Karen Tse: International Bridges To Justice and Ending Torture as an Investigative Tool

Apr 2024

Karen Tse is a human rights lawyer, an ordained minister, and Founder and CEO of the global non-profit, International Bridges to Justice, with the mission to end torture as an investigative tool and ensure due process rights.

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"There's always a spiritual basis, even when it's not explicit. It's the recognition of our mutual humanity, our respect for each other."
Karen Tse: International Bridges To Justice and Ending Torture as an Investigative Tool
“Take courage friends. The way is often hard, the path is never clear, and the stakes are very high. Take courage. For deep down, there is another truth: you are not alone.”
by Wayne Arnason, an American Unitarian Universalist minister

About The Episode

In this episode of The Founder Spirit, the  courageous Karen Tse, a human rights lawyer, an ordained minister, and Founder and CEO of the global non-profit, International Bridges to Justice, shares her journey from being a public defender to building legal systems around the world to end torture as an investigative tool. 

She highlights the importance of recognizing the inherent worth and dignity of every person and the finding hope in challenging circumstances. She recounts the inspiring story of Vishna, a 4-year boy born in a Cambodian prison, and reflects on the spiritual basis for IBJ and the need for deeper shifts in society. 

Just how did an Unitarian Universalist minister launch a human rights movement that has benefitted so many trapped in failing justice systems? 

Well, tune in to this heartfelt conversation & find out. 


Karen Tse is a human rights lawyer, an ordained minister, and Founder and CEO of the global non-profit, International Bridges to Justice (IBJ).

A former public defender, she moved to Cambodia in the mid-90s to train the country’s first core group of public defenders and established the first arraignment court. After witnessing hundreds of prisoners of all ages being held without trial, usually tortured into making 'confessions’, Karen founded IBJ in 2000 with the mission to end torture as an investigative tool and ensure due process rights. With its presence in 53 countries, IBJ has supported 48,000 lawyers and represented over 500,000 detainees.

Among her numerous awards, she was named by U.S. News & World Report as one of America’s Best Leaders and recognized by the Skoll Foundation as a leading social entrepreneur.

Episode Transcript

[00:02] Jennifer Wu: Hi everyone, thanks for listening to The Founder Spirit podcast. I'm your host, Jennifer Wu. In this podcast series, I interview exceptional individuals from all over the world with the Founder Spirit, ranging from social entrepreneurs, tech founders, to philanthropists, elite athletes, and more. Together, we'll uncover not only how they manage to succeed in face of multiple challenges, but also who they are as people and their human story.

“I.” knew even at that very young age that at that very moment, my nightmare was actually someone's reality, and someone was being tortured, people were being tortured throughout the world.”

“Yet somehow being in the refugee camps, in the midst of so much suffering, I saw really the power of hope and the resilience of people who are determined to keep going and to find ways of connecting.”

“It was a very powerful experience for me in terms of recognizing that there's so much light in darkness, and it's also the choices that we make, what we can create even when we're in very very difficult and challenging circumstances.”

“There's always a spiritual basis, even when it's not explicit. And I believe it's what allows us the energy to keep going. It's the recognition of our mutual humanity, our respect for each other.”

Joining us today is the courageous Karen Tse, a human rights lawyer, an ordained minister, and Founder and CEO of the global non-profit, International Bridges to Justice, otherwise known as IBJ.

A former public defender, she moved to Cambodia in the mid-90s to train the country’s first core group of public defenders and established the first arraignment court. After witnessing hundreds of prisoners of all ages being held without trial, usually tortured into making 'confessions’, Karen founded IBJ in 2000 with the mission to end torture as an investigative tool and ensure due process rights. 

With its presence in 53 countries, IBJ has supported 48,000 lawyers and represented over 500,000 detainees.

Among her numerous awards, she was named by U.S. News & World Report as one of America’s Best Leaders and recognized by the Skoll Foundation as a leading social entrepreneur.

Just how did an Unitarian Universalist minister launch a human rights movement that has benefitted so many trapped in failing justice systems? Well let’s talk to her and find out.

Hello Karen, welcome to the Founder Spirit podcast! So wonderful to have you with us today, and thank you for taking the time.

[02:45] Karen Tse: Thank you for what you do, and thank you for really getting our message out to the world. 

[02:49] Jennifer: Karen, we have known each other now for over 20 years, and both as Chinese Americans, you and I have a lot in common. So I thought I start with your childhood, which is an aspect of your life that I actually don't know much about. 

Growing up in the Chinatown community in Los Angeles, what were some of your formative experiences?

[03:10] Karen: So my father, he was a dentist, and his dental office was in Chinatown. And our church, the St. Bridget Chinese Catholic Church, was just located in the center of Chinatown. 

As I reflect back on it, what was really critical for me is that it was a Catholic community with a white, Irish Catholic priest and all Chinese people. And the kids understood everything because we grew up speaking English, but a lot of the people actually didn't even understand what Father Quinn was saying. 

But it was really a beautiful community center, with lunches on Sundays, teaching English as a second language, catechism. And for me, it was really the power of community and spirituality in action, moving forward together. 

[03:53] Jennifer: And I know at university you used to organize letter writing campaigns for political prisoners. I know it probably started much earlier, but where did this strong sense of justice comes from?

[04:06] Karen: I think it's the sense that's in all of us. It's just that sometimes we don't hear it or see it. 

