Seeking Global Citizenship Throughout the Years
Professor Kaye Edwards interviewed by Lev Greenstein '20
I recently had the opportunity to sit down with Professor Kaye Edwards and learn about her experience in seeking global citizenship throughout the years. Kaye was an early director of the Center for Peace and Global Citizenship (CPGC) and led the vision behind the creation of Haverford House along with Haverford’s health studies minor. Her work at the intersection of biomedicine and social justice has a long history of growth and transformation, and we’re lucky to have had her in our community. Now retired, Kaye continues her journey to be of service in local and global communities and recounts here some of the critical moments that led her to where she is today:
“It was after my third son was born and I had some time off from teaching that I realized, ‘this is not the way I want to live my life.’
I began to understand that my scientific work didn’t have enough connection, enough immediate connection to other people. And I struggled with that for a couple of years, until I finally said, I need to get out of biology. I need to be able to devote more time to being with and working with students around intersectional issues. Science is important, but I couldn’t just think about the science. For me, it’s more about the intersection between biomedicine and social justice. That’s where my focus needed to be, and that’s where the health studies minor came from.
I realized I wanted to do scientific research that could potentially help other people or better society. When I started becoming more involved in public health, it wasn’t like I just wanted to sit with the numbers. I didn’t want to just read about it, I wanted to be interacting with people who were experiencing those issues.
That’s part of the reason why I began my work in providing Quaker ministry to people with AIDS in the Philadelphia area. It was a really important part of my growth then. When I started, people were still typically dying of AIDS, so what it really was, was a like a hospice program. We learned how to provide emotional and physical and spiritual support to people who were dying. We were going into their homes and seeing and confronting their reality. It stunned me. I had been into Philadelphia a lot, but it was usually to go to center city, and this was going into different neighborhoods and different homes and seeing people with very different life experiences. It was just stunning.
There was that, and there was also an organization that Quakers started in the 1980s called ProNica, which was providing material support for the Sandinistas during the revolution in Nicaragua. It expanded, and they started trying to develop ways for people in the United States to really understand the relationship between the US government and the governments of Nicaragua. One of the students I was working with in CPGC at the time had done an internship in Nicaragua and she said, you have to meet these people, because you’ll love them. So I met with the in-country director for ProNica and said I want to go with one of the delegations. So, I did that, and I went with four CPGC student interns, and I went down there, and it was just incredibly transformative.
I had never been to Latin America before, and the warmth of the people, the beauty of the country, and the level of impoverishment were just stunning.
The larger consciousness I gained there was recognizing privilege, and recognizing the cost of my privilege to others. It was a social analysis.
What was striking to me in Nicaragua, given the tortured history with the US, was that people were incredibly gracious and happy that we were there. They recognized that the people of the US are not the same as the government of the US.
They were also just, able to experience so much joy.
I remember that ability from when I was much younger, in grade school, and I saw pictures of children on the news who were playing and having a wonderful time with nothing. They just laughed and played, and it just felt like, why do we need so much stuff here? What’s going on, because this isn’t what our society markets as happiness, but these people are clearly happy. None of the buyable markers of happiness were there, yet these people clearly had happiness.
Of course, there was still much more suffering than there needed to be, and their lives were far too short, yet nevertheless, they were still able to have this joy. Here were people who had little, who were welcoming and sharing so much.
Traveling with ProNica really changed my plans dramatically. We met with a lot of the community organizations that ProNica was helping to support, and that lead me to develop a course on Reproductive Health and Justice. I then took students in the class to Nicaragua to meet with those community groups. What I wanted to do was come up with a way to intersect my training in biology with my passion for social justice and address the perceived need that existed there. One of the things I learned while in Nicaragua from one of the women I met was that there were very high rates of cervical cancer. It’s a very preventable disease. You shouldn’t have to die from cervical cancer. But the incidence of precancerous lesions in women in Nicaragua was much higher than it was in a lot of other countries, and that relates to poverty and a number of other health-related factors. Plus, they weren’t getting screened for the disease. Early stages of the disease weren’t caught, and a lot of these women lived four or five hours from a hospital, so getting adequate health care was not an option. What was being done was an attempt to make access to effective screening procedures easier for women, and I started to work with that and became much more interested in cervical cancer. It was also around that time that vaccines were coming out, like Gardasil and Cervarix. Part of our idea was, what if we could get vaccines here? It was grounded in the assumption that there had to be a biological solution to this, a pharmaceutical solution to this.
But I started to see that it might not have been what they really needed. One of the times I went down there with two other women working in Nicaragua, we went on a tour to various clinics that were located in remote rural areas. We had gone with a health promoter who was giving these charlas to the kids in these villages on certain basic human rights. And I remember going to this one charla and seeing all the mothers and kids going to this local building built by the Sandinistas while the men were all out—it was harvest time on the coffee plantations. There were these amazing young girls, like they were twelve, and the promoter was talking about their rights to healthcare and education and safety, and these girls were all so eager and ready to answer the questions. They knew what their rights were and they knew what they needed to do. Yet sitting around the periphery were the mothers, some of which were the older sisters of these girls, who were there nursing their babies. And they were 15 or 16 years old. I had had a good feeling, because I could see that the younger girls got it and were going to be really strong, and that they were going to be able to have more agency in their life. But after the charla, watching them interact with their older sisters, I realized that, given the parameters of life in these rural areas, what was probably the most likely path for them was ending up a lot like their older sisters. It wasn’t that people didn’t know or understand things, it was a bigger mix of factors that a vaccine alone couldn’t fix. It became so clear to me that there had to be a more holistic approach to helping. Coming up with a pharmaceutical solution was a lot like trying to import something from our culture into theirs, and it wouldn’t offer people a safer, respectful path.
It was hard, because I had to ask, what’s going to happen to these 11 and 12 year-old girls, who have so much energy and insight and knowledge, in another 3 or 4 years, because what are the options available to them?
Everything that I saw, it led me back to education. One of the things that has been great about being a part of the CPGC and being a part of Haverford is that the students here are incredible. I mean, they’re just like, they’re smart and they’re kind and they’re generous, and they just want to do good. They care about social justice. And I’ve really tried to spread the word and just tell people to keep doing it.
But something that struck me was that so many students, when they were freshman, would say that one of the reasons they came to Haverford was because it was close to Philadelphia and they wanted to have some kind of city experience. Yet when they were seniors, they’d say that they had never really gotten into the city very much. It was a kind of encapsulation in the Haverbubble, and I just felt that it was really important to build outside connections. That’s what my focus was at the beginning, and because of that, I started Haverford House in 2002, to build connection for these students.
Then from 2003-2006, I had the incredible privilege of being the director of the CPGC. Up until 2004, our budget was around $80,000 for everything the CPGC did. Our offices were scattered around campus, there was no center, and, as director, a lot of what was talked about was what we would have loved to do if only we had money. Then, with the capital campaign, the CPGC became one of the programs people could donate to. By the time I left, our budget had increased from $80,000 a year to $800,000 a year, so all these ideas that had been incubating were suddenly possible. We could hire staff, we were able to set up the CPGC Cafe, and we could dramatically expand the opportunities for internships over the summer. It was just really exciting.
The Haverbubble really pops when you’re able to have international experiences.
And what have you learned, what have you gained from all of these large experiences?
I have many more connections now. The possibilities of expansion are certainly greater than they were. And in my time here, I learned to put myself in situations where I know I’m not going to be comfortable. That’s a really big thing. It’s being willing to be in places where you know you don’t know it all, and to be okay with that. And then it’s to be humble enough to go forward, and be thankful for the opportunity to grow.