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EP15 Human Rights Clinic with Lauren Pesso
Deborah Onakomaiya: Hey, guys and welcome to another episode of I AM GPH. I'm your host Deborah Onakomaiya. On the show today we have Lauren Pesso who was the former Program Director of the Human Rights Clinic at HealthRight International. Lauren was responsible for overseeing the Human Rights Clinic work, providing forensic and case management services to migrants fleeing torture and other human rights abuses. Lauren has worked for over a decade to address the health and wellbeing of vulnerable populations in the United States and abroad. Prior to working at HealthRight, she developed and oversaw the expansion of an anti human trafficking program in New York and has coordinated gender based violence research studies and a variety of maternal and reproductive health programs. Lauren also teaches an online class on migrant health and human rights. Lauren holds a master's in social work and a master's of public administration from Columbia University. Let's go to our conversation with her. Oh, thank you so much Lauren Pesso for being on our show today. It's great to have you on our podcast.
Lauren Pesso: Oh, thank you. I'm so happy to be here.
Deborah Onakomaiya: Yeah, so let's dive right in. So you're currently at HealthRight, and you're the Director for the Health and Human Rights Clinic. Could you just tell me a little bit about the Health and Human Rights Clinic?
Lauren Pesso: Yeah, Sure. So our Human Rights Clinic at HealthRight International is actually the organization's longest running program. So it was started in 1993, initially in partnership with Montefiore Medical Center, which is up in the Bronx. And our organization was then called Doctors of the World USA. And we trained a group of medical residents to provide what are called forensic evaluations for immigrant survivors of torture and other human rights abuses who were seeking relief here in the United States. So protection usually through asylum, but also through other forms of immigration relief. And the program expanded over many years since then. So, now we train and deploy a network of hundreds of medical and mental health volunteers who evaluate asylum seekers. Basically trying to document when possible the signs or sequelae of trauma and abuse on survivors’ physical health and mental health. And then this is really important for asylum claims, and this work supports clients’ immigration cases and is often the only documentation they have of the abuses they suffered, which they need in order to document whether they're deserving of asylum here in the US. So this is the Human Rights Clinic. It's not a physical clinic, but we've operated over the years across many locations around the US and we currently focus our work here in the New York metro area. So working with volunteer clinicians in New York, New Jersey, Connecticut, Pennsylvania. And we've had a case management component of this work too. So immigrant clients who receive evaluations through our volunteer clinicians will be assessed for other health needs and connected with local resources in their communities. So the work is frankly more important now-
Deborah Onakomaiya: Than ever.
Lauren Pesso: Than ever. Yeah. But it's longstanding, ongoing work of HealthRight.
Deborah Onakomaiya: And I mean, you touched a little bit on the importance of this. Why is this work so important, especially in this political climate that we find ourselves in?
Lauren Pesso: Yeah. I mean, I don't think it's an exaggeration to say that in the US right now, immigrants and refugees and asylum seekers, I think the health and wellbeing and rights of these populations is really under attack. I don't think that's an exaggeration. And so, we know for example, with people seeking asylum in this country who basically have to prove that they were persecuted in their home countries and that they fear returning home, the current administration's policies are becoming much more strict around asylum laws, and fewer people seeking asylum may be let in to even go through the pretty arduous process of requesting asylum. More asylum seekers are being detained at immigrant detention centers for longer periods of time. They have to bring more proof of their claims. And so I think the work that we do really is critical. It's always been critical given the immigration policies in our country and the way the system works. But I'd say now probably more than ever, at least in... Since I've been working with immigrants and survivors of human rights abuses, this work is important now more than ever.
Deborah Onakomaiya: Yeah. And I mean, based off of what you just said, how are you guys able to adjust to these new restrictions and how has that impacted your work in any way? Are you trying to conduct the work through a different lens or like how have you guys able to adapt?
