For some, the law is all about theoretical ideas and legal concepts. It’s about crafting the perfect argument and winning. For others, it’s the people who matter. They see the faces behind the ideas, recognize the individuals who inhabit the concepts and value the lives that change for the better.
Many alumni of the University of St. Thomas School of Law fall into the second category. For them, the legal skills they learned blend inextricably with the school’s focus on social justice and their own personal values. And because of them, the world is a better place.
Jessica Slattery ’06 is reminded of the importance of her job every time she gets dressed. She thinks about the garment workers who made her clothes, knowing that her work as a foreign affairs officer in the U.S. State Department is making a difference in their lives.
She remembers a 19-year-old woman she met in Dhaka, Bangladesh, who works in a garment factory. Like other women throughout the world bucking the trend of culturally conservative or limited gender roles, earning her own income helps her have more say in her life and that of her family. But these benefits are hard fought. The more than 4 million garment workers in Bangladesh work long hours in unsafe conditions and earn the lowest minimum wage in the world. In November 2012, a garment factory fire in Dhaka killed 112 workers. The following April, more than 1,100 workers were killed when a several-story garment factory collapsed.
Now, Bangladesh is a case study about globalization, governance and responsible business conduct, and Slattery is working to engage stakeholders and find solutions to these important issues. The U.S. government; the European Union; the Bangladesh government; and International Labor Organization, a specialized U.N. agency that works on labor issues; have signed an agreement to cooperate on worker safety and workers’ rights in Bangladesh.
Slattery’s path to the State Department started at the UST School of Law, which she chose because of its emphasis on social justice. As a student, she studied employment and labor law. “Work is closely linked to identity and dignity – it’s a big part of life,” she said.
After graduation, she clerked at the Minnesota Court of Appeals, and worked briefly at a Twin Cities firm until she found something that intrigued her – a summer course in Montenegro on legal reforms necessary for Balkan countries to join the European Union. Slattery was invigorated by the experience. “I found what made my heart sing,” she said.
After earning master’s degrees in history and international relations through the Atlantis Program, much of which took place in Estonia and Poland, Slattery participated in the Presidential Management Fellows program, a two-year program for high-performing graduate and law students designed to create the next generation of civil service leaders. It included two international rotations, which she spent as a human rights officer at the U.S. Mission to the European Union in Brussels, Belgium, and in Dhaka.
“I was working on the ground with the people whose lives I was trying to affect,” she said. “It was an incredibly fulfilling experience.”
Back in Dhaka last summer, Slattery met with the 19-year-old garment worker and others trying to organize. They thanked her and the U.S. government for their efforts to improve working conditions. “They said they finally have clean water and (take) breaks,” Slattery said. “I told them about the 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist fire, which in many ways started the American labor movement. As our ambassador to Bangladesh often says, sometimes tragedies have silver linings. We’re working to make that happen here.”