Fellow Blog Posts
Alyssa Isidoridy, NYU '18
Fellow at Human Rights First
Fall Blog Post
I began my Masiyiwa-Bernstein fellowship with Human Rights First in the midst of the Trump administration’s full-fledged assault on immigration. What began as simmering anti-immigrant rhetoric during his campaign has boiled into two years of executive overreach in pursuit of dismantling large swathes of the legal immigration system. Among these regulations are some of the most inhumane policies towards refugees and asylum-seekers this country has seen. Human Rights First is an organization that is uniquely positioned to highlight the value of international human rights law in the domestic sphere.
My work with the Refugee Protection team specifically focuses on asylum seekers and demonstrating why it is critical that the United States provide safety and freedom to individuals fleeing violence and persecution, rather than turning them away or detaining them. I have had the opportunity to further this goal through conducting research, educating the public, and preparing documents for audiences ranging from domestic administrative agencies to United Nations studies.
I recently traveled with a team to the U.S.-Mexico border, visiting places in California and Arizona to monitor the conditions of asylum seekers forced to wait at ports of entry before requesting international protection. We witnessed and documented the lack of infrastructure and resources for refugees and asylum seekers, and the role of the U.S. in both creating and failing to respond to the situation. U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) officials are turning away asylum seekers from ports of entry and forcing them to wait in Mexico, in many cases in violation of the principle of non-refoulement, which forbids a country from returning asylum seekers to a country in which they would likely be in danger of persecution. We found that asylum seekers are forced to wait at ports of entry for over six weeks in dangerous conditions, just to request protections to which they are legally entitled. On November 9, the Trump administration also passed regulations prohibiting those who cross the U.S.-Mexican border between ports of entry from accessing asylum in the U.S. These regulations are currently the subject of litigation by the ACLU, Human Rights First, and others. The so-called ‘asylum ban,’ combined with CBP’s practice of limiting entry to a few families each day, is the administration’s deliberate creation of a humanitarian crisis along the southern border and, since the arrival of the thousands of migrants and asylum seekers traveling in the migrant exodus, the crisis in Tijuana has become much worse.
The people I spoke to at the various ports of entry, had come from countries as near as Mexico and Honduras and as far as Cameroon and Russia. All of them made heartbreaking decisions to leave behind friends, family, and community, and many shared stories of unspeakable violence at home. At some ports, families relied on non-profit organizations that provided shelters and resources to migrants. However, many people expressed concern that these shelters were quickly reaching capacity and that there was not enough food and water. At the San Luis port, adjacent to Arizona, migrants were forced to sleep on concrete outside of the international gate, and had constructed makeshift tents from sheets and blankets in order to shield themselves from the elements.
In San Luis, I interviewed a 20-year-old mother from Michoacán who was traveling with her family, including her 9-month-old baby who had a persistent cough from bronchitis. When I began speaking with her, family members peeked out from under the blanket where they were resting, eager to share their story. They talked about the dire conditions at home, where they could no longer walk on the streets for fear of violence against their family. Despite the limited food and water resources, absence of hygiene infrastructure and lack of access to medical care during their five-week long wait at the port of entry, they said this was the only place where they had hope.
I witnessed first-hand the depth of the cruelty of the administration’s policies and am now challenged to adequately convey the toll that they have on peoples’ lives. Speaking with asylum seekers at ports of entry also forced me to contemplate my role, in that moment, as an observer rather than as a lawyer. Because our goal was to observe and document, I had to overcome my instinct to advise asylum seekers of their rights and what to expect from the process.
Human Rights First’s on-the-ground fact-finding and institutional expertise allow us to build evidentiary records and arguments that can be used in litigation or in communications to Congress, coalition partners, and the public. I am developing an understanding of the role of human rights advocacy in the context of the larger efforts of building more humane immigration policies, and am eager to continue growing this year as a Masiyiwa-Bernstein fellow.
Rachel Levenson, NYU '18
Fellow at Make the Road New York
Fall Blog Post
Make the Road New York (MRNY) is a member-based immigrant rights organization in New York and works to build the power of immigrant and working class communities through community organizing, policy advocacy, transformative education and legal and survival services. I am working with the immigration unit of MRNY, as the organization’s first-ever Masiyiwa-Bernstein Fellow. As a fellow, I provide legal support to MRNY’s deportation defense coordinator, a community organizer who leads MRNY’s rapid response to Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) raids.
Nearly every day, I hear stories of New Yorkers whose lives have been fractured by ICE disappearances and raids: a young man dragged by unidentified officers into an unmarked black van as he walks out of court; a father of three U.S. citizen children who leaves for work in the morning, and ends his day in immigration detention, not to come home again for nearly four months; a young woman who overstayed a student visa woken up at 5 AM to loud knocks on her door and a handwritten note threatening immigration detention. This is ICE enforcement in New York City in the age of Trump.
As a fellow, I work with the deportation defense coordinator, other MRNY organizers, and members of our legal and communications teams to support the loved ones of detained individuals as they navigate the aftermath of these raids. This involves assistance in locating the detained person, orienting the family about the legal process going forward, and documenting the arrest so that we can identify increasingly aggressive patterns in ICE enforcement, which are incorporated into MRNY’s Know Your Rights work and tracked by the Immigrant Defense Project’s raids map. Finally, I help assess the detained person’s options for legal representation, often coordinating with attorneys from New York City’s universal representation program and the New York Immigrant Family Unity Project. Because we are MRNY, and building immigrant power is central to our mission, our organizers also work with the loved ones of detained individuals to connect them to weekly membership meetings, ongoing organizing campaigns, and other survival services.
