Where to now?

I’ve wanted to go to law school since I was 13 years old. The reasons have varied, crossed, and vanished, but after serving as a Research Intern for Accountability Counsel this Summer, I know for sure that’s where my path is leading me.

At first it was about the prestige and money. My family certainly has never been wealthy and traveling anywhere has always been difficult. My uncle, a law school graduate, frequently traveled to the US from his home in Japan with my cousins and the rest of his family. My whitewashed, capitalist understanding of the world saw his degree as the key to freedom – the key to money and power. My children would never experience a life feeling inadequate to their peers or trapped by the confines of their socioeconomic status if I were an attorney like my uncle.

It quickly became about access. After the election of our most recent President in 2016, I felt determined to make a difference in the world of politics, bringing attention to the systemic barriers faced by myself and those around me. As a white man in the South, I felt personally responsible to enact change, amplify previously othered voices, and build in institutional changes that I knew would create good. Law school would contextualize the political world and open up connections to people who may listen to me and my ideas for change.

But it then became about knowledge. Experience organizing for my Unitarian Universalist church, which was largely white, and then witnessing the stark disparities between those organizing out of need and those out of availability in Chapel Hill, taught me to reconsider why I wanted law school. Was it about money, power, and prestige? Was it about using those resources as access to the political realm, even if for good? Would that even be the right place for a person like me? Or should it be about gaining and sharing valuable information to those in need – counseling people that are in direct communication with governments so responsible for violent oppression? At the time and today, I felt it was right to strive towards the latter.

And for the first time ever, I faltered in my determination to go to law school. Upon reaching Duke, a slew of classes helped lift a veil about the effectiveness of institutions that had been socialized into me by my family and my upbringing in Chapel Hill. Through classes on race, disability, systemic injustice, and poverty, it became clear how pivotal attorneys are to solidifying the institutions that oppress. If our understanding is that the U.S. government and its institutions must be rebuilt entirely, then is studying American law, making minor improvements, and providing validation to it with my degree any good?

Finally, it became about real, tangible change. After this Summer at Accountability Counsel, I understand just how endless the possibilities are with a degree in law. Conversations with attorneys at AC have inspired me to continue pursuing my interests in law and to carry on ignoring pulls towards work that is corporate, detached, and out of touch.

Researching so many internationally financed projects, it’s clear that law is harmful unless it is rooted in the needs and desires of those that it impacts most. And so long as those laws exist and continue to be implemented, attorneys will be needed to dismantle and amend them. While such a process may render the institution stronger in the future, people need and request legal help now and a degree in law carries valuable resources that can quite literally save the lives of those not receiving their due rights. I’ve seen it first hand at AC around the globe, and I hope I can continue working towards that same end.

Who Makes the Decisions

Source: News & Observer

One of the most common threads among the complaints filed with a bank’s accountability mechanisms is the lack of approval from the community that the project will impact. The consent and disclosure issue filter reveals nearly four hundred complaints filed concerning a lack consent from the impacted community. Hydroelectric dams, trade routes, and water sanitation projects are frequent examples of internationally financed projects that seek to improve the livelihoods and capacities of underdeveloped communities, yet often fail to consider their stated needs.

The difference between the actual and the named stakeholders in many of these projects elucidates just how easy it was for them to miss their mark. While a massive infrastructure project so obviously impacts the surrounding communities, it isn’t often that their approval is sought before the project begins. To a large extent, stakeholders are considered from a distant, corporate perspective, only truly including those that are financing or being financed.

In Durham, we’ve seen how frustrating and damaging a lack of inclusion in project stakeholders can be when we saw the light-rail project shut down late 2019. Despite overwhelming community support for the rail project connecting UNC to Duke to NC Central, Duke retracted their commitment, inciting a collapse of the project altogether.

Two sides of the same coin demonstrate why exclusion in the project stakeholders creates disparaging impacts on the most vulnerable members of the community. In Durham our lack of public transportation puts strain on the ability of workers to commute cost effectively around the Durham-Chapel Hill area. Around the globe, infrastructure projects seeking to alleviate those same issues, yet without the consent or the community, create physical and economic barriers that render the project useless, and actually, harmful.

Time and time again, my internship with Accountability Counsel has demonstrated the importance of taking a community-based approach to addressing international harms, but how does that apply to my experience this Summer concerning Duke?

