Human Rights Fellowship Reflection: Reflecting on the EEOC After 50 Years, and After One Summer, by Leah Tabbert

On July 2, 2015, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission celebrated its 50th birthday. The agency opened its doors on July 2, 1965, one year after President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act into law. Fifty years later, I sat in a room in the EEOC headquarters with several of the agency’s MVPs to celebrate the milestone.

The EEOC’s birthday cake

The EEOC’s birthday cake

One of the speakers was Eleanor Holmes Norton, who currently serves as Delegate to Congress for the District of Columbia. Before she served in Congress, though, Holmes Norton served as the first female Chair of the EEOC. She described her move into the office in 1977. “The painters came in to change the name on the door. I told them to leave ‘-man’ off of ‘chairman.’” Ever since then, the position has simply been called “Chair.” Holmes Norton joked, “I still have friends who won’t call me Eleanor. They’ll say, ‘Hi, Chair, how ya doing?’”

Today, the EEOC’s five Commissioner positions, Chair included, are all filled by women. I think that shows how far the agency, and employment discrimination law more generally, has come. The EEOC has been at the forefront of groundbreaking employment discrimination statutes, like the Age Discrimination in Employment Act and the Americans with Disabilities Act, and has further protected employee rights through its interpretive guidance, regulations, and litigation. This summer, I got to be a very small part of that.

Leah at the EEOC Headquarters in Washington, D.C.

Leah at the EEOC Headquarters in Washington, D.C.

During my summer internship with the Appellate Division of the EEOC’s Office of General Counsel, I have been surprised over and over at the richness and depth of employment discrimination law. Even after fifty years of enforcing employment discrimination statutes, there are still issues of first impression. That makes the work of the EEOC’s appellate lawyers particularly important and exciting. In some exciting cases, they get to ask themselves what the rule ought to be, and then build a compelling argument to back it up. And while they don’t always win, cases like Mach Mining v. EEOC and EEOC v. Abercrombie & Fitch from this year’s Supreme Court docket show that the EEOC’s appellate program has a huge impact on employees’ legal rights.

I feel truly lucky to have been a part of the EEOC’s fiftieth year, and can’t wait to see what the agency will do with the next fifty.

By Leah Tabbert, Human Rights Fellow, Summer 2015

Leah Tabbert is conducting her Human Rights Fellowship at the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission in Washington, D.C.

Human Rights Fellowship Reflection: Unexpected Challenges, by Chelsea Ahmann

Chelsea Ahmann and her fellow intern at the Children's Law Center, Lauren.

Chelsea Ahmann and her fellow intern at the Children’s Law Center, Lauren.

Our Child Protection System is broken. It’s broken and, to be honest, no one seems to care. People seem to be completely fine with forgetting the fact that these children are not involved in the system because they have chosen to be broken – they are involved because all of the adults in their lives have failed them. They have been beaten, abused, or completely forgotten. They are scared and alone and have never seen what a well-functioning adult looks like.

So what do we do? We pull them out of their home, separate them from their parents and often siblings, move them to a location they’ve never been before with a bunch of people they’ve never met before, pull them out of their schools, away from their friends and community, and expect them to silently comply. We forget that they are now attending a new school with no clothes because no one has bothered to go and pick theirs up. That they are bullied because they are different and often dirty and bruised. We place them in foster homes that will later have their licenses terminated for being abusive toward the foster children. We tell them adoption is the “goal,” the light at the end of the tunnel, and then watch them re-enter the system a year later because their adoptive home turned out to be abusive as well. We pair them with workers to act as their parents who often overlook things that are monumental to them. We allow the adults running the system to make excuses for why the child has not had contact with their siblings in nine months or why they have still not seen a doctor for their tooth that was knocked out 90 days ago.

We do all of this, and then we sit back and chastise them when they run away. We shame them and tell them that they’re being ungrateful. We sit in a court room with them and act like they should be thankful that they did absolutely nothing to deserve the horrors they’ve experienced at the hands of adults. They should be appreciative of the fact that they have been ripped away from everything and everyone they knew and loved and may not ever have anyone they can call Mom or Dad again. We talk about how it’s okay that their foster parents, adoptive parents, or social workers have found them “too difficult” and have chosen to wash their hands of them.

