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Karen Hanrahan is Fighting for Equity at San Francisco’s Glide Foundation: Learn how you can be part of the change we wish to see in the world!

July 2020: A Note from Hope — When it comes to defining what it means to be a Truly Amazing Woman, sometimes it’s the work a woman does—from running a philanthropic organization (The Glide Foundation) to working for a former president (Obama)—that defines who they are. For Karen, the common thread is social justice.

“I knew at a relatively young age that I wanted to work on international justice issues,” Karen says. “My mother was very socially aware, especially of international events. So I’ve known at least since high school that I wanted to do international human rights and justice work.”

I had the privilege of meeting this truly amazing woman at a Hillary Clinton fundraiser in 2008 when Karen was senior advisor to the Iraqi minister of human rights. I’ve followed her career and interviewed her several times — when she became the director and COO of the Quadrennial Diplomacy and Development Review, where she led a comprehensive project for Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to redefine how the US government practices international development and diplomacy. And again, when she was Deputy Assistant Secretary of Human Rights and Democracy in the Obama administration’s US Department of State.

These positions are but many high-level jobs she has held in her illustrious career. But perhaps closest to Karen’s heart is the job she’s held since 2017 — as President and CEO of the Glide Foundation, a social justice organization based in San Francisco, CA.

“Glide is a social justice movement, social service provider, and spiritual community dedicated to strengthening communities and transforming lives,” Karen explains. “Located in San Francisco’s culturally vibrant but poverty-stricken Tenderloin neighborhood, Glide addresses the needs of, and advocates for, the most vulnerable and marginalized individuals and families among us.”

Karen’s work at Glide builds on the nearly 60-year legacy of co-founders Rev. Cecil Williams and Janice Mirikitani. GLIDE challenges inequities and stands with the poor, people of color, LGBTQ persons, and others facing oppression, isolation, and stigma while offering a holistic, integrated model of programs and services to address the complex needs of the community.

Today, under the leadership of President and CEO Karen Hanrahan, GLIDE continues to deepen its impact and extend its reach to thousands of people in need. Through comprehensive services, fearless advocacy, and spiritual connection, GLIDE remains a powerful beacon of hope for a healthier, more just, and inclusive city. Learn more at

Karen’s illustrious career began after she graduated with a Political Science and Journalism degree at Indiana University in 1992. While in college, she took the first steps along her path to working internationally when she spent a year abroad in Morocco, studying at the King Fahd Arabic Language School in Tangier and the School of International Training in Rabat.

Hanrahan then got her MA in International Politics at American University in 1995; and, in 2000, finished her Law degree—with honors and at the top 5 percent of her class—at the University of Washington School of Law in Seattle. While there, she was the Law Review editor and a research assistant for Professor Joan Fitzpatrick, a federal public defender who has written habeas corpus petitions for indefinitely detained immigrants, and an assistant mediator at the US Court of Appeals.

If that’s not impressive enough, Hanrahan capped her education with a degree from the Advanced Management Program at Harvard Business School in 2008.

It is our privilege to interview Karen. Please scroll down for our Q&A.

Giving a Voice to Human Rights

Hope: Tell us a little bit about your background, the jobs you have held, as well as your education.

Karen: I feel extremely fortunate that I have had the opportunities that I have had to get to do that kind of work. I followed that path as soon as I could. I worked at nongovernmental organizations like Amnesty International, Search for Common Ground, and the United Nations doing international human rights work in Afghanistan, the West Bank, Gaza, and other usually volatile countries. Sometimes in the midst of conflict and sometimes coming out of conflict.

At some point along the way, I think I realized that I was more of an advocate than I was a peacemaker. I know that those are not always mutually exclusive. Still, I decided to go to law school very much because the experience I had working in the West Bank and Gaza heightened my sense of what I was meant to do in this world, and that was to advocate for the right of people who were being oppressed or abused.

Basically, I just followed my instincts—including working for the government, working for USCID, and the State Department in Iraq, and the United Nations in Afghanistan. I have also worked for private companies that integrated human rights in the security sector from efforts in countries in Africa and elsewhere. All of that put me on a path to where I am right now.

Hope: Talk a little about your previous work. What were you doing when we met in 2008, and what have you done since you took this top job in the Obama administration?

Karen: I worked with the United Nations in Afghanistan as a protection officer, which meant that I did many human rights monitoring, training, and capacity building for local government officials. I studied women and girls in remote areas of Western Afghanistan, where I met very young child brides, usually 8 or 9 years old. I found myself sometimes in very unusual situations, such as having to stand in front of a room of mullahs, Afghan religious leaders, “training” them on human-rights issues.

