Dr. Zelma Henriques is a professor in the Department of Law, Police Science and Criminal Justice Administration at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, C.U.N.Y. A former post-doctoral fellow at Columbia, Henriques’s earliest affiliation with the Human Rights Advocates Program (HRAP) was as a fellow at the Center for the Study Human Rights. Out of a pool of 135 applicants representing individuals from 32 countries, she was the recipient of one of five fellowships awarded by the Rockefeller Foundation. She earned her BA at Morgan State University, her MA, MSW and PhD at Columbia University. Her early research focused on the impact of maternal incarceration on the lives of children.
Invited to become a board member for the Center for the Study of Human Rights (now Institute) soon after completing her fellowship, she began the annual tradition of hosting the advocates at her home north of the city, for dinner, discussion, and debate.
Recalling her favorite memories of the advocates, she shares, “I am impressed with the willingness of young people to take on issues which are challenging –their commitment to taking a stand for human rights. “ Henriques recounts that many advocates hosted by the Institute in the past have come from countries experiencing political turmoil and have themselves been jailed for taking a stand against human rights atrocities. She states, “There are all kinds of people, people working at the grassroots level facing risks, but who care enough to go out and find out what peoples’ issues are and place them in a context where people are seen as people of value. It’s difficult and challenging.” She highlights the value of the work of human rights advocates acknowledging the importance of their contribution to society.
Frequently, Henriques invites advocates to attend events in and around the community to share their experiences and educate others about the human rights work they are engaged in back in their home countries. Recounting a story of a trip she organized for advocates to Rikers Island, a prison facility in the city, she recalls one advocate’s observation of the disproportionate concentration of minorities in the prison system and the discussions on human rights which were sparked from such observations.
Sharing her thoughts about the advocates and their interactions with one another, she is impressed by the bond of friendship and family they establish. She fondly recalls, “It’s interesting to see a group of people from all over the world come together with love and joy—like a family, helping and supporting one another.”
About HRAP and its participants, she reflects warmly, “Here are people coming from many corners of the world--they come, they connect, they work together, they embrace each other and that’s another way we are helping to make this world a better place.” She continues, “We need to be doing those things to help create a better world. It begins in small ways, but it can have enormous impact. To me, this is what human rights is all about.”
When asked to speak about why her commitment to the advocates has remained so strong, she attributes her dedication to two factors. One is the human rights fellowship she received which allowed her the opportunity to travel and connect with other activists. The other is her upbringing, which taught her the importance of helping those less fortunate.
Her current work addresses the issues of inequality, race, class, and gender. Having observed the dramatic percentage increase in rates of women’s incarceration, Henriques’s research now focuses on the societal implications of the incarceration of mothers and aims to analyze and develop policies which will impact both rates of incarceration and rates of recidivism of children prone to entering the system. She sees this phenomenon unambiguously as a human rights issue. She states that as a result of, “the disenfranchisement of minorities and the poor, their children suffer, and the society suffers. We don’t benefit from what their contributions could have been, and it [continues] to the next generation, so we need to be doing something to address those kinds of issues.”
Further reflecting on the importance and relevance of the work of the advocates, she states, “We need to have people to stand up and ensure that rights are not disregarded, not trampled, not totally forgotten about as we try to balance budgets, as we downsize, because essentially it will impact on the rights of people to feed themselves, to take care of their families, to educate their children so that we will have another generation that will carry the torch forward—and all of this, speaks to the issue of human rights.”
—Article composed by Tiffany Wheatland, Program Coordinator, July 2010
Gabrielle Hernaiz-De Jesus joined HRAP as a program assistant during the 2016-2017 academic year. She is an incoming consultant at IBM and a member of the FlexMed program at Mt. Sinai, where she will be beginning medical school in August 2019. She graduated cum laude from Columbia College in May 2017 with a B.A. in Neuroscience and Business.