Judith Blau

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Dr. Judith Blau is a professor of sociology at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and chair of the Social and Economic Justice Undergraduate Minor. Blau is the founder and director of the Human Rights Center of Chapel Hill & Carrboro (HRC). Major topics of the interview center around the origins of the Human Rights Center of Chapel Hill & Carrboro, Blau's early work in sociology and her shift to public sociology and Human Rights, specific obstacles to Latino immigrant outreach and current successful projects, and hopes for the future of sociology, Human Rights, and the HRC. Blau began projects in general sociology in NYC before moving to North Carolina to teach at UNC-Chapel Hill. Since the move, her focus has shifted to public sociology, or Human Rights, and her students complete service requirements through the projects of the HRC. This center is particularly unique in that it was established within the largely-immigrant community of Abbey Court in order to evade private property restrictions against freedom of speech. The most successful outreach programs include the after school program, adult ESL classes, and computer classes.



Elise Stephenson: [Start of recording]. Hi, this is Elise Stephenson and today I am interviewing Judith Blau, the
founder of the Human Rights Center here in Carrboro in Abbey Court neighborhood in Carrboro, NC. It is March 19,
2011. Thanks so much for being here with me today Judith. Maybe you can tell us a little bit about the vision of the
Human Rights Center here in Carrboro, what you've done to start it up, and what it means to you?
Judith Blau: Thank you. You have a set of really interesting questions. Let me begin by saying that I had been--I was
chair of Social and Economic Justice undergraduate minor, and I taught it as a justice course. And then I found it much
more gratifying to teach as a Human Rights course from which there is a global understanding of what we mean by
that. And, so then I began teaching that as a theory course—and that just didn't work. I needed some practicum for the
students. So I kind of thought—I was thinking, where would I go? Rafael Diego, who is the associate director of the
center, and I were distributing flyers for El Centro, which is now defunct, here in Abbey Court. And we were followed
by a security agent who kept yelling obscenities at us, and finally

called the police and the Sheriffs department. You know, we got the full treatment! And I was furious. So I called the
mayor, and the mayor told me to call the chief of police. I called the chief of the police. I met with her the next day,
and she said "You know its private property. You have no free speech rights on private property." And I said, "If I am
an owner in Abbey Court, then we will have free speech rights, correct? Haha." So she said "Of course." But also, this
neighborhood—the residents exhibit a huge range of problems. They are cheated by employers, they don't have access
to health care, they often are discriminated against in schools, they have difficulty getting a license to drive a car—so
they're treated less than human in our country. And I wanted our undergraduates to understand that. When you meet
people here in Abbey Court, they are just wonderful! They are kind, they are cordial, they are eager to please, and it's
been a very successful program I think. Not only for the Abbey Court residents who we don't treat as charity cases. As
Alfonso who you just met says "We treat.. .it's solidarity actions." And that kind of attitude, I think, is important.
ES: And you, you started--. Did you start the service learning class around the time that you decided to start the center
inside here in Abbey Court, like you said, in order to have a voice?
JB: Before when I taught the course as a theory course, I had a potpourri of service-learning opportunities for the
students. So they could choose, you know, a women's center. They could choose a homeless shelter. Wherever they
wanted to go. But it wasn't coherent. Now we've reached the point where we have 30 opportunities here at the Human
Rights Center. So that's enough—more than enough—opportunities for my students in the two classes.

ES: Tell me about some of the different—you said there were 30—about some of the different opportunities they have
to volunteer here. What are some of the programs that you are doing?
JB: There are programs that take place here like LINC, Technology Without Borders, keeping up with computers,
soccer, the food distribution on Saturday (see references). But they also have an opportunity to be liaisons with
organizations with which we are also liaisons, like El Centro Hispano. We are starting a huge program with Rogers
Road. I have a meeting this afternoon with them that will include three public artists, the coach of street soccer,
Reverend Campbell, and the director of the community center. So, what does this mean? This means that we are
transcending cultures. That the Latino kids and the African American kids have an opportunity to get together and
learn about one another's culture. And it's an Arts & Humanities grant. The humanities really enabled vulnerable
populations to save their narratives, their songs, their languages. So this will be—if it's funded—it will be a humanities
project. And that takes us out of the realm of "social-worky" types of projects, which is where I don't want to go.
Social work does that better than we do.
ES: Yeah. That's fantastic. So how did you get here, to Carrboro, and North Carolina? Are you from North Carolina?
Were you born here?
JB: No, no. I spent 16 years in New York City, in Manhattan, prior to coming here.
ES: Okay.

