The Human Rights Warrior

Jennifer Prestholdt

Jennifer Prestholdt
Minneapolis, Minnesota,
February 25
Human rights lawyer, wife, and mother of three. (Not necessarily in that order.) I write about my experiences in fighting for human rights and how I am trying to bring those lessons home to my kids. Join our journey at, Humanrightswarrior on facebook and @JPrestholdt on Twitter. All material on this blog is © Jennifer Prestholdt, 2011, 2012


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DECEMBER 19, 2011 8:30AM

Becoming a Human Rights Warrior

Rate: 20 Flag

 simon 4

It all began, as so many things do, with a misunderstanding. I was putting my son Simon to bed one night when he said,

“Mommy … What’s it like to be a human rights warrior?”

“But sweetie, I’m not a human rights warrior. I’m a human rights lawyer.”

He waited a couple of seconds – this kid has an uncanny sense of comedic timing – before wrinkling up his little nose and saying skeptically,

“What’s a LAWYER?” 

I'll never know what kind of weapons he thought I was secretly carrying in my briefcase because my description of my actual job put him right to sleep. But this bedtime exchange got me thinking.  For more than 15 years, I’ve worked with survivors of human rights abuses.  My job is to document and bring to light stories of unbearable loss from every corner of the world.  I have observed the absolute worst aspects of human nature, the dark side in each of us that we would rather not acknowledge.

You might think that this would make me pessimistic about the world in general and Homo sapiens in particular, but the impact has been quite the opposite.  It has been my privilege to bear witness to the very best characteristics of humanity – our capacity to overcome adversity, to hope, to forgive.  I’ve heard inspiring acts of courage; seen the precious gift of faith. 

While I have many stories from my experiences in human rights work, I realized - after this one comment from a very small person - that most of them had never been shared with anybody. Stories of human rights abuses don’t exactly lend themselves to pleasant cocktail party conversation.  How do you convey the complex political and social conditions that lead to human rights abuses, honor the victims, and avoid grossing people out with the horrible details – all in a two-minute elevator speech? And how do you even stop talking about injustice once you start?  

So how was I going to figure out a way to talk about it with my kids?

That "Human Rights Warrior" discussion took place more than five years ago.  This is my son Simon today.

simon 9 

What did I do about my conundrum for four long years?  Exactly nothing. But I didn't stop thinking about it.   As a parent, I am challenged to distill my experiences into something that Simon – along with his older brother and his younger sister – can understand and profit from. I kept turning it around in my head like it was my mental Rubic's cube, impossible to put down but incredibly hard to solve.

I don't believe in New Year's resolutions.  If something is important enough to do, you should make the promise to yourself to do it whether it is May Day or Halloween or January 1.  But with my long history of  inertia on this topic, I needed more motivation.  In 2011, I resolved, I will think more intentionally about what I’ve learned from my work in human rights and I will take action t0 pass these lessons along to my kids. 

A  friend had suggested writing about my experiences as a way of processing them. So on New Year's Day 2011, I started writing my thoughts down.  Randomly at first, in one of my kids' old wide-rule spiral notebooks, which I had misplaced by January 3. I moved to writing on my laptop and jotting notes on my iPhone.  When I reached the point where I felt I had some stuff that was good enough to share, I started a blog.  My sweet husband gave me a domain name for my birthday: Human Rights Warrior.

I don't consider myself much of a blogger, much less a writer.  I write only at the outermost corners of my life, on the UB313 of my solar system.  Often I find myself writing in odd places, like the hockey rink when one of my boys has practice.  

blogger spot 

It doesn't really matter, though, because now I'm thinking about it all the time.  Writing down my thoughts has forced me to focus on making the connections between the experiences I've had in human rights and things in their lives.  My neurons are firing like a toddler with DHA omega-3 enriched milk in her sippy cup. Putting it in words crystallizes both the good and the bad, making it easier for me to talk about them with my kids. 

It has also brought back so many memories.  I didn't realize how many people I still hold in my heart. Ma Fatu, who lost her own family in the Liberian conflict but made a new family with orphaned young people in Buduburam Refugee Settlement.  My former asylum client, bravely recounting her gang-rape by Kenyan police as her husband sat beside her in agonized silence.  A couple in Peru, who after being released from more than 10 years of unlawful detention, recounted their story while holding their newborn infant daughter, who never left their arms.   These are people who will never be nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize, but I feel that I am honoring them for their strength and courage when I tell my my children about them. 

