Flynn Coleman is a true global citizen who’s spent her life making the world a better place. Whether she’s working with local artisans in South America or building a socially progressive law practice in New York, Flynn shows us that change starts close to home - wherever that is at the moment.
You’ve lived all over the world, but you grew up in LA?
I grew up in Los Angeles, but I spent time in New York before moving here. My dad worked a lot here when I was a kid, so I have early memories of the city.
Is that where your love of travel started?
My first real taste of living overseas was when I was 13 years old. I went to live in Italy with a host family to represent the US in soccer. I was the captain of the team, and lived with a family in a small town called Macerata that’s a few hours north of Rome. They had a cozy home in the middle of a corn field. I knew Spanish but no Italian at the time, and they didn’t speak any English. I was a bit overwhelmed when I first walked in the door. I remember unpacking my things and hearing people talking in the distance and guitars playing. I was thinking, “What’s going on? What have I gotten myself into?” The sounds kept getting louder and louder, so I went to the front door. The entire town had come over, singing and dancing, to welcome me home!
That was an extraordinary moment and the trip ended up being such an amazing experience. I learned so much about love and family and home from these people that took me into their house and took care of me. The woman that I lived with had faced a lot of discrimination in her life, and she also helped me understand that, ultimately, we're all the same underneath and we all want the same things. It was really formative for me in a million different ways.
Was that when you knew you wanted to work in human rights?
Yes. I later got my undergraduate university degree at Georgetown’s School of Foreign Service, which is a very focused curriculum in international affairs. We studied with a global perspective and I had some incredible professors that really got me involved in learning about such atrocities as the Rwandan genocide and the war crimes in the former Yugoslavia. Each class I took, and professor I learned from, made me want to learn more about crimes against humanity, war crimes, and genocide—essentially, asking the question of how do we rebuild as humans, as societies, as communities, as political institutions and economies after periods of trauma when the worst things that could happen do happen? How do we help each other rebuild?
For my study abroad I moved to Chile and worked with a member of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, and I wrote my thesis on truth commissions.
What is a truth commission?
When something really traumatic happens in a society, there are a lot of different avenues to be explored to figure out how to heal and move forward post-conflict. There are international war crime tribunals and local tribunals, and a Truth and Reconciliation Commission is a group of people who come together to create a historical record of what happened and to reconcile the past. People are able to have their stories heard and recorded for history. I'm a human rights lawyer, so I believe that justice and legal systems are incredibly important, but so many people often get cut out of that process. When someone has lost their family and home, what they often want is to tell their story and to know what happened to their loved ones. That's part of what the commissions do. They are truth-tellers leaving a record for history in the hope that the abuse will be acknowledged and that it will never happen again.
I can imagine that's very validating to be heard in that way.
As humans, that's what we all want, and that’s often the thing that can get lost during war crime tribunals due to a lot of reasons. Those, of course, are still essential. Justice is important, but so is getting help to rebuild your home or sitting around the table to have those incredibly brave and excruciating, and ultimately, healing conversations to reconcile the past, restore communities, and move forward into the future. Ultimately, solutions have to be local, and led by the people who are living in these places. People want to have agency in their own lives and to be able to say, "This is what I need to move forward."
I think so much of life is about learning and listening to others. Even when you want to help or think you know the answer, sometimes the best thing is to say, "What do you need and how can I help you do that for yourself?"
During this time you hadn’t studied law yet. What made you choose that path as the way you could help?
I teach a class on changing the world, and what I tell my students and what I think is important foundationally is that there's no one way to do it. Everyone can do it by doing what they're passionate about. Photography, design, film, dance, activism, art, writing, sports, human rights law—there are so many ways that we can make a difference. There's no one avenue, so you don't necessarily have to quit your life to volunteer full time either.
I explored a lot of different paths, but ultimately I chose to go to law school because there was such an overlapping confluence of things within law that can make a difference. Ultimately that’s what would lead me to become a human rights lawyer, since I discovered early on that my core belief is that we're all equally and intrinsically valuable, just because we exist. We don't have to earn it, we are each worthy just as we are.
You are born with that value and no one should be able to take it from you.
Exactly. Those are the rights that we always need to be fighting and advocating for. Law is such a critical piece of that, because it allows you to write constitutions, pass legislation, and work on policy. On the other hand, there is so much more to change than that, so many ways to contribute, which is why I got involved in social entrepreneurship, to think about how we can creatively solve these problems from all angles. That’s where Malena comes in.
Can you talk a little more about Malena?
It's a social enterprise working with extraordinary collectives of artisans in countries around the world. The idea actually started back in Chile, though I didn’t know it then. I ended up stumbling upon a cooperative of women who had come together after what was called the “era of disappearances” in the region. In Chile and Argentina, huge numbers of people were kidnapped and killed. In the aftermath, these women, who had all lost someone, came together to learn financial and business skills, to rebuild their lives, and to heal together as a community. They also created these tapestries called “arpilleras,” which depicted moments in Pinochet’s dictatorship. I ended up helping them by creating an international market for their work. At that point, that just meant that I stuffed a bunch of their gorgeous art in my suitcase, came back to college, printed out some cool neon brochures of the story behind the tapestries, and sold them at a table on campus. I literally sold out in a day because people were so inspired by the story and the incredible strength, artistry, and resilience of these women. Years later, that became the idea behind Malena.