JB: I came here because the dept. of Sociology was outstanding. I had been commuting between Albany and New
York City, and the family had gotten fed up with that.
ES: And when you were in NYC, did you do social justice work there as well? Did you/do you have any comparisons
between New York and North Carolina in that way? Between the work you've done here versus being in a big city?
JB: What an interesting question! OK, I started out in sociology of science and did a study of theoretical high energy
physicists. And then I did a few smaller projects. And then did a major study of architects and aesthetic philosophies
within NYC. When New York City went bankrupt, I returned to the city and interviewed as many of them [the
architects] as remained. The term modernism—which you take for granted as a young person—was coined by
Christopher Jangst, an architectural critic. So that whole explosion of relativity, and the attack on hierarchies, and the
attack on bureaucracies, all began in architecture. And NYC was just a prime location for design architects.
But so then, I did studies in prisons, in children's psychiatric hospitals, of spatial diffusion processes... minor league
baseball teams... I mean, I've been all over the map! But I would ask a question, and then do the research. When I had
satisfied myself, I left the field. My husband said, "it's no way to be able to take vacations in the summer because you
are always working aren't you?" But increasingly I began to question the value and neutrality that American sociology
portends to advance: that we are scientists. We look through a microscope at human behavior. We have no
compassion. We have no values. We spurn those activists. And there is a developing movement within sociology, not
here but elsewhere, of activists—or public sociology. And Human Rights can be part

of that. The researchers, or the teacher, or the administrator is not neutral when he or she says "Everyone has the right
to food." Now, the argument in mainstream sociology would be to somewhat discredit that point of view. Things are
changing fairly quickly.
ES: Wow. It's very interesting just coming to North Carolina and the changes that has had on the direction of what you
are doing in sociology. I'm wondering how much being in Chapel Hill and Carrboro has affected that shift towards a
more, like you said, public sociology. Do you believe that you started to focus on that after coming here? And after
your work at UNC? Or do you believe that activist mentality was something that you had all along, had been
developing, but just hadn't found an outlet for?
JB: That's hard to say... In 2002,1 was asked to be the president of the US Chapter of Sociologists Without Borders,
which was a Spanish—it was founded in Spain. And Sociologists Without Borders is, according to its mission
statement, a celebration of Human Rights. So, I think that was the bridge.
So that was 2002, and then in 2003, the US Chapter of Sociologists Without Borders got on the ballot of the American
Sociological Association anti-war petition that was forming, about going to war in Iraq. An earlier one about Vietnam
had not passed, so people said "don't get your hopes up." And then it passed! Sociology is changing. So, I'm still
president of Sociology Without Borders. I'm not active in the immigration section of the American Sociological
Association, but I am active in the Human Rights section, which I along with several other people helped to found. It's
amazing how little in general Americans know about Human Rights. "Oh yes, that's genocide that happens in Sudan,"
right? [Laugh]. And to think of the possibility that the denial of food rights, of housing rights, of medical care, are
violations of Human Rights, is not quite part of the American

psyche, perceptions, language yet. I think things are changing. The US State Department last week made a statement in
response to the review of the Universal Periodic Review that was something like the following: "Everyone has the right
to decent housing." WOW... so things are changing! We are becoming part of the civilized world.
ES: We talked a lot about Human Rights, and your focus on Human Rights, and also just the connection—how you
want to get Abbey Court involved with Rogers Road and the mixing of cultures in that way. But predominantly, your
work here is with Latino immigrants—because of location, and because of Abbey Court and the situation here. I'm
curious about what you find unique about advocating for immigrant rights—immigrants in general, Latino immigrants,
whatever you find most interesting to discuss.
JB: Well there are the basic Human Rights, but then there are the particularly excruciating violations of Human Rights.
Wage theft is so common among the workers. To have to stand outside in the freezing cold, without toilets, in just
inhumane. So we are working with El Centro Hispano—and now there is a mayor's taskforce on day laborers— to do
something. We are also working with the Law School and the Southern Coalition because we think that the ordinance
—and the lawyers also think the ordinance—that is right outside of Abbey Court that says you must leave at 11 o'clock
is unconstitutional. So we take resolutions to Chapel Hill and Carrboro when we can. When we need lawyers, we call
them up. And then we have the programs with the students.
ES: How much of this would you not be able to do if you weren't located right here inside the community? You were
saying earlier that that was why you started it here. You didn't have free speech because it was a private community.
You're unique because you are inside the community. I think that's one of the things that makes the Chapel Hill

