By Jessica Michelin
One of the first images that comes to mind when I think about New York City is the Empire State Building. This 102-story skyscraper towers above the city surrounding it and attracts an estimated four million visitors annually. This summer, I wasn’t one of those tourists though. I was a local, commuting for twelve weeks to my office in this iconic landmark. It doesn’t get much more stereotypical New York than that, right?
Despite the size differences between New York City and Montreal (New York has a population of roughly 8.3 million to Montreal’s 3.5 million), moving to New York from Montreal was not such a big change for me. I went from one North American metropolis to a different North American metropolis. While other human rights interns were navigating new cities with different languages and cultures, I navigated my way through tourists trying to find the entrance to the rooftop observatory. Trust me when I say that it was still a challenge, but I know that overall I spent the summer in a much more familiar environment than most of my fellow interns. Reading the blog posts of my peers, I could not help but wonder if I had been given the easy route this summer. Was I actually pushing myself outside my comfort zone?
I also could not help but wonder if I was missing something by spending my days sitting at a desk, far away from the countries and problems that I worked on. Especially as an intern, I was often assigned a project that was only a small piece of the puzzle. Couple that with the fact that many assignments involved more technical legal questions, and it could be difficult to make the projects that I was working on feel connected to real situations. Was I sitting in an ivory tower, conveniently disguised as the second-tallest building in New York City?
I don’t think these questions are exclusive to human rights work. I have heard the same questions from my classmates while we’ve sat at a table in the library, studying cases that feel far removed from people whose problems they address. As a law student, it is easy to think that when we get to the ‘real world’, things will be hands-on all the time. I think the reality is that no matter the job, some time is going to be spent sitting at a desk staring at a computer screen or researching a case. In those situations, it becomes important to find ways to connect with stories behind the problem. In my case, reading transcripts of interviews taken on the ground helped connect me to the situations I was working on. When I listened to a talk given by a judge from a country I was researching, the challenges I had been writing about no longer felt theoretical. Sitting across the room was a person directly dealing with those challenges every day.
So, did I spend my summer in a professional ivory tower? In some ways yes, but in other ways, no. I know that after my work this summer, I developed attachments to countries on different continents, countries that I knew very little about before starting at Human Rights Watch, and that I may never have the chance to visit in person. I gained a better understanding of the challenges different countries face in achieving justice, and the challenges people face every day to live their lives in peace and security. I learned about the role of politics in international law, which make things move so slowly one day, and then so quickly the next. I do not doubt the value of being on the ground in the thick of things, but there is still plenty of room for growth even when staying a bit closer to home. After all, I learned all this sitting at a desk in the Empire State Building.