Fellowship Spotlight: Michelle Yang and Matthew Travis Barber

The Pozen Center recently named the latest Fellows to receive the Dr. Aizik Wolf Post-Baccalaureate Fellowship in Human Rights and the Pozen Dissertation Completion Fellowship. These annual fellowships support undergraduate and graduate students as they negotiate crucial moments in their academic and professional careers.

The Wolf Fellowship is designed to help launch the human rights careers of graduating fourth-years by financially supporting one year of full-time work with a non-governmental organization, government agency, or international body dedicated to human rights. Past Fellows have spent their Fellowship years working everywhere from California to India, on issues ranging from gender and religion to criminal justice and youth. 

Our incoming Wolf Fellow is Michelle Yang AB’20, a double major in Anthropology and Comparative Race & Ethnic Studies. Michelle has been involved in activism and grassroots organizing since her earliest days at UChicago, when she co-founded the student coalition UChicago United as a first-year.

Michelle spent last summer as a Human Rights Intern with the Youth Activist-Youth Allies (YA-YA) Network in New York City. In addition to helping run a six-week Summer Institute for a diverse group of youth during her time with the YA-YA Network, Michelle also designed and facilitated a pair of two-hour migrant justice workshops that combined critical pedagogy and creative arts.

Michelle will spend her Fellowship year working with Chicago Torture Justice Memorials (CTJM), a campaign working to establish a public memorial for survivors of Chicago police torture. The Fellowship will allow Michelle to continue the vital community organizing she’s been doing with CTJM since first getting involved with their work last January.

Michelle will continue working to secure support from the City of Chicago and private funders to establish the public memorial, building community support for the memorial, organizing CTJM’s monthly meetings, and actively managing their communications, including social media.

“Being involved in this work has expanded my knowledge of city politics, deepened my political analysis, and exposed me to a wider range of strategies and tactics necessary to work towards human dignity and rights,” Michelle says.

Beginning in 2014, the Pozen Dissertation Completion Fellowship has been awarded annually to a doctoral student whose work makes an important contribution to human rights scholarship. The 2020-21 Dissertation Completion Fellow is Matthew Travis Barber, in support of his dissertation, “Yazidis in the Twentieth and Twenty-First Centuries: Political History, Society, and Law.” 

Matthew began at the University of Chicago in the MA program of the Center for Middle Eastern Studies and is now a Ph.D. candidate in Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations. In the summer of 2014 he was teaching and conducting research in northern Iraq when ISIS fighters began committing genocide against the religious minority population of Yazidis.

Matthew began working immediately to raise awareness of the crisis and to advocate for a robust political and humanitarian response. That fall, he assisted a delegation of Iraqi Yazidi leaders during a visit to Washington and the White House. The following year, he took a leave of absence from UChicago in order to work full-time in Iraq, developing humanitarian and advocacy projects.

His work drew public attention to abuses of Yazidi human rights, contributed to the documenting of mass graves, and helped secure United Nations recognition of the atrocities as genocide. Upon his return to campus, Matthew was awarded the University’s Student Humanitarian Award. 

Matthew’s dissertation builds upon his knowledge of contemporary Yazidi society to fill critical gaps in the scholarship, namely concerning the modern political history of the Yazidis of Iraq. His work interrogates Yazidi historical experience and reframes the relationship between Yazidis and the state as a complex one comprised of more than just victimization. 

Matthew points out that “this study is useful not only for enhancing our knowledge of Yazidi history and society, but for developing a better understanding of the ways that religious minorities in the Middle East engage with national legal frameworks to secure community rights.”

We hope you’ll join us in congratulating Michelle and Matthew on their incredible accomplishments. We look forward to sharing the fruits of their Fellowships with you!