Defending Universal Freedoms
U of M alumni make up almost half the members in the nonprofit The Advocates for Human Rights,which works worldwide to protect freedoms.
ROSALYN PARK WILL NEVER FORGET the first time she delivered an oral statement in the Human Rights Council room at the United Nations in Geneva. It was 2015 and she was in Switzerland representing The Advocates for Human Rights, a Minneapolis-based nonprofit that pushes governments across the world to implement laws that protect civil liberties.
As Park (J.D. ’02) and her colleagues walked the storied grounds, complete with peacocks and views of Lake Geneva, she felt the weight of history in the place where international policies get made.
Park, who is now the director of the nonprofit’s Women’s Human Rights program, had two minutes to deliver a statement about violence against women and she'd practiced reading the statement as quickly as possible. But upon handing the statement to the clerk, she was informed that the day’s topic wasn’t violence against women, but the death penalty.
Since The Advocates also works on efforts to abolish the death penalty, Park and Jennifer Prestholdt (J.D. ’96), the nonprofit’s deputy director, furiously typed out a new statement, which Park then read.
“We were not going to lose that opportunity,” she says, laughing at the memory of the frenzied day.
But when it comes to discussing the issues The Advocates contend with, Park is focused and serious. Whether she’s arguing for laws to curb human trafficking or prevent domestic violence, her work is often a matter of life and death.
The Advocates for Human Rights was founded in 1983 by a group of Minnesota lawyers hoping to capitalize on Minnesota’s track record for caring about social justice. Using teams of volunteers, the organization investigates and exposes human rights violations, represents immigrants and refugees seeking asylum, trains and assists groups that protect human rights, and pushes for legal and policy reforms to protect vulnerable people. They work only in countries where they have been invited to participate. The range of the work they do spans the gamut from LGBTQIA+ rights to diaspora communities from Liberia and Ethiopia. Starting in March 2021, their volunteers have been documenting war crimes in Ukraine.
U of M alumni are well represented among the group: 14 people on the staff of 34 have undergraduate or graduate degrees from the University. Several, like Park, decided to enroll in the U of M Law School because of the school’s Human Rights Center, founded in 1988 by the late David Weissbrodt, a professor at the school for 40 years.
Park credits the U of M with helping fund a 12-week internship she participated in at Anti-Slavery International in London (a nonprofit that works to end modern slavery, including child labor.) “It was life changing to be able to intern in a different country and [immerse myself] in these important issues and work with people from many different backgrounds,” she says.
That perspective has served her well in supporting the rights of women. For the past decade, The Advocates has partnered with Autonomous Women’s House Zagreb, a Croatian non-governmental organization (NGO) that serves survivors of domestic violence and is the only confidential shelter in the country. (As of 2015, there were over 300 cases of women being killed there by their husbands, partners, or other family members.)
At first The Advocates’ role was to assist the group with human rights fact-finding. After analyzing the data, The Advocates determined that Croatia was not doing well in this regard, in part because of a law that allowed for mediation in divorces involving domestic violence.
“That’s a very harmful practice because of the imbalance of power in any domestic abuse relationship,” Park explains. At The Advocates’ recommendation, Autonomous Women’s House pushed for the law to be changed. It was.
Several years later, when Croatia’s human rights record was up for review with the United Nations, The Advocates invited Autonomous Women’s House to join them in pushing for more change. Croatia had recently decriminalized domestic violence, which meant that prison sentences, previously lasting several years, were reduced to 90 days.
To prepare, The Advocates wrote a one-page document summarizing their recommended changes. “We were sitting in the Human Rights Committee and delegates were questioning the Croatian government about their record on human rights,” remembers Park. “The committee member from the U.N. has our summary in front of her, and is reading off it, using our words, amplifying our questions, being our megaphone, and holding the government’s feet to the fire.”
Months later, the Croatian Parliament voted to recriminalize domestic violence.
For Amy Bergquist (J.D. ’07), her desire to pursue a career in human rights law started when she was teaching social studies to English language learners at Minneapolis South High School. Many of her students were from East Africa, specifically Ethiopia. Through them, she learned about the trauma and displacement of the Oromo people, an ethnic minority that has experienced decades of human rights abuses. She decided to go to law school partly in hopes of doing something on a systemic level to address the harms her students had fled.
Like Park, Bergquist credits the U of M's Professor Weissbrodt in supporting her career, which included a year working as a clerk for the late Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Through the Law School, she learned about a volunteer opportunity with The Advocates to interview members of the Oromo people. That cemented a relationship with the organization and eventually led to her current position as its associate program director in international justice.
Today, Bergquist’s portfolio includes fighting discrimination based on sexual orientation/gender identity, asserting the rights of minorities and noncitizens, and advocating abolition of the death penalty. “My role is like a megaphone,” she explains. “We have partners on the ground who are really passionate about human rights issues in their home countries. They know what’s broken and a lot of times they have really good ideas about what needs to be changed to fix it, but their governments don’t necessarily listen to them. ... My role is to amplify their voices so that they are heard by people in power in the international sphere.”
The Advocates for Human Rights is on the steering committee of the World Coalition Against the Death Penalty; Bergquist serves as one of the organization’s vice presidents. In 2020, The Advocates worked with the Society for Human Rights and Development Organisation, which promotes peace in Sierra Leone, Liberia, Guinea, and the Ivory Coast. They submitted a report to the United Nations encouraging governments press Sierra Leone to abolish the death penalty. The country’s parliament voted to do just that, and the president signed the new law on October 10, 2021, which is World Day Against the Death Penalty. Today, Sierra Leone is taking the lead in encouraging other countries, including the U.S., to follow its example.
“It’s really great to see this potential snowball of our advocacy spilling over into other countries in the region,” says Bergquist. “We can’t take credit for everything that has happened, but we are part of that collaboration, part of this global community that coordinates advocacy.”
The Advocates' commitment to long-term systems change also extends into education, specifically a school in Nepal. Founded in 1999 to combat the widespread problem of child labor, Sankhu-Palubari Community School (SPCS) educates 375 students ages pre-K through 10th grade. Located in the rural Kathmandu Valley, the school is operated in partnership with Educate the Children-Nepal. (While public education is technically free in Nepal, fees and the cost of school supplies make it out of reach for the poorest families.) Today, 53 percent of the school's students are girls, an accomplishment that took years of relationship building with the local community. Most students go on to finish high school and to university.
“We’ve seen such tremendous change in not just the individuals, but in the community and the value that is [now] placed on education,” says Jennifer Prestholdt, The Advocates’ deputy director.
Like Park, she chose the U of M Law School because of its commitment to human rights. And like Bergquist, she was a research assistant for Professor Weissbrodt. While in school, she completed its immigration clinic and eventually ran the refugee and immigrant program, which sends asylum cases to the clinic. She also spent two summers at the United Nations in Geneva.
Today her job also includes training volunteers and human rights defender partners around the world to do the kind of advocacy work she learned as a U of M student.
This year, Prestholdt is looking forward to returning to Nepal for the first time since the Covid-19 pandemic began. She’ll meet with current and former students, including the first alumna to attend medical school. “I’ve been doing this work long enough that I’m able to see changes at the individual level and also on the systemic level,” she says. “[Our work] has a real impact on people’s lives.”