Thich Nhat Hanh, a Buddhist monk, he was asked once, what do we need to do to save the world? And his answer was, all we need to do in order to save the world is to allow ourselves to hear the cries of the world.  I think that's inside all of us. It's just that sometimes there's so much going on or it's too difficult, so we don't allow ourselves to hear or feel it. 

For me, it was always just right there - I felt it in my waking moments, I felt it in my dreams. I often had a recurring nightmare from the time when I was eight years old, where I was in a police station and someone was being tortured. Terribly traumatic dreams, and I would wake up suddenly and say to myself, it's okay, it’s just a bad dream. 

But I knew even at that very young age that at that very moment, my nightmare was actually someone's reality, and someone was being tortured, people were being tortured throughout the world. 

So for me, it was just something inside that I felt. There's a part of us that knows that there's so much injustice in the world and responds to it, and it's just whether or not we allow ourselves to touch that part and move forward with it.

[05:18] Jennifer: After graduation, you were accepted into both law school and also divinity school. It's quite unique to have that combination. For me, these two fields just seem so orthogonal it’s like right brain versus left brain, intuition from the heart versus analytics from the mind. 

And I could understand law school being a very logical choice for someone with that sense of justice, and also as a Chinese immigrant. (chuckles) But I always wondered, where did this idea of divinity school come from?

[05:57] Karen: Well, I think it's also people in your life. And when I was an undergrad, there was a woman - her name was Regina Mooney, who had gone to Yale Divinity School. 

And in conversation with her, I began to understand, really, a sense of my own calling towards divinity school. I actually couldn't really explain it, I just always knew that I had to go - it was something inside of me. 

And as Martin Luther King says, you need a tough mind and a tender heart. Because if people aren't going into the heart of themselves and haven't been transformed, you can change the structure, you can change the political situation, and then you have people who do the same things. It's how people treat each other. There's something deeper in terms of our interconnectedness and how we move forward.

So for me, it was just a question of how - I wanted to be committed to social justice, I wanted to be a part of change and bring love and peace in the world. But it was like, which one? And I felt it was both. 

[06:48] Jennifer: Well, it sounds like that you had a higher calling already from a very early age. 

[06:53] Karen: Well, it's interesting you say that I had a higher calling from a younger age. Sometimes I feel that it was even stronger at a younger age, because there is a purity of intention. 

[07:03] Jennifer: After university, you landed a fellowship which took you to Asia. And the vision of the Watson Foundation is to develop more humane and effective leaders. Can you tell us what you had witnessed working with southeast Asian refugees in the 80s?

[09:21] Karen: I witnessed something fundamental to IBJ, which is that I worked with a number of refugees in refugee camps. And one group of Vietnamese refugees that I worked with had gone on a hunger strike because they were protesting the conditions.

And because they went on a hunger strike, they were placed into an actual prison. They were taken out of the refugee camp, which was already very difficult and very challenging, and actually isolated as further punishment into a prison. 

So I began to then realize two things. Number one, the ways that criminal justice is really used to punish and as a tool of oppression, and that was something new to me. I hadn't actually thought about it in that way before, and it was actually my earlier encounters with the prison systems. 

And I also began to understand the power of hope, because when I was younger, I remember sometimes feeling really overwhelmed with so much injustice that was there. I could see it, I was dreaming it. I just felt so overwhelmed with it.

And yet somehow being in the refugee camps, in the midst of so much suffering, I saw really the power of hope and the resilience of people who are determined to keep going and to find ways of connecting. 

And one thing I remember is they would bring an imaginary treasure box into the prison, and they called it the treasure box of hope. And inside, it would open and put a story of hope in and then maybe sing a song or something. 

And I've since had so many more of these experiences, especially in our work with International Bridges to Justice and the defenders. It was a very powerful experience for me in terms of recognizing that there's so much light in darkness, and it's also the choices that we make. It's not just the circumstances that we're in, but we can choose how we react - we can choose hope.

So I think a part of that experience rooted my commitment to knowing that we can all make a difference and that we have a lot of choice in how we choose to move forward. 

[09:19] Jennifer: Yeah, I have a personal story related to that hope. Twelve years ago, I was moving to China, and I was not happy about the move. I don't know if you remember, Karen, you created for me a box of hope.

[09:33] Karen: Wow, now I remember it. I'm just now realizing that the original box came from, his name was Truong, who showed me this box of hope. And so you can say thank you also to Truong, who is a refugee.

[09:48] Jennifer: Thank you, Truong. I still have that box, I kept it. 

[09:50] Karen: It's awesome how resourceful people are, because they didn't have the physical material, so it was an imaginary box. 

And it reminds me of a piece of art that I have in my house, it's called Good Night Moon by someone in Myanmar who was in prison for a number of years. And it's made by little pieces of trash in the prison. 

And the reason he calls it Good Night Moon is, he said, I was in prison for so long, and during that time, I always wished that I could see the moon, I longed to see the moon. And finally I got out, he said, and I couldn't believe it - all these people, they're not looking at the moon. Why are they not looking at the moon? 

So I have this piece of art to remind me to be grateful because I can look at the moon. But it's also we can create even when we're in very difficult and challenging circumstances.

[10:39] Jennifer: That's true. Upon returning home from Asia, you enrolled into law school at UCLA. And unlike many of your classmates who went into corporate law, you took a job as a public defender in San Francisco. 

And for those of us who don't have a legal background, a public defender is a lawyer appointed by the court to provide legal representation to defendants who cannot pay. What drew you to the criminal defense system? Why are you defending criminals?

