Supporting Global Human Rights as a Muskie Intern in the U.S.

“I’ve got my visa, I’m coming!” Ying Xin texted me in the middle of the night.

Ying is an LGBTIQ rights activist from China participating in Columbia University’s 2019 Human Rights Advocates Program (HRAP).

As an HRAP participant, she will soon be coming to New York City for four months to attend graduate classes at Columbia University, meet with international human rights organizations, and develop future partnerships that could help her in advancing LGBTIQ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender/transsexual, intersex and queer/questioning) rights in China.

Ying Xin speaks at the 10-year anniversary of the Beijing LGBT Center, where she serves as its executive director.

As happy as Ying was to receive her visa, I was even more excited for her because I knew more about all the excellent opportunities she was about to experience in the U.S.

It was also easy for me to relate to her. I myself am interning with HRAP as a participant of the Edmund S. Muskie Internship program from Georgia, and I remember feeling the same excitement when I was accepted into my program.

Since I began working with HRAP, I’ve had the privilege of reliving the same sort of excitement for numerous human rights advocates from countries all over the globe, including Zimbabwe, Uganda, Chad, China, Mexico, Argentina, Ireland, Mauritania, and more.

Find out why I traveled all the way to the U.S. from Georgia to support human rights advocates all around the world.

Caring for Human Rights Defenders on the Frontlines

There are many ways in which courageous people choose to fight injustices and human suffering but it’s sometimes difficult to understand how they personally manage to cope with dangerous work, staying motivated, and investing their time and resources to help others.

An oft-cited quote by Grace Lee Boggs, a legendary graduate of Columbia University’s Barnard College, provides one explanation:

“The only way to survive is to take care of one another.”

Grace Lee Boggs was one of the most prominent alumna of Columbia University’s Barnard College. Her most famous quote epitomizes HRAP’s approach and mission.

But human rights defenders, who usually take care of others, also need care and support themselves—especially at times when their work gets dangerous, when governments clamp down on them, when they feel alone in their struggle, or even when they face public outrage because they dare to challenge established power dynamics and values.

HRAP was founded in 1989 with the objective of taking care of these courageous human rights defenders as well as empowering them with the knowledge and skills that Columbia University provides. Beyond helping human rights advocates to develop both personally and professionally, the program helps to forge important partnerships across borders and cultures.

Thirty Years of Human Rights Advocacy

Unlike other professional development programs, HRAP is a fully immersive semester-long program. Human rights advocates come to New York City to attend world-renowned classes and seminars at Columbia University in international law, political science, human rights, international relations, gender studies, and other disciplines.

The program organizes specially-tailored workshops led by prominent experts from organizations including Human Rights Watch and WITNESS, and arranges networking opportunities in NYC and Washington, D.C. with globally active human rights watchdogs and donor organizations such as the National Endowment for Democracy and Open Society Foundation.

Because my internship is taking place in the same year that HRAP celebrates its 30-year anniversary, I have had the privilege of working with the project’s leader, Stephanie Grepo, Director for Capacity Building at the Institute for the Study of Human Rights (ISHR), on copyediting a handbook on the advocates’ best practices from their work.

Click to learn more about the Human Rights Advocates Program.

Stephanie has been overseeing the program for more than 10 years and it was fascinating to hear her talk about the program’s alumni and their achievements as we worked on the project together.

I was tasked with reaching out to the more than 300 alumni that have taken part in the program since 1989 and interview them about their experiences with the program and, more importantly, HRAP’s impact on their professional career.

That is how I learned about people like Twesigwe Jackson Kaguri from Uganda, who established a shelter for orphans whose parents died as a result of HIV/AIDS. Today, more than 43,000 children receive treatment thanks to the organization he created. His project provides shelter, care, education, and professional training to children.

Twesigwe Jackson Kaguri, is an HRAP alumnus from Uganda where he founded and manages the Nyaka AIDS Orphans Project to substitute stigmatization and poverty by care and empathy. Photo credit: The Cullman Tribune.

I met prominent Chinese human rights defender and lawyer Liang Xiaojun, who continues to raise awareness and inform the international community about human rights violations as well as advocating for the abolition of the death penalty despite threats from the government and a prohibition on travel.

Finally, I’ve also met courageous women from countries like Mexico, Afghanistan, and India who have been recognized with prominent international human rights awards and scholarships for their courageous work in women’s rights, peace-building, and indigenous people’s rights.

The HRAP Effect

It is fascinating to see how HRAP participants progress in their education and human rights work thanks to the program. Many of them pursue graduate degrees and Ph.D. studies in the U.S. or other prominent universities, and many have been able to establish partnerships with international human rights organizations based in the U.S. as well as expanded their organizations’ activities and influence based on these connections. Many HRAP alumni have also been promoted to positions as executive directors or members on boards of directors within their organizations after completing the program.

Click to learn more about the 2019 Human Rights Advocates.

This year, HRAP will be hosting nine human rights advocates coming from different parts of the world. Human rights defenders from Chad, China, Armenia, South Africa, Uganda, and Russia will have a chance to attend human rights classes at Columbia University, participate in interactive workshops led by prominent human rights experts, and establish contacts with international human rights organizations based in New York City and Washington, D.C. that will help their organizations to attract new resources and expand their activities.

Most importantly, HRAP participants return to their everyday lives having been acknowledged for the good work they do in standing up to repressive governments and challenging traditional values and practices which are detrimental to society.

Thanks to HRAP, Ying Xin is one of these advocates who will finally be recognized for all her efforts fighting for human rights on the frontlines.

I feel so happy for her.

How HRAP Affected Me

I sit at my desk at the Human Rights Advocates Program (HRAP) office.

We regularly hear about women educating other women about their rights, their dignity, and their opportunities—and we know about those helping their communities cope with unbearable living conditions. We are also aware of those defending marginalized groups as well as the courageous journalists and human rights defenders investigating mass atrocities, corruption, and repression.

We rarely hear about the people whose passion it is to help those helping others.

Stephanie Grepo is one of those rare people. Stephanie’s work is dedicated to opening up new opportunities for human rights advocates around the world and she is always passionate to share success stories and involve others in her work to take care of the human rights defenders struggling for justice and human dignity all over the world.

Working with Stephanie is a privilege, honor, and one of the highlights of my internship.

Besides working on HRAP, Stephanie has also introduced me to many key human rights organizations and experts in NYC, including Human Rights Watch, Scholars at Risk, Open Society Foundation, The Harriman Institute, and The Center for Human Rights Documentation & Research, among others. These connections have helped me explore new ways of human rights advocacy and have inspired me to introduce a human rights advocacy program in Georgia.

Once Chiora’s Muskie internship is over, she will join a professional network of alumni from the 12 participating Muskie program countries. Above, Muskie alumni at the inaugural 2019 Edmund S. Muskie Alumni Conference in Nur-Sultan, Kazakhstan (formerly Astana).

Thanks to the Edmund S. Muskie Internship program, this summer internship experience at the Institute for the Study of Human Right will be the most memorable part of my Fulbright experience in the United States.