Barbara Lau connected her commitment to justice with her belief in the power of community practice through her work as the Executive Director and lead developer of the Pauli Murray Center for History and Social Justice. In March 2023, Barbara officially retired from the Pauli Murray Center. DHRC Intern Sarah Holehouse (Trinity '26) talked with Barbara about her lifelong work in social justice.
What are some of your most memorable moments from your time as Executive Director of the Pauli Murray Center?
There are three moments that come to mind: May 2011 when we announced the purchase of the 1898 Pauli Murray Childhood home, saving it from demolition; December 2016 when our site was designated a National Historic Landmark, a rare honor especially for a site associated with African American, Queer, and Women’s history; and June 2022 when the Pauli Murray Center for History and Social Justice celebrated its 10th anniversary. I am so proud of what we, as a community, have been able to accomplish in our efforts to lift up the life and legacy of the Rev. Dr. Pauli Murray.
What made you want to be a part of the Duke Human Rights Center's Faculty Advisory Board?
Human rights and education have always been at the core of Pauli Murray’s legacy and our work at the Pauli Murray Center. I was excited to join the DHRC Faculty Advisory Board because it connected me to other amazing educators who are committed to teaching, researching, and engaging communities in the fight for human rights for all. As a group, the FAB are so well versed in all aspects of human rights research and activism and I learn so much for them.
What is the legacy that you want to leave behind at the Pauli Murray Center?
It has always been my goal to see the Pauli Murray Center led by people who share Murray’s identities and commitments to social justice. My contribution has been to foster the growth of the organization through partnerships, community engagement, fundraising, and staff/board development. The Center is in a great position to become an amazing visitor-ready historic site with a robust calendar of programs for many kinds of people.
How do you plan to incorporate human rights into your life after retirement?
I will always care about human rights and get involved in social justice efforts. It may be that some of the avenues of my activism will change during retirement to include some of my own creative work, but my commitment will not change. I can imagine being involved in oral history and storytelling projects about Durham’s rich neighborhoods and history of activism. I can imagine continuing to work with our partner Whistle Stop Tours to share Durham stories. I can imagine making a quilt for a social justice themed exhibit. I am open to new opportunities and projects and excited to see what will come my way!
What advice would you give to current Duke undergraduate students looking to get more involved with human rights on campus or in their career?
My work at the Pauli Murray Center has benefited from all the different skills I have picked up along the way in my career. I think students can harness their curiosity to learn new things, to challenge themselves to build new skills knowing that their human rights work in the future will benefit. And I mean really diverse skills: Can you set up a small sound system? Do you know how to design an effective flyer or social media post? Can you construct a realistic budget or draft a grant proposal? Can you put together a compelling presentation that summarizes an issue in easily understood language? Can you write for audiences from grade 6 to adults? Are you a good listener and can you sensitively document stories of people impacted by human rights violations? Can you prepare a meal for 50 people? Can you navigate government and institutional systems and forms? All these skills and more can be really helpful to human rights work on campus and in the world.