I put the word “training” in quotes because that was required for them to get any food assistance or any assistance from the UN. Although the intention is correct, most of what I was talking about wasn’t always useful for their reality, even though it was tailored to them. At the time, many Afghan families I interacted with were verging on starvation because there was a drought. Some of them would have one meal a day. It was just a complicated and challenging situation.

On the bright side, many committed people were in Afghanistan working to protect the rights of those around them. There were a lot of displaced people in refugee camps or displaced people camps. So I worked in those camps and with local staff, helping them learn how they can protect people.

Hope: Did those experiences change your worldview and your personal view of yourself? How does it contrast with what you see here in the United States?

Karen: The work that I have done—in Iraq and Afghanistan and the rest of the Middle East and parts of Africa—has had a huge impact on me. It has shaped me as a person. You can’t go to those places and engage with the people I have without being deeply affected. I speak to child soldiers, speak to displaced people, and help build the capacity of entrepreneurial women who want to start their own NGOs to help other women.

On the negative side, that people are facing hard circumstances and some of the more uplifting scenarios, those all have a direct impact on me. Working with Palestinians, for example, after years and years of conflict and injustice on both sides of this conflict, I found the amount of hope that still existed at the time, many years ago, inspiring as was the commitment that people had to continue to function in productive ways and for the average Palestinian to want to make peace.

To look at some of the women and girls who have led incredibly hard lives, some of whom have faced torture and sexual violence. Seeing them bounce back and see them become entrepreneurs and leaders in their communities are deeply profound experiences that have affected me very much.

Hope: It is wonderful what you’re doing. Tell us a little bit about your background. You graduated from Indiana University in 1992 with a degree in Political Science and Journalism, and you went to school and spent time abroad in Morocco and studied Arabic. So you knew back then that this was definitely what you wanted to do? Did you want to work in the Middle East in human rights?

Karen: Initially, I thought I would pursue a career in journalism and work internationally in journalism. After I got my degree in Journalism and Political Science, it dawned on me that I wanted to be more directly engaged and less of a reporter. I wanted to be on the ground and in the field, helping to build local capacity, engage in the issues, and influence them rather than just reporting on them.

Hope: Is that when you decided to go to law school?

Karen: I decided to go to law school because my sense of what I wanted to do evolved and really truly focused on international human rights issues, from the law to policies to practice. I realized that I wanted to have a law degree.

Many of the people I saw around me doing the kind of work that I was interested in, having the most influence, actually had law degrees. When I went to law school, there weren’t many paths to make international, public human rights Rule of Law type of work. Now there are more opportunities. I went to law school knowing what I wanted to do and kind of carved that path for myself.

Hope: Talk a little bit about your work as a human rights activist in the Obama Administration. 

Karen: I think the United Nation’s leadership did a great job under the Obama administration. In the past, we used to have this debate over security versus human rights. The President and Secretary Clinton brought the discussion to a new level.

That is, very much under previous administrations, you often saw those issues juxtaposed and in competition. We now have a President and Secretary of State who has prioritized human rights and democracy as equally important as security and critical to our national security and global security.

We see around the world, all over the world, a popular movement, sometimes violent and sometimes not, driven primarily by a fundamental sense of the need for justice. These are populations that have been oppressed, where fundamental freedoms have been restricted for so long that people couldn’t take it anymore.

All sorts of reasons fall under the rubric of human rights. Sometimes it is discrimination; sometimes it is oppression—being jailed or detained without justification. It is driving change in the world, and we see its impact on the world stage. I see many advances in the legal framework and multilateral institutions like the UN and other organizations on a broader level.

Hope: When you were working as a government official, did you see positive things happening to improve human rights worldwide?

Karen: Yes, but one of the trends we see concerning is popular movements of unrest that are emerging. We see a crackdown by the government on people, organizations, and media where the governments justify their bad behavior by saying, “We are trying to stabilize our country.”

We also see trends around abusive security forces. Some of the military, police, and other armed groups are not necessarily part of the government and really have no respect for rights at all. They use arms, but they also use rape and other forms of torture and intimidation. That is still a very serious and significant problem that we are facing in a number of regions.

Hope: What could happen to change those trends?

Karen: For me, it is about maintaining a historical perspective and thinking about all of this as a larger movement. I think human rights in the world have improved in the last century—and that is significant.

And, fortunately, it continues to improve. Yes, there are setbacks, but overall I think the bigger picture is a movement forward for democracy and human rights. It is important that we not let some of the other trends around terrorism and insurgency undermine these advances in human rights and democracy.

If you crack down too hard on the wrong people and cast the net too wide, and use inappropriate, abusive tactics, all you’re doing is laying the groundwork for additional instability.

To learn more about Karen Hanrahan’s work at Glide, click here.