Working for human rights often requires an imagination. The job description
of “human rights defender” may not be as well defined as that of “lawyer”
or “writer,” but there are a myriad of opportunities to combine human rights
advocacy with a career. Valerie Downing Arnold, associate attorney at Thomas
Tuft Law Offices and teacher at the University of Minnesota, understands
this kind of combination. She has crafted a career that joins education with
family law, and human rights are often the common denominator between the
“I went into law school initially to work on women’s advocacy issues related to domestic abuse. I found working with the Human Rights Center at the University of Minnesota’s law school to be a really great experience. Whether you go into corporate law, family law like me, or any other field, exposure to human rights issues is really important part of any legal education,” said Arnold. Arnold’s own association with the Human Rights Center began in 1995, when she received a Fellowship to work at the Organisation Marocaine des Droits de l’Homme in Rabat, Morocco. Working in Morocco was a chance to combine a lifelong interest in French and francophone studies with law. Arnold spent the summer of 1995 in Morroco learning about human rights issues in the region and programs sponsored by the OMDH. Arnold was particularly struck by Moroccan methods for deterring domestic abuse, “I visited the first domestic abuse shelter in Morocco, which had just opened in Casablanca. One thing that struck me was that they didn’t necessarily teach women to get out of an abusive situation. In that society, being a self-supporting woman is sometimes not an option, so they teach women strategies to minimize the abuse or to handle it better. It was a harsh concept to accept.”
Arnold also spent part of the summer traveling to Senegal with a grant from the French government to study the culture of that nation. Her interest in French and francophone culture (Francophone refers to French-speaking nations other than France) has developed over a lifetime. Arnold’s mother is originally from France, and although English was the primary language in their home, Arnold also became proficient in French as a child and wanted to study the language further. Arnold became a French major at the University of Minnesota and studied abroad in Montpellier, France. After graduating in 1988, Arnold earned a French Maitrise degree in linguistic from the University of Savoie, in Chambery, France. Arnold then entered a masters’ program at the University of Minnesota in French Literature where she earned an M.A. Arnold then became a doctoral candidate in the University of Minnesota’s Second Languages and Cultures program, before enrolling in the University’s Law School.
In law school, Arnold developed a desire to study the culture of French-speaking nations she had not visited before, especially in light of her new law studies. “I wanted to think about ways to combine my background in French with law. I became interested in West Africa while experiencing so many different cultures in France.” Arnold’s experiences as an intern in Morocco in 1995 would go on to have a great impact on her career as a lawyer and a teacher: “My mentor had come in contact with the human rights center through a trip to Minnesota where he was very impressed with the Center for Victims of Torture in Minneapolis. He himself had been unjustly imprisoned for almost twenty years because of his beliefs, and he wanted to start a similar Center in Morocco. His courage and optimism were truly inspiring. The Organisation had a great deal of publications and resources and I brought a great deal of those publications back to use in my courses here. They were really helpful not only in updating me on the situation in Morocco, but in generally offering human rights education in the course at taught at the University of Minnesota.”
Arnold had already been teaching French language courses at the University of Minnesota for five years prior to her fellowship and continues to do so today. Her decision to switch to a focus in law and her current work in that profession has allowed her to bring her personal and professional experience to the French studies courses she offers: “I funded my law school education by teaching. As a master’s student and law student I was teaching mainly first and second year French courses, which can get very repetitive. But I was able to develop some courses using information I picked as a fellow in Senegal and Morocco. I taught a 3000-level French class called Introduction to Human Rights and taught a 5000 level course called ‘Senegal and Morocco: Teaching a Language and Culture Curriculum’ for French teachers from across the state trying to enrich their curriculum.” Arnold also taught a legal French course for the University of Minnesota Law School and presently teaches American Law for Interpreters as part of the University’s interpreter training program.
As Arnold continues to integrate human rights issues into her French language courses at the University of Minnesota, her work as an attorney at Thomas Tuft Law Offices in St. Paul remains her professional focus: “I work in family law. I deal with domestic abuse, interstate and international child custody, and parental abduction cases.” She went on to explain the way an interest in human rights has manifested itself in her career as a family lawyer: “My area of interest is interstate or international cases where a child has been endangered and someone needs to get that child back. Family law is a very stressful field, but you feel good when a parent comes to your office crying because a child has been abducted by the other parent, and you’re able to get that child back. Sometimes you don’t have success, and that’s hard, but the work can also be very satisfying.”
Since her fellowship in 1995, Arnold has succeeded in integrating her interest in French-speaking cultures with the law work that led her to Morocco, while constantly staying connected to the human rights issues that she studied during law school and her time in Africa. As she reflected on how she has been able to combine these two professions with human rights as the thread that ties them together, she said, “Practicing law is hard work, but it is also very rewarding. You have to practice in a field you’re interested in, in something you’re passionate about. For me, that is family law. And it’s the same with teaching. To be successful, you have to have your heart in it.”
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