Lauren Pesso: Yeah, I know it's a good question and I think today as we're talking, I think the policies that impact our work and the work of others working with and on behalf of immigrants and survivors of human rights abuses. These policies are changing every day, and so sometimes it feels hard to keep up and hard to know exactly what adjustments to make just because everything's changing pretty rapidly. And I don't know if anyone really knows what's happening day to day. But that being said, I mean I think we... Our program offers a fairly specific service in the broader world of immigrant health and also we're working with survivors of torture and abuse. We're able to adjust in terms of the training that we provide, the volunteers that we work with. So for example, over the last few years, more and more immigrant children and particularly unaccompanied immigrant children from Central America were coming to the US in larger numbers. And typically our program had served largely an adult population. We were able to adjust our training and bring in people who were child development experts to... And we recruited a network of child development and adolescent health experts who could then evaluate this new population and we're going to continue to do that. It does take some time. Sometimes we rely... We have to get funding from donors to make changes in our program, but we try and be nimble and address the needs as we see them. We're also in anticipation of having more of the clients that we serve being detained in immigration detentions. I mean, one of the things that we've been talking about with a number of different partners is how do we get more volunteer clinicians who are able and willing to go into detention centers? And this is a part we've always done some of that work. We've always had clinicians go to detention centers, but we need more. So we're talking with partners about, "Okay, how can we train and recruit more people to do that work, because it's a good chance a lot more of the populations that we care about and serve are going to be based in detention centers, and we want to be able to meet their needs."
Deborah Onakomaiya: And I mean that's really important. Mentioning these detention centers, are you only focusing on the Northeast of the US or is this working international or?
Lauren Pesso: The work of our Human Rights Clinic is focused in the US, for us exclusively. And like I said before, we are focusing our work right now in the New York metro region, but we've worked in other places at other times and to some extent it's a matter of resources and also finding partners and other areas that we can work and collaborate with. So, while I'd say for now our focus remains in the New York area where there are a number of detention centers where immigrants, including asylum seekers are being held. So there's a need certainly here in our own backyard. I wouldn't close off the option that we might engage in other places where there's high need outside of New York. But I think for the most part, our work is focused here in the US, just because our expertise is training clinicians to document human rights abuses for a very particular purpose, which is for immigration relief here in the US.
Deborah Onakomaiya: And I mean shifting gears a little bit, you do teach a class on health and human rights, which is the field that you're currently working in. Can you speak a little bit about that class and ultimately what are students going to gain out of that class in terms of knowledge or skills in health and human rights?
Lauren Pesso: Yeah. I feel lucky. I was invited to design a class and then co-teach it last year for the first time. And it's an online, fully online course called Perspectives in the Health and Human Rights of Migrants. And even though it's fully online, which frankly I had never done. I'd never even taken an online course, let alone design and teach one. So it was definitely a steep learning curve and I got a lot of support from NYU and from other colleagues. But despite it being fully online, the goal... And I think we achieved this goal, I hope so, was to really have it serve as a forum for students to, yes to gain some theoretical knowledge, but also to really be exposed to a number of different practitioners and people working in the field of migration, health and human rights. To get a sense of what are the issues that they're facing in their job? How did they... What were their career trajectories? How did they get into this field? How did they begin working with the populations that they're working with? What do they like about the work? And we also present a number of case studies where students are engaging with real world examples of working with particular migrant populations and the assignments are meant to be practical. So, students will write a grant proposal, they'll do an informational interview with the practitioner and also do some self reflection on their own migration histories and stories. And the goal here was to really address what I felt when I was in graduate school, were some of my needs in terms of my classes, because I think the theoretical is really important and we need that basis. But we're all in professional programs. We're looking to figure out, "Well, what can I do in this field or in these various fields I'm interested in?" And so hopefully this is an opportunity for people to get a sense of different pathways that people take. And we focus on a few key migrant populations just as examples of groups that students might end up working with because there's a lot of interest and frankly funding to support some of these populations. So survivors of torture, survivors of human trafficking, unaccompanied immigrant children and refugees and asylum seekers. So those are the populations we focus on.
Deborah Onakomaiya: You've been working in this field for a long time. What inspired you to get involved especially in this line of work? For some people hearing these stories of torture or even like a migrant's journey from one place to the destination country can be very jarring or can be very traumatic even for the listener. What drives your passion for continuing this work?
Lauren Pesso: I'm a social worker by training and I think I've always been interested in issues related to trauma and to healing and mental health and I'm sure there are some deep seated reasons why that's true that maybe I haven't even fully explored. But I've really... Whether I've been working in a global health setting or a more social service setting, the issues that have always interested me most have been about people who've experienced traumatic events and find ways to recover and working towards that with and on behalf of clients and programs that are really helping people heal. That's always been an interest. And I think you're right. I mean, I get asked that question all the time when I tell people what I do. And when they hear the word torture, I think people say, "Oh my God, how do you do that?" "How do you hear those stories and how do you read those stories all the time?" "That sounds so intense." And it is, and in my role right now, I'm not working directly with clients for the most part. So in one way that sort of helps protect me a little bit I think from the intensity, although my colleagues are consistently reading stories of torture and clients’ affidavits and hearing their stories. So, I'm hearing about that through my colleagues and the staff that I work with. But for me, I think it's always been helpful to have kind of a foot in the direct service world. So we've had a case management program that's working with clients to not only to get them legal status but help connect them with other resources. And I think there are real opportunities to be helpful in doing that kind of direct service work. But I've also always been interested in more sort of bigger picture programming, evaluation, thinking about some of the bigger questions. And so for me, finding a balance between working directly with clients and also working on programming issues and with colleagues and partners and developing new programs. That's been a way that I think I've found to strike a balance and stay engaged in the work. And I care very much about these populations, but also to have a little bit of a remove sometimes as well.
