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After only a year of work, Duke’s chapter of Amnesty International has gotten the national honor of being runner up for Student Group of the year for Amnesty International USA — the second highest national honor for a student group in the country. 

Sarah Holehouse is the president and founder of the Duke chapter of Amnesty International. She founded the chapter as a student who cared about human rights, but did not see others getting involved around her. In January 2023, she took the initiative to start this chapter to bring students together in solidarity and action for protecting student rights. 

“To me, Amnesty International is the way that I can bring together similarly passionate students to have greater change through collective action,” Holehouse said. 

On top of participating in human rights events such as Banned Books Week and Write for Rights, Amnesty International addresses both domestic and international human rights issues through education and advocacy. 

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Students, members of the Duke chapter of Amnesty International, sitting at a table working and smiling at the camera.

For example, this year, Amnesty International USA released a report Failing Grade: How University Investment Offices Often Fail to Conduct Human Rights Due Diligence When Investing in Venture Capital Funds. This report specifically named Duke University, giving the university a failing grade for a lack of both transparency and human rights due diligence. So, they acted on it to make a change. They submitted a formal report to Duke’s Advisory Committee on Investment Responsibility documenting their complaint and urging change. On top of this, they wrote a guest column in The Chronicle to educate the student body.  

“Any real human rights change requires coalition… [we] feature individual cases of people who have experienced some kind of human rights abuse, such as being arrested for their freedom of expression or facing the death penalty. Then, we write as many letters as possible to the people who have the power to remedy the situation. Write for Rights in particular generates millions of letters every year, as well as some great success stories,” Holehouse said. 

This year Duke Amnesty was named runner up for Amnesty International USA. Their work at Duke has earned them this honor nationally. 

“I think it is a recognition of our creative and dedicated human rights activism. So for example, our report that we submitted to Duke’s Advisory Committee on Investment Responsibility was something that had never been done before by an AIUSA student group. It was uncharted territory. We had to do a lot of thinking and reevaluating on what would be the most strategic way to encourage change, and we got a lot of great support from AIUSA staff on that. So, we are not afraid to push the envelope and have demonstrated that in our work this year,” Holehouse said. “We also have a really great team. It takes everyone to make our group successful. We have a strong leadership team of seven consistently dedicated leaders with their own individual specialities, as well as a hardworking coalition of general body members who show up and do the work that human rights advocacy requires. We truly are a team and that makes us strong.”

Holehouse and her team continue to work hard and find new ways to best instill human rights at Duke, while also making a bigger difference. 

“I hope that we continue to unapologetically and visibly contribute to the incredible work of the larger Amnesty International organization and that we bring in new, curious faces in the process. Human rights work is as much about the people as it is about the activism, so I look forward to building this vibrant community and creating a coalition of lifelong activists. And naturally, I hope that this chapter persists beyond my graduation so that Duke doesn’t lose this valuable space, and I will do my best to foster this,” Holehouse said. 

In her time working with human rights, Holehouse has discovered so much about the field, and encourages others to get involved as well. 

“I’ve learned that while human rights is its own vast and interesting discipline, it intersects with every other field. No matter what you are interested in as an individual, there is a place for human rights in your study and practice. I really appreciate that Duke fosters this connection through programs like the Duke Human Rights Center and the Human Rights Certificate, and I am doing my best to promote it from an extracurricular standpoint so that even folks who are not actively studying human rights academically can be involved in meaningful action,” Holehouse said. 

Additionally, Holehouse advises students in their path with human rights both in and out of Duke’s campus. 

“First and foremost, I would say don’t be afraid. This is something that I have had to overcome in my own journey as an activist. I understand that putting yourself out there to make a difference for human rights can be intimidating. But, at Duke Amnesty International, we try to help you overcome that barrier in an accessible way. Next, I would say join us! We have opportunities for all Duke students — whether you have deep experience with human rights advocacy or are only just learning about human rights, there is a place for you in our group and in human rights broadly. Our Instagram @dukeamnestyinternational is a great place to gain insight into how our club functions, and I am always personally open to discussions about getting involved. We welcome new members at any point during the year, so you are always welcome to join us,” Holehouse said. “It is never too late to start! And, for those of you who are already highly involved with human rights on campus, don’t let that passion die once you graduate. Continue to take action and always encourage others to join you.”