We are thrilled to present our distinguished alumni award to Gina Lentine '01, who has made outstanding professional accomplishments in working for the greater good to support democracy and human rights.
For nearly 15 years, Gina has covered key human rights issues in Eastern Europe in a professional and academic capacity. Gina currently works at the US Department of State's Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor, where she manages foreign assistance efforts in Eastern Europe. Prior to that, she worked for 11 years in the nonprofit sector managing human rights programming and advocacy in Eastern Europe, including at Freedom House and the National Endowment for Democracy. As a graduate student, Gina held a fellowship at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, where she researched concentration camps in Nazi-occupied Soviet territories, working with oral histories and survivors' testimonies.
Gina has lived, studied, and worked in Russia, Poland, Ukraine, and Moldova. She speaks Russian, Polish, French, and Spanish and has a working-level knowledge of Ukrainian.
Interview originally published in the summer 2022 edition of Connections.
How did your interest in history, human rights, and public service begin?
My interest in history, human rights, and Russia and Eastern Europe began in Victor's world studies class. Victor’s class was special for many reasons, but its focus on individuals, people, and social movements made it really unique—from gathering the oral histories and stories of our grandparents to photographs of some of the most important moments in history. One that sticks in my mind is the famous photograph of labor union activist and Solidarity movement leader Lech Walesa giving the peace sign in the Gdansk shipyard in front of a crowd of workers in 1983. This hit home for me personally, as my grandmother was a first generation Polish immigrant. World studies shows us the importance of humanity and work for the greater good, including the constellation of individuals who lived and engaged in brave acts of activism and resistance while living under repressive regions. It goes to show that history and social studies are about so much more than geopolitics and political leaders. The class left me wanting to dig more into the history, literature, languages, and culture of this region, and to understand the commonalities and differences in our shared humanity, beyond the bits and pieces I had gotten through my family heritage. This planted the seeds for me well beyond Green Acres, through college and graduate school, to live in Russia and Poland, with long stints in Ukraine and Moldova, and to begin to pursue working on this fascinating region through a human rights and public service lens. I was thrilled to learn that one could have a whole career in the nonprofit and government sectors where you could focus on this. And here I am almost 15 years later!
What are some of your career highlights?
That's a tough question! I'd say the biggest highlights involve moments where I've been able to help amplify the messages of human rights defenders and activists in Eastern Europe, particularly at places like the United Nations or the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe. I remember taking a delegation of Moldovan activists to the United Nations in Geneva in 2016 and how awesome it was to see that their recommendations on how to improve freedom of the press in their country were incorporated into broader human rights commitments that their government had to meet. It has also been an honor to have the opportunity to counsel and advise U.S. congressional representatives and senators on how to support those fighting for human rights and democracy in Eastern Europe, including through input into draft resolutions and preparing testimony for hearings. I have been fortunate to be able to publish and give interviews to help wider audiences in the United States and the European Union learn more about the struggle for democracy in Eastern Europe. I'm excited to see what career adventures are ahead now that I am working at the US Department of State, where I just started a little over four months ago.
What habits and skills did you take from Green Acres that have served you well?
The most important habits and skills that I learned from Green Acres that I've taken throughout my schooling, career, and life are critical thinking, the ability to work with others who see things differently from you, and a deep sense of empathy. Being taught to really engage, explore, and ask questions is so crucial to feeding your curiosity, developing your own opinions, and ultimately becoming a strong advocate. The emphasis that Green Acres had on group work and projects helped me, too, because I tap into those skills on a daily basis, especially when working with people from a wide variety of backgrounds, including people from different cultures outside of the US. Finally, I appreciate that Green Acres cultivated a sense of empathy. As a sensitive kid, I learned how to channel those feelings into empathy, which I think played a role in leading me into a career that focuses on the greater good.
What stands out most about your time at Green Acres?
World studies class, of course (see above). And the Olympics were always a blast. I'd say a big highlight for me was the 7/8 musical that we did in 2001, Singin' in the Rain. I played the role of Lina Lamont, a pushy, narcissistic actress with an excruciating, nasal speaking voice who gets phased out at the advent of talkie films in the 1920s, much to her chagrin. I had so much fun in the musical, and theater performance really helped me in terms of building my confidence and public speaking abilities. I continued with theater throughout high school and college and channel those skills when I have to give a presentation or some other sort of speaking engagement. One other thing to mention that stood out to me was the fact that Green Acres had no-cut sports teams. I am by no means a natural athlete and am infamous for my lack of coordination—anyone who was there the day that I tried to do a handspring over the vault during the gymnastics unit, tumbled sideways, and knocked it over instead will know exactly what I'm talking about—but being able to at least try different sports (basketball, soccer, and softball), play as a team, and develop good sportsmanship are skills that you can take throughout life. About 10 years ago, I took up running almost by accident, and it has become an important way for me to support my mental and physical health, as well as foster team camaraderie since I run with a DC-based track club. It's also been a great way to explore the places I've traveled to as well. Eighth-grade Gina would be shocked to learn that adult Gina loves to run, but she would be happy to learn that there's more to sports than coordination and that ultimately there's something out there for everyone.
What words of advice/wisdom can you share with Green Acres students who are emerging human rights advocates?
Continue to cultivate your critical thinking skills and sense of empathy beyond Green Acres. Be open to learning from the people you work with around the world—I've learned so much from the activists I've worked with in Ukraine, Moldova, Turkey, Poland, and elsewhere in the region, especially as the U.S. grapples with its own challenges to democracy and human rights. Also, when working for the greater good, find ways to nurture your own resilience, whether through cultivating a strong support network or identifying hobbies and passions that fill your energy and spirits outside of work, as you'll often find yourself dealing with difficult themes, including war, genocide, authoritarianism, and human rights abuses. To maintain reserves of empathy when working for the greater good, you have to take care of yourself and also draw strength from your family, friends, and broader community. Green Acres really helps lay a wonderful foundation for a lot of these skills.