The CultureMap Interview
Human rights attorney Bill Holston talks nature, music and the plight of women
A typical day for Bill Holston might start with a simple walk in the woods, but it often ends in changing lives. Holston is the executive director of the Human Rights Initiative of North Texas, an organization he's volunteered with since its inception in 2000.
His office is a constant reminder of the people he's helped. A brightly colored wall hanging represents one of his clients who was an Egyptian Coptic Christian seeking asylum. A Russian Jew whose family sold their house to buy plane tickets to America gifted him set of wooden nesting dolls.
"I was business lawyer, but I got hooked on human rights," Holston says of his career change at the ripe old age of 56. This month, Holston will celebrate his first anniversary as a full-time staff member at HRI.
CultureMap: Have you always wanted to be in this line of work?
Bill Holston: You meet a lot of people who set out to become human rights lawyers, but that’s not me. I was doing court-appointed criminal work in the mid ’80s when I had an El Salvadorian burglary claim. I started asking questions about his background, and I told him if he ever needed any more legal help to give me a call. So he did.
"You meet a lot of people who set out to become human rights lawyers, but that’s not me," says Bill Holston.
Next thing I knew, I was helping El Salvadorians with all sorts of issues, including getting their kids get into schools. I knew the founders of HRI, and I took cases from the day they started. After I helped my first client get asylum, I was hooked.
CM: What's been your most memorable case with HRI?
BH: A couple of years ago, I represented an Ethiopian pro-democracy activist who was also a teacher. He was at school when armed men came in and arrested him. He want to jail — no trial, no charges — for five years.
After he was released, he was arrested and beaten several more times before he lost his job and started driving a bus. The government found out and seized his bus, so he had no way left to making a living. That's when he finally left Ethiopia to seek asylum in the U.S.
On the stand, I asked him why he went through all of that. He said, "Because I understood there was a price for freedom." He illustrates why it's a real privilege to do this kind of work. These are extremely brave people. Most of our clients understand American values like freedom of speech and religion better than native-born Americans do.
CM: What's a typical workday like for you?
BH: That’s one of the things I like about this job; there almost isn’t one. We’re a small agency, so I do everything from supervise lawyers to pay the bills. I'll also have meetings with local leaders from schools or religious organizations to discuss collaboration.
CM: Describe your perfect day off.
BH: Going hiking or walking in the woods. I’m a master naturalist, and I’ve enjoyed finding the pockets of nature in Dallas. I favor dirt trails in the woods where I’m not likely to see anybody.
CM: What is the biggest human rights violation in the world today?
BH: I think it might be the plight of women. What’s going on in India with the rape and murder of that young women is illustrative.
"If you can improve the plight of women, you can improve entire families," Holston says.
There are tens of thousands of women that have been raped in Africa as part of the civil war. There are forced marriages and female genital mutilation. And then you talk about women that are trafficked and stuck in domestic abuse in U.S. The flip side of that is, if you can improve the plight of women, you can improve entire families.
CM: What's next for HRI?
BH: We hope to be a national advocate about human rights. We’re 12 years old. We have an excellent program and an excellent panel of volunteer lawyers.
That is a great base for doing more national advocacy work about the immigration issues that touch our clients.
CM: What's the best advice you've ever received?
BH: It's a small thing, but it's really served me well. Someone once told me to look at my messages and return the one I least wanted to first.
CM: What's the hardest decision you've ever had to make?
BH: My oldest sun got into NYU, and my wife and I had to tell him we couldn’t afford for him to go there. That was really a hard call. He ended up going to St. Louis University, and it worked out great for him. But you don’t like telling your kids no, not with something that’s good.
CM: What's something most people don't know about you?
BH: I'm an Eagle Scout.
CM: You moved to Dallas before your senior year in high school. What made you stick around?
BH: I love Dallas. We have a great local music and arts scene. I often go to shows at The Kessler, and I was on the board for Art Conspiracy. We also have a burgeoning craft beer scene that I’m a big fan of. Goodfriend Beer Garden is my neighborhood spot. I think Dallas has become a much more interesting place in the last five years.
Human Rights Initiative of North Texas is hosting a benefit concert on Saturday, February 2, at Sons of Herman Hall. There will be performances by Doug O'Rourke and Luke Rainwater, Gabrielle LaPlante, Monco Poncho, and Salim Nourallah/Treefort 5. Tickets are $15.