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Power to the People


By Martha Groves

Published Oct 1, 2016 8:00 AM

Across campus and across disciplines, UCLA initiatives are tackling tough issues of human rights abuse worldwide and promoting global education about civil societies.

Photos by Hugh Kretschmer.

Throughout UCLA, academic departments and donor-funded operations are working with proven rights organizations, in locations near and far, to curb rampant human rights abuses and to promote education about civil societies. From the professional schools to the Department of Sociology in the UCLA College, scholars are addressing issues that range from migration and human trafficking to gender abuse and maternal mortality.

It is an ongoing quest to make a marked difference around the world. In 2014, for example, philanthropist and social entrepreneur Jeff Skoll gave $10 million to endow the Skoll Center for Social Impact Entertainment in the School of Theater, Film and Television. The center is dedicated to advancing the power of entertainment and performing arts to inspire social change. Skoll is the founder of Participant Media, whose website proclaims: “A story well told can change the world.”

And in the Department of Sociology, Professor Roger Waldinger, who has worked on international migration and its social, political and economic consequences throughout his career, is planning a two-day conference on campus in April 2017. The impetus for the conference, he says, is the massive upswing in refugee flows; the unwillingness of developed democracies to fulfill their responsibilities under international law and accept refugees fleeing violence; and the complexities of integrating and resettling refugees wherever they have been accepted. Among the topics to be discussed are the processes producing refugee outflows, refugee policy, the role of international organizations, smuggling and trafficking, health and human rights, resettlement and border enforcement. Waldinger sees the conference as “a twofold opportunity of engaging the campus with the advocacy and service-providing community in Southern California — a premier destination for refugee resettlement — while also spurring new scholarship in refugee studies.”

Meanwhile, rights organizations have taken note of the works in progress in Westwood. “We have greatly enjoyed collaborating with different centers and institutes at UCLA,” says Justin Connolly, director of the Los Angeles affiliate of Human Rights Watch. “There is always more to do, however, and we are delighted to know of efforts to incorporate human rights values more broadly across the university.”

Here are just a few examples of some of the projects under way.


Many of the forebears of Eric Esrailian M.P.H. ’05, co-chief of the Division of Digestive Diseases at UCLA’s David Geffen School of Medicine, perished in the Armenian genocide, and he carries in his heart the pain of the atrocities they suffered.

Meanwhile, before the Armenian genocide, the family of Kirk Kerkorian, once the richest person in Los Angeles, had emigrated from Turkey.

Kerkorian died in 2015 at age 98. In addition to their deep friendship and his mentoring of Esrailian, the two men also bonded closely through their culture and the shared tragedy of genocide. “Even though [Kerkorian] never experienced any atrocities personally,” Esrailian says, “he felt the pain through the ordeals of loved ones and stories about his people.”

The two of them wondered why such a dramatic event had never been showcased in a Hollywood movie. So Kerkorian urged Esrailian, who had connections with the entertainment industry, to produce such a film.

After two years of quiet research by the duo, in 2012, Kerkorian established a production company called Survival Pictures and named Esrailian and Anthony Mandekic as co-managers. Kerkorian and Esrailian designed the venture to also be a philanthropic and social impact engine - with the company's proceeds ultimately supporting non-profit organizations, including UCLA. Esrailian then recruited another UCLA alum, Hollywood legend Michael Medavoy ‘63, and their work over the years has led to The Promise, a romance epic set against the Armenian genocide. The film stars Christian Bale, Oscar Isaac and Charlotte Le Bon. The director is Terry George, renowned for writing, directing, and producing Hotel Rwanda.

Medavoy, a Hollywood agent turned studio chief and producer, has been involved with such noteworthy films as Annie Hall, The Silence of the Lambs and The Thin Red Line. From the outset, he envisioned the film as similar to Doctor Zhivago, a love story set during the Russian Revolution. He wanted The Promise to make a mark.

“I’ve always been fascinated with history,” he says. “I don’t know if it’s looking at the past that interests me, or looking at the future through the past. My sense of what’s happening in the world today is that we’re probably living in some of the most dangerous times in our lives.”

Patricia L. Glaser, Kerkorian's attorney and an executive producer of the film, says she was pleased by UCLA’s participation and support of the venture. (A university official says the film’s proceeds would be used for philanthropic purposes.) “One of the functions of a university is to teach us where we belong in the universe, to give us context,” she says. "This is the university’s job — not just to help us learn things by rote, but to make us think more."

Esrailian, who also serves on the School of Theater, Film and Television's executive board in addition to his work in other areas of campus, concurs. “We wanted to move people, give them a chance to think, stir their emotions, and hopefully, enlighten them a bit about these major core themes — hope, tolerance, human rights, and survival.” After a deliberate attempt to minimize early promotion, the world will soon see the story on screen. The prestigious Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) just selected The Promise as one of its opening weekend gala premieres for 2016.


In 2015, UCLA’s WORLD Policy Analysis Center issued a report called Closing the Gender Gap, which revealed that more than 170 countries around the world have legal barriers preventing women and girls from experiencing the same rights, protections and liberties as men and boys. The mission of WORLD — whose founding director is Jody Heymann, dean of the UCLA Fielding School of Public Health — is to strengthen equal opportunities worldwide by identifying successful public-sector approaches, improving the amount and quality of comparative data and partnering with such groups as the World Health Organization, UNICEF, UNESCO and the International Labor Organization.

The center uses data from as many of the United Nations’ 193 independent states as possible in order to bridge the daunting global gap between research and policy. WORLD’s projects — funded by, among others, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation — examine health and social policies and outcomes around the world.

