The power of partnership: Interdisciplinary Human Rights Institute changes lives
Every week, students in English Professor Alexandra Moore’s Source Project class reflect on their experiences.
“This last week, I’ve felt more complex emotions than I have ever felt in my life,” one student reflected.
“It was life-changing,” another wrote.
Established in January 2018, Binghamton University’s Human Rights Institute brings a transdisciplinary human rights perspective to social problems, contributes to evidence-based policymaking and encourages teaching, scholarship and community engagement in human rights. It includes such initiatives as the human rights stream in the Source Project, a year-long program focused on research in the humanities and social sciences.
“Although my involvement with the Human Rights Institute doesn’t fulfill any major requirement, I knew I had to be a part of something bigger than myself,” said Source Project participant Harper Sanders, a first-year student double-majoring in psychology and philosophy, politics and law.
Currently, Sanders is studying the psychological effects of solitary confinement, and reading law journals and state statutes that deal with this practice. She also visits with incarcerated individuals in the Broome County jail every Tuesday to volunteer with Justice and Unity for the Southern Tier, which advocates for the welfare of prisoners.
The program has been eye-opening on a number of levels — which is its intent, and not just for students.
“We’re a small group but we all have a passion for teaching about human rights and activism,” said HRI graduate assistant Ryan Stears, a doctoral candidate in English.
The HRI is intended to build interdisciplinary partnerships that spark new ideas, and allow people to deepen their human rights research, said Moore, who co-directs the institute with Professor of Political Science David Cingranelli. Many different kinds of human rights research fall under HRI’s purview, from the historical to the contemporary, the global to the local. Research groups and lab initiatives work across departments at Binghamton and often partner with other universities, from Yale to Sheffield Hallam in the United Kingdom, on an array of projects.
The HRI includes working groups that bring interdisciplinary groups of scholars together to research complex issues, including the cultural representations of human rights, food justice, women and climate insecurity, and more.
“Each group defines its own objectives. Some are working on a book project, organizing a conference or building a database, for example,” Moore said.
There are also human rights labs that produce public-facing work in areas such as the growth of far right extremist culture in the U.S., forced labor in the supply chain and human rights abuses connected with the global War on Terror. Lab groups have a different focus than the academic working groups, such as the creation of a public report or policy recommendation, and they are more apt to involve students who gain first-hand experience as knowledge producers.
The HRI also helps students secure internships, including at Human Rights Quarterly, the world’s leading human rights journal, as well as at local agencies dealing with refugees, immigrants and food insecurity. Plus, a partnership with Sheffield Hallam University in the United Kingdom allows Binghamton undergraduates to spend six weeks over the summer interning in the Refugee Hub legal clinic there to help reunite refugee families.
On the curricular side, Harpur College offers a human rights minor, while the College of Community and Public Affairs has a master’s program in human rights.
“Binghamton is the only school in New York state that offers dedicated human rights coursework from the first year through the master’s level,” Moore said. “I think that demonstrates our commitment to creating sustained learning opportunities for Binghamton students.”
Students involved with the HRI feel deeply engaged with its mission and the opportunity to create meaningful change. Oftentimes, their projects also point to career possibilities they may not have otherwise encountered.
“My interest in human rights began when I was a child listening to my grandmother’s and great grandparents’ stories of surviving the Holocaust, and their record of speaking out against social injustices up until their deaths,” said Mia Rabkin, a senior political science major. “Growing up I knew I wanted to continue their legacy and once I found out about the HRI’s Human Rights Lab, I was eager to branch into human rights research.”
In November 2021, Rabkin became involved with a project focusing on forced labor in supply chains via Sheffield Hallam University’s Helena Kennedy Centre for International Justice. They discovered Uyghur forced labor in supply chains ranging from the auto industry to tomatoes, evidence which they submitted to the United Nations’ special rapporteurs.
Their report was also featured in The New York Times and launched a Senate inquiry. Rabkin and the team also presented their findings to the U.S. Customs office.
“We found that if your car was made in the last five years, it was made with or exposed to Uyghur forced labor,” she said. “Additionally, there are over 30,000 parts in a single car, and we were not able to find a single part that is not tainted with Uyghur forced labor.”
That includes raw materials such as steel, aluminum and copper, as well as batteries, electronics and other car components, she said.
Rabkin said her work at the HRI solidified her intention to become a lawyer with a human rights focus. It’s also imparted a wide range of professional skills, from writing government briefs to conducting media campaigns, writing academic reports and copyediting.
Sanders plans to remain involved with the HRI throughout her time at Binghamton and choose a career that will allow her to make a difference in people’s lives, particularly their mental health.
“The Human Rights Institute pushes students to see the world and, more importantly, understand the world from other people’s perspectives. It allows you to understand what’s wrong and offers you a way to help make it right, even if that only means educating yourself,” she said.
Binghamton University is dedicated to the advancement of social justice for all individuals and populations. To that end, a number of institutes and centers have been established to promote research, ideas, communication and critical discourse in areas including human rights; equality for women and girls; and global health, progressive education and well-being for marginalized populations.
Each of these institutes and centers has a specific focus, yet they all exist to raise awareness of issues of historical, systemic injustices, and to explore ways to rise above these injustices to the benefit of the world’s underrepresented.