and Carrboro Human Rights Center so unique compared to other Human Rights centers that are trying to fight for the
same rights that you are. What advantages, and what difference, has it made by being right here, in the community,
with the people that you are here to help.
JB: I think the immigrant residents feel that we are trustworthy. They can always come to us and know that we will
fight for their rights. And it's this proximity and the kind of casual relationship that we have with them that makes this
possible. In the beginning, it wouldn't have been possible to bring all of these student groups in, but now it's great. We
have the most wonderful soccer coach. Since he has been here, he has formed a 501c3 called Street Soccer. And when
the kids are playing soccer, all of the adults are hanging out on their balconies watching. We have festivals twice a
year—one for a Burmese holiday and one for a Mexican holiday. Children asked once "Are we going to have a horse
again at Las Posadas?" So it's that we are neighbors. We happen to have more resources, but we are using those
resources to make sure that your rights are protected.
ES: How have you seen that trust develop over time? When did you first bring the HRC into the community, and have
you seen a marked improvement in trust over time? That this has started to take hold in the community and strengthen
with time?
JB: Yes. There are little corners. One was when Beto, whom you've met, asked if he could give computer classes in
ES: And how did he know computer skills? Where did he get those?
JB: I don't know where he got computer skills! The... do you know Technology Without Borders (see references)? Ok,
so Beto and I were alone in E4 one day and

Patrick Kenan walked in from TWB, and Beto said, "Is it all right that I have installed Buntu operating system on two
computers?" And the look on Patrick's face what just amazing! He said, "Oh, of course not. There are many
advantages to Buntu. It takes less space on the hard-drive and you can't get viruses--." I've asked my students in class
if they know what that operating system is, and maybe one or two answer.
So Beto uses his networks to help our programs. Alfonso who lives upstairs is the assistant teacher for the afterschool
program (see references). He's a wonderful, wonderful young person who the children just love. [Pause].
So it's a slow process. There are many anxieties about, you know, will the city turn on them? Will homeland security
start to enforce laws here in the county? I think there is some caution still but our circle of friends in expanding.
Ricardo, who lives right there— we are always happy to see one another. He works in Durham. He has a steady job.
But then he has an extended family, and all members of that extended family seem to like us. Nancy Hilburn, the
teacher, probably has the most ongoing relationships with kids and parents.
ES: The infrastructure seems so neat. You know, the different people and their roles. It seems like there is always
someone here. Maybe you can tell me about what you're thinking in terms of how you structure what you are doing.
Who has what responsibilities, and how that has helped you reach your mission? How do you delegate? How do you
spread out the responsibilities of what you are doing?
JB: So much of what we do is not delegated, but rather initiated by student groups. [Short interruption by local

ES: We were talking about the structure and you said it's really not so much of a delegating thing. It's much more of
a—individuals and students that initiate on their own and kind of decide what to take on and just go for it. Tell me a
little bit more about that.
JB: Well LINC is—don't say this to other people—but LINC is my all time favorite group (see references). It's not like
an ESL class. It's like a family. Cultural respect and learning. Other groups get started more slowly so they're not
running programs until about mid-semester and I would like for that to change if I can.
ES: I guess one of the obstacles that you face by using student groups and in your class because it is very semester
based, every semester you are starting over with brand new people. You have to train new people as you were saying
and it doesn't get started until halfway through the semester. So there isn't that continued development of trust between
two people, you know where it is the same person over and over again. And so in that way it puts a lot more pressure
on you and the people in the center who are here consistently to really hold the burden of that trust—to hold most of
the trust because it comes through you. They learn to trust these people because they trust you, and because time after
time they come. But it must be difficult to, like you were saying, keep starting over. How do reconcile that? I guess we
talked about the negative aspects, but what do you see as the positives of bringing in new people all of the time?
JB: [Pause]
ES: Or what you envision as a professor—what you are trying to do in your class?
JB: Well, from a pedagogical perspective, it's a win-win [laughter]. From the perspective of residents who are taking
classes, there is a real serious lack of consistency over time, which varies from program to program. [Long pause].
Yeah, I've thought

