Q: How did Oak change under your leadership?
A: Mostly we expanded. Originally, Oak had a singular mission: It brought a human rights activist to campus every fall, giving them a chance to take a breather from the front lines of activism. The activist led a seminar, and Oak scheduled programs to educate the community about the activist’s work.
Q: Which Oak still does.
A: Yes. But now we do a lot more. For example, we created a research arm that investigates a variety of human rights issues. In fall 2011, I supervised six Colby students conducting research on different socially marginalized groups around the world. And in January 2018, we sent four students to Fordham University in New York City, where they carried out research with faculty at the Institute of International Humanitarian Affairs. We offer a seminar in the spring to create what I call a “community of learners” – faculty, staff, and students dedicated to acquiring more knowledge about the next Oak Fellow and their work.
Q: And there are more students involved in all of this?
A: Absolutely. We now have a very active Oak Student Committee. Members of OSC design and execute a program of activities in the spring. And we provide summer grants to students to carry out internships at human rights organizations around the world. Oak is now a more vibrant and prominent program on campus. We are better known, at Colby, in Maine, across the country, around the world.
Q: What’s the evidence of this new visibility?
A: Some of it is physical: We now have a permanent exhibit in the Diamond Building that includes a world map that some view as “upside down” with the Global South on top. We have new signage pointing visitors to our small office complex in Diamond, where one can find our one and only full-time staffer, Assistant Director Lindsey Cotter-Hayes, who was hired in February 2017. But the evidence is also more subtle: Admissions tells us that more and more students are applying to Colby indicating that they would like to work with Oak to promote human rights. We are flooded with queries from new students.
Q: What other changes did you make to the content of your programming?
A: Well, there has been one big change: We now devote a substantial part of our programming to human rights problems in the U.S. To reflect this, we changed the name of the program from “Oak Institute for the Study of International Human Rights” to simply “Oak Institute for Human Rights.” Which is more accurate now.
Q: Why did you decide to include domestic issues?
A: For a very good reason, I think. One of the perils of doing human rights work in the United States or Europe is that it too often reinforces the misimpression that human rights problems only happen in the Global South. This ignores basic facts, such as that the U.S. incarcerates way more people, especially people of color, than any other country on earth. In the West, we don’t want to acknowledge such facts because they undermine our self-image as “white saviors.” As Kenyan-American legal scholar Makau Mutua reminds us, the Western approach to human rights is built on a triad of memes. There is a “victim” of abuse, almost always an individual in the Global South; a “savage” society or government that carries out such abuse; and a “white savior” in the Global North who must rescue the victim from the savage. I have tried very hard to get Colby students to understand that our Oak work is not about “rescuing” anyone, especially not “victims of savagery” in the Global South. It is about making the world a more just and decent place.
Q: So what has Oak done to challenge the misimpression you just described? Can you provide examples?
A: Sure. Several years ago, our Oak Fellow was a Zimbabwean activist who had been detained and tortured by Mugabe’s security forces. To complement her analysis of incarceration, we brought to campus the former chaplain of the Maine State Prison to talk about the human rights of prisoners in our own state. Likewise, we had an Oak Fellow who was a Dalit (untouchable) from India. To complement her analysis of poverty, we brought to campus the leader of a homeless organization in Portland. I also should note that the Oak Student Committee, with my encouragement as Oak director, has mobilized against human rights problems on the Colby campus, not just in places like Uganda and Myanmar. Oak students, for example, have highlighted problems of sexual misconduct on campus.
Q: What about the core mission of Oak to provide respite to human rights activists? Has that changed?
A: Not significantly. We still provide four months in bucolic Maine to a burned-out or endangered activist from outside the U.S. Our criteria for selection have changed a little, though. We no longer put as much emphasis on the “risk” that activists face in their own countries. For some of us in the selection process, this created an ethical dilemma in which we found ourselves asking, “Has this person been tortured enough to be our Oak Fellow?” Or bizarre questions like that. We now look more at the all-around profile of each candidate: What contributions have they made in their home country? What have they gone through? What could they accomplish here? This new approach resulted in our choice of a Canadian (a member of the Global North!) as our 2015 Fellow.
Q: Do you have any regrets?
A: Maybe two. Although I am proud of all the new student interest in Oak, I wish I could have cultivated more faculty interest in the organization. We did get eight members of the faculty to participate in this spring’s Oak reading group on “war and human rights,” but most of them did not show up every week. Colby professors are just overwhelmed with teaching, advising, and service responsibilities. My other regret has to do with the lack of gender diversity on Oak. We have managed to get a much larger number of students of color interested in our organization, but still have not generated much interest among male students.
Q: Why is that?
A: I honestly don’t know. In my 16 years at Colby, I have noticed that young men do not participate as much in campus activism. They join the ranks of student government, but not the Oak Institute for Human Rights. We have only one male on the 22-member Oak Student Committee.