The military offensive by the Burmese government against the Karen people in their country had been going on for years before Jason Gelbort ’13 got involved. His participation in a fact-finding mission with Harvard Law School’s International Human Rights Clinic changed the course of his career.
As part of his work with the clinic, in January 2012, Gelbort found himself in a refugee camp on the Thai-Burma border, interviewing people who had fled the regime and a civil war that has been going on for more than 70 years. “It was hearing directly from survivors and witnesses about the horrendous human rights abuses that they experienced that forced them to leave their homes and flee the country that put me on my current path,” he said.
Professor Susan H. Farbstein ’04, who directs the clinic, remembers the mission well. Gelbort, she said, “conducted one particularly critical interview that spanned multiple days and involved extremely complex legal and factual issues. Most law students, and frankly many seasoned human rights practitioners, would not have been able to carry out that interview. But even as a student, Jason was able to build a relationship with this particular interviewee, and we were able to collect compelling, detailed information because he managed the interview and the interpersonal dynamics so brilliantly.”
“It was clear, even then, that he was headed for a human rights career based on building the deep relationships with community members that are absolutely essential,” she added.
Although the Brown University graduate had already left a previous career in international business strategy consulting to pursue a joint degree at Harvard Law School and Tufts University’s Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy and had been looking to shift his career toward public interest work, it was this experience in the refugee camp helped him determine his specific path. Along with his involvement with the clinic, he credits the Harvard Law & International Development Society, as well as Harvard Law School negotiating workshops, with directing him toward advising ethnic nationality organizations and, before graduating, he worked with a variety of public, private, and nonprofit organizations in Vietnam, Sierra Leone, and elsewhere.
After receiving both his J.D. and a Master of Arts in Law and Diplomacy, Gelbort spent a year with an NGO in Thailand, working out of the office of an alliance of ethnic organizations. He was soon overwhelmed by the demand.
“I was receiving a lot of requests for my work, more than I could meet by myself,” Gelbort recalled. In addition, his efforts were complicated by the very sensitive and political nature of the work, which often made seeking funding difficult. He conceived of an organization that would “better be able to meet the demand for this type of work and to make it more sustainable, looking beyond myself.”
In 2018, thanks to a seed grant from the Public Service Venture Fund, Gelbort launched Upland Advisors, a not-for-profit 501(c)(3) organization that supports sustainable peacebuilding initiatives by providing advice on strategy, policy, and law-related matters, for which he now serves as executive director.
“When you have a home base that’s bigger than just you, you have the option of doing more when there’s a need,” he said.
Upland Advisors currently engages with a variety of stakeholders working for equality, including ethnic resistance organizations. Particularly since the military junta launched a coup and escalated attacks on much of the country two years ago, the demand for such assistance has grown.
Gelbort is circumspect about sharing too many details due to concerns about the safety and security of his team and allies. In addition, as a non-partisan advocacy organization, Upland Advisors is careful about not engaging directly with the junta, focusing on support for political solutions.
However, he explained, some of the projects he’s been involved with “range from practical governance issues to longer-term political issues around constitutional design,” he said. An important development has been the publication of a Federal Democracy Charter, which he describes “an interim constitutional document and set of political principles for future constitutional design and a roadmap for the future.” Noting that civilian groups have continued to control large parts of the country, Upland has also provided practical advice on subjects from the justice sector and human rights to coalition building via a network of experts both in the region and in the United States.
Although he had been spending a lot of time in Southeast Asia, Gelbort found himself back in Chicago when the pandemic started closing borders. “I’d say the good thing actually was that I was already set up to do a portion of my work remotely,” he recalled. “So, it’s very easy to engage with people remotely and also work via neighboring countries.”
These days, Gelbort’s schedule “changes constantly,” he said, driven by the needs of various groups. He commutes regularly between Chicago, where he is also now a lecturer in law at the University of Chicago Law School, and Southeast Asia. However, when he is in the United States, his day typically starts during Southeast Asia’s night (there is an 11.5-hour time difference between Chicago and the Burmese capital, Yangon). That gives him quiet time to research or to revise colleagues’ work. The second half of his day is often taken up with remote meetings with members of various organizations, “discussing whatever the urgent issue is,” as well as all the organizational development issues that a startup like Upland must deal with.
Although he admits the work can, at times, be exhausting, Gelbort remains focused on the future — and appreciative of what that PSVF seed grant helped make possible. “PSVF support has contributed significantly to the work I do,” he said, “assisting the leaders of the pro-federal democracy movement from Burma in their efforts to build a more peaceful, democratic, equal, and just future for the country.”
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