Karin Ryan '03

By 
Mark Small

Former president Jimmy Carter and Karin Ryan '03
Former president Jimmy Carter and Karin Ryan '03

For years, Karin Ryan ’03, senior advisor for Human Rights at the Carter Center in Atlanta, GA, has been moving toward a convergence of her two career paths: music and advocating for international human rights. Over the past two decades, Ryan has worked alongside former president Jimmy Carter and the Carter Center on a range of human rights issues. Her job responsibilities have found her accompanying Carter to foreign lands to oversee elections, representing the Carter Center in negotiations at the United Nations on various human rights issues, spearheading efforts to bring transparency to the regulation and governance of the mining industry in the Democratic Republic of Congo, and more.

But since her teen years in California, Ryan has also been immersed in music. For several years she supported herself as a singer and keyboardist in cover bands. Her interest in music prompted her to move to Atlanta in 1987 where she first visited the Jimmy Carter Presidential Library.

“In 1987, my mother and I went to see my sister who was living in Atlanta back then,” Ryan recalls. “One of the things we did during that visit was to go to the newly opened Carter Presidential Library.” Several years earlier, Ryan had worked as a volunteer at the U.S. Embassy in Kinshasa, Zaire [which is now known as the Democratic Republic of Congo]. She was there as a youth community volunteer for the Baha’i Faith. Her experiences in Africa made her visit to the Carter Library more compelling as she learned of the 39th president’s ongoing efforts to promote peace and justice around the globe.

During that initial trip to Atlanta, Ryan also met some local musicians, including Berklee alumnus and pianist Keith Williams. She decided to relocate to Atlanta and continue to develop her music career. In addition to playing gigs around her new home city, Ryan accepted a part-time job at the Carter Center in 1988 after becoming intrigued by the center’s human-rights program. Her capabilities were duly noted and Ryan was soon offered a full-time position with duties that included drafting letters and other documents for Carter. Through the years she has worked with the former president on several of his books and traveled the world representing the center and Carter himself.

Simultaneously, Ryan was earning her bachelor’s degree in political science from Emory University. Despite a schedule packed with other pursuits, music making was always a lure for her.

In 1998, it was a time of flux in the Carter Center’s Human Rights Program and Ryan began considering whether to go to law school or delve more deeply into music. A business trip to the Boston area held the answer. Standing in for Carter, Ryan attended a Reebok Human Rights awards ceremony in Canton, MA, where she met Peter Gabriel and other high-profile Reebok Human Rights Foundation board members. Because she was close to Boston, she scheduled a tour of Berklee after the conference.

Learning the Language

“It had been my dream for years to attend Berklee,” Ryan recalls. “Walking through the halls and seeing all the musicians, it hit me like a wave that I had to study there. As a musician, I had felt like I was living in a foreign country where I couldn’t speak the language.” After applying to and being accepted by Berklee, Ryan left her work at the Carter Center and moved with her young son to Boston to become a full-time Berklee student in the fall of 1998.

As a Contemporary Music and Production major she reveled in Francisco Noya’s conducting classes, Jack Perricone’s and Pat Pattison’s songwriting courses, and Michael Farquharson’s production instruction. During the last two years of her studies, she worked part-time from Boston on Carter Center projects, but had no intention of returning to full-time employment there.

“After I finished at Berklee, my plan was to just focus on being a musician,” Ryan says. “I had this idea for a large-scale world-music composition on the theme of freedom.” During a second encounter with Peter Gabriel in Seattle in 2000, the veteran songwriter showed enthusiasm for her idea and encouraged Ryan to pursue it. Then 9/11 happened, and Jimmy Carter wanted to plan a human rights conference for 2003, and the center asked Ryan to help organize it. She felt strongly that Carter could help to bring balance to the emerging discussion of human rights and counterterrorism. “So I put my freedom music project on hold and returned to the Carter Center after graduating,” Ryan says.

Since 2003, Ryan has helped to organize seven human-rights conferences and worked on other initiatives. She has made music a component of the conferences. “The work we are doing is about human communication and music helps to open that up,” she says. “One year I invited a musician who had survived the massacre of his family in Rwanda. Another year it was Salman Ahmed, a famous rock musician and peace activist from Pakistan.”

In her new position as a senior adviser for human rights, Ryan’s purview has narrowed. “Our current major focus is on women’s rights and the influence religion can play in either suppressing or advancing those rights,” she notes. Ryan is presently helping Carter finish and promote his new book on the topic.

“We’re just at the beginning of it, but I can see an arts component to this project.” She also expects to have time to finally tackle her freedom music project. “I feel like I’ve been on a winding road, but everything is going to come together at some point.”