Kirk Felsman Remembered

Minh Thu Pham, Janet Reilly, Kirk Felsman, and Krisjon Olsen, on the grounds of the Sanford Institute of Public Policy at Duke University, Duke University, 1998.

Kirk Felsman, born in 1950 in Bethesda, Maryland, died May 22, 2011, in London, England, following a stroke he suffered earlier in the spring.

Felsman, a clinical psychologist, had a long association with the Center for Documentary Studies as well as the Hart Leadership Program at the Sanford Institute of Public Policy at Duke University. In addition to his university teaching and research, he had a distinguished career in the field dedicated to working with international nongovernmental organizations on child policy issues in Latin America, Southeast Asia, and Africa. Most recently, Felsman served at Senior OVC Technical Advisor for USAID’s Regional HIV/AIDS Program in Southern Africa.

Alex Harris, a Duke professor and photographer who co-founded with Kirk Felsman the Lewis Hine Documentary Fellows Program at the Center for Documentary Studies in 2002, shares his remembrances of Felsman below:

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.

Additional remembrances of Kirk Felsman by alumni of the Hart Fellows and Hine Fellows programs

Janet Reilly (Hart Fellow 1998–1999)

I don’t remember the first time I met Kirk—whether it was in one of his classes or as part of the Hart Leadership Program’s Refugee Action Project. I don’t remember and can’t imagine there being a time at Duke when I didn’t know Kirk. He looms so large in my memories of those years and the ones immediately thereafter, when I had the privilege of being a Hart Fellow, first in Ethiopia and then at Lutheran Family Services in Raleigh, NC. I will never forget those classes, though, the hours spent enthralled by his stories about working with child soldiers in Mozambique in a class such as Displaced Children in Developing Countries. I remember hanging on every word he said, trying to soak up the years of experience and layers of insight that informed each thought.

But mostly what I remember about Kirk is the kind of person that he was and the life lessons that he taught by his example, such as the meaning of “respect.” Besides Kirk, few professors at Duke encouraged students to address them by their first names. Having taught college classes myself now, I can imagine why—professors are afraid that students won’t respect them or they don’t want to encourage students to make demands on them outside the strict boundaries of the classroom, which would encroach upon their preciously guarded personal free time. Kirk came to teaching with a keen understanding of the meaning and value of leadership, an enthusiasm for mentoring and connecting with people, and an extraordinary ability to identify and nurture potential in each and every person fortunate enough to make his acquaintance. Kirk treated all his students like colleagues and in so doing inspired me to believe that one day, after many years of hard work, I might be worthy of the respect he offered so generously and so freely.

The child-centered approach Kirk advocated so passionately was based on a deep-seated respect for and appreciation of each and every human’s individual essence and voice, demonstrated time and again through his work and his personal actions. He was exceedingly kind and humble, never seeking recognition, reward, or prestige. He seemed most comfortable away from the glare of the limelight, preferring to seek out those in the shadows, those overlooked by others. I remember Kirk at graduation taking the time to sit and speak with my wheelchair-bound grandmother who had suffered a stroke while I was at Duke. She related to me later that Kirk had told her that he hoped his daughter would grow up to be like me, and though I know his words were primarily an act of kindness towards a proud grandmother, I still consider them one of the highest compliments I have ever received.

Kirk nurtured idealism in his students and knew the importance of tending to his own inner idealist (perhaps one of the reasons he created the Hart Fellows Program), but he made it clear that good intentions were never sufficient and continually underscored the value of hard work and the need for international aid workers to self-reflect and to be acutely self-aware. I remember him describing, for example, how my actions might have unintended consequences if I did not take the time and put in the effort necessary to properly understand and assess a situation. In Ethiopia, he told me, if I was to ask a local Ethiopian Save the Children (SCF) driver to take me somewhere, the driver might perceive my request to be more important than it was—as coming from a white foreigner rather than a 22-year-old SCF intern—and might, without informing me, prioritize my request, thus diverting a car and his time from more important tasks. Kirk made it clear that it was my responsibility to anticipate that and to ensure it didn’t happen. He somehow managed to instill in students the confidence necessary to undertake enormous challenges with a belief that we could succeed, while at the same time encouraging us to never stop reflecting on what we could do better or how we could be more effective.

Kirk was also a no-frills, “get-things-done” person. I remember a story he once related when he referred me to one of his colleagues, DT. He told me that he had first met DT when the two of them were assigned to work together in a country where running water was not always readily available. The first morning, DT emerged from the bathroom after the water had been cut mid- shower, fully showered and suds-free. After Kirk asked DT how he had managed to complete his shower without water, DT replied that he had used the water in the toilet tank to rinse, and Kirk told me, laughing, “I knew then and there that we’d work well together.”

I remember graduating from Duke not entirely sure what I wanted to do or what I wanted to be in the short term. Friends of mine had applied to law school or interviewed with consulting firms back in the fall semester and lined up jobs months before May 1998 rolled around. The details of my Hart Fellowship were still being ironed out as graduation approached and I was not sure where I would be going or what I would be doing. Long term though, the vision was clear. When my mother asked me what I wanted to be in the future, I said, “I want to be Kirk.” I could not specify exactly what that meant at the time. On one level, it meant I wanted to work in the field, to be a practitioner, to serve, to connect with people and hopefully make small differences. On another level, it meant I wanted to teach at the college level, to inspire, to motivate young people, to challenge them to connect with the world outside their immediate experiences, and to educate them about the value of service to a community and civic responsibility.

