The Oak Institute for Human Rights was established in 1997 by a generous grant from the Oak Foundation. Each year, it hosts an Oak Human Rights Fellow to teach and conduct research while residing at the College. The Institute organizes lectures and other events centered around the fellow’s area of expertise.

The purpose of the fellowship is to offer an opportunity for one prominent practitioner in international human rights to take a sabbatical leave from front-line work to spend the fall semester (September-December) in residence at Colby. This provides the Fellow time for respite, reflection, research, and writing. While all human rights practitioners are eligible, we especially encourage applications from those who are currently or were recently involved in “on-the-ground” work at some level of personal risk. Following the period of the fellowship, the fellow is expected to return home to continue her/his human rights work.


Mission Statement

The Oak Institute for Human Rights champions the struggles for dignity, freedom and justice for people throughout the world. It provides the opportunity for a front-line human rights activist operating in difficult or dangerous circumstances to come to Colby College every fall for respite and reflection. Oak strives to educate the campus and extended community about the work being done by our Fellow. It also encourages members of the community, especially students, to participate in research, internships, and activism on behalf of human rights.


History

Back in spring of 1997, college president Bill Cotter requested a large grant from the Oak Foundation in Geneva, Switzerland to permanently endow the Oak Institute for the Study of International Human Rights at Colby. He hoped this new initiative would complement another Oak-funded program — a Colby scholarship for international students whose families have been subjected to torture or other forms of political oppression. The centerpiece of the new program was to be a fellowship for a human rights practitioner who would lead a seminar on a particular human rights problem but otherwise enjoy an opportunity to relax and recharge in beautiful, autumnal New England, away from the stresses of their dangerous or difficult fieldwork.

Happily, the Oak Foundation approved the request, and the institute began operating almost immediately. Since 1998, when Oak selected its first fellow, it has bestowed that honor on 24 such activists — including Venuste Kubwimana, our Spring 2020 Fellow from Rwanda. Our past fellows have come from countries all over the world, including Morocco, Pakistan, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Colombia, Canada, Kosovo, Sudan, Palestine, Cambodia, Zimbabwe, the Philippines, Bangladesh, Israel, India, South Africa, Myanmar, and Uganda.

Oak has expanded dramatically since its inauguration in 1997. In addition to hosting the Fellow each fall, we now organize human rights programs (such as lectures and performances) throughout the year; we encourage faculty to include analysis of human rights problems in their courses; we award grants to students hoping to carry out internships with human rights organizations around the world. Indeed, students have become a central part of the Oak experience at Colby College; in recent years, the Oak Student Committee has significantly grown in size.


Oak Fellows

Read more about each Oak Fellow


Staff

 

Valerie Dionne, Director

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207-859-4659

Valerie M. Dionne is an associate professor of French at Colby College. She received her PhD from Princeton and also participated in a seminar on “Torture and Dignity” with Jay Bernstein at Cornell University’s Summer School of Theory. Her first monograph, Montaigne, écrivain de la conciliation (Paris: Classiques Garnier, 2014) explores the great French thinker’s advocacy for political conciliation during the Wars of Religion. She has also co-edited a volume, “Revelations of Character”: Ethos, Rhetoric and Moral Philosophy in Montaigne, with C. Noirot (Newcastle, UK: Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2007). She is the author of several articles on the theme of Justice, Law, and Tolerance, including an essay co-written with Yannik Büchi ’17 on the rights of intersex people in France from antiquity to the present. As an historian of ideas, she teaches a course on the Birth of Human Rights during the French Revolution, and a course on French Intellectuals and Social Justice.

 

Olivia Benissan, Assistant Director

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207-859-5304

Olivia is responsible for providing strategic direction and operational support for the Institute, including marketing the Oak Fellow program to an international audience, coordinating the application review process of Oak candidates, and serving as the primary contact and support person for the Oak Fellow before and while in residence at Colby. Olivia coordinates with the Oak Fellow and other Colby faculty to develop events related to the Fellow’s area of expertise and support student programming initiatives focused on human rights.

Olivia received their B.A. in Sociology and African and African American Diaspora Studies from Wheaton College (MA) in 2019. While a student at Wheaton, Olivia was president of the Black Student Association, chair of the Intercultural Board, and president of the Student Government Association.

 

Tiffany D. Creegan Miller, Associate Director

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Tiffany D. Creegan Miller is an assistant professor of Spanish at Colby College. Working across Hispanic and K’ichean (Kaqchikel, K’iche’, and Tz’utujil Maya) literary and cultural traditions, she focuses on contemporary Indigenous studies and decolonial critical theory, with an emphasis on new media, orality, and performance. Her first book, The Maya Art of Speaking Writing: Remediating Indigenous Orality in the Digital Age (May 2022, University of Arizona Press), draws from the Maya concepts of tz’ib’ (recorded knowledge) and tzij, choloj, and ch’owen (orality) to look at Guatemalan Indigenous cultural production across media and languages. Based on fieldwork in the Guatemalan Highlands 2010-2019, this research was supported by the Tinker Foundation, an NEH Summer Institute, and internal grants. Her other published work has appeared or is forthcoming in the Revista de Estudios Hispánicos, Hispanic Studies Review, Label Me Latina/o, Studies in American Indian Literatures, and the MLA Teaching Series, among others. As a speaker of Kaqchikel Maya, she is also an advisor for Wuqu’ Kawoq: Maya Health Alliance, a medical NGO in Guatemala that provides health care and promotes Indigenous language rights.