This story originally appeared in the winter 2016 Harker Magazine.
By Vikki Bowes-Mok
When Maheen Kaleem ’03 went to Harker’s head of school to advocate on behalf of a fellow student who was in trouble, she didn’t have any idea that her life’s work would be standing up for people who need a voice.
Her road from Harker, where she started in kindergarten, to staff attorney at Rights4Girls makes sense in retrospect, but she didn’t have a clear vision at every step of the journey.
“I loved my time at Harker,” said Kaleem, from her Washington, D.C., office. “It was an excellent education, but you also felt cared for by your teachers who created a sense of family.”
“Maheen Kaleem is an extraordinary person,” said Diana Nichols, a Harker teacher during Kaleem’s time and now chair of Harker’s board of trustees. “While at Harker, she displayed that very special combination of talent in both academic areas and extracurriculars. Maheen has always had a strong sense of responsibility and was always willing to go the extra mile to make positive changes in the school.”
Kaleem was focused on school but also engaged in performing arts and debate. She grappled with which career path to take: the arts or human rights and social justice.
It was a pivotal moment when Harker’s college counselor suggested she look at Georgetown University (see college counseling article on page 10). Kaleem fell in love with the university on paper and when she walked on campus, she just knew that it was the right school for her. At the time, she knew she was passionate about human rights, although she didn’t know exactly where that passion would lead.
During her undergraduate years at Georgetown, Kaleem was a policy intern at Campaign for Youth Justice. “As an intern, I learned how to bring global human rights issues to kids locally and got very involved in the conversation,” she said. “Harker gave me the confidence to try new things and the initiative to take advantage of every opportunity.”
That confidence and initiative has carried her a long way. After graduating from Georgetown with a B.S. in international politics and human rights, Kaleem was at a turning point. She considered joining the Peace Corps, working abroad or heading back to the Bay Area.
Kaleem became an advocate for the Sexually Abused and Commercially Exploited Youth/Safe Place
Alternative in Oakland. This job opened her eyes in an astonishing way and she said she connected with the children on a very real level.
“You see a kid who is system-involved and you see all these issues, and it feels hard right away,” she remembered. “But at the end of the day, children are children, and you’re just talking to another person. It’s important to remember your responsibility as a human and always have respect.”
Institutional lack of respect for those she was helping and frustration with the legal system would launch Kaleem toward law school. While working in Oakland at a lengthy restitution hearing, she raised her hand and said, “Your Honor, this just feels wrong. This feels unjust.” He looked at her and said, “Well that’s not the law. If you have a problem with it, go to law school,” she recalled. “I said, fine. I’m going to law school then,” she said. Soon, she was back at Georgetown – in law school.
After gaining her legal degree, Kaleem became a Stoneleigh Foundation Emerging Leader Fellow with the American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania, where she worked to address the needs of greater Philadelphia’s most vulnerable youth through policy analysis, research and advocacy.
After Stoneleigh, she went to work for Rights4Girls, a human rights organization working to end sex trafficking and gender-based violence in the United States.
She also co-founded Pennsylvania Lawyers for Youth, a nonprofit that works to effect meaningful, community-responsive changes in the Pennsylvania juvenile justice system through direct service and policy initiatives.
Kaleem is young, passionate and working to the change the world, but she also shows wisdom beyond her years. “If I’ve learned anything, it’s always to stand in your truth,” she said.
“Maheen has been an inspiration in her passionate pursuit of justice for young women,” said Chris Nikoloff, head of school. “She’s making a difference in the world, and we couldn’t be more proud of her.”