By Paras Shah ’19
Via International Human Rights Clinic Blog
In the almost ten years since she graduated from Harvard Law School, human rights lawyer Maryum Jordan (A.B. ’10, J.D. ’14) has become a legal chameleon. From the lush banks of the Peruvian Amazon to the rugged shoreline of Alaska, Jordan has developed legal strategies to sue a massive mining company, documented human rights violations and provided evidence to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, and fought anti-Black policies in the U.S. immigration system. Jordan has learned to shift between roles and wear many different hats in her domestic and international work.
“I think it’s a combination of being a lawyer, being an investigator, being a legal assistant, being a travel agent, being a therapist, being, you know, someone that helps, in some situations, to peel potatoes,” Jordan said. But no matter the continent or role, Jordan remains dedicated to amplifying the voices of the communities she serves.
Becoming a Human Rights Lawyer
Jordan first developed an interest in the law while studying Anthropology at Harvard College. As a kid she loved history and was fascinated by ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia. That love for the past eventually turned into two summers working at archeological sites in Peru. While there, Jordan learned about a legal battle over thousands of ceramics, jewelry, and human bones that Yale explorer Hiram Bingham removed from Machu Picchu. The questions at the heart of that case—questions about who owns the past and the rights to cultural heritage—captured Jordan’s imagination and ignited her desire for justice.
During law school Jordan enrolled in the International Human Rights Clinic where she documented war crimes and human rights violations against ethnic minorities in eastern Myanmar and helped produce a documentary about living and working conditions in Marikana, a South African mining town. Along with the practical skills she gained like how to track human rights abuses, advocate creatively, and build diverse coalitions, Jordan developed something that is harder to define, but equally important: her human rights philosophy.
Jordan asked herself what it meant to advocate for, and with, a community. “I learned just to be as intentional as possible about my role as a human rights attorney. To have that self-awareness and reflection was something that I really took away from the Clinic,” she said.
“I learned just to be as intentional as possible about my role as a human rights attorney. To have that self-awareness and reflection was something that I really took away from the Clinic”
Part of that reflection and intentionality comes from Jordan’s own biracial identity as the daughter of a Black father and Indian mother. Jordan said that her experience as a racial minority helps her to develop stronger bonds with indigenous community partners as they work toward a common goal because everyone can understand what it’s like to feel different.
“I think I was used to being in the position where I wasn’t quite the same as the other communities I was working with. But, I was definitely comfortable managing that and in some ways being perceived as a minority from the U.S. helped me develop stronger relationships with the community, in which I think they saw some solidarity in what it meant to be someone who was marginalized,” she said.
Creating an Impact in the U.S. and Abroad
After graduation, Jordan returned to Peru through a fellowship at EarthRights International where she mapped human rights violations committed by multinational corporations. EarthRights wanted to file lawsuits against the companies to hold them accountable in U.S. courts.
One of those cases involved the Chaupe family, including Goldman Environmental Prize Winner Máxima Acuña-Atalaya de Chaupe, who are subsistence farmers in the rural highlands of Cajamarca, Peru. EarthRight’s lawsuit alleged that Newmont Mining Corporation, one of the largest gold producers in the world, illegally claimed the right to the Chaupe family’s land. Jordan built the case from the ground up, interviewing the Chaupe family, gathering evidence, formulating legal theories, and navigating thorny procedural questions in both the U.S. and Peruvian legal systems.
“It was definitely challenging—a recent law school grad thinking, ‘okay, how do we sue the second largest mining company in the world?’” Jordan said.
After four years of international work, Jordan joined the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law as a Counsel in the Special Litigation and Advocacy Project. That team specialized in cross-cutting racial justice issues that refused to fit neatly into a single category, such as anti-blackness in the U.S. immigration system, environmental justice, discriminatory policing practices, and discrimination against Black farmers in the rural South.
Jordan noticed that while the context of her work—the place and types of cases (civil rights and constitutional claims instead of tort claims)—had changed, many of the skills she honed at the Clinic remained the same.
“I had never really worked in a domestic context before. I think part of the reason why I was a good fit for that position was [because] I had a lot of experience working with communities and being comfortable as an outsider. And so, in this job, I had to really just apply the skills that I had developed at EarthRights and when I was at the Clinic, but in a domestic context,” she said.
The Clinic partnered with Maryum and her colleagues at the Lawyers’ Committee to investigate the disparate impact of water policies in a North Carolina county, which left low-income, Black residents without access to public water and sewer services for generations.
“One of my favorite parts of that collaboration was watching Maryum mentor current clinical students, showing them how to work in community and be sensitive to all kinds of complex power dynamics,” said Susan Farbstein, the Clinic’s director. “She had travelled their same path and was such a clear role model for the type of advocate they could become one day.”
In 2022, Jordan returned to EarthRights as a Climate Justice Attorney—a role that will allow her blend the human rights and environmental advocacy that launched her career nearly a decade ago with the racial justice work she pursued at the Lawyers’ Committee. Some of Jordan’s projects include supporting a coalition of indigenous tribes in Alaska and Louisiana that are experiencing displacement from climate change. The team wants to take a holistic approach to its work, using frameworks from international human rights, corporate accountability, litigation, and media and political advocacy.
Jordan’s work has crossed continents, bridged cultures, and captivated courtrooms, but her focus is always the same: “I aspire to really center whatever legal or advocacy work we pursue on the goals and needs of the community and to really take the lead from them.”