I always wanted to be a peacemaker or bridge builder.
It showed even in my earlier years.
When I was in sixth grade, and Austin, Texas, began the process of integrating its public schools 20 years after Brown v. Board [of Education], I found myself in my first multicultural, multiracial classroom with Hispanics, blacks and whites. My teacher, who was Jewish and from Brooklyn, N.Y., turned to me and few other diverse students to be his bridge builders who would promote harmony in a classroom that needed it.
Maybe my teacher spotted that I was less fearful and more comfortable around diversity because I was raised in India until I was 4 years old.
In the following years, I was very active breaking down cliques by starting organizations that brought together people of different cultural backgrounds.
I can’t point to a lot of successes in that, but what I discovered was that I had a strong desire to be in public service.
I also had a strong academic leaning. In graduate school, one of my professors sized me up. He told me that I was a frustrated academic who wanted to be involved in public services.
He saw that I liked to get deep in the substance of the issues but knew I didn’t want to get a PhD somewhere and write books that no one would read. He steered me to one of the most academic parts of the U.S. government, which was the Bureau of Intelligence and Research. I worked there for nine years on a part of the world I cared most about, East Asia.
When I joined the State Department, as a China analyst, of the eve of the Tiananmen Square crackdown in 1989, I was moved by the plight of those seeking political reform and I became drawn to issues of civil liberties and conflict.
You can’t study issues like that without generating your own ideas about what should be done about it. So I joined the staff of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in order to become more prescriptive.
My job was to help policymakers understand what was happening so they could do something about it.
One of the most memorable experiences was the case of a teacher in Indonesia whose husband was murdered. She reached out to me because she was frustrated that the Indonesian investigation was stalled and it looked like no one would be brought to justice.
She cried on the phone with me because she was at her wit’s end.
I began to work with her, and, about five years later, the murderer was brought out of the jungle by the FBI and convicted along with several other co-conspirators.
Along the way, we had a big impact on the rule of law in Indonesia, on the professionalization of the Indonesian National Police Force and in breaking down the laws of impunity enjoyed by the Indonesian military who were originally suspected in the murder.
The concern of Amnesty International is not just that those people exist but that they are emblematic of larger ills in society.
I want to try to amplify Amnesty’s presence in D.C. because now is such a critical time in the world for human rights.
I realize that this may not the place where change happens, but, through the research and advocacy, we can be a change catalyst.
Position: Head of the Washington office and deputy executive director of Amnesty International USA, a nonprofit organization that promotes human rights.
Career highlights: Policy director of East Asian and Pacific affairs, Senate Foreign Relations Committee; East Asia specialist, Bureau of Intelligence and Research, Department of State.
Education: BA, history, Yale University; MPP, international affairs and security, Harvard University.
Personal: Lives in Baltimore with wife and two daughters, Zoe and Camille.