Kathryn Anderson, 29, grew up in Bremen, Indiana, graduated from the University of Notre Dame and received her law degree from Notre Dame Law School. She spent a year studying international law in the law school’s London Programme. After receiving her law degree, she worked for three and a half years as an attorney in South Bend, Indiana, at Baker & Daniels, LLP, a 370-attorney law firm. She specialized in business litigation and white collar criminal defense. It was there that she got her first taste of nonprofit legal work, while representing political asylum clients pro bono. Looking to transition into the nonprofit world full time, in March, 2010 she decided to do a year of volunteer service with the Mennonite Voluntary Service in New York City. Her volunteer work is with World Vision International’s United Nations office, where she is an advocate to the United Nations for World Vision’s humanitarian and development work, primarily focusing her advocacy on issues in Sudan and the Democratic Republic of the Congo (“DRC”).
How does a volunteer live in New York City? Here’s what she said:
“I live in the Menno House, which is a house owned by the Manhattan Mennonite Fellowship (my church in New York). It is a house focused on community living, with eleven 20-30 somethings living there. We each have our own room, but we share living space and bathrooms. We eat a house meal together every Wednesday night. We have 5 refrigerators!”
What exactly do you do at the United Nations? How does what you do affect real people in Africa?
World Vision is a child-focused humanitarian, development, and advocacy organization that has programs in over 100 countries around the world. In New York, it has an office that exists primarily to liaise with the United Nations, since many decisions are made there that affect children in countries in which World Vision works. I work in the New York office, and spend most of my time learning about and keeping up-to-date on the humanitarian and development issues in Sudan and the DRC, and then attending meetings with UN leaders and representatives from donor countries to the UN in order to advocate on behalf of the needs of children in Sudan and the DRC. The UN Security Council has mandated peacekeeping missions in the DRC and in Sudan, so a lot of my work is to encourage stronger protection of civilians, especially children, by those peacekeeping missions. It’s been an amazing opportunity to be able to sit at a table with the leaders of these peacekeeping missions, other UN agencies, and Security Council members’ ambassadors to the UN and be able to ask anything I want to know about the situations in these countries, as well as advocate for World Vision’s work there. The situations in Sudan and the DRC are two of the most complex humanitarian situations in the world today. Conflict in the DRC has been ongoing for the past 12 years, resulting in more than 5 millions deaths. Increasingly, sexual violence is being used as a weapon of war. In Sudan, the looming question is whether a referendum coming up on January 9, 2011 in which the people of South Sudan will vote on their independence, will be a peaceful one. The work I do in New York has the ability to influence the policy and actions of the UN Security Council and other UN agencies as they relate to the DRC and Sudan, in order to make a difference in the lives of children in those countries by ensuring they are better protected from violence and will have increased opportunities for education, better health, sufficient nutrition, and livelihood opportunities as they grow.
Tell us how you started to consider trading in a corporate legal career for this type of work. How did you hear about this opportunity? Why did you want to make this change?
I enjoyed practicing as a corporate litagator, learned a lot, and gained experience that is helpful in my current advocacy role. My decision to leave and work in the non-proft sector was based on feeling an increasing pull to use my legal training and advocacy skills to be a voice for the weak and powerless. I thought a year of volunteer work would help me think about and focus on why and how I want to use my skills to serve others. I was just searching online for volunteer opportunities when I found the Mennonite Voluntary Service, and saw that it had many interesting volunteer placements, one of which was this job at World Vision.
What do enjoy most about this work? What are your biggest challenges?
I love the diverse group of people that I get to come in contact with at the UN and at other NGOs (non-governmental organizations.) People from so many different backgrounds and parts of the world have come together to work for peace. I am also grateful for the opportunity to learn so much about what is going on in the world. On the other hand, the need to learn what is happening in the two countries on which I primarily focus, the DRC and Sudan, was also one of my biggest challenges. When I arrived at World Vision, the office director told me to take a couple of weeks to just read background, reports, news, and anything else I could get my hands on to start the process of learning what the situation was in those countries at the time. As I stared at jumbles of letters in my readings, I quickly realized that the UN, NGOs, and rebel groups all have an affinity for acronyms!
Can you tell us a personal highlight from your days there?
This past summer, I was able to travel to Nairobi, Kenya for a week to participate in an internal World Vision conference to plan advocacy relating to Sudan. Not only did I get to visit Kenya, but it was great to meet other World Vision staff from Sudan and other offices around the world who are working toward the same goals.
What are your long-term goals? Do you see yourself ever returning to a more traditional legal career? Is there some other advocacy work that interests you?
I want to continue working to help people through using my legal and advocacy skills. I found that I do miss “practicing” law, so hopefully whatever I do next will combine my legal background and skills with my interest in serving others. While working at the law firm, I really enjoyed my pro bono political asylum cases, so I’m focusing on my next step either being in the international human rights law field or the immigration law and policy field. I think the knowledge I have gained about the issues facing people in the DRC and Sudan, as well as about the structure of the UN and the international aid community in general, will help me in either of these fields.
Did you have to adjust your lifestyle when you made the switch to this work? What did you have to give up? Was there anything that you found hard to let go of?
It was a big adjustment to go from a corporate law salary to a volunteer stipend of $50 per week – especially in New York! The hardest thing to spend less on for me has, surprisingly, turned out to be food. I love to try new foods, and in New York I’m surrounded by an abundance of restaurants serving every type of cuisine imaginable. It’s hard to walk past all of these restaurants and not stop in to try something! But overall, the lifestyle adjustment hasn’t been as difficult as I had imagined it might be, and I hope to carry over the lessons I’ve learned about what I really need and what I can do without when my voluntary service term is over and I return (hopefully!) to the wage-earning world.
What lessons have you learned?
We need a lot less than we think we do!