Building a Network to Support Communities and Activists at Risk 

Ginna explored a variety of human rights positions before settling into her current role. Before law school, she worked with children at a UN refugee settlement in Ghana through a volunteer program, which sparked an interest in health and human rights. Looking to explore human rights while at Georgetown, she worked remotely to support lawyers in Namibia with the International Women’s Human Rights Clinic, then interned in Namibia after the clinic ended. After graduation and a federal clerkship, she participated in Georgetown’s Women’s Law and Public Policy Fellowship, where she Woman standing in front of vintage photographsprimarily worked with HIV-positive women and advocated around sexual and reproductive health rights. Ginna and her network of advocates worked to ensure “that the bodies adopting policies,” like the UN or World Health Organization,  “were really listening to the women they were trying to help,” she says. Rather than just “throwing services” at people, these bodies should be “actually working with people, listening to people, and recognizing people’s inherent dignity.” Among other benefits, this engagement helps prevent stigma, which was particularly important in the HIV context, where stigma stops people from getting care. Ginna found that she particularly liked working for a network and a movement built around solidarity. She later used her fellowship experience to assist the ABA Center for Human Rights to produce a bench book designed to explain HIV transmission and to eliminate HIV-related discrimination under law.  

Around that time, civic space and human rights defenders doing on-the-ground advocacy were experiencing increased attacks and targeting by governments, including those in the LGBTQI community and those who advocated for health and dignity in the context of HIV and AIDS issues. Against this backdrop, the ABA Center for Human Rights started the Justice Defenders Program, which coordinates pro bono legal services to human rights defenders at risk. Ginna “fell in love with everything the program was about.” It formed a network to “support frontline activists from a place of solidarity and support,” and, rather than seeking recognition, the program’s focus is “being lawyers for movements, supporting lawyers for movements, and helping advocates fight back against retaliation and repression,” with “less than half” of their work made public, she explains. Ginna had so many ideas about what the program could do that she wrote a series of memoranda about them and, based on those suggestions and her work in several individual cases, she was asked to join the program full-time in 2012 and is now its director.  Justice Defenders has grown to a large and diverse team of lawyers and human rights professionals who “provide support for frontline activists to understand and identify risks and respond to those risks,” whether in individual cases or campaigns. They particularly focus on guiding responses to repression, retaliation, and closing civil space, as well as on helping marginalized communities by “amplifying their voices and highlighting discrimination.” 

Being an Active Part of a Global Movement 

Ginna finds that the most rewarding part of her job is “getting to work with frontline activists in different parts of the world working to fight back against increased authoritarianism and harmful stereotypes and tropes that place them at risk.” She admires the bravery of those who face this repression in places with authoritarian governments that are almost completely closed and who continue to “push back against forces that would silence them.” In particular, she says, “it is inspiring because we’re part of a global human rights movement. Increased authoritarianism is not unique to any part of the world. It is here; it is in our communities as well.” She appreciates that the Center’s model allows her to also work “in solidarity across regions and across the globe to hold people accountable who are going after and trying to silence the good governance activists, the women’s rights activists, the troublemakers.”  

While immensely rewarding, Ginna noted that human rights lawyering also carries the risk of exposure trauma from work with at-risk activists. “We are very aware that we’re working with people we care about, but there are limits to what we can do. Just because you get involved in a case doesn’t mean things are going to get better necessarily. The hardest part is the enormity of the work and recognizing that you have to stay in this very hard place with people, not just as things get better but also as things get worse.” 

Ginna says that empathy, boundaries, and creativity are the most important skills to have in this field. Creativity is especially important because, while “the legal analysis may be the first step, the harder questions are, where do you need to take that legal analysis to get action? Who are the people you actually need to convince? What are the levers that you can pull to achieve the result?” She also advocates for good coping mechanisms. “Think of yourself as part of not just a global movement, but a long movement.” While new human rights lawyers may feel guilty being safe and happy at home, Ginna advises that “the real emergency will always come, where you have to work all night. Knowing that’s going to happen, you also need to be able to recognize when something doesn’t require that of you, because you can’t do that every night. Being a good human rights lawyer is being able to tell the difference between actually urgent and a false sense of urgency, which can be tricky because everything feels important in human rights.” 

Finding Your Place in the Legal Field 

Ginna advises students to use their time at Georgetown to get to know themselves. Students should learn what they like about the law and what skills they can offer to organizations through internships, clinics, and other types of practical experiences. Even after law school, a clerkship can provide “practical exposure to law and courts.” At the same time, students should learn their healthy coping mechanisms now. “If you’re not able to do law school without burning candles at both ends, this may not be the career for you. If this is going to be the rest of your life, it has to be healthy, it has to be manageable, so learn those skills now.” 

Ginna highly encourages students to reach out to her and other experienced lawyers. “We are invested in your success. You’re the next generation of human rights lawyers, so I’m invested in you as a human rights lawyer who wants this to be a movement that keeps going. I think of it as one global human rights movement, even though there are lots of movements that make it up. Don’t be afraid of reaching out. There’s a network here that will help you.” 

Outside of work, Ginna enjoys spending time with her husband, fellow Georgetown Law grad Eric Cochran, and their two children, including doing puzzles, baking, hiking, and paddle-boarding. 

By Sabrina Lourie (author) and Michelle Liu (editor)