MHR student Maria Ignacia Terra profiled for summer project

Practical Experience Offers Students Local Context for Global Human Rights Agenda
October 31, 2017 by Anna Vitale

What do safe consumption sites and the soda tax have to do with human and civil rights? Maria Terra found out during her internship with the Seattle Human Rights Commission at the Seattle Office for Civil Rights (SOCR). Maria applied her knowledge of human rights learned through her Masters of Human Rights course work to local human rights and social justice issues.

Maria’s internship with a municipal Human Rights office gave her the opportunity to develop her skills as an integral part of the team. She was independently in charge of many duties and projects throughout the summer. This included organizing a community meeting in a Seattle neighborhood to discuss and understand issues facing that neighborhood. She organized a forum in China Town/ International District during which community members were able to express their thoughts on security issues, housing and homelessness, and the opium epidemic. The Commission and Maria then used this information to develop further activities the Commission could undertake to tackle these issues.

Another important duty Maria had was to participate in the writing of letters and statements on research and later provide public testimony about them, related to city housing, taxes, safe consumption sites, and other issues for City Council members and other government officials. Maria also got to do site visits to a navigation center, and see how they operate. Navigation centers are safe housing locations that homeless individuals and families can stay in for up to 60 days. This was important to her professional experience because she got to see first-hand how those sites work and how protection of human rights to an adequate living are being applied on a local level in Seattle.

One issue that stood out for Maria was homelessness in Seattle. Homelessness has become a very serious issue that is difficult to address through public policy. She participated in the drafting a letter to Seattle Mayor Ed Murray about the sustained increase in homelessness over the years. The letter outlines data on the number of homeless people in the city and demonstrate that the city has a public health and housing emergency. The state of homelessness in the Seattle contradicts the city declaring itself a Human Rights City. Read the letter here. Maria said she would very much like to go back to Seattle and keep working on this topic.

Another soon to be implemented policy that Maria helped to influence is the creation of safe consumption/ injection sites where drug users have access to clean needles. The sites are stocked with the overdose- reversing drug naloxone, and aim to save lives and connect people dealing with addiction to treatment services. This is an effort by Seattle Mayor Ed Murray to halt the surge of heroin and prescription opioid overdose deaths in Seattle and the surrounding areas. These safe consumption sites are a first of their kind in the country and seek to save hundreds of lives and provide an avenue for drug addicts to seek help. Maria provided public comment at the City Council in favor of these sites on behalf of the Commission.

When Mayor Murray proposed a two-cents-an-ounce tax on soda sweetened with sugar Maria and the Commission used her experience and knowledge of human rights to address a tax which would have unfairly burdened disadvantaged populations. Using SOCR research and public comment given by Maria to the City Council, she participated in the creation of a letter to the City Council and Mayor’s Office addressing concerns about the City Council’s decision to remove diet sodas from the sweetened beverage tax proposal. The Seattle Human Rights Commission found this decision to be racially discriminating because with this change this tax would be borne disproportionately by the poor and people of color. SOCR’s research found that drinks sweetened with sugar are more often consumed by people of color and poor people whereas diet drinks, which are sweetened with other substances, were more likely to be consumed by upper middle class white people. Read the letter to the Seattle City Council and Seattle Mayor here.

Maria acquired many skills working with the Human Rights Commission and the SOCR that will help her as she completes her Master of Human Rights degree and advances in her career. One of the most important skills that she was able to hone was public speaking. English is not Maria’s native language so she has been uncomfortable with public speaking in the past. As part of her internship Maria presented opinions and research to the Seattle City Council and also attended briefings and public comments every week. This gave her many opportunities to practice speaking and presenting in public. To see Maria in action, visit here and go to minute 31:21.

While many people think about international issues when they hear the words human rights, Maria was able to see first-hand how human rights ideas and principles can be applied on a local level. In her final year as an MHR student Maria is continuing her studies of both local and global human rights issues and exploring various career paths, mainly focused on law and policy related to human rights issues.

Maria would like to thank the Summer Domestic Internship Grant through the Humphrey School of Public Affairs for allowing her to have this summer in Seattle.                     
© 2015 Regents of the University of Minnesota. All rights reserved. The University of Minnesota is an equal opportunity educator and employer. Privacy Statement