Martina Vandenberg PO ’90 speaks on experience in human rights work

Martina Vandenberg smiles warmly as she converses with people at the T'ruah's Annual Benefit 2014
Martina Vandenberg PO ’90 founded the Human Trafficking Legal Center to provide strategic litigation as a form of justice to trafficking survivors. (Courtesy: Wikimedia Commons)

As an attorney, activist and Pomona alumna, Martina Vandenberg PO ’90 wears multiple hats. From education to work experience, she has dabbled in many fields and is now settled in the field of human rights work.

A recipient of both the Rhodes and the Truman Scholarships, Vandenberg pursued further education at Oxford University, where she graduated with a Master of Philosophy in Russian and East European Studies, and at Columbia University, where she graduated with a J.D.

Vandenberg attributes Pomona College’s influence on her professional success as equipping her with valuable writing skills. 

“Someone once said that lawyers are just weaponized librarians, and what I say to that is actually, lawyers are weaponized writers,” Vanderberg said. “If you focus on learning anything at Pomona, you should focus on learning how to write. It will behoove you — it will be such a boon.”

She acknowledges the Pomona faculty who have been a supporting factor to her success. 

“My professors always believed in me,” Vandenberg said. “They really think we are capable of doing wonderful things, and when they believe, it compels us to believe it too.” 

Prior to joining Human Rights Watch, she worked as a researcher for the Israel Women’s Network. 

 “It was a big leap to take a year off of law school, because I went [to Israel] for a summer fellowship and extended it because I wanted to finish the report on trafficking of women for forced prostitution in Israel,” Vandenberg said. “I felt scared to be out of sync with my classmates and to be taking that year off. In a way, that was very unusual.”

Nonetheless, in hindsight, this experiential learning helped her feel prepared to work at the Human Rights Watch. 

“The time I spent in Israel, essentially learning everything, helped me transfer that knowledge into being a full time researcher at Human Rights Watch,” Vandenberg said.

After graduating from law school and completing four years at the Human Rights Watch, Vandenberg joined the law firm Jenner & Block LLP and eventually made partner. During her time there, she took on multiple pro bono cases.

Eventually, Vandenberg decided to work only on pro bono cases and departed from the firm to found her own foundation: the Human Trafficking Legal Center. She now provides strategic litigation as a form of justice to trafficking survivors. 

“There were many cases that I wanted to represent, but I couldn’t do them,” Vandenberg said. “I just decided that every law firm should have a pro bono practice group. So, I decided that it was much more efficient for me to leave the firm and start training lawyers and other firms and then providing technical assistance to all [these] lawyers at the other firms so that they could do the cases as well.”

Vandenburg enjoys the process of representing her clients in court — as well as getting positive results back.

“Winning brings me enormous joy.” Vandenberg said. “For example, I love it when we’re able to get a visa for someone to stay in the United States, and we’re able to get a visa for their children to come to the United States. I have seen a mother and a child reunite after 10 years.” 

She attempts to have both her actions and words reflect a desire to make change.

“I strive to change systems so that it’s easier for people,” Vandenberg said. “Changing the laws, changing infrastructure and changing the ways things work so that it’s easier for people to change.”

According to Vandenberg, ground-level work helps create this change. She advises students who want to pursue work in human rights to work on the ground. 

”Go to the trenches,” she said. “You have to invest time and energy. There are human rights violations in Mississippi or in Alabama, or you can work in Russia or Ukraine or the Central African Republic. But I think you actually have to ‘do’ before you can opine on what the policy should be.“

Vandenberg attests to the power of experiential knowledge over theoretical knowledge when it comes to working for humanitarian purposes.

“When you go to the trenches, you contribute in a meaningful way and you know how the world truly works,” she said. “It gives you credibility, but most importantly, it gives you substance.”

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