Akshaya Kumar: A Pittsburgh Native Working for U.N.’s Human Rights Watch

By Rashi Venkataraman,  Washington DC             Rashi1220@gmail.com

Editor’s Note:  This spring, Rashi Venkataraman, a native of Murrysville, PA talked to Akshaya Kumar, the Deputy UN Director for Human Rights Watch in Washington. A graduate from Upper St. Clair, Akshaya attended George Washington University and then earned her law degree from Columbia University. Her academic and professional work has taken her to London, Egypt, Sudan and South Sudan.  Akshaya Kumar currently lives in New York City with her husband. Rashi went to Franklin Regional High School and earned her BS and MS from Carnegie Mellon University. She spent a year in Indonesia as a Fulbright Scholar. After working for the Veterans Administration for several years in different capacities, she now works for a nonprofit outfit in the healthcare-related field.

Rashi: Tell me a little bit about your current role.

Kumar:  Since 2015, I’ve worked for Human Rights Watch, one of the largest human rights organizations in the world.  Human Rights Watch is focused on reporting and shedding light on human rights conditions around the world. The United Nations has the power and authority to affect and address human rights in many parts of the world, and my role is focused on helping the UN do their job better.

Rashi: Since the administration change in the US in 2016, what are the biggest challenges you face doing your work in 2018?

Kumar:  One of the great things about the Human Rights Watch is that our work has never solely relied on the United States as a vehicle for positive change in the world. More broadly, the United Nations is based on the principle of nations coming together from all over the world to inspire change. While there are disagreements about what that change might look like, there’s a shared sense of principles and intentions. And it’s in that shared spirit of trying to do the right thing to improve peoples’ lives that we are able to work with our counterparts at the UN on different initiatives.

Rashi: Beyond the standard accomplishments question, what is the coolest project you’ve worked on?

Akshaya: Well, the one that probably excited my family in India the most is the Op-Ed piece in the New York Times I co-authored with George Clooney and John Prendergast. It was great to shed light on the conflict in Darfur. It’s great when you can harness the power of celebrity to shed light on an important topic.

Rashi: What advice would you give young Indian-Americans growing up in Pittsburgh that might be interested in your career track?

Kumar: Pittsburgh can feel like a small town when you’re growing up and interested in international affairs. I didn’t even know a job like this existed when I grew up in Pittsburgh! There’s no reason to feel like you have to operate in a certain lane. I went to law school and got my law degree, but you don’t have to practice law if you don’t want to; there are ample opportunities to take that legal training to create your own niche.  I’ve found that my law background and training has been a great foundation for doing the international justice work that is my passion.

Rashi:  What do you miss most about Pittsburgh?

Kumar:  I left Pittsburgh about fifteen years ago when I left to pursue my degree in Washington, DC. Further academic pursuits and jobs have taken me to New York, London, Egypt, Sudan, and South Sudan. When I think about growing up in Pittsburgh, I think of the tight-knit Indian community there that had so many common experiences to really bind us all together. I definitely miss the familiarity of seeing the same families at the temple during the weekend; it really fostered the sense that we were all part of a community. I’ll always feel really grateful for that and look forward to paying that forward to future generations.     ♠


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