Broken Chalk Podcast Episode 1 – Felisa Tibbitts

Interviewer: Johanna Farkas

Transcription written by: Caren Thomas

Johanna Farkas, Intern at Broken Chalk, did an interview with Felisa Tibbitts, co-founder of Human Rights Education Associates (
The interview was recorded as audio, and this is the written transcription.

Felisa Tibbitts. Photo available in her website, Felisa Tibbitts.

Johanna Farkas(JF): Hello and good afternoon. This is the first episode of the Broken Chalk podcast. Broken Chalk is a human rights organization based in Amsterdam and it is dedicated to monitoring human rights violations in education. I am Johanna Farkas. I will be the host for today’s episode. It is my pleasure to welcome Felisa Tibbitts.

Felisa Tibbitts(FT): Hi Johanna. Thank you for inviting me.

JF: Thank you very much for accepting our invitation. Felisa, you have tremendous experience in the field of human rights and human rights education. To introduce you a bit more to the audience, Felisa’s main research interest is human rights and global democratic citizenship, critical pedagogy, education and social movements and human rights at higher education transformation. She is currently the chair of human rights education of the department of law, economics, and governance at the university of Utrecht as well as the UNESCO chair in human rights and higher education.

She has recently been teaching at Columbia university up until 2022. She also has several fellowships, awards, grants and some experience with board memberships and advisory positions. She has been working with organizations such as the UN, Council of Europe as well as Amnesty International.

There are several things to discover here, and I am excited to hear about everything.

What we will be focusing about today is your own organization that you co-founded that is the Human rights education association which I will be introducing later on.

But I will first ask some personal questions about you and your career path.

FT: Okay.

JF: Did you have a moment or a eureka moment when you knew that you want to work in the field of human rights or human rights education?

FT: That’s a really nice question. It’s interesting because some of my students who have become interested in human rights education often ask what is your career path? How did you get started and I don’t how it is for you Johanna or for people who are listening but it’s not always a straight or narrow path and for me I didn’t identify my interests as being in human rights until well into my adult career.

I had identified my interest as peace, I didn’t learn about human rights growing up. I hardly heard about human rights. It just wasn’t the language being used. I was very interested in peace. I grew up in a military family during the cold war, even during the Vietnam war, that’s how old I am and I remember when I ran out of fingers to count, when I had turned 11 years old I felt like I had to take a decision about what I wanted to do with my life.

I was a very serious child and I decided I wanted to work for world peace and then I got to college jump ahead about I guess at that point 7 years or so and I enrolled in a course offered by Karl Deutch at Harvard called Peace Research. I didn’t even know you could study peace and so that sort of set me on my path to combining my intellectual interest with my professional interest and there’s another story about how I ended up getting into human rights specifically but those were the origins for me.

I know a lot of people who are sort of lie first when it comes to their human rights work or human rights activism. They recognize at a really early age that they feel like they want to do something positive in the world whether that’s articulated as human rights or peace or social justice or you know it doesn’t really matter if it sets you on that path.

JF: You have a lot of understanding of what you want to do as we’ve heard. What do you find that people might misunderstand about human rights or human rights education or do you have maybe your own experience that you did not understand at first or something that has changed in your understanding? 

FT: I came into the human rights field in maybe one of the most positive or affirming ways possible which is that historically the Berlin wall came down and at that time I was doing my doctoral studies in international education, and I was interested in democracy and peace. So, I hadn’t heard about human rights as I mentioned earlier and I still hadn’t heard at this point it was 1990 but I went to eastern Europe and went from sort of beginning with what was still the East Berlin all the way till Bulgaria with some colleagues to do some research and what would be changing in the educational systems so I got a little bit of a flavour for in what might be happening in educational systems from a researcher’s point of view.

And then just by luck, by chance a couple of years later I was at a conference and I met the head of the Dutch Helsinki Committee, which is the Dutch version of the Human Rights Watch, Arie Bloed. He had begun working with his colleagues in legal reform in the new post-soviet countries. So classic work that human rights people still continue to do in transitional justice in post conflict environments related to rule of law, good governance and human rights. So they were typically training and working with lawyers, judges and news laws and lifting up and strengthening civil society.

