Blue Devil of the Week: Energizing the Push for Human Rights

Senior Lecturer Robin Kirk helps students use their voices and work for vital causes

As an author, administrator and education, Robin Kirk brings visibility to the struggle for human rights. Photo by Stephen Schramm.
As an author, administrator and education, Robin Kirk brings visibility to the struggle for human rights. Photo by Stephen Schramm.

Name: Robin Kirk

Title: Senior Lecturer in Department of Cultural Anthropology, Co-Director of Duke Human Rights Center at the Franklin Humanities Institute

Years at Duke: 12

What she does: As the co-director of the Duke Human Rights Center @ the Franklin Humanities Institute, Kirk gets to share her experience of teaching students who can take their understanding of human rights far beyond Duke.

Formed in 2007, the Duke Human Rights Center gives students the opportunity to learn about the development and use of human rights and apply those lessons while completing projects to study or improve how rights are protected. 

“Our goal is to create intellectual content, but also have students graduate from Duke having actually done something, whether it’s an intensive research projects or a something in a community that puts their skills to use,” Kirk said.

Robin Kirk during her days as a journalist in South America. Photo courtesy of Robin Kirk.The roots of Kirk’s work advancing the cause of human rights trace back to her time as a journalist in the 1980s covering the violent war in Peru. Coming face-to-face with the human toll wrought by conflict, she felt that simply writing about violence for readers of American newspapers wasn’t enough. She wanted her reporting to make change.

She began documenting the violence in Peru and Colombia for Human Rights Watch and the US Committee for Refugees, which lobbied policy makers to do more to protect rights.

“I felt a better way for me to be a writer was to be invested in change,” Kirk said.

After working with Human Rights Watch, studying the violent conflicts in Peru and Colombia, she made connections with Duke faculty members and helped develop the center as a way for Duke to help in the cause while weaving human rights education into the student experience.

“It captures some of Duke’s commitment for the service of society,” Kirk said of the work students do with the center.

What she loves about Duke: Kirk said she adores the students she works with. She said when the start of the fall semester approaches, she’ll have moments of slight trepidation as the pace of life picks up. But once she meets her students, she is excited to delve in again.

“By the first week, I’m always so high on the students and all of their interesting backgrounds and questions and stories,” Kirk said. “I love to see students get passionate about something. It doesn’t necessarily have to be the thing I’m passionate about.”

Memorable day at work: Around four years ago, Kirk was part of a surprise retirement party for Claudia Koonz, now the Peabody Family Professor Emeritus of History in Trinity College of Arts & Sciences. Koonz was a widely-respected scholar on Nazi Germany, a beloved figure among Duke history students and a major supporter of the work of the Duke Human Rights Center.

Seeing how her part of the Duke community gathered to show their heartfelt appreciation for Koonz reminded Kirk why she enjoys where she works.

“It’s nice to be in an environment where you’re seen as a whole person, not just your intellectual work, but also your incredible humanity,” Kirk said. “And Duke allows you to have these connections with people from all different parts of the university.”

First job: At 16, Kirk waited tables at The Monastery, a restaurant in Winnetka, Illinois, a wealthy suburb of Chicago. The restaurant drew a toney crowd of customers, including actress Marlo Thomas, who Kirk served often.

“She would always have black coffee and spinach salad,” Kirk said. “I remember her very well.”

Kirk said the experience of earning her own paycheck left her with an early appreciation of self-reliance.

“Ever since then, I’ve always worked,” Kirk said.

Cover of the book titles, The Bond.Side project: While she’s written two books on the human rights struggles in South America, Kirk recently published her first novel. Titled “The Bond,” Kirk wrote the book over much of the past decade.

A science fiction story aimed at young adults, the book tells of a future dominated by women and echoes elements of human rights struggles around the world.

“All the books that I read as a kid so shaped who I am, so I wanted to write a book that had human rights themes,” Kirk said.

Best advice received: Kirk’s step-mother passed along a simple bit of advice that’s stuck with Kirk ever since.

“She who plans, wins,” she told her.

Kirk has used that approach to face down any adversity she’s faced.

“When you feel overwhelmed by bad things that happened, that advice told me to plan my way out of it,” Kirk said. “Figure out what’s wrong. Break it into pieces and then plan your way out of it.”

Something most people don’t know about her: Since childhood, Kirk has been a devout fan of the television show Star Trek. While her devotion isn’t as extreme as the costume-wearing, convention-attending subset of Trekkies, she does enjoy weaving some nods to her fandom into her day-to-day life.

“The problem with that now is that I’ll try a Star Trek reference in class and it falls flat almost all the time,” Kirk said. ‘They don’t know what I’m talking about. They’re too young.”

Is there a colleague at Duke who has an intriguing job or goes above and beyond to make a difference? Nominate that person for Blue Devil of the Week.