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Exploring Careers in Human Rights: ISHR’s 2020 Human Rights Career Panel

Exploring Careers in Human Rights: ISHR’s 2020 Human Rights Career Panel

By Rowena Kosher, Co-Editor of RightsViews 

In the midst of the global pandemic of COVID-19, orders of social distancing and indoor sheltering in place, students and panelists tuned in virtually for ISHR’s annual career panel last week, meeting through screens to discuss what the multiplicity of careers in the human rights field can look like. Gergana Halpern, ISHR’s Director of Educational Programming, moderated the panel. 

The Panelists – What Do You Do?

Halpern began the session by asking each of the four panelists to introduce themselves, their current work, and what their job entails. 

Louis Bickford is the CEO and founder of Memria, an online platform for the collection and sharing of stories through audio and text, and an Adjunct Professor of Political Science at ISHR. He has 20 years of experience in the human rights field and as such has worked in a variety of capacities, including in truth commissions, testimonial collection, academia, NGOs, and now technology. 

Rebecca Norlander is the Lead Researcher at Knology, a “collective of scientists, writers, and educators dedicated to studying and untangling complex social issues.” Knology focuses on providing practical approaches to problems in which human rights play a role. Norlander highlighted that her current job looks at human rights at large from a variety of approaches, encouraging cultural appreciation and identifying best practices in advancing positive social change. She identified two focus areas of her work: institutions themselves—how can they serve as vectors to advance social good?—and human rights education.

Karen Karnicki, an alumna of ISHR’s Human Rights MA program, is a Program Associate at the Rockefeller Brothers Fund (RBF). RBF is a philanthropic grant-making institution with an endowment to support projects worldwide. RBF’s investment assets as of January 31, 2020 total $1.26 billion. Karnicki works on a program that provides grants to civil society organizations focused on peacebuilding. Karnicki’s responsibilities are twofold: firstly, she performs grants administration and management, including advocating for grant recipients and ensuring grants comply with IRS and other regulations. Secondly, Karnicki travels to meet various people involved in the grant application process, giving her the opportunity to see the work of many civil society organizations and their human rights-related missions.

Daniela Karrenstein is a Political Affairs Officer at the UN Office of Counter-Terrorism’s policy unit. She prepares talking points and makes background notes on policy issues that will be later discussed with the Secretary General and other senior officials. A significant portion of her job involves working with the many UN member states, attempting to find common ground in opinions on policy approaches or document provisions. She also handles the preparation of the Under-Secretary-General for engagements on issues of strategic interest to the broader UN. 

Breaking Down Partnerships in Human Rights

Halpern queried about the nature of partnerships in human rights work. Human rights is filled with many actors. How can one identify the right actors to work with, and what do partnerships look like? Agreeing, Bickford stated that “this entire field is built on partnerships,” and although the nature of the actors and partnerships may vary, they all boil down to the same conversation. In essence, all partnerships are about developing strategies and alignments, asking “how can we work together?” and “What do we bring to the table?” Of course, not all partnerships will work out, such as an instance when a funder may decline to contribute to an applicant, but when partnerships have been established, they operate through communication and a shared commitment to human rights issues.

Karrenstein described the nature of her specific engagement in human rights partnerships, ones which exist within the large intergovernmental system of the UN. Because of the legal and moral authority of the UN, universal values as enshrined in the UN charter are the basis of the UN’s human rights work. United by this commitment, member states ideally work together to develop solutions to international issues. In her capacity, Karrenstein is able to have direct contact with the UN member states, as such developing partnerships both informally and formally to push states on issues of strategic interest. Direct contact with member states and the security council has many advantages. Yet, the UN system also comes with challenges. It is hard for 193 states to agree, and Karrenstein notices the heavy influence of geopolitics on causing stagnation on certain issues. Further, although she loves the intercultural and interdisciplinary relationships between UN staff members, those varying backgrounds can also make it challenging to communicate effectively with each other.

On a much more “birds-eye” level, the partnerships Karnicki builds in the human rights field are a bit more removed. In the world of philanthropy, program staff like Karnicki build large networks, connecting with individual actors, governments, civil society, and NGOs. These connections allow Karnicki to see the whole “ecosystem of organizations” and human rights issues, a broader perspective that excites her because she can see not only the many issues, but also how they overlap. Bickford, who has also spent some time in the philanthropic world, noted the tension between NGOs and philanthropic organizations, in which NGOs see only their issue and consider it the “most important”, yet philanthropy sees the many “most important” issues all vying for support.

Slightly removed from direct service, Norlander’s work in research takes a more behind-the-scenes approach to a human rights partnership. As she noted, there are many different layers and levels to doing what we call “human rights work.” What Norlander does brings research and analysis to direct players in the field, informing best practices, approaches, and helping to guide decision making. As such, she builds one relationship with academia and research and another with on-the-ground practical solutions to the issues that the research reveals. 

Figuring Out Your Path

From the grassroots to the international level, main players to players behind the scenes, it is clear that partnerships structure the human rights field. With so many potential paths to follow, how can you know what type of human rights career best suits you? Panelists touched on this throughout the event, explaining how they were able to mesh their personal preferences and styles to their various jobs. 

Karnicki encouraged students to ask themselves “how does my brain work best?” Personally, she would not work well in a job that is too specific: “I would be a terrible specialist. I’m much more of a generalist.” This is why philanthropy works so well for her. Bickford concurred with the suggestion to build off of the generalist/specialist distinction. Do you want to wake up in the morning and ask yourself what is going on in a narrow slice of the world or do you want to drink your morning joe while pondering the state of the entire field at large? 