Because, after all, it’s not our fault that they’re difficult. Why should we have to be patient with them? Why should we have to cut them more slack? We joke about the fact that our biological children are difficult, moody, temperamental, and disobedient, but the second one of these children acts their age, we ship them off to another location because we have reached our wit’s end in dealing with them. We pride ourselves on at least trying to “fix” these delinquents and ignore the fact that we have shown them one more person in the world who doesn’t want them. We do all of this and then pat each other on the back because we’re really good people for trying.

Working at the Children’s Law Center of Minnesota has been amazing, inspiring, and slightly maddening. The people here truly dedicate their lives to helping these kids, and while, legally, their responsibility is only to represent foster children in court, I’ve watched the staff attorneys and volunteers here do so much more. I’ve watched them arrange dentist appointments, assist with visa applications, make sure a teen can take their driver’s test on time, offer reassurance, point out individual strengths, and provide a thousand other services that they’re not obligated to offer.

It’s infuriating, however, because they shouldn’t have to. These tasks are not in the job description of a child’s attorney, but these attorneys preform them nonetheless because the adults who should be taking care of the kids are getting lazy. The adults who are paid or who have volunteered to take care of these kids choose to forget that these kids have endured things most people will never experience in their entire lives.

After ninety days here I’m both inspired and disheartened. I’ve seen both the best and the worst of humanity and have realized that the system is in desperate need of help. Children’s Law Center of Minnesota can only do so much on their own. They need positive foster parents, good social workers, caring county attorneys, intelligent guardian ad litems, and supportive adoptive parents. Most of all, they need people to start caring.

By Chelsea Ahmann, Human Rights Fellow, Summer 2015

Chelase Ahmann is conducting her Human Rights Fellowship at the Children’s Law Center of Minnesota in St. Paul.

Human Rights Fellowship Reflection: Transitional Justice in Belfast and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, by Megan Manion

Mural in Belfast, Northern Ireland

Mural in Belfast, Northern Ireland

Belfast, Northern Ireland is not the most instinctual hub for international conflict resolution research. However, it is an important, influential, and symbolic one. I have spent the last two months working on research to support a reparations process in the Democratic Republic of the Congo while living in Belfast. Working towards meaningful and concrete reparations to be implemented in an ongoing conflict in the DRC while living in a post-conflict setting has meant having a first-hand interface with the uncertainty of conflict. The unease of experiencing the very tangible effects of conflict in Belfast – whether it be tension surrounding controversial holidays, expressions of violence from organized groups, flags which demarcate and threaten, or merely the division of neighborhoods – reminds me that solutions to conflict, in order to have meaning and effect, are processes, not mere solutions.

In early June, the Trust Fund for Victims and the Transitional Justice Institute held a meeting to consult experts for the reparations process that the International Criminal Court will be undertaking in the Thomas Lubanga Dyilo case. The choice of Belfast as the locale was purposeful. Belfast, a Western democracy, is still dealing with remnants of conflict, the continuation of harmful traditions, and lack of acknowledgement for losses and human rights abuses. This choice was an acknowledgement of the universality of conflict across cultures, regions, and systems. In human rights law conversations, initiatives, and actions there can be a significant and systematic tendency to “other” conflicts and portray them as somehow different from conflicts that occur in Western democracies. As such, my work has highlighted the core similarities between post-conflict societies and the issues that individuals, communities, and systems have to address as conflicts resolve or digress with fluidity.

Having this opportunity and reminder as I research and support the work of the Transitional Justice Institute has been a practice in humility and an unparalleled opportunity to participate in a process with international and local experts who approach these critical issues of conflict and repair with critical awareness of their own impact and the implications of their perceptions and choices.

By Megan Manion, Human Rights Fellow, Summer 2015

Megan Manion is conducting her Human Rights Fellowship at the University of Ulster’s Transitional Justice Institute.

 

Human Rights Fellowship Reflection: The Murals of Belfast, by Amanda McAllister

Mural in Belfast

The conflict is written onto the walls of Belfast. After thirty years of violence during The Troubles conflict, murals have become a tradition for every community. The murals reflect public opinion, recent agreements, hopes for the future, and signs of solidarity. They range from optimism to harrowing predictions for the future of Northern Ireland. There is simultaneously the “peace wall,” depicting hopeful murals and images of leaders like Nelson Mandela, and the infamous “prepared for peace, ready for war” mural in North Belfast. At the heart of these murals lay visions of identity, national belonging, and methods for pursuing rival futures.

