of his academic scholarship.
“It introduced me to the value of transnational, interdisciplinary study and the ability of this kind of thinking to shed new light on old questions,” says Juravich, who now works for the New York Road Runners, helping youth combat obesity and related illnesses through health and fitness education. He completed his Rhodes-funded M.Phil in Economic and Social History at Oxford.
Helping students bridge the theory-practice divide has garnered attention for the Human Rights Program among peer programs and from scholarship funds like the Rhodes.
“The Rhodes has always looked for someone who can articulate a vision, be it a vision for the life of the mind or a vision for society,” says Mary Daniels, Senior Adviser for Scholarships and Fellowships in the College. “The Human Rights Program gives our students a platform to explore and articulate what their visions might be.”