about this, and we could use someone who speaks Spanish who is always available to mediate, to ask questions,
answer questions.
ES: Is everything volunteer-based? Are there paid position within the center? How do--. Do people volunteer their
time? I know the students volunteer their time, but for you and Rafael and Nancy and the people who are here, and it's
very much a job for them—is that all volunteer-based?
JB: I'm usually successful at getting grants for Nancy through the Public Schools, the PTA, or the ( ). I learned
yesterday that I didn't get a grant. That was too bad. [Laughter]. I personally pay Alfonso, and I pay Beto, and I pay
the utilities, so—
ES: Out of your own pocket?
JB: —Yeah. I think that funding agencies don't know what Human Rights are, and I haven't been able to—even which
I explain it in clear terms—foundation officers might not agree with it. "Everyone has a right to food? No, they have
to work for it!" But the world will change.
ES: That's a very positive outlook! You were talking a little bit earlier—you were saying that once Beto started the
computer classes, that this helped because he had his own networks that he brought in. Networking is an interesting
component of these immigrant communities. How do you feel that networking works within this neighborhood? Do
you feel that there are strong networks, that there is a strong sense of community or strong ties between families—
interfamilial ties—that help to spread the word?
JB: They are very fragmented. Yeah, they are very fragmented. Knowing, for example, the family of Ricardo. That's a
whole extended family. There is a son that is in

( ), two children who are in the afterschool program (see reference, Tutoring Program)~so they are always really
happy to see me when I arrive. If we would be--. I have several roles. One is to teach, and the other is to write books
and articles. And if I were to devote the time that it would take to bring in grant money here, I wouldn't be, you know I
wouldn't be doing what I love to do! [Laughter]. So I would rather get a big check from IRS for my deduct—I've
deducted so much from my income tax! [Laughter]. And we remodeled E4, and I paid for the cabinets and I paid for
salaries, and ALL of the workers left for Mexico after that. They were all very good workers. They were tired of
toughing it out.
ES: Did they talk to you about their reasons for leaving?
JB: Family. They more likely talked to Rafael. Rafael did his Master's Thesis on the corner, as a ( ) study of day
laborers. So there's a lot of trust, people have a lot of
trust in him.
ES: Have you found that not speaking Spanish has been difficult in developing relationships with the people here?
[Laughter.] How do you deal with that?
JB: Well people here know more English than they let on. Because most of the students do speak Spanish, and Alfonso
and the school program and Beto, we have more Spanish speaking than we have instances of English speaking. So they
call me "Mami" [Laughter]. The men call me "Mami." Yes it would be better if I knew Spanish. Am I willing to go to
Mexico for a month for an intensive course? No.
ES: I guess back to the topic of networking. You said that it's very fragmented. What do you mean by that? Could you
elaborate on what you mean by fragmented and why it might be so fragmented?

JB: There never, never are large gatherings. Only when we have our festivals. There are households who will come out
with barbecues, but that's it.
ES: Have you asked anyone about that or spoken to anyone about what that might be? Why there aren't—
JB: That's a good question.
ES: —development of relationships between communities? Because they are in such a similar and tough situation.
Developing human relationships is such a human instinct, you know, to get through tough situations. Why do you think
that hasn't developed here?
JB: Good question. Rafael thinks it's because the cultural differences for people who come from different provinces—
states—in Mexico, are really quite extraordinary. He says, "Ok, this is what people who come from Mexico City are
like and this is what people from Chiapas are like." And then we also have Ecuadorians, Salvadorians.
ES: [Laugh]. Right, so maybe they are more different than they seem to us, though it is difficult to see that. I have
done a lot of volunteering here through LINC (see references), tutoring English, and one of the students I work with
told me that the reason he didn't try to develop relationships here was because he was afraid if he developed
relationships here, he would forget his family. Whether he stayed or he went home he was still separated. He didn't
want to split his life into two places. It was almost easier to not make any ties here in order to make it easier when he
returned to Mexico. I don't know if that's unique to him or if that's a story that is consistent with many of the people
here. But it does reflect some on how much their minds are consumed with their home, and how much the place that
they are from is a big part of who they are and what they

