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Juliet Sorensen believes interdisciplinary collaboration is key to global justice

Juliet Sorensen is a high-achieving lawyer who’s traveled to some of the most dangerous parts of the world in her tireless efforts to improve health and human rights in communities with minimal resources. Yet she is humble and even, at times, bashful. Any of her achievements, taken individually, could be the story behind a bestselling book. But Sorensen discusses prosecuting a key figure in the 1994 Rwandan genocide as plainly as one might discuss traffic court.

Sitting in her eighth floor office at Northwestern Pritzker School of Law in the heart of Chicago’s Streeterville neighborhood, Sorensen appears relaxed and open. Pictures of her family line her desk, which is otherwise orderly. Given the serenity of her office and her zen-like aura, it’s easy to forget that this woman determinedly immerses herself in global atrocities.

A self-professed “idealist without illusions,” Sorensen teaches courses on health and human rights, corruption and international criminal law. She has co-authored a book on public corruption and trained prosecutors on trial advocacy in South America and West Africa. Sorensen has served as an Assistant U.S. Attorney and is a member of American Bar Association groups focused on corruption and crimes against humanity.

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Human beings, no matter where they are, have more in common with each other than not.

Juliet Sorensen
law professor

With so many responsibilities, it would be understandable if Sorensen chose to focus on her immediate task(s) at hand. But Sorensen thinks bigger, wanting to use her experience to make the world a better place for others. And she expects the same of her students.

“In my opinion it’s vital for law students to know that as members of the bar and officers of the court, they have this obligation,” she said. “They’re getting experience and training here, which is valuable. And they have an obligation to use it in a way that inures to the public benefit.”

And to help students do just that, Sorensen proposed and helped create the Access to Health Project after joining Northwestern Law in 2010. Informed by Sorensen’s years as a maternal and child health volunteer with the Peace Corps in the '90s, the project is open to graduate students spanning law, business and medicine. Drawing on faculty resources across Northwestern, the Access to Health Project includes a research-based assessment as well as fieldwork in a partner community. Careful not to make herself the lead in any story, she is eager to mention that her work is possible because of collaboration and the generosity of others, both at home and abroad.

Thus far, Access to Health has worked in Ethiopia, the Dominican Republic, Mali, Nigeria, the Congo and Sudan, where Sorensen and her students have worked with community leaders to establish sustainable interventions related to health and human rights.

Most recently, students in the Access to Health program spent 10 weeks researching — from their classrooms in Chicago — health issues in Lagos, Nigeria. They examined issues related to malaria, family planning, fire safety, HIV/AIDS, and water and sanitation. Working with a local advisory board and liaison organization in Lagos, the student group investigated laws, regulatory systems, rights and access related to those issues. The group then traveled to Lagos for 10 days to build on that multidisciplinary research and apply it in practice. 

“It’s one thing to learn about building materials in the slums and informal settlements of Lagos secondhand,” Sorensen said. “It’s quite another to see them firsthand and to understand how quickly fire can spread and how difficult it is to put a fire out.”

Sorensen’s group decided to prioritize health education after discovering health literacy in the community was much lower than expected. Members of the group worked to train Nigerian health educators on issues of anatomy, wound care and malaria so that they can be better resources for local groups.

“All of this becomes possible, both because of the resources of the university, but also because of the partnerships in the community,” Sorensen said.

These alliances made all the difference in Mali, where Sorensen and team have traveled every year since 2014. The group identified maternal and child health and mortality as key issues in the village of Douentza. Searching out local partners to help them advance their intervention plan, Sorensen and her team identified and partnered with two local residents: Laya Ongoiba, a longtime women’s leader and advocate against child marriage and female genital mutilation; and Boucary Tamboura, the manager of a local radio station.

“They have the leadership, the credibility, the status in the community, which we don’t,” Sorensen said.

The Access to Health team has worked with these two community leaders for almost three years, ensuring the village is involved in every step of planning and execution.

“Because there’s a very high rate of illiteracy, we produced an album with a local band, which has six songs, all touching on various relevant topics of health, human rights and development,” Sorensen said. The album is broadcast regularly on the local radio station.

Sorensen’s team also worked with Ongoiba to train the individuals who perform female genital mutilation on a substitute source of livelihood. For the majority of them, that has been small animal husbandry — raising goats and sheep. After agreeing to “put down their knives,” they received veterinary training and financial literacy guidance. Some committed to a contract and opened projects with a local microfinance institution to continue their new line of work. Ongoiba supervises these individuals to ensure their compliance with the program.

The combination of law and global health has been a natural fit for Sorensen, who said in addition to her work as a lawyer, she enjoys interacting with different people and different places around the world.

“Human beings, no matter where they are, have more in common with each other than not,” she said.

Sorensen’s interest in health and human rights has taken her across the globe, and it is her unwavering belief in this universal commonality that prevents her from feeling afraid in countries rife with conflict.

“I’m actually never afraid. Because in the words of John F. Kennedy, we’re all mortal. We all cherish our children’s future. We all inhabit the same small planet. We all breathe the same air,” Sorensen said, adding that “most of us, with the exception of a tiny number of extremists, have a sense of self-preservation. We all want to get through this together.”