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Interview with Gissou Nia on Becoming Involved in Human Rights Work


Author(s): Scott Douglas Jacobsen

Publication (Outlet/Website): Medium (Humanist Voices)

Publication Date (yyyy/mm/dd): 2018/11/03

Ms. Gissou Nia is the Board Chair of the Iran Human Rights Documentation Center and the Strategy Director of Purpose. Here we talk about how to become involved in human rights work and pursue the passion for human rights.

Scott Douglas Jacobsen: Many young humanists may have an interest in human rights, not only speaking to the inherent dignity, worth, and respect of each individual human being but also as a profession.

For those with an interest, what can high school and undergraduate students do to pursue it?

Gissou Nia: The easiest way to find out is doing internships or volunteering. A lot of human rights organizations have youth chapters, where they are, specifically, looking to engage people at the high school level and on university campuses.

There are a lot of different entry points for people interested in learning more. There are the human rights giants, e.g., Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, and civil rights organizations, e.g., ACLU.

A lot of these groups have a youth-focused effort. They are trying to mobilize young people, specifically Generation Z if you will. A lot of opportunities for young people to get involved. That way, they can dip their toe in and see what piques their interest in human rights.

I know some groups are big such as IGOs and INGOs that are more development focused. That could be interesting for young people too. A lot of those have youth chapters, like UNICEF and so on.

I think volunteering is one of the best ways to get a feel what the work is like and to see if the subject matter interests you.

Jacobsen: What about undergraduate minors or majors more appealing to people taking on interns?

Nia: The interesting thing is that some of my colleagues at human rights organizations that I have worked at in the past had backgrounds in engineering or psychology-biology.

The interesting thing about human rights work: as long as you are a good communicator and a solid researcher, it is almost not relevant what background that you had before coming to the work.

But there are some mainstays. I was a political science major and an anthropology minor. Political science, in particular, will acquaint you with systems and processes of government, how democracy works, how different types of governing systems work, which then impact the rights of the people living in those nation-states.

There is a lot that can be helpful with it. However, I have seen people with journalism backgrounds, e.g., communications as an undergraduate degree, because a lot is articulating messages.

I have seen an English literature major transition into it because they were dealing with the written word, as the written word is very important. Also, philosophy is great for law school or debate/interrogation principles as to why systems function in current ways.

It opens your mind as to why certain things are done a certain way, and how we should not simply accept the premises that are given to us. You are not barred from being any major. But there are some that, maybe, focus a bit more on specific disciplines that will serve you later.

Jacobsen: With those having a serious interest in human rights and world politics, looking at some of the contexts in, for instance, some of North America, we can see some reactionary elements of hate groups.

Some young people may encounter them. They can have a variety of reasons for why they arise and their purported principles. That may be a concern to some young humanist or secular people.

What do you recommend for getting into the field to combat some of these social ills s?

Nia: Since I graduated university, there has been a proliferation of new majors and subject areas. One thing, I have seen some universities offer Human Rights and Counter-Terrorism.

Because a lot of hate speech and the actions of different hate groups could be seen as a form of terrorism and a relevant area of study. There is a growing body of work devoted to combatting extremism.

There might be majors specific to that. But there would be many classes at the university that are focused on that. I believe it could be on the social science or sociology curriculum. Those should be available.

Definitely, I saw a growth in the US, at least, after September 11th and events of that day. You see a growing focus on combatting extremism and counter-terrorism. It wasn’t the case before that. I wouldn’t say that it was a really weighty area, where a lot of investment was placed.

But I have seen a growth of that. That may be of interest to young people who are interested in combatting hateful rhetoric and divisive tactics. Also, the study of dictatorships can serve you well, in that regard, because a lot of a dictators playbook is focused on hate speech, divisiveness, currying favour among specific groups, and divide and conquering.

Jacobsen: Thank you for the opportunity and your time, Gissou.


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