The experiences of Northern Ireland play a significant role in the purpose of the organization that I am a part of this summer. Ulster University’s Transitional Justice Institute takes the experience of Northern Ireland and exports those lessons to transform and inspire resolutions to conflict. One way in which these lessons are shared is through the Annual Summer School on Transitional Justice. This year’s topic was “Gendering the Practices of Post-Conflict Resolution: Investigations, Reparations and Communal Repair.” The school is a week-long course consisting of interactive lectures, workshops, roundtable discussions and cultural outings for the visiting human rights leaders. The workshop focused on global approaches to gender, violence and transitional justice, assessing gender in the context of community, reparations in comparative perspectives, and communal interfaces with gender accountability. Each working part of this perspective and field is intricate and interlocked. If one, essential part is severed, the nuance of effective understanding of the relationships among those parts is lost and the system is left dysfunctional.

Mural in BelfastAs I go forward in my legal studies, I understand the necessity of the ways in which fields and perspectives work as part of a dynamic system requiring rigorous analysis of the way in which those parts work separately and together. Like the murals in Belfast, which display a breadth of history, images of solidarity with other conflicts, and even pop culture, the complexities of the human experience cannot and do not exist in a vacuum. They are entwined and demand thoughtful and purposeful unraveling in order to effect change.

By Amanda McAllister, Human Rights Fellow, Summer 2015

Amanda McAllister is conducting her Human Rights Fellowship at the University of Ulster’s Transitional Justice Institute.

Human Rights Fellowship Reflection: Real-Life Law, by Charles Moore

After having studied law during my first year of law school, having an opportunity to see real-life issues play out in a legal context has been eye-opening for me in many regards. It is one thing to read cases in textbooks and quite another to be confronted with an individual living in your community who has legal problems students have only ever read about. It is far too easy in law school to lose sight of the fact that there are people who are adversely affected by the law and instead focus on legal concepts and doctrine. Working with the St. Paul Department of Human Rights and Equal Economic Opportunity (HREEO) has made apparent the individual component of the law and the ways people can be empowered by it.

Lobby of the St. Paul Department of Human Rights & Equal Economic Opportunity

Lobby of the St. Paul Department of Human Rights & Equal Economic Opportunity

HREEO receives complaints from individuals who feel they have been discriminated against primarily in the areas of employment, housing, and public accommodation. I have had the opportunity to become involved in the investigation of several cases and have even been able to write a few decisions. By doing this, not only do the legal issues come to life, but the impact lawyers can have on a community becomes apparent as well. Although many times our office is not able to issue the decision an individual is hoping for, we play an important role in empowering the individual and mediating a resolution. At all stages of the process, an open line of communication is created and mediation is encouraged throughout. Often times, an individual feels they have been wronged and they need to be heard. Our office provides a medium through which individuals can express their grievances and also have a platform to highlight discriminatory behavior. Even if at the end of the process they do not receive the decision they were hoping for, they have been given the opportunity to discuss the incident with our office and the offender, and still preserve their right to file a complaint in court. Our process allows for open dialogue and reconciliation, which often times is exactly what is needed in order for an offended party to feel vindicated.

This experience with HREEO reinforces all the reasons I went to law school. I wanted to empower the disadvantaged and provide assistance to those who are often not afforded the benefit of legal counsel. Even in a setting where I am not directly advocating for individuals and am instead acting as a neutral facilitator, I have the ability to assist those in need. By providing a listening ear and a helping hand, I am giving these individuals a voice they may otherwise not have found.

By Charles Moore, Human Rights Fellow, Summer 2015

Charles Moore is conducting his Human Rights Fellowship at the St. Paul Department of Human Rights and Equal Economic Opportunity.

Human Rights Fellowship Reflection: An Internal Struggle, by Ally Billeaud

Arusha, Tanzania

Arusha, Tanzania

When I arrived in Arusha, it was my first time in Africa and since I have traveled a lot in the past, I did not consider that I might become homesick. For the first four days, I was tired and delirious, I did not have any way to contact home, and I missed my family and friends miserably. The only thing that kept me from getting on a plane to go back home was my landlord and his wife. They took me in as family—the way any parent would want their child to be cared for in a foreign country.

