Humanitarian Challenges

  • Humanitarian Challenges students sitting on the East Campus lawn
    Humanitarian Challenges students sitting on the East Campus lawn
  • Humanitarian Challenges students at Stagville at nighttime
    Humanitarian Challenges students at Stagville at nighttime


The Humanitarian Challenges Focus seminars introduce students to global citizenship, the challenges that face societies in our contemporary world, and approaches of both thought and action that address these challenges. "Humanitarian" by definition implies promoting human welfare, social justice, and human rights, and "challenges" refers to the obstacles that block the achievement of those ideals. Working together within individual seminars in class, and across courses during our shared evening events, we’ll gain an appreciation of ties that bind us to people in other contexts and societies. The lives of great humanitarian activists in history revive our faith in the future as we confront environmental hazards, threats to human dignity, social inequality and global health crises. Our sources range from focused academic readings in the disciplines referenced, to poetry, music, film, spiritual texts, and biography. Throughout our courses and weekly programs, we will explore means of advocacy, modes of dissent, routes of  reflection, models of civic mobilization, and possibilities for change. The four seminars of this cluster range from learning to advocate for change through effective communication skills, exploring the traits and ideologies of great leaders in societies experiencing crisis or transition, investigating issues of identity and belonging, and understanding the importance and limitations of language in the pursuit of a better comprehension of the world around us. In grappling with the challenges presented to us as humanitarians, we forge an intellectual family and a compassionate community that, as one student put it, ‘thinks critically about thematically-related issues which make us better people and better global citizens.’


Cultural Anthropology 114FS: MAKING YOUR CASE: Advocacy for Change (EI, SS, CCI, W)

Ingrid Bianca Byerly

Dr. Ingrid Bianca Byerly, Humanitarian Challenges Focus Director and Senior Lecturing Fellow: Writing/Cultural Anthropology/Public Policy

How did Mandela defuse an audience of critics with a single speech, transforming himself from prisoner to Stateman? How did Marc Anthony convince a crowd who wanted to assassinate him for the murder of Caesar that they wanted him as their Emperor instead? How do great speakers change minds, or inspire humanitarian action? Effective advocacy is essential in achieving philanthropic goals. This course will explore the theoretical and practical elements of advocacy through public speaking; especially in relation to pressing humanitarian challenges. We focus on global crises and causes, to identify not only your own desires for change, but for the way in which to ‘make your case’ for change. While the focus is on efficient communication (both in large public speaking environments, and in smaller interactive exchanges), stress is also given to ethics in decision-making, considerations of cultural sensitivity and awareness of global codes of conduct. In developing compelling arguments, thoughtful considerations have to be given to both spoken and written expositions that will have potential effects on others. Emphasis is placed on inter-cultural sensitivity, variable codes of conduct, and the human dimensions of the communication process; vocal intonation, body behavior, audience evaluation, focus, control, distraction, and self-awareness. Advocating for change explores public advocacy, empowering students to speak up for causes they care about. Tracing different forms of activism across diverse eras and cultures, the course explores the mechanics of successful social movements, including effective public speaking strategies, cultural nuances, and personal charisma. The course is geared towards students interested in entering the public or political arena, those interested in investing their skills and passions in humanitarian ventures, and those spearheading initiatives towards global change. It emphasizes self-reflection and growth, and you may find the most important things you learn about will be yourself. 


Sumathi Ramaswamy

Dr. Sumathi Ramaswamy, James B. Duke Distinguished Professor of History

What are the political and ethical consequences of refusing to obey the laws and dictates of a governing authority, of being practitioners of what has been hailed as “civil disobedience?” Is it a “dangerous” idea? These are the key questions of this seminar which focuses on the words and actions of three of the 20th century’s most ‘disobedient’ men: “Mahatma” Gandhi of India, Martin Luther King, Jr. of the United States, and Nelson Mandela of South Africa. One important goal of the course is to encourage you to think of these figures not as “Indian,” “American,” or “South African” per se, but as “global” thinkers whose ideas regarding willful and conscious dissent were fertilized by influences that were trans-national and trans-historical. We will look at the manner in which each of these men fashioned a “disobedient” self through their writing and their oratory. We will also consider how their seemingly “rebellious” personas were crafted by the artist’s brush, the photographer’s lens, and the filmmaker’s camera. Not least, we will focus on their spectacular public enactments of civil disobedience in order to understand how their global reputations were acquired. Methodologically and conceptually, our goal is to track an “arc” and “archive” of disobedience within which we can place these men—and other individuals like them—and ask why the 20th century appears to have been particularly prone to such acts of willful acts of dissidence, of “sitting apart,” of refusing to comply with unjust and unfair laws.

Cultural Anthropology/ Documentary Studies/ Science and Society 220FS: Global ‘Mixed Race’ Studies: GLOBAL PERSPECTIVES ON “MIXED RACE”, SOCIAL HIERARCHIES AND BELONGING (SS, CCI, EI, STS)

Jayne O. Ifekwunigwe

Dr. Jayne O. Ifekwunigwe: Senior Research Scholar, Center on Genomics, Race, Identity, Difference (GRID), Social Science Research Institute (SSRI)

This interdisciplinary and comparative course explores how ideas about ‘race’ and ‘mixed race’ were first created and why they persist over time. Comparing writings from biology, history, anthropology, psychology and sociology, students will gain a critical understanding of the lived experiences of racialized and gendered belonging for ‘mixed race’ individuals in ‘race’/color hierarchies including South Africa, Brazil, the United Kingdom, the United States, and China as well as the empowering strategies ‘mixed race’ individuals actively create in response to exclusionary social, legal or political practices.

Linguistics 220FS/Public Policy/ Sociology/International Comparative Studies: LANGUAGES, MARGINS and BORDERS: Representations, Practices and Policies (SS, CCI, EI)

Gareth Price

Dr. Gareth Price: Visiting Assistant Professor of Linguistics

This course examine the relationships between language and contemporary migration patterns that – directly or indirectly – affect millions of people across the globe, focusing especially on migration flows related to humanitarian challenges. Divided into three key themes, it analyzes the representation of migrants and migration in media and culture; language practices of migrants, including translanguaging and language learning; and policies towards migrants and their languages that pertain to governance in linguistically diverse societies. Interdisciplinary in approach, readings are drawn from linguistic anthropology and sociolinguistics, as well as political sociology and public policy studies.

Faculty Director

Headshot of Dr Byerly
Ingrid Bianca Byerly
  • Senior Lecturing Fellow: Writing/Cultural Anthropology/Public Policy
Thompson Writing Program
Campus Box: 
Box 90025
919 681 8483