What’s it like to be an Advocate for Human Rights? An interview with Amy Bergquist
Issues: Death Penalty , Diaspora Engagement , International Advocacy
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.