Then there was this other sector, the schooling sector, that the Dutch Foreign Ministry, who was their main funder, had become interested to have them work in and I happened to know Arie and he said you know would you like to help us come figure out what we might do to support infusing human rights in the schooling systems. Our first country is Romania and so I went.

In the process of doing the first mission in raising money I subsequently became a part time staff for the Dutch Helsinki committee and that really Johanna was the way I learnt about human rights. I didn’t learn it in the classroom. I learnt it with my colleagues who were human rights lawyers and I also learnt that with my partners, if you will, in these countries who themselves have heard of human rights maybe during the communist period, maybe it was just on paper what does that mean for real life so my own learning was accompanying that of my partners and although I had in one year all the legal standards the law related approach, on the other hand I was still working with teachers and kids and continue to do so for whom law is something that they cannot understand or access so there we don’t want to lose that power of human rights in terms of the international and regional human rights standards and laws but we also want to recognize the norms and principles that influence our everyday lives.

Now that being said there are many critiques to your question, there are many critiques to human rights and I think it’s really very healthy for the human rights field to have these. I mean there’s the critique that if we look at governments who have signed on to these treaties there’s the spectrum of how well they live up to their human rights obligations, we know that accountability mechanisms at the United Nations are weak you know, monitoring is a bit stronger, accountability is weak. We know that if we look into local national context we see human rights isn’t necessarily owned by everyone and it could be one political party that takes it on and then it ends up being associated with particular political agenda or in the United States with the progressives or the leftists, when it should be for everyone and of course there’s now the very classic critique of Eurocentric that is based on natural law and individualism and questions about universality so these are all critiques and they’re all alive and well and they’re all also valid.

One of the benefits of working in the field of education is, Johanna and for the people listening, you have to deal with these learners because you aren’t there to indoctrinate people on what human rights is, here it is take it accept it believe it and carry on. It doesn’t work that way. It is a particular justice-based system around rights. There are other frameworks for promoting social change, right? They don’t have to be named human rights. So I think in human rights education my approach is to actually offer the critiques early on so that we can discuss them and learners can decide for themselves what their points of view are, how much coincides with their own or not.

I also think even with a flawed system that we find in implementing human rights in the international community the alternate is not a desirable one so my personal point of view is find a view that aligns with yours maybe its human rights language maybe it’s not.

Listen to what human rights offers, at least be aware of what it is and what it can offer you and then in terms of if you’re ultimately a believer in human rights and has potential then lean in and support it, support its implementation as best as you can it doesn’t mean you don’t criticize but try to make it better in whatever ways you can, as a diplomat, as an activist, as an educator, whomever.

Policy seminar on peace education with UNESCO & Myanmar Ministry of Education. Photo by Felisa Tibbitts.

JF: and do you think the international community on all levels when it comes to the UN or local decision makers do they have the will or wish to consider these? Do they have the tools to make these constant reevaluations of human rights and try to progress it?

FT: Well political will is obviously really key when it comes to state behaviour. We know that there has been a rollback until recently in terms of the democratic space and increase in authoritarianism which has coincided with the restriction of civil society, rule of law and human rights. So there’s no question that there are real challenges when we look at human rights challenges internationally. We still have ongoing wars, genocides. How is this still happening with all that we know not only about human rights but also about human history in the past 125 years. So its really befuddling and discouraging for sure.

At the same time, I am an optimist and I am in education so I have to own up to that, but I think the recent statistics I saw shows the kind of rolling back into authoritarianism and eroding of democracy even in the those countries that are primarily democratic seems to be shifting, that we may have reached the lowest point already in terms of authoritarianism and it might be a swing back. That is not to say that it is a permanent one.

For those of us who thought that the Berlin Wall has come down, apartheid is over, it’s going to be, maybe it’s going to be more of these cycles in term of conservatism. Conservatism does not quite capture authoritarianism, I think conservatism is quite a respectable point of view. Authoritarianism is very specifically eroding democratic principles and ways of governance so that’s very separate.

