This interview was conducted over email with Alexandra Wisner, a former Associate Director at the Rachel Carson Council and current MEM Candidate at the Yale School of the Environment, by Gargi Mahadeshwar, a first-year undergraduate student working for the Duke Human Rights Center at the Franklin Humanities Institute. Wisner graduated from Duke in 2018 with a Bachelors of Arts focused in Environmental Science and Policy and the Human Rights Certificate.
Gargi Mahadeshwar (GM): What has been your path to your current position?
Alexandra Wisner (AW): Upon graduation I worked for 2.5 years as the Associate Director for the Rachel Carson Council, a non-profit focused on environmental justice, particularly looking to connect grassroots efforts to federal policy. I now am in graduate school at the Yale School of the Environment, specializing in conflict, peace-building and climate.
GM: Which human rights issues do you engage with most directly and how?
AW: I predominantly deal with the environment/human rights nexus but now also focus on issues of land sovereignty and indigenous rights.
GM: How has your study of/passion for human rights influenced your life personally and professionally?
AW: It has entirely shaped both. Though my background is as an environmentalist, my focus has always been on the implications of environmental movements on human rights, and this focus has led to my current work on conflict and the environment.
GM: Do you see room for improvement in your professional field’s engagement with human rights issues?
AW: Yes. In environmental spheres, more effort needs to be made to deepen stakeholder engagement with broader conservation and climate goals. As has been seen across the globe, achieving environmental goals can result in human rights violations and the ultimate failure of the environmental projects themselves. Further, from the conflict/climate nexus, too often securitization narratives can perverse the necessary work that needs to be done to keep people safe and protect their rights.
GM: What would you recommend to undergraduate students interested in pursuing a career in human rights?
AW: First, know that even if your first job does not explicitly deal with human rights, the framework that you learn from the human rights program at Duke is directly beneficial in the ways in which you can view and understand key issues tackled by your job. Besides this, if you want to pursue a career in human rights, know that it is an incredibly intersectional topic, and you will be benefitted by digging into your specific interests within its broader umbrella. Most importantly though, no matter if you are working locally or in bigger international structures, I cannot underscore the importance of understanding and constantly reflecting on your own positionality in the work you do on issues of human rights.