From IWU Magazine, Spring 2014 edition
A New Framework for Change
A new center helps guide students as they grapple with
the complex issues of human rights and social justice.
Story by KIM HILL & TIM OBERMILLER
Photos by MARC FEATHERLY
The inaugural of IWU’s Center for Human Rights and Social Justice featured Martha
Nussbaum as speaker. She is a renowned scholar of law, philosophy, gender and social
justice at the University of Chicago.
“What do human rights mean to you?”
It was a question posed on social media and poster boards for IWU students to ponder
as the University’s new Center for Human Rights and Social Justice (CHRSJ) officially
opened in February.
“Equal access to education,” was one student’s response. Others wrote: “Peace and
justice.” “Freedom to read what I choose.” “The right to control what is done to my
body.” “Marriage equality.” “The ability to express one’s religious, ethnic, political
or social ideas.”
CHRSJ inspires students to think deeply about such questions by supporting opportunities
to explore issues that relate to human rights and social justice within a rigorous
Educational Studies Professor Irving Epstein serves as CHRSJ director. He and other
faculty, students, staff and alumni who helped plan the new center see its role as
essential to the liberal arts experience at Illinois Wesleyan.
“You can’t talk about liberal arts without knowing what it means to be a human,” says
Epstein. “Rights and responsibilities we have to one another raise basic questions
we ask ourselves all the time.”
President Richard F. Wilson recalls his first meeting with Epstein to discuss creation
of the CHRSJ. “I found myself intrigued with the idea of pulling together scattered
initiatives related to human rights and social justice,” says Wilson. “But I also
recognized that considerable effort would be required to make this happen.”
Professor Irving Epstein (above) leads the University’s new Center for Human Rights
and Social Justice. He sees the center as a vital part of students’ liberal arts experience.
At a Feb. 21 ceremony inaugurating the CHRSJ, Wilson noted that the center “takes
advantage of our strengths as a liberal arts college, drawing on cross-disciplinary
knowledge and experiences in our search for solutions to inherently complex issues.”
Its focus “is also a visible manifestation of a theme in our mission statement and
articulated clearly as an important value in our current strategic plan.”
The CHRSJ is now part of IWU’s new Center for Engaged Citizenship, which includes
the University’s Action Research Center and the Student Volunteer and Resource Center.
Helping Epstein lead the CHRSJ are two associate directors: Associate Anthropology
Professor Rebecca Gearhart and William Munro, who is the Betty Ritchie-Birrer ’47
and Ivan Birrer, Ph.D. Endowed Professor. All three directors have widely published
scholarship and teach courses in academic areas associated with human rights and social
An academic focus
With its sharp academic focus, the CHRSJ is distinct from more volunteer-oriented
human rights and social justice programs offered by other colleges and universities.
“What we say to students is: Your coursework really matters, and we will tie the serious
engagement of these issues with all sorts of opportunities that extend beyond the
classroom,” Epstein explains. Those opportunities include the ongoing Peace Fellows
Program, the Scholars at Risk Advocacy Seminar and course clusters related to social
This academic year’s course-cluster theme, “Unraveling Inequality,” has created connections
between students in a variety of disciplines — including sociology, education, anthropology,
Spanish, psychology and nursing. Workshops held each semester also give students a
chance to discuss and compare how their individual coursework approached the theme
Another CHRSJ activity is the annual Undergraduate Research Workshop, conceived by
Munro and started in 2013 with a grant from the U.S. Institute of Peace. The event
brings together students from liberal arts colleges across the country who are pursuing
human rights-related research.
Adding to the list of activities that the Center for Human Rights and Social Justice
supports is a new internship program that places students at non-governmental organizations
(NGOs) around the country.
Epstein has received comments from faculty at other schools “who are impressed about
the range of activities that is going on here.” He credits the entire Illinois Wesleyan
community — including past and current students — for making human rights and social
justice so essential to the University and its liberal arts mission.
One example of those efforts is IWU’s Peace Fellows Program, established by John Stutzman
’54 and his wife Emma. A retired urologist, Stutzman said his volunteer work in Haiti
and other war-torn nations inspired him to create a “program that promotes peace,
justice and reconciliation. And we knew Illinois Wesleyan would be a good platform
for such a program.”
A faculty panel guides students selected as Peace Fellows through coursework, independent
study and an internship related to their areas of interest. Since its founding in
2007, the program has developed a positive reputation both on campus and among NGOs
nationwide where Peace Fellows have studied and interned. Students in the program
have explored a range of topics, such as interaction between poverty and social exclusion
in the U.S., and healthcare disparities in the developing world.
Former Peace Fellow Megan Thompson ’12 helped launch another notable program that
now flies under the CHRSJ banner. The University’s Scholars at Risk Advocacy Seminar
is the first non-credit undergraduate seminar of its kind in the country. Its goal
is to assist Scholars at Risk (SAR), an international network of colleges and universities
that promotes academic freedom and defends the human rights of scholars worldwide.