When we have capacity – and when needed – I also provide limited direct representation of individuals detained by ICE. A highlight this fall was working with Pedro (name changed), a community member whose wife had sought out MRNY’s support after Pedro was detained by ICE on his way to work as a chef in an Italian restaurant in Manhattan in July. Because of backlogs in immigration court, among other factors, he had to wait until late September for his first appearance. And on that date, under a recent change in policy, he was not even brought to court in person, but instead appeared by video in immigration court in lower Manhattan. I sat next to his wife in the courtroom and watched as tears filled her eyes when she saw her husband appear on the courtroom video screen. It was the first time that she had seen her husband since he was detained in July.
I worked with Pedro’s wife, as well as volunteers in MRNY’s allies program called Aliadx, to collect over a dozen letters from medical providers, employers, family members and friends about Pedro’s character and his central place in his family’s fabric. On the day of his bond hearing, attended by Pedro’s family, a MRNY organizer and one of the allies who supported his case, I appeared in immigration court as his legal representative. I argued for Pedro’s release from detention, while the government attorney tried to dehumanize Pedro, arguing that he should remain detained. Ultimately, the judge ruled in our favor – noting some of the positive facts about Pedro that we had presented to the court. It was a powerful experience as a new lawyer to be able to use my legal skills to support this family. When we exited the courthouse together, we all gathered outside of the building and took a photo with our fists in the air, celebrating not only the win in Pedro’s case, but also the power of MRNY community.
I am deeply grateful for the opportunity to work MRNY as a Masiyiwa-Bernstein Fellow. Prior to this fellowship, I did not engage directly with human rights law, seeing it as an area of law largely concerned with non-domestic problems. This fellowship has helped me to understand that human rights law is also a powerful tool in the U.S., particularly now when human rights defenders are being targeted by Trump, when ICE is using increasingly violent and dehumanizing detention practices against non-citizens, and the Trump Administration is working to limit access to the courts for immigrants. I look forward to continuing to learn more about how human rights frameworks can strengthen the legal and extra-legal strategies needed at this critical time.
Katie Wightman, NYU LLM '18
Fellow at NYU Law's Global Justice Clinic
Fall Blog Post
As a Masiyiwa-Bernstein Fellow, I recently had the privilege of co-presenting at Amnesty International’s Wellbeing Week in London. During a session on ‘Leading a Healthy Organization’, I learned the importance of moving between the dance floor and the balcony. This requires an ability to, in the words of the Harvard Business Review, “simultaneously play the game and observe it as a whole.” It means being both a participant and a dispassionate onlooker, and retaining the capacity for reflection even while you are in the midst of the action.
This metaphor aptly captures the work of the Global Justice Clinic (GJC), a human rights clinic based in NYU School of Law where I am currently undertaking my fellowship. The GJC works to “prevent, challenge and redress rights violations related to global inequality.” Before undertaking a Master of Laws (LL.M.) at NYU, I had never considered the possibility of pursuing a human rights career within an academic institution. I have since come to realize that the GJC is the ideal setting in which to begin a career in human rights law, as it has allowed me to balance fieldwork (i.e. being on the dancefloor) with an effort to create systemic change (i.e. from the balcony). This is fostered by the ongoing interrogation of existing frameworks—including my underlying assumptions—which is encouraged in an environment of continued intellectual curiosity and discovery.
At the fieldwork level, I am working with indigenous communities in Guyana to help protect and defend their ancestral lands from the environmental damage, cultural impacts, and resource depletion caused by mining, logging and other development projects. Recently, I collaborated with our partner, the Forest Peoples Programme, to support the Amerindian Peoples Association (APA) in preparing submissions recommending strong positions to ensure that the rights of Indigenous Peoples are protected in response to a draft mineral sector policy released by the Guyanese government. It was gratifying to accompany the APA as it gave voice to the Indigenous Peoples who were not consulted in the formulation of this policy, despite the far-reaching impacts of mining on every aspect of their lives. Soon, I will be embarking upon my first field trip to Guyana to attend a statutory meeting of the South Rupununi District Council (SRDC) in the village of Shea. At this meeting, I will have the opportunity to deliver a number of clinic research reports and to build a relationship with the Toshaos (Village Leaders) of the 21 communities who make up the SRDC. I hope to develop a deeper understanding of how Indigenous Peoples’ connection with their land is intrinsically tied to their sense of self—an appreciation that my own culture has long neglected to our detriment. Through this community lawyering project, I am utilizing legal empowerment strategies which have reframed my understanding of human rights advocacy, away from the unilateral provision of expert legal services toward a partnership which fosters bilateral learning and the sustainable realization of human rights.
At the systemic level, I am managing the Human Rights Resilience Project, an interdisciplinary research initiative which seeks to promote mental wellbeing and resilience among human rights workers. This has given me the good fortune of working with a team of human rights lawyers and psychologists who have spent the past 20 months mapping what human rights organizations all over the world are—and are not—doing to support the wellbeing of advocates. This understudied but critically important subject is of great interest to me—both personally and professionally—because I believe that an awareness of mental wellbeing challenges and practices is not only crucial to supporting survivors of human rights violations, but it is also essential to forging a sustainable career in this field. In addition to giving me the opportunity to travel internationally to co-present on the study’s findings, I am currently helping to finalize an article for publication in the Southern California Review of Law and Social Justice and a report to the Open Society Foundation (the funders of this study). I am certain that I will call upon the insights that I have gained from this project in my efforts to build an enduring career in this field.
This brings me to what is, without question, the most valuable aspect of this fellowship—the opportunity to work alongside my mentor and role model, Professor Meg Satterthwaite. The fellowship has allowed me to put into practice the theory of human rights advocacy that I learned under her tutelage during my LL.M. degree. Under the guidance of Prof. Satterthwaite and with the support of many talented human rights scholars and practitioners at the Center for Human Rights and Global Justice, every day I am learning how to be a more effective human rights advocate and lawyer. But, perhaps more importantly, I am also learning how to be a better human being—and that is fundamentally what this vocation is all about.
