A Voice, a Platform, a Purpose: Isha Khan’s journey to human rights CEO
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Isha Khan always knew that she wanted to use her voice to advocate for others. But like so many, she wasn’t always sure how. She took a meandering route into the world of human rights, but the spark of wanting to be of service to others in the fight against inequity lit her path forward.
“From an early age, I knew – based on my personal experiences and those of people around me – that discrimination and ‘othering’ have terrible, long-lasting impacts,” she explains. “I wanted to help people who were being discriminated against find their voices and advocate alongside them for change.”
The road to her current role as CEO of the Canadian Museum for Human Rights started with an undergraduate degree from the University of Manitoba and a law degree from the University of Victoria. She went on to practice labour and employment law in Calgary before moving back to her hometown of Winnipeg and pursuing an opportunity with United Way. She says that a chance conversation with another mother at her daughter’s skating lesson moved her to orient her career more deliberately toward human rights when the woman mentioned the Manitoba Human Rights Commission was looking for a lead counsel.
“When I talk to young people who are looking to advance their careers, I always share that those moments of clarity, where we learn a lot about who we are and where we want to go, often come when we least expect them,” she muses.
Khan pursued the opportunity with the Manitoba Human Rights Commission, eventually serving as executive director. She says she was drawn to the Canadian Museum for Human Rights a few years later by the combination of education, creativity and community building it offered.
“I hope that people see themselves in the stories that we’ve been entrusted to share. We work with communities across Canada and around the world to care for their stories and share them to inspire a greater understanding of human rights, equity and inclusion,” she says. “We’re pushing back against outdated ideas of museums as spaces that only display artifacts in glass cases. We want to promote dialogue and reflection about the issues of our time. It’s exciting to be part of that.”
“I hope that people see themselves in the stories that we’ve been entrusted to share.”
– Isha Khan, CEO, Canadian Museum for Human Rights
This March, Khan will be a keynote speaker at the Winnipeg Women’s Conference. She feels strongly about the support and mentorship she has received from women in her life and says it has been a pivotal part of her journey. Khan believes mentorship isn’t just about a person in a more senior position taking a younger person under their wing but rather about building relationships of trust and understanding. She is excited to be part of a conference where women come together to work through issues and share ideas.
“If we approach conferences like this with intention, we can disrupt systems that have created barriers for women for thousands of years,” says Khan. “I’m excited to be with other women who want to think about these issues. For my keynote, I hope to offer some personal reflections about my experience as a woman of colour in a position of leadership, but I also hope to encourage people to look at the unique issues that women in leadership must face through the lens of human rights.”
Khan acknowledges that while women, transgender, non-binary and Two Spirit people have come a long way, there’s still much work to be done.
“We can make an impact in the world when we work together; when we can share stories of our past to inspire new ways of thinking, interacting and celebrating one another. And that gives me hope,” she says. “It’s in small moments, just as much as it’s in big moves and policies and laws being changed.”