Mr. Farhan speaks English very well. He is a seventy year old man but looks and acts like he is in his forties. His wife is drastically different. She is soft-spoken, speaks very little English, and is much younger. I fell in love with them immediately; it was equivalent to moving into my own grandparents’ house in Louisiana. Jokingly, they call me a typical American: I don’t cook, I take a ton of vitamins, and I don’t go to church on Sundays. But most importantly, they have helped me succumb to my surroundings, to ease the transition of moving from the States to a third world country.

Arusha, Tanzania

Arusha, Tanzania

Every day I walk to work, I see the same lady taking the same trek. However, she is walking with an awful limp and terribly unsupportive shoes. I want to just pay for a cab to pick her up each time I pass her. And every night that I lock up my apartment, I see the same dog across the street and I know he is starving. Besides the fact that I watch him constantly, I walked past him one morning and literally heard his stomach growling. Again, I just want to feed him, give him anything so that he isn’t so hungry.

Both of these things are actions I can take. The lady might not want a ride to work and the dog could be worse off after I leave this summer, but I can do something. But there are countless things that I cannot do. These are the issues that are emotionally draining to ponder and embrace.

When Mr. Farhan explained to me how the doctors were unable to fix the clot in his wife’s arteries, I wondered if it was because of their lack of money or the absence of doctors capable of doing the surgery. He proceeded to tell me how pigs’ heart valves are used to repair blood flow. Once I heard this, I instantly remembered how my grandma had the same problem three months ago and had surgery immediately thereafter to solve the problem. Without the surgery, she faced the risks of stroke or death.

I broke down inside. Mrs. Farhan deserves the same surgery my grandma received. They are both wonderful women who worked hard to earn a decent living. They both have husbands and children that love and rely on them. So why does one grandma get to mend her life-threatening condition, but not the other? Is it really only because of where one just so happened to be born?

Ally Billeaud in Arusha, Tanzania

Ally Billeaud in Arusha, Tanzania

I am having this internal struggle of deciphering what I can and cannot do. I have to stop myself from feeling guilty but also remember to be sensitive to the struggles others face. I think I am still somewhat in shock to the things I have seen here because my question for why the world is so random, mean and beautiful has only become more convoluted. What I hope for is that I gain a better perspective of the world and use that knowledge to lead a more meaningful life for myself and others.

 

By Ally Billeaud, Human Rights Fellow, Summer 2015

Ally Billeaud is conducting her Human Rights Fellowship at the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda in Arusha, Tanzania.

Human Rights Fellowship Reflection: First Week, by Peter Grenzow

I exit the elevator and walk to the office. The waiting room is already packed, humans spilling out into the hallway and around the corner, hoping that today they will have an opportunity to obtain what so many Americans take for granted—a chance for a better life. Voices silent, uncountable, waiting to be heard.

I open the door to the office, and it’s as if I have entered the crossroads of the world. A cacophony of noises and different languages spoken. The Xerox constantly chick, chick, chick-ing as a new I-130 or I-589 slowly congeals, page by page, in its tray. A thousand keyboards clacking and languages whispered and shouted in 20 different dialogues. Spanish and Creole the official tongues of this corner of the world.

Peter Grenzow and his supervisor, Br. Mike LaFrance, at Catholic Legal Services

Peter Grenzow and his supervisor, Br. Mike LaFrance, at Catholic Legal Services

The first week flies by, but it could have been 9, already having worked with well over thirty clients. Thirty stories ranging from the desperate and downtrodden to the excited and hopeful. Clients ranging from a newly arrived Haitian sitting in the waiting room for hours on end, homeless, nowhere else to go, waiting for us to help find him a roof over his head and a warm meal for a rainy night, to children who have experienced unimaginable hardship, but still manage to crack a smile. People coming to the United States for a thousand different reasons and one. Escaping persecution at the hands of governments, thugs, gangs, or neighbors, or moving away from immeasurable poverty in hope of a better life.

In just one week I have filed asylum applications, prepared naturalization and visa applications and conducted legal research relating to various aspects of immigration law. I have translated forms from Spanish to English for staff attorneys, including U-Visa affidavits, a medical record and a birth certificate. I have also interpreted Spanish at multiple client interviews, and have started preparing motions relating to removal proceedings in EOIR courts.

The experience I have gained in just 5 days has been invaluable, and I know that the next 8 weeks will continue to be nothing but an adventure.

 

By Peter Grenzow, Human Rights Fellow, Summer 2015

Peter is serving his Human Rights Fellowship at Catholic Legal Services, Archdiocese of Miami, Inc. in Miami, Florida.