Maggie Gates headshot

Executive Director of the Carr Center for Human Rights Policy, appointed to the role in June 2023.

Gates comes to the Carr Center from the Edmond & Lily Safra Center for Ethics at Harvard University, where she worked as the Assistant Director of Communications and Development and led the execution of the Center’s communications strategy and fundraising initiatives.

She also serves as the Co-Chair of the Executive Committee for Harvard University’s Committee on the Concerns of Women, a university-wide group that strives to improve the professional and academic experiences of women at Harvard.

What are the human rights issues of today that you feel most passionate about? 

{ MG } I have long been interested in criminal justice reform and civil rights in the United States, and women’s rights and immigration globally. I am particularly concerned by the widespread backlash against women’s rights and civil rights that we are seeing right now. I am also extremely concerned about the impact of climate change and global warming on these issues, especially climate migration. This is the hottest summer ever recorded and also the coolest summer we will ever have again. People are increasingly vulnerable to extreme heat, extreme weather, rising water, and droughts, and the fight for safe places to live is only going to get worse. 

There are enormous human rights challenges just ahead of us on the highway and we—the global “we”—are responding by turning inward and attempting to build literal and figurative walls instead of turning toward each other and our shared humanity to face this crisis. “Climate migration” is such a tidy, clean way to describe what is a global involuntary forced migration of millions of people to what they hope will be safer locations. I find it very scary—existentially so. 

“The Carr Center is an amazing place where the community is working tirelessly to make a difference in the world by tackling some of the world’s thorniest, most devastating, most important issues.”

What inspired your interest in joining the Carr Center? 

 {MG } I have always admired the Carr Center’s work. Mathias Risse is a highly engaged faculty member at the Edmond & Lily Safra Center for Ethics, and I have worked with him on a couple of big projects in the past in that capacity. We also collaborated frequently on events, fellowships, and discussion paper series over the years, and it was always fantastic to collaborate with Mathias, Sushma Raman, and the team. When Mathias reached out to see if I was available to step in part-time as Interim Executive Director in January, I was surprised but immediately said yes. How could I pass up working for the semester with a team and a faculty lead that I have loved working with in the past? And within a couple of weeks in the Interim role I knew this was the right next move for me. I love it here! 

We recently had a strategic planning staff retreat and I lead a values exercise. Across the team, the number one shared value was “making a difference.” The Carr Center is an amazing place where the community is working tirelessly to make a difference in the world by tackling some of the world’s thorniest, most devastating, most important issues like genocide and transitional justice, the climate crisis, the human rights implications of technological innovations, and racial justice. The work of the Carr Center matters, and I am so happy to be working with this team that is dedicated to improving the world.  

Maggie Gates and Mathias Risse
Mathias Risse and Maggie Gates speaking at the Carr Center's Advisory Board meeting in Birmingham, Alabama in Spring 2023.

Have you always been interested in the field of human rights? How have your personal and professional lives led you to this field of work? 

{ MG } I have always been interested in movements and activists that have recognized our shared humanity in the world and have fought for change. Personally, I have been committed to women’s rights and gender rights throughout my life: supporting abortion access in the US and working for women’s leadership in government and at the university. Professionally, while my path has been more of a winding road, there have been some common threads throughout.  

My (unfinished) dissertation for Harvard’s American Studies Program was about the Cuban Children’s Program in the early 1960s, an incredible federal program that facilitated the immigration, foster care, and family reunification of over 14,000 Cuban children between the ages of 6 and 17 following the Cuban Revolution (you may know part of the program as Operation Pedro Pan). The children came to the US primarily through Miami and were dispersed to private homes (for girls of any age and boys under 12) or group homes (for boys older than 12 and some teen girls) across the country. The program began at the very end of Eisenhower’s presidency, was continued and expanded by Kennedy, and somewhat quietly shuttered under Johnson. Foster hosts were primarily Catholic families or institutions—schools and monasteries—organized by the Catholic Archdiocese, but the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society (HIAS) and national Protestant organizations supported the program, too. It was an incredible historical moment that united federal and state child support agencies, welfare agencies, and expanded the foster care system in an explicit effort to battle communism in Cuba.  

Another long-running thread has been policing reform and criminal justice reform. I made my way to the Center for Ethics by project managing a research project on police reform for two affiliated faculty, Laurence Ralph and Aisha Beliso-de Jesús, who are now at Princeton University. When they left Harvard, Danielle Allen, the faculty director at the Center, hired me to help her launch a project looking at drug diversion programs in Massachusetts as a promising intervention point for criminal justice reform. I worked on that project until the Center leadership pulled me into the communications and development role that I held through the remainder of my time at the Center. That early project has evolved over the years into their Justice, Health, and Democracy Impact Initiative, but the Alternative Emergency Response Program remains a critical piece of that work.  

Where do you hope to take the Carr Center in the next five years? Which projects are particularly interesting to you? 

{ MG } In five years, I hope that the Carr Center has robust student engagement, thriving fellowships (hopefully with a residential component), and a bigger financial footprint that will enable us to do more across the board. I am hoping to create a formal program for Human Rights Defenders, in collaboration with Harvard’s Scholars at Risk program, and I hope that our faculty will feel a strong affiliation with the Carr Center.  

This feels like the perfect moment to invest our energies in these areas. We have a committed and highly engaged advisory board and staff. We have fantastic fellows and faculty. We are finally through COVID and there is a different energy across the university about this coming year. I think there is going to be a turn toward more in-person events and connection points than we had this past year. And this year is the 75th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and our 25th year as a Center. It feels celebratory!

Eleanor Roosevelt and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights

Which human rights leaders and defenders do you find inspiring? 

{ MG } It is cliché, but I have a deep personal admiration for Nelson Mandela. First, he and I share a birthday (July 18), so while that’s completely meaningless, it has long been a lighthearted point of connection to him in my mind.  

But more importantly, he was the first human rights leader that I was aware of as a child, and he opened my eyes to global human rights when he was released from prison in 1990. And then he went on to co-design the desegregation of South Africa, win the Nobel Peace Prize, lead the country as president, and advocate for global peace and justice for the rest of his life Incredible! 

I was nine years old when he was released from prison, and my family was living in North Carolina at the time. My parents woke me and my sister, Liza, to witness the event because it was either very late at night or very early in the morning. We had no idea who Mandela was or why this was such important news, and I had never heard of apartheid. But we were a mixed-race family—Black father, white mother—living in the South, so I could understand racism and segregation. 

“I was aware from a very young age from my parents that interracial marriage had only become legal across the US when they were teenagers, a couple of years before they met. I also knew that my older close family members had lived through Jim Crow in West Virginia and had been discriminated against.”

That day stands out in my memory. We watched in silence as he walked through the gates, hand in hand with Winnie, and held up his fist to the crowd. I remember my parents crying. It was a formational moment in my life.