Oak Institute advances human rights through fellowship

The Oak Institute for Human Rights is the College’s hub of human rights activism. Since its inception in 1997, it has brought a front-line human rights activist to the College to serve as the Oak fellow. This role allows for activists to participate in research, writing, and reflection at the College while taking a break from their dangerous yet crucial work. 

This year, for the first time, the Institute is bringing on two fellows, one for each semester. This is just one of a number of new initiatives taken on by the Oak Institute. To learn more, the Echo sat down with Oak Director Valerie Dionne, Assistant Director Amya Bhalla `19, and Student Coordinators Andres Lovon Roman `21 and Erica Lei `20.

Dionne discussed the Institute’s theme this year. “This year’s theme is water rights, so we have two fellows whose work pertains to increasing access to water in resource deprived areas, Jamila Bargach is here now for the remainder of the semester, and Venuste Kubwimana will be coming for the spring semester.”

Jamila Bargach works in Southwest Morocco to increase access to water through her work as the co-founder of Dar Si Hmad, which operates the largest functioning fog collection project in the world. 

Venuste Kubwimana is a youth activist and social entrepreneur from Rwanda. He is the President of the International Transformation Foundation, which aims to create education and employment opportunities for the youth of Kenya and Rwanda.

In explaining why there are two fellows this year, Dionne elaborated that “both [fellow candidates] were really good, so I talked to President Greene and convinced him that we needed both.” This may not be a one time occurrence, however, as the Institute hopes to bring in domestic activists as well as the usual international activists in the future, possibly having a semester for each.

Dionne explained the motive for bringing in domestic fellows, “our original mission dictates that we bring in only international fellows, but there is important activist work happening in America as well. It would have been amazing to have Monica Lewis-Patrick come.”

Lewis-Patrick is a Detriot activist working towards the defense of African-American water rights. She came to campus to speak this year and was very well received.

Besides the work of the fellows, Lovon Roman talked about the various ways students can become involved with the Oak institute, saying that “there are many ways for students to become involved with Oak. There’s the Student Committee, for-credit seminars taught by the fellows, a reading group with Colby faculty in the spring, attending the many speaking events, and taking advantage of the internship opportunities and grants that are offered.”

The student committee plans and organizes events for the Institute, including the many speakers they bring to campus. The reading group takes place every spring and features faculty from various areas of study who bring their expertise and perspective to the current theme.

Lei relayed another more subtle way to get involved: “Interacting with the fellow is a great way to learn and be involved with Oak. It is really unique that we have front-line activists on our campus, they’re an amazing resource.”

The Oak Institute has numerous plans for new initiatives and focuses going forward, which Bhallah relayed: “we’re starting a publication, the Oak Human Rights Magazine, we’d like to establish a Human Rights minor, and new this year we have a house for the fellow to live in on Mount Mercy Street. Before, we rented an apartment for them downtown.”

The Oak Institute is located inside the Diamond building, in the front hallway on the right side. As one of the few programs of its kind, the Oak Institute is an incredible resource for the College. Student involvement is key, and the institute hopes even more students will take advantage of it.