From IWU Magazine, Spring 2016

Beyond good intentions

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Coles at the Dutch parliament chamber in the Hague, where she studied as an intern while in college.

Emily Coles’s passion for human rights began with a course taught by Irv Epstein, the Ben and Susan Rhodes Professor of Peace and Social Justice. Among the topics covered in Epstein’s “International Human Rights” class was the Bosnian war of the 1990s, in which tens of thousands lost their lives. 

“I became totally perplexed by how people who had been living together for generations could all of a sudden turn against one another,” says Coles ’11, an international studies and French double major. “So my trajectory, my journey, really started with trying to understand the causes of ethnic conflict.”

Determined to learn more, Coles interned at the Dutch Parliament in The Hague, where she interacted with European Union policymakers and gained a new perspective on the controversial UN peacekeeping mission that failed to protect more than 8,000 people massacred in the Bosnian town of Srebrenica in 1995.

The following summer, she interned at the U.S. Embassy in Sarajevo. “As a State Department intern, I was given a lot of freedom to focus on issues that interested me,” says Coles, who investigated how Bosnia’s continued ethnic and political divisions had created its fragmented education system. Her series of reports informed U.S. assistance and engagement on the issue.

Later, during a visit by a delegation from the State Department’s Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor, Coles also observed the work of the International Commission of Missing Persons in locating mass graves and identifying victims through forensic analysis, so that bodies could be returned to family members — “a powerful experience,” she says. 

For her senior honors project, Coles drew on her experience with the State Department to write a paper, “The Importance of Education Systems in Post-Conflict Settings: The Case of Bosnia-Herzegovina.” The paper has been downloaded nearly one thousand times on Digital Commons, Illinois Wesleyan’s online repository that makes scholarship by University students and faculty accessible around the world.

In her senior year, she also served as a teaching assistant for Epstein’s “International Human Rights” course and worked as an advocacy intern for the international organization Scholars at Risk Network. Illinois Wesleyan University is among the network’s founding members.

When she graduated from IWU, Coles knew she wanted to go back to the Balkans. She was awarded a Fulbright English Teaching Assistant grant to spend
a year in Bulgaria. She later moved to Kenya, where she worked as a research assistant for the Danish Refugee Council (DRC). At the DRC, she helped coordinate an investigation to identify livelihood opportunities for Somali refugees living in Kenyan and Ethiopian camps.

In 2012, she enrolled in the London School of Economics and Political Science to pursue a master’s degree in human rights. The program challenged many of Coles’s assumptions about the field, as she read and discussed scholarly critiques of human rights concepts. 

“It is challenging to internalize and understand these critiques and still feel empowered and excited to go out into this field, which is wrought with so many problems,” she says. “Despite this, there is still great work being done.”

Among the problems facing the field of human rights is a lack of accountability. “People forget that human rights and humanitarian organizations have their own sets of incentives,” she says. “High-level good intentions are not enough; you have to be accountable for what you’re doing on the ground.”

“It’s critical to recognize the unintended impacts a humanitarian organization can have on a group of people, positive or negative,” she adds. 

Finishing her degree, Coles and her husband moved to Belgrade, Serbia. As a strategic advisor at PRAXIS, a nonprofit organization in Belgrade, Coles supported efforts to provide legal assistance and advocate for the basic human rights of vulnerable people, especially Serbia’s Romani community, who often lack identity documents that are required to access public services such as education and health care. Coles found PRAXIS’ work very empowering.

“I was accountable for the projects and programs we were putting in place,” she says. “I learned I don’t want to be removed from direct engagement with beneficiaries. I want to see and evaluate the consequences of the work that I’m supporting.” 

Coles is now back in the United States working as an employer account manager at the Boston Private Industry Council (PIC), a nonprofit focused on strengthening Boston’s communities and its workforce by connecting youth and adults with education and employment opportunities. In the process, she’s discovered some societal problems are universal.

“My experiences abroad have taught me that the lack of economic self-sufficiency often undermines development efforts,” she says. “In the case of the Balkans, youth employment rates are around 60 percent. Much of the responsibility for this situation can be attributed to a mismatch between the needs of the workforce and the education students are receiving.” 

Her role at PIC attempts to get at some of the same root causes. She connects high school students to employment opportunities through several initiatives, noting that research shows early work experiences help to develop key skills and lead to higher employment rates later in life. “I am really enjoying bringing what I have learned abroad to the community level,” she says. 

The key to all her work, says Coles, links back to IWU and the emphasis it places on critical thinking. “I’ve realized that critical thinking and problem solving are vital skills for success in the professional world,” she says. “A strong liberal arts education with an emphasis on cross-disciplinary thinking helps build these skills.”