Adam Gordon, NYU '17
Fellow at U.S.-Asia Law Institute
Adam Gordon is the Masiyiwa-Bernstein Fellow at the U.S.-Asia Law Institute, an organization which seeks to promote the rule of law and human rights in Asia, including both domestic and international law. Known as one of America’s preeminent research centers for the study of law in Mainland China and Taiwan, USALI serves as a resource and partner to various Asian countries as they develop their legal systems, and works to improve popular, professional and scholarly understanding at home and abroad through its publications and exchanges concerning comparative and international law. What follows are some of his reflections – from the perspective of a new human rights law professional – on pursuing human rights law in a time of crisis.
Oh, what a time to have entered the human rights field. Here we are attempting to navigate the launch of careers we hope to be filled with positive impact, waking to headlines of the US pulling out of the Human Rights Commission, of the people of Italy driven to the far right by nativist xenophobia, of – directly pertinent to our work here at the U.S.-Asia Law Institute (USALI) – a crackdown on foreign NGOs by China. Meanwhile, with the US facing a situation at its southern border which constitutes one of the worst human rights violations in the country’s recent history, the media, the public, and “the resistance” have not only forsaken the language of human rights, they simple forgot to even bother with it. And as we take our first steps into what has always been a difficult field, the human rights movement’s own leaders – those we dream of one day becoming – are resigning their posts, citing the hopelessness of the battle, the failure of their work.
I’m reminded of something I once read on a printed-and-then-forgotten page taped to the outside of a professor’s office door. It said that the greatest way – indeed, the only way – to affect change is to find a wave that's moving in the direction you want and adding your weight to it. But what do you do when there’s no wave? When, in fact, the tide has ebbed, carrying the water far out to sea, and we are left standing on dry, parched land miles from the shoreline? What possible value in developing knowledge and skills for a seemingly dying field of law?
Deng Xiaoping famously stated that to reach its goals, China must “cross the river by feeling the stones.” He was referring to China’s national economic development, but perhaps the same approach is needed for both the human rights movement and our careers within it. Perhaps what is needed is to go step by step, not sure of the path but trusting that each move forward is carrying us closer to our ultimate goal. In all honesty, the questions and doubts above are ones I’m currently grappling with. And I’d be lying if I said I had any clear answers. I think anyone would be, given the times.
But answering these questions is, frankly, not particularly necessary to success in an early-career fellowship, to the narrow, concrete problems our organizations attempt to address, to developing the core, fundamental legal skills involved in solving such problems and others like them. At USALI, we aren’t working to solve the Human Rights Commission’s ability to hold states accountable for rights violations. We’re giving Chinese and Japanese anti-discrimination experts insight into the America’s employment discrimination institutional ecosystem. We’re training young lawyers in Beijing effective criminal defence trial advocacy. We’re sharing insights on the impact which will result from discrete but important changes to China’s criminal code. This is not to say that the system-wide issues affecting human rights are not a threat to the long-term viability and impact of our work. But these on-the-ground, bread-and-butter projects remain an effective contribution to ongoing reform efforts, as well as a great place to cut one’s teeth in this field.
Besides, we need to keep going, keep pushing, keep finding the avenues that are still open. What else would we do? When interviewing for this fellowship, I told Mr. Bernstein that what I really admired about USALI’s director, the great Jerome Cohen, was his ability to express more critical commentary on China than anyone else while still being welcomed back by the country. What that speaks to is an approach that esteems being an effective agent of change over orthodoxy of ideals. At a time when many people, seeing the mounting calamity they see around them, are being driven to engage in public interest work, I believe it is important to get beyond just feeling good about ourselves for “supporting the cause,” and instead to ask what it is we are actually accomplishing, and how best to make that happen. Working at USALI has only served to confirm my faith in this approach. From choice of projects to point of engagement to mechanism of change, I am learning how to make projects work where others have failed, due only to a well-crafted approach.
A recent trip to China aimed at moving the country toward improving their criminal suspect interrogation techniques, for instance, involved engaging officials and students from the National Security University through dialogue and presentations. Crucial was the involvement of Andy Griffiths, a former British police officer who was instrumental in his country’s implementation of their field-leading interrogation method, a system which has all but eliminated false confessions by no longer seeking confessions at all, focusing instead on fact finding. These engagements built trust by focusing on solidarity of experience, describing how the problems with China’s interrogation methods were ones Britain faced at the time – and which the US disgracefully still faces – which led to the development of the technique we were promoting. A focus on means of improving results in police work, an emphasis on possible concrete steps, and direct, respectful dialogue meant that our ideas found a receptive audience.
Finally, in a chaotic and backsliding time such as this we’re not always going to be able to see tangible results from our efforts. It’s a frustrating situation to walk into at the beginning of one’s career – to finally be ready to hit the ground, restless to see your work translated into real and meaningful reform, and instead walk into a frustrated and demoralized field. But if this situation represents the new normal, we must learn to be okay with not always making improvements. When we can't make gains on the ground, we need to focus on other things. When our voices are not being listened to, maybe we should stop trying to talk all the time, and use it as an opportunity to listen, watch, learn. Working at an organization that both works with a wide array of institutional and academic partners, and is enmeshed in the academic conversations taking place at our own law school on disciplines ranging from hate speech in Japan to the justice implications of computer learning, perhaps the greatest thing about this type of fellowship is that it affords a chance to do just that.
