WASHINGTON – When Nicole Austin-Hillery was a young girl her home was flooded during a hurricane. All the homes in her in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, development were damaged – those that were privately owned and those run by public housing. Almost everyone, including Austin-Hillery and her mom, moved out while repairs were made. But only the public housing residents came back.
“I remember feeling like, ‘They’re not planting trees anymore. It doesn’t look as nice as it did before the flood,” she says. Austin-Hillery couldn’t name what was happening, but she received the message loud and clear, “We were not quite as good, or less deserving of a community that was as nice.”
Rather than feeling dejected, she remembers being incensed.
And the furore she felt then is still fuelling Austin-Hillery decades later, as the first Executive Director of Human Rights Watch’s (HRW) United States (US) Programme. Until recently, the international non-profit organisation didn’t see a need for executive-level leadership at home. But after the 2016 election, officials there say it became apparent that the abuses taking place in the US demanded equal attention to those happening abroad.
“What we saw as very significant threats to the human rights context in the US following the election of President (Donald) Trump – including in immigration, criminal justice, civil rights – made us sit down and reassess: What did we need to be effective?” explains HRW’s Programme Director Liesl Gerntholtz.
Austin-Hillery’s career spent fighting for the disenfranchised made her HRW’s pick. And, it was a natural fit says Austin-Hillery – exactly the work she thought she’d end up doing as a girl back in the Harrisburg housing projects.
During her first nine months on the job, she championed immigration rights in the US and advocated for criminal justice reform while also promoting the New York-based organisation’s research on health issues, including the disparity of cervical cancer rates among African-American women in Alabama. Those, she says, are human rights concerns, parallel to the work Human Rights Watch does around the world.
“We have to ensure we are telling these stories and talking about these issues under that wider umbrella,” she says. “I want to be a part of elevating this work and elevating this whole idea of what human rights (advocacy) really is.”
Austin-Hillery has a good relationship with her father, but grew up as the only child of her single mother. Her mom, a state government employee, is a woman who never learned to drive and almost never asked for help. “She was just very strong-willed and independent,” says Austin-Hillery. “’We can figure it out.’ That’s always been her attitude.”
She still has a copy of a programme from her junior high production of Androcles and the Lion. “In the back of the playbill where it had my little bio it said, ‘Nicole, when she grows up, wants to be a civil rights attorney.’”
As an 8th grader in a public speaking class, Austin-Hillery railed against the injustices she saw in her backyard – how, for example, “kids who grew up in more working class community were not viewed equally to kids who grew up in the suburbs.” Her teacher explained what a civil rights lawyer does, Austin-Hillery recalls, and kindly nudged, “You have a big mouth – use it for good.”
At a fine arts magnet high school, Austin-Hillery fell in love with acting. She was accepted into Carnegie Mellon University’s School of Drama and chose to attend, despite the advice of a career counsellor who told her, “Given that you’re from a single parent household and live in public housing, maybe you should just be more realistic and go to one of the state schools.”
“Because of the circumstances of birth, he thought I wasn’t good enough,” says Austin-Hillery, now 51. But she never felt that way. After studying theatre her freshman year, Austin-Hillery switched to a history major and set her sights on law school.
She enrolled at the University of Pittsburgh School of Law even before she’d finished her final two undergraduate credits, figuring she could complete them as she went along. But when the law school noticed she was still short those credits at the start of her second year, they asked her to leave, throwing her well-charted plans off track.
Embarrassed and upset with herself, Austin-Hillery returned to Harrisburg to regroup. Undeterred, she decided, “I’ve got to do things that are going to prepare me to go back to law school and be a civil rights attorney.”
After two years working in jobs related to the Pennsylvania state legislature, Austin-Hillery moved to Washington for a position with a political consulting firm. From there she was hired to be the research director at the NAACP’s Legal Defense Fund. With the support of that storied institution she returned to law school, this time at Howard University, and then began her career as a civil rights attorney in earnest.
Two of her first cases involved fighting for families that had been displaced. “I really had to pinch myself. Like, ‘I can’t believe I’m finally a lawyer and that I get to help the people who are just like me – who grew up in communities just like mine,’” recalls Austin-Hillery, who is tall and striking, with a penchant for statement jewelry and dramatic eyeliner. “It was really mind boggling, but it also felt purposeful. And it felt like ‘This is my duty … it’s my obligation, coming from where I come from.’”
After six years with a civil rights law firm, Austin-Hillery opened the Washington office of the Brennan Center for Justice, a policy institute that honours the legacy of former Supreme Court Justice William Brennan. Ten years later Human Rights Watch called and Austin-Hillery joined the organisation in March.
Now, at a time when Merriam-Webster chose “justice” as its word of the year, Austin-Hillery is charged with leading HRW’s fight for human rights in the US. And she understands the weight of the moment.
“It feels like so many of the gains that have been made are being challenged, such that people are fearful that we may lose some of those gains,” she says. “But I remind people often, if you look historically at civil rights in this country, the biggest gains were always preceded by moments of horrible experiences, setbacks and challenges.”
HRW’s Programme Director Gerntholtz says one characteristic that set Austin-Hillery apart is her ability to connect with policymakers as effectively as she does with grass-roots organisers.
“She has a large, outgoing personality,” says her husband, Alexander Hillery, an employment lawyer. “And she certainly is a very good speaker. Theatre training helped to hone that, but I think that’s a skill she had even before college.”
Austin-Hillery, who is also the president of the Washington Bar Association, views her role partly a bridge-builder, pulling together activists who see themselves as working on disparate fronts. “We have to stop thinking in silos. We have to stop thinking that issues of voter suppression are not human rights issues. Of course those are human rights issues. Of course women dealing with severe disparity and abuse are human rights issues,” she insists.
From HRW’s office overlooking Connecticut Avenue, Austin-Hillery thinks about her eighth-grade self, “Thirteen year-old Nicki would rejoice and say that despite the naysayers, despite the people who said ‘Kids like you can’t do this,’ you did it,” she says. “And, 13 year-old Nicki would say, ‘Okay, now you did it but that’s not the end of the story. You have to keep doing it and you have an obligation to help other people like you keep doing it.’” – Text & Photo by The Washington Post