Deborah Onakomaiya: Yeah, I mean that's very important. And the work you do, especially at this time is extremely important. Every day we hear of human rights violations around the world. Even here at home in the United States, we hear different stories, people's journeys. For students or even just everyday people that want to get involved, especially in this field, what steps can they take to actually get involved to make a difference in, even if it's just one person's life? How can they get involved?
Lauren Pesso: Yeah. I actually started my work with survivors of torture actually as a volunteer more than a decade ago with an excellent organization also affiliated with NYU, the Bellevue/NYU Program for Survivors of Torture. And at the time, and this still may be true. They were looking for volunteers who would be a literacy tutor for immigrant survivors of torture. That wasn't something I hadn't taught English or ESL before and I was working in public health, really unrelated. But I felt like it was something that I could do with one person and sitting with one person, not ever talking with them about their trauma or their torture, but just trying to help them get connected in their local community and build skills that are going to help them really make a life here. And that was really powerful work and I did it for a couple of years. It ultimately was what interested me in going back to graduate school and to get a social work degree. But I think there are opportunities like that exist today in a number of organizations. I can share some that I'm familiar with. And sometimes I think it's wonderful when we can use our skills, our public health skills or other clinical or research skills in support of these important issues. And absolutely I hope many of the students listening will go on to do that. But even if we're working in very different fields, I think there are a lot of opportunities that we can take as a volunteer to create safe and welcoming communities for immigrants particularly vulnerable immigrants like asylum seekers and refugees. And a couple of organizations I can share that I know are doing really great work. The Refugee & Immigrant Fund, which is in Queens that I believe engages volunteers and they work with asylum seekers in New York City. There's the First Friends of New York & New Jersey, which engages volunteers to visit with asylum seekers who are in detention facilities. And the New York Immigration Coalition is doing amazing advocacy work here in New York, and Make the Road New York is doing that as well. I think it's a challenging time, but there's a huge amount of need both professionally in terms of getting good research, good data on migrant health issues. There's a lack of data and I think we need to contest some of what we're hearing politically that's really anti-immigrant and anti-refugee. I think one of the best ways we can contest that is with better data and research and storytelling. So there are opportunities also to provide healthcare. If you want to work in direct service healthcare. For those of you who are clinicians, there's a huge need, not only for healthcare of immigrants, but also the care of the people who are on the front lines advocating right now. I've been seeing a lot of requests for mental health services for immigration advocates. I mean, this isn't a new area. So, there's a great amount of need and I think it could sound depressing, but it also means there's a lot of opportunities for people to get engaged.
Deborah Onakomaiya: Yeah. I mean the work alone, helping someone out brings I'm sure some form of joy to you especially in that field. Finally, I would really want to ask, who are your human rights inspirations? It's like, who do you look up to in the human rights world?
Lauren Pesso: Yeah, I mean, I think some of the organizations I mentioned that are operating right here in New York. I mean, I'm inspired all the time by their staff, by their advocates, by the work they're doing day in and day out. I mean, I have a local city council member who's just on the streets it feels like on every issue related to human rights that's important here in New York City, I feel like he's out there and that's inspiring. And then the clients that my program works with. I mean many of these people, they were human rights advocates in their home countries and that's why they suffered human rights abuses. And even if they weren't advocating for human rights in their country, if they were violated for other reasons. The amount it took to get to this country and seek protection in the way that they're doing is incredible. I don't know that I could do that myself. I haven't been tested in that way. And I'm inspired all the time just thinking about what it's taken for somebody to experience torture, human rights abuses, leave their home, leave everything they knew, come here to the United States often to conditions that maybe even are worse than what they left and really try to make a life. I mean, that is inspiring.
Deborah Onakomaiya: Well, thank you so much for being on our show.
Lauren Pesso: My pleasure. Thanks so much for having me.