Faced with the opportunity to design a new human rights clinic at Fordham University School of Law in 2007, Chi Mgbako decided to bypass large, well-known advocacy groups such as Amnesty International. Instead, she opted to form working partnerships with small, grass-roots organizations in the United States and around the world. “I think a lot of people have been left out of the human rights discussion,” said Mgbako, 32, a 2005 Harvard Law School graduate. “We need people from all different walks of life to view themselves as human rights leaders.”

That message has resonated with the Fordham students who have cycled through the Walter Leitner International Human Rights Clinic, as became apparent at a recent fifth anniversary party for the clinic. Many of the clinic alumni now work in human rights, and those who have chosen corporate law careers still show a strong pro bono commitment, Mgbako said.

Each semester, between eight and 12 students sign on to several different human rights projects. They have previously tackled employment discrimination against the transgender community in Lebanon, female gender mutilation in Sierra Leone and the potential deportation of Cambodians living in the United States, to name a few. In early November, Mgbako’s students will head to Africa, where half will conduct research on a project advocating for the decriminalization of sex work in South Africa. The other half will go to Malawi and run a domestic violence legal assistance clinic.

“Professor Mgbako is really phenomenal,” said Mehak Jamil, a student who plans to pursue a career in human rights law. “It’s been a terrific experience. My writing has improved so much, and the clinic really pushes you. We’re spending 25 to 30 hours a week on it, but it never feels overwhelming.” — Karen Sloan