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What’s it like to be an Advocate for Human Rights? An interview with Amy Bergquist

AmyBergquist

Amy Bergquist is the International Justice Program Staff Attorney at The Advocates for Human Rights. Her job responsibilities include coordinating The Advocates’ advocacy at the United Nations and working with diaspora communities to improve human rights situations in their home countries.  Amy also represents The Advocates on the Steering Committee of the World Coalition Against the Death Penalty  and was recently elected as the World Coalition’s Vice President.

Describe your typical day or week at work.

There’s nothing typical, so it’s not boring. There’s always something new. I keep up with correspondence with international partners and pro bono volunteers. I do a lot of writing, editing, and researching. Then there’s prepping and facilitating presentations, workshops, and trainings. I also respond to requests and questions on a variety of topics from a variety of people, many of whom have never before interacted with The Advocates.

What kinds of problems do you face on a day-to-day basis?

Finding on-the-ground facts and information and determining which facts are reliable. Also, people see our name and think we can do everything related to human rights, so if they have a request that isn’t something we do, finding referrals for them can be a challenge. It’s also a challenge to get the word out about our organization to potential partner organizations.

What do you most like about working in this field?

I like that the organization is small enough that there is not a lot of hierarchy and appreciate the autonomy I’m given. I have the ability to collaborate with partners, to help them do their work more effectively and make a tangible difference with them.

What do you like the least about it?

Human rights advocacy is frustrating. Accomplishing goals is slow, and sometimes it feels like we’re not getting anywhere. You have to celebrate the victories you get, but sometimes those victories aren’t there or are small. But this just shows that our work is needed.

What is it like to work for this particular organization? How would you describe the culture at The Advocates?

Our work is volunteer-based, which means that we’re not guardians of a castle that no one else can enter. We’re inclusive in our collaboration with others. You don’t have to be an expert in human rights to make a difference.

Tell us about your career path that led you to this job.

In college, I was interested in human rights issues, especially refugee issues. I tutored refugees and did my honors thesis on refugee issues. I also had an interest in law. Then I lived in Moscow for a couple of years, where I taught and developed my Russian skills. After that, I came home, got my teaching degree, and taught for 11 years. While I was teaching, I coached debate and found myself living vicariously through the students I was coaching. I was teaching social studies to recently arrived refugees and got to hear a lot of their stories. These factors were what drove me to giving law school a try so I could pursue law and human rights. During law school, I volunteered with The Advocates, where I did fact finding with Minnesota’s Oromo community. I participated in an immigration clinic representing asylum seekers. I was also a research assistant for a professor who was an expert in the field of human rights. After law school, I did some judicial clerkships and then spent a year in private practice. Then The Advocates had a position open up, and they hired me. I’ve been here for about six years now.

What experiences best prepared you for this job? How did you learn to do your work?

There’s a lot of learning on the job, which is a good skill, especially at the UN where things are always changing. Being a research assistant gave me the skill of figuring out how to do things I’ve never done before. It’s also important to know how and when to ask for help.

What is a typical career path in this field? Are there opportunities for advancement?

My career path is not typical. There are a lot of ways to do what I do without a law degree. On the law side, it’s good to go to a law school that has some human rights programming, particularly clinics. Take advantage of being a research assistant for someone who is involved in human rights. I did judicial clerkships after law school, but they don’t necessarily have ties to human rights. There are clerkships at the Hague, which may be beneficial. Go into private practice and do pro bono for for a human rights organization. Get support in a private firm and develop skills that will benefit human rights organizations. It’s unusual to go straight from law school to a human rights organization.

What does the future look like in this field? Is anything in the field changing?

There’s more of an emphasis on letting organizations in the global south take on leadership roles. We’re a great potential partner to organizations in the global south, and we’re building a reputation so organizations know that we are available for collaboration. We’re not trying to impose a particular model or dictate to our partners.

How could a student best prepare themselves for a track in human rights?

Get involved with human rights-oriented student organizations. Attend lunchtime talks and, if you attend the University of Minnesota Law School, participate in the asylum law project. Attend CLEs and try to meet people – it’s a way of networking without being “network-y,” and people are pleasantly surprised when law students show up. Get involved with committees of state bar associations or the ABA. Organizations that have law student components may not be human rights specific, but you can offer to set up presentations and CLEs for them on human rights topics, and then you’ll be the one calling potential presenters, and it’s a good way to get yourself out there. Judicial clerkships in U.S. courts aren’t super relevant, but they’re a good way to develop your legal research and writing skills.