[11:12] Karen: I never thought of it as defending criminals so much as defending people who were accused. And perhaps it was partly because of my connection to Truong and the others who were in a prison from the refugee camp when they were transferred. 

But also, recognizing all the time it’s really about the criminalization of race and poverty, and it's everywhere. So if you don't have a defense, how do you know whether you're guilty or innocent?

And so for me, it was always a very noble profession, something that I wanted to do. And I had a mentor, too, in law school, who just gave me so much strength and courage to believe that I would definitely make a difference. 

So this is Mike Yamamoto, who is transgender, so is now Mia Yamamoto, and she was a criminal defense lawyer. And I think that was part of my inspiration for how I could make a difference.

[12:01] Jennifer: I understand, as a public defender, you worked really hard, and you had a million cases, and you agonized over many of them. Can you share with the audience a memorable experience from that time?

[12:14] Karen: Yeah, I think I want to share a positive, memorable experience, which is, as I said earlier, part of what was very difficult is sheer injustice all the time. And in the United States, as in many countries, the system is set up against a lot of people. And that's a lot to do with race, with economics, with everything. 

And I remember that I had this one case, and it was an African-American, his name was Levester Wallace, and he was accused of having a gun in the car. And possession of a gun was a misdemeanor at the time.

It was in the armrest of the car, it wasn't even his car, but they found it there, and so he had a gun - all the facts were there. And yet what was just so unjust, because what they wanted to do is to have it on his record so they could do stop and searches on him all the time, like getting people into the system for whatever reason. 

And I felt so discouraged about it, because the evidence was clearly there. But I remember on that Sunday, I went to a church in San Francisco called Glide Memorial. And it's a great church because you have people from the most upper echelons of society, you have homeless people - everybody comes together. 

So I went to church that Sunday, and I remember that Cecil Williams was a great preacher, and he said because everybody just wants to be treated fairly, everyone wants to be treated equally. And I said, okay, well, let me try this in my closing argument. 

So I went and all the evidence was there and don't remember what legal argument I gave because it might not have been a very strong one, but I said exactly what Cecil said - well, everybody wants to be treated fairly. 

And somehow people got it. I shared this with the jury and they all voted not guilty. And I remember the judge said, what did the jury say? Because he was perplexed, like, how did this happen?

It was also a celebratory moment, not just for Levester, not just for myself, not just because of the case, but also gave me hope that people believe that we all need to be treated fairly. And I felt that it was also a victory in the moment of public defense of how we defend, how we move forward.

So that was a very positive, memorable experience for me. I had a lot of other ones where I felt like I'm going to go up and cry because it sometimes just feels really overwhelming when the system is stacked against you or your defendant for unfair reasons.

[14:35] Jennifer: You know, it's interesting you brought up the word the criminalization of poverty, because we don't tend to think people are forced into committing certain crimes because of poverty.

[14:46] Karen: But in the work of International Bridges to Justice, you see it all the time - it’s shocking. We think it used to be Les Miserables where someone is in jail for stealing bread, but I've met people in jail for literally stealing a coke or a sheet. 

Country to country to country, kids steal the same thing when they're homeless, when they're cold, or they need some security and they need a drink. It's really shocking and they need protection.

[15:09] Jennifer: And we're living in a very privileged part of the world, we're really not aware of that, so thank you for being a voice for these forgotten people. 

In 1994, you moved to Cambodia and worked on legal reform there as part of the post-war reconstruction made possible by the Paris Accords. I wanted to give the audience some historical context on Cambodia. 

The Khmer Rouge regime, which ruled the country between 1975 to 1979, had committed horrific genocide, which killed nearly 2 million people, around a quarter of its population. And even though that they had officially been defeated in 1979, but they also carried on and operated guerrilla warfares in different regions of the country. 

So this has been a very dark chapter in the country's history - immense loss and suffering with profound impact and lasting effect on the country as well as its people. And I know people who actually went to Phnom Penh in the mid-90s, and they recall the intensity of the collective trauma that they were feeling there. 

So, Karen, I wanted to ask you, why would you go to such a devastating place like Cambodia in the mid-90s?

[16:32] Karen: I went because one day in the public defender's office and on my desk, I still don't know who it was, someone had put this notice saying that they were looking for three defenders to go to Cambodia and train the first group of public defenders. 

I actually didn't realize at the time how much devastation there was. But it's also really interesting how all of your chapters connect. I remember that when I was working in the refugee camps, at the very end of that experience, before going onto law school, I was with a friend and we both made a commitment that we were going to come back and do whatever we could. 

I think sometimes the commitments you make, they live inside you. And so for me, when I received this on my desk, I thought, oh, here is my commitment being sent back to me. And also I recognized that it was very specific and something that I could do. And I still feel that way, I still am really grateful, because we all come into certain “jobs and places”, but what you bring is what makes a difference.

[17:42] Jennifer: When you first arrived in Cambodia, there were less than ten lawyers in the country because the rest of them had been killed during the genocide. You and your team essentially built the entire legal system there from scratch. 

Can you tell us, what was it like living and working in a country that was just starting to emerge from a very tragic and violent past in recent history?

[18:06] Karen: I think it was a very tense time for me. A lot of people are like, wow, was it difficult? For me, there was also a lot of beauty in it. It was also devastating. 

