“International social justice work is not an easy path,” says Michael Otto ’03, “but it is often very exciting and rewarding!”
Otto, who helped to found Tiny Toones, a non-profit organization which uses music to empower at-risk youth in Cambodia, says his Legal Studies background helped to make much of his social justice work possible.
“In much of the reading and coursework, I developed a passion for social justice that I do not think I would've found at many other universities,” he says.
Specifically, legal writing has “come in handy in a big way.” He has used the skills taught in his Legal Studies courses to negotiate contracts and draft memoranda of understanding. “The basic legal analysis and focus on rights-based education really helped to create a foundation for me to continue to pursue social justice work,” he says.
Study abroad was also an impetus for Otto’s international career. Otto studied international law outside of The Hague for 6 months, worked as a study abroad advisor at the UMass International Programs Office, then finished his undergraduate program in Rome, Italy.
“This international experience helped push me to travel abroad for work and to further my education,” he says.
Indeed, Otto has self-funded his travel to 35 different countries and completed an MSc postgraduate degree from the School of Oriental and African Studies at the University of London in 2012.
Like many Legal Studies majors, Otto was not sure if law school was for him after graduation. He was interested in the intersection of law and social justice, but could not truly envision himself pursuing a JD.
“I was interested in gaining international work experience in social justice. So, before applying to law school, I saved up and flew to Cambodia to try to gain some work experience,” he recalls. That decision proved enormously important for his future career path and allowed him to gain crucial hands-on experience.
“While working with Bridges Across Borders Southeast Asia, I taught legal rights in a Thai women's prison, visited prisons on monitoring missions where activists were arrested for defending their communities, witnessed the violent eviction and destruction of communities and put together strategies to help them rebuild and assert their legal rights, and assisted law students in creating university legal aid and education clinics in Malaysia, Cambodia, Thailand, Vietnam and Laos,” he says.
He was introduced to the every-day struggles of many Cambodians including constant rolling blackouts, rampant government corruption, poor indigent villagers in dire need of help, and low staff capacity. “But the rewards and victories were all the more against such circumstances,” he says.
Working every day at such seemingly up-hill battles is a difficult job. Otto says he had moments – especially during the first six months of being abroad – when he was not sure if he could stick it out. However, he reminds students interested in a similar career path to persevere. “No matter what, you have to keep pushing forward and remain open to opportunities and various options and alternatives.”
An international social justice career will not often make you financially rich, he says, but there are other rewards – like the pride of seeing something like Tiny Toones grow from an idea to a fully-functioning organization.
“The fact that Tiny Toones started from my friend KK's living room and is now a fully operational non-profit with hundreds of children attending every day is really one of the most rewarding aspects of my 'career' thus far,” he says.
And his experience developing the organization has been nothing if not unique: “When acting as general manager, I had 4 year old children from the slums sleeping on my desk at lunch and 14 year olds teaching me breakdancing. It was possibly one of the coolest management jobs ever!”
Thanks in part to Otto’s hard work, passion, and vision, Tiny Toones has been profiled in the NY Times and LA Times, and they have had paid performance trips to LA, NY, Philadelphia, Seattle, Wisconsin, Italy, Australia, New Zealand, Singapore, Thailand and elsewhere. “The fact that these are kids from the slums who often can't afford 'free' public education or are forced to work before they are teenagers makes these accomplishments and trips even more impressive!” he says.
Although the organization could always use more funding and more staff, Otto has proudly watched it grow to more than 30 staff members.
He has also recently completed negotiations for a US feature documentary film contract about the organization. “This guarantees that there are more rewarding experiences to come,” says Otto.
Clearly, Otto’s post-UMass career has taken him around the world and into communities vastly different from the Pioneer Valley. Still, he looks back at his time at UMass fondly. “There is something about the Pioneer Valley that was so warm and encouraging of self-exploration that one increasingly has difficulty finding any comparable region in the US anywhere else,” he says. “The way that UMass and the surrounding community fosters the broadening of perspectives, a diverse set of backgrounds, and a completely open field for intellectual and political exploration helped give me the foundation to explore social justice work internationally with an open mind and perspective.”
- Alumni News