MHR Alum Constructing Healthier and More Equitable Systems
Join us in celebrating the achievements of Master of Human Rights Program alum Ben Gronowski (2019)! Having graduated with a concentration in Immigration, Displacement, and Socioeconomic Rights, Ben uses his human rights background in his work as a Research Associate with Providence Health and Services. Here, he evaluates health care and social service programs and systems and provides evidence-based insight into the changes that can be made to make them more accessible and equitable.
Ben came to the University of Minnesota as a Master of Human Rights(MHR) Student after engaging with human rights as a Peace Corps Volunteer and as an Investigator with the U.S. Department of Labor in Colorado. Both experiences provided Ben with insight into the overlap between domestic and international human rights issues and how the denial of rights can intersect with and compound on each other.
From 2012 to 2014, Ben served as a Peace Corps Volunteer in the Dominican Republic(DR). During this time he lived in a batey, a community of sugarcane cutters, who are predominantly migrant workers from Haiti, and their families. Through this experience, Ben saw firsthand how the government denied the right to a nationality to Dominicans of Haitian descent and the effects it had on their enjoyment of other rights, such as education, employment, and health care, among others. Ben worked with other volunteers and community members to develop and facilitate a course to help participants better understand their rights and how to navigate the Dominican legal system to obtain identity documents. Through this work, Ben was exposed to the work of other local and international organizations working to defend the right to a nationality and would eventually return to the DR to continue this work as an MHR student during his summer internship.
After Peace Corps, Ben moved to Colorado and worked as an Investigator with the U.S. Department of Labor. In this role, Ben conducted investigations to ensure compliance with minimum wage and overtime laws, family medical leave, child labor, and non-immigrant work visas for temporary workers.
Ben notes that, in this position, he was exposed to some of the human rights issues that he had seen outside of the United States and “realized that there are really pervasive abuses of human rights and human dignity within the States as well.” Ben's exposure to such violations through the enforcement of existing labor laws led him to recognize the limitations of and loopholes present in the frameworks protecting workers’ rights and to begin to think about how to affect meaningful policy change, looking at “why systems are the way they are, why loopholes exist and who benefits from them.”
Having learned about and interacted with human rights issues through his time in Colorado and the Dominican Republic, Ben decided to deepen his understanding of human rights with the Master of Human Rights at the University of Minnesota. Drawn to the flexibility and support offered by the MHR Program, Ben explored his interest in the intersectional nature of human rights issues, adopting a concentration on immigration, displacement, and socioeconomic rights, complemented by a program evaluation minor.
Engaging with human rights work outside of the classroom and returning to his work on statelessness, Ben completed a summer internship with the Institute on Statelessness and Inclusion. Through this experience, Ben returned to the Dominican Republic and worked on a submission for the Universal Periodic Review on the country’s international obligations and shortcomings regarding the right to a nationality. At the end of the summer, Ben had the opportunity to travel to the Netherlands, meet members of his team face-to-face and attend a summer course put on by the Institute for advocates, activists, policy makers and academics looking to learn about statelessness and the right to nationality. Ben further built on this area of interest by writing an article on the intersectionality of the right to a nationality and the right to housing, which was later published.
Since graduating, Ben has dedicated himself to improving access to health care and health equity in the United States. He is interested in “how some of the ideas around socioeconomic rights, especially the right to adequate health and healthcare, play out within the States, especially given that the country has failed to ratify so many human rights treaties.” Through his work, he tries to understand “what it means to talk about health care as a human right.” Immediately after graduation Ben worked as a Policy Analyst with the Colorado Community Health Network. Ben monitored, analyzed, and advocated for policies that would allow community health centers to continue to meet the needs of medically underserved communities. He specifically worked to support policy change related to telehealth and payment reform, to support movement towards a system focused on prevention and population health.
Ben now lives in his home state of Oregon and works as a Research Associate with Providence Health and Services. In this role, Ben evaluates the intersections of health care and other social services with the goal of improving health equity for traditionally underserved populations. In one of his current projects, Ben interviews community health workers and their clients to gain insight into their relationships, the benefit of the program, and the challenges of engaging during COVID-19. Other projects Ben currently works on include evaluating a foundation’s efforts to build and grow community power and how this translates to health outcomes, working with a statewide initiative designed to prevent Adverse Childhood Experiences, and researching disparities in breast cancer screening.
Central to this work are issues of social justice and human rights; knowledge of which Ben gained in his time at the U. Ben is thankful for his nonlinear career path and the role that these experiences and the MHR Program played in shaping his thinking about the complexities of the world and what a more just future might look like.