Though it feels like years ago now, my first week at my internship passed in a blurred haze of hot weather and new faces and names, things to learn and subtitles on trilingual presentations. I drank cups and cups of coffee, switched to water when I began to realize it was 2 P.M. and forced myself to take walks on my lunch breaks to be able to come back fresh. Training, seminars, and learning new acronyms in an unfamiliar environment. This is a common experience shared among many of my colleagues, but somewhat different in that it all took place within my living room. There is a certain disconnect present when researching human rights protections and delving deep into cases at the Inter-American Court of Human Rights, for example, while hearing the ubiquitous police sirens of Montreal blare outside of my window, a contrast made all the stranger by the fact that I have never worked remotely before.
Despite this, it is among the most connected I have ever felt to my work and to my workplace. Working with Avocats Sans Frontières Canada, or ASFC, has been an experience in connections. I am far from the only remote worker in the organization, and their facilitation of this type of work is a well-oiled machine. From the very first, they established to my cohort of interns that they were interested not only in what work we might achieve together but also in us. My work has felt valuable because they have ensured that I feel that my contributions are valued. In many ways, it has felt like the whirlwind of going to a new place and learning a whole new culture. In this case, it was simply an institutional culture.
I have learned a new language, that of networks and processes and timelines. So much of my work has been about making it easier to work together. I have participated in general research that may help ASFC establish new projects and make new partnerships, and I have dived deeply into the specifics of how best to understand the resolution of conflicts in extremely specific contexts. We collaborate with governments, international organizations and regional bodies, other international NGOs, and with local partners who understand best the challenges at hand. Some of this is done by people like me, sitting in their living rooms while their pets demand their attention; some of this is done by those working in the main office; some is done by those working on location for one of the many projects in which ASFC participates.
When I speak with the lawyers who supervise my mandates, it is rare for them to be working out of the office in Québec City. Instead, I find myself holding Zoom calls across continents, speaking with those working directly on the ground. When they speak of the work they do, their commitment to it is clear, and their passion too. Equally interesting have been the stories of how they have arrived to work with ASFC. No two journeys to human rights work are the same, and it reminds the anxious, career-focused portion of my mind that nothing now is set in stone. This might provoke anxiety in others, but all I can say to that is – no two people are the same either.
One of my greatest anxieties about human rights work has always been the impression of doling out solutions from the top, and one of my greatest gripes with international law has always been its ingrained acceptance of this status quo. The disconnect between comprehension and capacity is a gap that is constantly acknowledged, and difficult to surmount. Nonetheless, the work that ASFC carries out is deeply respectful of this tension and committed to working within the difficult grey area that this involves. I have been deeply grateful for the chance to see what work like this looks like – and realizing how trying to learn how it all works could take a lifetime. It involves a lot of work emails and citations (thankfully, using the McGill Citation Guide), but also a willingness to admit when you don’t understand something. It involves humility, hard work, and a sense of humour – one of our work meetings began with the question of which two members of the team you would choose to have stranded with you on a deserted island.
My answer, influenced by all this, was that I would choose the two people in our Zoom meeting who had living houseplants in the background – clearly, success requires people who are able to get work done at the ground level.