So it was 20 years after the Khmer Rouge, and there were literally less than ten attorneys in the country. So I'd walk into a prison, and there'd be all these kids in prison. And I had met a woman, and she said, my husband committed a crime ten years ago, but they can't find him, so here I am.

So there's no legal system, you're just throwing people in jail. And we asked people to apply and sign up to be the first 25 defenders in the country. And the minister of justice said, we don't need these defenders. After they're trained, I'm not going to let them in the courts, that's not going to happen.

And so, there was no defense. And it was literally starting a system all over and keep walking forward, even if you don't know, like one step in front of the other in the right way. 

And I still remember one day being at a reception and having the opportunity to be in the same area with him and saying, will you allow our defenders to be trained and to actually go to court? And he said, yes, I will. So that was like a huge opening. 

But also, it was the courage of the defenders. And this is not just Cambodia, now with International Bridges To Justice, we've seen in country after country after country, they're creating a different mindset, a new way of seeing things. 

So, it used to be that someone would get picked up and they'd be tortured because it’s the cheapest form of investigation, and then they wouldn't have anything. They wouldn't have a lawyer, they didn't have a defender, they didn't know when their day of court was, they didn't know anything. And there's a lot of corruption in many countries today, because there's no system. 

Then I moved on to work with the United Nations, a program called judicial mentors figuring out what we could put in place in terms of system change so it could be generational. And luckily for us, we were able to build the first arraignment court that was then copied in different places. And this is where people then find out what they're charged with.

I think Cambodia was a really foundational time for me in terms of seeing difficulty, sadness, overwhelm, and also a sense of what can happen when pushing through possibility.

[20:14] Jennifer: And as you mentioned, you worked as a judicial mentor for the UN Center for Human Rights, and that job took you to prisons in Cambodia. Can you tell us some of the encounters that you had while visiting those prisons? What is it like? Who are the people there? 

[20:32] Karen: I think it's like many prisons in the world, meaning when you meet people and hear their stories, you just can't believe it. There are people who should be there, but there are so many people who just shouldn't be there, who are just invisible. 

So torture as an investigative tool was almost always accepted - it's illegal to torture in so many countries, but it happens. And the defenders really came together, and they supported each other. 

And I just remember one specific case of a vegetable seller who was tortured - she had cigarette burns - she was pregnant, she miscarried. And the defender said, your honor, as you know, it's against the law to use a tortured confession. And this time, the judge said, okay, it's a tortured confession, it's against the law, and I shall release her. 

And that actually, they started a precedent for not using tortured confessions. That was just the beginning, and it's moved on in really positive ways.

[21:24] Jennifer: There's a story about a 4-year old boy, Vishna, who was born inside the prison. Can you tell us how his story has impacted you?

[21:35] Karen: Yes, absolutely. So Vishna, because he was born in the prison, the guards loved him. He had kind of a special status in the prison, and that is that the guards would allow him in and out of the bars of the actual enclosed area. So it was really interesting. 

Unfortunately, by the time I met him, he was bigger, so he could not slip in and out. But he used to climb to the first bar, the second bar, third bar, and then very slowly, like, move his head so he can slip through and come back down 3-2-1. 

He would always grab my pinky because he wanted to go visit all of the prisoners, and they're, like, 173, so I couldn't visit all of them every day. But that was his goal.

And in some places, I would lift him up. Some of the prison cells had a thing you could open, so he would want to stick his face through. And in some places, it was completely removed, dark, and he and the prisoners had dug through the dirt so he could stick his little finger through. And he would yell, like a noise or something like that. 

And for me he was my greatest inspirations and has been for International Bridges To Justice because I felt that he had such determination. This is a kid who's born in a prison with nothing, with no resources, and yet there was part of him who thought I can't do everything, but I can do something, so I'm going to do this one thing. And he did it.

We don't know where he is anymore, but Vishna lives on in the International Bridges To Justice’s heart. And I hope he serves as a great inspiration that we can all do something and we do that one thing.

[23:10] Jennifer: Yeah, I love that story. 

Karen, I know on the ground you had trained judges, prosecutors, police officers and court personnel in all aspects of civil and criminal law. And along with the Ministry of Justice, as you mentioned, you had established the country's first arraignment court. 

But during this time, you also encountered very tough oppositions, yet personally faced many veiled threats to your own safety. Were you ever scared? I mean, what kept you going during those hard times?

[23:41] Karen: I think I was scared sometimes, though I was very fortunate because I also had amazing people around me. 

I used to volunteer on the weekends at this orphanage with Sister Rose. And I remember being a little bit worried and maybe a little scared and trying to find my own route and direction. And I asked her, how do I do the work that I can do in the most effective way? How can I break through? She said, you have to find the Christ or the Buddha in every person, because she really believed in the power of transformative love. 

And then I had another guide, who's a Buddhist Monk. And he said to me, you have to remember that whatever you focus on will grow. He was saying, focus on what you can do and keep your focus on that - don't give into the fear, don't feed your fear. 

Both of those pieces of advice and support were incredibly important to me, and really, transformation did happen within the prison. The prison guard took out the dark cells. When I was leaving Cambodia, he let everybody out of the prison, like in groups, a small group at a time - he let us have a party, it was insane. 

People were like, this has never happened before. But he was like, okay, for your going away party, you probably want to say goodbye to everyone in the prison, so I'll let you have a party. He had a big scar on his head, very bravado.

And yet, at the same time, there was something that was transformative in the advice that Sister Rose gave me, and also our friend, who said, whatever you focus on will grow. 

