Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Q&A With Michael Solis, Human Rights Watch Fellow 2008-09

PiLA fellows, applicants, and our supporters often ask: what's life after PiLA like?  What do alumni do, where do they live, how did their PiLA year impact their plans and decisions?  Here to give us a few insights into these questions is Michael Solis, past fellow at Human Rights Watch, Chile.

PiLA: Where are you living now and what are you up to?

Michael: I currently live in Managua, Nicaragua. I’m working as the Regional Institutional Funding Officer in Latin America for Trócaire, an international develop agency with headquarters in Ireland. Trócaire works in 28 countries across Latin America, Africa, Asia, and the Middle East and addresses issues like poverty and hunger alleviation, human rights, empowering women, disaster management, HIV, and climate change. My role puts me in a position to access and channel resources for aid and development to our local partner organizations in Honduras, Nicaragua, El Salvador, Guatemala, Colombia, Bolivia, and Haiti. Our goal is to provide these organizations with the tools and resources they need to fulfill their missions and bring lasting change to the region and the people they serve.

PiLA: What kind of projects are you working on now?

Michael: I recently returned from Guatemala, where I was working with three organizations to develop project that will promote access to justice for survivors of human rights violations during Guatemala’s internal armed conflict, including a group of women who were subjected to sexual slavery between 1982 and 1986. Some 200,000 people, mainly Maya Indians in the country’s highlands, were killed and 45,000 were disappeared during the armed conflict between 1960 and 1996. With the current government denying genocide, access to justice and the fulfillment of human rights obligations remains a significant obstacle for the survivors of this dark time in Guatemala’s history.

PiLA: How did you end up getting to where you are now?

Michael: I’ve found life to be like a crazy, chained up dog that wants to escape and do whatever it is that crazy, chained up dogs do. Sometimes you can maintain tight control of life, but other times you just have to let it go. (Having been bitten by a crazy, unchained dog in Honduras, I can’t seem to get the image out of my head.) After my PiLA year, I received a Mitchell Scholarship to study International Human Rights Law in Galway, Ireland. While wrapping up my dissertation on HIV-related travel restrictions, I volunteered as facilitator and illustrator for an organization called Fighting Words that empowers youth through creative writing. After a yoga-filled summer in India and many a day reflecting on existence, I realized that I wanted to acquire more experience at the grassroots level rather than pursue a career in litigation. So to the dismay of many, I ditched my law school plans and moved to Honduras to work for the Organization Youth Empowerment (OYE). At OYE I ended up playing a key role in bringing financial security to an organization that promotes educational access and leadership development for at-risk youth. I also helped strengthen the organization’s capacity building, magazine, art, sports, and radio programs. On the side I ran a small yoga studio where I taught courses to locals (many of whom thought yoga was witchcraft) and trained three Honduran women as instructors. Speaking of witchcraft, while I was in Honduras a fortune-telling telling yogi predicted that I would be living in Bogota, Colombia within a few months. Lo and behold, a few months passed and I was in Bogota, carrying out a short consultancy with Ahmsa, an organization that seeks to reduce poverty and promote dignity in marginalized communities through entrepreneurship and innovation. When the offer came up to work with Trócaire, I decided to take it and moved to Nicaragua.

Q: How influential was PiLA in this path?

Michael: My PiLA year still ranks as one of the very best. It opened my eyes to the work of two different organizations (FLACSO-Chile and Human Rights Watch), providing me with the opportunity to interact directly with professionals in the fields of human rights and security sector reform. Outside of work, I found Chile to be a beautiful country whose mountains, shores, sunsets, and landscapes supplied me with what feels like a lifetime of inspiration. I met up with other PiLA fellows, took risks, and participated in a national movement supporting diversity and the rights of sexual minorities. The people I came across have challenged and supported me ever since, and the friendships I maintain are still strong. 

Q: What has been the biggest challenge?

Michael: I don’t know if I can say that there’s just been one. Coming into contact with people in the NGO world who lose sight of what it means to work for beneficiaries is a huge challenge. Learning to live life based on my needs and desires and not those of others is a shared struggle that many people combat while growing up and challenging systems – familial, patriarchic, classist, heteronormative, racial, religious, etc. Getting bitten by a dog wasn’t fun either, nor was bathing in buckets with water that might come on every other day, as was the case with my first home in the scorching town of El Progreso, Honduras. Thankfully, wounds heal and spirits adapt.

Q: What has been the most amazing moment?

Michael: Latin America has so much to offer in terms of nature, people, cultures, and histories that it’s nearly impossible not to find something amazing in it. One of those moments for me involved going on a hike in Honduras, watching my boss get bitten by a poisonous coral snake, rushing said boss to the hospital, having our car break down along the way, and then having perfect strangers save the day by picking us up and bringing us the rest of the way over (thankfully my boss survived!). Another was teaching yoga. Among my students was a woman who broke down once in the middle of a class, unable to carry on with the psychological turmoil that came as a result of her husband’s infidelity; a widow whose husband, a former supporter of the NGO I was working at, had been shot and murdered by a gang member; and a group of former street children who had recovered from drug addictions and were reclaiming control of their minds and bodies through the practice.

Q: Do you have any advice for students or PiLA fellows who are interested in remaining engaged in Latin America?
Michael: There are definitely many ways to remain involved in the region. I ended up finding two of my jobs on and Relief Web, so getting familiar with the online search engines related to your field of interest is a must. For any young professionals looking to acquire more experience in development in Colombia, the Atlas Corps Fellowship provides a way to do that with incredible in country support. Taking risks isn’t a bad thing, and they can often pay you back in kind, even if you fail. And ask questions! You won’t always get what you want by keeping secrets, so feel free to share what you desire with the world. I am still amazed by how much the universe is willing to give when you just let it know where you stand.