I started by expressing my own frustration, doubt, and uncertainty about the human rights field, and its ability to stay relevant in an unravelling world that seems to have disavowed, sidelined, or simply forgotten us. And there’s no getting around the fact that it is a dark time, one of mounting fear, hatred, division. But in a way, it’s also a fascinating time to be starting out in this field. Were we entering the human rights profession but a few years ago, we would have entered as novices in a field of practice where seasoned veterans know the game and all of its rules and strategies. While we obviously have much to learn from these experts, we're also working in paradigm-shifting contexts that are no more familiar to them than they are to us. So all the while that we’re using these first forays into the field to learn from these experts, learn best practices, learn the ropes, we also get to see the limitations of these old ways of doing things, and contribute to trying to innovate solutions. If China, who have already limited our scope of operations, decides we’re no longer allowed to conduct training programs within its borders, USALI’s whole model of impact will need to be rewritten. The same is true of every organization and element of the field. Our fresh ideas, unjaded enthusiasm, and flexibility can be an important part of this. And there’s something exciting about that.
Former Fellow Reflections
Astha Pokharel, NYU '17
Fellow at Namati (2017-2018)
As my Masiyiwa-Bernstein fellowship at Namati draws to a close, I’ve been reflecting on what has made it so special. One year is a very short amount of time. And yet in this year, I’ve developed strong friendships with my co-workers, thought much more deeply about what kind of lawyer I want to be, and learned what it means to be creative and innovative. There’s so much to say about the work at Namati, below are some highlights from my fellowship and one parting reflection.
The second half of my fellowship was largely focused on developing Namati’s Environmental Justice Program in the United States. We focused our efforts in DC and Maryland, where there’s heavy air and water pollution caused by incinerators, power plants, and industrial agriculture, concentrated near low-income communities of color. Our dream is to find a group of organizers that could use Namati’s support—training on environmental and land use law, sharing with fellow activists, and mentorship by environmental justice advocates—to help their communities organize against environmental harms. In July we launched a call for “legal empowerment advocates” also commonly known as community paralegals in many countries around the world.
One of my first introductions to the environmental justice community in Maryland was at the Patuxent Riverkeeper’s annual meeting on April 28th. The Patuxent Riverkeeper is a fiery, friendly and inspiring man named Fred Tutman who is in charge of keeping the river healthy. He often notes that while his jurisdiction is the river, what drives him is the impact that an unhealthy river has on nearby communities. I was at the Riverkeeper’s annual gathering with Namati’s CEO, Vivek Maru. We gathered with other environmental justice advocates and spiritual leaders. We began by kayaking in the river, then shared a meal together, talked about Namati’s work, and had the privilege of taking part in a sacred water ceremony led by Rabiah Al Nur. We discussed many topics related to environmental justice, from issues on how zoning laws are a crucial but often overlooked battleground for environmental justice to strategies to protect hard won victories, for example, as the state of Maryland bans fracking while approving dangerous methods of fracked gas transport across the state. The introduction to the environmental justice community here in Maryland was warm, energizing, and empowering.
The second major highlight during my time at Namati was my work with the Namati Sierra Leone team. Namati puts together what we call learning exchanges, which are these extended retreats for legal empowerment practitioners to come together and learn from each other. This year in Sierra Leone, we hosted a 2-week learning exchange on environmental justice where several legal empowerment practitioners from Africa got together in one place to learn and collaborate. We visited paralegals in mining-affected communities who are helping communities organize to get remedies for the impacts caused by major extractive industries.
My time at Namati has taught me how to think critically about what justice looks like when “justice” systems are so broken and the powerful are still causing the greatest harm. What processes (existing or new, imagined ones) can provide redress without furthering injustice, without disempowering already marginalized communities? And how do you do this while keeping radical, systemic change as your goal? I’ve learned from so many people here at Namati that when you start to think rigorously about these questions you can imagine a world where people most impacted by injustice can find redress, and also bring to life the changes that we all desperately need.
Fall Blog Post
I came to law school wanting to work at a transnational human rights organization, but I was also wary--the legal profession can be disempowering to marginalized communities, leading to the same patterns of inequality that give rise to human rights abuses in the first place. And legal frameworks can help construct systems of oppression. So I have been grateful to have the opportunity to work at Namati, an organization that shares this wariness and works actively to build power in communities that bear the brunt of the world’s injustices.
Namati works to demystify and democratize the law so that people are able to use legal tools to solve their own problems, and eventually to shape law and policy. We do this through a paralegal approach, where individuals in communities around the world facing land grabs, environmental harms, violence, and discrimination are trained in law, advocacy and community education skills. These paralegals then work to challenge injustices through formal and informal institutions. In this way the paralegals work with communities to, as we say at Namati, “squeeze justice out of a broken system,” and to change the system itself.
In my first few months at the Namati DC office, I’ve had the opportunity to work on a wide range of projects. I’ve assisted the Sierra Leone team in developing tools to inform impacted communities of the environmental and health implications of extractive and large-scale agricultural industries. In this way, communities are able to negotiate lease provisions with companies and take other steps that they need to protect themselves.
I have also had the opportunity to work on what is currently the exploratory phase of Namati’s US environmental justice program. As elsewhere, environmental law here often fails to protect marginalized communities; where laws exist, enforcement remains inadequate. Although Native American and other marginalized communities resist, extractive industries continue to flourish. Industrial facilities continue to harm low-income communities of color. With the lessons learned from our environmental justice work in India and Sierra Leone, we hope to launch a program in the US to help impacted people develop the tools that they need to fight against environmental injustices. The paralegal model has worked in the US before, where “access to justice navigators” in NYC assist individuals in housing and civil courts in New York City. I’m excited to see how this model can work in the environmental justice sector.
