Alumni Spotlight: Jasmine Heiss, Amnesty International

Over the past 15 years, Pozen Family Center for Human Rights alumni have included practitioners and academics who work across a broad spectrum of human rights issues. Our Alumni Spotlight feature highlights and recognizes their important contributions to both domestic and international human rights work.

As a student living in Hyde Park, Jasmine Heiss, AB 2010, was challenged by the issues of marginalization and exclusion embedded in the very landscape of Chicago’s South Side. Before she graduated, however, Jasmine was given a dramatically different context to consider race, class, identity, and the ways in which they become lived realities in the modern city.

Jasmine elected to intern at Fundacion PH15, a participatory photography project in Buenos Aires, Argentina for her internship sponsored by the Human Rights Internship Program. She was drawn to the project because it gave her a unique opportunity to explore how her background in photography might help advance social justice in Latin America.

Not long after arriving in Buenos Aires, it became clear to her that the villeros - people who occupied the villa miserias or “slums” of Buenos Aires - not only grappled with economic marginalization, but also social marginalization and discrimination. In the imagination of Buenos Aires’ middle class and elite, young people from the villa miserias loomed large as quintessential “hoods” or “thugs.”

Incidents of discrimination in the United States were not new to Jasmine, but the uncensored and explicit classism and racism that she witnessed in Buenos Aires was a stark change from the coded language in U.S. discourse. Locals bluntly advised her to refrain from visiting the villas: “if you go, make sure you know how to get out,” they cautioned, “you’ll get robbed, raped, or murdered.” These blatant prejudices also extended to unemployed immigrants looking for work, particularly Peruvian and Bolivian workers from the highlands.

In this context, many of the teens who participated in Ph15’s weekly classes were using photography not only as a tangible economic skill but as a language to speak about their experiences in galleries and museums to a previously unreceptive audience. For the first time, young villeros had the ear – or eye, so to speak – of mainstream Buenos Aires. So instead of working alongside activists marching the streets, Jasmine used her camera to understand issues of identity, exclusion, and discrimination. She also helped others use their cameras to amplify their own voices.

As she navigated Buenos Aires’ neighborhoods and boundaries, her training in the social sciences gave her a deeper understanding of how systems of exclusion are maintained over time but also how they might be slowly dismantled. Jasmine’s copy of Loic Waquant’s Urban Outcasts, a comparative study of Chicago’s ghettos and the French banlieue, offered an insightful lens to understand forms of marginality in urban areas. These incidents of discrimination also her gave an avenue to examine systemic and institutional issues through lens of personal and individual stories.

When asked how her Human Rights internship affected her career, Jasmine fondly recalled the spirit of critical inquiry at the University of Chicago. Her involvement with the Pozen Family Center for Human Rights encouraged her to challenge her own perceptions and accepted precepts to better understand contemporary problems in human rights.

By engaging with people directly on the ground, Jasmine explored questions about the self/other and participant observation outside the classroom, respecting the particularity of vastly different contexts while simultaneously identifying parallels in different contexts. Allowing her to go beyond social theory, the summer internship gave Jasmine the opportunity to engage in human rights practice in a meaningful and insightful way.

In 2010, Jasmine graduated Phi Beta Kappa in Anthropology, with minors in Human Rights and Fine Art. She joined the Amnesty International USA office in Washington, D.C., beginning as an intern and advancing to her current work as the Senior Campaigner for the Individuals and Communities at Risk program.

Jasmine’s work is focused on advocating for prisoners of conscience, human rights defenders, marginalized communities and other individuals who are at the heart of Amnesty International's work. She is also responsible for setting campaign strategies on behalf of individuals, building partnerships with other organizations, and representing Amnesty International to the media.

Last April, she returned to Chicago for Amnesty International’s 2014 Annual General Meeting. The conference focused on “bringing human rights home” and the launch of a report about the scope of human rights violations in Chicago. Among other issues, the report focused on the legacy of brutal police torture in Chicago under the direction of former Commander Jon Burge, and the critical need for reparations for Chicago torture survivors.

As Jasmine campaigns on behalf of torture survivors around the world, she is also focused on working with partner organizations to dismantle the legacy of racist police torture in Chicago. Just as during her internship in Argentina, Jasmine grapples with the similarities and stark differences between systemic human rights issues in diverse contexts – and continues to find hope for change.

Follow Jasmine’s work in human rights activism on Twitter at @JasminitaMH.