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A Career in Human Rights Has Taken Lycette Nelson from Cincinnati to Hungary

“It’s good that you’re here to keep us human.” 

Hearing this made a lasting impression on a UC Law student—now alumna—while completing her human rights internship in South Africa.

Lycette Nelson ‘02 grew up in Burlington, Vermont before attending St. John’s College in Annapolis, Maryland.  She moved to New York City and worked in publishing for three years, and then returned to the classroom at the State University of New York at Buffalo, receiving her Ph.D. in comparative literature.  She continued her career in publishing for several more years, and, at the same time, she was active in LGBT politics and advocacy.  Nelson became the executive director of Stonewall Cincinnati, a small nonprofit organization here in the Queen City.  At Stonewall Cincinnati, she worked on many legal matters, meeting practitioners in anti-discrimination and civil rights law.  Her work and her contacts fostered an interest in human rights, and the Urban Morgan Institute at the College was the perfect fit.

In law school, Nelson completed a summer human rights internship in Cape Town, South Africa, an externship with a federal district court judge, and worked at a small firm: Manley Burke.  While in Cape Town, she worked at the Human Rights Committee of Cape Town, a non-governmental organization that operates in several major cities in South Africa.  At the time she was there, there was a huge refugee crisis due to immigration and asylum law changes, and people were flooding into South Africa from conflict areas around the continent. 

“My boss and I started making regular trips to the asylum office to try to speed up the process for some of the most vulnerable asylum-seekers – a very pregnant young woman for instance -- and assisting several people who had very good claims,” shared Nelson.  “It was rewarding because our presence made a huge difference for the few people we were able to help,” she said, noting that the sheer numbers who needed help was overwhelming.  She has been able to keep in touch with a young Rwandan man who successfully got asylum in South Africa and is currently living in Vienna.  She was able to reconnect with him as her travels took her to Europe years later.

“Getting such a range of different experiences in different settings helped me a lot in making future job choices,” she said.  Since graduating and passing the New York Bar, Nelson has worked with MFY Legal Services in New York City, the Adult Home Advocacy Project, the New York State Mental Hygiene Legal Service (a New York State agency responsible for representing, advocating and litigating on behalf of individuals receiving services for a mental disability), and now is working with the Mental Disability Advocacy Center (MDAC).

In 2010, Nelson moved to France, to her partner’s home town for her sabbatical year.  It was in France that she found MDAC and was hired for the position of litigation director.  MDAC is an international human rights organization, headquartered in Budapest, Hungary, that advances the rights of children and adults with intellectual disabilities.  She is able to work from her home in New Jersey on a consultancy basis and travel to Hungary every few months.  “Our work is focused around the right to live in the community, to be free from torture and ill-treatment, to make decisions independently or with support, to inclusive education, and to political participation,” she explained.  Nelson supervises all of the legal staff, but does not get very involved in domestic cases due to the varying languages that are involved.  When a case goes to the European Court of Human Rights, however, she becomes more directly involved.

As Nelson has been involved in reviewing applications for an open MDAC position, she was able to share advice about seeking a career in the field of human rights.  “One thing that distinguishes a good resume from the rest is when the person has hands-on experience working with people whose rights have been violated rather than just academic or research experience,” she said.  “The majority of human rights organizations are small organizations like MDAC which require a broad range of skills in any staff person--not only litigation and/or advocacy, but project management, problem-solving, working in complex systems. So being able to highlight some experience of this kind on your resume will be more valuable that just having experience abroad.” 

Finding ways to gain this type of hands-on experience opens doors for work in the field of human rights, protecting liberties which are important and unique, and, as Lycette  Nelson will always remember,  keep us all human.