When it comes to figuring out your place in the world, don’t be afraid of change, trying new experiences or exploring far off places. That’s the life lesson of Brisbane Girls Grammar School alumna, Jennifer Burley (2004).
Jennifer, who undertook a fellowship in 2016 with the Centre for Sustainability Leadership and has worked for the CSIRO and Oxfam, had always been academically strong in the sciences, and so when she left school for The University of Queensland, she signed on for a Bachelor of Science.
‘But about 18 months in I felt something was missing,’ she said. ‘I wanted more of a human face to my work, a career with more social and interpersonal connections, and so I opted for a change, adding a Bachelor of Arts to my science degree.
‘Now I was reading International Relations and Economics alongside Mathematics.
‘Not only did this introduce me to the enormous challenges around sustainability and the environment, but I became much more involved in community issues and volunteering.
‘After graduating in 2009, I doubled down on my research work, doing a project for the CSIRO on climate change adaptation, focussing on research and application.
‘But again, I wasn’t certain this was what I wanted to do, so before committing, I decided to take a six-month break and go travelling.’
It proved an invaluable lesson for Jennifer, as her time away from home took her to rural India where she did a three-month internship working with local communities.
‘This was my first experience with this kind of work, and it would eventually take me in a new direction.’
When Jennifer arrived home, ready to further her work with the CSIRO, she didn’t expect that she would soon be on the move again.
‘When I returned to the nine to five, I soon realised how much I had enjoyed the work I was doing in India, and I was soon making plans to return there.
‘When I did, I gained exposure to a wide array of local community development work, including through supporting a social enterprise seeking to improve the lives of urban poor by giving them access to sustainable products.’
But it wasn’t long before Jennifer was on the road again, this time to Bangladesh.
‘I spent 12 months in Dhaka, working on projects around disaster risk reduction in those parts of the country worst affected by climate change, and looking at women’s livelihoods and how they were trying to respond to and recover from these disasters,’ Jennifer said.
Her work in India and Bangladesh wasn’t going unnoticed, and in 2015 Oxfam came knocking.
‘The Oxfam job took me to Melbourne first, where I continued managing a diverse portfolio of work projects across South and South East Asia. And then in 2019 I relocated to Ottawa, Canada, to work with Oxfam Canada as a Program Officer—Women’s Economic Empowerment and Transformative Leadership.’
The move to North America focused Jennifer’s work on projects in Pakistan, specifically on strengthening the core capacity of smaller scale women’s rights organisations.
‘This project is particularly rewarding, as it was the first time that most of us were applying feminist principles and approaches to our management of the project, and our measurement of its success.
‘I really love this work because the whole project is designed flexibly, with an understanding that the women in these communities are best placed to know what they need, what the solutions are, and how best to achieve those solutions. Seeing these groups come together and create ownership, movement, and momentum around women’s rights issues, is really inspiring.’
Jennifer’s time and work in South and South East Asia also brought home the complex and engrained challenges women in these communities face due to climate change, and more recently the pandemic.
‘Both COVID and climate change are these external pressures that are exacerbating the inequalities and injustices women face. But I believe you can’t have climate justice without gender justice and my hope is that as we try to respond to these challenges, we do it in a way that addresses some of these persistent inequalities around women’s rights and gender.’
Looking back on her career, and despite the sometimes-confronting subject matter and the enormous challenges ahead, Jennifer knows all her choices have delivered her right where she is needed the most.
‘Seeing other people’s care and passion for humanity, seeing fearless women standing up for their rights in really challenging situations, seeing all these people come together for a common good, it gives me a sense of purpose, I feel extremely privileged to be part of it.’