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Oak Institute receives $50,000 gift to fund human rights internships

The Oak Institute for Human Rights, an inter-departmental consortium of Colby students and faculty, received a $50,000 donation this week to fund summer internships focusing on equity and social justice—domestically and around the world.

The gift, made by the Garfield family, will expand the opportunities for Colby students to travel and study abroad, which have been severely limited this year by the COVID-19 pandemic.

“It’s crucial for students to think about human rights and social justice,” Valerie Dionne, Director of the Oak Institute and Associate Professor of French, told The Colby Echo. “Oak has enough money to fund about $25,000 of internships, that will [now] increase by $10,000 for the next five years.”

The new capital will bolster the Oak Institute’s already strong partnership with Omprakash, a non-profit that connects volunteers and interns with organizations around the world. Students will have the option to choose from Oak’s already vetted internships and volunteer opportunities or find their own.

Each accepted applicant, before beginning their summer experience, will enroll in Omprakash’s Critical Approaches to Human Rights, an online course designed to educate interns on the patterns of world inequality as well as the complexities of promoting human rights abroad from a place of privilege. After finishing the course and internship, students will receive a certificate of Critical Approaches to Human Rights from the College.

Dionne hopes this hybrid of academics and on-the-ground experience will inspire students to reflect on how their notions of human rights in the world have been influenced by the United States.

“We tend to sit in our comfort, and have an attitude of moral superiority,” she said.

Beyond matching Colby students with international organizations, Dionne and other leaders of the Oak Institute plan to direct funds towards domestic human rights work. “It’s so welcome to reflect on the number of violations of human rights happening in America currently,” Dionne said.

Cameron Garfield `21, Co-Chair of the Oak Institute’s Student Committee, said that the gift is especially valuable to him because it is relatively difficult to get a paid internship in social justice or human rights.

“Those opportunities are either unpaid or require you to be on a volunteer basis,” he said. “So, I think this is a great way for students to not have to compromise their need to be able [to] make money, in order to sustain themselves, and also pursue their interests.”

Despite Colby students’ long history of activism, Garfield said, “The school hasn’t always provided opportunities to facilitate this important work,” compared to its support for other fields like finance or business.

“For example, I can’t remember the last time DavisConnects held a workshop about working in human rights or social justice,” he said. “It’s always finance, consulting, law and sometimes government themed events.”

Garfield shared that, after his first year, he would have preferred an unpaid internship but needed to make money.

“I needed a job that paid so I ended up doing something I did NOT enjoy and worked some crazy hours,” he said.

So, Garfield hopes that underclassmen can use this funding to pursue their interests in human rights.

The opportunity provided by the grant has stirred students to apply for the expanded Oak internships. Keerthi Martyn, a junior Global Studies major, hopes to pursue a funded experience closer to Colby.

“There’s so much advocacy to be done in the state of Maine,” Martyn said. “The Oak institute is an advocacy agent for justice and peace, not only across the world [but] locally, nationally, too.”

This re-focusing of energy and capital on domestic human rights follows a larger national trend. According to the LA Times, civil and human rights organizations in the U.S. have seen a large uptick in donations, most notably from large corporations.

Garfield mentioned that the national attention and participation given to the Black Lives Matter movement in summer 2020 have motivated more students to pursue related careers.

“Students want to be able to fight for political, social and human rights centered missions! However, because those are not always the most financially supported jobs … I think this funding opportunity is a great way of bridging that divide,” he said.

Students like Martyn, who has long been involved with the Oak Institute and recently won a $10,000 grant for a community engagement, see the Garfield family’s gift as an advertisement to those outside of Oak’s embrace. “Even before the money came, I would have been interested. With the money coming, it’s already raised awareness.”

With initial registration due by March 31, the success of the Oak Institute in attracting students to human rights work is soon to be known.

~ Donovan Lynch ‘22

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