But I have to say that my understanding from political scientists, who know more than I do, that we may have seen the worst of it in terms of recent history and we may be swaying back. I mean we still have lots of challenges mind you even in the countries that are still struggling to save some of that democratic processes and institutions, checks and balances and so forth. But those countries that are aligned with human rights, I would say most countries have some if not lip service a deep commitment to forwarding human rights. Again it might be forwarding human rights within their foreign policy interest but at least it’s still there. I think if that continues, human rights is seen as important as others.

Sadly, because of the phenomenon like the war in Ukraine it’s an important reminder of how important human rights and humanitarian law is. So we know that when a catastrophe happen, human rights comes to the fore again.

But I will say, Johanna, I actually think that those of us who are working, not in government, but working in civil society and working even in higher education we have also created more space for human rights. Let me give you an example, at the higher education level there are more human rights centres than ever. It used to be, 30 years ago, the human rights centre used to be at the law school because you essentially only studied human rights if you were studying human rights law. You didn’t see it anywhere else in the university and now in the last 15 to 20 years there are interdisciplinary centres for human rights that link sometimes in parallel with the law school human rights centre which gives opportunities to graduates, undergraduates and students of all levels whether they’re in the humanities or social sciences usually those two areas are those that study Human Rights so its expanding in favourable environments in certain higher education institutions absolutely expanding.

In terms of activist work, Human Rights is being pushed down into the local level. There is a global initiative called “Human Rights Cities” and this perspective brings our attention to our local government but the local government in conjunction with community members, community organizations and all kinds of individuals in the community who hold different positions and also just regular citizens to review the human rights framework, to review the problems the community might have and what might need to be addressed. This is linked up more recently in some European cities with being cities that welcome refugees for example, so with the refugees coming in and some of the pretensions that could bring in local communities using that as a way to discuss human rights more broadly.

So, I think there has been lots of movement in a positive way amongst those actors who are human rights oriented, like I mentioned higher education, human rights cities, human rights based approach which is kind of a conceptual approach but has real bearing in thinking about looking at organizations as a whole not as a human rights perspective.

Other things happening in the United Nations around nonstate actors, multinationals, corporate social responsibility so I think on the other side of some of these discouraging trends that are restricting human rights movement you know ability to use in certain country context and the ongoing critiques of human rights which will always be there, do you have these positive sides of evolution and change and so I do think that the movement continues and you know and it just binds new avenues to remain relevant basically and potent.

JF: I see I see. You mentioned a lot about the authoritarianism and the actual issues with monitoring the implementation of human rights and how in your own experiences as well you learnt properly what human rights was or how it works when you practically worked in it and went to the field. It is a large issue there are countries who partially or who does not fully respect human rights. As you mentioned there’s still so much human rights violation including genocide happening. Has this ever hindered you or felt like giving up in your career because of witnessing or learning about all these setbacks in the history and human rights?

FT: I think that’s a fair question. I think, Johanna, I have been fortunate because I work in the field of education and that field is sort of intrinsically optimistic and forward looking. So without a question, I have also shared the deep disappointment and concern of others not only human rights people but many of us around the authoritarianism and the world back and other challenges in Ukraine, and the ongoing conflict in the Middle East don’t seem to be resolved, refugees, climate change, there’s plenty to be discouraged about but in the day-to-day that I have like having a conversation with you or meeting my students tomorrow, I can focus on these moments of learning and engagement.

 In some cases the human rights education and training I’m doing feeds immediately into social change and so sometimes I have the benefit of seeing that as I’m working with activists or I’m working with young people who eventually who get in careers in human rights or activism of some kind or so many ways you can be engaged in human rights without working for a human rights NGO or working at the UN  at the Office of the Human Rights Commissioner, there are so many things to do.

