STUDENT PROFILE: Catherine Leland


By Leila El-Khatib

Tell us about yourself.

I am a second year MPP student at Harvard Kennedy School and moved to Cambridge from Long Beach, California.  Before graduate school, I worked in politics and public administration in the Los Angeles area for seven years.

I also took some time off to travel to India, Southeast Asia and the Middle East for six months – something I had wanted to do for a long time!    It was on this trip that I decided I wanted to come to graduate school to study environmental policy.   Something that really struck me while being abroad was our global waste management problem.

Here, in the United States, it can be invisible – and easy to forget.  But in most of the world, there are daily reminders. It affects quality of life and ultimately our global health.

How did you get involved with the Harvard Women and Public Policy Program (WAPPP)?

I started attending WAPPP seminars pretty early on in the semester during my first year.  While gender policy has never been my academic field, I value its impact and importance – and just generally have always wanted to push myself and see more women involved in activism.  My professional life showed me in a very real way the challenges that women face in the workplace, and especially in politics. In my early career, I was fortunate to have two strong female bosses as role models and am so thankful for that.

WAPPP is such a fantastic resource at Harvard. I’ve actually met my closest friends through their programming.  This summer, I had the opportunity to work in Haifa, Israel on an internship through WAPPP’s cultural bridge program and am looking forward to participating in the Oval Office program this fall.

What made you pick a summer internship in Haifa?

A year ago, I would have never imagined that I would be in Haifa for the summer. But sometimes it is those surprises in life that end up being the most rewarding.  I initially became interested in Palestine because of my husband who is Palestinian-Canadian.  He has extended family in Haifa, but he has never been there before (his dad’s family fled to Lebanon when his dad was four). For this and a number of reasons, I wanted to learn more about Israel-Palestine.

Last March (2012), I went on the “Palestine Trek” with a group of HKS students over spring break.  We visited the West Bank, primarily, but also parts of Israel including Nazareth.  It was there that I met my husband’s family in Haifa.   This connection brought the conflict to life for me in a very real way.   As part of the Palestine trek, we also met Palestinian women activists in Nazareth who are citizens of Israel, as well as a Palestinian woman member of the Knesset (Israeli parliament).  They explained to us the unique challenges that the Palestinian citizens of Israel (Arab Israelis) face.  Approximately 20 percent of Israeli citizens are Arab.   They can vote in elections and have many of the same rights as Jewish citizens – but not all of the same rights.

As women’s activism is always on my mind, I came home and started researching the Knesset and the role Palestinian women who are citizens of Israel play in politics.  I learned that only three Palestinian women have ever served in the Knesset, and all within the last 15 years.  Little research appeared to have been done on this topic and this became a project I wanted to pursue. Studies show that women can play an important role in peace negotiations in conflict areas.

What were your research objectives?

Primarily, I was interested in the obstacles that Palestinian women face (if any) in participating in the political process.  While helping my host organization with a grant application for their long-term study on this topic, I spent the summer doing research.  On my own, I also had the opportunity to conduct interviews of political activists and NGOs who work to empower Palestinian women, and conducted 15 interviews through the summer.

I met women from all political persuasions – from those involved in political parties to activists working outside of the system, to women involved in coexistence efforts.   I also met with a number of NGOs that work in the field to hear leaders’ perspectives on the topic.   I heard very personal stories, anger and frustration.  I heard about the discrimination women face being Palestinian and being women.

But, what they all seemed to share was hope for a better day – and that is what drove them.   (Blog on the project:  cdlhaifa.blogspot.com.)

What’s next for you? Back at HKS, I am managing editor of the Women’s Policy Journal of Harvard this year and working with the HKS Green Team on sustainability initiatives.  I am also interning at the Executive Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs.  Otherwise, I think about Haifa and the amazing women I met all of the time and look forward to continuing my work in this field.

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