September 2, 2009
Where Law and Media Collide: Kelly Matheson ’99 uses video advocacy to change the law
This is the ninth in a series of stories highlighting Oregon Law alumni celebrating class reunions this fall
According to Oregon Law Class of 1999 graduate Kelly Matheson, there are five mediums through which social change can occur: Law, Education, Media, Economics, and Science.
“I’ve been able to combine law, teaching, and media,” Matheson adds. “So, I’m very happy with three out of five.”
Matheson is the North American program coordinator for WITNESS, a video advocacy group based in New York City and founded by British rocker Peter Gabriel. The group puts cameras in the hands of human rights defenders and activists who record violations and help protect against human rights abuses.
Not your typical lawyer job, but Matheson isn’t your typical lawyer. In 2003, she gave up the traditional office and suits for cameras and travel. In fact, she just recently earned her master’s degree from Montana State University’s Science and Natural History Filmmaking program. It was not until she learned about this unique program; however, that she became interested in the use of film to bring about changes in law and society.
Matheson remembers feeling particularly inspired during her first year in the film program by a professor’s project on the Panamanian island of Coiba. “The goal of the project was to get Panama to protect the island and UNESCO to recognize it as a World Heritage Site.”
Though it can’t be said definitively, the project seemed to have had an impact. In 2005, Coiba National Park was added as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Matheson’s hypothesis that law could be changed through the visual telling of stories was proving true.
In 2007, the same year Matheson joined WITNESS, she won a Fulbright Scholar award. In 2008, the award took her to the Republic of Congo where she aided the Congolese in making and distributing films about the nexus between health and conservation.
Matheson has always had a passion for solving the world’s injustices, which is what drew her to law in the first place. Well, that and a middle-school student named Noah, whom she met while teaching in Bend, Oregon.
Matheson headed West following her graduation from Drake University in Des Moines, Iowa. While she was a student at Drake, Matheson worked at a law firm where she was advised by the head clerk to take a year off before heading straight into law school. Matheson’s year off quickly turned into seven.
“I was inspired to start applying to law schools by a student, Noah, who was probably 13 or 14 at the time,” Matheson recalls. “I was working with a group of students and we had several guest speakers come in during a weeklong camp to discuss the clear-cutting of forests in Oregon. Noah became outraged when he did some research on his own and discovered that one speaker, who claimed his team was only clearing the smallest trees, was actually clearing the largest trees.”
Noah quickly became passionate about the subject of clear-cutting and explained to Matheson, “We need to stop this now!”
“Noah got me thinking about how, as a lawyer, you do have the capacity to stop things now,” Matheson notes.
In the midst of the law school application process, Matheson traveled to Ecuador to spend some time mountaineering. When she returned, she decided to check out Oregon Law’s Public Interest Environmental Law Conference. This was all it took to convince her that Oregon was where she belonged. To Matheson, it was serendipitous.
“The first panel of the first day focused on South America,” she says. “I was sold. I told myself that I was applying to UO and nowhere else. If I didn’t get in then I simply wasn’t going to law school.”
Matheson was accepted to Oregon Law and she seems to truly value her time in Eugene. One specific memory that stands out involved a disruption in her Labor Day weekend plans that turned into one of the most beneficial experiences of her law school career.
“I had plans to raft down the McKenzie River with friends during the long weekend. It was during this time that I was also helping (former) Professor Mike Axline with a gold mining case through the Western Environmental Law Center,” Matheson remembers. “An expedited motion was filed in the case on Friday at 4:45 p.m. and Mike started calling around to all of the interns working with the case looking for people to help out. It wasn’t an ideal weekend, but it was great to get the one-on-one time and so much fun. We had something together by Tuesday morning.”
Working at this breakneck speed and seeing positive results provided an adrenaline rush that let Matheson know working to eliminate injustices was her true calling.
Although Matheson is no longer a practicing attorney in the traditional sense, she utilizes her law school training in almost all of the work she does. At the moment, she is working on a video advocacy piece that addresses elder abuse. She and her team trained 17 elder rights activists throughout the country to use video cameras in order to document the injustices they saw. The goal of the work is to help spur the passage of the Elder Justice Act, which has been in the hands of Congress since 2002.
During the filming for this project Matheson met Vicki, a 92-year-old living in San Francisco and suffering from Alzheimer’s. Vicki had to purchase a security door for her home in order to protect herself from the abuse administered by her own grandchildren. Vicki was particularly inspirational to Matheson due to her surprisingly positive outlook.
“When I first met Vicki, she had some trouble speaking out, so her niece, Cynthia, did for her.” Matheson recalls. “Vicki shines with this twinkle in eyes. She’s just a happy person and one of the few examples of someone who has survived elder abuse.”
Matheson says empowering those who have always felt powerless is the best part about what she does. She refers to this empowerment as a “gift.”