So when I’m up close its really easy and for me as well I know with education its long term game. It may be 10 to 15 years from now where we see curriculum in schools resulting in more people knowing about what human rights are and what its potential is. In that respect, I can only count wins. I don’t see any failures per se at least in the work I’m doing. But I know from my colleagues who are working in other environments where you have certain litigation, where you want it to go through successfully or you are working on social change and its big cultural changes and maybe you don’t necessarily see it in your lifetime but I even think for people who are not in education like myself, they find their own ways to stay motivated.

You know the thing about human rights as a human rights worker, if you will, is to find your joy in it. For me the joy is teaching and for others I know love law and their joy is in that. If you’re in an NGO, the joy is partly who you get to work with like your colleagues despite these very discouraging conditions and phenomenon.

First of all I don’t feel like I have a choice. This is always what I had to do and the question for me is what is the best way for me to engage, what are the skillsets I have, what will feed me. It is really important in human rights work, in humanitarian emergencies or in any kind of work you are confronting suffering whether it’s really up close or personal or wider you need to find a way to keep yourself healthy and engaged. Even for you as a young person you’ll have decisions to make on what to study next, if you’re going to study anymore, where you’re going to put your energies in, whatever you decide to do it should feed you and keep you going in the long term because we need people like you and others in the long term working for human rights.

JF: Let’s talk about and move on to the active working for human rights and you yourself actually cofounded an organization called HREA. The abbreviation of it is the Human Rights Education Association. You founded that in 1996. Can you tell me a bit about the vision and mission of this organization.

FT: Sure! So, the name itself speaks about what the mission is Human Rights Education and that was deliberate. At that time, I was living in Amsterdam, and I cofounded this organization at a time when human rights education was somewhat new. I was working for the Dutch Helsinki Committee and the work I was doing was pretty different from my colleagues because as I mentioned earlier in this conversation, I was working in the schooling sector and that was very different and new in terms of the international human rights movement.

The person who confounded HREA with me Cristina Sganga, she was the first Human Rights Education person appointed at the International Secretariat of Amnesty International. We were both concerned at that time, and we were both aware I should say that our colleagues were not thinking of it as seriously as for example monitoring and research which is classically what human rights organizations do or in my case if my colleagues were doing human rights education, again it was not with schools but with prosecutors and all.

So we decided we should start an organization that would help focus on human rights training and education inside the international human rights movement and would give us an opportunity to really help professionalize it so that’s why we started it. It was not to start an NGO because it’s not fun starting an NGO, it’s a lot of work. Although it’s fun if you know the people you work with and you like them then it’s fun and hard work.

 So that’s where HREA started, it started earlier on in the HREA or HRE kind of movement internationally and began from both our experiences in central eastern Europe primarily and sort of went from there.

The mission is to promote the use of education, training and learning inside the international human rights movement in order to promote all the goals we’re looking for in human rights, the realization of human rights. The organization works with civil society organizations, stakeholders and any learners interested to learn more.

JF: As you already mentioned your organization is already involved in a lot of different activities. You have e-learning courses, research, you take part in research with several international and local organizations and government organizations. What is the greatest achievement of this organization or what are you most proud of? Could you tell us a bit about this project?

FT: Sure. There are two things that HREA did that I am very pleased with. I am pleased with it because it felt like a real need at that time. One thing is we began an online research center for human rights and human rights education. There was time when there was no internet and when the internet came we thought let’s put all this wonderful information that we’ve been sharing by hand from place to place filling our suitcases with books for human rights activists.

So we started the online research center and it was really successful, thousands of resources. It made available to those interested in the human rights education but also to those who weren’t in a university setting so they couldn’t get access to human rights research online or conversely they were in a civil society organization and they just wanted to have an idea about what other people were doing so they could write their own curriculum. The online research center still exists but there are more out there now. At that time by 1998 we had an online research center which was well used. I still get good feedback from people who are in far off places and that this was the only way they could get human rights material at that time so that feels good still.

