NGOs, Human Rights, And Career Advice

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A Conversation With Matthew Kennis
Tuesday, November 14, 2017

By Zoe Sottile

On November 1st, 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.

Kennis framed his talk by explaining the steps he took to turn his education into an active human rights career. In college, Kennis studied biological anthropology. After graduation, 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. 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.” 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 shifted towards his policy work in Washington, D.C. 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. 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 began a master’s degree in Columbia’s Human Rights Program. 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 developing a torture prevention strategy at American University’s school in Kyrgyzstan. Again he emphasized the importance of working with local human rights leaders as an outsider. “Sustainability and ownership are very critical”, he commented.

Kennis ended his talk with a summary of his current position as the program director of an organization that provides health and social services to survivors of torture. He pointed out the tradeoffs between more direct work like this and his prior positions: 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 can effect greater change. 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.” 

Zoe Sotille is a first-year student in Columbia College studying human rights and visual arts/film. 

Click here to read Zoe Sottile's full article on BWOG.