Interview with Alumnus Trey Walk
This interview was conducted with Trey Walk, a Program Manager at Groundwork Project, by Rahel Petros, a fourth-year undergraduate student working for the Duke Human Rights Center at the Franklin Humanities Institute. Walk earned a B.A. in History with a certificate in Human Rights Studies from Duke in 2019.
What has been your path to your current position?
After I graduated from Duke in 2019, I moved to Montgomery, Alabama through a fellowship program at the Equal Justice Initiative (EJI). It's a nonprofit legal organization that does racial justice work and tries to end mass incarceration. When I was at EJI, I was mostly working on public history projects that were helping local communities across the country confront their history of racial violence and lynchings, and further using that history to organize around contemporary issues like the criminal legal system, housing, racial wealth gap, and more. I worked on various public history projects, like the Legacy Museum and the National Memorial for Peace and Justice, cultural sites that are trying to help people think through how America's legal system and the crisis of mass incarceration are shaped by the history of slavery. I did research, writing, and public speaking on these topics with folks from around the world, and that was a really rewarding experience.
In most of my previous experiences, I worked for smaller, community-based organizations, thinking about race and class in the context of housing, community development, and land issues. Some of that was community organizing and some of it was policy work. I was interested in continuing to support organizing as a way to make change, and so I joined a new organization, Groundwork Project, in 2022. We fund, invest in, and support grassroots community organizers in parts of the country that tend to get written off by Democrats and progressives (the Deep South, Appalachia and The Plains, including the states of Alabama, Mississippi, Oklahoma and West Virginia). I help manage our grant program and outreach in our focus states. It’s a really fun job — I get to spend a lot of my days finding grassroots community organizers, talking to them about their work, and figuring out ways we can help them achieve their goals.
Which human rights issues do you engage with most directly and how?
I guess the human rights issue I feel I engage with most directly is democracy — people’s human right to shape their futures and shape the communities that they live in. The organizers that I support through my work are working on different issues. We have a group in Mississippi who's doing reproductive justice work. We have a group in Oklahoma that's doing criminal legal system reform. We have a group in Alabama that's doing work around participatory budgeting, and we have a group in West Virginia that's doing work around the climate crisis. So it's a lot of different human rights issues, but the common thread throughout all of them is using organizing as a tool to build power from the grassroots up. I think our political system isn't responsive to a lot of these communities, and that's the human rights issue. People should have responsive governments. Even in places where the electoral map looks the way that people want it to look, places that are “blue”, even then there's a question of, “Okay, are those elected officials responsive to people's needs?” We have to ask, “Do the policy outcomes actually improve people's lives, especially people who are living at the margins of our society, like the poorest people, the most impacted people, people who have been excluded?” And if the answer to that is no, then you have a human rights issue in that community.
How has your study of/passion for human rights influenced your life personally and professionally?
I think the Human Rights certificate at Duke was helpful because it introduced me to a community of students, faculty, and people in Durham and North Carolina who were thinking about how to create more justice in the world. The program exposed me to the idea that you can pursue a career in that type of effort. Although, I also have come to believe you don't have to make it your career. There are people who, you know, go do their 9-5 at work, and then in the time outside of work they're really active and engaged citizens and get involved in the community and they work on human rights issues that way. The certificate just exposed me to a lot of full-time practitioners and I think that was really valuable. The coursework gave language to some of the values that I think I already had, but I didn't really have language for. For example, in the United States, we often learn about our civic and political rights, but we aren’t also taught about economic rights, or the rights that other countries bought into through the Universal Declaration of Human Rights — the right to drinkable water, or the right to clean air, or the right to health care, or the right to education. The Human Rights Certificate coursework gives you a more global vision, which is so important. For me, as someone who grew up in South Carolina, I was exposed to a lot of amazing civil rights leaders and organizers who had pretty expansive visions and freedom dreams, but hearing about how other people in other countries are thinking about things is so important, so people in the United States can realize, like, “Oh, wow, they told us we can only have this much [of human rights], but actually we should be able to have much, much more.”
What would you recommend to undergraduate students interested in pursuing a career in human rights?
Be okay with having a winding path, and not knowing how things will add up. If you are open to exciting opportunities when they're presented to you, and if you try to prioritize being in environments where you're going to learn a lot and be with teams that inspire you, you'll end up in environments that are really good for you and with organizations that are doing impactful work. I think one of the pressures coming out of Duke is to have a clear path lined up . . . you have to take it one step at a time. I guess my response isn’t human rights specific, but I just think being open to the way that the path plays out is important. I also think it's okay to ask yourself what skills you have that you really enjoy using. You're always going to have the best career opportunities when you're spending your days doing the thing that you love, because you're going to excel at it. People are going to recognize that, people are going to reward you for it, and put you in positions to do meaningful work.
I think sometimes people who are interested in human rights and social justice work feel the pressure even more to go after opportunities that look good on paper, because it's a way to signal, “Okay, I'm not doing the thing that's going to make a lot of money, but the thing I'm still doing is really impressive.” You have to let go of that instinct and just do the thing that you love. No one else is going to understand your path as you’re moving along it because you’re the only one who has a vision for yourself. I believe that there’s something deeper in your gut that’s leading you towards what you’re meant to do here, and other people aren’t always going to understand that. Recognition and clout and prestige are very cold comforts when you’re doing difficult work like trying to create justice and change our society, so you can’t be in it for that. We need you operating in your gifts, from a place of joy and abundance, if we stand a chance at healing the planet and liberating our people.