Points Of Leverage
Most students take advantage of their spring break to get some rest and recuperate for the end of the semester, but not 1st year Masters of Human Rights student Ben Gronowski. Ben joined law students and the James H. Binger Center for New Americans on a trip to rural Minnesota and South Dakota to work with immigrants who were in need of legal assistance. The students worked with individuals who were in county jails, as well as families in a variety of community settings, doing “Know Your Rights” trainings and completing intakes to connect individuals seeking assistance with pro bono lawyers.
Ben was struck with how the limited access to legal assistance for undocumented peoples, particularly in rural settings, creates barriers to their enjoyment of human rights, specifically their civil and political rights, like the right to due process, which, in turn creates stressors to their education and health. This trip allowed Ben to take some of the information he is learning in his classes and apply it in the field. For example, Ben is currently taking Immigration, Health, and Public Policy and Human Rights Advocacy courses, and he highlighted how the barriers to accessing care for migrant populations, the complexity of the asylum process and navigating the legal system have all been a topics of the former, and family separation in detention has been a theme in the latter.
Overall, the criminality assigned to immigrating people was a huge takeaway for Ben. Seeing undocumented peoples who had been picked up for immigration-related crimes, such as “unauthorized re-entry”, in the same county jails and cells with American citizens who’d committed arguably more serious felony crimes, was eye-opening. In the end, Ben stated he was happy that, even without a background in immigration law, he was able to provide relevant information and resources as well as contributing to the group effort to potentially provide relief to these individuals in a very uncertain and difficult time in their lives.
Working in advocacy has always interested Ben. Before coming to the U of M for his Masters, Ben volunteered in the Dominican Republic with the Peace Corps, focusing on education and issues of statelessness. Ben worked with the local community to develop materials so they could be “advocates in their own communities for human rights.” Issues of statelessness, forced displacement, migration and marginalized communities are threaded throughout Ben’s work and life experiences; from Peace Corps, through working as an Investigator for the U.S. Department of Labor and now in graduate school.
Ben chose to pursue a Master of Human Rights at the University of Minnesota because of the uniqueness of the program, its flexibility in developing a concentration, and the tangible skills students gain in the program. Ben feels his graduate program has taught him to “figure out points of leverage to actually create change.”
This summer Ben will continue to combine the skills he is learning in class with his passion for advocacy through an internship with the Institute on Statelessness and Inclusion. Working in the US, the Netherlands, and a third country, likely the Dominican Republic, Ben will focus on the issue of statelessness. Ben highlighted how the concepts of displacement and statelessness intersect in a unique way, in that, “one can be stateless without moving anywhere.”
Overall, Ben expressed how appreciative he is of faculty and staff of the Human Rights Program and U of M, and for the opportunities and dedication they have shown him and other graduate students. Remarking on all of the different experiences he’s been able to have, Ben stated, “Advocacy in one form or another is important to me” and he is excited to now “develop these skills in a more systematic and methodological way.”