[25:20] Jennifer: In your work, you talk a lot about torture, but I've never heard you really talk about some of the torture techniques that people employ. I mean, we often hear about beatings and cigarette burns. But I know that there are also just some really horrific, unimaginable acts of violence. 

And I know that many times you sat across the table from local authorities who have done some terrible things or, you know, actually committed torture themselves, whether it's a police chi for prison director. 

And I know you have this uncanny ability to connect with everyone, but I want to go back to Sister Rose's comment. How do you find the Christ and the Buddha in these people?

[26:08] Karen: First of all, I can say that it's probably easier because I'm conscious of it and I'm being deliberate. And also, it's that I fully recognize that not all of us are good, not all of us are bad. I have a lot of good, I have a lot of bad, I want to change the bad. Good people have bad, bad people have good - and that's the whatever you focus on will grow.

I did training of police officers, and I was trying to crack that code to how do you work with police officers who are torturing. Because there was a lot of torture happening at that time. In the beginning I would talk about torture, and a lot of them said, I must torture because then I will get the truth out. 

At a certain point, I started saying, okay, let's start with talking about your values. Like, why did you become police officers? And most of them said, because I want to move forward from what happened with Khmer Rouge. 

Because unfortunately, and this is what happens, is that even though you may have new governments, you might change things, the ghosts of the past remain, unless you actually build systematic legal access, protection against torture.

So they say, I want to move forward. Then I would say, but are you moving forward if you're continuing torture and still they’d be like, hm, not sure. 

And (I) actually would bring out a picture of the sign at Tuol Sleng (Genocide) Museum, which is, where they were torturing everyone and killing everyone during the Khmer Rouge. And it says on the sign, brother, don't you dare lie, or you will get more lashes. And so they would look at that and then think about what they said in terms of wanting to move forward. 

And then also we would talk about what are your deeper values? And I often found that even within hours, someone would come back and sit in that seat and said, you know what? I would confess if you're torturing me right now, and I think I'm going to stop. 

And so a lot of it is recognizing that there is an inherent worth and dignity of every person, including maybe the police officers who are torturing and finding our common ground.  

Most people think that people enjoy torturing, that’s a very small percentage of people. Mostly there's no resources, it’s used as an investigative tool, it's what's been done for so long. It's about finding other possibilities and connecting to people who want to change.

So I felt I was very fortunate that I was able to find a number of police who wanted to advocate for the change. Many did not, but the ones who did were strong, and they began to shift that in the culture.

[28:32] Jennifer: That's beautiful. I love your approach to connect with people at a much deeper level and also understanding where they come from and what their values are. 

It's very easy for you to go into a situation to say, look, I know this, I know that. But when you come from that approach, it doesn't really work because people will inherently resist. But when you come down to a much deeper level to be able to connect with them, to talk about what their values are, something shifts in the narrative.

[29:00] Karen: Yes. And I think I definitely have a sense that's the deeper shifts that need to occur. And we see it all the time with International Bridges To Justice, that it's not just a program for a short period of time. It's the deeper shift, and it's a deeper commitment that allows for longer term sustainability and generational change.

[29:33] Jennifer: Karen, International Bridges To Justice was your senior thesis at divinity school. I'm curious, at which point did you realize that you wanted to start IBJ on your own? 

[29:33] Karen: I think it was an idea that came, and then I struggled with it. I struggled with it because I had gone to law school. And then I felt that I wanted to go to divinity school, I felt it was like my more natural calling.

However, I felt that it was the tough mind, tender heart. I thought, you know what? I had to do the law school and then create structural change. So it was ten years later that I decided to go to divinity school. 

And I thought, when I go to Divinity school, I finally get to do what I want to do. And yet I had this feeling that what I needed to do was not complete in the legal field. So between my first and second year, I went to Vietnam and I did a legal needs assessment and discovered the exact same issues - laws on the books, but not implemented, people being tortured. 

And the more I looked into it the more I realized people were being tortured every day. The thing that really got me is that we could act not only as individuals, but top down, bottom up in the countries, but also as a global community. 

And finally I made this agreement to do it for one year, and then I'm going to go back and be a minister. So anyway, you know, I started in 2000, it's been 24 years. So the agreement wasn't quite there. And yet it was mostly that I saw a clear path for what we could do. 

And I also recognized that things just don't happen. I was in divinity school, I realized God doesn't just do things, you have to work, you have to co-create. 

[30:55] Jennifer: Well, not just that, because you also met and hired your future husband to write the strategy plan for IBJ in your last year of divinity school.

[31:05] Karen: So he would probably say that hire is a strong word, I'd say hire for dates.

[31:13] Jennifer: There's ulterior motive behind it. (chuckles)

[31:18] Karen: Exactly. Meaning I don't think I paid him enough for him to consider a fair hire. But in fairness to him, he did want to marry me. And it was a good trade off.

[31:28] Jennifer: That was a good trade for him. (chuckles)

But, Karen I think this unique combination of having both the analytical legal mind and as well as being connected to a higher calling has truly come to define you both as a human rights lawyer, but as well as a human being. 

So in 2000, you wrote your reflection on the spiritual basis of International Bridges To Justice, which I found on your website. Can you share with us just what is the spiritual foundation of IBJ?

[32:01] Karen: It's a good question, it's probably related to the philosophy of recognizing the inherent worth and dignity of every person. I believe that for people to do the work they do, there's something that keeps them going in that sense. 

