A marriage of policy and advocacy

A Q&A with fellows and human rights advocates Bennett Freeman and Rebecca MacKinnon during their residency at the Center on Global Transformation

Oct. 28, 2019 | By Rachel Hommel | GPS News

Build a career around a cause. For fellows Bennett Freeman and Rebecca MacKinnon the marriage of corporate responsibility and accountability has been at the center of their relationship since the beginning.

During their October Pacific Leadership Fellowship (PLF) residency at the UC San Diego School of Global Policy and Strategy's (GPS's) Center on Global Transformation, the dynamic duo shared their impressions, from their favorite sights on campus to catching up with former colleagues and key career lessons for budding advocates.

Bennett Freeman and Rebecca MacKinnonAs a husband and wife team working across the sectors, they met as founding members of Global Network Initiative, an organization dedicated to protecting and advancing freedom of expression and privacy in the ICT sector. Over the years, MacKinnon has fought tirelessly to promote freedom of expression and privacy on the Internet as the founding director of the Ranking Digital Rights program at New America.

“As we talk to internet companies, it’s not that they shouldn’t exist. They need to be accountable. Technology needs to be operated, governed and designed in a way that supports human rights and democracy,” warns MacKinnon in their joint talk, held October 16 in the Great Hall. 

Freeman, a longtime corporate responsibility advocate and former U.S. human rights diplomat echoes the sentiment from the viewpoint of working at the intersection of governments, multinationals, NGOS and trade. Serving as a presidential appointee in three positions at the U.S. Department of State in the Clinton Administration, he has kept in touch with his dear friend and former colleague Professor Richard Feinberg, the evening’s moderator.

“These two share a passion for bridging the gaps between the realms of ideas and action,” stressed Feinberg. “I can testify that every day they are mobilizing research and experience to make our world a better, just and more democratic place.”

Meeting with graduate students throughout their residency, it was clear they inspired other fellow human rights champions to set standards for corporate responsibility and accountability at GPS and beyond.

“As someone interested in the intersection of government and businesses in creating social and environmental impact, it was incredibly refreshing to meet professionals with lifelong careers in this field,” said Jenny Aldrich, MPP ‘20. “Their work was a reminder of the importance of when we become policymakers to understand the importance of forming partnerships with the private, public and NGO sectors to achieve real impact.” 

“The Net Impact student group focuses on social and environmental impact in all sectors,” echoed Rebeca Apel, MPP ‘20. “As a Net Impact member and environmental policy student, it was motivating to discuss the role businesses, organizations and individuals play in developing and implementing sustainable business practices and social responsibility.” 

What led you to GPS as PLF Fellows and what has been your overall impression so far?

BF: I was invited by Richard Feinberg, who was a colleague in the Clinton administration. Additionally, Professor Stephan Haggard was my T.A. at Berkeley in undergraduate. For the record, he was the coolest guy at Berkeley! He made a big impression on me. The name of the school — Global Policy and Strategy — in one phrase nails what I’ve done most of my career. I feel a kindred spirit with the mission of the school and how I see the world.

RM: I’ve been familiar with Peter Cowheys work for a long time since I work in Internet policy, as well as Susan Shirk when I was a CNN China correspondent. I’ve done a lot of work on Chinese internet and issues that overlap with Shirk’s work in government and academic work. Victor Shih, who sits across the hall from my fellowship office, I’ve been following for years. There’s a critical mass of people here that contributes to the ideas behind my work.

Bennett Freeman and Rebecca MacKinnon

During your residency, you will share your perspectives on corporate social responsibility and human rights norms. What do you hope to glean at GPS and across campus?

BF: I’m really interested in meeting faculty and learning from them on our overlapping interests. I love coming to universities and spending time with graduate students. Listening to students and hearing their questions helps challenge me in my own career.

RM: I hope to lead a workshop where we discuss how to reframe U.S. Internet policy for a new administration. What I work on is the question of how we govern, operate and design the Internet in a way that actually sustains democracy and human rights. There has been an assumption for a long time, that all you need is Internet and you will have democracy and human rights. That is not true.

As experts and leaders in human rights and corporate social responsibility, what are the key public policy lessons we can learn and what defines accountable governance in our 21st Century society?

BF: I’ve been working on corporate responsibility and accountability most of my career. I’ve spent a lot of time promoting the cause. I feel passionately that corporate responsibility must not substitute for public policy. It should supplement not supplant government responsibility.

RM: The key message of the UN Guiding Principles for Business and Human Rights is that governments have a duty to protect human rights, and companies have a responsibility to respect human rights. In an ideal world, everybody is holding everybody accountable. Governments must do their job in holding companies accountable with appropriate regulation. 

What’s been the most surprising visit or activity on the agenda so far during your stay?

BF: I love it all! Our Tijuana tour was wonderful, it is such a vibrant and sophisticated city. I’m really digging everything from the weather and fish tacos to the fact the name of the school crystallizes in one phrase my whole career. The world class expertise of faculty and the curiosity and enthusiasm is great! I’m a Native Californian and a product of the UC system and I’m a passionate believer in public education.

RM: I learned a tremendous amount from visiting Roger's Urban Farmlab (formerly known as Roger's Community Garden). I am a world-class non-expert in what they do, but the passion and ingenuity of the students and staff is incredibly inspiring. There is huge potential for their innovations to benefit not just all of UC San Diego and San Diego but communities around the country and beyond.

Additionally, the Fallen Star Art Exhibit left a profound impression on me. Having experienced cultural displacement as a child taken by my parents from American suburbia to several different major Asian cities in the 1970s, I could relate to the off-balance feeling that artist Do Ho Suh creates with the off-kilter house perched on top of a building. 

Do you have any parting career advice or lessons for students looking to get into CSR or human rights work?

Bennett Freeman and Rebecca MacKinnon

BF: In your career, what’s really important is to strike a balance between consistency and flexibility. Consistency – picking a theme, a cause, a set of issues, finding your lone star and changing the world in that way. Be committed and do it. Be true to your own values and vision. At the same time, be flexible about how you do it. Understand the importance of public policy and advocacy.

The real action is increasingly in the intersection among sectors. Those who gain experience and expertise working across sectors, not just within, will be the most valued.

RM: The key is to develop deep expertise on a set of issues that you are passionate about. Do not fixate on what job description you want to have or which organization you want to work for, or you will blind yourself to exciting opportunities you couldn't have anticipated.

Also, make sure that you are capable of continuous learning: when I graduated from college most of the issues I work on didn't exist. I have had to find ways to continuously upgrade my knowledge and skills as the world has barreled forward at a breakneck pace.

For a full album, visit here.

Additional PLF stories:

Gregory Lee looks at the future of digital health and technology

Aruna Sundararajan forecasts the future of Digital India

Luciano Rezende inspires data driven smart cities in Brazil


Related media:

News