Laura Lasance, who has served as Executive Director at Humanity in Action The Netherlands for 4.5 years, is leaving her position after a memorable stint. Having worked at the intersection of human rights, advocacy, and youth leadership for over a decade, Laura has headed and contributed to several incredible initiatives at Humanity in Action.
As her time with the organization comes to an end, she looks back on the highlights and challenges of working in the field of human rights and supporting Humanity in Action through the times. She was interviewed by our Social Media Manager in Amsterdam, Luiza Braga.
You have had some great, yet challenging years at Humanity in Action The Netherlands. What are some of the big memories that you will take with you when you leave?
There are many, since no day has been the same over the last years. I am lucky to say that I can dig up memories that are very happy, emotional, frustrating and sad, and everything in between.
My first memories at Humanity in Action are really tough. A lot had to be done on many fronts. Programmatically first and foremost, as programs were not well enough in touch anymore with the generation of students we were developing them for. We miserably failed to nourish the so very valuable connection and interaction we work towards in our Fellowship, which I very much regret. Having just very recently started my work, truly listening, learning from these experiences, and pushing to adjust our programs was key. The fact that these changes needed to happen at a time when I initially had no colleagues to turn to and the organization found itself in a substantially difficult financial situation gave me the focus and drive to truly commit to Humanity in Action and aim to turn the tide.
Another memory that comes to mind is how we – against all odds – managed to build community online during the COVID-19 pandemic. It truly got to me during the first face-to-face gathering of the inaugural Landecker Democracy Fellowship cohort (our professional Fellows) in Berlin in 2021. I was completely flabbergasted by the warmth, personal connection, trust, and true bonds we had been able to build with them without ever seeing each other in person. And the impact they managed to achieve through their projects! This experience truly has taught me that it always pays off to actively search for innovations, flexibility, and improvement in the way you work.
The last one is a big mixture of small memories: how our alumni have jumped in to support our growing team along the way. These were messages of support and critique, donations, program contributions, a drink when the going got tough. I have truly appreciated all these gestures.
The organization we have today is a very different one from that of almost 5 years ago. What achievements are you most proud of during this time?
That we still exist!
No, seriously. I am proud that our team has been able to – and continues to – steer our organization in the right direction, even during rather tumultuous times. This is without a doubt thanks to the connections we have made with the wonderful people who have joined us in this process as colleagues, interns, volunteers, freelancers, friends, advisors, financers, and definitely also critical allies. A big thank you to all!
In the past, I have professionalized and built other organizations, teams, and programs. This experience has again taught me so much about change management and dealing with crises. The importance of the people, prioritizing, keeping a steady course whilst being flexible. Growth can – and should be – a complex and somewhat painful experience, quite necessary to allow us to become more impactful.
Furthermore, I am proud that we continue to grow in how we accelerate the efforts of (aspiring) leaders. Whether they work on statelessness, climate justice, LGBTQIA+ rights, or digital democracy, they all put in their time and effort to better our societies.
I look back at the last years with a big smile on my face. I look forward to seeing how the organization will continue to optimize its impact in support of human rights, democracy, and an inclusive society here in the Netherlands and transatlantically. With the right spirit and adaptations, we can further nourish and accelerate the necessary work of change agents from many different disciplines, to support social cohesion, democratic principles, and inclusion in our society today. The teams are ready for it, I know it!
After experiencing so many Fellowships, events, trainings, workshops, programs, what do you think sets Humanity in Action’s educational programs apart?
Humanity in Action is not about big numbers, big reach. We focus on true and lasting change in (aspiring) leaders to be vocal and active in support of social justice in our society, to defend our democracy. Our consistent historical starting point in grasping today’s societal challenges is important in this regard.
Over the last years, our teams have been trained and strengthened in running our educational programs for people with very diverse backgrounds and interests together, in different stages of their lives. I would like to think that this professional expertise, together with true personal commitment to build tailor-made programs shows and allows our programs to have a long lasting impact on its participants.
As the strategic builder you are, you come across as a generalist. Yet looking at your professional career, you have always worked at organizations at the crossroads of human rights, democracy, leadership, peace-building. Even as a (supervisory) board member. Why is that?
You are right. I love to professionalize and innovate the way in which civil society organizations with a strong mission work. The content fuels my drive.
I have a rather strong sense of justice. A lot of this goes back to my childhood, to my late grandfather. He taught me what doubt is, and what being humble means. As a young girl, he read to me from the Koran, the Bible, and the Torah. My grandfather was a thorough man, indeed, haha! He would ask me: What do you think? He taught me the importance of questioning ‘the truth’, self-reflection, being open to other views, the importance of ALWAYS being curious. But he also taught me to be firm, to actively act and speak out for justice. There was no debate about that. Our democracy had to be defended at all times.
As a child, I found those conversations mind-blowing and adventurous above all else. Now I understand how much these conversations shaped my worldview and stirred up my sense of justice.
And so it happened: with sky-high ambition – and squeezed buttocks – I decided at the age of 24 to become the director of a human rights organization. My first concrete contribution. Within four years, I tripled our budget and forged international strategic partnerships. The goal was to professionalize youth organizations worldwide and embed youth participation in international policy on sexual and reproductive health and rights.
That may sound strong and determined, but it was also and above all terrifying, infuriating. I remember how tears sprang to my eyes when a Russian delegation member to the United Nations suggested that there was no need for them to talk about HIV/AIDS because “there was no homosexuality in Russia.” No one blinked or blushed.
The lesson of my grandfather – the knowledge that injustice exists and will continue to exist if we do not actively oppose it – became more clear to me in those years than ever. In my work, therefore, human rights and democracy, resilience, connection, and justice are central issues.
What piece of advice do you have for young people wanting to kick off their activism and/or professional careers?
Hand-pick your mentors and role models to find your way. People you trust and get inspired by. Ask them for advice, let them challenge you, be open to learning, and remain curious.
Also, know when to rest, when to stop. Actively push yourself to find a work-life balance that suits you. Having managed and worked with many young people over the last 15 years, I have seen the growing difficulties young professionals face in dealing with stress, in attempting to excel in various aspects of their lives simultaneously. This is and should be a substantial concern in our society.
Last, but not least: What are you most grateful for in your time at Humanity in Action The Netherlands, and what do you hope for next?
I am grateful for having met so many gutsy human rights defenders over the years. I hope we have in some way or another contributed to their journeys. They will guide our future.
This new and diverse leadership is necessary to turn the tide, in the Netherlands and abroad. Because human rights and our democracies are under immense pressure.
In joining Humanity in Action I committed to train up-and-coming talent in Europe and the United States to become responsible leaders. Our alumni – artists, journalists, entrepreneurs, policy makers and politicians – actively contribute to powerful, resilient, and inclusive societies. A huge job on which we work together with a powerful and brave team.
I must mention: I am convinced we cannot create the resilient, open societies we detrimentally need on our own; we need each other. This is precisely why solidarity between human rights movements, the private sector, and government is so crucial now.
It makes me hopeful that networks of human rights advocates are coming together, organizing. That support for diverse and responsible leadership, decolonizing our work, and building truly inclusive environments is growing, among civil society organizations, companies, and politicians. Though more often than not it is reluctant and, of course, progresses far too slowly.
And however grand and abstract all these terms may sound, in essence it is exactly what my grandfather taught me: that we need to reflect on ourselves and our position in the world; that we should be open to other views (within a human rights framework) and always remain curious; that we are there for one another, to look out for one another.
I look forward to finding a new professional challenge to commit to from next year onwards, continuing to contribute to the world we live in.
Laura, we thank you for the interview!