Karen Tse is one of those people you never forget seeing for the first time. The moment she looks at you the world around her blurs and her face pulls from the crowd, and she seems for that instant the only thing in your life that is truly in focus.
I met Karen in New York City on a cold and misty Saturday at the Empire Hotel. The two-story lobby of the Empire, which opened in 1923, is drenched in waves of gold curtains against dark walls, with brass chandeliers, black and white animal print pillows on the high-backed orange couches; the perfect setting for Bogart and Bergman to kiss beside the big staircase and a fitting place to discover the legal leopard of southern Asia.
Karen is an international human rights attorney and the CEO of the organization she founded, International Bridges to Justice. I first saw Karen Tse in her TED talk in which she detailed her mission to end torture as an investigative tool in 93 countries around the world. She spoke of working in the sweltering indigence of countries like Vietnam, Burundi, the slums of India and Cambodia. She spoke of children born in captivity like creatures of zoology, of women and young boys beaten for confessions; fingernails pulled, raped, burned with electric wires and cigarettes and held hostage in some cases solely because they were the only family member of the actual criminal sought for the commission of an unprovable crime. I was mesmerized.
I’ve worked in law enforcement for 25 years. I’ve seen men muster courage to face unknown risks. But what struck me when I watched Karen Tse speak was how brave she is in both the physical and the eternal sense. Her convictions are so strong that she can walk into a prison in a poor, corrupt country, look into the scarred face of a prison director who has personally beaten countless prisoners, and manage to unravel from his cynicism a sense of hope and a willingness to adopt positive change.
That scenario has been repeated dozens of times by the irrepressible determination of Reverend Karen Tse. I asked her why these men work with her. She laughed and said, “I’m short. No; I’m kidding of course, but I do say hey, let’s talk – walk with me.” There is a self-confidence about her that’s engaging. End torture in 93 countries? C’mon; who can pull that off? Karen can.
Karen earned her juris doctorate from UCLA and a masters degree from Harvard Divinity School. She is an ordained Unitarian Universalist minister and a stalwart believer in the human race. She speaks some Spanish and was raised speaking Cantonese. When she lived in Cambodia she learned Khmer well enough to train lawyers. Karen now lives with her family near the IBJ offices in Geneva.
Karen has earned a reputation for persuasiveness. After having breakfast with her I understand how she can sway hardened jailers. She has intense eyes yet she has an unpretentious way of leaning in to you and speaking softly, almost as if she’s sharing a secret. It made me feel like her confidant.
This sense that she trusts you engenders loyalty in return, not with money or promises or political currency, but with a genuine smile and relaxed tone. She has a gift for making people feel they are part of the mission, that together they really can find hope hiding under the rubble, that even the word hopelessness has hope in it. She embodies optimism in a pocket-angel that only gets over five feet tall when she stands on her toes. She is a positive thinker, but she has often felt as though she’s banging her head against the wall trying to get through to people, but Karen says, “I’ll keep banging, because something will break, and it won’t be my head.”
I wanted to write about Spectacular Women because I admire them. My father died at 41 and my mother raised four young kids by herself, with a little support from my wonderful Aunts: Helen, Kate and Betty Ann. My mother was herself orphaned by 14 and quit high school to work. I admire the resilience of women who ignore adversity and just get done what needs doing. My way of honoring them is to find extraordinary women that other young people can admire, who they can aspire to emulate, women who are entrepreneurs, visionaries, and work in male-dominated professions, or like Karen, achieve the improbable by fostering solidarity with misogynist rulers in remote lands.
So I asked Reverend Tse what she would say to the young Karen at UCLA if she could meet her again, the 19-year-old college girl struggling with ideals, womanhood and an emerging ethos; the woman torn between aspirations and trepidations. She sat upright and flashed a grin, “I would tell her to ‘go for it’ whatever it is. It doesn’t matter if it doesn’t turn out to be what you do for the rest of your life. Don’t worry so much about what it may turn out to be or if it’s right forever; just do what feels right in the moment.”
What felt right for Reverend Tse was to act on her belief that the rule of law is powerful. The people she represents are not famous political prisoners. They are the poor, who are accused of petty crimes and tortured for confessions because they have no lawyers. It’s a quick and dirty method for getting convictions. She believes the way to end torture as an investigative tool is to train the lawyers, the judges and the police, to organize daily operational systems set in place to uphold the laws that exist in many countries, but are not adhered to.
She founded International Bridges to Justice with more will than money, but has managed to transform her paper knights into a real force of Justice Makers.
The IBJ web site includes a wiki-style training portal for lawyers, police and volunteers to learn basic criminal investigations and legal proceedings. Rather than modeling their training documents after one particular western system, the IBJ team follows a set of standards based upon essential human rights and dignity, and then works tirelessly to apply those standards, to implement controls or improve upon existing legal infrastructure in whichever country they are training. “It’s the understanding of the interconnectedness and our inherent worth and dignity that really builds the foundations of our work. I couldn’t do this without being a lawyer, and I wouldn’t have started it without being a minister. Being a minister creates the possibilities of hope and faith.”
Like Ana Maria Manzo, the architect and writer from Venezuela, Karen’s work is instigated by dreams. As a child she heard stories from her family and other Chinese and Asian immigrants about torture and other brutal treatment in their homelands. At night, eight-year-old Karen would have nightmares of being helpless as she witnessed prisoners being tortured; the slow-motion pummeling, the gnashed pleas for mercy in windowless cells. She would awaken as we all are from these snippet realities, grateful for the sweet smell of our own beds; but for Karen the relief was only temporary. She remained haunted by the spirit who brought her those dreams, and only through her enchanting yet pig-headed determinedness has she all but vanquished this demon from her life. Little Karen, steeled by the faith of her ministry, singles out the thread of hope from the human cloth. This is a spectacular woman who is literally, gracefully and doggedly making a positive change in the lives of thousands of people around the world.
I asked her why she does it. Why does she go to places where she could be imprisoned herself? She didn’t acknowledge danger to herself and emphasized that it was the IBJ defenders and Justice Makers who were taking courageous action. She added, “You have to recognize at a certain point that you may face death, so you just want to die quickly. After you pass that point you don’t think about it any more. You just do what you believe in.”