In Memory of Kirk Felsman – Founder of Hart Fellows Program

Alex Harris

It is hard to believe that Kirk Felsman is no longer with us. Like other colleagues and friends here in North Carolina, I’m deeply saddened by his loss.

Kirk and I began to collaborate and teach together in the Hart Leadership Program in 1997. Through the Hart Fellow’s program, Kirk recognized early on the potential of documentary work to impact policy around children’s issues. He saw that certain socially motivated young adults with documentary skills could have a real impact on international NGOs and the communities they support, if these students could be put in a situation where they came to know individual children and their families and then told their stories in a compelling way. Through his extensive international contacts Kirk was able to place these undergraduate Fellows with NGOs focused on extraordinarily complex and difficult problems: like child-headed households in Rwanda after the genocide, and the stigma and silence around HIV in Ethiopia in the early days of the epidemic there. In 2000 Kirk also started and ran the Humanitarian Challenges Focus Program at Duke. In 2002 Kirk was a founder of the Lewis Hine Documentary Fellows Program at the Center for Documentary Studies, created to focus on children’s issues around the world. I had the privilege of teaching with Kirk for several years through CDS and Hart Leadership until he left Duke around 2004 to continue his work with international NGOs. Our courses had titles like “Humanitarian action: A Documentary Approach” and “Children on the Margins.”

Kirk was a gifted clinical child psychologist whose specialty was children in war-torn countries or crisis situations. One message Kirk taught me and Duke undergraduates that I’ll never forget. He told us that children are enormously resilient: that the greatest predictor for a child’s success in surviving emotionally during and after a crisis situation is not the severity of the crisis, but the attitude of the child’s parents or guardians. If the adults are calm and positive, children can survive almost anything.

Kirk’s legacy will continue to be felt at Duke and in the lives of families and communities around the world. It was an honor to know and work with him.

 


Noah Hendler (Hart Fellow 1996-1997)
 

The day I learned of Kirk’s tragic death I ended up, by coincidence, at the same place where Kirk and I first met over fifteen years ago. The restaurant is just down the street from Save The Children in Westport and not far from my current home in Fairfield, Connecticut. The corner table Kirk and I first sat at is still there. The two simple chairs facing one another were appropriately empty.

I can easily recall sitting across from Kirk, not fully understanding the opportunity he was presenting but eager for it, regardless. I was an idealistic recent graduate determined to do something meaningful with my life. Kirk kept implying that he could put someone like me to good use. I wanted to believe him. His genuine warmth and open demeanor made it easy to like him, let alone trust him.

Still it was a tremendous leap of faith, even for a comparative religion major, to embrace Kirk’s suggestion that I consider going to Rwanda. I had no experience living in an impoverished country. Yet, according to Kirk, I belonged in Rwanda; one of the poorest nations and one devastated by conflict.

I am glad that the twenty-two-year-old me accepted Kirk’s offer. Kirk made it possible to do something that I knew was such a significant challenge it would forever shape my life. The experience played a pivotal role in my personal development and therefore both directly and indirectly so did Kirk.

At the time, the fellowship program Kirk would ultimately help develop and formalize was in its nascent stage. It was largely informal and unstructured. Defining my role was something Kirk and I did together but not always in a coordinated fashion. It was not an easy or smooth process. Yet, even when we did not agree on the details we always shared something more substantial.

Kirk was an adult who shared my youthful idealism. He believed in the potential for positive change despite the prevalence of profound suffering. I admired him for living out a commitment to social service and largely spending his time addressing the needs of others. I was a neophyte, starting out on a course he had traveled for some time. I had a lot to learn but Kirk did not offer to teach me by holding my hand. Instead, Kirk had the confidence to allow me to find my own way.

Through Kirk’s impetus I learned much more than just about my own resilience. Documenting children living alone without adult support or supervision in the aftermath of genocide introduced me to the paradoxical strength of vulnerable children. This is something Kirk already knew well from his own work. It was the quality he immediately recognized and commented on when first examining my photographs.

The strength of the children I photographed in Rwanda remains with me and I am thinking of them and Kirk when Isaac, the oldest of my three young children, asks why I look sad. I stop staring at the empty chairs in the corner of the restaurant tell him I am remembering a friend who died. ‘Who Dad?’ he asks. I reply, ‘His name was Kirk Felsman, he helped me learn a lot about my self, my place in the world and gave me faith that I could make a difference. He is an important part of my life and yours too.’

 

Read other remembrances from former students here.

Kirk Felsman (bottom right) and the Refugee Action Project team, 1998.

Kirk Felsman (bottom right) and the Refugee Action Project team, 1998.