Stephanie Persson currently works at Children’s Rights, where she represents children in foster care where state child welfare systems have failed them. Prior to this she served as Columbia’s Greater China Public Interest Fellow, working with local NGOs and stakeholders to advocate for improvements in the child welfare system in Hong Kong. She also served as a Visiting Fellow at the University of Hong Kong, where she supervised law students in clinical–style human rights and social justice courses. Stephanie graduated from CLS in 2015, and was awarded the Edwin Parker Prize, as well as a Human Rights Institute leadership commendation. During law school she worked as a student advocate with the Human Rights Clinic and served New York City youth through a variety of internship and volunteer roles. She is originally from the Pacific Northwest and received her B.A. from the University of Washington.
What human rights work are you currently involved in?
I actually just started a new position back in New York. I’m currently working with an organization called Children’s Rights. They do amazing work helping to reform foster care systems around the U.S. The organization uses a variety of tools, but have been especially successful at using class action litigation as a means to fight for children in failing foster care systems.
Up until August I was working in Hong Kong, through a Fellowship opportunity offered at Columbia called the Greater China Public Interest Fellowship. My work there was also centered on children’s rights. I was doing a variety of projects and advocacy work around improving the child welfare system in Hong Kong. Some of that work involved advocating to the legislature around particular pieces of proposed legislation. Some of it was public awareness raising. A big component was helping to create a legal training manual on child welfare law in partnership with a local NGO. The manual is meant to provide a legal “toolbox” for non-lawyers, particularly social workers, to be better advocates for children in their care.
I also helped to teach clinical-style human rights courses to undergraduate law students, which was a lot of fun. I loved working with the students and it was a great chance for me to brush up on my own human rights knowledge. There is no better way of ensuring you know a subject than being forced to teach it.
In what ways were you involved in human rights during your time at Columbia Law School?
I was lucky enough to get to participate in a lot of different human rights programs and opportunities while I was at CLS. My 1L year I participated in HRIP and spent the summer in Beijing researching juvenile justice reform. My 2L year I joined a Spring Break Caravan to South Africa, where we did field research on the right to education. That year, I also attended the Salzburg Cutler Law Fellows Program, a conference that supports student scholarship on international law, where I was able to workshop a paper based on my HRIP summer internship. My 3L year I worked with the Human Rights Clinic, which was an intensive deep dive into human rights work. My team worked on a project investigating the impacts of a gold mine in Papua New Guinea and spent time on the ground in PNG conducting interviews and field research, which was an incredible learning opportunity.
I’m also equally interested in domestic human rights issues, so I tried to balance these international projects with work closer to home. I interned at The Door, doing Special Immigrant Juvenile Status (SIJS) applications, and at the Juvenile Rights Practice of the Legal Aid Society, working on child welfare and juvenile delinquency cases.
Throughout law school I was also involved in various student groups like Rightslink and Civil Rights Law Society, as well as the Human Rights Working Group, an informal group of students that got together to advocate for a better human rights community at the law school. I think participating in those student groups, as well as in opportunities like the Clinic, were so important for me in terms of meeting other like-minded students and building up a support network.
What motivates you to be a human rights lawyer?
Although we often equate the law with “justice,” in so many cases the law itself allows for or causes injustice. I think I initially chose to attend law school because I was interested in the impact the law has on the lives of individuals and communities and the ways in which the law itself can be discriminatory or harmful towards certain groups. I wanted the tools to understand how and why particular laws and legal systems were created and how to advocate for something better.
Having a legal education provides you with this incredible set of tools and position of power. It allows you to be an advocate for those whose voices may not otherwise be getting adequately heard. I’ve always been particularly interested in the law's effects on those who have the least voice within particular systems or power structures. In my case, this has led me to focus on children’s rights and particularly the child welfare and juvenile delinquency systems.
What advice would you have for students interested in pursuing a career in human rights?
Pursue what inspires you. Law students face so much pressure to do everything “right.” We feel pressure to join the right student groups, be on the right journal, do exactly the right internships, and to get the right job post-graduation. For those people interested in pursuing a career in human rights and social justice, I think doing everything “right” is far less important that doing something you feel passionately about. As law students and as lawyers we already have to work insane hours on stressful projects. If you are working on something you care about, not only will it seem less daunting but, frankly, you’ll probably work harder at it, learn more, and do better work.
In that same spirit, don’t just be a passive cog in the law school wheel. Once you find something you’re passionate about, seek out opportunities to pursue it. If it isn’t currently available at CLS, find ways to do it anyway. If you are going to be an advocate for human rights, you might as well start by advocating to get the most out of your own education and law school experience.