Low Plaza

Changing the World Is No Cliche for Human Rights Advocates and Training Director

By Jo Kadlecek

Holly Bartling

For the past two and a half years, Holly Bartling has been the director of the human rights advocate training program at the Center for the Study of Human Rights (CSHR). Since CSHR was established in 1978, over 150 Human Rights advocates from 61 countries have come here to study, and Bartling, a graduate of the School of International and Public Affairs(SIPA), has worked with virtually half of the advocates.

The Columbia Record talked with her in between classes, meetings and brown bag lunch lectures to find out more about her role and about what in the world -- literally -- is happening for human rights advocates.

CR: Before coming to Columbia, you worked in a variety of roles promoting social justice and human rights in Central America and throughout Latin America as well as spending time in Japan and the former Soviet Union. How did you develop an interest in crossing cultures and working for justice?

HB: I was born in Kansas but when I was in elementary school, my family moved to Los Angeles. There my world opened up. I went from a homogenous community to one where many of my classmates were from Central America. It was a completely new world for me and I was fascinated by it. I began asking why there were so many refugees, why people were treated so badly. That led me down a road to exploring more of the world. I went to college at Stanford to study international relations, and was able to travel and work for different organizations before coming to Columbia. My family is starting to understand the importance of human rights because I'm working at a university. When I was traveling so much -- especially throughout Central America -- they weren't always so sure. They were understandably worried.

CR: You're working with advocates this year from places like Yugoslavia, Brazil, Nigeria and Indonesia, many of whom work at great personal risk. How does that affect you and the program?

HB: The first year I was here, one of the advocates from Turkey learned that her uncle had been murdered as a direct result of her work as a lawyer. He had been a partner in her law firm and they had taken on dangerous cases on a pro bono basis. She was completely devastated and a number of other people in the program then told me the personal risks they, too, experienced regularly simply by working for human rights. Some would sleep in different places each night for fear of endangering their families.

That made me realize how much I take for granted on a daily basis, how easy it is to sit in New York and talk about human rights. Since they live in a place where they're in danger on a daily basis yet continue to do the work, my respect for these people has increased considerably. It's made my commitment to the work much deeper. And the network of advocates and students now working in human rights organizations all over the world provides a tremendous support for them and is an asset for the university.

CR: In what ways have the advocates and their efforts been affected by the CSHR program?

HB: We ask the advocates to come with an idea for a project they'd like to get funding for, in consultation with the organizations they're affiliated with in their own country. They develop a fundraising proposal and research possible foundations that might support their plan. Last year the group raised $250,000 for their projects, and the year before, $400,000. As a result, human rights education programs in Sierra Leone and Chad were started. Other advocates won grants for minority rights in Slovakia, education around issues of violence against women in Nigeria, and to challenge a law in Romania that made same sex relationships illegal. So in addition to what they personally gain from the program, advocates do something that really makes a difference back home: raise funds that directly affect human rights in their countries.

CR: You've provided support for the development of other human rights training programs at the Center, most notably the Annual Human Rights Colloquium in São Paulo, Brazil. What else is included in the training program here?

HB: We select emerging human rights advocates from all over the world, people working in organizations who might not have had access to resources, travel or study. We want to bring advocates working in the whole range of human rights from economic, social and cultural rights to civil and political. Then we bring them to Columbia for an intensive four month non-degree program which I direct.

Once they arrive in January, the advocates present weekly reflective papers with each other and visit several human rights organizations so they can interact with workers who have encountered situations that might apply to their experiences back home. We also spend a week in Washington meeting with congressional offices, and organizations like the World Bank. The demand for the [advocates'] program has increased considerably probably because of our network of alumni, email and the Internet. This year we had over 250 applications for 17 spots and it was a grueling selection process. But advocates also make a tremendous contribution to the university, bringing a level of reality into classroom discussions. They're not just talking about human rights problems, they're living them. For some to come to the program and just have a break from their usual work can be energizing.

CR: The Center for the Study of Human Rights is one of the oldest University-based human rights institutions, established at a time when human rights hardly got a mention on the national agenda. Today, however, the discussion seems to have accelerated. What's changed?

HB: The end of the Cold War opened up the space to talk about human rights in a different way. Ten years ago there were few articles in the newspapers that had a human rights focus; today you open the paper and there's an article about Milosevic, the HIV crisis in Africa, or the Truth Commission in Cambodia. It's not that these issues weren't there before but now they're being reported on through a human rights lens. Now people are starting to see the need to coordinate, to share information and connect resources.
What's unique about the Center is that we work with all departments on campus and our goal is to bridge academics and practice. A lot of human rights centers are based in a university law school and so the perspective can be that only lawyers think about human rights problems. The reality is that human rights require an interdisciplinary approach. Social workers, journalists, artists, people working in public health and for international agencies, as well as lawyers contribute to the discussion. So you're not just looking at a legal strategy but you're also asking how you can serve a population that has gone through massive trauma, what are the support services you can offer. Or you're asking how you can prevent violations from happening in the first place, so then what's the role of education in trying to build a culture that respects human rights? If you approach human rights from a number of disciplines, you have a broader vision and a more holistic way of solving problems.

CR: More than 50 members of faculties across disciplines offer 30 courses each year on human rights related topics. Are human rights serving as a bridge between these schools?

HB: I think so. Universities can become silos of information where each school stays separate so it can be a challenge to bring the different strands together to engage in a dialogue with each other. In addition to the classes, the Center helps bring together faculty from different disciplines to share their research with each other. Another concrete product of our interdisciplinary collaboration is the Human Rights Portal that was launched last fall. It includes resources and links from the Graduate School of Arts & Sciences [GSAS], School of Journalism, School of International & Public Affairs (SIPA), School of Law, School of Public Health, and Teachers College. Part of our role is to nurture the growth of these programs and to support courses and the faculty.

CR: The advocates have obviously affected your own perspective on human rights.

HB: I learn so much being here. It's amazing to me that you can put together a group of advocates from so many countries into one room and they can find things in common. It's inspiring to see how courageous these advocates are and to watch the solidarity and strength they get from each other during their time here. It's not always easy finding your place in the movement. But for me to feel like I can contribute to a process where I see people growing and getting resources is very rewarding. It's rare to have a job where in four months you can see massive changes in someone's life. It makes me appreciate much more what I have.

Published: Apr 02, 2002
Last modified:Sep 18, 2002

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