Stetson Law alumni, professors making a difference in the Caribbean
Story by third-year student Valeria Obi and Brandi Palmer
For most people, the Caribbean is a tropical paradise, a getaway destination where reef fish dart among sunken pirate gold in a boundless turquoise sea. For the people who live and work for equality and human rights in the Caribbean, a different picture emerges, one focused on the struggle for social justice.
Hundreds of years of colonialism and the transatlantic slave trade have left an indelible mark on the story of the Caribbean. Unemployment is rampant. Natural catastrophes like frequent hurricanes have struck the fragile islands. Hundreds of thousands of people died in Haiti in a devastating earthquake in 2010 and many of the survivors remain displaced and homeless today.
Through the law and humanitarian efforts, Stetson University College of Law alumni Peterson St. Philippe ’09, Genevieve Whitaker ’07 and professors Dorothea Beane and Darryl Wilson have dedicated significant time to creating opportunities for people to learn about the importance of human rights in the beautiful but troubled Caribbean. Alumna Afia Donkor ’08 is helping to make a difference for Haitian children in the Dominican Republic.
“I do think that the Caribbean faces very unique historical challenges,” said Whitaker, who was born and raised on St. Croix in the U.S. Virgin Islands.
“Our history also consists of great stories of freedom fighters, slaves themselves who in many cases were triumphant in seeking emancipation,” said Whitaker, who after graduating from Stetson returned to the Caribbean to advocate for juvenile justice and women’s rights.
In addition to Stetson Law, Whitaker graduated with a degree in International Human Rights Law from Oxford University and attended the 2011 Women’s Campaign School at Yale University. She completed the White House Project’s GO LEAD & GO RUN political leadership training program and received a Certificate in International Humanitarian Law from the International Committee of the Red Cross.
Today, Whitaker serves on the board of the Women’s Coalition of St. Croix, an organization formed to provide advocacy programs and services to end violence and oppression by promoting equality, and she is CEO of The Whitaker Consultant Group as well as the associate director of communications for AARP Virgin Islands. She recently participated in the Yahoo! Business and Human Rights Change Your World Summit held in Washington, D.C.
“My passion and foundation for human rights were cemented during law school and my experience studying abroad,” said Whitaker. “I found great mentors at Stetson, namely professors Dorothea Beane and Ellen Podgor and Dean Kristen Adams.”
Whitaker co-founded the Virgin Islands Youth Advocacy Coalition, Inc., where she is helping to educate young people about the importance of civic engagement and to research the oral and written history of social and political events in St. Croix.
“Very few children in the Virgin Islands are exposed to civics,” Whitaker explained.
“Growing up in Haiti was an experience like no other,” said St. Philippe. “Haiti has been a country cursed by political unrest for the better part of two decades. I left Haiti when I was 12 years old and by then I had lived through two political coup d’états. I remember schools shutting down for days at a time because of violence that would go on in the city. I remember the country going through a severe embargo that nearly crippled the country by increasing the price of goods between 60-70 percent overnight.”
St. Philippe worked with Gulf Coast Legal Services after graduating from Stetson Law before starting his own immigration law practice in Miami, Fla. At Gulf Coast Legal Services, St. Philippe’s work focused on representing undocumented Haitian immigrants who had been victims of serious crimes, including domestic violence, human trafficking and immigration scams.
A Haitian immigrant himself, St. Philippe knows what it is like to be victimized. At the age of 12, when St. Philippe’s mother first arrived in the U.S. from Haiti, she was scammed by con artists posing as legal practitioners who misguided her about the immigration process. With nowhere to turn, St. Philippe’s mother was left to navigate the process alone. Once his mother became a U.S. citizen, she petitioned for St. Philippe and his older sister, who spent their childhood in Haiti.
“My mother was at one time an undocumented immigrant and lived in fear of being sent back to Haiti like many of my clients at Gulf Coast,” said St. Philippe.
After the earthquake struck Haiti two years ago, killing more than 200,000 people and displacing thousands of others, St. Philippe concentrated his efforts on helping Haitian refugees to remain in the U.S. without fear of being deported.
“Although there have been some improvements in Haiti, the conditions are still dire,” said St. Philippe. “The work I did at Gulf Coast was the most fulfilling work that I have ever done, and I can’t think of any better way to use my Stetson education.”
Donkor, now a lawyer in Ontario, Canada, is helping with a school in the Dominican Republic for Haitian refugee children who have no access to education. The school, run and supported by Paul Washington Jones, a member of her church, fulfills a need for education that would otherwise go unmet.
“Because of the school, 80 school children have access to opportunities many of us take for granted. They are able to learn, to develop skills, and to understand how to implement their skills to build better futures for themselves and their communities,” Donkor said. “That is priceless.”
“It’s not just about money,” Professor Beane explained of challenges in the Caribbean. “There are people who don’t have shelter, healthcare, education, roads or even water.”
“Who advocates for people?” Beane asked. “You have to understand how the law can be used to help people including under-served groups like women and children. You have to be clever, tenacious and creative.”
Professor Beane served as a mentor to both St. Philippe and Whitaker while they were both at Stetson and said she is proud when her students use their talents to help others. She co-directs Stetson’s Institute for Caribbean Law and Policy with professor Wilson.
In 2008, Beane worked with a faculty consortium and Stetson Law students to assist the U.S. Virgin Islands in drafting its own constitution. A formidable human rights advocate, Beane’s background is in federal and civil law, subjects she had been teaching for some time as a law professor at Stetson when she decided to go back to school to “learn something new.”
Professor Beane attended Oxford to immerse herself in the study international human rights law and became the first full-time faculty member at Stetson to teach a course on the subject. Professor Beane has worked extensively in The Hague, Netherlands, on matters involving international criminal law and human rights. She helped create the foundation for Stetson’s study abroad program at The Hague.
She said that lawyers and law students can make changes that better people’s lives around the world.
“Lawyers make history,” Beane said. “Very brave individuals can change the law.”
“Through pro bono volunteering, fundraising, writing articles, reaching out to the community, and talking with young people about human rights, law students can influence society and influence the law in a number of ways,” said Beane.
To learn more about studying abroad in the Cayman Islands or the Institute for Caribbean Law and Policy at Stetson, visit http://www.law.stetson.edu/studyabroad/cayman/ or http://www.law.stetson.edu/international/caribbean/home/.
Post date: Sept. 6, 2012
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