By Caroline Fidan Tyler Doenmez, graduate student of human rights at Columbia University
Human rights work can encompass a myriad of issues, projects, approaches and geographical locations. This wide range of opportunities can be exhilarating for human rights students; however, it can also be hard to find the right fit for students’ skills and passions. To address the possibilities and challenges of working in this field as well as provide students with guidance and advice, the Institute of Human Rights Studies at Columbia University hosted a panel discussion, “Careers in Human Rights,” on Monday, April 7, 2014.
The panel consisted of four professionals with a diverse range of experiences in human rights work: Sapna Chhatpar Considine, Program Director at the International Coalition for the Responsibility to Protect; Larry Cox, Co-Director of Kairos: the Center for Religions, Rights and Social Justice and former Executive Director of Amnesty International USA; Meg Gardinier, Director of Arigatou International-New York and Chair of the Campaign for U.S. Ratification of the Convention on the Rights of the Child; and Refik Hodzic, Director of Communications at the International Center for Transitional Justice. The panelists described their present work and projects, as well as their paths to their current positions. Their presentations were followed by a Q&A session.
A common theme that emerged in all of the presentations was the value of collaboration amongst their various lines of work. Gardinier noted that, on the one hand, NGOs offer more freedom and ways to focus on human-rights based work but the budget is often limited. On the other hand, larger institutions provide substantive resources and authority. However, well-funded inter-governmental organizations may offer fewer opportunities to directly contribute to rights-related projects. The answer, she said, lies in partnerships between these entities, as well as among civil society actors more generally. She also recommended that students consider the possibilities of collaboration with the private sector by exploring work in corporate social responsibility, for example.
Panelists also highlighted issues around obtaining funds for their work, and they agreed that fundraising can create undeniable tension because the process can be time-consuming and create competition with like-minded organizations. They noted pressures that are at times contradictory and make the process even more difficult to navigate, like the troubled economy coupled with the fact that there is more funding for human rights than ever before. Panelists underscored the need for creativity and “doing more with less,” and also exhorted students to work on gaining fundraising skills, an asset in the non-profit world.
The session ended with the question, “What is a specific skill, quality or qualification in the people you look to hire that these students can try to further develop?” The panelists’ answers included: strong writing skills, up-to-date knowledge of social media tools, solid interpersonal skills, knowledge of the particular issue being addressed, network-building capabilities, humility and the ability to listen. Cox advised: “Be self-critical and try to get rid of your ego, you don’t have to be the best and the brightest. Social justice is about another society, different values…if all you want to do is take the values we have now and bring them into social justice, you’re just going to be part of the problem.”
Despite the diversity of the panelists’ experiences and areas of expertise, they all communicated the value of staying true to one’s principles while inevitably having to engage in frustrating corporate dynamics. They urged students to maintain their sense of integrity and hope in the face of obstacles. For example, despite having quit his previous job twice over a sense of disillusionment with his former institution, Hodzic now finds himself in a rewarding role, advocating for human rights through communications methods: “I’m proud to count myself among the people who are trying to develop the thinking about how the fields of journalism and activism are merging, and to practice that theory in a way.” Considine mentioned the difficulty of watching the Syria crisis unfold, but went on to describe how much she appreciates being able to travel the world and talk to civil society members about the Responsibility to Protect. Gardinier described how the US Campaign to ratify the Convention on the Rights of the Child has been a long process, but that it’s deeply significant to her and her colleagues, saying: “It’s slow but important work.”
All of the panelists echoed the sense of having an innate pull towards human rights work that sustains them. Considine noted her dedication to her profession, even when it can feel impractical: “As I get older, it can feel harder to justify the pay I get and the hours I spend, but I’m one hundred percent committed to this work, which is why I’ve stayed in it.” Cox added, “You have to decide not only what you want to do, but what is your vision of doing human rights work? A well-paying job? Or does it mean something else? My advice is, if you really want to be in the future of human rights, try to go find those organizations on the ground, the Dreamers movement, the Gay Rights movement, go work with them for a while, take advantage of the fact that maybe you don’t have twelve kids yet. Go listen to them, and learn from them.” Hodzic noted, “I think this work chooses you, rather than the other way around. You have to be a certain kind of person, a certain kind of professional to do this work. I don’t think you could just ‘make it’ a career like you do in the corporate world.”
Many human rights students attended this event, including several from various other programs at Columbia. Numerous students stayed afterwards to talk to the speakers individually. This panel was useful in providing an honest, open forum for dialogue about the challenges and rewards of this line of work. The panelists’ anecdotes and straightforward advice gave students a sense of where their own interests might lead and which skills to cultivate. Through the stories of their own professional trajectories, the panelists encouraged students to pursue what they find meaningful and to sustain their vision of what a more just world will look like.
Caroline Fidan Tyler Doenmez is an M.A. candidate in the Columbia University Human Rights Studies program. Her main areas of interest concern the collective rights to culture and education for girls and women in indigenous communities. She is also currently interning at UN Women.