Amplifying Other Voices  

Humanities5 MIN READ

Valérie Dionne reflects on her years as the director of the Oak Institute for Human Rights

Professor of French Valérie Dionne has served for five years as Director of the Oak Institute for Human Rights.
By Abigail CurtisPhotography by Ashley L. Conti
August 1, 2023

As a child growing up in Québec, Professor of French Valérie Dionne dreamed of becoming an international war correspondent in part because she wanted to help change people’s lives for the better. 

Ultimately, she veered away from journalism and toward academia, studying the work of the French Renaissance philosopher Michel de Montaigne and becoming an authoritative commentator on questions of the law and of legal philosophy and theory in Early Modern France. 

But Dionne has still found powerful ways to fulfill her goal of changing lives. As she wound down five years as director of the Oak Institute for Human Rights and prepared for a sabbatical year to write her next book, she reflected on the importance and the challenges of doing work that honors and raises up human rights activists. 

“When I became director, I quickly understood that the best part of my job was to empower people,” she said. “All these years, what I was trying to do was to help people amplify their own work. Oak provides a space to bring to fruition the best ideas of our human rights fellows, faculty members, and students.” 

History of the Oak Institute

The Oak Institute at Colby began more than 25 years ago, when the late President William R. Cotter requested—and received—a large grant from the Oak Foundation in Geneva, Switzerland. His goal was to permanently endow a new institute at the College. The centerpiece was a fellowship for a human rights activist who would lead a seminar and otherwise have the chance to spend the autumn relaxing and recharging away from the stresses of their dangerous or difficult fieldwork. 

Since 1998, when Oak selected its first fellow, it has bestowed that honor on 28 such activists, with the most recent recipient being Khosro Kalbasi Isfahani, who will come to Colby this fall from Iran. Past fellows have come from all over the world, including Morocco, Pakistan, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Colombia, Canada, Kosovo, Sudan, Palestine, Cambodia, Zimbabwe, the Philippines, Bangladesh, Israel, India, South Africa, Myanmar, and Uganda.

Over the years, the scope of the institute’s work at the College has gotten larger. In addition to hosting a fellow each fall, Oak also organizes human rights programs such as lectures and performances throughout the year, encourages faculty to include the analysis of human rights problems in their courses, and awards grants to enable students to work as interns in human rights organizations around the world. The institute also empowers students to play a major role in planning human rights events and programs, and, in recent years, the Oak Student Committee has grown significantly. 

The growth of Oak is something that Dionne nurtured during her years as director, including expanding collaborations with other campus organizations and making Oak more visible through a new, more engaging website

In large part, she said, the positive changes came about thanks to a great team of assistant directors over the years, including current assistant director Emory Burke. Dionne also gave credit to incoming director Assistant Professor of Spanish Tiffany Creegan Miller, who will work with Sam Plasencia, assistant professor of English, the new associate director. 

Above all, Dionne is glad that the role of students has been elevated. 

“The student voice counts in Oak 100 percent of the time. It’s really so crucial to hear their voices. And they’re really empowered. In the spring, they’re the ones who organize and introduce events. They do everything,” she said.

“That’s a really good way to form future leaders—leaders who will have a very positive impact because they come to Oak with a very strong ethical sense in the first place.”

Professor of French Valérie Dionne

Seeking justice

For Dionne, activism in the pursuit of justice is an important activity that people can do in the course of their daily lives. She hails from a Francophone culture that puts an emphasis on protest, voicing critical opinions, marching, and civil disobedience. She would like to see U.S. citizens become more comfortable with this kind of activism. 

“I think we need to acknowledge that activism is a healthy part of democracy,” she said. “It’s what precedes good policies, and is the healthy dialogue that we need to have. It teaches us to be better listeners, especially with people whose voices have been silenced for too long.” 

For example, she said, when the provincial government in Québec wanted to nearly double university fees in 2012 to $3,800, about 200,000 college and university students went on a general strike that paralyzed downtown Montréal. 

“Education is a human right, and these students wanted to protect accessibility to education as a right for all,” Dionne said. “Even if we think that the increase in fees is almost insignificant and may be even important, the principle of protecting education for all is admirable.”

It’s essential for people to step out of their comfort zones to better understand power and privilege, and the injustices that may lie beneath them, she said. 

“It brings it back to accountability,” she said. “Power and privilege always come at the cost of someone else.” 

Staging justice 

Dionne has had a longstanding interest in the questions of power and accountability, which she explores in her upcoming book, La Mise en Scène de la Justice, or Staging Justice. In it, she will look at French rewritings of three ancient Greek myths and tragedies: Iphigenia, which has themes of gender, war, and sacrifice; Antigone, which is about the tension between natural law and laws of the state, prompting a woman to sacrifice everything for what she believes is right; and Medea, about a mother who kills her own two sons as the ultimate act of defiance against the patriarchal power that took everything away from her, including her children.

“I’m looking at sacrifice in the context of justice to show that institutional justice has always needed to sacrifice part of its population, much in the way the U.S. system now relies on mass incarceration,” Dionne said. “I’m critiquing the idea of institutional sacrifice that I identify in several texts, but I will end on a positive note, reflecting on potential solutions like restorative justice.” 

For the professor, drawing the threads of writing, teaching, and human rights work together has been a privilege and a passion. 

“You see how Oak resonates with all the work that I do,” Dionne said. “It’s been so enriching in that way.”