Mytili Bala has always been interested in social justice. One particular assignment at Yale Law School turned her to a career in human rights.
Bala, a Sycamore grad (’97) who spent her formative middle school years at the school, lives in San Diego and works as a Robert L. Bernstein International Human Rights Fellow at the Center for Justice and Accountability. It’s a heavy job: she works on active cases and investigations to hold human rights abusers in the U.S. accountable for torture, extrajudicial killings, war crimes, and crimes against humanity.
How did this midwest middle school student find her way to California and became an integral part of working for a solution to human rights issues?
Talking to her, she looks back at her Sycamore years and credits her teachers for planting the idea that she could make a difference and instilling a world view in her teenage mind. She paired it with hard work and intelligence, and an instinct for following her heart.
“I owe a lot to Sycamore’s teachers, who prioritized our educational development above all else,” she says. “I left Sycamore understanding how to think critically and creatively about the world.”
Bala credits a trio of teachers for helping form who she would become.
“I had three teachers who have changed my educational trajectory,” she says. “Mr. Stroebel was one of them. He challenged us as 7th and 8th graders to think about geopolitics, human rights, imperialism, apartheid, and the Holocaust. He wrote his own texts, used board games like Diplomacy, and assigned graphic novels like “Maus” to provide a rich learning experience that few middle school students get. He asked kids to think like adults, for which I am eternally grateful. From Mr. Stroebel, I learned that I should never feel too young, too removed, or too inexperienced to ask complex questions and search for answers.”
Mrs. Prince encouraged similar critical thinking for Bala in art, “teaching us about different periods in art history and asking us to apply techniques with our own creative twists.” She says Mrs. Andrade taught biology through hands-on dissection of a sheep’s heart and cow’s eye, trusting kids with scalpels to learn something in the process. She also credits music teacher Mrs. Fair, who took the band to Carnegie Hall.
Though she joined Sycamore during her middle school years, she quickly found Sycamore to be different than previous places she had gone to school.
“From the beginning, Sycamore was unique,” Bata remembers. “I went to Sycamore from 6th to 8th grade, graduating in the class of 1997. Teachers really cared about learning—whether in Spanish, the arts, music, math, social studies, or science. Students were challenged to think critically and creatively in every subject.
“I also met warm, genuine people who continue to be among my closest friends today.”
After leaving middle school, Bala says her high school experience was made easier by attending Sycamore.
“I went to Lawrence Central for the first two years,” She says. “I went to the Indiana Academy for Science, Mathematics, and Humanities for the latter two (graduating in 2001). Sycamore was excellent prep for both schools. As a freshman, I tested into the most advanced math class offered for 10th grade. I placed into the advanced science course (human physiology and anatomy) instead of freshman biology. I also placed into Lyceum (most advanced English) and Spanish II.
“Sycamore definitely put me on the right track when starting high school. I ran out of AP offerings at Lawrence Central by my second year and decided to transfer to the Indiana Academy, a two-year magnet school in Muncie. It was here that my Sycamore education really shone through. I had teachers who—like Mr. Stroebel at Sycamore—pushed me to think critically about the world and back up ideas with sound analysis.”
Bala attended to the University of Chicago, graduating with a B.A. in Economics in 2005, took a year off, and went to Yale Law School, graduating with a J.D. in 2009.
“I’ve always been interested in social justice, but I have Yale Law School to thank for my career in human rights,” Bala says. “As a law student at Yale, I edited the human rights journal, studied transitional justice as a fellow in post-Pinochet Chile, and interned at a human rights organization working on caste abuse and police torture in India.
“I worked in general commercial litigation for four years after law school at two major law firms, where I gained trial advocacy and solid legal writing experience. I returned to the human rights world in August 2013, accepting the Bernstein International Human Rights Fellowship from Yale Law School to work with the Center for Justice and Accountability (CJA).”
Robert L. Bernstein is the founder of Human Rights Watch and the former CEO of Random House. He partnered with Yale Law School many years ago to launch young careers in human rights. According to Bala, CJA is an international human rights organization that uses litigation to hold perpetrators individually accountable for torture and international crimes, develop human rights law, and advance the rule of law in countries transitioning from periods of abuse.
“As a Bernstein fellow at CJA, I have worked on active cases and investigations to hold human rights abusers in the U.S. accountable for torture, extrajudicial killings, war crimes, and crimes against humanity,” she says. “While our investigations are confidential, I can share that I am staffed on one of CJA’s pending cases against a Colombian paramilitary leader alleged to be responsible for the deaths of two human rights defenders in Colombia. CJA sued this defendant on behalf of families of the decedents after he was extradited to face drug trafficking charges in Florida. I have also worked on a range of projects to promote accountability and transitional justice in Sri Lanka, a country that emerged from 26 years of war in May 2009. Among other things, I helped gather evidence for an ongoing U.N. investigation and documented the link between impunity for war crimes and the occurrence of post-war atrocities.”
Bala explains that what they are trying to do is hold abusers accountable and partner with countries to uphold the rights of victims.
“The work is rewarding—we collaborate with brave in-country partners to hold powerful human rights abusers accountable. By filing lawsuits in the U.S. or Spain, we hope to springboard accountability efforts and broader conflict transformation in the home country. We develop partnerships with in-country partners and diplomats to advance the rights of victim and survivor communities to seek truth, pursue justice, and obtain redress.”
Bala, who says she loves the sunshine of California and the friendship of former classmates like Kieran Evans and Ashley Raynor, tells us a a good book to read on the concepts of her day-to-day job is Justice Cascades by Kathryn Sikkink.
When asked about what she aspires to as her career grows, Bala reaches back to lessons of patience and about following her heart; ideas that were planted while at Sycamore.
“I am not sure about next steps,” Bala says. “But I will continue to look for interesting opportunities in human rights and global justice.”