Skip to main content

Exploring Peace - Colleen Kimsey's Bonderman Travel Reflections

Maboneng, Johannesburg, South Africa
Maboneng, Johannesburg, South Africa

Health Systems and Population Health MPH alumna ('18) and Bonderman Travel Fellowship awardee Colleen Kimsey has returned from 8 months of travel to 12 countries: Colombia, Chile, Argentina, Denmark, Bosnia, Jordan, South Africa, Rwanda, Vietnam, Japan, Thailand and Nepal. Through this journey, Colleen worked with former narcos, anti-genocide activists, and the Quaker church in Rwanda to learn about the reality of making peace happen.

Your prior work has explored violence prevention among LGBTQ+ youth and people of color. In your own words, why is this issue important?

Besides what we know about the long-term "weathering effects" of trauma and racial microaggressions on health and wellbeing, besides the importance of dismantling systems of violence against queer youth and people of color, besides issues of justice and creating a fairer society, it's just so destabilizing and unfair to be subject to violence! Experiencing intimate partner violence means you can never feel safe in the same way again. It's unjust, and it's wrong.

How has your personal, professional, and academic journey influenced your decision to focus on these issues in your research?

I have had a couple formative experiences that really shaped my commitment to these issues.

The first was when I was a college freshman coming to Oakland California as a kid from Vancouver Washington. My eyes were opened as I met people who were different than me: people who shopped in thrift stores not because they were trying to be cool, but because it's what they could afford. I was the only white person in the room for the first time. I started participating in the Ceasefire Walks for Peace program hosted by the Quaker church in Oakland, where I met up with folks from local churches and we walked the neighborhood together. On one walk, we were walking past a home where there was a barking dog behind the gate. The woman I was walking with was so afraid, and backed up, saying "that dog is going to bite me" -- and I realized I had never thought about the world as being dangerous in that way. I had never had to think of my neighbor's dogs as weapons. And it felt unjust to me. Everyone deserves a house that feels as safe as my parent's house in the suburbs.

Later, after undergrad, I worked in a domestic violence shelter. In that shelter, once someone has fled their abuser, they are only given 60 days to find new housing. Because there are so few affordable housing opportunities in King County, this ticking countdown timer is a major contributor to further trauma for victims of violence. By saying "you made it here, but now you have to get out," we are really doing a second violence to these survivors. This made me take a closer look at the ways we choose to fund programs, and how our policies play a role in the cycle of violence.

How did you come to apply for the Bonderman Fellowship? How did you choose to focus on "post-conflict" countries, and can you help our readers understand a bit more about what that means?

I applied because a friend applied! Marianna Tegra inspired me to put myself out there. (Thanks, Mar!) That's one of the core things I learned from my time at UW: you might as well apply to what catches your eye. Don't reject yourself before you even apply! Let someone else do the work of rejecting you, don't do it for them. The worst that can happen is a disappointing email.

Around the time of the application, I was also having a tough time with some family conflict. I kept thinking about how impossible it felt to reach a resolution even with just my own family, and that led me to think, how does anyone make any kind of peace happen? So I decided to go to countries who have been through major conflicts (like war, genocide, or apartheid), and learn about the nitty-gritty of how they actually worked out a real kind of messy peace. And I say it that way because it is important to understand that the countries I visited were on a spectrum of peace -- "peace" isn't one dimensional.

You mentioned that you are a Quaker. If you feel comfortable sharing, how has this part of your identity shaped your perspective on public health inequalities, and your commitment to pursuing peace and preventing violence?

There are a lot of misconceptions about the Society of Friends, also known as the Quakers. A lot of times people think that being a Quaker means I'm Amish, or wear a head covering (neither of which is true). For me, what Quakerism is about is the values of equality and Truth. We believe that the divine dwells in all of us, so what right do I have to inflict violence or attempt to control the divine? If the lowliest street orphan and the highest king have the same access to the divine as me, how should I conduct myself in the world?

For me, my faith means having a deep commitment to speaking the truth. So as I am progressing in my career as researcher, that means thinking about whether to pursue "sexy" topics, versus work that is important, real, valuable, and makes change. Sometimes, this means making the choice to turn down certain topics that don't sit with my truth.

Quakers also believe deeply that part of the work of existing as a human being is to build the Peaceable Kingdom brick by brick, every chance we get. I've taken that call to peacemaking into my professional life through a Health Systems and Population Health MPH degree focused on maternal and child public health. I believe deeply that building systems that create inequitable health outcomes for women and children is a form of structural violence, and I'm proud that the University of Washington has trained me to start the work of undoing that violence.

Colleen at anti-genocide chicken farm in Bosnia
"I volunteered on a chicken farm in Bosnia run by an anti-genocide organization to generate funds and create community space"

Public health and the health care system look very different across the various countries you visited. Did you have any experiences that highlighted the differences (or similarities) to the US system? Anything that surprised you?