Namati also has a commitment to creating systemic change. One big question that I have begun doing research into is on grievance redress mechanisms. We are trying to learn what makes a grievance redress or accountability mechanism truly effective and functional, both in terms of responding to complainant’s needs and in creating meaningful change. The answers to this question will help the communities that we work with develop plans for advocating for change in the grievance redress mechanisms that they engage with. I’ve begun by looking to lessons learned in the health sector, but the critical question of whether an accountability mechanism is both just and functional and, if it is not, then how to improve it. These learnings are applicable across all sectors.
My time here so far has been incredibly inspiring--I have loved working at an organization that is truly committed to thinking critically about how to create meaningful change. I’m excited to continue my work and to carry the lessons that I learn this year into the future.
Erika Asgeirsson, NYU '16
Fellow at Human Rights First (2016-2017)
Working as a Masiyiwa-Bernstein Fellow at Human Rights First has been an incredible experience, and a great place to start my career as a human rights advocate. What I have loved most about this job is the opportunity to bring a human rights lens to domestic advocacy work, and illuminate connections between what is happening at home and abroad. During my fellowship, I worked with Human Rights First’s antisemitism and extremism team, focusing on issues like hate crime and the rise of ethno-populism.
Before the U.S. election, we were working on a report detailing the complex array of causes behind the 2015 surge in hate crime in Germany. We went to Berlin in late November to present our preliminary findings and recommendations.
Around the same time, news reports and civil society organizations were documenting the spike in bias-motivated incidents post-election in the United States. The juxtaposition of these trends drove us to incorporate more domestic advocacy into our strategic plan for the year, and we made the case that the US should prioritize hate crime prevention and responses to regain international leadership.
Because I’ve been based in Washington, D.C., I have been deeply engaged in our advocacy work. I helped shape advocacy priorities and worked to implement those priorities. To do this, I engaged with other civil society groups working on our issues, built relationships with key Hill offices, and advocated in front of State and Justice Department officials.
This year has been humbling in many ways. American leadership on human rights, while far from perfect, has been something we have taken for granted as a core American value. Even though our government did not always live up to it, there was broad consensus that human rights were important. This vision seems less certain today.
What that means is that human rights advocates must be even more strategic and learn to communicate in new ways. Because of my role in our advocacy work, I have learned how to envision the larger goal and then figure out the pieces necessary to achieve that goal. I have also learned how to frame messages to appeal to a broad political audience.
My experience at Human Rights First has reaffirmed my commitment to advocating for American leadership on human rights, an increasingly important but challenging task. Working alongside other dedicated and passionate human rights advocates every day has been inspiring, and I look forward to continuing my career as a human rights advocate.
Fall Blog Post
This year, I am a Masiyiwa-Bernstein Fellow at Human Rights First. I work on issues of antisemitism and extremism in Europe, and we encourage the U.S. government to take an active leadership role on these issues. Human Rights First is known for their advocacy pressing the U.S. government to respect human rights and their contribution to crafting policy that works.
Very early on in my fellowship, I was able to engage in a meaningful way in that work. Every October, the Organization for Security Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) holds their annual Human Dimension Implementation Meeting, focusing on the human rights and democracy commitments of the 57 participating States of the OSCE, including the United States. In September, as the U.S. delegation prepared to attend the meeting, they convened civil society organizations in the United States to gather their input.
I attended this meeting on behalf of Human Rights First. I was certainly one of the youngest people in the room. Yet, when it came time to present my organization’s priorities, Ambassador Michael Kozak, the head of the delegation, listened intently as I talked about the importance of disaggregated data on hate crimes. He even asked follow up questions.
As a first-year lawyer, two weeks into my job, I went into the meeting incredibly nervous, but left pleasantly surprised. Here was this senior government official, asking me for more information. I was surprised at how much the delegation cared about our input, and that we really did have a voice that mattered.
It matters whether the government consults with civil society. Policy is better, more informed, and more responsive when everyone contributes to it. We can’t move away from this norm.
In our work on extremism and hate crime against refugees in Germany, we’ve looked at the issue of online hate. The European Union partnered with technology companies to develop a Code of Conduct on Illegal Hate Speech. While I appreciate their sincere efforts to address hate online, the Code has been criticized for infringing on the right to free expression and for not consulting civil society earlier in the process. I can’t help but wonder if they had meaningfully engaged civil society in the process – including human rights groups, groups representing communities facing discrimination, and groups focused on the right to free expression – if the Code would not have had the same deficits.
Over the past few weeks, many of our Facebook feeds have been filled with requests to call our elected officials – whether to oppose a Cabinet nomination or the recent refugee ban. At the same time, activists in the United States are concerned with the possibility that civil society space is closing, that our government will be less receptive to our critical feedback.
While we will certainly face new challenges over the next few years, what I do know is that organizations like Human Rights First will do everything we can to make sure our voice is heard. This makes me optimistic. And I know I can count on the next group of Masiyiwa-Bernstein fellows to do the same.
Jay Shooster, NYU '16
Fellow at Just Security (2016-2017)
When I applied to be a Masiyiwa-Bernstein fellow with Just Security, I had some lofty aspirations. I wanted to engage with traditional media outlets to bring my writing to a broad public audience. I wanted to help bring neglected issues and perspectives into the national security and human rights discourse. And I wanted to build relationships with leading experts in human rights and national security law and policy.
Today, reflecting on my year at the Center for Human Rights and Global Justice (of which Just Security is a part), I am happy to say that the support I received there enabled me to achieve all of my goals and then some.
For example, since starting at Just Security, I have become a frequent contributing author with The Huffington Post and Newsweek; and my writing has been cited in The Washington Post, Slate, and Rolling Stone. The platform that Just Security has provided me -- with its high-level readership of journalists, policymakers and academics – was essential for getting my work out there. But just as importantly, working alongside veteran journalists has helped me to develop the skills to continue to effectively engage with the media in my future advocacy work as a lawyer and a writer.