Read more about Amy Bergquist’s work in the areas of the death penalty, as well as  LGBTI rights and discrimination based on sexual orientation/gender identity.

Young artists share their vision for a world without the death penalty

Abolishing the Death Penalty: in Memory of John Thompson 

The Death Penalty Doesn’t Stop Drug Crimes

African Commission Urges Cameroon to End LGBTI Discrimination

Two Steps Forward, One Step Back for LGBTI Rights in Africa

Out in the Cold: LGBT Visibility at Olympics Key to Ending Homophobia

Russia’s “Gay Propaganda” Law: How U.S. Extremists are Fueling the Fight Against LGBTI Rights

Locking the Iron Closet: Russia’s Propaganda Law Isolates Vulnerable LGBTI Youth

The Wild East: Vigilante Violence against LGBTI Russians

Moving Forward: Four Steps and Six Strategies for Promoting LGBTI Rights Around the World

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What’s it like to be an Advocate for Human Rights? An interview with Courtnie Gore

Courtnie Gore

Courtnie Gore is an Equal Justice Works AmeriCorps Legal Fellow with The Advocates’ Refugee and Immigrant Program. Equal Justice Works is an organization that funds internships and programs for lots of different causes. The focus of Courtnie’s fellowship is immigration.

What are some of the benefits of working as a legal fellow?

The guidance – The learning curve is heavy in any practice. One beautiful thing about a fellowship is that you’re still somewhat of a student while still being a legal professional. You get training and you get to work with others in the community. Not to say you can make careless mistakes, but you can make procedural hiccups, and you can have a coach to guide you through that process.

What are the requirements of your fellowship?

Within my fellowship I have to represent a minimum of 30 children. Right now I have 34, and I think I have one more coming in next week. I started in September 2016. My fellowship is for a year, and it was extended through March 2018. For the fellowship you need 1700 hours of work in the year. The hours aren’t hard to meet if you’re engaged.  The number of clients was at first intimidating.  20 percent of the fellowship can be dedicated to training; 80 percent has to be hands-on work. Within the fellowship, you are afforded the opportunity to attend numerous conferences and training sessions. Immigration is kind of an enigma because one day you walk into the office and federal procedures have completely changed. With the conferences, you get a firsthand playbook of what is soon to come.  Panel members and experts at conferences will say “Here’s what you should work on because I work on the Hill and this bill is in the works..”. I do have the opportunity to reach out to the other Equal Justice Works fellows for networking, but I have so much support here at The Advocates because I don’t really have to reach out much.

Tell us about your job. What are the core component and responsibilities?

I represent unaccompanied minors seeking asylum here in the United States. I represent children who have come here without their parents/guardians.   I represent these children because they have experienced such terrible persecution that they cannot return to their home countries. These children are forgoing the opportunity to see their families, friends, or their countries of origin in applying for asylum.  That is how grave their persecution is. I advocate for them in court and also help them with their asylum applications. I gather corroborating evidence – stories from other family members, country condition reports, documents of identification, to support their stories.  I also assist them with their asylum interview. I get to litigate, practice, and of course use my legal writing and research skills to draft legal briefs and other documentation. I get to be a resource for them outside of their legal needs. These children to the U.S. come without financial and emotional stability. Thank God for the resources of The Advocates. I’ve been able to make referrals for dentists, doctors, therapists, school, ESL classes, and so many other things. I also serve as a resource for pro bono attorneys who take on these cases because most of our pro bono attorneys are not immigration attorneys. They’re just wonderful people who want to do something more. So I’m always in touch with pro bono attorneys. I also help clients who have other claims. Sometimes clients will come in with an asylum claim, but we’ll discover that they also have a U-visa claim, or a T-visa claim.

So I keep my clients informed about their rights, I connect pro bono attorneys, and I also help to conduct trainings and outreach Throughout Minnesota and the Dakotas.

Describe your typical day/ week at work.

I don’t have an answer for that. I come in and fill up my water bottle – that is the most consistent thing about a day at The Advocates. I love not having the same thing to do every day. I will make a schedule for myself, and all of that will be tossed out of the window. There will be a walk-in person and they have a filing deadline next week, or a need that is urgent. I really have to flexible and detailed to make sure that these needs are met.  My typical day, depends on the need.