But I remember one time we had a global gathering of the leaders of IBJ. And the head from Zimbabwe started with Christian prayers because he's a pastor, Ophandeath lived in a Buddhist temple for 14 years, Ajay started with a Hindu blessing.

There's always a spiritual basis, even when it's not explicit. And I believe it's what allows us the energy to keep going. It's the recognition of our mutual humanity, our respect for each other.

[32:28] Jennifer: You know, I could relate to the spiritual foundation a lot more now that I've been on this journey in the last 5-6 years. Because at the beginning of my career, I just wanted to make more money and go up the corporate ladder. 

But at some point, and I also see that with some of my friends, it doesn't matter how much money you make or how much power or how famous you are, if you don't have an actual spiritual basis, it will make whatever you have accomplished really empty. And I think having a spiritual foundation as part of your journey is so important. 

[33:23] Karen: That's true for all of us. It is really easy to lose your way. And in fact, I think the more power you have, the easier it is to lose your way, for your ego to get involved or to lose sight of really what's important.

That's why sometimes, I also pray for my younger self to keep that connected, because there is some kind of purity of intention before your identity is connected with worldly success. 

So now, at almost 60, there's something really exciting about how things unfold, how we continue to find different ways of expressing who we are leading into our purpose and bringing the gifts that we have.

[34:04] Jennifer: Karen, what was IBJ like in the early days?

[34:07] Karen: Well, IBJ in the early days was just me, it was tough in the sense that I didn't know where any resources come from, so I was very stressed.

But there's also a freedom in having absolutely no money and no status. I mean, you could try anything, there's no failure,you got nothing to lose, man. Just go for it. And that's cool, too. 

We can still find that freedom, it’s just that we have to be conscious of it.

[34:32] Jennifer: So to all those struggling entrepreneurs out there, find the freedom in the struggle.

[34:37] Karen: Or enjoy the process to know that it's not just the destination, it's also who you become in the process. You're giving yourself a gift of creation. You're placing yourself in a space where you're challenging yourself and you're growing.

[34:50] Jennifer: Karen, China was your first country program. I understand you flew there in 2001 on a $5,000 donation and a 15 minutes appointment with a contact at the National Legal Aid office there. For someone who barely spoke Mandarin, with no funding or staff, how did you manage to convince that person to work with you?

[35:12] Karen: It's very interesting. I think I did not convince that person, I think there must have been something phenomenal somewhere else that was beyond me. So I arrived in China. I speak Cantonese, not Mandarin, so my Mandarin is super bad, but I really wanted to go into the provinces. 

I met this person, head of Legal Aid, and it was very strange - you know, sometimes you feel like you're in a completely surreal situation. And that was one of those. I was sitting here talking to him. I could barely speak Mandarin. Some reason he understood some Cantonese. So we were kind of halfway communicating.

And I remember we're sitting down at a table, and it was really, honestly, a surreal experience. I could see myself - it was like I was in the corner of the top of the ceiling, and I could see the entire meeting. It was really strange. 

So he looked at me and he said to me, at some point, I'm not sure why, but I want to work with you, so come to my office tomorrow morning. So I couldn't believe it, he said he was going to work with me. 

I go to the office, and he said, which province would you like to start in? And of course, I was so shocked because I did not know that he was going to say yes, unprepared. 

He says, yes, which province? And I remember there was a huge board right in front of me. And I looked at the board, and the first province was Anhui because it started with an a. So I said, Anhui, because it was our first one, and I saw it. 

So that was the beginning, I don't know that I convinced him to do anything. I just showed up. I think sometimes when you just have that intention that things, they will just organize in your favor. So I wish I had a great answer of how I did it, but I don't actually.

[36:41] Jennifer: Maybe the guy would have a different story. Maybe he would say, I saw determination in Karen and that's why I gave her the job.

[36:49] Karen: He could say that, or he could say, oh, her Mandarin was so bad, I just like, let me help her out. She's never going to get a yes from anybody.

[36:57] Jennifer: Karen IBJ is essentially creating the necessary conditions where people have access to justice and to end torture. Can you talk a little bit about what concretely IBJ does and what your approach is to promoting human rights and rule of law?

[37:13] Karen: Great. So in many ways, it started with my experience in Cambodia, which you asked me about earlier, walking into prisons. And I usually talk about one boy, but he's really just one kid from everywhere, who was tortured, didn't have a lawyer - a 12-year old boy for stealing a bicycle. 

And at that point, I realized that actually, unfortunately, torture was the cheapest form of investigation. And in Cambodia, there were laws on the books that say, you have a right to a lawyer, right not to be tortured. 

I also recognize the fact that the Cambodian government, despite the fact that they didn't want us touch their 5% of political prisoners or whatnot, were very open to helping the rest of the people, like the 12-year old boy. So International Bridges to Justice is really founded on that notion that this is not just Cambodia. 

When I looked into the eyes of this boy, I realized that neither myself nor my colleagues or most of my friends, we wouldn't have written a letter for the 12-year old boy because he wasn't an important political prisoner. He's someone who stole a bicycle. 

So what I was excited about, really, was that there was a huge solution and a huge window of opportunity in order to prevent this torture by building systematic early access to a lawyer. And so we do this in many countries in the world. 

A decade ago, all of our interns came together and they did all this research and found that of the 113 countries that torture, 93 have laws on the books that say, you have a right to a lawyer, right not to be tortured. 