Crucially, the editors at Just Security didn’t just provide me with a platform, they gave me the opportunity to write and publish pieces on neglected issues of my choosing, and to advance marginalized or unconventional perspectives. For example, I solicited and edited a post on the targeting of animal rights advocates under the Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act, a little known law that deters activists from engaging in legal and/or nonviolent protest activity. I also had the opportunity to interview experts on artificial intelligence policy, and to challenge the misleading narrative that anti-smuggling efforts serve to protect immigrants.
I also received significant encouragement and support to conduct legal and policy analysis of some of the leading issues of the day, including Trump’s Muslim ban, Islamophobia, and the administration’s efforts to combat human trafficking. Our connections to leading experts enabled me to receive rigorous feedback to help strengthen the arguments in my work. I also helped with research and editing for major pieces, including for the ACLU Legal Director’s first public articulation of their legal theory against the Muslim ban.
This writing and editing process – in addition to the numerous events I organized and attended with Just Security – allowed me to develop relationships with seasoned experts (e.g. law professors, NGO lawyers, journalists, and former government officials) as well as rising stars in national security and human rights. Through these events, I also had the opportunity to meet our esteemed speakers, including U.S. Senator Ron Wyden.
Overall, it’s hard for me to envision a better opportunity for a recent law graduate with an interest in law, policy, and media. The skills, knowledge, and relationships I’ve gained through my Masiyiwa-Bernstein fellowship have left me feeling more empowered to change the world than ever before.
It wasn’t until I started my 3L year at NYU that I finally figured out what was missing from my internship experiences. I didn’t just want to research and write about what the law is -- I also wanted to engage in discussion about what the law should be, and work to try and shape the conversation on public policy issues. Fortunately, my current work as an associate editor and Masiyiwa-Bernstein fellow at Just Security has provided me with exactly what I was looking for.
Just Security is the leading publication on human rights-oriented national security law and policy. With our high-level audience of influential journalists, academics, and policymakers, I have seen first-hand how our writing influences law and policy. For example, in late October at the International Law Weekend at Fordham Law, I got to meet Brian Egan, the State Department’s top lawyer. Shortly before we were introduced, without any prompting, he told the crowd about how Just Security’s recent writings have helped to guide the State Department’s legal analysis on a crucial issue in international humanitarian law.
The International Law Weekend is just one of the many professional development experiences I’ve been encouraged to take advantage of as a Masiyiwa-Bernstein fellow. In September, I spent the weekend at the International Humanitarian Law Conference at Yale, where I learned from leading experts on the law of war, and laid the groundwork for a potential collaboration with a leading expert on autonomous weapons. And just a few weeks ago, I attended a public forum with Senator Chris Murphy and asked him questions about war crimes in Yemen on behalf of Just Security.
One of the biggest highlights of my experience so far has been writing my own posts for Just Security. I have published two posts on the conflict in Yemen and the law of armed conflict, which catapulted me into a Twitter debate with a host of leading human rights scholars and advocates. It was a novel experience for me to be treated as a colleague by these eminent figures in the human rights movement, but I have found this to be the norm since starting joining Just Security.
I have greatly appreciated the autonomy I’ve had as a fellow. In addition to writing on topics of my choice, I’ve also been able to solicit writing from leading experts on an issue that I’m passionate about: the suppression of animal rights activism. Additionally, I’ve been able to interview a number of experts for a special feature I’m hoping to produce on the intersection of autonomous weapons systems and human rights law.
Crucially, that autonomy is complemented by significant support from the warm and welcoming staff at Just Security and the Center for Human Rights and Global Justice at NYU Law (of which Just Security is a part). It has been a very special experience to develop meaningful relationships with both other fellows and senior faculty members. Regular lunches with my peers and supervisors in the center have helped me to feel like I am part of a real team -- and not just any team. It’s still hard for me to believe it that I have biweekly meetings with Pablo de Grieff, Philip Alston, and Meg Satterthwaite (just to name a few) – and I receive daily emojis in text messages from Ryan Goodman.
So far, my Masiyiwa-Berstein fellowship supported by the Bernstein Institute for Human Rights is shaping up to be a fantastic experience. I can’t wait to see what the rest of this experience holds, and what new emojis lie ahead.
Alexandra Zetes, NYU '16
Fellow at NYU Law's Global Justice Clinic (2016-2017)
I knew that spending a year as a Masiyiwa-Bernstein Fellow with the Global Justice Clinic at NYU School of Law would be challenging and provide me with a number of opportunities for growth, but I had no way of knowing how much I would learn in twelve short months. Working with the Global Justice Clinic has deepened my substantive knowledge on a number of topics and sharpened my advocacy skills, experiences that have dramatically increased my capacity as a human rights lawyer.
The Global Justice Clinic is NYU School of Law’s human rights clinic, and provides students with real-life work experience to complement their academic legal education. The clinic allows students to work side-by-side with human rights activists from around the world, to “prevent, challenge, and redress rights violations in situations of global inequality.” I have spent the last year working essentially as a staff attorney and research fellow for a number of the clinic’s projects.
During my fellowship I have worked on a diverse mix of projects including a case before the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights representing a victim of the U.S. CIA rendition program, helped to develop and organize a world-wide study on mental health and well-being in human rights work, and partnered with an indigenous community in Guyana to assist with advocacy relating to community-based monitoring data that the community has been collecting for over four years. I co-wrote a blog post for JustSecurity on Trump’s travel ban, and had another blog post published as part of a series on mental health and human rights work for openGlobalRights. I’ve also had the opportunity to write legal submissions for on-going litigation, conduct intensive research on a variety of human rights issues, engage in field work with direct client interaction, and conduct interviews with people from around the globe. Additionally, I had the opportunity to attend RightsCon 2017, where I learned about technology and human rights.
