The SIPA Office of Alumni and Development is pleased to share A View from the Class, a SIPA stories series featuring current SIPA students, recently graduated alumni, and faculty. In this issue, we feature James Courtright MIA’20, concentrated in Human Rights and Humanitarian Policy with a regional specialization in Africa.
What were you doing prior to attending SIPA?
I spent my adolescence growing up in Tanzania. After my graduation from Denison University, I worked in agriculture for two seasons before serving in the U.S. Peace Corps in Senegal from 2013-2016. As a Peace Corps volunteer, I lived in the city of Kolda with a Senegalese family, learned the Pulaar/Fula language, and pursued grassroots projects in urban agriculture, education, and community development. After my third year extension, I moved to the capital of Senegal, Dakar, and worked as a freelance journalist for a year. I covered human rights, food security, the environment, and transitional justice in Senegal, The Gambia, and Sierra Leone for NPR, The Christian Science Monitor, Roads & Kingdoms, African Arguments and Equal Times.
Why did you choose SIPA?
I started my graduate school search by looking at the resumes of people in positions I want to fill someday. One of few common threads across people’s backgrounds was a SIPA education. When I began looking deeper at the SIPA program, I saw that I could take classes across Columbia and engage with my interests from a critical academic perspective while also learning practical skills for a future career in the field. Also, after going to an international school in Tanzania for secondary school, I was excited to be in a school where over half of the students come from outside the U.S. It also helps that SIPA is here in New York City, one of the most cosmopolitan places in North America.
Why did you choose the Master of International Affairs (MIA) program and the Human Rights and Humanitarian Policy concentration?
An MIA gives me the flexibility to work in a variety of positions in the future, and through the human rights concentration, I am learning how to use my privilege and experiences in the cause of furthering justice in all its forms. My interest in human rights specifically stems from my undergraduate thesis in history, in which I investigated mass violence in Zanzibar in the early 1960s. Examining how violence is mobilized made me interested in what can be done to mitigate and prevent it. During my service in the Peace Corps, I also saw how structural human rights issues related to the global political and economic order further marginalize those already on the periphery. As a journalist, I was drawn towards stories that shed light on survivors of human rights abuses and those that fight entrenched power for the betterment of society.
What has been your experience at SIPA so far?
I have had a rich academic and professional experience at SIPA. In spring 2019, I interned in the Africa division of Human Rights Watch as a research assistant. My responsibilities included helping with background research on oil exploration and academic freedom in South Sudan, the protests in Sudan, and land conflicts in Northern Uganda. Last summer, I interned with the Jammeh2Justice coalition in The Gambia. I compiled detailed weekly summaries of Gambian news related to transitional justice, organized a press conference for human rights activists, and conducted an impact study on how the #IAmToufah movement changed gender activism in The Gambia. I also worked with, and continue to assist, the African Network against Extrajudicial Killings and Enforced Disappearances (ANEKED), transcribing and summarizing testimony for the Gambian Truth, Reconciliation, and Reparations Commission.
How have your Peace Corps and journalism experiences shaped your SIPA experience?
They have profoundly shaped my SIPA experience, enabling me to connect things I learn in the classroom to the real world, which helps me understand what we are learning and gives those experiences a deeper meaning. For example, in one class we were discussing the inevitability of conflict in everyday life and the importance of having mechanisms to manage that conflict. I immediately thought about Mamoudou, a friend I made in the neighborhood I lived in on the outskirts of the city of Kolda. As a Peace Corps volunteer, I saw Mamoudou every few months when he would return home from university in Dakar to visit his family. I knew he was studying international law and human rights, and spent his breaks working for a Senegalese NGO in Kolda, but I never understood precisely what he did. While doing my summer internship, supported by SIPA, in The Gambia in 2019, I was able to return to Kolda twice to visit friends and celebrate Tabaski (Eid al Adha) with my host family. I ended up spending an afternoon with Mamoudou. After catching up, I asked him more about his work. He explained he spent his time helping rural communities mediate conflicts, and if need be, seek restitution with the Senegalese justice system. He explained that most of the issues his organization dealt with regarded conflicting claims over land deeds, divorce, and occasional conflicts between herders and farmers. After my classes at SIPA, I had a greater appreciation for the importance of Mamoudou’s work and plan on learning more about how to support people like Mamoudou next time I visit Kolda.
Is there are particular SIPA experience that stands out to you?
In spring 2019, I took “Civil War and Peacebuilding” with Dr. Severine Autesserre. Her class changed my outlook on the roots of conflict and strategies outsiders can use to help foster peace. Her focus on the importance of hyper local dynamics in the outbreak of conflict and potential solutions to build peace from the bottom up resonated with my experiences in West Africa. I still reference the material we read in that class in my other classes, and increasingly, in my day-to-day life.
What are your plans after SIPA?
After SIPA, I would like to return to West Africa. I am currently applying to positions with various human rights and peacebuilding organizations in the region, as well as with the United Nations. Depending on my success on these fronts, I would always be happy to return to Dakar, Senegal and continue writing as a freelance journalist and working with organizations for which I have developed new connections.
Is there anything else you’d like to add?
I would like to thank SIPA’s generous donors for helping to make my attendance at this extraordinary School possible.