Joy Olson is a leading expert on human rights and U.S. policy toward Latin America. She served as WOLA’s executive director from 2003 to 2016. Under Ms. Olson’s direction, WOLA grew in size and impact, and pioneered new approaches to human rights advocacy.
She is both a pragmatic problem-solver and an innovator whose vision is reshaping the breadth and scope of human rights work throughout the Americas. Ms. Olson has developed cutting edge programs addressing organized crime from a human rights perspective. Under her leadership WOLA has developed extensive work on border security and migration, the Colombian peace process, U.S.–Cuba relations, drug policy reform as well as police and justice reform in Mexico and Central America. She has also re-tooled WOLA’s communications strategies, involved new constituencies in WOLA’s advocacy efforts and pioneered new forms of collaboration with counterparts throughout the Americas.
Ms. Olson’s expertise is sought by government officials, journalists, and policy experts throughout the hemisphere. She has testified before key Congressional committees and she is a frequent commentator in the media -- including CNN, NPR, The Washington Post, The New York Times, and leading outlets in Latin America.
Under her leadership, The Washington Post has recognized WOLA as one of the best-managed non-profits and Washingtonian magazine has named WOLA one of the nation’s capital’s “great places to work.”
Ms. Olson remains grounded in Latin America’s realities. She will meet with poor campesinos, human rights defenders, and frontline activists in Latin America one day and with policymakers and presidents the next.
Prior to joining WOLA, Ms. Olson directed the Latin America Working Group (LAWG), a coalition of sixty non-governmental organizations coordinating their advocacy work on U.S. foreign policy toward Latin America. Her many accomplishments include leading NGO efforts to increase U.S. funding for Central American peace accords implementation and a successful advocacy effort to lift the ban on food and medicine sales to Cuba. In the 1980s she worked on immigration and refugees issues, and developed legislation to suspend the deportation of Salvadoran refugees from the United States.
Ms. Olson earned a Masters in Latin American Studies from the National Autonomous University of Mexico, following two years’ work in community development in Honduras.