So it's actually a phenomenal opportunity to build the legal infrastructure - that sounds so boring. It sounds really boring, and yet it is the technical infrastructure that can allow for the protection, working together with lawyers everywhere. So we work in a number of countries, from Cambodia to Myanmar to DRC, Burundi, Syria, because it's a huge issue everywhere. 

And we train the lawyers, and then we work on putting together roundtables, lawyers, judges, prosecutors, police, prison officials and then build defender resource centers. So that's what we do on a country by country basis. 

But also at the same time, we have global programs like Wiki Defense, we have justice makers in 52 countries. And it's really about the possibility, and finding the support for the defenders. Our leadership is in recognizing what the issue is and then organizing the forces around it to create the possibilities.

And what we see is that it's really the defenders. I mean, it's absolutely amazing, like, the tenacity and the work, because funding is always an issue. How can I say this? When I was a defender in the states, I realized that the resources that were given to the defense versus the prosecution were extremely uneven. 

It's this way everywhere in the world, and in some places, there's not even a single legal aid or defender office. So you see, in some countries, pre-trial detention is as high as 85%. people just walk into prisons but there's no defense. So we work on it in different ways with the different groups of lawyers that we support. 

And I think that it's amazing what the defenders do, and also it's exciting that the world wants to come together to support them.

[40:11] Jennifer: IBJ operates in countries, as you mentioned, like Syria, an active war zone, as well as Myanmar, Burundi, and DRC. These countries have faced violence and civil unrest, the circumstances are very grim and hopeless. And if logic could dictate, one would say, why would you go there? Like, there's just no role for you to play there. 

So, Karen, how do you manage to find the hope? How do you find the light in the darkness when you go into these places?

[40:44] Karen: I think it's the defenders, really, at the end of the day. I mean, they're just absolutely amazing and also have that sense that we don't really have a right to give up. It's kind of like a-cop out to say, like, it's too tough, it's too difficult - we can't do it. You wouldn't say that if you're in the country, because you live there and you need to support. 

I know that for instance, in Burundi, when I first went to Burundi, there were just so many people in pretrial detention. I walked into the prison, and I pick up this really cute baby, and I say to mom, she's so cute. She goes, she's why I'm here. She stole two diapers and an iron in order to iron the diapers for her. So she was still in prison for the most ridiculous things. 

So we started training in Burundi, and I remember training the police as well. And it was really interesting because at a certain point, just an open question to the police, is there torture here? And the police chief was very open about it at the time. because it wasn't illegal yet - now it’s illegal, and we've worked with them, so it's illegal.

So, yes, if you go down 500 meters to the marketplace, you will hear people screaming because we're torturing them, because they probably did something. We need a confession, right? So very open. But these defenders were amazing, they were, going into prisons, starting systematic early access. 

And then in 2015, because of the civil unrest, the president started picking up all these boys and, tying them back and kicking their shoulders, and throwing them in the ditch to die. It was absolutely horrible situation and funding just stopped, too. Like, funders were like, okay, we don't know what the situation is, looks really dangerous, seems like there's nothing we can do. Well, there is something you do there seems like. So we had to stop. 

And I remember speaking with Aline, who was in Burundi, and I said, aline, your salary has gone from $1,000 a month to $800 to $500. And now we have no resources, so you guys would just have to stop. I remember she said to me, Karen, you don't realize that our commitment with Burundi Bridges To Justice and International Bridges To Justice is bigger and greater than the budget. We will keep on, keep on. And they did, they found different ways of doing it.

When I went and I met somebody, and I said, who are you? Because everyone says you're so important. Everyone said, you must meet him, you must meet Thierry. And Thierry goes, I am the security guard. And he says, but I knew that if I left, everybody would leave, too. So this is in Burundi, eventually, we were able to find some money, and they're doing amazing things. 

Even recently I was speaking with JC, who works with the youth, and he says, Karen, now, there are not these torture instruments in the kids areas in the police stations. they don't torture as just as a matter where they're allowed to go and visit all of these police stations. It's systematic.

Really, for me, it's the defenders. Despite the most difficult situation, they are bringing light into the darkness. Despite the fact that there's danger to themselves, despite the fact that it doesn't seem possible, they're going to keep going. 

And I feel that as a global community, we have a responsibility to support the work that they do because they're doing crazy, courageous work. So we can find our own strengths to do that. 

I'm inspired by them. I realize we almost don't have a right to just give up and say it's not possible. There's so much possibility.

And in the 24 years, in country after country after country, it's not a pipe dream, there's absolute possibility. And we just need to organize, believe and commit to move this forward in terms of the movement.

[43:57] Jennifer: And you know, Karen, that's exactly the spirit that we need today. Because if we look at the wars that's going on around the world, a lot of people see it as a hopeless situation. But I think you have this amazing ability to inspire other people to see the possibilities. 

When I talk to my friends, I always say, you know, don't look at the problem, you’re going to get stuck looking at the problem and you will feel powerless and hopeless. So let's try to imagine a more harmonious world, a more sustainable future for us and the generation to come. So, thank you. I really appreciate that.

[44:29] Karen: I agree with that. As you said, if you just look at the problem, actually you get depressed. And even if you are only 1% of the solution, you feel a sense of movement and power. So I 100% agree that actually focusing on the solution and what can be done and moving that forward is a much stronger and empowering position to be in for all of us.

