Human Rights Fellowship Reflection: Lina Houston-Marin County Public Defender’s Office

This summer, I had the tremendous privilege of clerking at the Marin County Public Defender’s Office in San Rafael, California. It was an honor to work with such passionate, talented attorneys, and the experiences I had solidified my desire to pursue a career as a public defender after graduation.

I am passionate about advocating for individuals who are underrepresented and marginalized. Too often, the folks who face criminal charges and qualify for the services of the public defender have had some pretty tough life experiences. Society is quick to categorize people based on class, race, and criminal record. To be an effective criminal defense attorney and advocate, you must recognize the humanity in every client, regardless of their alleged offense. Every day, I had the privilege of working closely with clients and hearing so many different stories and perspectives.  It’s no secret that clients are not always easy to work with, but negative attitudes and anger are understandable considering the circumstances. In addition to the stress of interacting with law enforcement, anxiety and fear about being in jail, and uncertainty about the future, most of our clients suffer from chemical dependency and/or mental health issues. Confinement in a small cell while withdrawing from all substances used to self-medicate would reasonably put anyone in a foul temper. But regardless of my clients’ moods, I had an obligation to connect with them and advocate for them to the best of my ability. And that was the best part of my summer. I loved making those human connections, learning about my clients, and then zealously representing them in court.

While drafting an important motion, I worked closely with a client who quickly became my favorite of the summer. In the beginning, he was cold, distant, and hostile, and rightfully so; I later learned that he had never been able to trust many people. But I needed him to trust and talk to me so that I could persuasively weave his personal narrative into my argument. Little by little, he started opening up. I think he appreciated my consistency—the fact that I kept showing up when I said I was going to— and the fact that I genuinely listened to him. During our last conversation, we discussed religion, philosophy, African American history, and his dreams for the future. I know that when I am an attorney, conversations like this may be luxury. But I am grateful to the Marin County Public Defender for allowing me this experience, and so many others, that fuel my passion for this work. And with these experiences in mind, it is my personal and professional pledge to always take whatever time I have to truly listen to my clients’ stories.

I would like to publicly and sincerely thank everyone at the Marin County Public Defender, the University of Minnesota Human Rights Center, and the generous donors who funded my fellowship. Together, you gave me the opportunity to explore a field that I intend to make my life’s work. As I pursue this dream, I will always remember you with tremendous gratitude and appreciation.

The views expressed in this article represent those of the author and not necessarily those of the University of Minnesota Human Rights Center.  As a forum for dialogue and education, and an acknowledgment of the contentious nature of human rights issues, some views expressed on this blog may not necessarily be those of the Human Rights Center as an institution.

Human Rights Fellowship Reflection: Tisidra Jones – International Leadership Institute

1-1This June through September I had an opportunity to work with the International Leadership Institute.  My fellowship allowed me to work with youth at Kapsoya School for the Hearing Impaired in Eldoret, Kenya.  This truly was an experience I will never forget.

I was in charge of a team of four, myself included.  The curriculum for the program I was leading was to teach the youth various human rights laws and use art as a tool for them to express how they interpreted the various laws.  The finished product of the program was a performance for some of the Uasin Gishu County (“County”) government officials.  The purpose of the performance was to raise awareness of conditions for hearing impaired youth in the County.  The United Nations Rights of the Child and Rights of the Disabled were the foundation for the program.  Honestly, I was a bit nervous about how the performance would come together.  I only knew the alphabet in American Sign Language (“ASL”), I had approximately 50 students to work with, and I would be working with teachers/interpreters that spoke a different language than I did.  In addition, I was in charge of a team of people I only met a few days before the program began.  However, after the first full day at the school my fears and worries disappeared.

On the first day, we arrived with our lesson plans and grand ideas in mind.  Nothing truly went according to my plan.  After handing out the laws I intended to cover for the day, I spent the first couple hours trying to break the students into groups to work on skits and discuss the laws. However, the instructors kept insisting that we work on it in the afternoon.  Then, as a surprise before lunch, the instructors had all the different grade levels perform skits they made up that morning based off of the laws I handed them.  The students were extremely talented and fast learners!  I have been working with youth teaching history and turning our lessons into productions since 2004.  These students were by far the easiest to work with.  In addition, after classes our first day the older students taught me some basic words in Kenyan Sign Language.  I was also given an ASL and a Kenyan Sign Language dictionary for the week. Within a couple days I did not need the interpreters to have a basic conversation with the students.

