This interview was conducted over email with Kyle Knight, a Senior Researcher at Human Rights Watch, by Zac Johnson, a third-year undergraduate student working for the Duke Human Rights Center at the Franklin Humanities Institute. Knight earned a B.A. in Cultural Anthropology from Duke in 2008.
Zac Johnson (ZJ): What has been your path to your current position?
Kyle Knight (KK): In some ways, I’ve had a bit of a meandering path. In other ways, I’ve stuck close to a certain part of the industry. No matter how you look at it, I’ve been very privileged.
I graduated from Duke without a job, which was rare for my class. I moved to New York City to work part time for a theater company, and then got a job as an administrative assistant at NYU Law School. I qualified for the latter job in large part due to my work-study positions from Duke, so never under-estimate what clerical skills can mean!
Over the next 10 months, I applied for around 300 jobs. The first interview I got was at Human Rights Watch. The position was similar to the one I had at NYU, but it was full-time and it was a little closer to the type of work I was interested in doing. I got the job, and worked for around 2 years as an “associate” – a vague term for HRW’s entry level admin positions.
Through Duke, I applied for the Fulbright research grant and got it in 2011. So I left HRW to move to Nepal—where I’d done study abroad and a summer as an undergraduate. Following Fulbright I continued to call Nepal home, and worked a myriad of jobs. There were times I had three jobs, and there were times I was unemployed. I worked for the AFP news agency, the UN, and an academic think tank in California. After a few years, my visa applications maxed out and I needed to move, and one of the news outlets I’d been freelancing for needed an editor in Bangkok. I move to Thailand in March of 2014, and by August I knew the agency was closing at the end of the year, so I saw my current job at HRW and applied. I was lucky enough to be welcomed back into HRW again, and that’s where I sit today.
ZJ: Which human rights issues do you engage with most directly and how?
KK: At the moment I’m split 50/50 between the LGBT rights program and the health and human rights team. I spend about ½ of my time working on longer-term research and advocacy on LGBT issues, and ½ of it reviewing the hundreds of documents my colleagues around the world write on the Covid-19 pandemic.
ZJ: How has your study of/passion for human rights influenced your life personally and professionally?
KK: It’s a thrilling and all-encompassing career path. I think the most satisfying part has been the people I get to work with—activists all over the world. At times it’s completely exhausting, in particular when I feel like I’ve spent a lot of energy arguing over the finer points of an editing process all day. But it’s a profoundly interesting job even on the most difficult of days. In terms of personal life, I was away from home for a lot of my 20s and my relationships with family and friends definitely changed during that time. That said, I made incredible friends wherever I was—largely through work—and I wouldn’t trade it for the world.
ZJ: Do you see room for improvement in your professional field’s engagement with human rights issues?
KK: Every organization has its weaknesses, blind spots, and pain points. What’s important to remember is that no employer is perfect, and part of the work as a human rights advocate is inward-looking to make things better at home—not just out in the world.
ZJ: How has COVID impacted your work?
KK: The pandemic has halted travel for virtually all of us at HRW, with some limited exceptions. I was previously on the road 50-60% of the time, and I haven’t boarded a plane in over a year now. I think one thing it has showed is that we probably traveled too much, and we can do a bunch of our work remotely. But it also highlighted how much spending time in-person with people was critical for relationship building. It has been difficult to nurture the deep partnerships that are crucial for good human rights research and advocacy from a distance.
ZJ: What would you recommend to undergraduate students interested in pursuing a career in human rights?
KK: Read everything, listen to everything. There are so many opportunities out there to learn about the world. Stay curious, embrace ways of working and thinking that make you uncomfortable, and always continue working to develop a humanist lens on situations around you.
Knight was a speaker at Global Ideas, Local Impact, the Duke Human Rights Center’s annual celebration of human rights, in 2021. He also welcomes questions from Duke students at firstname.lastname@example.org.