ELAB profile interview: Noah Ponton
For our fourth ELAB member profile, Colombe Tricaud spoke with Noah Ponton, a member of the ELAB Advocacy committee. Noah’s dedication to human rights started on Capitol Hill but has now evolved to include philanthropic activities within the fund he currently works for.
Colombe: Why did you decide to pursue a degree in Political Science and Peace, War, and Defense?
Noah:I have always been deeply interested in the study of politics. When I came to university, I knew it was something that I wanted to study. What I appreciated most about my Peace, War, and Defense program was that it allowed me, through an interdisciplinary lens, to connect what I studied in my political sciences classes to other fields like geography, history, and philosophy. I ended up doing an independent study on the role of historical truth commissions in the United States and their connections to transitional justice activists working in countries like South Africa, Chile, and Sri Lanka.
Colombe: Would you say that you have a regional specialization?
Noah: I would say that I’m particularly interested in global politics and governance, there’s not one specific region of the world that I have specialized in. Over the years I have been fortunate enough to travel and study in various parts of the world. During my undergraduate years, I took courses on Southeast Asian politics and economics in Singapore, Malaysia, and Thailand; I have studied Arabic and lived with a host family in Morocco. I was also able to study British and European politics and work in the United Kingdom. That said, over the past four years, my current role has been focused on issues related to migration, labor rights, and corporate accountability across the Gulf and South Asia.
Colombe: How did you first get into human rights work?
My first exposure to working on human rights was when I volunteered for a local non-profit that was supporting refugee families being resettled in the Chapel Hill area. Most of our work was about building a sense of community with individual families by helping with homework, going out to the movies, or simply being a resource to one another. Fast forward to today, I now work for Humanity United, a private foundation that focuses on issues related to forced labor and human trafficking. For the last four years, I have supported and managed our foundation’s grant-making program focused on the Nepal to Qatar migration corridor to raise awareness around the conditions facing low-wage migrant workers who have been part of the construction for the 2022 FIFA Men’s World Cup.
Colombe: What main differences do you find working in non-governmental organizations vs, government?
Noah: At an NGO, you are much more likely to be further in the weeds of doing research, advocacy, and campaigning work. As it’s often described, you are on “the frontlines.” Whereas as a funder, you are one step removed from the action and your goal is about supporting other NGOs and organizations in achieving their own goals and priorities. I believe that one of the central goals (and responsibilities) of funders to think about what role they can play in making a healthier and more resilient civil society space.
Colombe: Who are the strongest influences in your life and what have they taught you?
Noah: My parents. Something that I appreciated about their approach to learning, was that instead of telling me what or how I should learn, they focused on creating the environment that made learning exciting. I often try my best to emulate this approach in my own work today.
Colombe: Some important concerns in human rights work revolve around eurocentrism and neo-colonialism. What has been your approach to these issues?
Noah: The first step is recognizing that the work of decolonization and the work of human rights are inseparable and inextricably linked. The second step is taking concrete actions to make this a reality. This might include educating oneself on the contributions of activists from the global South to the broader human rights movement. If you are working at an international NGO or within the foreign aid sector, maybe that means finding ways to partner with local groups and build that knowledge in-country. And finally, as someone who works for a private foundation, maybe your decolonization work means seeking ways to remove the barriers that often prevent global South organizations from receiving funding in the first place.
Colombe: How has working on forced labor and human trafficking shaped the way you view the defense of human rights internationally?
Noah: It has highlighted the importance of an intersectional lens in human rights, to understand how different rights violations and global challenges are so deeply interrelated. When speaking of issues of forced labor and human trafficking, it’s impossible not to also consider the impact of climate change on individual people’s migration patterns, or how a limited civic space and restrictions on freedom of the press make it harder for victims of forced labor to come forward and share their stories of abuse.
Colombe: Why did you decide to join the Human Rights First ELAB?
Noah: Human Rights First is an incredible organization that I deeply respect. For years, Human Rights First’s researchers and advocates have been at the forefront of raising awareness around the abuse and use of torture at U.S. military detention centers, and the need to protect asylum seekers coming to this country. I wanted to join the Emerging Leaders Advisory Board to support HRF’s mission and strategic vision by amplifying their work within my own professional network, and to find new allies and communities of young people who don’t engage with human rights issues in their day-to-day lives.