Malena supports financial inclusion and economic empowerment for our partners, which helps bring dignity, equality, and joy to the communities we work with. Humanitarian aid is essential indeed. In times of war and crisis, it saves lives. But after that, we need to rebuild structures that give people agency. Many of the goods in the communities that we work with are made by women. And by supporting women, you support entire communities.
It all really goes back to this idea of furthering and advocating for human rights in innovative ways. It also allows others who want to contribute to help just by voting with their dollars and spending their money differently or even just by coming to the site to learn about their stories.
How do you find the collectives?
In many different ways. It’s all about social impact. For example,we work with a shelter in Los Angeles for women transitioning out of homelessness. They make these wonderful soaps and candles, among other items. Their enterprise not only helps them come together as a group, but also helps them build strength, courage, resilience, and confidence, along with business skills. Ultimately, we want to support people's stories and voices and give them opportunities to shape their lives on their own terms.
Can we go back to your work as a human rights attorney? What essentially do you do?
I’ve had many different roles as a human rights attorney. I’ve worked with the United Nations and the US Federal government. I’ve helped with rebuilding post-conflict communities, litigating international criminal law, changing laws and policies, and defending and protecting people’s rights. I’ve worked on asylum cases, where we represent people who have gone through horrible abuse in their home countries. We help them stay in the US. I’ve drafted judicial opinions and speeches, prepared trials, conducted investigations, developed humanitarian technologies, and worked with survivors of genocide. I also speak, teach, write, and consult on the intersection of technology, human rights, and humanity. It’s all in the name of protecting the inalieable rights and dignities every living being deserves.
Can you talk about anything you’ve been working on recently?
Recently we launched the brand new Grunin Center for Law and Social Entrepreneurship, out of NYU School of Law. I'm the founding fellow. It’s the first-ever center of its kind to combine law and social entrepreneurship as part of a law school community. It’s exciting because, for example, it’s no longer necessary to work at NGO to give back in a meaningful way, or to forgo giving back if you choose another path. It’s about moving out of our segmented silos and connecting with each other and learning from people in other fields and regions as well. We want to ask how we can make a positive impact, make business and laws more conducive to social good, and be in service of making the world a better place whether it’s as lawyers, impact investors, businesses, or entrepreneurs.
I also speak, teach, and write about about the confluence of artificial intelligence, human rights, and humanity, which is going to have incredible impact on every aspect of our society.
With all the atrocities that you see in your work, how do you not get discouraged?
It’s important to remember that there is no getting “there.” Not only does no one save the world, but no one can really save anyone else. But we can try and do our part where and when we can. Start small, help one person in your community. Try to make your little corner of the universe better. That is all there is. And that is where meaning can be found. We are so insignificant, but also so powerful. When we work together we can make change, but it is just step by step..The point is to try and to strive to do good, and in doing so, we become better people along the way, and perhaps we make our little part of the world a little brighter.
The second thing I would say is that, especially in light of our current political climate, we see so much hate, sexism and racism bubbling to the surface. But the silver lining is that there are thousands and thousands of people galvanized to say, “When injustice happens to you, it happens to me. We are all in this together.” We’re already seeing this change now, for example, with so many more women and other underrepresented groups running for local office.
What is the best piece of advice you could give?
Figure out what your values are. What are the causes that make you feel alive? Once you find that, stay as close to it as possible. Often we walk around caught up in the urgency of the everyday, and we don’t stop to think about those things that make us feel truly alive. Align your decisions around those values and it will help reduce some of that everyday noise and remind you of what truly matters to you. It is all about building this life of purpose.
Invest in people who invest in you. Go where the love is. One of the most important things that we can do is to truly support and celebrate the people who invest in us, and to invest in and uplift others as well. Especially as women. When I lift you up, we all get lifted up. There is this scarcity mentality, this myth that there is not enough to go around, but it’s just not the case. Social media for example is a wonderful tool, but it also can make us think that we should live our life by comparing ourselves to others. That is so dangerous; it is a thief of joy, as Shakespeare would say. When you are looking back at your life, it is mostly comprised of a million tiny, unseen, beautiful moments. A cup of tea with someone you love, helping your mom with the groceries, smiling at a stranger. Life is lived in those ordinary, magical moments. That’s our life, that’s who we are.
I’d love to circle back on New York—what does this city means to you?
For me, all routes always lead back to New York, Los Angeles, and Paris. My heart lives in those cities. My current work has allowed me to create this great new chapter in NYC, the city I love. New York has a resilience and a rhythm to it, it’s so alive. It’s a place that magnifies everything. So if you’re having a hard time, it can be difficult. But when you’re feeling on fire and inspired, there is nowhere better.
Learn more about Flynn here