Natalie Bridgeman Fields, the founder and executive director of Accountability Counsel, presented on her life’s work of giving a voice to marginalized communities around the world at the annual Joseph T. Cox Servant Leadership Symposium on Feb. 22.
She first shared with the students the experience that she called her “call to action.” During a trip to the Mapuche indigenous village in Chile during her junior year in college, Fields found herself involved in a protest against the building of a dam on the Bio Bio River.
“The dam was going to create a lake, which would subsume their village and destroy it,” she said. “The bulldozers arrived, and then right behind the bulldozers were military police in big trucks. The police tear-gassed [the villagers] at close range, handcuffed them, pulled them into trucks, and took them away. As they were leaving, one called out to me personally.
“What I felt in that moment was a sense of overwhelming responsibility. What I discovered is that I could actually do something about the situation.”
From that day, Fields thought about a solution to the injustice she witnessed by studying and working in the world of global finance – looking at how governments and development banks work together on internationally financed projects, and how to involve communities like the Mapuche in Chile in the decisions that directly impact their livelihoods.
“We don’t have a utilitarian balancing act that we need to weigh, of whether the greater good requires us to sacrifice vulnerable people in order to benefit the whole,” Fields said. “Vulnerable people need to be partners in the decision-making in the global economy, so we all benefit.”
Be on the lookout for your own call to action. To find it, you may really need to step outside your comfort zone, expose yourself to new experiences, and make yourself available to hearing that call.
She founded Accountability Counsel in 2009, a nonprofit organization that works to amplify the voices of communities around the world to protect their human rights and environment by advocating for people harmed by internationally financed projects. Her organization’s major programs include community lawyering, policy advocacy, and research.
Fields shared a recent experience from Haiti, where Accountability Counsel helped a team of farmers file a complaint against a development bank who had used their farmland for the site of an industrial park. The organization helped engage the bank, the farmers, and the Haitian government to participate in 18 months of dispute resolution, which led to a large remedy project that is currently being implemented to help restore the farmers’ livelihoods.
The Haitian partners that we work with told us that we were writing a page in the history of Haiti – it was the first time that they’d ever been listened to by their government.
“The Haitian partners that we work with told us that we were writing a page in the history of Haiti – it was the first time that they’d ever been listened to by their government,” Fields said. “It was truly a mind-bending exercise in dreaming something impossible and making it possible.”
She advised the students to be on the lookout for their own calls to action and take advantage of opportunities to travel.
“Be on the lookout for your own call to action. To find it, you may really need to step outside your comfort zone, expose yourself to new experiences, and make yourself available to hearing that call,” she said.
Fields concluded: “As I look around this room, I look at people who have the ability to be courageous, the ability to speak up, the ability to be servant leaders, and I look forward to hearing what you do with this ability.”
Natalie Bridgeman Fields is the founder and executive director of Accountability Counsel, an organization that focuses on international accountability for human rights and environmental abuses. As one of the world’s experts on human rights and environmental abuses topics, she has served as a consultant on accountability for the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development and the World Bank Inspection Panel. Fields has litigated corporate, human rights, and environmental cases in U.S. courts, and was part of the team that litigated the first case to render a jury verdict on a crimes against humanity claim under the Alien Tort Claims Act. She frequently guest lectures on international law, international financial institution accountability, and uses U.S. courts to litigate human rights and environmental claims. A graduate of Cornell University and UCLA School of Law, Fields lives in the San Francisco Bay area with her family.