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Emily Roberts Conducts Field Research in Durban, Africa


2L Emily Roberts reflects on her experience at the Legal Resource Center in Durban, Africa during her externship with The Urban Morgan Institute of Human Rights.

Cincinnati, OH- After their first year of law school, Urban Morgan Fellows are given the opportunity to spend their summer abroad through an externship program. Students work with international judges, human rights attorneys and organizations, governmental agencies, or U.N bodies. The externships provide invaluable hands-on training for the student and much needed assistance to the host organization. For an incoming law student planning on entering the human rights field, it is a chance to gain real-world experience, and begin making a difference before getting a degree.

This was the driving force in Emily Roberts’ decision to enroll in the College of Law, and become an Urban Morgan Institute of Human Rights fellow. As an undergraduate student at the University of Iowa, Roberts studied abroad in Botswana, Africa while obtaining her BA in International Studies and Global Health with a focus in African Studies and Human Rights. She immediately fell in love with South Africa while abroad, and knew she wanted to return. The Urban Morgan Institute was her ticket back.

“I wanted to make sure that I was able to go abroad as much as possible,” said Roberts. “If you’re admitted as a fellow, even before you start school, you’re guaranteed to go abroad after your 1L year.”

After her admittance into the program, Roberts’ dream of returning to South Africa came to fruition. Following her first year, she embarked on her externship at The Legal Resource Center in Durban, Africa. Established in 1979, the center promotes justice for marginalized populations, advocating for those suffering from discrimination regarding race, class, gender, disability, or historical circumstances.

“I was probably only at my desk in our office two out of the five days a week,” said Roberts. “The majority of the time was spent driving out to these far away farms in the middle of no where, and sitting down with these elders who could tell us the story about why the land is so important to them, and what the government is not doing to help them. That’s the type of experience I want as a career.”

Roberts enjoyed the fact that her externship was not a “typical” desk job. Much of her work involved investigating discrimination in land and housing, where she gathered data during numerous field visits. She talked directly to victims, listening first-hand to the stories of men and women who were affected by cases involving the unlawful destruction of their home and property. For Roberts, this was the exact career she hopes to one day pursue. However, her experiences came with many tough challenges and obstacles.

“One of the harder things was the language barrier,” said Roberts. “English is widely spoken, but then there’s also Zulu, which is the biggest tribal language in South Africa. When you’re out in the farms, the residents really don’t have a high level of education, so they most often don’t know English. Me and two other candidate attorneys would do the interview process; they would relay the information to me and translate it. I appreciated that they would take the time to do that.”

Conducting this field work in Durban called for very intimate and close discussion with people who have lived in these areas for generations. Roberts expressed difficulty not only by barrier of language, but also as an outsider to their culture. However, she added that the experience was humbling.

“If you are used to being the majority, go some place where you’re going to feel like the minority,” said Roberts. “Being in a completely different culture, it’s not only just that you’re white and you’re blonde and you’re a girl, but you’re obviously American. I always worry that when you go someplace, especially when you don’t look like everyone else, people are going to think that I’m sort of imposing on their life. I try to blend in as much as possible.”

Victims of Unlawful Destruction
Roberts most impactful project involved the unlawful destruction of an “informal settlement” in rural Durban. After collecting research via field visits, Roberts utilized her education to interpret the crimes against many of the victims in an international context in order to present a viable case to the Legal Resource Center.

“We were trying to bring a suit against the government, not only for damages of property destruction, but also for how it affected the kids that lived in those villages, who were sleeping or playing outside and pretty much saw their homes destroyed right in front of their eyes. I had to really use what I learned, constitutional law based on US Law, and try to apply it to a South African context.”

The service experience and knowledge Roberts gained during her three months spent in Durban will forever be cherished as she embarks on future pursuits to provide justice.

“It was amazing to see one woman who knew so much about her rights,” said Roberts. “You know, she barely knew English but she was able to articulate to me why this was so important to her. We were really thankful for being there and listening to them, because sometimes that’s really all you can do.”

About the Urban Morgan Institute for Human Rights
The Urban Morgan Institute has educated and trained human rights lawyers, who promote and protect human rights all over the world. Established at the University of Cincinnati College of Law in 1979, the institute has become a model for other human rights programs throughout the country, based on the unique experiences students gain both inside and outside of the classroom.