HLS Advocates for Human Rights (Advocates) is a student practice organization (SPO) at Harvard Law School (HLS). Many students first join the HLS human rights community through Advocates their 1L year. In the SPO, students work on human rights projects with partner organizations around the world. Over the last year, the organization has decided to formally renew its commitment to social justice by creating Executive Board roles to lead activism within the organization. Sondra Anton JD’22 is one of the new Directors of Activism for the 2020-2021 academic year; Advocates is currently soliciting applications for a Co-Director to further assist with this work.

Originally from Chapel Hill, North Carolina, Sondra attended Washington University in St. Louis before receiving her master’s degree in politics from the University of Oxford. Sondra is interested in the field of international human rights law, particularly topics surrounding justice and accountability in post-conflict societies. After graduation, she hopes to use her law degree to represent victims and survivors of mass atrocity and severe human rights abuses in national courts or international tribunals. She is also very passionate about domestic social justice movements and the fight for racial justice in the United States.

Marie Sintim, Program Assistant in the International Human Rights Clinic, spoke with Sondra recently about her role and what she she envisions for activism with the organization this year.

A woman wearing a yellow romper smiles.
Sondra Anton JD’22

Marie Sintim: Several weeks before Tony McDade and George Floyd’s murder by police, you became the new Activism Director for HLS Advocates for Human Rights. What did that timing mean to you?

Sondra Anton: Yes— I think it was about three weeks prior. Conversations about trying to increase the organization’s direct involvement in social justice efforts had been ongoing for several years, and I spent much of my 1L year working with the previous leadership on formalizing this role. So while the official creation of this position at the beginning of May actually preceded the social unrest following George Floyd’s murder later that month, the timing was still crucial. The renewed momentum within the Executive Board to re-institutionalize activism within Advocates not only mirrored the widespread sense of urgency in society to speak out against systemic racism and structures of inequality in the US, but it also highlighted the need to truly prioritize this work within Advocates.

MS: Why do you feel that activism is so important to Advocates’ work?

SA: As a student group dedicated to the task of promoting fundamental human rights, I feel that it is our responsibility to use our platform to elevate marginalized voices and to speak out unequivocally against violence and systemic injustice—not only internationally, but also in our own backyard. We are living in a moment in which Advocates and its peers in the human rights field must emphasize the fact that good intentions without sustained direct action amounts to complicity in the face of systemic injustice. Building on the initial steps that previous leadership had taken to re-establish activism within Advocates, this year my role will be dedicated to institutionalizing social justice as a core tenet of our organization. I am more determined than ever to ensure that our dialogue is turned into concrete and institutionalized action.

MS: As part of your role, you get an active part in ushering in this new phase for Advocates. What does it mean to you to be an advocate for human rights, and how will that inform the changes you are implementing within the organization?

SA: Moving forward, it is my specific aim to ensure that activism and a demonstrable commitment to social justice play a central role in how we perceive what it means to truly be an advocate for human rights. This process is messy, ever-evolving, and entails different things for different people, as it should. But some things I know for certain when it comes to advocacy and activism: If we are not uncomfortable right now, then we are doing something wrong. If we cannot think of ways that we can be doing better, it means we are not spending enough time engaging in critical self-reflection or dedicated learning. If we are still waiting for our BIPOC peers to shoulder the burden of educating us and taking action, we are continuing to inflict more pain than progress. Most of all, to be an advocate for human rights means that no matter what we accomplish, there is always more to be done. And that is okay. As advocates for human rights, we must commit to engaging in uncomfortable conversations, to actively working to decolonize the Western-centric conception of human rights, and, most of all, to elevating marginalized voices and searching for pathways for direct action that we are afforded through our platform and privilege.

I will be working closely with the other members of our Executive Board to ensure that Advocates’ renewed commitment to activism will not be something relegated to a separate operational wing of the organization, but instead will be something that we are weaving into all of our initiatives and operations, regardless of whether it pertains to programming, projects, training, or community building. As we  continue our project work with partner organizations both in the U.S. and around the world, we plan to be more intentional in speaking out on issues directly affecting those who we seek to support. I will be focused on establishing close relationships with other student groups and solidarity movements in our community so that we can use our platform to elevate their work. Another goal of mine is to continue to put out statements of solidarity expressing our unequivocal stances on domestic human rights issues and support for other affinity groups, which will be accompanied by resources for further engagement, as we did this summer for Black Lives Matter and the (eventually rescinded) ICE policy on international students. I also hope other members use this platform to raise awareness for causes and issues that are particularly important to them. For example, earlier this month, one of our Board members wrote an informational post on our Instagram page dedicated to highlighting the troubling spike in Anti-Armenian hate crimes, which garnered widespread attention and engagement from accounts around the world (it was even shared by an actress from the Twilight franchise, clearly the biggest indicator of impact). By using the power of the Harvard platform to highlight these types of pressing issues raised by our members, Advocates can lend our voice to communities whose suffering is too often ignored or politicized by opponents in an effort to delegitimize the reality of their struggle.

MS: How can other HLS students support this vision?

SA: As Harvard Law students, we have an incredible platform to elevate marginalized voices and important issues throughout our time in law school and beyond. Human rights should not be considered a field that stands on its own; no matter what one’s interests or specific passions, and regardless of what field of law one wants to pursue in the future, human rights should be seen as something that falls at the intersection. Whether that be corporate law, constitutional law, administrative law or anything else, I hope that all HLS students, regardless of their personal background or career ambitions, will use the privilege of our platform for the advancement of others rather than ourselves both during and after our time in law school.

If you are interested in becoming Sondra’s Co-Director in this exciting and pivotal time for Advocates, applications are open! To apply, please visit http://bit.ly/AdvocatesBoardApplication2020 or email [email protected] with any questions.