This interview was conducted over email with Kevin Solomon, a senior undergraduate student enrolled in the Human Rights Certificate Program.

Why did you decide to pursue the human rights certificate?

Kevin Solomon (KS): Unfortunately, because of my upbringing and schooling, I arrived at Duke not knowing much about structural inequality and oppression. First year, I jumped into Robin Kirk’s cross-listed Introduction to Human Rights course and was struck by how Eurocentric and imperialist my high school history classes were, painting over the US’ installation of dictatorships in Latin America or “neutrality” with Israel and the occupied territories. Feeling as though I’d been spoon-fed propaganda, I participated in the DukeImmerse: Governance, Policy, & Society program to interrogate the truth about the issues I encountered growing up: Housing insecurity, addiction, racial segregation, and poverty. The more I dug, the more I learned that there’s a difference between the “human rights” I’d learned growing up (e.g. equality, liberty, democracy) and the human rights I learned at Duke (e.g. occupation, oppression, coloniality & imperialism). All the while, I became more confident I wanted—and indeed, needed—to pursue the Human Rights Certificate to critically investigate the history, present, and future of justice.

What makes this certificate unique from other programs at Duke?

Kevin Solomon (KS): Three things. First, the Certificate strongly encourages experiential learning. My DukeImmerse program fulfilled all but two of my requirements (excepting for the Intro course and my thesis), whereas most departments and programs would credit just 1-2 of the 4 DukeImmerse courses. In this way, the Certificate recognizes that human rights bridge all disciplines and that all disciplines define, nuance, and constitute the collective study of human rights. Second, the faculty running the Certificate uniquely allow students to petition a course as being related to human rights and therefore deserving of credit. If students can show in a syllabus how human rights underlie or are a part of the course, they can receive credit, preemptively or retroactively. Third, many certificates and programs have either a lot of faculty or have so many cross-listed course options that there isn’t a clear set of “core” faculty. The Human Rights Certificate fits into the second camp because of its cross-listed courses, but it differs in that it has a core group of welcoming faculty that feel like a family. Folks like Robin, Emily, James, and others with the DHRC and Certificate opened their arms early and helped me find a warm home on campus.

How has the multidisciplinary, experiential nature of the program affected your learning while in the certificate?

KS: The multidisciplinary nature of the Certificate helped me learn ways of thinking about and seeing power/oppression that I wouldn’t have learned or grasped in one single discipline. For example, understanding that power systems dynamically surround us at all times—even in the keyboard I’m typing on in terms of where my computer was produced, by whom, under what labor conditions, according to what global capital streams, etc.—is something that I learned partly from sociology, political science, international comparative studies, various ethnic studies, and other subjects, but is a lesson which the Certificate operationalizes as an initial framework for thinking about the world. And inversely, this multidisciplinary approach helped deepen and buttress my political science education by weaving together lessons, ways of learning/knowing, and scholarly input from other subjects.

The experiential nature of the program made these multidisciplinary lessons concrete. During my DukeImmerse, for example, I saw how residential segregation in South Africa and the US South are similar, both fueled by the global political economy, racism, and capitalistic housing markets. But beyond reading about this academic lesson, my emotional experience seeing the inequalities and listening to residents made the lesson more nuanced, vivid, and holistic: These countries have unique, intertwined histories, both having referenced the other across decades on how to first segregate and later integrate residents.

How do you plan to use the information and experiences you’re gaining from the certificate?

KS: First and foremost, the Certificate has indelibly instilled in me a way of seeing and engaging with the world (described partly above). It taught me that oppression bleeds into every facet of life—individual and collective—and true change can only be achieved when oppression is tackled on every front all at once.

Secondly, the program challenged me to think about change—what does it look like, how is it best achieved, how can it be structurally lasting, etc. Having drafted my theory of change over the years throughout the Certificate, I now hope to put it in practice. I learned in coursework on urban injustice that grassroots organizing is perhaps the most impactful way to challenge free-market capitalism, patriarchy, white supremacy, and more, and so as a result, I intend to do community organizing work for several years after graduation.

And finally, I also learned during the Certificate that I’m passionate about housing insecurity, poverty, criminal injustice, and environmental sustainability. In the future, I hope to focus my advocacy on those issues in particular.

What has been the most impactful moment (lecture, activity, reading, professor, etc) you’ve gained from the program?

KS: In Downtown Atlanta during my DukeImmerse, I was struck by the stark contrast between the massive, glimmering Mercedes-Benz Stadium soaring over the boarded-up houses and crumbled sidewalks of Vine City just two blocks away. I realized I’d been blind to place-based inequalities and structural violence, blind to how historical scars like redlining viscerally shaped even my own experience growing up. I was born and raised in a middle-class, predominately-White community with my biological family on the north side of St. Petersburg, FL, until I moved in with my friend in a mixed-income, multiracial community on the south side of St. Pete during high school. Right then in Atlanta during my sophomore year, I developed an academic framework, a moral compass, and a personal drive: Intentional, structural inequality is unjust and must be toppled to the ground. That moment sparked my academic study of poverty, and my hands-on fight against housing injustice with the Durham Community Land Trustees for the following two years.