You don’t need to be a chef to make a burger – how I became a human rights activist

Posted By: Karen Woodin|Dated: January 25, 2012

After receiving a UN award that recognized me as human rights activist, I began to think about what this means to me, and how I got here.

In November 2011, I received a Human Rights Award  from the United Nations Foundation for promoting human rights in the Americas and lesbian-gay-bisexual-transgender and queer (LGBTQ) rights. Before this, I had never thought of myself as an activist.  Suddenly, looking back, a couple of things I did in college became a coherent attributed identity as an activist, a new way of presenting who I “am”.

My friend Jess who has been working for the International Red Cross for the past 10 years (a job which, by the way, she only intended to do for 2 years) once told me: “You do one thing for a long enough time, and suddenly you have a career”. Perhaps the same is true about the social causes you promote, the events you attend, even the pages you like on Facebook. You don’t have to be an Activist (with a capital A) to promote causes you care about, just like you don’t need to be a chef to make a burger.

Testing my interests: the road to making a difference

I believe that so many of us want to make a difference to our communities, but we don’t know where to get started. We’re paralyzed by our ability to choose an infinite number of things to do, or we feel like we shouldn’t do something until we come across something that’s perfect and that we’re passionate about.

Trial and error can help. I did a human rights internship to see if I would like it, I attended an LGBTQ and allies conference because the content seemed interesting, and THEN—last step—I decided to submit a proposal to chair the conference. Did this mean I committed to a lifetime of LGBTQ activism? Not necessarily. It was just a first step.

New Experience: An Internship in Human Rights

As a third-year student in college, I wanted to get one step closer to understanding what I wanted to do after graduation. The obvious choice seemed to do an internship, but where? Given my interest in global issues  and involvement with Model United Nations Conferences , I decided to intern for the Human Rights Foundation, a NY-based international human rights non-profit that promotes civil and political rights in the Americas (As a Mexican citizen, this had a special place in my heart). My main project was a report denouncing the political rights violations in Venezuela of a potential presidential candidate. Through this process, I learned first-hand the power—albeit oftentimes slow—international pressures can have on political decisions.

Pushing my Boundaries: Chairing an LGBTQ Conference

That same year, I saw that there was a student-run LGBTQ and allies Conference held at the University of Pennsylvania. The idea of a conference that explored issues of sexuality and identity, and meeting college students from across the East Coast sounded like a lot of fun, so I decided to sign up. It turned out to be one of the most interesting and rewarding weekends of my year; for instance, I developed an understanding of gender identity  and what it means to be a trans person. I became intrigued with the idea of LGBTQ programming, so when our campus representative asked us if we wanted to host the conference next year, I jumped at the opportunity and knew that I HAD to be involved because it was an opportunity I may not encounter again. Through this experience, I learned the value of a team of individuals who carried double their weight, and explored the intersections of identity, community, and activism—topics I had not encountered before.

Making sense of it

Through these two experiences I realized what I liked and what I didn’t like. For example, promoting civil and political rights is important but I’m not sure I want to do it by writing reports—I learned that I prefer to work with people one-on-one and create experiences for learning and connecting with like-minded individuals (building community), like we attempted to do with IvyQ.

Had I not tried this, I would have remained enamored with the idea of “human rights”, and one day, maybe, work in the field. Instead, I looked for opportunities around me to try this interest. The results were great: I didn’t have to be an Activist to promote causes I cared about, just like I don’t have to be a Chef to make a burger.

To Do Today:

  1. Leave a comment with one thing you have been interested in, but haven’t done because you think you need to be an Activist/Chef/Author/Expert to do it. (e.g. I have been meaning to write an article for my local newspaper but haven’t done it because I’m not an experienced journalist, etc.)
  2. Write ONE step you will take this week to test this interest. (It can be as small as taking someone in the field you’re interested in out to coffee and asking them about it; here’s a detailed post with the email scripts you can use in order to do this). 

P.S. Here are some quick links to get you started with helping your community.

http://kickstart.org/ - a systematic approach to end poverty, and ways you can contribute

http://www.kiva.org/ - a way to make micro-loans to empower people

http://www.idealist.org/ - a space to find volunteer, internship and work opportunities to give back

About the Author

Born and raised in Monterrey, Mexico, Karen moved to Bombay in June 2011 to join Mahindra as a Global Recruit.  As a member of the Corporate Brand Council, she works on internal and external brand engagement campaigns, such as Spark the Rise. She graduated from Columbia University in the City of New York with a B.A. in Political Science.

The views expressed above are those of the author, and not necessarily representative of the views of the Mahindra Group.

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  • cncrndctzn

    Well written! It is amazing how the fear of failure prevents us from trying new things; yet, as citizens, we have a responsibility to be informed and engaged in our communities. 

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