Human Rights Watch (HRW) is an independently-funded global organization comprising more than 550 people of 70-plus nationalities, including country experts, lawyers, and journalists. HRW investigates and reports on abuses happening in all corners of the world and works to protect the most at risk, directing advocacy toward governments, armed groups, and businesses to implement more equitable humanitarian laws, policies, and practices. San Francisco City Director Jen Haile shares how she works with an interconnected global team to effect real change from her home office and CANOPY Jackson Square.
Tell us about your City Director for Human Rights Watch role: how does the organization’s work inform your role and day-to-day life here in San Francisco?
We’re a global organization, and my role as City Director is to be a key connector in the Bay Area: strengthening relations with people who invest in our work, finding new partnerships, fundraising, and raising awareness of human rights issues. We have staff based in the Bay Area working on many issues, including LBGT rights, children’s rights, immigration, data analytics, and technology. We have HRW leadership, advocates, and researchers visiting the Bay Area regularly, and we bring people together to learn how we can collaborate and push forward policy change.
What attracted you to working at HRW?
My MBA was focused on social impact and international development, so it was a natural fit for me to work within a global human rights organization. Before joining HRW, I was part of creating Maverick Collective, a philanthropic and advocacy initiative of PSI (Population Services International), where I traveled the world to promote projects to reduce extreme poverty by investing in women and girls. It was very entrepreneurial and in keeping with the Bay Area ethos of collaborating with people who are risk-takers, philanthropists, and social investors: I was working for a startup and building a network of social investors for pilot projects in global health. Once we proved the concept, models could be scaled with substantial funding from global governments. We were building the bus as we drove it, and it was a fantastic learning experience.
I’m also a news junkie–previously, I worked at National Public Radio for almost 10 years–so joining HRW was a dream for me on many levels. HRW is one of the world’s leading global human rights organizations, and many of the staff have a background in journalism or law so it brings together my love of investigative journalism and social impact. HRW investigates human rights abuses, shares the findings broadly in more than 1,000 media stories a day, then uses these findings to effect policy change.
What are your day-to-day responsibilities?
I manage a small and amazing team and collaborate with program colleagues working on issues worldwide, including technology, climate change, women’s rights, or new crises and conflicts. Along with our incredible Bay Area HRW Committee, a volunteer leadership group, we develop programs to connect people and create opportunities for the wider community to learn about current human rights issues. We host discussions with visiting human rights experts, help with advocacy campaigns, and bring together leaders who can push forward policy issues. On any given day, I will be running from meetings with program colleagues, to an event at the Commonwealth Club, followed by a catch-up with our partners at Planet.
What does a typical work week look like for you?
I typically go into CANOPY a couple of days a week and work from home on the rest. Many of my colleagues are based on the east coast or Europe, so typically I’m on calls starting from 7.30 a.m. or 8 a.m., and while I try to clock off early, usually I’m still working in the late afternoon. My ideal day would be to start with a long walk with my husband Jeremy in one of the city’s beautiful parks, grab coffee and center myself, and then have a balanced day with meetings with our Committee members, planning for a women’s march, or outreach on an advocacy campaign. But those perfect days are rare. I usually make lunch at home, which I love, and then pick up a bowl at Cafe Reveille across the street when working at CANOPY.
When SF opened up for in-person work, why did HRW opt for hybrid coworking over remaining fully remote or leasing a dedicated office?
I’m a huge fan of human connection in person whenever possible, but giving folks the option is important. I’m surprised that we’ve been able to enjoy so much human connection virtually–there are some people in my office I have never met in person yet feel close to. I didn’t think that was possible before the pandemic, but it is. On a personal note, my quality of life by adopting a hybrid work model has improved dramatically–just being able to eat well, exercise, and get my steps in. A massive chunk of stress is gone from my life now that I don’t have to commute to the office five days a week.
How does your CANOPY membership support your workflow and connectivity?
We have a Hybrid membership which allows us to hot-desk at CANOPY Jackson Square and a Community Table spot so our team can choose what’s best for them. Previously we leased an office downtown but when the pandemic happened, it didn’t make sense to maintain one when people value the flexibility of hybrid coworking. We have around 15 team members based in SF, Half Moon Bay, Palo Alto and Oakland who can decide when they come into CANOPY to work. Three SF-based staff members work at Jackson Square regularly, usually on the fourth floor–probably because of Brian the barista! When I walk in the door, his energy brings me joy and centers my day. Now that CANOPY Menlo Park is also open, we’ll consider a membership there for South Bay folks.
HRW is already reducing its impact related to travel and office footprint. What else does sustainability mean to you, both in a professional and personal context?
I’m constantly thinking about the prospect of an uninhabitable Earth and the enormity of the problems around sustainability and the environment. Climate change could push more than 200 million people to leave their homes in the next three decades, which is a huge human rights issue. We should be doing everything we can personally and professionally to help solve the climate crisis. I’m doing small things like purchasing less clothing and eating less meat. Human Rights Watch as an organization constantly grapples with this issue because travel is part of our job; when gathering as a company or as a team we try to do so sustainably and in consideration of our carbon footprint. Many groups seem to be waiting for technology to fix everything, but we don’t have the luxury of finding solutions–the significant issues are already here.