Students may also consider how they want their days to look like, said Norlander. This is something she wished she had asked herself when in school. Do you want to be interacting with people all the time, or do you want to sit back and do more solo activities? Norlander spent several years in academia, which she admitted could be individual and isolating at times. Once she began to embrace an interdisciplinary approach to her engagements, she found it rewarding to be collaborative with others. “This whole time I’d been my own mini think tank,” she said, “and now I have all these other people to think with.” You get trained to do one thing well, Norlander said, but there is a richness that comes with working in collaboration. 

Certainly, academic training can influence where students may direct their interests, although several panelists stressed the importance of being open to new and unexpected interests, as well. Bickford received his training in political science and enjoyed that because of its problem-solving nature. Karrenstein came from a legal background, having received a law degree in Germany focused on public international law and human rights law. Her time as a research assistant to a professor in public international law also solidified her interest in seeking a career where she could use this expertise. She knew that she wanted to work in the multilateral world and set her sights on the UN. Yet, panelists encouraged students to cast a wide net when thinking about jobs after graduation. “The human rights education lies in you,” said Norlander. Don’t sell yourself short; there are any number of organizations and companies across many sectors where you can be the human rights voice. Karnicki agreed, stating that some people may have to go out of their comfort zones to things more tangentially related to human rights, but that you can bring a social justice lens to any job you do. 

This is relevant for what Halpern noted as one of the most commonly-asked questions from students, and a question that was posed to the panelists: “do I have to go to law school to do human rights?” The overwhelming consensus from the panelists was a resounding “no.” While, as Karrenstein pointed out, some jobs may have a prerequisite of a law degree, human rights work can take a plethora of forms which do not require a JD. You should do what you love, claimed Bickford. If you love law, then by all means pursue law. For people who enjoy rules and structure, law can be a great career path. But if you are someone who thinks culture changes society, then a sociological or anthropological approach may be a better fit. The moral of the story? Think deeply about what will provide you the most value, personally and practically. 

Building a Human Rights Skillset

It is clear that human rights jobs can span the gamut, yet the panelists all stressed a common “human rights skillset” that is helpful no matter where you choose to work. 

Technically, Norlander stressed the necessity of being able to conduct research in a variety of methods. Learn the research skills, and more importantly, do not treat issues in isolation. “Not only do you need a range of methods,” she said, “but you also have to recognize it as a social system.” Connected to this is what Bickford called the skill of “problem-solving-ness.” The field, he said, is all about tackling problems. Can you sit down at a table, take a problem, and wrestle it into some type of a solution? The human rights field is moving on from its old “naming and shaming” approach to one that is solution-focused. Be prepared to bring interdisciplinary problem-solving skills to the work you do. This is especially important because, as Karrenstein and Bickford noted, it is necessary in the human rights field to be able to demonstrate impact. 

Knowledge acquisition, however, is of little use in the human rights field without the ability to communicate it to various audiences. Karrenstein’s job in the UN highlights this necessity. It is not just the technical knowledge that counts, she said, but rather is first of all about communication skills. The UN functions off of collaborative relationships between members who may have very different mindsets on an issue. “Set the scene,” she recommended, and keep in mind the political terrain that member states are constantly navigating. The soft skills truly steal the spotlight. Karnicki likened communication skills to translation: in her job, she needs to translate grant content from an applicant to the decision makers who approve grants. Knowing how to build a case and advocate for her grantees is crucial to translate their missions to an audience. 

Textual communication is a technical skill that every human rights practitioner will need to hone. Know how to write, said Norlander. Be able to synthesize a lot of information into concise and digestible summaries. In the context of the UN, Karrenstein could not underestimate the value of drafting skills—being able to explain a complex scenario in simple and short ways. 

Finally, panelists discussed positionality. As people in the human rights field, we must constantly question our own biases, privileges, and assumptions. Many fields are shifting right now, focusing more on questioning the intentions and impact of certain “old school” approaches to human rights issues. Karnicki noted that the philanthropy world is asking new questions about equity in a way that it has not before, querying issues of marginalities and a donor’s role given their power and resources. Donors should try to develop a sense of humility and listening, working against the industry’s history of acting as ‘expert’ in ways that are sometimes unwarranted. “I feel like I have a role to play in pushing for more equitable distribution of resources,” she said. 

This is also an important question to ask oneself when thinking about field work in human rights. Bickford argued that the role of international actors is changing all the time. What is the added value, if any, of international actors “parachuting in” to provide expertise and leaving immediately after? The paradigm of North-based expertise and South-based recipient is “totally inappropriate now,” he argued. We need to rethink the entire model, constantly reassessing power relations and scanning where there is actual added value in assistance. Karrenstein agreed, admitting the UN’s sometimes problematic past engagements in missions or mandates that were more political compromises than valuable assistance. 

From a research side, Norlander highlighted some methodologies that embrace a conscious engagement with researcher positionality. She subscribes to a constructivist approach, in which the researcher acknowledges their position and biases. She enacts this through participatory action research (ensuring those who will be affected by the process have a voice in the process) and grounded theory (seeing what emerges from the data rather than a top-down imposition). 

Where do we go from here?

Throughout the panel, speakers presented their own experiences in concert with their recommendations for students and new graduates exploring a career path in human rights. As Karnicki recognized, the job hunt is an uncertain and scary time. This is not to mention that we are currently experiencing the emotional rollercoaster of a global pandemic and massive unemployment. Yet, looking for a career is also a chance to explore one’s passions and creativity. “The idea of positioning yourself perfectly will be absolutely impossible,” argued Bickford. Instead, pursue the thing that you like the most, because in the end, it almost always “kinda works out in a weird way.”