The most obvious pressing issue is the impact of the student body’s partial transition back to Durham in two weeks, despite the ever-expanding threat of covid-19. Even with the 30% reduction of on campus-living, students are slated to pour into campus and the surrounding neighborhoods, potentially causing an upswing in infections. What does a community-based approach to that transition look like?  Is it just avoiding parties, wearing masks, and social distancing? Or does it require us to reconsider our moves to Durham altogether, for those of us who can? What is the Durham community asking of us and who are we letting speak on their behalf?

Justice-oriented project work at Duke has soared over the Summer in pre-established organizations, newly founded ones, and individuals themselves. As a recent member of the Executive Team for Duke Student Government, many of these projects have come across our table, providing valuable lessons in our understanding of stakeholders as Duke students – lessons that have only come more into focus as my internship has progressed towards the Fall.

As a facilitator of project work that doesn’t always impact me directly, it is imperative that I take a critical understanding to who is considered a stakeholder, especially when the impacts of student government’s work reach far beyond our physical campus. When and if the semester commences amidst a pandemic, my role as VP of the Services and Sustainability Committee requires that I take a novel approach to including all the various stakeholders in decisions, projects, and goals my committee sets.

With privilege and power, I must be cautious of how I use it, even if I believe I’m helping. Duke’s decision to terminate the light-rail and a development bank’s decision to fund a project may have seemingly valiant goals. Yet, a thorough look at the inclusion of the impacted community in the project’s construction will reveal boundless ways that project facilitators and organizers can improve upon their commitment to people in need. Such an understanding and application to Duke is paramount to building a better university and supporting an even better city.

More than Just a Task Force

Ah, bureaucracy. We all know far too well that when a problem arises at a university or any other major institution, the administration makes a task force.

A tweet by @realbigv1 reads: “universities be like ‘our department of offices will create a task force to launch a committee dedicated to having ongoing conversations about steps towards knowing a spot.’”

Being a student at Duke, we know this language is not that far off from our unfortunately frequent emails sent by administration, responding to acts of hate but seeking only to affirm their commitment to diversity and inclusion, make a task force, and put their recommendations away on a shelf. After consistent acts of racist hate, the university did exactly this with the 2016 Task Force on Bias and Hate Issues, which even toyed with the idea of a university crash course partially dedicated to Duke’s racist history, a project which remains unactualized today.

Duke is not alone in this, though. Around the globe, accountability is so often curated by those in power to be something they can address at their own leisure and discretion. My most recent research at Accountability Counsel has proven just how widespread and damaging disingenuous accountability can truly be to vulnerable groups.

Over the past few weeks, I sifted through well over a thousand complaints filed with internationally financed projects to create a more comprehensive categorization framework in our Accountability Console. Each complaint follows a similar path through a bank’s accountability mechanism, but ultimately the decision to change the project is up to the bank’s board. And more often than it should, the board chooses to ignore the recommendations of the accountability mechanism, citing their own argument for why the complaint is invalid and filing the recommendations away.

Almost surprisingly, project site visits are a typical step in the process of accountability to gauge just to what extent the project has damaged, but witnessing human rights violations is not so often translated to tangible change. Relying heavily on the evidentiary documents provided by the bank itself, problematic practices sometimes go seen, but ignored by those that conduct site visits.

Again, we’ve seen this before both at Duke and beyond. Duke has had its fair share of site visits to the concepts and flaws students bring to the university’s attention either through organized protests regarding acts of hate or concerted efforts by impacted students. Task forces on hate, the Provost Forum on Immigration, and Living While Black are all striking examples of the university’s efforts to publicly consider making changes to and engaging with their role in oppressive systems, but resigning from taking too many steps past that.

But like the board management of banks, the problem becomes seemingly invisible once a conversation is had – a brief visit to the complaint, a well-documented consideration, and a highly unrecognized failure to act.

How can we host a forum on immigration that consists mostly of white, male descendants of Europeans expressing disdain for the changing demographics of the United States, all during a spike in ICE raids in Durham? Or while Duke is still not a sanctuary campus, despite repeated demands? At what point do the conversations, site visits, and task forces become institutional change?

All this would undoubtedly be another story if the groups who have been harmed were integral to the process of assigning and choosing to enforce accountability. If Indigenous communities decided how to address their own forced eviction, or if marginalized students decided how to hold administration accountable for permitting hate crimes to go uninvestigated, perhaps we’d see a world quicker to account for the needs of its people.