Does HRW have a dedicated Climate Change department or partner?
We have an eight-person climate division team which we hope to grow significantly in the coming years. However, our environmental work extends to almost every one of our divisions–from women’s rights to refugee/migrant rights. While the impacts of climate change disproportionately harm members of marginalized communities, climate change affects us all.
HRW is uniquely positioned to channel the human stories of affected communities to policymakers, leaders, and the media. We work alongside indigenous communities, environmental groups, and global coalitions as part of an overall movement. Our top priorities are protecting forests and their defenders, phasing out fossil fuels, and documenting the human rights impacts of climate change. For example, we hope to build a framework for community relocation plans in the context of foreseeable climate impacts and are pressing governments to reduce public financing for fossil fuels. We are exploring new ways to use remote sensing and 3D and data analysis to help bolster this work.
Now that everyone is more comfortable meeting in person, what news would you like to share about upcoming HRW events?
Human Rights Watch is here to bring people together around the issues that affect all of us, from threats to democracy to climate change. We have our annual gathering on April 26, when we host a conversation with human rights leaders on connecting movements globally. I’m very excited about that, particularly because we last gathered as a big group before the pandemic. I’ll post upcoming events on the CANOPY website. CANOPY members can email me to receive our Friends and Family news!
Anything else you’d like people to know about HRW?
HRW doesn’t accept government funding, and we receive very little from corporations. We are able to do our work because of an incredible group of people who serve on 23 Committees around the world and donate their time and resources to advancing human rights. We have a vibrant San Francisco, East Bay, Marin, and South Bay community. Everyone can play a role in protecting and advocating for human rights.
One of the greatest lessons you learned in your career?
Always err on the side of not taking things personally. People have many things going on in their lives–it’s not always about you. You’ll waste a lot of time thinking about people’s motivations when you really have no idea.
Do you have any favorite podcasts or books, an album or movie you love, or would recommend to anybody?
For anyone who enjoys long shows, The Ezra Klein podcast. He goes in-depth on policy issues and has fantastic guests. He reminds me of my husband! I also never miss The Daily.
Do you have any destinations you love to travel to?
I love to travel to absorb other cultures and understand how others live–travel has been the most influential and educational aspect of my life. The one destination I never tire of traveling to is Berlin–I’ve visited the city three times, but if I could, I would go once a year. I love the mix of architecture, East and West, the parks, and the creative energy, and I have good friends there. It’s always been a place of radical acceptance, progressive ideas, and artistic freedom. It feels like home.
What are your favorite things to do in San Francisco?
Walking the city while going from urban life to nature in minutes. Grabbing coffee and walking through diverse neighborhoods, climbing the hidden staircases, visiting Coit Tower or Buena Vista Park. I love reading and picnics at Dolores Park, seeing a movie at the Castro Theatre, shopping on Valencia, and biking to Ocean Beach. The possibilities are endless–San Francisco is a magical place.
A skill everyone should master?
Everyone should be able to throw a great dinner party. It doesn’t have to be fancy or formal. Hosting people for dinner in your home is an incredible way to connect people and ideas and build community. Many people are intimidated to host because they want everything to be perfect, but the secret to a successful dinner party is to create good energy. I try to invite people from different fields who have never met and can share ideas from their various perspectives–mix it up.
Do you have any advice for hosting a great dinner party?
Keep the party going by asking good questions–it keeps conversation flowing and makes people feel welcome. Have a provocative question in your back pocket and invite one outgoing, super energetic person–a good “middle”, someone to carry the conversation ball. I like to do themes as it’s a great way to introduce new foods and drinks to guests–when I returned from a recent trip, I hosted a Mexico City-themed dinner. I usually cook some dishes, buy the rest, and don’t ask people to bring something to share other than wine because that adds an element of work and potential stress. And always offer a variety of drinks–the more drinks, the better!
To receive friends and family circulars from Human Rights Watch and stay in the loop regarding events, please email Jen at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Don’t miss HRW’s San Francisco celebration of human rights movements around the world and to welcome HRW’s newly appointed Executive Director Tirana Hassan (see her intro video here).
Location: Fort Mason, Gallery 308
Date: April 26, 2023
Time: 6 p.m. to 8 p.m.
Attendees will learn about climate activists in the Amazon, those leading the resistance against Russia, and the incredible women fighting for reproductive rights in South America. Space is limited, so please register soon.
Special guests will share stories about solidarity across movements, shifting power, and what gives us hope. They include Women’s Rights Director Macarena Sáez, Americas Researcher César Muñoz, and Russia Associate Director Tanya Lokshina.
The night kicks off with a brief reception at 6:00 p.m., music by the San Francisco Symphony’s Barbara Bogatin, followed by a one-hour program with theater style seating. Great food from Reems California & Bini’s Kitchen and Stag’s Leap and Patz & Hall wines will be available throughout the evening.