Courtney Kiehl

Clinicians, Humanists --with guest author Courtney Kiehl

Courtney Kiehl
Clinicians, Humanists --with guest author Courtney Kiehl

My clinical work has been marked by tragedy. I am not alone in that. Clients lose their dignity and their lives in our world with remarkable frequency.  A few days ago, on the third anniversary of the loss of my clinic's client Traci Raymond Miscavish in a murder-suicide resulting from domestic violence, I met a leader in this work who inspires me. Eve Ensler has been a seemingly tireless advocate for victims of sexual violence for decades.  But she has also written extensively about her survival of cancer and its link to her awakening to the need for self-care for advocates. Her work now relates directly to the connection we all experiences as humans, and our need to model self-care as we are fighting for others to care for--or simply not harm-- one another. The photo of us after a few precious moments of dialogue about this topic among other Penn State advocates for victims of sexual andintimate partner violence is below.  Also pictured below is a photo of my Family Law Clinic's graduate fellow, Courtney Kiehl with an inspiring human rights advocate she met recently through our work at Penn State.  Courtney's work with my interdisciplinary research partner, Penn State's Weiss Chair of the Humanities Rosemary Jolly, has inspired me to evolve as a scholar and teacher.  Human rights and its connection to justice in a systemic way are informing the articles I write, the doctrines I focus on in the classroom, and the daily interactions I have with clinical students.  Our connections enable our collaborations, which increase our capacity as legal advocates.  Here is Courtney in her own words:

As a recent law graduate and someone who has spent most of her life working with victims of sexual and domestic violence, I’m drawn to studying human rights. Still, I’m a 26-year-old middle-class American who with much to learn about human rights.  At a recent conference on African human rights, I was shocked at the connects I experienced.  

One speaker asked me why I came to Penn State Law from California.  I told her that I started working with survivors after coming forward about the sexual abuse I suffered by the hands of my gymnastics coach as a child.  An expression of deep sadness came over her face.  It was genuine in a way that I’m not even sure I’ve ever seen in the 12 years I’ve been telling my story.  It was as if in that moment, the thought that people we trust are capable of hurting us in an immensely devastating way.

For me, that was the moment it clicked. This woman, who came from South Africa, a nation that has been through apartheid and colonization, a nation where a myriad of horrible injustices are the norm, was reacting to hearing my experience in the same way I reacted to hers.  Our mutual sadness and bewilderment was evident as we reflected on the terrible things humans do to one another.

Later, the brilliant speaker Tushabe wa Tushabe discussed the oppression of individuals who don’t conform to gender norms in our hetero-normative world.  With scrunched eyebrows, Tushabe said, “Why would you do something to someone that you wouldn’t want for yourself? Simple as that. Why?” You could have heard a pin drop.  She continued, “It must be that the life you’re looking at doesn’t matter.”  To address human rights violations, we must see the survivors as fully capable humans with experiences, thoughts, and lives that matter.

The conversations spanning the course of the weekend have inspired me and allowed me to feel more connected and less alone than I ever have before.  I hope to never forget this feeling and am eternally grateful for the beauty and generosity of the brilliant humans I was fortunate enough to spend two days with.