We checked in with Laurel Pegorsch (MIDP ’18), who is an associate policy advisor on climate change at Oxfam America. We caught up with her by phone at her office in Washington, D.C.
So, what are you working on?
I’m working on climate change policy at the global level. As we all know, the heating of our planet is impacting every aspect of our lives- the air we breathe, how our food is grown, plants and animals’ ability to survive and adapt, etc. The complexities of these problems are immense, and require creativity and innovation to solve, so that keeps my job exciting, and motivates my work.
At Oxfam, our mission is to end the injustice of poverty and address its root causes. Oxfam is probably most well-known for our humanitarian programs, but Oxfam’s work extends beyond that. I am actually involved in the policy and advocacy side of things, which complements our programs around the world. We work in 90 different countries on a range of issues, from climate and food security, to women’s empowerment and inclusion, to oil, gas, and mining transparency and accountability.
For the last year or so I’ve been working on a report aimed at policymakers called Enhancing Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs): Opportunities in Agriculture. NDC’s are the climate commitments that countries have made as signatories of the Paris Agreement. This paper feeds into the work that we’re doing to help countries make (and deliver on) more ambitious commitments on climate, but also make those ambitions inclusive of smallholder farmers and producers, especially female farmers. We really believe that climate justice is gender justice.
Last week was a big week in the climate policy world with the Conference of Parties in Madrid (COP25). Oxfam attended and hosted a number of side events too, focusing on indigenous peoples and environmental defenders. One of the things I love most about working for Oxfam is the fact that it’s truly a global organization that can link grassroots to policy. For example, I’m in Washington, D.C. with Oxfam America, and collaborate with our international headquarters in Kenya, and country offices around the world. And at international meetings like the COP, we are able to bring people from rural farming communities, for example, to meet with policy-makers and elevate their voices so they are heard at the decision-making table.
What led you to the MIDP program?
Early on in my career I was working in the healthcare private sector, and while I enjoyed and thrived there, I wanted to switch gears to have a more global focus. I decided to join the Peace Corps and worked as a food security volunteer in Madagascar for three years. In the Peace Corps I worked with female entrepreneurs to establish a seamstress cooperative and I also worked with vanilla farmers to secure organic certification. The experience tied together economic development with the Food and Agriculture sector and gave me really solid on-the-ground- knowledge of the opportunities and challenges farmers, NGOs, governments and companies face. It was a wonderful and equally challenging experience that changed my outlook and path in life.
From there, I wanted to better understand the policy-world and how exactly decisions were made that end up impacting people on the ground; how are policy-makers wrestling with trade-offs and differing interests? What decisions are they making to support community livelihoods and those that I was working with on the ground? Did some decisions do more harm than good, and how to prevent that from happening? Finding answers to those questions is what led me to apply to the International Development Policy program at Duke.
I applied to the MIDP program while I was still working in Madagascar, which was a challenge with intermittent electricity. I actually took a risk because I didn’t have an opportunity to visit any schools beforehand. I was debating between Columbia Univ in New York City and Duke and I chose Duke in part because Durham seemed like a more reasonable and affordable place to live.
What was your experience like at Duke?
I knew that I wanted to focus on environmental policy in the MIDP program, and environmental policy is a broad area so I kept an open mind. One of the things that really attracted me to the program was the ability to also do coursework at the Nicholas School and get a concurrent certificate there. The flexibility to explore my interests and to take an interdisciplinary point of view in my studies was valuable because that’s what good policy requires. I was able to be in classes with people who looked at things through an environmental lens, a business lens, and those with a public policy lens.
Some of the most important courses I took in the MIDP program were policy analysis and development economics. The concepts and tools I learned have helped me to this day. The project management course I took also gave me tools that I’ve used post-grad school, like developing and using a Theory of Change.
I had a very full schedule while I was at Duke. I was fortunate enough to be a Coverdell Fellow, which is a program for Returned Peace Corps Volunteers (RCPVs) with ongoing community service as part of the program. I also started volunteering through Duke Interdisciplinary Social Innovators (DISI), which is a student organization that does consulting projects for social good that I learned about at MIDP orientation. The consulting projects through the club were so different from other things I was doing at school. I had actually taken a personality test through the career office and it said I would be a good consultant—I think because I am a good listener—but I didn’t really know what that world was about. DISI gave me a better understanding of that world, and I ended up becoming co-president in my last year. I gained not only consulting skills but also leadership and professional skills. Through my constant aim to maximize my student experience, I connected with DCID and other school groups and faculty, and was able to attend several sustainability conferences through the Net Impact Chapter and attended a summer Food Security fellowship program at Purdue University that enriched my experience at Duke.
What advice do you have for new fellows?
My advice for people who are just starting the program would be to find the balance between being deliberate and focused with your time with being flexible and open to opportunities and connections. It’s hard to remember to see the big picture, especially when you have a heavy class workload. But the things that have really stuck with me post-degree, are the friendships and connections I made with other students and with my professors. Building professional relationships-even while in school- should be a priority. Case and point, I recently ran into a former classmate at an international climate conference. Especially because the MIDP program is mid-career, you’re often in classes with people who are in leadership roles at non-profits or of governments, so it’s a really great network to have!
Last question. What is giving you hope these days?
Working on climate is tough. Just in the last year the climate emergency has worsened, and it touches everything- it can exacerbate inequality, prevent people from getting education or healthcare they need, and hurt jobs and livelihoods. The thing that gives me hope is the level of commitment people have- both in the climate community and beyond- from my colleagues in the office who are digging into complex policies, to the grassroots activists on the frontline addressing climate impacts and working with communities to navigate the complexities at that level too. People working those long hours, dedicated to making the world better, inspire me. This solidarity- knowing that we share this commitment- keeps me going.