Are  my kids listening?  Not really.  Maybe.  Who knows?  Like the healthy lunches I send with them to school, my job is just to pack the lunchbox not to force it down their throats.

Last week, though, as he was going to bed, Simon said to me, "Mom, can you tell me some stories about your work?"  I could. So I did. 

I kept my New Year's resolution this year.  I am a Human Rights Warrior.   


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I hope you turn this into a book. You already have a great title.
Thanks Pauline! You know, your "Blogger Space" (or in my case, lack of Blogger Space) series inspired me to take that picture at the hockey rink.
Very nice piece. You sound like a warrior to me. I wish my own law practice had left me feeling like I had helped more heroes.
Thank you so much for reading! There are plenty of ways to help in this world, but I feel pretty lucky to be able to do this for a living.
I agree. It is a wonderful topic for a book. I spent a little time with an endeavor as a HRWarrior. A while back. Borrowing a phrase from Martha Stewart...Its a good thing.
Thanks so much, Ande! Happy holidays!
Fascinating, thoughtful piece. Thank you, and it's nice to meet you.

Rated♥with appreciation and best wishes.
Thank you so much! Very nice to meet you, too. I love your work, FusunA. Not to mention your signature flower!
Women and warriors go together nicely. Congrats on uncovering your true self!
Thank you, Beth! I'm just made a big batch of pralines - wish I could share them with you. Happy Holidays!
Nice to meet you. Blogging is such a new way of writing that we are all learning together. You have some honorable experiences to share unlike my somewhat frivolous stories of Art and Romance. lol I do share my experiences at the Alzheimer Center where I collect amazing stories and the deep stuff I deal with about my mother. Bloggers dig intensely into this human experience. It is a way to connect all the humans in the world including the little ones. It is writing that reports stories that touch our hearts and lives. I hope you continue to blog. Thank you for sharing all you know.
I visited your site, good job! I am wanting to know more, yay!
@ zanelle - I don't know how you can call your work "frivolous"! It's a rare gift to be able to express your thoughts and feelings through art as you do. Your "Sketches from the Social Security Office" is brilliant. The way you captured the humanity in that soul-leaching bureaucratic process is masterful. Your sketches have stayed with me for weeks. I wish I could bring you to detained immigration court with me! I look forward to reading your insights on Alzheimer's as we are losing my father-in-law to it. Thank you for reading and for your kind words!
Hi dianaani! Thanks for reading and for visiting The Human Rights Warrior site, too. I enjoy your work immensely. Best of luck with your new business!
I'd love to read more about your work for Human Rights. America needs you services too. Lawyers can do such good and yet so few do.
Hello again fernsy and thank you so much for reading! I feel very blessed to be able to do this work full-time. The nonprofit I work for actually couldn't do the work we do without the help of hundreds of pro bono lawyers every year. I believe everyone can do something to help - it's just a matter of finding out how to share their particular talent. And you are exactly right, we have to keep working on human rights in America. In the meantime, a very Happy New Year to you and yours!
This does sound like a good book. Congrats on having a vocation that you love.
Thank you, Phyllis! Best wishes to you for a happy and healthy 2012!
Wonderful post. I agree about New Year's resolutions. You are doing important work and some day your son will understand. I'm sure he is already proud of you. Rated.
Thank you so much, Erika! Happy New Year to you!
My pleasure. Yes, so much talent in the world and some good souls. Now, we just need to learn how to channel it better.
Happiest Holidays to you.
Well said, fernsy, well said!
I join the crowd sitting by the fire listening to your stories,continue on those you started.
Thank you for your service. Rated
Thank you, beauty, for reading and rating. Happy New Year!
Beautiful! :) We need more human rights warriors in this world. Thank you for sharing.
Thanks, willowrose! Happy New Year to you!
Writing does a wonderful thing for us by oiling the wheels of the mind so that we become more effective thinkers and citizens. Your writing is a perfect example of just that. Thank you for sharing this.
Very true, D. I wish I had learned this early. Thank you for reading!