It should be noted that these two examples face drastically different backdrops and yet, they are bound together under a global issue. The systems of capitalist, Eurocentric, racist power distribution exist everywhere and it seems clear to me that all those who hold such power, including myself, struggle to authentically do the work to keep themselves accountable.

To be a bit cliché, Assata Shakur expressed, “Nobody in the world, nobody in history, has ever gotten their freedom by appealing to the moral sense of people who were oppressing them.”

Returning to Duke next month it’s unclear how my understanding of Duke’s permitted levels of self-accountability will develop. It’s difficult for students to balance all that they do with attempting to hold administration accountable for change, but there are groups doing the work, including but certainly not limited to, the Duke Black Coalition Against Policing and the Duke Grad Student Union.

Above all, even if I seemingly lack the capacity, I understand it is my responsibility to work towards a campus environment in which administration holds students accountable for individual changes and, in return, we hold them accountable for institutional change. We all know far too well that if it were up to just those in power, accountability would go nowhere.

Why Do We Work So Much?

This past Thursday during our weekly check-in, the Kenan Pathways of Change Fellows discussed social media, its role in supporting or dismantling social justice movements, and the kind of labor we put into our social media presence. Notably, we considered whether our labor toward social media should be paid.

Source: Flickr

We put hours (sometimes each *day*) towards curating our social media accounts, creating posts, engaging with content, providing data for algorithms, and so much more. It can be exhausting. Community organizers do even more to engage with online content and communities.  Without it, social media quite literally wouldn’t exist. So, should we/they be paid for it? What other kinds of labor are we doing that’s unpaid?

It’s widely known that women are tasked with maintaining the fabric of society. Whether that’s sustaining a family, providing emotional attention to loved ones, or taking care of the home, women often do these things unpaid and all the time. In recent decades, more white women have entered the work force. But as women (of color, often) stay home or in the homes of white families to cook and clean and white men travel to business jobs, the critical role unpaid/underpaid social labor plays in capitalism becomes all the more visible. Who Cooked Adam Smith’s Dinner was integral in bringing about this realization in me.

A significant chunk of Accountability Counsel’s workers are unpaid interns and fellows. Obviously, a massive social media company operates quite differently from a 30 person NGO, but the underlying frameworks might transcend organization altogether as a manifestation of capitalism. Why is so much of the elite college experience predicated off unpaid internships and labor?

My first Summer as a Duke student I served as an unpaid campaign and finance intern for Josh Stein for NC Attorney General three days a week. I had to keep up my job at a local pool to account for the lack of pay, working seven days a week, despite interning 8 hours a day for half of those. I took two days total off from work while at home that Summer.

Fortunately, my bosses acknowledged we were unpaid and commuting to Raleigh each day we were there. They would let us leave if we needed, take longer lunch breaks, and encouraged us to take time we needed for our health. This open benevolence is rarely the case for unpaid internships, though.

My story is not dissimilar from many students who cannot participate in unpaid internships without some type of outside funding. Fortunately enough for me, Kenan provides Summer funding for the placement of its Pathways Fellows – not enough that I don’t still seek out other funds, but certainly enough to acknowledge the efforts of my labor. Thanks to the gated privilege of Summer internship funding, it seems that unpaid labor is both a massive privilege and a force of oppression. Because many elite or accredited internships are unpaid, they exclude a large swath of students who cannot afford to sacrifice their time, encouraging wealthier students to participate in internships that set them up for a life of generous earnings.

Accountability Counsel has not done much to acknowledge the fact that we are all unpaid by them, most likely because unpaid interns are standard for the world of small NGOs, but they have created an experience that is rewarding nonetheless. Two weeks ago, I learned the basics of the Python coding language. This week and all others, I am learning valuable information about the world of international accountability, the key stakeholders in these conversations, and best practices for operating an organization around law, data, and human rights. Our department game nights help me create genuine connections with my coworkers, despite the circumstances of the pandemic.

But I wonder… should we all just get paid for all our labor? It almost feels wrong to demand pay for things that traditionally go unpaid, but in a world where we have no choice about the importance of money in everything we do, maybe getting paid for all our labor is right. Maybe the hours devoted to social media should be paid for. Maybe we should get paid for cleaning our homes, caring for our loved ones, and any other work that is foundational for society’s continuation. Maybe this is one of many ways we can address massive gender and racial inequity.

With a recession, a global pandemic, and a massive capitalist regime, I don’t expect AC to start paying every one of its interns, or even for AC to restructure unpaid interns out of their work. I do, however, hope that one day unpaid labor is no longer a choice at all.

