Creatives in Conversation: Akila Radhakrishnan, President of the Global Justice Center, is dedicated to ensuring women's voices are heard.
What we become inspired by often is genuinely determined by our experiences. For some, the passions they discovered at a young age eventually do manifest into their professional careers, and for others, such a pathway becomes best informed by time and experience. In Akila Radhakrishnan's story, a mixture of both helped shape the direction of her career today. As a kid, Akila recalls always saying she wanted to be a lawyer, citing her love for being argumentative as an indicator of the direction she wanted to pursue when she got older. However, it wasn't until attending law school, working in the field and learning more about herself and the work she aimed to achieve that a path in advocating for human rights ended up unfolding.
Presently, Akila serves as the president of the Global Justice Center, an international human rights organization. Founded in 2005, the non-profit organization works to advance gender equality by helping to implement and enforce human rights laws. Akila's journey into her present role has been accented by incredibly hard work, a dedication to social justice and a willingness to be as diligent as possible in upholding the GJC's mission.
In addition to leading the GJC in its strategies and efforts to establish legal precedents protecting human rights and ensuring gender equality, Akila has also authored numerous shadow reports, legal briefs and advocacy documents, as well as has provided legal expertise to domestic and international stakeholders and policymakers, including the International Criminal Court, the United Nations, the European Union and state governments. Her work focusing on issues of international law, gender equality and human rights has been published in the New York Times, Time, The Atlantic, Women Under Siege, Ms. Magazine and Just Security.
While Akila remains steadfast in her work as a lawyer and an organizational leader, she also has emerged as a great advocate to others looking to embark in a similar direction. From acting on a staff driven initiative to abolish the organization's unpaid internship program this past year, to calling for diversity and inclusion in the field, Akila is inspiring countless women to know their worth and seek out their own experiences, especially in law. During a recent conversation with DropLabs, Akila spoke more about how she helped make her career dreams come true, how being open-minded can pay off professionally and the work the Global Justice Center focuses on.
Do you have an early memory you'd like to share when you discovered some of your passions?
I was one of those kids who always said I was going to be a lawyer. I don't think I necessarily knew what that meant or where I would end up, but something about law always intrigued me. I was always the kid who was argumentative and loved to debate, and while that often doesn't actually translate into becoming a lawyer, in my case, it did.
What helped you decide to pursue a career in law, specifically one focusing on social justice and human rights?
When I was in undergrad, I did some time as a corporate paralegal and I realized that I hated it. I was already committed to going to law school but that experience really helped me to find what space in law was for me. I started looking more broadly at who I am, my feminist values, my interest in social justice and that helped make it easy to say that the money that's in corporate law was definitely not enough to tempt me to do it. My experiences, paired with who I am, made it easier to make the harder decision, I think, to move into the human rights and social justice space.
I have always been a huge international policy nerd and did Model UN throughout undergrad. For me, my dream career was always something to do with the United Nations. Being able to eliminate corporate law as an option helped me focus during law school and make sure I was taking the right classes, internships and pathways that would help me get there. Since then, there have been a series of circumstances and fortunes that have helped me get to where I am. It's been a lot of hard work, especially because it is a small,specific and difficult space to break into.
Can you tell us a bit more about the work you do with the Global Justice Center?
The Global Justice Center is an international human rights organization. Our focus is centered on achieving gender equality through the rule of law. e're a fairly small organization with a big mission, but we work strategically, including at the highest level of the United Nations and country governments.
We work on two major issue areas, one of which is sexual and reproductive rights. In today's atmosphere, we work on an international level but also on policies like the Trump administration's Global Gag Rule, which cause harm to women around the word. We see everyday the increasing backlashes against women’s rights, and sexual and reproductive rights, which reinforces why it is such an important space for us to be operating in and working to improve protections and strengthen the international legal framework. We want to strengthen how issues like like abortion are considered under international law, and how we can, through our work, help strengthen and further their protections as fundamental rights.
And then on the other side, we work on justice and accountability for sexual and gender-based violence, particularly in the context of situations of conflict. Really looking at what does justice and accountability mean when sexual violence is committed as a war crime, as a crime against humanity or constitutive act of genocide. A large part of the work that we're doing right now is in looking at issues like genocide and what a gender perspective brings to our understanding of how they are carried out and how that needs to inform the response of the international community. For example, we currently do a lot of work on the Rohingya and the Yazidi genocides and look at the role that gender-based violence has played and what it means to have accountability for those crimes.
With your work focusing on lending support and seeking justice for people from all walks of life, experiences and circumstances, how do you combat the overwhelming nature of it and remain focused and optimistic?
