Brandee Butler

Hometown: Los Angeles, California
Current Job: Head of Partnerships and Innovation for the C&A Foundation (Brussels, Belgium)
Education: B.A., Harvard University
YLS year: 2002
Activities at YLS: Bernstein Fellow (Schell Center); Yale Human Rights and Development Journal; Yale Black Law Students Association


What did you do upon graduation from YLS?

I returned to L.A. to work for a law firm doing civil litigation. However, having taken an international human rights law seminar with Professor James Silk and spending a summer and a semester in South Africa, I knew that I wanted a career in human rights. But I ran into a lot of difficulties finding a job in that field. The feedback I received was that I didn’t have sufficient international experience or language skills. Knowing that I wanted a career in human rights and being passionate about Africa, I found a job teaching English in Libreville, Gabon. For me, it was an opportunity to get more international experience and to immerse myself in French. For all of these reasons, moving to Gabon—even for a non-legal job—made a lot of sense to me, and it’s a decision that I’ve never regretted because it positioned me to take advantage of other opportunities.

How did you arrive at your current job?

After working for UNICEF Gabon on a Bernstein Fellowship, I moved back to L.A. and worked as a staff attorney for the Alliance for Children’s Rights. It was an honor to be in a position of providing direct services, but I felt that I could have a bigger impact by directing funds to organizations. So I applied to and was hired by the MacArthur Foundation, which turned out to be the dream job that I didn’t know would be my dream job. At the MacArthur Foundation, I was able to combine my legal training, my experiences abroad, and my language skills. It afforded me a bird’s eye perspective on the field of human rights and allowed me to make connections between donors and organizations working in the field.

After the MacArthur Foundation, I briefly worked for an international development organization in Rwanda before being hired by the Levi Strauss Foundation to be their representative for all grantmaking in Europe, the Middle East, and Africa. In this position, I worked on grantmaking supporting HIV/AIDS advocacy organizations to confront stigma and discrimination, and microsavings as a tool to break cycles of poverty.

This year, I was hired by the C&A Foundation, a private, independent foundation affiliated with the global retail company C&A. The C&A Foundation recently re-launched, so this has been a rare and exciting opportunity to help build a foundation and set strategies and structures for its future. I’ve really enjoyed partnering with the company to leverage its resources to pilot and scale projects around issues of gender equality, women’s rights, forced labor, and trafficking—all of which are defining issues for the apparel industry.

How do you see your legal background fitting into the business and philanthropy worlds?

Personally, I find it very exciting to work at the nexus of human rights and business. I went to law school to develop advocacy skills and to sharpen my analytical thinking skills, but I never really intended to be a practicing lawyer. The wonderful thing about YLS is that it trains you to be a thinker. It’s a springboard from which you can launch in a lot of different directions—and for me that was philanthropy. My legal background has given me an advantage in understanding the role of the normative shifts that are taking place in business and the corporate world and the impact these shifts should and will have on business operations.

What is your day-to-day schedule like?

Every day is different. I’m constantly being exposed to new ideas, people, and situations. I have the privilege of being continuously inspired by the diversity of issues to which I’m exposed.


What was most valuable about your YLS experience?

The Bernstein Fellowship, awarded through the Schell Center for recent YLS graduates interested in international human rights, was absolutely pivotal in determining the course of my career. The Fellowship put me in the unique and privileged position of being able to pursue my passion for international human rights, so I am extremely grateful for that program. I initially applied to the Bernstein Fellowship during my third year, but was rejected. The second time I applied, I was already working in Gabon, teaching English and volunteering with an Italian NGO working on issues of child trafficking. I think this work helped to demonstrate my commitment and passion for the place and the issues, and I was awarded the Fellowship. Through the Bernstein Fellowship, I was able to work with UNICEF in Gabon. I helped to write protocols for the unification and repatriation of victims of trafficking; I conducted research; and I developed awareness campaigns and strategies for juvenile justice reform. UNICEF works in partnership with the Gabonese and U.S. governments and other NGOs, a multi-stakeholder approach that was very different from my previous work.

Are there any skills that you use often that you gained while at law school?

I’ve used my analytical thinking skills, which were sharpened through rigorous training at YLS, in each of my jobs. I have also used my advocacy skills often. I see myself as an advocate both for organizations and for activists: I’m in a position in which I can influence funding decisions, so I need to be persuasive and argue on behalf of the programs and partnerships about which I am passionate.


What do you view as your biggest accomplishment?

I’m most proud of the small but important role I’ve been able to play in promoting human rights. It sounds cliché, but I enjoy being an advocate and being able to contribute to the empowerment of the most marginalized communities and populations. My career has allowed me to approach this task in different forms and from different angles, which is what drives me.


What advice was helpful to you as a law student, or what advice did you wish you had received?

The greatest gift I received from YLS was exposure to different ideas and opportunities, like the Bernstein Fellowship. I do wish that I had been exposed to more career options. For example, I didn’t know about careers in philanthropy until later in my own career. I think it’s wonderful for YLW to spotlight nontraditional careers through this project.

What is the most direct path to where you are? Or what advice would you offer to current students who want to work abroad? 

I don’t think there’s a particularly direct path to where I am now. I took an untraditional path to my current position, but it allowed me to explore various aspects of international human rights, which I think was a big asset to me in entering the philanthropic world. My advice for students interested in practicing abroad would be to follow your passions and your heart. Demonstrate a clear commitment to a place or a cause (and maybe learn the local language). Find a career that brings you joy and happiness.
Videos courtesy of youtube danielle brantley pay for essay is a senior at william paterson university.