Launching Leadership: Caitlin Lambert ’09

Mount Holyoke alum Caitlin Lambert ’09 is working to free children from prison while also advocating for juvenile justice reform in Somaliland.

When Caitlin Lambert ’09 and her father visited Mount Holyoke for accepted students’ day in 2005, the pair sat on the green near Mary Lyon’s grave. Lambert’s father asked the then-teenager why she found the school so appealing. Her answer was simple: Just being at Mount Holyoke felt inspiring.

Over 15 years later, Lambert still finds herself inspired by Mary Lyon. On April 25, 2023, during a Launching Leadership conversation with Interim President Beverly Daniel Tatum, Lambert said that Lyon’s directive to “go where no one else will go, do what no one else will do” has become almost like a mantra as she’s forged a career path in human rights and juvenile justice reform.

Lambert is the executive director and co-founder of the Children’s Legal Defense Center, which provides free legal counsel to incarcerated children in Somaliland. Bouncing between Somaliland and Sweden, Lambert works both in the courtroom and in advocacy to ensure a better path forward for Somaliland’s most vulnerable youth.

Tatum and Lambert’s Launching Leadership conversation centered on how career paths are not always linear, the vital tools Mount Holyoke granted Lambert and the importance of charting your own path — even if it doesn’t look anything like your colleagues’ paths.

While some students greet senior year knowing exactly what’s next, Lambert told Tatum that wasn’t her experience. She graduated in 2009, at the height of a global recession. Everyone was having trouble finding a job — especially new graduates. Lambert didn’t yet have enough clarity about what was next to make applying for graduate school a wise choice. What she did know, though, was that Mount Holyoke’s commitment to serving others felt vital to her career path. 

A trip to Ghana after her sophomore year and reading about the Rwandan genocide — her first assignment that never felt like homework, she said — fostered an interest in living and working in Africa. But Lambert wasn’t sure exactly how to get a job on another continent. Joining AmeriCorps and moving to Ohio for a year allowed Lambert to try service-based work while figuring out a way to work abroad.

Ultimately, it was a can-do attitude that Lambert said she learned at Mount Holyoke that led to her first job in Africa. “I knew I wanted to do human rights research, and I heard of a human rights researcher who was running a small nonprofit,” said Lambert. “I emailed her until she met with me. Persistence is the key to life in general,” she added. Soon, Lambert was on a plane bound for Rwanda.

In Rwanda, Lambert found purpose in gathering stories from genocide survivors. “From that experience I knew I really had the skills from Mount Holyoke of reading, writing and speaking, but I knew I wanted to have something a bit more,” she said. Lambert decided to return to the United States to attend law school at Villanova University.

The confidence to make her own way — another Mount Holyoke–gleaned skill — convinced Lambert to return to Africa after her law school graduation. While her Villanova advisors felt a clerkship might be a more prestigious next step, Lambert knew her heart was in service work. A six-month-long commitment to conduct research in Somaliland turned into eight years — and counting. In 2017 she obtained a master’s degree in human rights law from Oxford University while also working as a legal advisor for the Horizon Institute, which has provided legal assistance to 3,000 detainees.

Lambert founded the Children’s Legal Defense Center during the COVID-19 pandemic, after funding for her previous job dried up. Launching a new nonprofit during a global pandemic was hugely challenging, Lambert told Tatum. While she worked on fundraising from her parent’s home in rural Pennsylvania, her co-founder was on the ground in Somaliland, representing their first clients in the courtroom. Once again, though, Lambert drew on skills learned at Mount Holyoke.

When Tatum asked Lambert how she defines being authentically bold, Lambert answered that one of the key lessons she learned at Mount Holyoke was that it was OK — important, even — to take up space. That lesson has allowed Lambert to be bold when asking for money — something that doesn’t come naturally to her.

Another way Lambert feels Mount Holyoke helped her become authentically bold is in the way she now trusts, but also interrogates, her own ideas. “I wouldn’t say I was very confident academically while I was here, but over four years I learned how to trust myself,” she said. Her degree in critical social thought, however, pushed Lambert to always think deeply about where her beliefs originated. Growing up in a small town in rural Pennsylvania, Lambert arrived at Mount Holyoke with preconceived ideas that needed reexamining. It’s a practice she brings to her work today. For example, Lamber’s co-founder at the Children’s Legal Defense Center is originally from Somaliland. His understanding of customary law — or the informal laws mostly administered through clans — has changed Lambert’s thinking. As a U.S.-trained lawyer, she almost always looked toward formal law first. However, in her work in Somaliland, she said they “use customary law all the time to keep children out of jail.”

While Lambert loves her work and feels deeply called to its mission, she admitted there are days when she questions living so far from family. “Sometimes I wake up in the morning and think, ‘What am I doing?’” In those moments, she often thinks about Mary Lyon and her persistence to bring quality education to women of all socioeconomic backgrounds.

Being so influenced by Mary Lyon made Lambert’s selection as one of four 2023 recipients of the Mary Lyon Award that much more touching, said Lambert, adding, “Being invited back and given an award in her name is something I really treasure.” Given to recent alums — those who have graduated within the past 15 years — the Mary Lyon Award recognizes the outstanding work they’ve done within their careers and communities. It is specifically reserved for alums whose work exemplifies the humane values that Mary Lyon inspired throughout her life’s work. Alongside Lambert, Umama Zillur ’18, a Bangladesh-based community organizer, was recognized for her work with Kotha, the feminist organization she founded while still a student. Mayesha Alam ’10 was recognized for her contributions to the advancements of women’s causes and human rights. Veronika Kivenson FP’13 was selected for her work uncovering a DDT dump site off the coast of Los Angeles that had concentration levels far higher than any other dump site on record.

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