NGOs, Human Rights, And Career Advice: A Conversation With Matthew Kennis

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This Wednesday, as part of the Alumni Speaker Series for the Institute for the Study of Human Rights, Columbia welcomed Matthew Kennis, Program Director at the Libertas Center for Human Rights. Kennis completed his M.A. in Human Rights from Columbia in 2011, and his work before and since has focused on torture victims and oppressive regimes in Guatemala and Kyrgyzstan. Staff writer Zoe Sottile went to check it out (and the free pizza served).
I was the youngest person at Matthew Kennis’ talk on Wednesday: most of the room consisted of either law students or graduate students studying human rights, and Kennis tailored his talk to them, explaining the steps that he took to turn his education into an active human rights career. In college, Kennis planned to study law, but after a year and a half of studying constitutional law, he shifted his focus to biological anthropology. Not wanting to go into academia and familiar with the civil wars in Guatemala, he traveled there to find opportunities for his new skillset. He connected with activist forensic teams in Guatemala digging up clandestine graves from the wars and identifying bodies as part of a burgeoning accountability process for the oppressive government. When he asked if he could contribute to the effort, he was told that the teams were plenty qualified on their own, but needed protection from the many violent threats made against them. So Kennis began the first part of his human rights career, as a nonviolent accompanying presence – essentially an unarmed bodyguard whose status as a white American helped protect the vulnerable scientists.

Kennis called his firsthand experience working with witnesses of the civil war a “formative experience” for him. It taught him humility, and to work not for his own advantage but with “the guidance and lead of the local activists.” He highlighted the importance of doing work that advanced their work, instead of undermining or substituting it. Kennis emphasized the importance of field work for a human rights career, but also pointed out the many downsides the glamorized ideal of the “hero activist” hides.
Kennis moved towards describing his shift from direct field experience in Guatemala to policy work in Washington, D.C. He began working at a small Guatemala-focused human rights NGO, where he applied his expertise to policy work. Because the organization was small, he was forced to learn many skills, ranging from fundraising to translation for Guatemalans visiting the state department to writing political analysis. Here Kennis took a moment to emphasize the importance of fundraising experience for human rights careers, and recommended students seek out as many fundraising opportunities as they could.
Then Kennis moved into a commentary on the importance of subject expertise. His intense experience followed by policy application of that experience, he explained, made him a “Guatemala-Central-America expert”. He pointed out that few positions in the human rights field demand generalist backgrounds; rather, students should cultivate deep experience in two to three areas they’re passionate about. But as Kennis pointed out, that specific expertise isn’t limiting: Kennis moved from working solely with U.S.-Guatemala policy into more general positions at Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch.
In 2010, Kennis decided to return to school and began a master’s degree in Columbia’s Human Rights Program. Here he developed a second area of expertise in Kyrgyzstan and studied Russian. His thesis explored the different strategies that human rights groups in Kyrgyzstan took to constitutional conventions as their nation went through multiple changes in government. Kennis offered a lot of credit for his success in his field to the program at Columbia: there, he said, he made connections that helped him get a long-term research consultancy job at American University’s school in Kyrgyzstan. There he worked on part of a team developing a torture prevention strategy with the Kyrgyzstani government. Again he emphasized the importance of working with local human rights leaders as an outsider. His recommendations had already been vetted by local Kyrgyzstan leaders, which meant a greater chance that they would be supported and brought into practice by those same leaders. “Sustainability and ownership are very critical”, he commented.
Finally, Kennis moved into a summary of his current position as the program director of an organization that provides health and social services to survivors of torture. Kennis recounted wanting to be able to see and feel the impact of his everyday work. He pointed out the tradeoffs between more direct work like this and his prior positions working with governments: with direct service, “you feel closer to the impact, but the impact is smaller”, whereas creating change on a systemic level is more difficult, but hard to effect in practice. As a way to combine both strategies, he’s working on helping change New York state policy to make it easier for asylum seekers to access social services. He summarized his conflict of interest poignantly: “In my mind, these days, it’s about finding the balance where you feel like you’re motivated and happy in the day-to-day but you also have an element of your work which fits the elemental and conceptual understanding that you need to go beyond the individual to have a broader impact.” He also emphasized the importance of learning foreign languages, volunteering to monitor foreign elections, and gaining direct field experience in the human rights field.
Kennis ended his talk by comparing a few of the different tracks students interested in human rights can follow, ranging from governmental work to NGOs to academia. He urged students to ask themselves, “Are all of these things that are keeping me enormously busy actually the right thing to do?” – a question that we could perhaps all consider.

Image via The Institute for the Study of Human Rights


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