Meet MGA alumna-turned-faculty, Sarah Beamish
April 12, 2021
Just four years after graduating from the Munk School’s Master of Global Affairs (MGA) program, lawyer Sarah Beamish became the youngest-ever chair of the Board of Directors at Amnesty International. In 2019, she returned to the MGA program — this time as a professor.
As someone who’s always been interested in advocacy, Beamish was drawn to the joint Juris Doctor-MGA program (between the Munk School and U of T’s Faculty of Law) because it aligned with her interest in the global human rights field, where she was already doing work with Amnesty International.
After completing her degrees, Beamish began practicing law, focusing on social justice and public-interest-related advocacy. After stints at two Toronto litigation firms, she eventually founded her own practice, Beamish Law, focused on legal work with Indigenous peoples. Although she is now chair of Amnesty’s International Board, Beamish became involved with the organization in high school as a volunteer.
She says two experiences drew her to the cause: one was the Amnesty International Canada Human Rights College, whih she attended in 2001. The other was the disappearance and death of Kimy Pernía Domicó, a water protector and a leader of the Emberá Katío people in Colombia. Domicó was outspoken about the Urrá hydroelectric dam on the Sinú River and its effects on the Emberá Katío people. The dam had been built on his people’s territory by a Canadian company and financed by a loan from Export Development Canada. Domicó spoke about the dam in Colombia and abroad, including at the Canadian Parliamentary sub-committee on Human Rights and International Development. In 2001, at a conference where Domicó had been scheduled to speak, Beamish and the other conference attendees learned of his disappearance, and knew that he had likely been killed for his work to protect his people and the Sinú River. “This experience shifted my understanding of global solidarity from something abstract to something real and immediate,” she says. Domicó’s advocacy and his disappearance also contributed to her commitment to working on legal justice for Indigenous peoples.
Amnesty Canada took up Domicó’s case, and was one of the only organizations that offered a way for young people to take action to support him. “This ability to do something as an ordinary, young person was precious, as was Amnesty’s willingness to support and make space for human rights leadership by people of all ages,” Beamish says. “Kimy’s story has stayed with me.” At 19, Beamish went on to become Canada’s first voting youth delegate at Amnesty’s International Council Meeting, its highest governance body. At 23, she was elected to the board of Amnesty Canada, later becoming its President, and at 27, became the second Canadian ever elected to Amnesty’s International Board. In 2017, she was elected Vice-Chair, and two years later was elected Chair. Beamish says working in a domestic Canadian legal practice and international human rights issues in tandem gave her a unique perspective on how legal issues develop and intersect across the globe.
Beamish returned to the Munk School and the MGA program in 2019 to teach the first-year International Legal Challenges course. Coming in, she wanted to ensure a focus on law as a living field, and explore its intersections with global challenges.
“I thought a lot about how I would have wanted to take the course,” she says. “It’s really about international law as it intersects with power and politics, and how it responds to, contributes to, and is shaped by global challenges — not just what the law is but how it works in practice, how it evolves and is constantly reshaped.” A keystone of the course content is incorporating critical perspectives on international law, particularly Indigenous, Global South, and feminist perspectives. The course challenges students to engage with perspectives that might be new to them, which is an important focus for Beamish. “I’ve tried to design the course in a way that is both accessible to a diverse student body and that also challenges students of all backgrounds to help them see international law in a more active and critical way,” she says.
Transitioning her knowledge from advocacy and legal practice to teaching has come with a learning curve, Beamish says. “When you have a passion about a topic, especially one as huge as international law, it’s both really exciting and really challenging to teach it. You want to include absolutely everything, so a big challenge has been finding the balance between depth and breadth.”
A lot has changed at the Munk School since her time as a student, Beamish notes. “I think that the School is definitely engaging with global affairs in a more diverse and comprehensive way,” she says. “Diverse perspectives and ideas are a much larger part of the institution now.”
Something that’s stayed the same, though, is the incredibly strong community ties among students who are passionate about having an impact in the world. Getting to build relationships and networks with peers in the MGA program is a rewarding experience, Beamish says. “Students who go to the Munk School will make relationships and friendships with people who will spread out across the world and do really interesting, amazing things for years to come.”
To learn more about Sarah Beamish’s story and her journey with the Munk School, watch her video profile here. To see more about Munk School faculty, visit our Meet Your Professors page.