Genevieve Whitaker, human rights activist and the St. Croix Elections System deputy supervisor, is studying for three weeks in Geneva, Switzerland, with the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, and said she plans to share her experiences and knowledge with government officials and community leaders when she returns to the Virgin Islands.
“It’s been a really good experience – to help and to learn to work at the grassroots level to educate people and advocate for your cause,” Whitaker told the Source.
OHCHR is part of the United Nations Secretariat, headquartered in Geneva, with a “mandate from the international community to promote and protect all human rights,” according to the website. The high commissioner is the principal human rights official for the United Nations and leads the U.N.’s human rights efforts.
The Fellowship Program for People of African Descent chose the 10 participants based on gender, regional balance and the human rights situation for people of African descent in the respective country, according to the call for applications. Candidates must be of African descent living in the diaspora and have had at least four years of work experience related to the rights to African descendants.
The fellowship is in conjunction with the International Decade for People of African Descent, established by the U. N. General Assembly to be observed from 2015 to 2024. The focus of the International Decade is the 200 million people of African descent living in the Americas and the millions who live in other parts of the world outside the African continent. These descendants of the trans-Atlantic slave trade and more recent migrations are some the poorest and most marginalized groups of people, according to the U.N.
“In proclaiming this Decade, the international community is recognizing that people of African descent represent a distinct group whose human rights must be promoted and protected,” the U.N. website states.
The three-week program in Geneva has included classes on racism, colonialism and their impacts on culture, economics, housing, health and employment. The nine other participants are from Brazil, Venezuela, Canada, Jamaica, Spain, Barbados and Switzerland.
As an example, last Wednesday, Whitaker and her group observed a hearing conducted by the International Committee for the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination. The committee received reports about racial profiling, police brutality and the lack of healthcare and education in the United States and Canada.
Whitaker’s previous experience in human rights advocacy includes working as a lobbyist for Amnesty International USA and serving as a board member of the Tampa Bay chapter of the United Nations Association of the USA, and Partners for Freedom and Democracy in Washington D.C. With the former group, she was the founding chair for Young Professionals for International Cooperation and organized a human rights Youth leadership Development Summit, in Nigeria with the latter organization in 2008.
Closer to home, Whitaker co-founded the Virgin Islands Youth Advocacy Coalition, Inc., and advocated for the V.I. Reparations Movement as a board member of the Caribbean Institute for New Humanity.
Whitaker’s education includes a law degree from Stetson University, certificates for human rights courses from law schools at Oxford University, George Washington University and Santa Clara University. In 2014, she participated in Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government’s “Women and Power: Leadership in a New World” program.
Born and raised on St. Croix, Whitaker attended public and parochial schools before earning a bachelor’s degree and a master’s degree in political management from George Washington University.
While “disappointed in the V.I. government” for not submitting annual reports requested by the United Nations on the status of poverty, education and other economic factors in the territory, Whitaker plans to return to the V.I. and share what she has learned. She will work with V.I. Advocacy and the reparations movement as well as with educational, non-profit, community and government leaders.
Virgin Islanders need to determine their future – write a constitution, decolonize, preserve the culture and advocate for U.S. citizen rights, including the right to vote for the U.S. president, Whitaker said.
“My goal is to work with the youth groups, educate the public and engage political leaders. It’s about helping,” she concluded.