Working on this incredible variety of projects and building on the skills that I had developed during law school has been extremely beneficial. Today I am a better writer, communicator, strategizer, and a more confident advocate, and have a stronger sense of where in this field I would like to build a career. My work has been very fulfilling and has redoubled my passion for this work I believe that I am better positioned to jump into a number of subspecialities within the human rights field, as the fellowship has provided me with the exposure, connections and skills to confidently move on to what’s next.
Fall Blog Post
Five years ago, I was working with a democracy-building non-governmental organization in Rwanda. It was an incredibly rewarding experience. I felt that I was using my skills to enhance local communities and structures in sustainable, respectful, and constituent-based ways. It was a great thing for me to do right out of college. It was also really hard. Rwanda is often touted as a beautiful African county that stands out as an example of development and economic growth, and I certainly saw that. I also found that some things, including the scars of the 1994 genocide and governmental restrictions on the freedom of expression, made Rwanda a difficult place for me to live – both as a human rights worker and as a person.
For me, it eventually became too much. I have always been a strong person, but after six months of hard stories, rumors of disappearances and constantly watching over my shoulder, I needed to leave. There was work I could (perhaps should) have stayed to finish, but I couldn’t’t do it. I was burned out and traumatized, and without tools to cope. My experiences in Rwanda haunted me for a long time after I left.
That’s why, five years later, I am excited to be working on a project addressing mental health in human rights work as part of my Masiyiwa-Bernstein Fellowship. I am working with , who, with Professors (Columbia Law School) and (Sarah Lawrence College), has been working on this issue . Our current project focuses on mapping what human rights organizations are doing to address the challenges of vicarious trauma, Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and burnout in human rights workers, and to test interventions that may hold promise for preventing or responding to those issues. This cutting-edge, cross-disciplinary project will hopefully show us what is happening within the field, and point to ways we can better support human rights workers to increase their capacity to do their work.
Mental health in human rights is an issue that for years no one has wanted to talk about. Many still don’t. It feels individualistic and selfish to talk about your own mental and emotional health, especially when the people you are working with or on behalf of face much worse. For many, the notion of needing self-care or mental health assistance is stigmatizing, and runs counter to the savior narrative and tough image many of us have of ourselves. Some are just too busy to think about anything beyond the immediate challenge in front of them.
But that doesn’t mean it’s not important. I spent my first summer of law school in Turkey with the UN, and it was clear that my colleagues were burdened by the things they were facing. Many demonstrated signs of burnout and trauma. Numerous anecdotal accounts, as well as the research Profs. Satterthwaite, Knuckey and Brown are engaging in, point to a clear and unmet need. The mental and emotional impacts of human rights work are not well understood and are poorly addressed. Some may not want to talk about it, but if we are to prepare ourselves and future human rights workers to be effective in this work, that necessarily includes training and resources for how to take care of yourself when things are hard.
That’s why I believe this project is so important. It is critical that we work with those on the ground to understand these challenges that our colleagues are confronted with, and to identify ways to support them in the face of these issues. This project is perhaps not the most paradigmatically “legal”, but it is incredibly important within the holistic view of what constitutes human rights work. I’m also thrilled to be working on an interdisciplinary team of psychologists and lawyers in a field that too often looks inward instead of collaborating across disciplines. This project will hone my research and interview skills, and I believe it will make me a better human rights advocate. More importantly, it will help the human rights community to better understand (and hopefully be more understanding of) our own needs, and increase our efficacy for the challenging, but important, work that we do.
Katherine Erickson, NYU '15
Fellow at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum (2015-2016)
When you learn about human rights abuses, you usually hear it from reporters on TV or from online. But have you ever wondered where these stories come from?
Human Rights Watch and the United Nations Commissions of Inquiry are two main sources of information and reporting on human rights abuses around the world. They rely on specific techniques to conduct their investigations, often referred to as “human rights fact-finding.” While these techniques are detailed and systematic, they are not always executed with future prosecution in mind.
For example, Human Rights reports don’t necessarily focus on every single person who touches a document, or as formally referred to in legal proceedings, the “chain of custody.” But a document’s chain of custody is highly relevant in determining whether it can be admitted into later courtroom proceedings. This year, as a Masiyiwa-Bernstein fellow at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum’s Simon-Skjodt Center for the Prevention of Genocide, I researched ways that human rights fact-finding missions can be improved to better preserve evidence for later prosecutions. I worked with Stephen Rapp, former United States Ambassador-at-Large for War Crimes Issues in the Office of Global Criminal Justice to organize a series of expert convenings.
One issue with human rights fact-finding is the dearth of forensic experts. Another issue is time constraints—certain crimes, especially sexual and gender-based violence, require sensitive investigations that may be compromised due to a lack of long-term relationships between the investigators and the local communities. Finally, there is the issue of different priorities. Human rights investigators may be so focused on getting a public report out that they forget that their notes might later feed into accountability. For example, just because someone may choose not to be publically named in one report does not mean that retaining their name is not useful; they may consent to testify in court later, in a time of greater stability in their country, or after they have obtained asylum in another nation.
International prosecutors, unlike many human rights fact-finders, have to focus on individuals, not patterns of violations by entire groups. They focus on linkage evidence—an investigation unto itself that looks into proving connections between perpetrators and victims, and even command structures. While occasionally human rights fact-finders do look into linkage evidence, they do so at the expense of time that they could spend investigating the “bird’s-eye view” of violations - a very difficult decision to make.