Until then, I hope we start taking time for ourselves – time away from the labor of social media, our homes, and our internships that often work us too hard – and really, truly evaluate what we’re worth. I can guarantee, it’s far more than what anyone is being paid.


Doing No Harm

During a conversation with Research Director, Samer Araabi, last week, the concept of Do No Harm came up a handful of times. This three-word motto is a complicated principle that requires careful understanding of its definition and its application to real-life issues.

Accountability Counsel does not take unilateral positions on many specific issues, such as with the use or mining of coal. Instead, it focuses more on the needs of individual groups. If a community were to argue that a coal plant would best suit the community’s needs, then AC would support that.

But while simple statements such as “Do No Harm” seem universal and all encompassing, this same simplicity often allows for harms to fall through the cracks. The convoluted definition of words, the application to unique circumstances, and the lack of account for power structures are problems we are all quite aware of at Duke, especially knowing the difficulties of creating Hate and Bias Policy. Banning hate speech flat-out without careful subordinate clauses and diction to ensure its equitable enforcement and understanding would most certainly complicate, if not exacerbate, many of the problems Hate and Bias Policy seeks to address. It’s one of the many reasons Hate and Bias Policy has been deemed so difficult to enact, including the university’s proven lack of concern for marginalized people, and a powerful example of the impacts legal wording can have.

And to my understanding, almost every action in our society does some harm despite any intentions otherwise. Even the most seemingly vegan, ethically sourced decisions or products may carry underlying implications that create harm for certain groups around the globe. So how can Accountability Counsel do none of it ever?

In many ways, harm occurs earlier in the process than Accountability Counsel’s involvement. Often times, Accountability Counsel seeks to address instances of harm by facilitating conversations, providing legal support, and sharing valuable resources with communities that internationally financed development projects harmed. But what about the times in which AC creates harm?

To answer this question, I look to the protests happening in Raleigh, NC for the past 37 days. The range of attacks on the Black community addressed at these protests, from policing to SB168, has spurred dialogue about the racism manifested in other professions most intertwined with community needs. What about doctors, medical examiners, teachers, or lawyers?

Doctors take the Hippocratic Oath swearing essentially to do no harm, prevent harm, and treat the impacts of harm. As many people have come to learn, the medical industry does much to disadvantage and sometimes kill Black Americans, especially Black women. Failing to diagnose, maintaining inaccessibility, and stereotyping are typical harms brought about by doctors who swore to do otherwise. Unsurprisingly, taking the oath was never enough.

We are seeing this tragedy come to fruition once more with widely disparate rates of infection and deaths due to COVID-19 among poor, communities of color. Engaging with the messages put out by protestors, however, certain aspects of the medical industry are beginning to change. While systemic change among medical centers is not universal, many doctors, companies, and hospitals are considering their individual role in propagating white supremacy culture.

So, is the principle to Do No Harm enough for Accountability Counsel? While I’m certainly not one to decide, I will mention the ways they try to live out this principle equitably and in the present with supplemental ethical guidelines.

Harking back to my previous example, if a community were to demand a coal mine, but this time the decision was made without the input of any women, Accountability Counsel would ask them to please do so. While it would be problematic and paternalistic to tell a community a coal mine would not best suit their needs, there can’t be much wrong with ensuring that diverse perspectives informed the community’s decision.

On their own end, Accountability Counsel encourages much internal dialogue about its role and the space it operates within. Weekly articles and updates concerning the movement for racial justice, as well as flexible conversations about the impacts of our work, constitute a majority of the dialogue that exists across the entire organization.

I would like to add Do No Harm to my code of ethics, but I know engaging past the basic understanding of the words is essential to ensuring such a basic principle plays out equitably. Like Accountability Counsel, I have much to learn and I welcome dialogue and criticisms concerning my engagement with systems of oppression. I also know, like AC does, I must hear diverse perspectives and I must listen. It is imperative that, to do no harm, we first hear and see how we are harming.

Unfortunately, some harm is unavoidable for doctors, myself, and Accountability Counsel, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try to reduce it. Instead, it means we must be even more careful, cognizant, and willing to listen. It means we must hear criticisms, adapt, improve, and move on. Doctors, police, and the President all take oaths, but that is only the first step. Next, we must critically engage with these oaths, apply them with an awareness of power, and adapt them to our society. How can we say Do No Harm if we are unwilling to acknowledge the harm in all we do?

