Living Out a Dream — Abroad
Law professor Catherine Powell takes interest in human rights to Israel
By Kendra Hamilton
The faint of heart might think Catherine Powell, professor of law at New York’s Fordham University and former executive director of Columbia University’s Human Rights Institute, has chosen an odd location to bear her first child: Jerusalem.
But Powell’s work as a human rights warrior — suing, along with her students, the United States and China for human rights violations; winning clemency for Kemba Smith, the Hampton University student sentenced to 25 years in prison for a minor role in her boyfriend’s drug trafficking ring — reveal her to be anything but faint of heart, and she maintains an upbeat attitude about life in the Middle East.
“It’s not as bad as it seems on CNN,” she says, adding, “There’s a sense of calm here” that Americans would find quite surprising.
Indeed, both for Powell, who won a Soros Senior Fellowship from the Open Society Institute to support her sojourn in Israel, and for her husband, Mark Quarterman, who’s the chief staffer for the U.N. special envoy to the Middle East peace process, there could not be a more exciting time to be in Jerusalem.
“My project involves looking at the role of human rights organizations in the debate about the U.S. war on terrorism,” Powell says. “Because Israel is also involved in a war on terrorism, there are a lot of similar issues.
“So even though on the one hand it’s a time of anxiety because of the conflict here and the anticipated war against Iraq, on the other hand it’s also a useful time. I’m gathering a lot of information.”
For Powell, the work in Israel constitutes the final phase, the scholarship phase, of what has been a three-stage project. Powell began with a concern that had animated much of her work at Columbia’s Human Rights Institute: what she perceived as the failure of domestic civil rights law and rhetoric to adequately incorporate the law and rhetoric of the international human rights movement.
After attending a retreat inspired by the 1995 World Conference on Women in Beijing, a project began taking shape in Powell’s mind. The project encompassed an advocacy component, undertaken by Powell and her students, followed by a video component.
“Do you remember ‘Schoolhouse Rock?’ ” Powell asks, before launching into a snatch of the “Three-Ring Government” song. “That’s how I learned about the three branches of government,” she explains, laughing at the tenacity of her memory.
“So my idea, inspired by ‘Schoolhouse Rock’ and this multifaceted retreat that was exploring all sorts of ways to frame a conversation about these issues, was to find a way to educate young people about human rights using hip hop and popular culture.”
Powell got a small seed grant, and she and her students partnered with Witness, an advocacy group co-founded by rocker Peter Gabriel after the Los Angeles riots to use video to document human rights abuses that fly beneath the radar of conventional media. The result was “Books Not Bars,” a 21-minute video about a youth-led campaign of the same name.
Featuring the music of Dead Prez, “which I had never heard of, but my students insisted was hot,” Powell says, and Sweet Honey in the Rock, the video tells the story of a small group of California students who mobilized to stop construction of a “super-sized” detention facility for juveniles. The campaign is about to go national, and MTV has agreed to screen the video to support the campaign.
While Powell is proud of the work she did at Columbia, her focus is firmly on the present. As the daughter of a civil rights lawyer in Washington, D.C., “where a lot of our community was with the World Bank or foreign diplomats, I was really torn between an international career and a career in domestic human rights,” she says. So living abroad is living out a dream — both for Powell and her husband.
In Israel, she has the fellowship to sustain her as well as a visiting professorship at Hebrew University. “I work there and work on my writing. Having had the time to work on my writing has really been precious,” she says.
She’s particularly grateful for the head start this concentrated writing time is giving her on her new job — as a tenure-track professor in Fordham University’s law school and, possibly, co-director of its Crowley Human Rights Center.
With the completed project, Powell will have made a significant contribution to legal scholarship. Indeed, it was the potential to identify a scholarly and human rights “language to use internationally and in social justice at home” that attracted Powell to the work.
And so far, Jerusalem seems a fruitful environment for the young scholar.
“People on both sides of the conflict are very opinionated,” Powell says. “And unlike the picture that we get through the American media, I’m finding there’s such a wide range of opinion in Israeli society alone … It’s been fascinating.”
But is she having fun?
“I don’t know if ‘fun’ is the right word, but unlike living in New York City, where everything is very fast paced and it’s hard to slow down to reflect and spend time with people you care about, I have had time to spend time with people here, to get to know people — and a wide range of people: Israelis, Palestinians, people I’ve met in the expatriate community.”
But right now, Powell’s focus is on her pregnancy. She’s due any day now.
“Basically, our parents are all just hoping the baby gets here before the war does,” she says.
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