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.