Professor makes an impact in Sudan human rights

Oct. 20, 2005

by Daniel Uttech

Anthropology professor Sharon Hutchinson wants to expand the bubble that Americans live in.

“It’s OK to live in a bubble,” she says. “But people need to see through it. We are so privileged in this country.”

Photograph of Sharon Hutchinson sitting at her desk in a classroom, leading a discussion.

Professor of anthropology Sharon Hutchinson leads a discussion about internally displaced people in Sudan, Louisiana and other locations around the world, during an anthropology seminar class exploring issues of forced migration. Photo by Michael Forster Rothbart

Hutchinson is soft-spoken, yet passionate when she speaks. She is direct but never forceful or rude. She is a strong leader who speaks from the heart — so strong, in fact, that several of her students took up her human rights interests without her prompting or even talking to her about it initially.

“[Student organization Action in Sudan] has been very successful. Some of my old students started it up last year,” Hutchinson says. “I occasionally give talks, but it’s their baby. I’m proud of my students.”

In recent years, Hutchinson has increasingly designed her courses to help students think through moral and practical dilemmas. She has found that students enjoy not just the theoretical ideas but also the case studies and what’s really at stake. Hutchinson sees many of her anthropology students heading into human rights fields.

“We have a huge responsibility to give back to the places we study from,” Hutchinson says.

This philosophy guides not only how Hutchinson teaches, but also how she lives her life. For 25 years, Hutchinson has been involved in the southern Sudan as an anthropologist and human rights activist.

“That’s the wonderful thing about anthropology,” Hutchinson says. “Whatever I’m learning, it goes immediately into my life.”

Hutchinson began her work in Sudan as a University of Chicago graduate student studying the works of Edward Evans-Pritchard and the Nuer, who are the second-largest group of people in south Sudan. Evans-Pritchard’s work with the Nuer in the 1930s was classic and pioneering.

“No one had gone back to this area for a very long time, partly because I think they were afraid to follow in the footsteps of this great Oxford anthropologist,” Hutchinson says. “I decided that if I wanted to study cultural change that I would work there because I had a kind of baseline. I was interested in how these people saw their own world as changing and actively trying to figure things out. It’s a rough place to go.”

In 1996, after years of following a legend into a rough place, Hutchinson wrote “Nuer Dilemmas: Coping with Money, War and the State.” She also forged connections that have proved helpful in her quest for human rights in Sudan.

“I kept going back,” Hutchinson says, “both because I felt I was one of the few voices that actually brought back some news from the area and also, as time went on, there were a lot of organizations in the area and they needed some help.”

Hutchinson assisted the Sudan Civilian Protection Monitoring team, which works to protect noncombatant civilians from military attack. She also has worked with the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID). Hutchinson is also involved in a class-action suit against an oil company in Sudan.

A comprehensive peace agreement between the government of Sudan and the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement ended the country’s civil war in January. With peace, Hutchinson has been able to start a new endeavor — possibly her ultimate endeavor.

“I had a longtime dream, that as soon as peace came, that I’d be able to channel in some money to start some primary schools. I have three schools now,” Hutchinson says. “I’m very excited because I specifically found places where I’m quite sure the government of Sudan are never [going to go] but there are large populations of school children.”

Hutchinson is doing this with her own money and her own creation, the nonprofit organization Schools for Sudan. She pays the teachers’ salaries, searches for and sends over books and computers and purchases supplies. Reliable channels are hard to find, but she is using contacts with engineers, friends in USAID and people she’s hired in Sudan to make sure the money and supplies arrive. The organization is starting off small — they got e-mail and fax connections just recently — but Hutchinson still hopes to add a couple more schools.

“Right now, I would say Sudan is the lightning rod for the whole future of human rights,” Hutchinson says. “The genocide convention. The global oil grab. Tensions between China and the United States. The global war on terrorism.

“We live in a bubble,” she adds. “But you really can have a large impact in a lot of places. I just wish people would take a look around a little bit more and jump out of their bubble.”