I have gone on to teach and to work in the field to varying degrees, and my experiences have only made me appreciate and respect Kirk even more. I find myself marveling at how he was able to teach without instructing, giving students the tools, inspiration, and confidence they needed to carry out a task and then allowing them to find their own way. I also marvel at how Kirk managed to work in the non-profit world for so many years without falling victim to the rampant “burnout syndrome” or “compassion fatigue” that is so characteristic of the sector. Thinking about it now, I imagine Kirk must have struggled with both at times, but if he did, he never let it manifest in his work or dampen his enthusiasm. He was a man who seemed to draw strength from his family and the knowledge that he could make a difference in the lives of both his students and the children he served. He was fortunate to be a gifted teacher and child psychologist and to be blessed with a loving family, but I think his greater fortune was that he knew what his strengths were and what he was meant to do with them and he knew what a blessing his family was.

Now, thinking back to my declaration that I wanted to be Kirk, I think it mostly meant that I wanted to be someone who cared as much as he did, both about his work and his family— someone whose mission in life was to serve others and who did so not out of a sense of obligation but rather with a sense of awe and a childlike wonder for what life, even in the most cruel and tragic circumstances, has to offer. I wanted my life and work to have purpose and vision, and with Kirk’s encouragement, I believed that was possible.

I considered Kirk, more than anyone else I met at Duke or afterwards, my mentor. Besides my parents and my grandmother, no one else played such an important role in shaping what I wanted to do with my life or what kind of person I wanted to be. I can’t say that I have come close to achieving my goal or that I have always worked as hard at it as I should have. I know I am far from where I need to be, but I guess I always thought of myself as a work in progress, with years to go before I achieved anything genuinely significant and had truly earned the right to think of myself as Kirk’s peer (not that he would have ever treated me as anything less). And, I always assumed Kirk would be there when I finally did—that I would be able to thank him and to tell him in person what he meant to me, how much he taught me, and how monumentally he inspired me. I would have liked to say to him that I saw his vision for what the world could be when people respected one another, listened to each individual’s unique voice, and acted not just with the best intentions but also with the best they have to offer. I’m so sorry that I missed that chance, but so grateful I had the opportunity to know Kirk. Thank you, Kirk.

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.’

Peter Jordan (Hart Fellow 2001–2002)

When Kirk Felsman took a gamble and sent me to Kenya on a Hart Fellowship 10 years ago, he changed the course of my life. From the outside, Kirk appeared to me like a boulder that had pushed itself down a hill, with sparks flying off in every direction and igniting people.

He introduced me by example to the extraordinary, inspired, and meaningful life I wanted to live. It was Kirk who gave me courage to become a nomad, who lit a fire that carried me to 20 countries and into collaborations with so many inspiring communities I never would have known, if Kirk had not provided the spark. He will be missed but his spirit lives on in so many of us who received his gift.

Louise Elaine Vaz, MD (Hart Fellow 2001–2002)

To Irene, Kai, Colin and Caitlin — Kirk was loved by so many, and his memory lives on in each of us that continue to do work in the areas that were so important to him — a ripple effect in life’s water. I was greatly shocked and saddened by the news of Kirk’s death. I received the news while visiting in North Carolina. I paid a visit to Duke later that day and was overcome with emotions thinking about a time and place that held so many important people to me, especially Kirk. I got to know Kirk through the Hart Fellows program — I was a Fellow in Mozambique from 2001–2002. Little did Kirk know how much this placement, which he chose so specifically for me, would influence me both personally and academically. In the months leading up to my departure, Kirk was an endless source of information, often joking in the few phrases he remembered in Portuguese during his own time in Mozambique. It was obvious that Mozambique left an impression on him, and later, when I arrived in Maputo to begin my assignment with Associacao Crianca, Familia, e Desenvolvimento, I soon learned that Kirk and his family left a huge impression on the Mozambicans that knew him. From Agostinho, Abubacar, Rui Neto, Haroldo, Reinaldo and the rest of the team involved in the child reunification project, to the people that new Kirks family personally, such as Sr. Quive — all would tell me how much they loved Kirk. Nearly a decade later, when I went back to visit Mozambique in 2009, Kirk was still remembered and talked about.

It was easy to love Kirk: his very gentle manner, the way he listened and mentored, the kindness that he bestowed on anyone who met him. He always made himself so available and accessible. Throughout the year that I was in Mozambique, Kirk was always there for support and encouragement for our work on documenting the HIV epidemic in the rural areas. Later, both he and Alex Harris helped me obtain funding to present our work at the International AIDS Conference in Barcelona and to the Bernard Van Leer Foundation that following summer — a taste of the academic life that I would later pursue. Kirk’s work with vulnerable children left a mark not only on me, but also my sister, Lara Vaz, who also later encountered Kirk through her doctoral work. I became a pediatrician and continue to work in the global health arena, focusing on neglected diseases, refugee health and pediatric advocacy. I will remember him for the rest of my life.

Maddie Pongor (Hart Fellow 2011–2012)

Thank you for letting me know about Kirk’s passing… such sad news. I wish I could have thanked him for the amazing opportunity he has given me and dozens of other Fellows before me. Reading the tributes to him were inspiring reminders that he started down the same path that I am taking: children’s issues abroad. When I first looked into the Hart Fellowship, I remember my awe when I learned that he started the Humanitarian Challenges Focus cluster that I partook in freshman year, and he also worked with child-headed households in Rwanda. It seems that experiences like those encouraged him to share his dedication for helping poor and vulnerable populations with others, as I aim to do as well. So although he may have passed, he lives on through the other lives he has touched—even people like me whom he never met.



Durham Herald-Sun Obituary for Kirk Felsman

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    One Response to “Kirk Felsman Remembered”

    1. Herbert simbini says:

      It’s very sad to hear that we are no longer with kirk,he was the head of my family its a very loss to the holy world as he was a kind man

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