ELAB Profile Interview: María Obezo
In our third ELAB profile, member Colombe Tricaud speaks with María Obezo from our Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) committee. Maria’s work focuses on advocating for the equal treatment of Afro-Colombian communities. In her work, she harnesses her skills as a lawyer both at home and within larger international organizations.
Colombe: Human Rights Law can be confusing. Can you talk a bit about your studies and why you decided to pursue this career path?
María: I’ve been interested in inequality issues from a young age. I was born in Cartagena, a city in Colombia that is made up of a majority of Afro-Colombians who still suffer from racism and inequality. Ever since I was little I knew change had to happen and I needed to be a part of it. That’s how I decided to go to law school in the first place and started working with organizations that would mainly focus on issues that had to do with Afro-Colombian women who had suffered from not only racism but other forms of discrimination. After that, I specialized in public law. I worked in the Colombian judiciary branch, but when I decided to take a step towards international organizations in my career, I pursued a Master’s Degree (L.L.M) which was one of the best decisions I’ve made in my entire life. After this enriching experience, I got a fellowship and went to the International Development Law Organization (IDLO), where I learned a lot, and as of last month, I am at the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA).
Colombe: Congratulations, that’s so exciting! Can you tell us more about these experiences?
María: Both at the IDLO and at the UNFPA I was involved in the legal departments, which meant I typically dealt with anything related to legal advising. Even with recruitment and employment, the team takes care of the entire company’s legal matters, it’s a lot! The work I did in Colombia had more to do with human rights on its own, but legal advising was also gratifying in the sense that it felt like I was helping the right people do the right things to advance human rights. I also had an internship at the Cyrus R. Vance Center for International Justice that was focused on the Colombian peace process and how companies and enterprises could implement certain chapters in the Colombian peace treaty that they were concerned with.
Colombe: It’s fascinating how you’ve been able to have both a local and international focus in your journey. What is something that motivates/inspires you?
María: I was going to say young people, but I think humanity in general. A lot of people are having an awful time on the planet, and I believe that humanity needs help to get better. It’s a broad answer, but that truly is my motivation.
Colombe: I agree, that’s what is at the core of this work! Now, could you tell us about your current job?
María: I am a legal analyst for the UNFPA, so in general my job is to provide advice to the organization. The work is varied, and I’m still learning since I just started. We work with a couple of legal specialists.
Colombe: How do you balance your human rights work/interests with your personal life, especially considering how international and diverse your career has been?
María: Human rights interests are part of my work, but anyway I think human rights are everywhere all the time. From the subway to the convenience store, it’s almost like it’s more of a lifestyle, it’s about how you treat people and choose to act.
Colombe: What was an obstacle in this career path or your life that you were able to overcome?
María: I think the biggest obstacle I had to overcome was my lack of resources. My parents always supported me, but financially they couldn’t, so through law school, through my masters, I had to save, I had to apply to a thousand scholarships, my fellowship had to be funded…every time I had to find a way to make it happen, but you have to be resilient because most of the time you encounter “no’s.” That is the biggest difficulty I face.
Colombe: You were recently working back in Colombia defending your community before coming back to NYC. Why?
María: When I decided to pursue an international career, I did that in the sense that someday I would go back and apply the knowledge and experiences I’ve acquired to give back to my own community. That was the reason why I started studying in the first place.
So that’s my ultimate goal, yes. Also, unfortunately, in countries like mine, you don’t get credibility until you leave your environment and seek experiences in larger organizations, so it was also a necessary step for me to even be able to come back to Colombia and give back.
Colombe: When you were a child, did you imagine you would end up here?
María: Not at all! I wanted to be an astronaut, and then a doctor! I ended up studying law. It’s still helping humans, in a very different way
Colombe: Now that you’ve been in this field for a while, what do you have to say about intersectionality in your field?
María: I think that as a Black woman, as a Colombian, as someone who is not that privileged, I know how hard it is to attain certain positions. There aren’t that many spaces for people who look at me – for people who come from where I come from. I do know that a lot of organizations are trying to be more diverse and give opportunities to more people, but it is still hard and requires a lot of effort. It’s something that I’m happy to see being discussed and taken into account because that is how you start solving the issue
Colombe: Why did you decide to join the Human Rights First Emerging Leaders Advisory Board?
María: A friend told me about it! I read about the idea of inspiring the next generation of human rights leaders and of reaching out to younger audiences, and I felt like that was a great way to go about things. We usually focus on the ones that can already influence others and who have resources but often forget about those who are coming after us. I think that is something we have to cultivate and let grow.