Uncovering the power of human rights education at UAB

Although both of her parents graduated from UAB’s School of Medicine, attending the university was not part of Katie Fagan’s long-term plan — at least not at first.
Written by: Chris McCauley
Media contact: Brianna Hoge

anthro story 1Katie Fagan and Elliot Nicholson-CoxWhile growing up in Birmingham, Katie Fagan lived a few blocks away from the University of Alabama at Birmingham. Although both of her parents graduated from UAB’s School of Medicine, attending the university was not part of Fagan’s long-term plan — at least not at first.

“I wanted a bit more distance,” said Fagan, who is an AmeriCorps VISTA and volunteer engagement member for the Black Warrior Riverkeeper, a nonprofit organization dedicated to promoting clean water for the sake of public health, recreation and wildlife habitat throughout the Black Warrior River watershed. 

Fagan’s academic journey helped her achieve that desired distance. After studying sociology at Hendrix College in Conway, Arkansas, she made her way across the Atlantic Ocean to the University of Manchester, where she earned her Master of Science degree in environmental governance. That is also where she met Elliot Nicholson-Cox.  

Fagan and Nicholson-Cox connected quickly and uncovered a shared interest in human rights and peace studies. Nicholson-Cox, an alumnus of the University of Bradford’s Peace and Development Studies program, was teaching full time and planning his next academic step.

While crafting his vision for the future and exploring his evolving interest in anthropology, he decided to visit Fagan while she was back in Birmingham spending time with her family. 

During his trip to Birmingham, Nicholson-Cox was determined to meet Douglas P. Fry, Ph.D., a prominent anthropologist and former chair of the UAB College of Arts and SciencesDepartment of Anthropology

“Dr. Fry was instrumental in establishing the UAB Anthropology of Peace and Human Rights program,” Nicholson-Cox said. “We chatted and stayed in touch, and he invited me to apply for the program.”

Nicholson-Cox followed Fry’s recommendation and was accepted into the graduate program at UAB. Fagan also started exploring the possibility of returning home.

Within a year, both Nicholson-Cox and Fagan had moved from England to Alabama and enrolled in the APHR program. Although they shared several foundational classes, they uncovered their own specific interests within the program.

Fagan embraced her return to Alabama and sought opportunities to ground her research, and work in her home state, through interdisciplinary courses in public policy and public health and internship opportunities with the Jefferson County Memorial Project and the UAB Institute for Human Rights.  

As Fagan developed her Birmingham network, Nicholson-Cox found ways to pursue his specific interest in the ways education systems work in relation to peace and conflict in local communities.  

“Katie was able to spend lots of time doing research that was specific to Birmingham,” Nicholson-Cox said, “while I was doing more classically academic work.” 

Both Nicholson-Cox and Fagan graduated from the APHR program in 2020, and now their specific interests are informing their respective postgraduation paths.  

According to Peter Verbeek, Ph.D., associate professor and APHR program director in the Department of Anthropology, both students made a lasting impact on the program.

“Access to a healthy and sustainable environment and to age-appropriate education are not privileges but rights that are integral to the basic human rights framework that much of the world has pledged to uphold," said Verbeek. "Working to advance these rights equals working for positive peace. Both Fagan’s and Nicholson-Cox’s contributions to APHR in these areas have been multifold and much appreciated, and all of us in the UAB Department of Anthropology have great expectations for their future careers as scholars and activists of peace.”

Nicholson-Cox is exploring Ph.D. programs that will allow him to further build on his master’s thesis, which focuses on the way education was used as a tool of colonial Spain in Mexico from the 16th century to today. He will also teach the Intro to Peace Studies course at UAB in fall 2021.  

Fagan is working with the Black Warrior Riverkeeper and says she daily draws on her knowledge and skills from the APHR program, including conflict resolution and conflict transformation.

“I am still using all of my research,” Fagan said. “I am currently on junior boards for the Botanical Gardens and the Alabama Rivers Alliance, and discussions about equity and justice are definitely a part of that work. I have been able to bring a lot of theories from the program out to these groups, which has really helped me.” 

Both Fagan and Nicholson-Cox say the APHR program profoundly influenced the ways in which they each see the world, and they will carry their knowledge and networks with them throughout their careers and future academic pursuits