From Marin to The Hague, working for justice

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BERKELEY — When she isn’t working, Alexa Koenig enjoys hiking with her two dogs a five-pound Chihuahua and a 110-pound bundle of Great Dane and wolf-Lab mix and two kids near her home in Novato, which they all share with her husband. A lover of dance and theater, she financed most of her undergraduate education with the proceeds from a part in a long-running TV spot for Pacific Bell, and appeared as a latex-costumed alien in the “awful, awful” 1997 pseudo-documentary Area 51: The Alien Interview, for which she prepared by acting in plays by the likes of Shakespeare and Sophocles.

Alexa Koenig

Not working, however, seems almost an alien concept to Koenig, who’s finishing up her doctoral dissertation even as she transitions from an interim role to permanent executive director of UC Berkeley’s Human Rights Center. As for preparation, she traces a natural arc from her childhood in Mill Valley where she “grew up thinking a lot about social-justice issues” to the top administrative job at the HRC, which took her last year to a sexual-violence and accountability workshop in Kenya and, more recently, the International Criminal Court in The Hague.

“I really do want to engage pretty deeply with the work we’re doing on the ground,” says Koenig, an attorney whose job description focuses more on management than on the dark, sometimes dangerous side of the center’s mission. Koenig, though, is mission-driven. Since her arrival at Berkeley as a grad student she’s collaborated, for instance, with Eric Stover, the HRC’s globetrotting faculty director who was once hauled off to jail by the Serbian military under the eyes of UN peacekeepers, among countless other on-the-ground adventures to produce papers and books on such topics as torture and the pursuit of war criminals. And her doctoral dissertation is titled “Worse Than Death: Institutional Violence, Resistance, and the Law.”

“Growing up in Marin County, there was a push toward children having a very strong sense of social justice from a very young age,” she explains. Mill Valley, in particular, was “a town that prided itself on its connections to Native American history even though, if you look closely, there aren’t many Native Americans who are invited to be part of that dialogue, that connection.”

Koenig got her bachelor’s degree in world arts and cultures at UCLA, then spent four years handling marketing and public relations for a nonprofit devoted to teaching children about the natural world. She was producing a play in her spare time when an actor asked if she knew anyone who’d be interested in joining his wife’s PR firm, which did work on Native American issues.

By 1998 as California Proposition 5, the Tribal-State Gaming Compacts Initiative, was making its way to the November ballot Koenig was assisting tribal governments with media in a successful campaign for the right to run casinos on Indian land. She expanded that role in 2000 for a follow-up campaign, also successful, to incorporate Indian gaming rights into the state constitution.

That’s when she started to think about law school.

“The campaign manager took me aside and said, ‘You know, if you’re going to learn how to make members of the state Legislature and all these important attorneys listen to you, you’ve got to go get every big fat degree you can possibly get to boost yourself up,'” Koenig recalls. “‘You’re five feet tall, you’re blonde, you’re young, and they’re not going to listen to you otherwise.'”

She earned her law degree at USF, attending classes at night and working for tribal governments by day. She went on to earn a master’s in jurisprudence and social policy and will soon add a Ph.D. from Berkeley Law, now the campus home of the Human Rights Center.

Law, justice, accountability

The HRC has a longstanding connection to Berkeley’s law school, particularly its International Human Rights Law Clinic. Until recently, though, the center which turns 20 in 2014, and kicks off its anniversary celebration this summer remained a separate entity, housed in Stephens Hall. It now occupies more spacious quarters in a Berkeley Law office building on Telegraph Avenue. (Stover, an adjunct law professor, works out of Boalt Hall.)

“That central location allowed us to be at the hub of all these different programs happening here at Berkeley, and bring in students from all across the campus,” says Koenig, who notes that the center which has eight full-time employees is flexible enough to swell with graduate students and other researchers as needed, typically in the early stages of one of its ambitious projects.

“At the same time,” she adds, “the work we do is very intimately tied to the law. No matter what we do, it’s usually in some way either related to legal reform or to the courts  how to make the work of international tribunals, for example, more efficient and more effective, so that perpetrators are actually caught and tried and held accountable. The law school really is the right home.”

Given the far-flung character of the center’s work, of course, “home” is more of a way station. “It’s hard to schedule staff meetings,” Koenig says. “Trying to get us all in one country at the same time can be tricky.”

The director of the center’s Sexual Violence and Accountability Project, for example, Kim Thuy Seelinger, is based here, but spends much of her time in Kenya, Uganda and Liberia, with plans to expand the program to Southeast Asia. Cristián Orrego, who heads up forensic projects, travels often to El Salvador, helping to match families with children abducted by military forces during the 1980-92 armed conflict, and that phrase again hold the government accountable.

Koenig joined her colleagues in The Hague for an HRC-hosted workshop to help the International Criminal Court improve its use of forensic evidence in cases where personal testimony is apt to put witnesses in mortal danger. And the ICC has asked the center to conduct a survey of witnesses who have participated in trials of alleged war criminals, whether in The Hague or their own countries, with an eye toward providing better protection. Koenig expects to be hiring a global-justice director to guide that project, likely to begin in Kenya.

“One of the center’s greatest strengths is the network it’s part of,” she says, attributing much of its muscle to Stover, who joined the HRC as its sole director in 1995 long before anyone thought to add an administrative director. “Eric is so well-respected for the work he’s done. If it weren’t for his contacts with forensic scientists, with legal practitioners, with the ICC, with various NGOs, there’s no way we could carry out work on this scale.”

And then there’s the student fellowship program, which has connected more than 225 UC students until recently, all of them from the Berkeley campus with some 200 human-rights organizations in 65 countries. In keeping with the center’s interdisciplinary mission “pursuing justice through science and law” the summer fellowship program draws students from fields as diverse as anthropology, political science, law, environmental science, public policy, public health and medicine.

So how does an organization with eight full-time employees manage to do so much, in so many war-ravaged parts of the world?

“We hire workaholics,” Koenig laughs, “junkies for this kind of work who really can’t let it go.”

She knows whereof she speaks. She was teaching at USF’s law school when her program director suggested she consider the tenure track. Koenig applied to just one school, UC Berkeley, to advance her academic career.

“I found out I’d gotten in when I was nine months pregnant with my second child,” she says, “and decided to leap in with both feet anyway.”

Her daughter was born with multiple special needs, and before long Koenig was juggling her course load with trips home to nurse her and take her to doctor’s appointments. Nights she taught at USF. She’d finish her Berkeley homework by 1 or 2 in the morning.

But that wasn’t all. That first year at Berkeley she met Laurel Fletcher, the International Human Rights Law Clinic’s director, who was working with Stover on an investigation into detention and interrogation practices at Guantanamo. They hired Koenig to help on that project, “and I’ve been working for them in some capacity pretty much ever since.”

And leaping in, she might add, with both feet.

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