By Anna Miller, RightsViews co-editor and graduate student in the human rights M.A. program.

On March 24, 2021 Gergana Halpern and Monica Olveira hosted the Institute for the Study of Human Rights Annual Career Panel. Since the global community has been living through the COVID-19 pandemic for more than one year now, some wonder if there are still job opportunities for students interested in human rights careers. Human rights professionals say yes – perhaps now more than ever before. 

Meet the Panelists 

Rebecca Brown is the Senior Director of Global Advocacy at the Center for Reproductive Rights. Before joining the Center, Rebecca was Deputy Director of the International Network for Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ESCR-Net), where she oversaw the organization’s program work and coordinated the Women and ESCR Working Group. Rebecca has published numerous pieces on reproductive rights, equality rights, economic, social, and cultural rights, and disability.

Ryan Heman is Senior Manager of Forced Labor & Human Trafficking at Humanity United, and supports the foundation’s systems strategy to eradicate forced labor and exploitation across global supply chains as well as abuses experienced by labor migrants. He has previously worked at The Philanthropy Workshop and conducted research with the Wellspring Philanthropic Fund, the Arcus Foundation, and OutRight Action International. 

Steve Miller is the Chief Financial Officer of Warby Parker and serves on the Board of Ubuntu Pathways. While studying at Columbia, Steve spent time in Johannesburg, South Africa and helped raise over $500K in support of local communities. He is committed to social justice initiatives and remains actively engaged with civil society in the country.

Gianna Sanchez Moretti is a doctor in law with a specialization in international human rights law, migration, and training. Gianna is currently an International Migration Law Officer at the International Migration Law Unit of the UN Migration agency (IOM). She has also worked as a Human Rights Officer with the UN Human Rights Office, supporting the Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights; the Human Rights Committee; the Subcommittee on Prevention of Torture; the Methodology, Education and Training Section; and the Regional Office for Europe in Brussels.

Matthew Wilson is Deputy Director in the Global Drug Policy Program and coordinates grantmaking for drug policy reform and oversees grantmaking in Asia and engagement with higher education. Matthew previously worked in Open Society Foundation’s Scholarship Program and managed program development, university partnerships, and oversight of undergraduate and graduate level scholarships for activists from Asia and the Balkans.

Key Takeaways 

After introductions, Monica kicked off the conversation by asking the panelists about the strategic decisions they made as they moved between different positions throughout their careers. Steve talked about his desire to pay off his undergraduate debt by joining a private sector consulting firm, but one that had a practice advising developing countries on their economic strategies. He continued through his career combining his interest in human rights and technology that eventually led him to his current job at Warby Parker. Rebecca shared that she started off in the Peace Corps and while serving in The Gambia she realized that to properly achieve her professional goals, her next step would be law school. Rebecca and Steve’s experiences make it clear that it is normal for your career interests to change throughout your professional journey. When transitioning to a new role, both Steve and Rebecca stressed the importance of establishing relationships with your colleagues and being an active listener to properly understand the nature of your job and culture of your workplace. 

Next, Monica posed a question about a common profession that human rights students enter – philanthropy –  and how to engage with various actors in this field of work. Both Ryan and Matthew have distinguished careers in philanthropic work. When thinking through his career options, Ryan could not decide on one single path and eventually chose philanthropic work because “through philanthropy you really get to touch every single approach to an issue and it’s actually quite fun to get to work with so many different people.” Philanthropy involves diverse work, and in a single week you may interact with union members, survivors, donors, journalists and entrepreneurs. Matthew noted the unique privilege of his position as one in which “you get to work throughout a lot of levels to try to advance change” and shared the gratification that comes with helping grassroots organizations receive the financial support they need to achieve their objectives. 

Last, Monica asked the panelists how the nature of their work has evolved due to the COVID-19 pandemic and how students can continue to be engaged in human rights during this exceptional time period. Rebecca’s position at the Center for Reproductive Rights, in particular, has been impacted by the COVID-19 crisis because of the political nature of women’s health care. Rebecca noted that  “governments around the world, including the U.S., have used the pandemic as a pretext to limit or stop access to abortion as a non-essential health care service” and explained how that action has negatively impacted women’s well-being during a health crisis. Gianna shared how COVID-19 was impacting migrant populations worldwide. Different migrant populations already experience certain vulnerabilities, precarious situations, and often, human rights violations. Gianna noted that the pandemic has “exacerbated the vulnerabilities even more exponentially because COVID-19 has a mobility component.” She also shared that unfortunately discrimination against migrants rose in the beginning of the pandemic since there were false perceptions that migrants were spreading the virus, thus becoming victims of xenophobia. Though the state of human rights may seem especially alarming right now, Gianna sees this as an opportunity for increased, and improved, human rights work at all levels, especially at the local level: “We only see the tip of the iceberg. There will be dire consequences ahead that have human rights implications in all areas, beyond the right to health. Human rights work after the pandemic is very important to build a more just, inclusive, and peaceful society. We want to build back better and leave no one behind.” 

Practical tips for those on the job hunt

Throughout the event, the knowledgeable panel shared some great advice for those seeking employment in the human rights field. Below is a collection of those tips. 

#1: Make a list of the top organizations you would like to work for. 

Visualize your potential career paths and remind yourself there are numerous organizations where you could accomplish your professional goals. 

#2: Think about the job you want, then figure out who currently has that job. 

Once you determine who that person is, take a look at their career track, via LinkedIn. How did that person get to where they are today? This can provide some guidance to see what your next step might be. 

#3: Work locally, too.

As students interested in human rights, we often think we have to travel internationally or across the country for our next job. Remember that you can do equally valuable work in your own community, right now. It’s likely that there are social justice issues that need attention and people that need your help right under your nose. 

#4 Focus on the next 3-5 years

So many students think it’s necessary to have your entire career track planned out by the time you graduate college. Do not be afraid to plot out your future in smaller blocks of time. Your career can consist of a handful of experiences at different organizations and in various roles. 

#5: Remember what is important to you

Not all human rights careers have to lead to the UN. Consider the human rights issues that are important to you, not just the clout of the organization you want to join. If you frame your career in terms of the problems you would like to solve, you may find more satisfaction. 

Please click here if you are interested in watching the panel in full. 

Header Image: “NYC – Columbia University – Alma Mater and Low Memorial Library” by wallyg is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

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