On February 24, the Women of Color Collective (WoCC) honored Maria McFarland ’01, deputy Washington director of Human Rights Watch (HRW), at their annual dinner, “Building Bridges: Raising Our Voice, Increasing Our Impact.” In her role at HRW, McFarland advocates on a wide array of human rights issues, particularly matters related to the Middle East and North Africa, South Asia, and Central Asia. Previous to her current position, McFarland acted as a Senior Americas Researcher, serving as HRW’s primary expert on Colombia’s internal armed conflict and working on international justice matters, including the extradition and trial of former Peruvian President Alberto Fujimori.
Speaking to a packed room of current students and alumnae, McFarland focused on the importance of working in coalition in order to make change. “If you’re going to have an impact, if you’re going to make real change, you can’t really do it alone,” she said. “We need to find partners in our causes, whatever those may be.”
The Arab Spring, McFarland argued, is a prime example of the ability of people to organize together to make change. “If a group of young people in Alexandria hadn’t started a protest movement… and if they hadn’t been joined by many, many others, we would still be spinning our wheels about how to enact reforms in Egypt,” she said. “The social movements in the Middle East are building bridges across the region. Activists in one country are following those in others. They’re meeting and sharing information.”
McFarland also described the constant struggle in the United States to raise awareness about human rights abuses in Guantanamo, as well as in the U.S. prison system at large. “There are so many issues that are buried in this country. The public doesn’t know about them, or it’s fatigued,” she said. “You can’t rely on a single person or single organization; you have to work in coalition.”
Speaking about her personal career, McFarland noted that seeking out networks of people who care about similar issues has helped her to find a place for herself in the world of advocacy. “It’s great for me to see students organizing groups like the WoCC…, generating discussion and sharing experiences and concerns. Keep working on strengthening those joint efforts,” she advised. “Keep your eyes open, build partnerships, build networks, friendships that will help you to learn and grow and find the right way for you to make your mark.”
Posted March 1, 2012