Kara Wong is the IPJ’s newest program officer for strategic peacebuilding. Originally from Canada, she spent seven years living and working in Myanmar before joining the institute.
Q: What brought you to the field of peacebuilding? What has been your trajectory to this work and the IPJ?
A social activist from a young age (I organized my first demonstration at age 10 and my first public sit-in at 14) I had initially planned on a career in law. I specialized in international justice as an undergraduate, studied human rights law in grad school and worked for an international criminal law foundation straight out of school. It was only after I started working in the field that I realized that the law has little meaning if the communities that it is meant to protect have no relationship with it.
This awareness led me to delve into rights education, which led me to the deeper understanding that social change hinges on our ability to sustain and nurture relationships. I have since become a connector of people, places and issues. I co-founded a school that brings youth from different ethnic and religious backgrounds together to study and live alongside one another. I led cross-cultural immersion programs for American high school and university students in Africa, the Middle East, Southeast Asia and China. And now I am with the IPJ, an institution that is a respected convener and connector of global peacemakers and agents of social change. I feel very blessed and very excited.
Q: Who do you consider your professional mentors?
My mentors and teachers have been my students. I have had the great privilege of working with some incredibly inspiring young people. They have taught me and continue to teach me how to forgive and let go of old stories and beliefs, how to lead from a place of humility and how to live a committed and passionate life.
At its core, peacebuilding is about being willing to face your own shadows, to recognize and celebrate the light in others and honoring what connects us all. It is about believing in and working toward a world full of possibility and opportunity. By modeling for me how to be the best version of myself, my students have helped me show up better in my work and my life.
Q: What has been the most important experience you’ve had working in the field? What experience taught you the most?
In 2009 I co-founded Kant Kaw Education Centre (KKEC), a community-based centre in Yangon, Myanmar. Breathing KKEC into life was a labor of love: from creative visioning over tea to hauling furniture and washing walls, to the long, sweaty hours of teaching in crowded classrooms in 100-degree heat. My greatest learning came the day that I decided it was time for me to leave the school. It was a painful but powerful realization that as community-facilitator, as a peacebuilder, my ultimate goal is to work myself out of a job — to give my heart to something with the objective of one day no longer being needed.
Q: What aspects of your position as program officer are you most looking forward to?
What excites me most about this position is the opportunity it affords me to learn, create and share all at once. Having a home at the IPJ gives me access to some of the most inspiring changemakers of our time, to learn from people who are actively seeking out and putting into action innovative solutions to global challenges. As one of the program officers overseeing the IPJ’s international field projects, I have the chance to contribute to creating new and innovative projects that integrate the wisdom and best practices passed on by our peacemakers, distinguished speakers and community partners. Finally, as part of the Kroc School of Peace Studies I have the chance to share my learning and help students to connect their coursework with real people, real communities and real issues.
Q: Is this your first time living in Southern California? What will you miss about living overseas?
This is my first time living in the U.S. period! So far San Diego has been treating me well. I love the sunshine, the ocean, the desert and the diversity — it seems as if no one living in San Diego is actually from San Diego.
What I will miss about living overseas is the life in all the in-between spaces. There is a lot of head-down commuting in the U.S. What I loved about some of the communities I’ve been blessed to live in is how easy it is to connect and feel connected as you go about your day. You shop for your dinner in the markets as you walk to work; you get your shoes fixed while you eat your lunch at a street side food stall; you make a new friend and hear about the new noodle stand opening up as you make a phone call at the public phone. I’m looking forward to continuing to connect with San Diego.
Q: Do you have a favorite quote or a favorite author or book? Do you have a motto that you live by?
Recently I have been re-reading some of Kahlil Gibran’s poetry, and a piece that has always spoken to me is his “On Reason and Passion”:
“… Your reason and your passion are the rudder and the sails of your seafaring soul.
If either your sails or your rudder be broken, you can but toss and drift, or else be held at a standstill in mid seas.
For reason, ruling alone, is a force confining; and passion, unattended, is a flame that burns to its own destruction.
Therefore let your soul exalt your reason to the height of passion, that I may sing;
And let it direct your passion with reason, that your passion may live through its own daily resurrection, and like the phoenix rise above its own ashes.”
Reason. Passion. – basically a two-word summary of how life led me to the IPJ.