I think there's definitely a sense of it being overwhelming, such as when you meet with the populations that are affected. It often can be very disheartening working with policymakers in governments because things are getting boiled down to “practicalities” and priorities that don’t often reflect the reality of the situation or needs of the survivors. However, it's when you work with the really brave activists--in particular for us, with the women--who are coming from the ground and are facing the situation firsthand, that's the space where you find hope and energy.
In the context of Burma, we worked with women from ethnic minority groups from across the country, including the Rohingya but not limited to them. Working with those activists, seeing the work they are doing and knowing that what we're doing can help support them and can help find solutions to the problems they're facing, that's where the energy and the hope comes from. When you sit in New York, often a lot of our work has to do with facing the United Nations where everything starts getting broken down to a technicality. It's the language that we want in a resolution, such as how is this being phrased, how can we convince someone that this is politically advantageous versus when you're faced with the humanity of it all. There's a marked difference sometimes in that.
What surprised you the most about trying out DropLabs technology?
The experience is actually quite surprising, especially at first. Ange (from the DropLabs team) had described it to me before I was able to try it for myself, and I think I was expecting something maybe more subtle. What was really cool about it was actually that there's something about it that makes it feel that much more full-bodied. Depending on whatever music or media you're consuming, or what you're trying to evoke, it really did feel like a full-body experience, and not just something that was in your feet. I think that was particularly interesting, especially when trying out the meditative mode. When you're trying to get yourself in the right space to be reflective, and if you're someone like me who doesn't always take a lot of time to pause and breathe and be quiet, the idea that there's something that can holistically bring your whole body into the experience is really awesome.
Would the meditation facet be what you're most interested in?
The self-care and meditation aspects are something that I'm very much more actively trying to build into my life for a variety of reasons, including that the issues we work on are often quite difficult and traumatizing, and that my job requires me to constantly jump from one thing to the next--legal work, fundraising, management. For a restless and stressed out person like me, I think DropLabs could help to bring me further into a quiet meditation experience. I often have struggled with staying with it.
I also really like music. I didn't get a chance to try out the shoes when I was walking, but living in New York and walking everywhere, I always listen to music while I'm commuting. I feel like that could be a really immersive experience and I'd love to try that out sometime. Additionally, during my job as a lawyer in particular, where there is a lot of reading and writing, I occasionally will put on a particular piece of music that helps me zone in and focus. I could see the technology helping in those types of moments as well, especially with focus.
Do you have any mantras you live by or any words of wisdom you'd like to pass on?
I would say be open to experiences. You never know how you're going to end up or where you're going to go. Be humble and be willing to learn from everything that you do, whether it's small or large. I didn't become president of this organization by accident, but I also didn't set out to become president. I didn't even set out to work at this organization. There are so many factors and so much of that has to do with being open. You also want to be deliberate about where you want to end up, but not in such a way that you forgo the experiences that might actually get you to a place you didn't even know you wanted to be.
I think that happens when you try to plan everything.Especially in law, where paths are very prescribed. You go to law school, you get these internships, you go work in these types of places and that's how you end up there. But I think, especially when I talk to women working in this space, so many people have come to it at different times in their lives and through different ways. Some of the commonalities with that lies in being open, being curious and seeking out your own path.
Another thing that we're facing now as a non-profit and that we ourselves are trying to figure out is know your worth and know your value. I know we often say that within corporate structures but I think it's really important, particularly for young women coming into the space. You're often asked to subsume yourself for the work. It's difficult to try to find ways where you're not perpetuating the non-profit system that continues to allow those who come from an immense amount of privilege to succeed and have access to this type of work, especially where you're often asked to work for free for extended periods of time, and even in countries and cities far from your home. It's important to think about how to know your worth and to find things that can help support you.
Similarly, one of the challenges I've been putting on myself as a leader is to pinpoint what can we be doing internally in our own practices to make sure we're not perpetuating these systems. It's a work in progress, but as of this year, we've ended unpaid internships at our organization across the board. We've set a progressive goal of where we want to get to because otherwise the dichotomy of what the field looks like, of who lives in New York and who works in these organizations, is going to continue to look exactly the same. It's a deeply privileged position to be in, and I hope to do it justice.
What are some of your goals for the year ahead for the Global Justice Center?
From where we sit, whether it's here in our offices or in the global context in which we work, we're really seeing backlash against women's rights and women's voices. I think for us, the goal is to continue to do what we can to center conversations on women's voices and women's experiences.
As a 503(c) leader, I'm not allowed to endorse any candidates for president. However, I have been thinking a lot about what's been going on and the difficulties we have in acknowledging misogyny and sexism in our culture and in our world. I think about how much work we have to do to make sure that the voices of a diverse group of women are present in the highest-level policy settings and that policymakers are having their decisions being informed by the needs of women and women's experiences. So for me that’s the overarching goal in addition to all the micro, program-specific, goals that we set on an annual basis.
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