Although I was there to teach, I learned an unbelievable amount from the teachers and students.  I learned how to accept that sometimes plans change and that is alright.  I also learned that as an attorney the hearing impaired population is one that I would like to serve.  As a result, I have been looking into taking classes in ASL.  I hope to continue working with Kapsoya to ensure these talented youth do receive equal opportunities in their community.

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The views expressed in this article represent those of the author and not necessarily those of the University of Minnesota Human Rights Center.  As a forum for dialogue and education, and an acknowledgment of the contentious nature of human rights issues, some views expressed on this blog may not necessarily be those of the Human Rights Center as an institution.

Human Rights Fellowship Reflection: Shuangqi (Joy) Wang – International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda

1The Security Council of the United Nations created the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR) on November 8, 1994, to prosecute persons who are responsible for genocide and other serious violations of humanitarian law committed in Rwanda in 1994. The goal of this tribunal is to contribute to the process of national reconciliation in Rwanda and to the maintenance of peace in the region. During the past 19 years, the ICTR has tried about 100 cases. Most cases have already ended; a few are still on appeal. The ICTR is located in Arusha, Tanzania, a city surrounded by some of Africa’s most beautiful landscapes and national parks.

I was incredibly fortunate to have the opportunity to work in the Office of the Prosecutor (OTP) at the ICTR this summer. As an intern in the Appeal and Legal Advisory Division within the OTP, I worked with a team of outstanding international attorneys on the appeal of a defendant who was convicted of genocide, direct and public incitement to commit genocide, and rape as a crime against humanity. In addition to cite-checking, I reviewed documents for disclosure, researched and drafted parts of the respondent brief on subjects of direct and public incitement to commit genocide, sufficiency of notice, and assessment of witness credibility and reliability. The subjects of my work were fascinating and I truly appreciated the opportunity to learn more about the Rwandan Genocide and international criminal law. The internship has strengthened my belief in pursuing a future career in litigation.

I loved everyone who I worked with in the ICTR. I enjoyed tremendously working in an international environment where different opinions are valued. My colleagues were from all over the world, including the U.S., Canada, Australia, New Zealand, France, Belgium, England, Ireland, Cameron, Rwanda, Uganda, Kenya and Burundi. They are great teachers for me in not only legal work but also intercultural communication. I cannot stress how much I learned from them and how grateful I was for their help and support.

In addition, Tanzania was an amazing country full of friendly people and natural wonders. My landlord and his family were extremely welcoming and treated me like their own daughter. My roommates, who were students from Kenya, cooked for me every night and taught me how to make chipati and ugali. I was deeply touched by the friendship of everyone who I met in Tanzania. The country also provided me with lots of chances to become closer to the nature. I went on safari trips to Arusha National Park and Ngorongoro Crater, bathed in a natural hot spring, and traveled to the amazing Zanzibar. Tanzania is definitely one of the places on earth that people should visit in their lifetime.

For me, the internship was life-changing. I am extremely grateful for the University of Minnesota Human Rights center and the donors of the Upper Midwest Human Rights Fellowship, who have made this experience possible for me. I also want to give special thanks to Professor Weissbrodt, Willa and Vicky (who offered me so much help and encouragement during the application process), everyone who I worked with in the ICTR, and all the people who took care of me in Tanzania. I look forward to returning to Tanzania and contributing to international human rights work in the future!

The views expressed in this article represent those of the author and not necessarily those of the University of Minnesota Human Rights Center.  As a forum for dialogue and education, and an acknowledgment of the contentious nature of human rights issues, some views expressed on this blog may not necessarily be those of the Human Rights Center as an institution.

Leonard Peltier International Tribunal on the Abuse of Indigenous Rights

A group of Humphrey Fellows are currently serving as international observers at the Leonard Peltier International Tribunal on the Abuse of Indigenous Rights in Green Bay, Wisconsin. Fellows were thanked for taking the role of international observers and for their assistance in the preparatory work of the tribunal. You can watch the proceedings of the tribunal live via the below link. We hope that you will take this opportunity to witness some of the testimony.

http://www.whoisleonardpeltier.info/livestream.htm