It’s all a matter of prioritizing. I do like to make sure that whatever a client needs – they have.  However, it’s important to assess your capabilities and your time.  Most of our clients’ needs are urgent and real, so it’s very important to prioritize. Checking in with my supervisor helps me to best allot my time and resources.

What kinds of problems do you face on a day-to-day basis?

There’s just not enough time in the day. I think this is true of any organization that serves a public interest need

What do you like least about working at The Advocates?

That there aren’t enough hours in a day.

What do you like most about working in this field?

The kids. Oh my gosh. I attribute this to my height, but every time I meet with a client, they’re taller than they were at the previous meeting. Just seeing their progression, and how happy they are gives me such joy. They’re great people. All children deserve health and happiness, and they deserve a chance at life.

How old are your clients?

My youngest client is 6. My oldest is 17.

What is it like to work for this particular organization? How would you describe the culture at The Advocates?

I appreciate how much autonomy I have to do my work. No one micromanages you. Supervisors will check in, but you’re given a lot of freedom and chances to mold what ever it is you need to do to provide the best representation to your client.

It’s a welcoming environment. I have never been afraid to ask a question – and that’s not common in the legal field.  Even though I’m a fellow, I feel like I am part of the team. We are all working together for the common good. There is no ego. Working with the Refugee & Immigrant Program has been amazing.

Why did you decide to work in this field and how did you get started? Tell us about your career path that led you to this job.

I always knew I wanted to do something in the legal field. When I was 14, I went with my church, Mt. Gilead Full Gospel International Ministries, to Uganda. At the time there was this huge civil war. I was charged with children’s’ ministry.  So many children had been orphaned because of the war. So I was teaching, providing them with resources, and food. This was my first international trip. And after left I knew I wanted to change the world for the better. I didn’t know in what capacity at that time.  Immigration is the current avenue I’m pursuing in order to change the world for the better.

What experience best prepared you for this job?

Missionary work, without a doubt best prepared me for this position. I will say that one of my mentors, Pastor Julian Dangerfield, took me aside one day when we were in Uganda. I was a teenager who had a bit of an attitude that day because things weren’t necessarily going the way I planned.  He gave me some of the most important advice I’ve ever received: “Go with the flow and take the low road.” That moment for me was vital in my growth, both as a person and as professional. It’s not about you – you are serving people that have a need that is greater than you’ll ever imagine. It is not about being seen as the hero. You have to let go of your ego.

What do you wish you had known starting out in this field? What would you do differently if you were to do it again?

I wish I would have known how new government changes were going to impact the field of immigration, and the impact has been fear. I’ve had clients not show up to court because they think it’s better to have a low profile. We have one client whose mother is eligible for three claims of relief, but she doesn’t feel as though she should pursue them. I wish I would have prepared myself to answer some of those questions and to address those fears. But it’s a good time to be in this position, if you are passionate about the law and serving others.

Tell us about your career path.

My first internship ever was with the Catholic Charities – it was a summer internship and I was helping refugees get bus passes and furniture for their new apartments. This was my first introduction to refugee and immigration work.

In law school I started with a clerkship for the Honorable Margaret M. Marrinan. This experience was incredible. I learned that I wanted to be a litigator and I that wanted to be in court. My second-year summer of law school, I wanted to try international corporate law, so I worked for a firm in Africa. I loved the international work and being in Africa, but I still felt guilty. I was serving a country, but I still didn’t feel like I was helping the most vulnerable populations.

So I ended up coming back and working as a legal consultant with Mano a Mano, a non-profit, non-governmental organization, and then interned for the NAACP.  There was, and still is, a huge issue with police brutality, so I collaborated with the President of the St. Paul chapter for students to know their rights. We created these programs to help them understand the constitution.

After law school I started working in business immigration I loved learning about business immigration, but still needed to do a little more to feel fulfilled.  In that role, I saw this opportunity with the Advocates, and I jumped on it.

Would you recommend a law and/or a graduate in specific areas?

I think a law degree is helpful, but if you don’t have one that doesn’t mean you can’t help.  There are people who assist and advocate for clients in many other ways.  If you have time, resources, or a skill, please get involved because the need is indeed great.

What advice would you give to someone who is interested in getting involved?

Just do it.

If you feel like it, jump in and help. You are needed.

Read Courtnie Gore’s reflections and the tips she has learned in her first year of working with clients who are unaccompanied minors in Preparing a Minor for an Asylum Interview: Five Challenges.