Skip to main content

(Re)visioning Human Rights, Democracy and the Liberal Arts

Human rights quilting bee

Published May 27, 2023

Kahn Institute Long-Term Project, 2023-24


Organizing Fellows

Loretta Ross, Study of Women and Gender
Andrea Stone, English Language and Literature
Carrie Cuthbert, Project Advisor and Research Associate, Study of Women and Gender


Institutions of higher education are uniquely situated to promote human rights values and principles through teaching, research, policies, practices, programming, and campus life. While a human rights lens is essential to equip students to address the most complex issues facing humanity, human rights education in the United States is anemic, including among liberal arts colleges.

The time is right to bring robust human rights education to the Five College Consortium. The battle between democracy and authoritarianism is a defining issue of our time, playing out globally and within the United States. Given the strong correlation between democracy as a form of government and the protection and realization of human rights, human rights institutions, laws, standards, movements—and education—play a vital role in this landscape, where an array of actors are needed to claim and safeguard rights and address the sovereignty, legal, institutional, and humanitarian issues at play.

In the United States, the Trump presidency unleashed a rising tide of anti-democratic and authoritarian forces at all levels of government and society. In 2021, for the first time, the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance included the United States in its list of “backsliding democracies”. Despite the central role of human rights in the geopolitical landscape and the future of democracies, few small liberal arts undergraduate institutions in the United States offer dedicated human rights programs or courses of study. A 2018 report submitted by U.S. educators to a United Nations committee found that “[T]he U.S. is not keeping up with international standards with respect to human rights education.”

Anchored in Smith College’s mission to develop “engaged global citizens and leaders to address society’s challenges”, and building on the work of the College’s Year on Democracies 2021–2022, we envision a project that serves as an unbounded space for developing new research, teaching and practice models at the intersection of liberal arts education, human rights, and the future of democracies. The project will offer a generative space to identify avenues of inquiry and research questions, and to explore, collaborate and experiment across and between disciplines.

We invite participants in the humanities, social sciences, and STEM to join us in exploring questions about the role of liberal arts education in the future of human rights and democracies. How might a human rights lens shift our understanding and teaching of history; movements for justice and liberation; scientific research; business; art, architecture and culture; philosophy; journalism; religion? How might it inform and address the impacts of rising anti-democracy forces on academic freedom, free speech, and campus safety?

We’re also interested in questions around what a human rights lens can offer U.S. movement leaders, policymakers, artists, scientists, and educators when it comes to solving the most pressing issues of our time. And we’re also interested in exploring what human rights education methodologies have to offer faculty and students in a small liberal arts environment in the United States.

Because the human rights framework not only addresses violations but also provides a blueprint for positive action—what we’re working for—it points us toward questions of what’s possible. What would animate a future where everyone’s human rights are realized? What shape might everything from narrative and storytelling, the built environment, science and medicine, arts and culture, international relations, and social movements take in such an imagined future? Could human rights be the basis of a post-liberal democracy future?

In considering all of these questions, we will address a full spectrum of civil, political, economic, social, and cultural rights as well as community and group rights. Through this year-long project we aim to lay the foundation for an Institute for Human Rights and Democracy at Smith. 

Project Fellows & Research Statements

Kuukuwa Andam, African Studies (Fall 2023)
Andam’s research focuses on the intersections between religion, women, and human rights in Africa. She will analyze the following questions: What are the lived experiences of African women in religious spaces, particularly, those in positions of leadership? What current human rights issues do African women face and to what extent do these issues intersect with religion? 

Shannon AudleyEducation and Child Study
“Education is more than what we teach; it is how we treat each other,” Audley explains. As a developmental educational psychologist and a teacher-educator, she will be investigating how a liberal arts education reflects and builds upon a human rights framework. Her research focuses on (dis)respect in human relations, amongst children, and in student-teacher relations.

Şebnem BaranFilm and Media Studies
Baran will explore the representations of human rights and human rights abuses in fiction content, particularly in crime shows. An increase in the intensity of global TV flows and, more specifically, an increasing number of format adaptations create new opportunities to explore how human rights are represented on screen and how these representations circulate globally. By focusing on examples such as the Turkish crime show Şahsiyet (Persona) and its Mexican adaptation Asesino del Olvido (Before I Forget), Baran will discuss the tension between the local and global in defining the course of representation on the screen. 