experience when they're here. I wonder if—. In your experience, do you find that most of the people that come here to
Abbey Court, or who are living here briefly or over time, have intentions of returning back to Mexico?
JB: Yes. There's no doubt that they do, but the economy of Mexico is probably worse than the economy of the United
ES: Many of the laws that we have here in the US seem to miss that fact—of them wanting to come here just to work
to return home—and it makes it so much more difficult for them to do that because it is so difficult for them to get
across the border. Because there are so few visas and the path for an undocumented immigrant is so risky that many
people stay here longer than they would like to, for fear of being able to come back over if they returned [to Mexico].
What are your thoughts on that, and your experience, the people who live here and how they make a life here even
when it isn't where they want to be.
JB: Our neighbors are so family oriented. There is a great attachment to the children, and to the circle of relatives that
live nearby. And that makes a huge difference. I mean, I've found casually that babies who are outside with their
mothers, and then begin to grow up, and then get older and venture a little bit away from Mama [laugh] and then get
enough courage to wave to me. So it's a very tight bonding. In my experience in New York, our childhood practices
foster more individuality, more "Go along kid. You figure it out."
ES: How do you feel about community involvement in the Human Rights Center activities? Have you had difficulty
bringing people in for the different services you provide? What obstacles have you faced?

JB: Yeah, its an--. For a long time Rafael and I devoted a significant amount of time to advertising programs, but then
you always have to argue with management about the leaflets and so forth. We do have a text messaging service that
goes out to people saying that—. I know a text message went out about the tax attorneys. Um, it's hard. [Pause]. To
invite people for an assembly to discuss what it is that they would like, I think few people would turn up.
Now the afterschool program (see references, Tutoring Program) is a huge success—there are 50 children that come!
Nancy has to turn away kids. "You don't live in Abbey Court, so you're going to have to leave." But it's extremely
popular. It's consistent. It's ( ) with respect to time and days. It follows the public school calendar.
ES: So what would you say makes her—. What qualities—like you were saying consistency—make for the most
successful outreach programs? Of the different programs, the 30 programs, the different things that go through, what
have you found to be the most helpful? To receive the most positive response from the community?
JB: Well besides the afterschool, it would be LINC and Technology Without Borders (see references). People want to
use the computers right? [Laughter]. They want them fixed! We're not very fast at that, but it usually needs to go
through some people.
ES: You said that sociology is changing. What can we do as citizens, as American citizens, to help make this Human
Rights change? What is it that students, that you, that members of the community—what should we be doing to help
promote this change towards a Human Rights mentality?
JB: Oh, that's a nice question. Always asking good questions, and I think that this generation of students, this last few
chords, strongly believes that people are equal. They

should be treated that way. And once a certain percentage of the population believes that, then it changes.
ES: Do you believe that the current generations that are developing--. I mean I guess as a professor at UNC, in what
you've witnessed, do you see that change in the younger generations? More of an understanding of Human Rights?
JB: Oh definitely. I think we have to assume that these are not carefully crafted ideas, but rather kind of implicit and
tacit assumptions that you make. [Pause] I'll give you an example of how subtle this can be. If we are successful with
this grant—this humanities grant—the public artist would give kids and residents of Rogers Road and here camcorders
to make videos. Then they would project those videos on the buildings. Now that's really subversive isn't it. [Laugh].
But it underscores the dignity of people. You may be undocumented, but you have dignity. You don't care, and look
up there! You can see it on the wall of the building. You are beautiful! So they are going to do it here. They have a
grant from Chapel Hill to do it here. I'm trying to get a grant to do it here and at Rogers Road. And we just got a van.
So we can tool from here over to Rogers Road.
ES: Your excitement about everything is definitely contagious. I think it can be seen through the immense volunteer
effort that comes to Abbey Court. I don't know many people in Chapel Hill that don't know about it.
JB: Oh really!
ES: It's just fantastic. Is there anything that you want to say before we—.
JB: Well you're an excellent interviewer!
ES: First time! So, not really. Anything about Abbey Court, about immigration, about Human Rights, about what we
could be doing?

JB: Yeah, capitalism maybe? [Laughter] It's a big topic! Well there are lots of pieces of buildings falling off here, and
things are in shambles. And the management doesn't fix them. They aren't advertising apartments. We got E4 through
Craig's List. So I suspect that the objective of Lucas is to let the apartment complex fall down and then sell it for a
profit. And I've told everybody that I'll be in front of the bulldozer. [Laughter] They just can't do this to poor people.
ES: Where will people go if this happens?
JB: Well let's say that they pay them half a million dollars to relocate. I don't think they will.
ES: Well thank you so much for everything. Thank you so much.