WORLD’s recent report on policies affecting children reached people in 190 countries, as did its No Ceilings partnership, which seeks to advance the full participation of girls and women around the world. The Gates Foundation provided grant support for the work in partnership with the Clinton Foundation’s No Ceilings Initiative.

But lest anyone point to the United States as an exemplar of equality, Heymann cautions, consider that the United States is the world’s only high-income country not to provide mothers ensured paid leave to care for their newborn children. And, while more than 80 percent of countries have a constitutional guarantee of sexual equality, the U.S. does not.

“Our research has been used widely at the federal, state and local levels” to effect legislative change, she says.

Heymann says she and her colleagues at the center are heartened to see substantial movement in the United States toward more parental and sick leave.

Countries take notice of being called out for being on the wrong side of an issue. For example, after Lesotho, in southern Africa, passed a paid maternity leave measure, it contacted WORLD to ask to be removed from the list of countries that did not offer such protection. “That’s a huge new power,” Heymann says.

She recognizes, though, that UCLA and the WORLD Policy Analysis Center cannot go it alone on human rights. Changes come about “through a fantastic chorus of factors,” she says. “UCLA gets to be a team player.”


In 2015, UCLA was honored with a prestigious first in the realm of human rights. Carlos Alberto Torres, distinguished professor in the UCLA Graduate School of Education & Information Studies, was appointed the inaugural UNESCO Chair on Global Learning and Global Citizenship Education — UNESCO’s first such appointment in the University of California system.

Torres has devoted decades to the concepts of democracy and global citizenship education, which aims to empower learners to become responsible global citizens willing to contribute to a more peaceful, tolerant, inclusive and safe world. Good global citizenship education, he says, requires the elimination of an us-versus-them mentality and the willingness to resolve conflicts.

He knows whereof he speaks. Born in Argentina, Torres fled the country after the 1976 right-wing coup. He is now a U.S. citizen and is married to a Brazilian professor. “I am a citizen of the world,” he says.

His 40-person research team is currently in the initial stages of a new project, assessing how a number of countries — including Taiwan, South Korea, China, Mexico and the United States — teach about global citizenship. Early indications are that South Korea is a leader in the field; a major university in Taiwan has a global citizenship education center.

“In globalization, you have winners and losers,” Torres says. “When people realize it has affected their standard of living, the reaction is [a shift to] hypernationalism and blaming everyone else. Blame the foreigners, the international corps, free trade, Muslims.”


Lara Stemple was a freshly minted lawyer when she began working on issues at the “intersection of human rights and health,” such as female genital mutilation, access to contraception and maternal mortality. Today, she is director of the UCLA School of Law’s Health and Human Rights Law Project.

“[UCLA] is unusual,” she says, “with a medical school and a public health school on campus. This ability to work across disciplines has been very exciting.”

One notable accomplishment, she says, has been to collaborate with a nongovernmental organization in South Africa called Sonke (pronounced son-kay) Gender Justice. With Ford Foundation funding, the project brings two young South African lawyers-in-the-making to Westwood annually for yearlong fellowships. At UCLA, they meet others working in the social justice realm and receive rigorous training that serves them well when they return to Sonke for an intensive one-year applied fellowship in HIV/AIDS, gender equality and human rights.

In March, Sonke’s executive director, Dean Peacock, wrote in a letter: “Sonke owes an enormous debt of gratitude to Professor Stemple. The partnership, and the amazing fellows it has generated, has strengthened Sonke’s legal and policy advocacy and scholarship in dramatic ways.” He said the knowledge gained has helped the group win cases on such critical issues as sexual discrimination by prominent political leaders and child abuse endorsed by religious institutions.

Meanwhile, another School of Law initiative, the International Human Rights Clinic, is run by Assistant Professor E. Tendayi Achiume. In twice-weekly seminars, students study different approaches to human rights advocacy and typically take on two projects each semester — one international and one local.

In Los Angeles, the students collaborated with Dignity and Power Now, an advocacy group, to assess medical neglect and abuse of prisoners in Los Angeles County jails, using a human rights frame. On the international front, they drafted a legal memo for U.N. Special Rapporteur Mutuma Ruteere on contemporary forms of racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia and related intolerance.

“The UCLA Clinic has extended invaluable research support to my mandate as U.N. Special Rapporteur on Racism and Xenophobia for several years now,” says Ruteere. “The work of the mandate has benefitted from the convening hosted in 2014 at UCLA on Profiling in Law Enforcement that was the thematic focus of my report to the Human Rights Council in 2015. The clinic was also key to the thematic report on xenophobia that I presented to the Human Rights Council in June 2016.”

Richard H. Steinberg, professor of law and political science, says that clinical education — especially in the international space — is costly, and often requires either ongoing fundraising and donor support, or substantial endowment or grant support. His Clinic on Gender Violence in Eastern Congo is seeking additional funds to extend its four years of work in the field, during which it treated about 700 female victims of sexual violence in the Congo. The clinic also provided microfinance and business training to about 90 women who had suffered rape in mass attacks across six villages.

Violence against women “destroys the fabric of village life,” Steinberg says. “Women in that culture have to be divorced if they are raped.” And because women do the farming, villages suffer economically and socially.

“UCLA Law has a striking and impressive group of faculty with human rights interests,” says the school’s dean, Jennifer L. Mnookin. “I’m tremendously proud of our accomplishments, but I would love to see us build even more capacity in this important area, both for the sake of our students and for the common good.”