I definitely learned that a country IS their health system! I interacted with the health care system in three countries: Chile, South Africa, and Japan. In Chile, the health care system was overburdened, bureaucratic, but democratic. I went, sat in line, and got the thing I needed, but much, much cheaper than I would have in the United States. It was a bit humorous to me how casual the approach to health care was at the clinic I visited in South Africa: I told the doctor "my neck hurts," and he just gave me an injection. I have no idea what it actually was (!), but it definitely helped. In Japan, the experience was very formal and rigid. I had to refill a medication, and there were several medical disclosure statements that I was required to hear, entirely in Japanese, even though I speak no Japanese.

I was also surprised to see how much variation there is in what medicines are or are not available over-the-counter, which did not always seem logical. Nepal does not have Benadryl! I have no idea why. But in Vietnam, you can get pretty much any medication, with some patience and Google translate.

Motorcycle trek in North Vietnam
Motorcycle trek in North Vietnam

What can we learn from these other countries about how to prevent violence and promote health for all members of our communities, especially those who have been historically oppressed and marginalized?

There were three key takeaways from my Bonderman travels:

First, I learned that people don't want justice as much as they want fairness. In Rwanda, the Tutsis didn't want compensation for what they suffered under the Belgians, or land reparations, they wanted to make the Hutus suffer for their suffering. Any approach to reconciliation needs to recognize this drive to get tit-for-tat supersedes any rational arguments.

Second, I learned that the past isn't past. The Bosnian genocide was rooted in things that the Ottoman Empire did more than 700 years ago, but this history remains incredibly potent and present for the Serbs. It is easy to fall prey to the misconception that the past has no bearing on current policy, but it absolutely does! We need to be honest with ourselves about the past of our own country, and be willing to consider things like the genocide of Natives and the bracero program in developing policy.

Third, I learned that it's incredibly hard to have peace without a decent economy. It doesn't take an expert in global economics to see that the more money an average citizen has in their pockets, the more peaceful that country is. Our increasing economic inequality in America is not only deeply unjust, it is also a threat to our domestic stability.

Any advice for other students considering travel abroad as part of their public health development?

The biggest piece of advice I would offer to student travelers is to practice the same morals and values abroad as at home. If you wouldn't pick up a random kid on the street and take a picture with them in Seattle, don't do it in Dakar. Be a good person wherever you go.

Second, don't assume that you are the solution. If the problem you're looking at was simple, it would already have been solved by the people affected by it. You're not John Snow, and you can't end the epidemic by taking off the pump handle.

Finally, here's one I wish I had followed more closely: with meat, no heat means no eat. The day I ate that lukewarm chicken in Hanoi was a bad day.

How did your MPH training influence and prepare you for this work?

A class called GH 511: Problems in Global Health, taught by Dr. Steve Gloyd, really changed how I thought about the world. The basic message of the class is that the world is better off than we think: more girls are going to school, more children are surviving past five, fewer women are dying in childbirth. As I traveled, it was eye-opening to see that even in the poorest communities, people are figuring it out -- they are cleaning their own streets, feeding their needy, educating their students. People are capable. This is not to say that there are no problems, but it is a good reminder that the problems that remain are complex: if the problem was simple, they would have already solved it.

Colleen with a man who formed a carnival troupe to reclaim the streets and combat violence
"Me in Medellin with a man who formed a carnival troupe in his barrio to reclaim the streets and combat violence"

You recently accepted a position as a Research Coordinator at the ICRC in the UW Department of Global Public Health. What will you be doing in this position?

Applying for this job was an adventure in itself -- I met up with my wife in Japan, and she brought a laptop so I could apply to jobs. I spent August volunteering at a ryokan (traditional Japanese inn), applying quickly before I headed to Nepal, which does not have great Wi-Fi. As I trekked through the Everest region, waiting to hear back from the job, I was holding up my phone, trying to get service at any teahouse with Wi-Fi. I interviewed in-person with ICRC two days after I flew home, they offered me the job that night, and two days after that, I flew to San Francisco for training!

In this position, I do whatever needs to be done to make clinical research happen: everything from drawing blood to coordinating transcontinental shipment of samples. The primary study I'm working on is called DoxyPep, and it looks at whether taking antibiotics after sex prevents the contraction of bacterial STDs like chlamydia, gonorrhea and syphilis. I'm thrilled to be working with Dr. Connie Celum, and hope to learn everything I can from her.

Colleen summiting Torres
"Climbing up to the Torres took seven hours and was one of the proudest accomplishments of my trip"

What are your long-term career goals or aspirations?

My dream is to follow in my advisor Dr. Todd Edward's footsteps, and become a world-class qualitative researcher. I'm interested in research that explores under-researched LGBT health topics, such as pelvic floor dysfunction in lesbian and bisexual women, and the mechanisms that lead to increased intimate partner violence for bisexual women.

I am so grateful to the University of Washington, David Bonderman, and Fellowships Director Helene Obradovich for the incredible experience of the Bonderman Travel Fellowship, and I am so grateful to my advisor, Dr. Todd Edwards, and to all of my teachers, for supporting me throughout my MPH studies.

I entered University of Washington not believing that I could do it, that I could graduate, that I was a worthy public health practitioner, or that my ideas were worth pursuing. But UW believed in me. With the Bonderman and my MPH, I feel like I have just wrapped up the beginning, and I am ready to come back and do the work that I have been thoroughly, thoughtfully trained to do.

Authored by Lauren Bedson