Even in a community where the fight for civil rights famously played out before the world audience more than 50 years ago, there is still room for expanding the conversation about the rights of people across the globe. That’s the idea behind the Institute for Human Rights at UAB.
“The Institute for Human Rights at UAB serves as an internationally renowned platform for interdisciplinary interaction and collaboration for scholars, educators, students, practitioners and activists to raise awareness, engage in education, foster research, and design initiatives for practical action and outreach resulting in the promotion and protection of human and civil rights locally, nationally, and globally,” said the mission statement for the organization, which is being officially launched this week from Heritage Hall on the UAB campus.
To celebrate the launch, the IHR is presenting a noted speaker September 29, Nobel Peace Prize winner Leymah Gbowee, the founder and president of the Gbowee Peace Foundation Africa and a co-founder of the Women Peace and Security Network Africa. Gbowee won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2011 for leading a women’s peace movement credited with bringing an end in 2003 to the second Liberian Civil War. Her work since has included traveling the world talking about “gender-based violence and women-led peacebuilding in conflict countries,” according to the website nobelwomensinitiative.org.
The director of the new institute, Dr. Tina Kempin Reuter, brings a deep background in the scholarship of international human rights. A researcher whose work has focused on human rights, ethnic conflict and genocide studies, and conflict management and peacemaking with a geographical focus on Europe and the Middle East. Kempin Reuter previously directed the Reiff Center for Human Rights and Conflict Resolution and served as an associate professor of international and comparative politics at Christopher Newport University.
Holding degrees in international relations, international law, history, and economics, Kempin Reuter has authored several publications and received numerous prizes and grants to expand her research and teaching.
Kempin Reuter, who also works as an associate professor of human rights, peace studies, and international politics at UAB, took a few moments this week to talk about the arrival of the IHR.
Weld: What does it mean to you to have the IHR finally opening?
Kempin Reuter: Everything! What was an idea just a few months ago is now reality. We have a physical presence on campus (in the College of Arts and Sciences, Heritage Hall 551) and a virtual presence through our website (uab.edu/cas/humanrights/) and social media. We have a team working on human rights research, have started our educational initiatives, and have begun our public outreach campaign, which includes Thursday’s lecture.
Weld: How important is it to have a speaker like Leymah Gbowee as the IHR’s opening speaker?
Reuter: Our big opening event serves as an illustration of what we are trying to achieve and what we have already done. Leymah Gbowee is a role model for all of us who engage in human rights and peace work. Her activism for community building, peace, and women’s rights in Liberia is unparalleled and serves as an example of remarkable leadership and successful grassroots efforts. She represents what the UAB Institute for Human Rights has set out to do: to raise awareness and to educate, to research and to find practical solutions for the promotion of human rights and sustainable peace.
Weld: What does the IHR bring to UAB or to UAB students that they didn’t have before now?
Reuter: The Institute serves as a way to streamline and bring together educational initiatives benefitting our students and faculty. We offer a variety of ways for students to get engaged, including internships, research opportunities, classes related to human rights, and outreach and training. The IHR will be involved in some recent curricular developments such as the new MA in Anthropology of Peace and Human Rights and a proposed new minor in human rights for undergraduate students.
Our public lectures and film screenings have attracted the attention of students from different backgrounds and majors and we are excited to contribute to the diversity and student life on UAB’s campus. There will be a student organization related to the IHR, which will get more students involved in human rights activities. For faculty, I anticipate the IHR to serve as a hub for collaboration and scholarly discourse, facilitating interdisciplinary work and the exchange of ideas.
Weld: What does IHR add to the conversation about human rights in a place like Birmingham? What place should it occupy in a community already so aware of related issues?
Reuter: The IHR aspires to add an international perspective to the human rights and civil rights discussion in Birmingham. Our goal is to “bring Birmingham to the world and the world to Birmingham.” I think it is important to understand that nothing happens in isolation in our increasingly globalized world. For example, the Civil Rights Movement served as a role model for similar grassroots efforts for social justice and human rights elsewhere (e.g., Northern Ireland or South Africa). Similarly, I believe that we can learn from others on how to tackle issues in our own communities.
The IHR will focus specifically on the struggle of vulnerable and marginalized populations, including minorities, refugees, women, children, persons with disabilities, and people dealing with the consequences of poverty, thereby creating a direct connection to Birmingham’s history. We are working closely with human rights related organizations and institutions in Birmingham and beyond to make sure that what we do adds value to their work.
I think the IHR can play an important role in our community in three main ways: 1) by facilitating collaboration and discussion on human rights and social justice, 2) by assisting with research data analysis and grant writing needs, and 3) by serving as a partner to community organizations. We’ve already started collaboration with the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute, the Birmingham Holocaust Education Center, the Birmingham Islamic Society, the Birmingham Jewish Federation, and others, just to name a few. We are also partnering with other entities on campus to inspire dialogue and interdisciplinary collaboration.
Weld: What’s next for the IHR?
Reuter: I think overall we need to both deepen and broaden the perspective of the IHR. To add depth, we want to focus increasingly on establishing a high level research program that includes international perspectives. We need to work on continuing our educational initiatives and think about how we can best benefit our students. To broaden our focus, I hope to integrate the health-related side of UAB in a more constructive and prominent way, especially through common programing and research initiatives.
We will continue working on raising awareness for human rights and the IHR at UAB, in our community, and beyond. We have other exciting programs coming up this fall, including a lecture by an ambassador from the Republic of Kosovo and a panel discussion on the refugee crisis in the Mediterranean.
Weld: Is there anything else you would like to say either about the event or the IHR in general?
Reuter: We are always looking for feedback and ways to engage students, faculty, and members of the community. I encourage everyone to get in touch with us, follow us on social media, and attend our events. Our opening event with Nobel Peace Prize winner Leymah Gbowee is just a start – we are very excited for it and hope it will create the momentum to make the IHR an integral part of the UAB and the Birmingham community.
Nobel Peace Prize winner Leymah Gbowee will speak September 29 at 6 p.m. at the Alys Stephens Performing Arts Center, 1200 10th Ave. S. For more information about the Institute for Human Rights, visit uab.edu/cas/humanrights.