Africa in Our Lives: Lauren Parnell Marino

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“I’ve come to love learning about Uganda – and the rest of the continent- and the dialogue that comes from trying to understand a culture not your own.” – Lauren Parnell Marino (Photo by Catherine A. Reiland/UW-Madison)

Lauren Parnell Marino, PhD candidate in Development Studies, joined the African Studies Program this fall as an administration project assistant and academic advisor. Though busy settling in, she’s still finding time to enjoy fall photography in the UW-Madison Arboretum.

Hometown: Mahtomedi, Minnesota
Field: Development Studies

What brought you to Madison?

I came to Madison from Washington, DC to begin work on a PhD in Development Studies. I was thrilled to find a university that offered such a unique, interdisciplinary program that trains practitioners with research skills. Additionally, UW-Madison has incredible faculty representing all of my interest areas: gender, economic development, commodity chains, East Africa.

What is your favorite fall activity?

I’m a photographer, so I love taking walks with my camera through the changing colors. The Arboretum has already become my home away from home – I visit at least once a week!

How did you first hear about/get involved with the African Studies Program on campus?

I came to this position through the Institute for Regional and International Studies, but I knew long before I arrived that I wanted to spend time attending programming and meeting faculty involved with the African Studies Program. I was on the listserve before I even set foot on campus!

What are you looking forward to in the coming year as you settle into your position?

It’s already been such a delight to engage with scholars across a wide diversity of topics and geographies on the continent – there are so many opportunities to learn about new perspectives. I’m looking forward to more of that, through our weekly events to our bigger conferences. I’m also really looking forward to getting to know undergraduate students interested in African studies through my role as an advisor for the African Studies Certificate!

What inspired your studies of Africa?

During the summer between my junior and senior year of college, I was lucky enough to be a part of a delegation of students to East Africa to learn more about the process of Fair Trade. We visited farmers’ and artists’ cooperatives in Tanzania, Kenya, and Uganda, and learned as much as we could about Fair Trade, from the process of growing coffee, to the structures co-ops use to uphold values of democratic governance, to the ins and outs of various certification processes. It was an incredible chance for me to listen to a huge range of individual experiences and come to some conclusions about how Fair Trade works and doesn’t work. The journey challenged my perspectives of the world, my role in it, and what it means to “do good.” After that summer, I still wanted to pursue a career that focused on social justice and attempted to address global inequality, but I had a newly deepened commitment to valuing the voice and agency of those most directly affected by issues. Several years later, I returned to Uganda to support the work of Uganda Crafts 2000 Ltd., a successful Fair Trade craft business in the heart of Kampala, which I came to know through that summer of travel. I’ve come to love learning about Uganda – and the rest of the continent- and the dialogue that comes from trying to understand a culture not your own.

Briefly tell us about your work, as it relates to Africa:

I am interested in how women in East Africa who participate in commodity chains and the formal labor market might experience the process of empowerment. For my Master’s thesis, I compared women in two regions of Uganda who had differing rates of employment within coffee commodity chains, and I was able to conclude that women who worked within global commodity chains had a significant association with empowerment indicators. For my PhD, I’m interested in evolving this research, and to continue to explore employment and empowerment using mixed methods. To help me do that, I’m currently learning Luganda through Professor Thompson’s Less Commonly Taught Language course.

What advice would you give students who are interested in studying Africa?

Spend time in a country you’re interested in, strike up conversations with people, and listen, listen, listen. Listen to what people say and to what they don’t say. Without deep listening, understanding is impossible.

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Lauren Parnell Marino and Betty Kinene. Photo courtesy of Parnell-Marino.

What was a highlight of working with Uganda Crafts?

Working with Betty Kinene, the founder and Managing Director. Betty is resourceful, witty, and a savvy businesswoman. She is also deeply committed to providing sustainable incomes for the artisans that work with Uganda Crafts. Betty encouraged me to learn all I could about the business, and gave me opportunities to hone my communication and artistic skills. She even gave me the task of contributing to product development, by creating new designs for the company’s main product, baskets. One of these designs was became the top selling basket locally, and was picked up by Ten Thousand Villages to be sold in the US for a number of years. It was really fun to get to be creative in that way.

What career do you see yourself having after your finish your dissertation?

After I complete the PhD, I want to return to the international development sector to bring my research skills to bear to advance evidence-based programming and policy. My career goal is to be a scholar-practitioner who enhances the quality of ideas and action in the gender and development field.

Profile produced by Meagan Doll.

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