Naomi Carpenter ’25Middle East Studies
Carpenter’s research concerns discourses around cultural relativism and the universality of human rights in the Arab world. Her work centers around the epistemology of human rights thought in Southwest Asia, with focus on the following questions: Do claims that human rights are Western resonate with Arab publics? What rhetorics do Arab authoritarian regimes employ to discredit human rights actors?

Shinyoung ChoComputer Science
Cho’s work (ICLab, a global, continuous, and in-depth Internet measurement platform that detects censorship) will focus on monitoring digital censorship and breaking it down into visualizations. That will allow everyone to understand when censorship happens and how it is carried out behind the scenes. With access to such information, users can be aware and take action to create or preserve democracy and to defend human rights.

Rachel ConradChildhood Studies, Hampshire College
Conrad will be working on two projects related to young people's rights: the first explores ideas of freedom in poetry written by young African American poets in the 1960s and 1970s, and the second explores contemporary young climate activists' writings about the future. In addition, she will participate in Hampshire's curricular revisions to center transdisciplinary approaches to complex issues facing our world and will investigate potential links between a prospective Human Rights Institute and the Five Colleges.

Carrie CuthbertProject Adviser and Research Associate, Study of Women and Gender
Cuthbert will be exploring models for durable human rights education and practice that can be applied in the liberal arts context, and sparking conversations around what the field of human rights education can offer the liberal arts.

Lauren DuncanPsychology (Fall 2023)
Duncan, a feminist political psychologist, will be expanding her research on status quo maintenance, considering such concepts as right wing authoritarianism, social dominance orientation, and system justification. She will focus on interlocking systems of oppression using the tools and insights from interdisciplinarity. 

Jallicia JollyAmerican Studies and Black Studies, Amherst College
Jolly will explore how Caribbean and Black feminists’ commitments to human rights and women’s rights in the African diaspora expand the terrains of political participation and movement building that were both local and transnational in scope. Her research employs a broader lens to examine how we characterize Black women’s grassroots practice and political mobilization/leadership, and therefore, the strategies they use to extend traditional conceptions of dignity, freedom, and bodily autonomy. 

Henriette Kets de VriesSmith College Museum of Art
Kets de Vries is in the early stages of conceiving a future exhibition that will feature works from the SCMA’s newly donated German drawings from the Weimar period. The Nazis derided these artworks as degenerate and anti-nationalist and were so profoundly threatened by them that they banned the art and the artists. Curating this exhibition will give Kets de Vries the chance to expose a nihilistic world weary German populace and thus perhaps shed light on the looming threats posed by the aggrieved in our midst today.

Zümray KutluGovernment
Kutlu will be developing two courses on human rights throughout the project: “NGOs in World Politics” and “Economic, Social and Cultural Rights.”

Isabella Lecona ’25Psychology
Lecona will explore the effect of racism and xenophobia on perception/treatment of the childhood of unaccompanied migrant minors arriving at the US/Mexico border, as well as their right to mental health and wellbeing. 

Victoria McGonagle ’24Philosophy
McGonagle is researching the concept of fear in the legal system. Specifically, she wants to learn more about how courts use the concern of fear in assessing child custody cases. In addition to fear in US family court cases, she is identifying how fear relates to the legal system’s understanding/concept of parenthood and childhood.

David MednicoffJudaic and Near Eastern Studies, School of Public Policy, UMass-Amherst
Mednicoff, a lawyer, policy scholar and political scientist, developed the UMass undergrad course on human rights, and will be researching the intersection of international human rights law and diverse meanings of the rule of law in the contemporary Middle East. He will also be developing a new course that focuses on Islamophobia and anti-Semitism as they relate to the increased influence of authoritarian politics and ethnonationalism, and the targeting of marginalized groups. Thinking through this new course in dialogue with colleagues across a range of fields will help him grapple with how much to integrate a human rights frame.

Loretta RossStudy of Women and Gender, Organizing Fellow
Ross will use the Calling in and human rights framework to develop a paper on “Healing Our Divided Society” for an Eisenhower Foundation anthology on the present-day implications of the 1968 Kerner Commission Report on Civil Disorders.

ej seibertAssociate Director, Disability Services
seibert will explore how a human rights lens can shift content, pedagogical practice, institutional policy, and the larger cultural context. They are interested in the cross-pollination of human rights with disability justice movements and rights of nature frameworks.

Andrea StoneEnglish Language and Literature, Organizing Fellow
Stone's research will extend from her current book Black Prison Intellectuals: Criminality and Enmity in the United States, 1795-1901 to focus on human rights in critical prison studies.