Alumni Interview with Cara Leigh Downey
This interview was conducted over email with Cara Leigh Downey, a Refugee School Impact Coordinator at World Relief Durham, by Gargi Mahadeshwar, a third-year undergraduate student working for the Duke Human Rights Center at the Franklin Humanities Institute. Downey earned a B.A. in Public Policy and a certificate in Human Rights Studies from Duke in 2019.
What has been your path to your current position?
When I was a student at Duke, I wanted to work in child policy after graduating. I participated in Duke Engage New Orleans and interned at the New Orleans Children’s Advocacy Center with the goal of further equipping myself to write child policy. While interning, I contributed to a research project about risk factors leading to child trafficking. I observed that many of the reporters of trafficking concerns were teachers and wondered what it would be like to be one of them – to not only write policy that would shift systems to be more supportive of children, but to be someone who creates and enforces safe and supportive environments for children.
It was this consideration that led me to apply for Teach for America. I was accepted and placed in an inner-city school in Houston, TX, as a 7th grade English teacher. During my first year, I witnessed the inherent distrust my Latinx students had in me. And they were right to hold this distrust – having grown up as a privileged white female, I had little awareness of my students’ everyday realities and the trauma they had experienced. . . nor how to appropriately address that trauma as a teacher. I was cursed at and had objects thrown at me on a daily basis. My response was to call upon my administration to deliver consequences. However, what I didn’t realize was that my students didn’t need a consequence – they needed someone to walk alongside them in processing their trauma.
Reflecting on my privileged identity and inadequate training for recognizing and addressing trauma shaped how I approached my second year of teaching. Instead of letting my voice and perspective create classroom culture, I empowered my students to create our classroom culture. Instead of immediately administering consequences when someone behaved inappropriately, I would ask questions and aim to understand the root of the issue.
Having completed Teach for America, I no longer desired to immediately enter the realm of child policy. Instead, I wanted to continue building my skillset for working cross-culturally and supporting children who have walked through trauma. This led me to apply for the Refugee School Impact Coordinator position at World Relief Durham, a refugee resettlement agency. In this position, I have the privilege of walking alongside families who have recently been resettled in the States with the goal of helping them independently navigate Durham Public Schools (DPS). Daily, I continue to see the effects of my privileged identity and how trauma impacts my families. I want to continue spending my time learning to both steward my identity in a supportive way and learning to help families work through trauma they’ve experienced so they can fully engage in and access opportunities they have a right to access, such as education.
Which human rights issues do you engage with most directly and how?
I mostly engage with the right to education for all. In both my prior and current position, I witness systemic barriers to accessing education within the public school system. Public schools were built to serve the majority and not the minority. And, with the desire to innovate and improve, public schools often do not recognize how their changes affect lesser served populations, even with the best intentions.
Throughout my time with World Relief Durham, I’ve witnessed many barriers to my clients engaging in their education, including language justice, technology, and teacher and administration’s understanding of trauma.
Schools in Durham are primarily equipped to communicate with students and families in Spanish and English. In some districts, such as DPS, there are language services available for staff to use with families, such as the Multilingual Resource Center. However, these services seem underutilized, due to limited capacity and lack of awareness about such interpretation. Also, when written communication is delivered to families, it is not consistent in its translation accuracy. Even if it is, there are some parents who come from regions where reading was not taught, removing their ability to understand written communication even in their first language. Barriers caused by language, therefore, can and do impact families’ ability to be engaged in and aware of educational information that is taken for granted by English speakers.
Even if a refugee comes to the States with the ability to speak in English, there are often gaps in other areas, such as technology. Technology is embedded in many school systems. Oftentimes, the first instance a new refugee student will use a laptop will be their first day in the classroom. The assumption that all students, regardless of their age, will have a baseline knowledge of how to use technology increases the likelihood that refugee students who have never used a laptop will lag behind in all classes. Additionally, many school systems communicate information to families through online portals. If parents do not know how to use technology, they will be less able to engage in their child’s education.
Beyond issues surrounding language and technology lies urgency behind the education system that encourages teachers and staff to prioritize behavior compliance rather than looking at the underlying cause behind behavior. However, teachers do not consistently have training in how to be a trauma-informed teacher, and even if they do, they often have other demands that decrease their ability to dedicate time towards appropriately addressing the root of behavior issues.
My team at World Relief Durham has the honor of stepping into each of these three spaces. We help our clients with issues of language justice through the use of Bilingual Assistants, who are paid interpreters who assist our clients in the classroom and their families outside of the classroom. We have stepped into the area of technological inequities by teaching our families how to use technology so that they can support their children. Finally, we facilitate increased understanding of client’s trauma amongst school staff and teachers through conversing with teachers directly, encouraging parents to share their experiences with teachers and staff, and making referrals to mental health clinicians who specialize in working with refugees.
How has your study of/passion for human rights influenced your life personally and professionally?
My passion for human rights has greatly influenced both my professional and personal life. Due to my desire to serve my clients well, I feel unable to silo my job from my personal life and vice versa. When I say that I can’t silo my job from my personal life, I don’t mean that I have a lack of boundaries. In fact, I have a lot of boundaries – I turn off my work phone at 5PM and have set clear expectations with clients about what I can and cannot do. However, I do that because I know I need to have time away from my clients in order to be fully present and engaged with them during the day.
There are plenty of days when I don’t feel like I am working while at work. When I enter a client’s home for tea and discuss their education, I feel like it’s something I am made to do. As such, my work feels like an expression of my passion for human rights.
How did your Human Rights Certificate courses at Duke prepare you for your career?
Prior to studying human rights, I felt strongly about caring for people who were subject to human rights abuses and was passionate about such work because of my faith. I believed, and still do, that there is a God who cares infinitely more about human rights issues than I do. Human Rights Certificate courses gave me the appropriate tools I needed, in both my personal and professional life, to know how to advance these issues.
One of the tools I received through the Certificate program that has proved helpful in my career is research. Through my Human Rights Capstone project, I learned the tenacity and creativity required to both understand and work on a human rights issue. This tenacity and creativity have shaped how I approach frustrating problems.
What would you recommend to undergraduate students interested in pursuing a career in human rights?
When I was an undergraduate, I wasn’t passionate about education – I was passionate about human rights and helping people. But that felt large and intimidating. How would I ever narrow to focus on a specific issue?
When I chose to teach, it wasn’t because I knew it was what I wanted to do. It was a step of faith. And as I taught, I observed my students, the system they were in, and how I felt when I was with them. Those observations helped me determine how to best respond, and as I responded, my broad passion for human rights narrowed into education.
Don’t be afraid to invest yourself in an area of which you are unsure. Experience generates passion.