Right after earning his bachelor’s from Columbia University, Gara LaMarche took his first full-time job in the New York office of the American Civil Liberties Union. In the four decades since, he’s helped lead the ACLU, Human Rights Watch, PEN American Center, the Open Society Foundation, and the Atlantic Philanthropies. He’s seen the landscape continually shifting, and in “Reflections on the Human Rights Movement,” a Berger lecture delivered on November 5 at Myron Taylor Hall, he shared his perspective on a career in human rights.
“Lawyers have always been very important in this movement, because at its root, human rights is a set of moral values grounded in ancient traditions and codified in law,” said LaMarche, president of Democracy Alliance. “When I talk to law students, I find that people have a real hunger to use their legal skills to make a better world. The changing nature of legal practices means the path to this kind of work may not be as clear as it once was, but there remains an enormous need for lawyers.”
Looking back, he described the infancy of the movement in the civil rights struggle, its growth to adulthood in the progressive politics of the 1980s and ’90s, and its current, primarily professional, place in a global network of organizations. Through it all, he sees the needle of human freedom moving slowly in the right direction, though issues grow steadily more complex and solutions more difficult to obtain.
“Increasingly, our students understand themselves to be global citizens, and their education needs to prepare them for that,” says Laura Spitz, associate dean for international affairs and executive director of the Clarke Center for International and Comparative Legal Studies. “Bringing speakers to campus to draw students into global conversations is a critical component of students’ learning. That’s what the Berger speaker series aims to do, and Gara LaMarche’s contribution was especially important because he was able to put students’ current knowledge of human rights into a broader, global and historical context.”