March is Women’s History Month. Throughout the month we’ll be profiling D.C. based women you should know. Amy Morse, the founder of Ideas Club, is heading the project. Today she profiles Marissa Vahlsing. If you’d like to suggest someone for Amy to profile, tweet at her. -ed.
Marissa is a badass lawyer who works to defend communities around the world against rights violations at the hands of multinational corporations and large-scale development projects. As a staff attorney at EarthRights International, her average day involves everything from writing a brief to be submitted in federal court, to riding in a canoe through the Amazon in the pouring rain, to working with an indigenous community to seek remedies for rights violations. Recognizing that the rules are set by those with the power to write them, Marissa decided to become a lawyer because she wanted to find a way to make the law work in the service of justice rather than in the service of the already powerful.
She has worked on cases in defense of Achuar communities in the Peruvian Amazon suffering from 40 plus years of oil contamination; in defense of Maasai communities in Tanzania who have been moved from their lands at the hands of luxury eco-tourism companies; and in defense of indigenous communities in the Bolivian Amazon who have rejected the construction of a mega-highway through their Amazon home.
Marissa is a 2011 graduate of Harvard Law School, where she spent four semesters working the International Human Rights Clinic. She was awarded multiple fellowships to pursue a career in human rights, including receiving a Truman Scholarship to support her law school education. She is also a Phi Beta Kappa graduate of Swarthmore College (2006) where she received a degree in Political science and Peace and Conflict Studies. Before joining EarthRights, Marissa worked at a handful of other human rights and environmental justice organizations including in Buenos Aires, Argentina; Oakland, California; and Accra, Ghana. She carries out her legal and community work in both English and Spanish, and has learned more than she ever hoped about Peruvian statutes and codes. When she is not up against big oil and mining companies, Marissa is throwing pottery or running on trails around D.C.
Woman from History Who Inspires Her
A woman from history who inspires Marissa is Mary Ann Evans, also known by her pen name, George Eliot. Because her novels were both political and critical of the relegation of women to the domestic sphere, Mary Ann Evans wrote her many literary accomplishments under the male name, George Eliot. During an era when heroic acts were thought only to be capable of accomplishment by men, Eliot’s novel Middlemarch focuses on the importance of the so-called “unhistoric acts” of women – those acts which “have no great name on earth” but which are “incalculably diffusive” and upon which the “growing good of the world depends.”
How You Can Get Involved
If you want to get involved with work related to protecting indigenous people and lands, consider the following resources: