Exploring Careers in Human Rights
“If you follow your heart and passions, you can’t go wrong with your career choice – but this is not a linear career path. You have to know what you’re getting yourself into,” said Charlie Clements, the Executive Director at the Carr Center for Human Rights Policy. At the OCS Human Rights Event, panelists spoke about their experiences as human rights activists and offered beads of wisdom about the highs and lows of working in the field.
Roxanne Krystalli ‘08, a graduate student at the Fletcher School, left Harvard without a strong sense of what she wanted to do for a career. “I took a year off “to live” and to think about what I wanted to do and what was important to me. I worked at a law firm but wanted to spend more time on what I cared about,” she explained. Now, she is a conflict management specialist who has implemented capacity development initiatives and post-conflict reintegration programs in the Middle East, East Africa, and Latin America by working with UN agencies, NGOs and community-based organizations in Egypt, Uganda, Colombia, Guatemala, and Jordan. “This work is what makes me come alive,” she said. “There’s nothing that compares to getting to do what you really love, especially because I needed my work to reflect my values and principles – what I want to talk about in after hours has to be what I do. There are a lot of people who are very cynical about the way human rights activism works, a lot of people who will say “no work will ever make anything better,” but I have to work to look for grains of hope and resist those sentiments.”
Lise Balk King, a fellow at the Carr Center for Human Rights Policy, recounted her experience working in North Dakota on a confidence-building project for teenage girls, in which her salary was not as high as her morale. “Following your heart in these situations is key, because you need passion to enjoy this kind of work,” she explained.
While the panel emphasized passion as a prerequisite for this career field, they also stressed the importance of emotionally separating yourself from your work. “Working in this field is kind of like being in the mafia: once you’re in, you can’t get out. I get letters from people in prison and Facebook messages asking for help and I can’t say no,” Lise said. “There’s a personal balance issue of maintaining yourself and taking the space you need for yourself, because you do want to passionately help everyone but at some point you have to put stuff down.”
Apart from the emotional pull of this work, it can also be incredibly frustrating at times. “Working at a nonprofit, you don’t always win. You can invest years of your life and see it go nowhere. It’s work, but you can’t help but build a legacy because the work you’re doing is so important and you can’t get anything better than an intrinsically satisfying career,” said Rupert Elderkin, a former lawyer with the Office of the Prosecutor at the United Nations International Criminal Tribunal for Yugoslavia. “When you feel so strongly about the work, and either ego or profit-making gets involved, it’s dangerous. You have to get over ethical dilemmas because you could stay enraged forever. It’s really important to take yourself out of it.”
In a field with such challenging working conditions, what is it that keeps these activists engaged? “I’m in this field because I couldn’t make myself do anything else,” Benjamin said. “There is a purity that comes with the relationships you build at a nonprofit that will last from organization to organization and project to project. You get so much access to what’s going on at the organization and you get to know how everything works – there’s a lot more room to succeed and fail in your role.”
At the end of the day, all panelists emphasized that this field is primarily about dedication and commitment to the work at its core. “If you’re in this work because it’s “noble,” eventually you’ll crash because this is not about ego, it’s about people. I always have to remind myself that the arc of the road is long, but bends towards justice,” Charlie said. “That’s why I’m still here.”
Julia Eger, ’14