Mr. Birns, in addition to his stunning and forward-thinking career fighting for human rights and equitable democracy in Latin America, was a force to work with. As a former research associate and fellow, it is due to his influence that I have followed the path I have—pursuing a Master’s degree in human rights with a focus on Latin America, working on humanitarian coordination with the United Nations, and now, working as a graduate research intern with International Crisis Group in Bogotá, Colombia. It is not just me who has had this experience: each semester, up to 20 new interns would descend upon the tiny office that was the Council on Hemispheric Affairs—usually just out of college, a bit lost, and showing promise of critical thinking and writing talent. I was one of the lucky ones who just scraped by: I missed the deadline to apply for an internship and was told the program was full. Upon insisting to speak to the director, Mr. Birns asked me one simple thing: what can you bring to this organization? Floundering my way through this answer, emboldened by his human tone, I was granted the opportunity to prove myself.
Asking hard questions, without fear of reproach: this is what Mr. Birns and COHA embodied. No answers were easy, no critique veiled; when Mr. Birns allowed me to be his junior editor, his decision carried equal confidence and challenge. When I helped COHA fellow and friend Aline Piva start her own Brazil Unit, Mr. Birns gave us leeway but was careful to have his eye on our research integrity. Mr. Birns drew people to him in this way—despite his off-color jokes and somewhat-intimidating brilliance, people wanted to be around him and work with him not just because of his legacy, but because of his candor, dedication, and search for the truth. Not what is convenient, or what is accepted, but what is right and what is most faithful to human rights in the hemisphere.
Thank you, Mr. Birns, for sparking my path. Thank you for your contribution to the world of human rights in Latin America, and to others who would like to do the same.
Liliana Muscarella is a former Research Associate, Research Fellow, and Managing Editor of the Brazil Unit at COHA.