(NEW YORK)– PEN America today announced the appointment of human rights advocate Liesl Gernholtz as the inaugural director of the PEN/Barbey Freedom to Write Center, an initiative that will expand the organization’s critical work to defend free expression worldwide in the face of growing threats to free expression and open discourse.

The PEN/Barbey Freedom to Write Center was established with a transformative gift of $10 million from the Edwin Barbey Charitable Trust, which is advised by Peter and Pamela Barbey and their son, Matt. The Edwin Barbey Charitable Trust has underwritten PEN America’s global efforts on behalf of imprisoned and persecuted writers, dissidents, and cultural defenders. The new gift enhances PEN America’s ability to advocate with governments, peer organizations, and allies on the ground in defending free expression worldwide.

Suzanne Nossel, CEO of PEN America, said: “We are delighted to have Liesl Gerntholtz join PEN America to spearhead our global work to defend writers and confront mounting threats to freedom of expression. She brings a track record of forceful leadership defending and protecting human rights and building and leading programs over time.  Her deep experience, broad networks and passion will help inspire our staff, partners and supporters to intensify our work at a critical time.  She is a champion of innovation who will help us to deepen and evolve our efforts in response to fast-changing methods and tactics of repression.” 

Peter Barbey said: “The urgency of defending writers under threat is more pressing than ever. We are facing a global authoritarian resurgence, now most obviously in Russia, but also in so many other countries around  the world. We are so pleased to see a freedom to write defender of the caliber of Liesl Gerntholtz take the helm of the PEN/Barbey Freedom to Write Center and spearhead this essential work to protect and advance freedom of expression around the world.”

Gerntholtz said: “As the global commitment to freedom of expression, the cornerstone of democracy and human rights, is challenged and weakened, PEN America’s work is ever more critical. For those writers and dissidents under threat, PEN America is a lifeline, a beacon of hope and a staunch ally. I am honored to join this amazing team and look forward to working with them to protect and advance freedom of expression.”

Over a wide-ranging career working on human rights concerns, Gerntholtz, a native of South Africa, has focused on women’s rights, gender equality, gender-based violence, and the rights of people living with HIV.

Between 2008 and 2020, Gerntholtz worked for New York-based Human Rights Watch in several capacities: as executive director of the Women’s Rights Division for nearly ten years, building and overseeing research and advocacy on women’s rights issues in Africa, Asia, Latin America, Europe and the United States; as Interim Deputy Executive Director for Program, responsible for overall vision, strategy and leadership on diverse human rights concerns overseeing 200 staff, and as Director of the Africa Division for a year, leading the search for a new director.

Most recently, she was the Chief Program Officer for The Little Market, where she led work to support opportunities for women from under-served communities to access dignified work.   

Gerntholtz spent the early part of her career working for the South African Human Rights Commission and the Commission on Gender Equality in post-apartheid South Africa. She was the head of the HIV Litigation Unit of the AIDS Law Project and the Director of the Tshwaranang Legal Advocacy Centre. In those capacities, she led high impact, strategic litigation to advance the human rights of people living with HIV and women affected by violence. While she has lived in the United States since 2008, she remains committed to her South African roots, serving on the boards of several South African human rights organizations.

Gerntholtz holds a BA (LLB) from the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, South Africa.

About PEN America

PEN America stands at the intersection of literature and human rights to protect open expression in the United States and worldwide. We champion the freedom to write, recognizing the power of the word to transform the world. Our mission is to unite writers and their allies to celebrate creative expression and defend the liberties that make it possible. Learn more at pen.org.