Proud to call her a friend, Andrea Gittleman is doing amazing work in the D.C. Office of Physicians for Human Rights as their Senior Legislative Counsel. Before joining PHR, Andrea worked as an Arthur Helton Global Human Rights Fellow with the Burma Lawyers’ Council in Mae Sot, Thailand, where she coordinated an international advocacy campaign for criminal accountability in Burma. As a law student, Andrea spent time interning and giving pro bono service through New York University’s Immigrant Rights Clinic, Legal Momentum (the Women’s Legal Defense and Education Fund), the New York Civil Liberties Union, and Human Rights Watch. She also served as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Mauritania, West Africa. Learn more about her work and PHR here.
Andrea recently published an article exploring the impact of foreign investments on Burmese communities. Read the full article here. She agreed to share her insights and advice with others considering human rights work.
What led you to pursue a career in human rights?
I have always been interested in human rights, and it’s hard to pinpoint the moment when I chose to dedicate my career to this field. But I think it all crystallized for me when I was working in Mauritania as a Peace Corps Volunteer. I was originally assigned to teach English in a secondary school, and I quickly realized that there were other issues more important for those in the community. The girls and young women I spoke with were somewhat interested in learning English, but they were even more interested in learning about basic health topics, finding ways to access technology, and discovering new scholarly subjects that weren’t being taught in their regular school. I chose to dedicate most of my time as a volunteer to managing a girls’ mentoring center in my community, where I encouraged successful women to mentor the girls on a variety of topics of interest to them. The center hosted several events on women’s rights, HIV/AIDS, reproductive justice, and other issues. I came away from that experience more dedicated to promoting the rights of women and girls, and as I started law school I chose to pursue internships that would give me greater insight into this field. I learned a lot from experts at a variety of organizations, and I was soon convinced that a career in human rights would not only be professionally fulfilling, but would allow me to use my law degree to collaborate with some of the most inspiring people on the planet.
What advice do you have for young attorneys or college students that are considering a career in the human rights field?
Get out there and get known. Talk to as many people in the human rights field as you can, either through individual informational interviews or through larger events at your school, and ask them about their career paths. As you meet with people, start developing a relationship with a potential mentor – someone who can guide you on future career decisions. You may also want to develop your language skills and gain international experience. These two elements are key to most careers in the human rights field, and international work in particular may open up new opportunities in the field of human rights that would not otherwise be available. If you can’t work abroad or develop your language skills at this time, think in concrete terms about how attributes you already have may be transferable to the human rights field. These skills could include learning new things on a short timeframe, thinking creatively to solve problems, working in cross-cultural environments, or practicing patience and flexibility in stressful situations.
For students and law students, think about your non-traditional legal skills. I believe that every lawyer is a storyteller no matter what her specialty, and in the human rights field lawyers and other advocates will need to craft messages and narratives for a variety of audiences. Think about how you would persuade a court, a policymaker, or the general public – and develop your skills in each of these different types of advocacy.
Also, be fully aware that working in the human rights field has its challenges. My colleagues from law school who work as public defenders or in direct service provision tell me about the scores of people they help every month. I don’t have many stories like that. In the human rights field, big successes are rare and most progress in this field is evolutionary. Working in human rights takes serious dedication, patience, and a principled resolve never to give up.
What is your favorite part of your job at Physicians for Human Rights?
There are many things I love about my work, but one of the most important elements of my work is that I am surrounded by inspiring people who have dedicated their careers to promoting the rights of others. I have had the opportunity to partner with human rights defenders from around the world, and I am constantly energized by their work. On a more technical level, I like working on a worldwide scale without a specific geographic focus. I feel like I am always learning something new.