[44:49] Jennifer: (It) changes the energy, something shifts inside. Karen, I always thought of International Bridges To Justice as your ministry. Even though that you're not a practicing minister, this is your missionary work - you're out there to spread love, joy, peace and hope to some of the darkest places. 

With IBJ nearly 25 years later, you have now 13 country programs in place, you've got justice makers in 53 countries. You trained over 48,000 lawyers and provided pro bono legal advice to over half a million beneficiaries. So, how can we support you in this journey?

[45:24] Karen: Wow. I love that question. 

What we realize is that we are in the stage of IBJ 2.0, so that our dream of actually ending torture as an investigative tool and implementing due process rights requires that we look at the opportunities available to us. 

And a lot of this is through technology - it’s huge. Last year, we had two Stanford students who put together an AI chatbot for us in India so that people, who are illiterate, are able to hear what their charges are.

What you just described in terms of the numbers, which are positive, could be amplified ten times. We really have the possibilities of making this the institutional structure and empowering and strengthening the defenders on the ground. 

So how could you help? I'd say first, the most important thing is to believe, believe with us, believe that this is possible, believe in the possibility of ending torture as an investigative tool.

And number two, to figure out how you can help and how you can commit to it. And that could be anything - you could be an AI expert, you could be a communications expert, resources in terms of material support, resources in terms of volunteerism. 

We started something called communities of conscience when we started IBJ and that is different communities come together to support the cause or support the defenders. So if you're interested in starting a community of conscience or being part of one, could also let us know. So any way you can help, the defenders will embrace and appreciate it.

[46:54] Jennifer: Great. Also, just want to call out that people who want to check out international Bridges To Justice, you can find it at ibj.org. Karen, last but not least, what does the founder spirit mean to you?

[47:06] Karen: Wow, I think the founder spirit is about love, it's about creation, it's about resilience. And this sounds super corny, but I think it's also about never giving up, believing in the possibility of what your vision is. And it may change in different ways, but it's there. 

And in that process, having the joy of giving yourself that permission to be on that journey to grow, to learn, whatever the destination is and to always be alive. 

And it can be for someone who's actually founding, it can also be what you're creating every day of your life that you're foundationally moving towards something which gives your own life beauty and knowing that you have a choice for whatever you give into this world.

[47:51] Jennifer: I love that, because many times we think that it's just applicable to entrepreneurs. But actually, we're entrepreneurs of our life.

[47:58] Karen: Absolutely, everyone has it and you're founding your life with the decisions that you make. And, you know, one thing that I was thinking about earlier this morning is Viktor Frankl's quote. 

[48:06] Jennifer: I love Viktor Frankl - my family is so sick of me talking about Viktor Frankl. 

[48:12] Karen: And I love Viktor Frankl, who says, it's not for you to ask the question, what is the meaning of life? But for you to be prepared when life comes to you and asks, what meaning have you given to me? And I think that's true. 

One thing for sure, we don't know anything for sure, but we know we're all going to die. And when we die, we want to be able to answer that question that Viktor Frankl says life will ask us. 

And that's part of the founder spirit, too, of giving life meaning and being deliberate and conscious of how you contribute to yourself, to your family, and to this world.

[48:45] Jennifer: Thank you, Karen. I'm deeply grateful for that. 

We're now coming to the end of our interview, and as you know, we end every episode with a quote. And for this episode, we have a quote from Wayne Arnason, an American Unitarian Universalist minister: 

“Take courage friends. The way is often hard, the path is never clear, and the stakes are very high. Take courage. For deep down, there is another truth: you are not alone.”

Karen, I know it's your favorite poem, and you're the one who is often reciting that poem to people. So I got really inspired, and it's an honor to be able to recite that to you.

[49:28] Karen: Thank you for that poem. You're right, I'm always sharing that poem with our defenders. So it's really wonderful to hear it given back to us that we're not alone in this journey that's hard. It might be difficult, but we're not alone. So thank you so much for that.

[49:41] Jennifer: Karen, thank you very much for coming on the Founder Spirit podcast today and sharing with us stories from your courageous journey. Thank you.

[49:49] Karen: Thank you for your courage.

[49:52] Jennifer: If this podcast has been beneficial or valuable to you, feel free to become a patron and support us on Patreon.com, that is P-A-T-R-E-O-N.com/TheFounderSpirit. As always, you can find us on Apple, Google, Amazon and Spotify, as well as social media and our website at TheFounderSpirit.com

The Founder Spirit podcast is a partner of the Villars Institute, a nonprofit foundation focused on accelerating the transition to a net-zero economy and restoring planetary health. 

[50:26] [END OF AUDIO]

Show Notes


(03:53) Sense of Justice and Higher Calling

(07:03) Watson Fellowship & Box of Hope

(10:39) Life as a Public Defender

(14:35) Criminalization of Poverty

(16:32) Building the Legal System from Scratch in Cambodia

(20:14) Encounters in Cambodian Prisons - Story of Vishna

(23:10) Facing Opposition and Overcoming Fear

(29:33) Divinity School & the Spiritual Basis of IBJ

(34:04) The Freedom in Starting with Nothing

(34:50) IBJ’s China Country Program

(40:11) IBJ's Approach to Promoting Human Rights and Rule of Law

(46:54) The Founder Spirit


  • Connecting with others on a deeper level and recognizing their inherent worth can lead to transformative change. 
  • The story of Vishna highlights the resilience and determination of individuals in the face of adversity.
  • Believe in the power of hope - we can always find hope, even under the most difficult and challenging circumstances.

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