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Jena Karim

April 26, 2022

Roz Bahrami

Jena Karim doesn’t hold back when talking about the joys and heartbreaks of her work. At 41 years old, the U.S.-based Karim has spent the past two decades in the international-development field, working to strengthen new democracies around the world.

That means, in her words, “election reform, fighting for transparent government and working on the ground with those trying to strengthen their own civil societies.” That includes helping develop laws and institutions that build resilient democratic institutions.

The joy of having an active hand in creating better societies is tremendous, she says, but disappointment is common too. Karim works with organizations dedicated to civil society development globally. She had been working on Afghanistan when the Taliban took over in 2021, and ended up watching as much of her work—and the work of countless dedicated Afghans—was undone overnight.

“A lot of these countries, you just can’t fail,” she says. “They’re in conflict, any slight trip-up and what’s been built can collapse. We’ve seen where one failure cascades because the democratic institutions buttressing the country are so fragile.”

The stakes are high, in other words, and people’s lives are literally hanging in the balance. You can’t exactly wing it.

“We’re advising civil society on legal reform frameworks,” she says. “You can’t really advise on something like amending a constitution and be taken seriously without a background learning what drives constitutional reform.”

She began to look for an educational experience that could provide the knowledge she needed, applicable to her unique circumstances. Her colleagues in the international-development world often had litigation-focused juris doctor degrees, but she didn’t feel that was the right fit. Her search ended when she found the Osgoode LLM in Constitutional Law.

Despite being one of the few non-lawyers in the program, she found the faculty and her fellow students supportive—and knowledgeable in the extreme.

“This kind of program is rare and valuable,” she says. “I needed the practitioner perspective, paired with academic rigour. Osgoode gave me such a great balance of professors with both sensibilities. They understood that even though I wasn’t a litigator, I needed to have that understanding of how to construct a constitutional case, in order to work backwards and advise on enshrining these in other societies.”

Since graduating in 2020, Karim has focused the next phase of her career on authoritarian regimes, and how strong civil society can overturn them. Her Osgoode courses focusing on federalism, equality rights and fundamental freedoms are proving invaluable in that work.

In fact, she says that if she’d had the knowledge from her equality-rights courses ten years ago, there are certain situations in which she and her colleagues may have been able to push through reforms that “we just didn’t know how to achieve” the first time around.

Ultimately, her Osgoode experience was, she says, “life changing.”

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