For many people around the world, things we take as basic rights — clean water, clean air, an education — are seen as privileges. Christina Kwauk, C’05, is working to change that.
Christina Kwauk '05
The Brookings Institution, Washington, D.C.
For many people around the world, things we take as basic rights — clean water, clean air, an education — are seen as privileges. Christina Kwauk, C’05, is working to change that. In her work at The Brookings Institution as a fellow in the Center for Universal Education, she hosts the annual Girls’ Education Research and Policy Symposium, manages the Echidna Global Scholars Program and the Center for Universal Education’s girls’ education research portfolio, and “help[s] support girls’ education leaders from around the world develop locally-driven, evidence-based policy recommendations that will help them amplify the work they do to a larger national, regional, and-or global audience.” That work is mountainous enough, but she has also broadened her scope to “merge issues around gender justice and climate justice.” While she works to shift these issues from privileges to rights, she acknowledges that the ability to do this work itself “is such a privilege.” This theme ripples through her understanding of global citizenship and the work she does: the ability “to ‘think global’ is a privilege as it means that one’s most basic needs of food, shelter, safety, belongingness, a reliable income, etc., have all been fulfilled (i.e. one’s ‘local’ must all be in order before thinking global)."
She herself has had the privilege of education. Kwauk came to Sewanee with the goal of becoming a sports psychologist, majoring in psychology with a minor in Asian studies. Her time at Sewanee “definitely set [her] up with a solid foundation and intellectual curiosity for the journey to come...This Mountain-centric experience mixed with the opportunities [she] had to travel to different parts of the world (e.g. Ecuador for an outreach trip with Eric Hartman, China for a research trip with Scott Wilson, Scotland for study abroad) spiked an interest in [her] to better understand the experiences, aspirations, and perspectives of others around the world as they related to [her] own as a second generation Chinese American in the American South.” She changed course after graduation, going on to earn an M.A. in Social Sciences from the University of Chicago and a Ph.D. in Comparative and International Development Education from the University of Minnesota. The role of sports, though, comes through her work, even though she did not become a sports psychologist. She’s been able to have a wider reach.
Kwauk has kept the international focus she gained during her time at Sewanee. She’s “designed a 12-month multi-sited ethnographic field study on gender, sport, and education policy and programs in Samoa”; she was a “member of an election observation mission [to Papua New Guinea] during the 2012 parliamentary elections”; she “designed and managed a short-term field study to Cambodia, China, Laos, Thailand, and Vietnam to the Asia Pacific Leadership Program”; and she’s co-authored a book: What Works In Girls’ Education: Evidence for the World’s Best Investment, among many other things. She’s been able “to take inspiration from the land and [her] personal interest in environmental stewardship — developed during [her] years on the Mountain — and bridge this with [her] research on girls’ education vis-à-vis the greatest existential crisis to face humanity: climate change.” For her, “the thought of being able to look back in 10 or 20 years and say that [she] did what [she] could with the skills that [she has] to help move the needle toward a more sustainable, equitable world is what keeps [her] going [every day].”
With Kwauk’s varied experiences dealing with challenges on a global scale, she’s had the opportunity to reflect on what it means to be a global citizen. It “is being aware that you (your existence, your privileges, your rights, your opportunities, your aspirations, your being) are intricately intertwined and interconnected with those of distant others. And in realizing these privileges, rights, opportunities, etc., you have an obligation and duty to ensure that your realization does not infringe upon the realization of others. If others are oppressed, exploited, or disenfranchised in any way, you have a moral and ethical duty to help bring about justice, because your being is so connected with their being.” She credits Martin Luther King, who “sums this up….more eloquently [in his “Letter from Birmingham Jail”]: ‘Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly.” While his focus was on race in the United States, his words ring true for the global community, for the wider garment that covers all the world.
Kwauk finds continued inspiration from those with whom she works. “These are individuals, many of whom themselves struggled to get an education, who have decided to make their life’s mission all about creating opportunities for marginalized girls in the Global South to gain access to and complete a quality and empowering education. Working with these individuals is incredibly inspiring and an enormous privilege.” Of her own work, she says, “I can’t ask for a better job than one that allows me to identify a problem in the world, ask critical questions about it, find ways to understand it, and then attempt to impact how policy and decision makers act on it.” That’s the kind of privilege to which we can all aspire.