How I became a human rights advocate

without even knowing it

Picture: Seb Brixey-Williams

When I look back at how I got where I am now, it’s been a pretty unforeseeable journey. I’m on the cusp of graduating with a bachelor’s degree in English Literature, but I’m relieved not to have that sense of uncertainty of the future that seems to be the presiding sensibility of “Third Year”.

I know I want to work in human rights, or something like that: something that helps people. Ultimately, it actually doesn’t really bother me what part of the imagined “human rights sector” I end up working in, so long as it is effective.

I started in freedom of expression and the UK prison system, co-founding and chairing York PEN two-chairs-ago. I had no idea I was interested in human rights before PEN. I made a wild power grab, and it consumed all of my free time for the next year. From there, I’ve bounced into torture (I am rather ambiguously endorsed for “torture” on LinkedIn) with Freedom from Torture in London, a fascinating NGO and area to work in, coming into contact with some of the most vulnerable and personally affecting people in the UK. Seeing the ease and comfort that a seasoned volunteer can bring to torture survivors within minutes is truly inspiring.

After that I joined RAY, or Refugee Action York, giving advice and support to asylum seekers and refugees in the UK (FYI, if this article can leave you with one thing, please remember the legal difference: an asylum seeker is seeking asylum, a “refugee” was an asylum seeker but has now been given “refugee status” in the UK and is thereby given leave to remain). Did you know that there is a large Turkish and Kurdish asylum seeker & refugee community in York? They’re such a minority that initially they didn’t even know each other had been put there unofficially by the Home Office.

Now I’m interested in overfishing. That’s human rights: 1 billion people rely on fish as their sole source of food. My grandfather and all of his fathers before him were fishermen in the Thames Estuary, and I’ve had a love affair with British seafood since I was a young thing eating half pints of cockles in vinegar on a Southend beach. I’m not sentimental, but I do enjoy the idea of continuing that family tradition. Perhaps that’s why this particular issue is the one that I want to work on — in a job that is.

Because that’s my point: if I have learnt anything that I would want to impart, it’s that human rights isn’t really a career, it’s just what you believe. And if you allow yourself to develop your conscience (which I see as the core difference between the political Left and Right) according to basic humanist principles, and allow yourself to be governed by them, you will naturally end up in a career that takes those principles into account. Human rights are part of your personal politics, which necessarily cannot be separated between work and play.

I don’t mean to be preachy – it’s just that, for me, that was rather a liberating realisation. That’s why I call myself an “advocate” and not an “activist,” which is more of a job. We’re forcibly educated to feel we need to compete with the world and seek person profit, and (unless you’re that lucky person who was never ‘interpellated’ to believe that) it takes a fair bit of personal strength to resist that urge. The realisation that I only wanted to work in a sector I agree with across all its strata of existence is why, compared to most of my academic peers, I’m not worried what happens next. In a sense I have closed off many options, but I have also legitimised pursuing all sort of things, because all the other people who work in human rights also seem to realise that we’re all working towards the same end.

I might do some writing: literature and journalism are at the vanguard of human rights issues. Or I might do some selected spadework, here or abroad. I might invent something. TED talks are typically overly optimistic, but there is something rather wonderful about Myshkin Ingawale’s 6 1/2 minute presentation of his ToucHb anaemia tester that doesn’t use needles. “My business plan is very simple. I’m just gonna sell these to every clinic in the world […]” and he then shows two maps, a before and after, one with a world that has anaemia, and one which does not, to whoops of applause. I’m now seriously considering going into law, which – alongside complementary, actionable and actioned policy and sustained political pressure – is how you really change things.

In hindsight, York PEN was hands down the most valuable thing I did at university. Without it, I wouldn’t have met human rights defenders from across the globe, or realised how little I really knew about the world and its problems. I now appreciate that lobbying or writing something in a paper can actually make a difference (I’ve done both, and things changed each time). In fact, it’s actually rather easy to change things, because the world is so apathetic. It’s made me a question my own power, and motivated me build my strengths – as a leader, persuader, reasoner – because at the end, someone else is relying on me to do the best I can.

Join a human rights society – whatever makes sense to you – but don’t worry about trying to help them all. Just focus your efforts and take solace in the fact you are all allies, not competitors. Take on some responsibility as soon as you can, and see where it takes you.

Seb (Chair York PEN 2012-2013) can be contacted via the society if you’d like to follow up any thoughts or have any questions. 

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One thought on “How I became a human rights advocate

  1. Pingback: The Importance of Student PEN Centres | University of York's English PEN Society

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