These two groups of investigators have a lot in common, but they face structurally different incentives and constraints. This has been called the “Hague-Geneva Divide,” and to help bridge it, we brought together a group of experts in two different convenings—fittingly in the Hague and in Geneva. For my fellowship, I produced a series of memoranda that were circulated before each convening, which summarized current practice and suggested innovations for various methods and subject areas of investigation. The series of convenings continued after my fellowship, with a final meeting in Bellagio in October. After this final convening, the expert group aims to produce a series of main points of accord, or suggested practices, to assist future human rights fact-finders who are dedicated to accountability.
As it has been often pointed out, the processes we follow are all secondary to the goal of ending cycles of violence around the world. It is our hope that through these convenings, and the improved processes that come out of them, we are closer to reaching that goal.
Katherine is currently working as Staff Attorney at New York Legal Assistance Group in the Tenants' Rights Unit.
Sharon Samuel, NYU '15
Fellow at Human Rights First (2015-2016)
My time as a Masiyiwa-Bernstein Fellow at Human Rights First (HRF) was a tremendous learning experience, and a new and valuable glimpse into the world of government advocacy. The fellowship provided a foundation for the kind of human rights advocacy I want to be involved in throughout my career.
When I began the fellowship as part of the Anti-Trafficking Team at HRF, it was envisioned that I would share my time equally between sex trafficking and labor trafficking. However, early on in my fellowship, I sat in on a coalition meeting with several anti-trafficking organizations, with the overwhelming majority focused primarily on sex trafficking. It was clear to me that there was a huge gap in the anti-trafficking space, and HRF was one of the few organizations that could fill that gap. With their unique ability to bring together unlikely allies in government, civil society and the corporate world, HRF could play a key role in convincing companies to support transparency legislation, voluntary disclosure and corporate compliance measures, and other proactive means of monitoring supply chains. My focus leaned heavily on labor trafficking, both internationally and domestically.
Although HRF’s government advocacy takes place in DC and I was based in NYC, I was able to support the team’s multi-dimensional approach to advocacy. For example, I researched the legislative history and application of the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act (FCPA), and drew comparisons to the Trafficking Victims Protection Act (TVPA) to see how the TVPA could help hold accountable companies with forced labor in their supply chains. Additionally, I worked with the Communications team to create advocacy materials and website content, and propose new areas of research that I thought would benefit the team’s advocacy efforts. From day one, HRF made me feel like a member of the team. My suggestions were received enthusiastically, and I was always briefed at our weekly team meetings about the work of the organization across departments.
The most exciting part of the fellowship was engaging in the important issue of human trafficking, and learning to respond to real-time developments in the law. We actively followed new cases that were being brought against companies by former victims of forced labor abroad, and started focusing heavily on enforcement of new trade laws banning the importation of slave-made goods into the United States.
I learned at HRF that advocacy is sometimes a slow-moving process, particularly when advocacy targets include corporate entities and a protracted Congress. However, the ever-changing nature of the issue of human trafficking made the work feel dynamic and always vibrant. I plan to remain in the field of human rights throughout my career, and will do my best to support Human Rights First and other innovative human rights organizations for many years to come.
Sharon is currently a law clerk at the Law Offices of Steven L. Wittels, where she helps to represent plaintiffs in consumer fraud class actions, wage and hour cases, and employment discrimination cases.
Nate Stein, NYU '15
Fellow at NYU Stern Center for Busniess and Human Rights (2015-2016)
A Year in Business and Human Rights
As an inaugural Masiyiwa-Bernstein Fellow, I spent one year at the NYU Stern Center for Business and Human Rights, the first-ever human rights center based at a business school, with a mission to challenge and empower business leaders to make practical progress on human rights. I became interested in the intersection of business and human rights in college, when I studied abroad in China during the months leading up to the 2008 Beijing Olympics. Later, I read the book Factory Girls by Leslie T. Chang, which detailed the daily lives of migrant workers in Guangdong, China from a unique and eye-opening perspective. I was studying economics and began to wonder about the costs and benefits of transnational businesses and international supply chains. The Center was a great fit for me because of its “pro-business, high standards” approach of engaging directly with companies to create positive change.
Through my research and work with the Center’s director, Mike Posner, as well as Sarah Labowitz and others at the Center, I was exposed to many interesting topics, and experts, in the field. As a Fellow, I did general research for the Center’s projects and work relating to best practices in multi-stakeholder initiatives (MSIs). I had the opportunity to research and write, as well as gain experience working in an academic setting. During my fellowship year, the Center published a paper on shared responsibility for the World Economic Forum, launched its Bangladesh Factory Map, began a new blog series of best practices on MSIs, and more. At the beginning of my fellowship, I was tasked with planning an MSI meeting to take place on the margins of the United Nations Forum on Business and Human Rights in Geneva, Switzerland, the fifth such meeting co-hosted by the Center. It was somewhat challenging to plan and execute, but the meeting went extremely well and I was very happy for the opportunity to attend meetings at the UN Palais des Nations, which had been a lifelong dream of mine.
I learned so much during my year at the Center. Business and human rights is an exciting and developing area that I am very interested in staying involved in. Although there are problems in international business practices, such as obscure supply chains and human rights abuses by private security personnel, transnational companies also provide jobs where there weren’t any before. Therefore, it is important to engage with businesses to help ensure that they create jobs that provide employees with safe and secure working environments, which have a positive impact on the local communities. One of my biggest takeaways was the realization of the importance of all interested stakeholders having a voice in the regulation of transnational companies, from businesses to governments to human rights organizations to local workers on the ground. By giving everyone a voice, all perspectives can be heard and considered, and through this process improvements can be made.
I am extremely thankful for the Masiyiwa-Bernstein Fellowship and the opportunity to work in the rapidly growing field of business and human rights. I am very interested in seeing how this field, and the Center, continue to develop in the coming years.