Illinois Wesleyan is a founding SAR member, and Epstein is one of the group’s longest-serving
How change happens
In addition to her on-campus advocacy work, Peace Fellow Megan Thompson ’12 served
as an international human rights legal intern in Tanzania, assisting preparation of
case applications to the African Court on Human and Peoples’ Rights.(Photo provided by Megan Thompson)
It was Epstein who suggested Thompson consider organizing a new student advocacy seminar
to assist SAR’s legal efforts, with William Munro guiding the group since its inception.
The first case involved Chen Guangcheng, who was imprisoned after revealing forced
abortions and sterilizations in China as a result of its One Child Policy. Over a
semester, Thompson and fellow seminar students Kelsey “Rae” Brattin, Jeremy Duffee,
Catherine Geehan and Liz Liubicich (all Class of 2014) conducted research to strengthen
Guangcheng’s legal case. When finished, they were surprised when asked to present
their dossier before the human rights committee of the Chicago Bar Association as
it deliberated how to help Guangcheng.
“We were pretty terrified,” recalls Thompson, who says even she had her doubts about
how much impact a small group of undergraduates could have on a human rights case
that had international implications. “But we were also overwhelmed at how receptive
they were to our arguments. We found out later they thought we were law students.”
Fate would have it that Chen would escape house arrest the day after the IWU students’
presentation. He was later granted travel to the United States and is now associated
with a conservative think tank in New Jersey.
Looking back, Thompson regards her efforts to launch the group as “one of my greatest
accomplishments at IWU because it was successful without me. This was the first time
I had been a catalyst of something that was going to grow and expand beyond what I
Students portrayed Nairobi street children during a Course Cluster Open House, “Inequality
Portrayed,” held in front of The Ames Library. (Photo provided by Rebecca Gearhart)
Since Thompson’s graduation, SAR seminar students have researched three more cases.
The most recent involves Omid Kokabee, an Iranian physics graduate student at the
University of Texas who was arrested in Iran while visiting his family in 2011.
Catherine Geehan ’14, who worked with Thompson in the first advocacy seminar, became
familiar with Kokabee’s case during her two-month internship at the SAR headquarters
in New York that was supported by the CHRSJ. Geehan’s internship tasks included serving
as a point of contact for two Syrian scholars seeking refuge from their country’s
civil war. Geehan found the work emotionally wrenching at times; she recalls photos
that one of the scholars sent her depicting the heavy bombardment that his city and
university had endured.
“It was gut-wrenching to see those photos,” says Geehan, adding that she has “no way
of knowing what happened to him for confidentiality reasons.”
“Even though it’s intimidating to have even a piece of someone else’s future in your
hands, it’s also a great opportunity to help someone else,” says Geehan. Whether or
not she continues such work as a career, she says her IWU experiences have affirmed
that working on behalf of human rights and social justice “is not something I can
allow to leave my life. Once you have a taste of it, it’s really hard to go back to
Geehan is not alone. Epstein notes that, in recent years, “more and more students
leave here wanting to make a difference.”
Students in IWU’s Scholars at Risk (SAR) Advocacy Seminar hold a conference call with
leaders at SAR’s New York headquarters. Launched in 2012, it is the first non-credit
undergraduate seminar of its kind in the country.
“When we talk about issues of sex trafficking, child soldiering, organ harvesting,
what poverty really means or environmental justice as a human right, there is real
resonance among the students,” says Epstein, who has taught an introductory course
on international human rights for more than a decade.
Though not all IWU students will maintain an active interest in human rights and social
justice issues after graduation, Epstein believes the odds are greater that they will
because of coursework and other programs that CHRSJ now supports.
Sometimes that influence can even be life-changing. Looking back on her work with
the Scholars at Risk Advocacy Seminar, Megan Thompson says, “This was the first time
I was able to step back and say ‘This is what meaningful advocacy looks like.’ That’s
something I could take with me into my work after IWU.”
That work has included a two-year appointment with AmeriCorps VISTA in Chicago. This
fall Thompson will attend the University of Chicago to pursue a master’s degree in
social work, specializing in violence prevention and community organization and development.
Thompson recognizes that many people feel overwhelmed by injustices that occur every
day around the globe and in their own communities. As for herself, she says, “I am
not idealistic enough to believe I can change the world on my own. But I do know that
power and privilege can be tools of indifference, marginalization and violence, or
they can be instruments of social change and the demand for justice.
“IWU students, and other educated young people, are privileged, even if they are not
necessarily powerful. Take that privilege and place it on the side of justice,” Thompson
urges. “If the small efforts of one person combine with another person — that is how
change happens. That is how you become powerful.”
Read About alumni involved in social-justice careers in a related story.
To visit the Center for Human Rights and Social Justice website, click here.