Standing Up for Human Rights

/ Blog Post

Each year, Human Rights Day is observed on December 10, in commemoration of the day when the United Nations General Assembly adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. It serves as a celebration of how the Declaration empowers us all, and also gives us a chance to reflect on the work that needs to be done to ensure that every single person—regardless of race, sex, nationality, ethnicity, language, religion, or any other status—can access these inalienable rights and freedoms.

The United States promises its citizens a right to equal justice under the law, but, in reality, our nation doesn’t always practice what it preaches, with millions of Americans unable to access the legal help they need when they face life-changing challenges. Equal Justice Works Fellows work tirelessly to protect our universal human rights and advocate for underserved communities across the country.

Photo of Equal Justice Works Communications Manager Heena Patel interviewing Fellow Najmu Mohseen (right)

Najmu Mohseen, a 2019 Fellow hosted by the Constitutional Law Center for Muslims in America, who is sponsored by Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld LLP, advocates for the First Amendment rights of incarcerated Muslims to practice their sincerely held beliefs. While the First Amendment and the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act both work to safeguard the religious rights of those who are incarcerated, in practice, their rights are not always protected. For example, some of Najmu’s clients follow a halal diet as part of observing their religion. When these clients ask for food that complies with their religious dietary restrictions, it’s not uncommon for prisons or immigration detention centers to deny them. They are often given meals with pork or pork byproducts, vegetarian food (which some inmates believe is not allowed by Islam), or told to buy their meals from the commissary. Najmu’s clients are forced to make an impossible choice: skip a meal or violate their religious beliefs.

In an environment like prison where inmates have so little control over their lives, sometimes faith is the only thing keeping people motivated.

Najmu Mohseen /
Equal Justice Works Fellow

“It can be scary, confusing, and demoralizing for the prisoners to be in situations where they cannot practice their religion fully because in an environment like prison where inmates have so little control over their lives, sometimes faith is the only thing keeping people motivated,” said Najmu. “If chaplains and other faith leaders don’t know what rights their constituents are entitled to, how can they possibly fight for those rights?”

While many legal services organizations focus on litigation after a rights violation has occurred, Najmu wanted to create a proactive approach. Through ongoing litigation, the creation of comprehensive manuals for prisons and immigration detention centers, and know-your-rights campaigns, Najmu is working to prevent future religious rights violations.

Photo of Fellow Hannah Klain (left) being interviewed by Equal Justice Works Marketing & Communications Intern Catherine Williams

States have also consistently denied historically disenfranchised communities access to the ballot box. Hannah Klain, a 2019 Fellow hosted by the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU School of Law, who is sponsored by The Selbin Family, is working to stop discriminatory polling place closures. “[Voting rights] are the most fundamental rights—they are generative of all other rights,” she said. Hannah has witnessed firsthand how disenfranchised communities are more likely to have fewer polling places nearby, with long lines at the voting machines, and fewer machines in service. Hannah utilizes report writing, public education, legislative advocacy, and litigation to ensure that her clients’ voting rights are honored and protected.

[Voting rights] are the most fundamental rights—they are generative of all other rights.

Hannah Klain /
Equal Justice Works Fellow

Over 70 years after the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, many people still cannot access their basic human rights. Legal advocates, like Najmu and Hannah, are essential to helping all Americans—regardless of their background—access equal justice under the law.

To learn more about how our Fellows are creating a lasting impact in their communities, click here.

Learn more about becoming an Equal Justice Works Fellow