Second thing, we started in 2001 an online learning programme. this was before Canvas, Moodle, it was before Blackboard even, we developed our own infrastructure to offer online learning for adult learners, human rights, humanitarian development workers on topics and skills really welled for practice. We were interested in filling the gap for courses that people really couldn’t find at universities or even in trainings. But if they found them in trainings it was very expensive for the organizations to organize it because they had to travel somewhere or bring in a speaker. So wanted it to be relevant and really affordable. We offered at our peak 20 online courses a year to a range of adult learners, government and nongovernment, UN and so forth on topics ranging from strategic litigation to what I offered human rights education or the child rights-based approach to programming. So, the courses would basically evolve with what was happening in the field of needs.

So, I felt really proud of that Johanna because it was before online learning was a thing. We were out in front, we got some initial support from the Dutch Foreign Ministry and it just grew and at this there are many organizations that offer online learning like Amnesty International who has their own internal international professional development activities so we’re not filling a gap like we used to but I’m still offering courses. I’m still offering, for instance next week my online human rights education course is taking place and its filled and I am happy about that. Work does continue but happily people have more choices out there and resources which is wonderful for the field.

JF: My last question to you would be, as someone with so much experience, what would you recommend or advise to those who are entering this field right now and who are trying to find their career or own path in human rights or human rights education.

FT: Good question. It’s so precious when people are interested in human rights and human rights education. I have students at Columbia university who are self-identified as being interested in human rights. I will do anything to support their intellectual development and also to position themselves to make decisions about what they need to do next for example when they graduate from Columbia university. I think that there are unfortunately very few jobs in human rights, jobs meaning that those exclusively focused on human rights. I had mentioned some of the sectors earlier you might be involved in including the NGO sector, government, intergovernmental but there are so many ways you can be doing human rights.

There are two ways to answer this question if I may. The first is that to position yourself well to get a job with an organization whose mission is exclusively human rights, is to not only think about human rights but also get skillsets that organizations can use. Whether you work for Human Rights Watch or Amnesty International or you go work for the United Nations skill sets like project management, fund raising, social media, being able to develop training resources whatever your skillsets are needed by these organizations. Always remember to develop skillsets that can be used by an organization that may allow you to work in an organization focused on human rights. I’m not sure what people’s idea of what they might be doing but think about those skillsets and go on and get those law degrees or public policy degrees or education degrees you can still work in human rights.

The second strategy I have is to think more broadly about how you can be doing human rights. If you don’t work in an organization that is explicitly human rights related, there are so many ways that you can work towards what can be considered human rights goals. I had lunch with a former student of mine who had gone to law school, and she had attended originally to be part of the NGO sector for human rights, she realised if she worked for a law firm and uses their option to do their pro bono work she can do a lot of wonderful work for human rights NGOs supporting them with her legal advice. So just last week I had a conversation with a former student of mine who had graduated with a concentration in human rights from Columbia and she really wanted to be working full time in the human rights field. She had expected to go to law school and focus on refugee rights specifically and then proceed to work in an NGO. That was the plan, and the plans changed a bit. She is in law school but she has also been working in a private law firm and realised that she can do pro bono work through them and offer her services to the NGO sector in human rights. She’s just realized she can have a regular legal position and at the same time do the kind of work that she wants to do and so many other variations of how if you’re not working for a human rights organization per se or one that has a mission explicitly to that, you can do wonderful work either through your regular job like this young woman is going to do or through volunteerism.

So there’s just so many ways that you can contribute to international human rights movement. I would just say to you or anyone who is excited about human rights just to keep the spirit, do position yourself well through your education and your experience because your experience is really important to develop skillsets, to get field experience, position yourself well for full time human rights work and if that doesn’t work out for you for whatever reasons just to find other ways to do good things like this.

JF: Thank you very very much for your insights and for telling us about all your experience. It’s been a pleasure to talk to you. Thank you very much for your contribution today. Thank you very much for your talk. It has been very exciting to hear about your experience and thank you so much for the advice. I’m sure many of us who are pursuing this field can use lots of it. Thank you very much again today and for your time.

FT: My pleasure Johanna. Thank you for the opportunity to have a conversation with you.

JF: So this was the first episode of the Broken Chalk podcast. I hope to see you for the next episode as well. Good bye!

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