A Conversation with Samer Araabi

This past week I met with   to discuss his life, AC, and the work he’s done. While untraditional, his path to Accountability Counsel is certainly inspiring and his engagement with the ethical questions that underscore his work is enlightening.

Headshot of Samer AraabiSamer started his career at Accountability Counsel a little over three years ago, the longest time he’s spent with any job he tells me. He began as a research associate in the newly created Research Department , tasked with developing the department into what it is today. While a majority of the department remains to be interns and fellows, the Research team churns out valuable tools and data for other departments and organizations to use in their fight for corporate accountability.

Most recently the Research team has worked to develop websites  to document notable community cases, the commitments associated with each, and the progress made in implementing each commitment. Our Mongolia Microsite, titled From Paper to Progress, follows a group of Mongolian Herders who filed complaints with an accountability mechanism tied to the World Bank Group. Their complaints concern the Oyu Tolgoi mine, seeking to resolve issues with herders, water and pasture.

Samer has worked around the globe, from DC to Turkey, but feels right at home at AC. He tells me his role at AC is the perfect intersection of all his favorite work: data collection and analysis, international human rights and accountability, and coding. He appreciates the ground-up framework but the systemic impacts it creates.

His work in DC  was oriented around anti-war, anti-government-surveillance, anti-discrimination policy, and more, all things he’s passionate about. And yet, he felt the top-down strategy (”grass-top change” so to speak) did not provide a net good for the world.

Leaving DC and notably burnt out, Samer moved to Turkey near the Syrian border. He decided to take the opposite approach to the grass-top method with more “on the ground” humanitarian work. He worked with a Syrian organization as well as the Italian Ministry of Foreign Affairs to address the humanitarian needs associated with the war in Syria, but quickly discovered that his work in Turkey was not all that different from DC. Not only was the work seemingly fruitless, but the big players were all the same.

While his work in Turkey was less concerned with lobbying and more with direct project work, he still grappled with whether he felt alright advancing powerful interests, even if in the humanitarian world. Again, his commitment to creating a net good was not clearly met.

Like most of us at some point, Samer aspired to change the system from the inside. With an Arab-American past and extensive study on the Middle East, he decided to join the Foreign Service. After waiting nearly two years for his clearance, he changed his mind and decided that the system would more likely change him than the other way around.

Instead, he chose to pursue a PhD while also working as a software engineer. After spending his career debating and working through complex problems that often have extensive impacts, he tells me it felt good to “tippy-tap-tap” and fix a problem. But he laments that this job was too far in the other direction.

He contracted himself out to Accountability Counsel around the same time he got into UC Berkeley for a PhD program. Quickly though, Samer bailed on the program saying “his life was a PhD.” He has since stayed at AC.

In discussing some of AC’s and our past work, many threads consistently appeared. Violence and accountability, for one, but most importantly, understanding and acknowledging the space and privilege that AC operates within. Samer has stuck with Accountability Counsel because of this. He values that AC devotes time to listening – only offering our services to communities that ask for help, not speaking on their behalf, and committing to be by their side until they see real results.

Because of this, Samer pointed out something that I found to be astounding: Accountability Counsel is not anti-coal, for instance, but pro-community-voice . If the community asks for something, who is AC to step in and stop the project? Isn’t telling them what to do just an extension of colonial paternalism?  While coal is undoubtedly evil, I think he’s right.

“Do No Harm” is another quintessential principle of Accountability Counsel. For this reason, AC delayed the release of the Mongolia Microsite, knowing that it would interfere with a political election by putting the complainants at risk. I pushed Samer on this. Where does the analysis of harm come to an end? Does creating long-lasting flows of resources toward the West, such as with coal plants, constitute as harm?  This was unclear, but Samer referred back to the community voice aspect of Accountability Counsel in determining just how they navigate such a tricky network of harm. At the end of the day, AC provides assistance on projects if they are asked to by the community and the community can prove they won’t face harm as a result.

Towards the end of this conversation I was beginning to feel alarmed that Samer couldn’t find this kind of work environment much elsewhere. What was I going to do when I began looking for jobs? He calms me, though, claiming that while rare, workplaces that engage with systems of power and privilege are out there, even beyond Accountability Counsel

During quarantine Samer has taken to growing beans, but notes that the quarantine life was already his own. Making bread and staying home, for instance, have long since been passion projects of his. I hope one day I can say the same.