November - 2013

Nicole Lee: A voice of experience on human rights work


Nicole Lee ’02, one of the Law School’s most accomplished alumnae in the area of human rights advocacy, brought a message of inspiration – and some practical tips on working in the field – to the next generation of activists.

Lee is the president of TransAfrica, in Washington, D.C., which advocates on foreign policy issues related to people of African descent worldwide, with emphasis on U.S. trade and aid policies. She spoke to about a dozen students on Oct. 23, at the invitation of SUNY Buffalo Law’s Career Services Office.

As alumni and faculty of the Law School continue to make a difference not just nationally but globally, human rights issues are among the forefront of concern. Lee recounted the history and mission of TransAfrica, and spoke of what it takes to work in this specialized area of legal advocacy.

Importantly, she said, “we work with community groups on the ground. We do not impose our opinions or beliefs.” For example, she said, “I don’t live in Uganda, and I’m not Ugandan. I can’t possibly understand what is the best solution for Uganda. … We talk a lot about amplifying voices from the ground, not speaking for them. There’s no such thing as a voiceless person. Everyone has a voice, everyone has a perspective.”

Her own work in human rights law, Lee said, is “very much rooted in domestic policy work.” That affords her a perspective on the human rights struggles of those on U.S. soil, and, she says, “I’m really glad for that, because there’s no ‘othering’ that can go on, no saying, ‘It’s really messed up over there.’ Because it’s really messed up here as well. Let’s keep in perspective that countries have problems, peoples have problems, communities have problems, and we have to use whatever resources we have to try to help that.”

Lee said she was drawn to SUNY Buffalo Law as a student by the presence of Dean Makau W. Mutua, internationally known in the field of human rights law. During law school she had an internship in South Africa (“very difficult, very unsettling but very good, a great experience in the end”), worked in Haiti for 2½ years, then went to Washington and to TransAfrica as a researcher. When the organization’s president left, she applied for the job: “I was the first person to actually live in the field, and I wanted to bring that experience to the job.”

For those who want to work in global human rights, Lee stressed the old lessons of thorough preparation and hard work. “Luck comes to those who prepare,” she said. “I really want to stress for you to take every opportunity to learn everything you can. We are not gifts to the planet just because we believe in human rights. You really need the skill set to do the work.

… You’re not just learning information, you’re learning how to work. And that’s really important, especially if you’re going to be in leadership. If you know two languages, learn another one. If you know four languages, great! You’re good at languages – keep on learning.”

To her largely female audience, Lee also spoke frankly about the eternal difficulty of balancing family and career, noting that at some nonprofits women encounter pressure not to have children. “I love what I do, but I am not going to let anybody tell me how to run my life,” she said. “I work really, really hard, but when it’s really important for my family, I’m there. It’s a constant juggle, but it’s OK. For me, the fact that I have kids has really enriched my life and it’s also really enriched my work.”

And about the work itself, she said: “There’s a lot of human interaction. I sit on the phone most of the day. I feel like I get very little done except phone calls and emails. It’s all about getting other folks to do what you need them to do. I talk all day. If you don’t like to talk, you can’t do this.”