The recipients of the 2017 Oliver W. Koonz Prize — which recognizes the innovative work being done on human rights by students — were Jenna Zhang, Hannah Rogers, and Madeleine Roberts for their outstanding essays and Cuquis Robledo for the best alternative project.

Below are the responses of the 2017 Koonz Prize judges, Professors Claudia Koonz of the History Department and Ellen McLarney of the Asian and Middle Eastern Studies Department.

2017 Best Essays
Jenna Zhang is a graduating senior studying political theory and English. She recently completed her honors thesis in political science, “Against Law’s Empire: Challenging the Legalist Paradigm of Transitional Justice,” under the supervision of Ruth Grant. After graduation, she would like to take a year off before applying to graduate programs in philosophy.

“Cosmopolitan and Nationalist Discourses on Reconciliation” skillfully combines original ethnographic research with a sophisticated analysis of the scholarly debates about justice after civil conflicts. In her study, Zhang compares official discourses of unity, “rainbowness” in South Africa and “Bamyarawanda” in Rwanda. To discover how these ideals function, Zhang conducted interviews with 40 survivors of systemic racism and genocide in the two nations – and discovered widespread disillusionment. The essay reminds us that historical injustices cannot be erased by top down institutions, but must engage with struggles for justice at the grassroots level. 

Read Jenna’s Essay, “Cosmopolitan and Nationalist Discourses of Reconciliation: Memory (Re)construction in South Africa and Rwanda”


Hannah Rogers was born and raised in Las Vegas, Nevada. She is a sophomore history student with an emphasis in United States History and a minor in political science. She is the Vice President of Out of the Blue, Duke University’s oldest all-female a cappella group, and last year she worked in the White House during the Obama Administration in the Office of Presidential Correspondence. She enjoys creative writing, and watched The Princess Bride so many times as a kid that she still has it memorized. 

Besides reading Atomic Energy Commission pamphlets, journalists’ accounts, and scholarly studies about the case of intentional deception regarding the Nevada Atomic test site, Rogers interviewed her relatives who once had trusted the experts who told them “not to worry about fall out” – until they lost family members to lymphosarcoma, leukemia and other cancers. In the aftermath of this saga, Congress held the AEC accountable and in 1990 authorized minor financial restitution to victims, but the courts exonerated the AEC from charges of negligence. This gracefully-written essay raises harrowing questions about the menace of nuclear arsenals at home and abroad. 

Read Hannah’s Essay, “You Have Nothing to Worry About: Misinformation, Radioactivity, and the Nevada Test Site”


Madeleine Roberts is a graduating senior with a double-major in Public Policy and History and a minor in Economics. Madeleine will be joining the JBG Companies in Washington, D.C. next year.  This paper is a chapter in her History honors thesis, entitled From “‘A Foot in the Kitchen’ to ‘A Foot in the Door’; Domestic Service in Transition in 21st Century Brazil.”

Human rights are universal, but Brazil offers a case study of how access to rights can be restricted on the basis of race, gender and class. Madeleine Roberts’s research on domestic workers’ mobilization for rights equal to those of all other occupations is a splendid account of how 7,200,000 maids won the remarkable charter of rights, the PEC das Domesticas, in 2013. Using cartoons, photographs, media coverage, demographic data, videos, official proclamations, and a spreadsheet itemizing rights, Roberts has written a detailed history of a courageous movement and evaluated its paradoxical culmination. Her study details how rights claims can be mobilized to regulate abuses not just in public life, but also in the domestic sphere where women’s labor is so often exploited.

Read Madeleine’s Essay, “Uniform in the Eyes of the Law: The Global Fight for Domestic Workers’ Human Rights in Brazil”


2017 Best Alternative Project

Cuquis Robledo received her BA in Psychology at Duke and is from Houston, TX. She recently became interested in documentary and filmmaking after working for a non-profit called Rooted in Rights her sophomore year while participating in the DukeEngage Seattle Program. She learned about the power of video to raise awareness on disability issues and disability rights around the world. She returned to Seattle in the summer of 2016 with two grants from the Duke Human Rights Center at FHI and the RIPP/engage grant to continue working with Rooted in Rights on a new program called the Storytellers Project, where she began recruiting people with disabilities from around the world to share their stories on disability issues. Now, she is planning on working with them full time for a year when she graduates from Duke in May 2017, and then following that year, returning to North Carolina to get her Masters at Elon University in Interactive Media. 

In this insightful short documentary, Robledo examines up close the issue of disability rights at Duke. She explores how individual students, faculty, and staff navigate biases and misperceptions around disability, as well as the obstacles people with disability confront as they navigate life in the university. Robledo discusses the mission of the Duke Disability Alliance and how they “advocate for the rights of people with disability”—a project that is both logistical and educational. This documentary does its own work of raising consciousness around the issue and showing where progress can be made, in both society at large and at Duke.

Watch Cuquis’ Project, “Speak Up: A Documentary About Disability at Duke”