Lauryn Oates is a Canadian aid worker and human rights activist who has gained prominence as a global expert on education in conflict zones and on women’s rights, and as a fierce public proponent of internationalism, gender equality and the universalism of human rights. She has worked throughout the developing world but particularly in Afghanistan, advocating for the empowerment of women. It was in 1996 that, at age 14, Lauryn read a newspaper article describing the new regime in Afghanistan called the Taliban, and their treatment of women and girls. She wrote up a petition demanding that the world respond to the Taliban’s misogynist policies, and has continued this work ever since. She bridges the world we know, and the worlds we sometimes struggle to understand—countries at war, communities living amidst unimaginable poverty, and places where women in particular are seeking to gain a foothold.
Lauryn speaks to themes of global citizenship, how we respond to pain and suffering in the world, and the power of education to change young lives in ways that can transform societies. Whether it’s surviving a motorcycle crash in Uganda, malaria in Rwanda, Russian techno music on bad roads in Tajikistan, or working to get classrooms opened in rural Afghanistan, Lauryn can often be found in the dicey spots of the world, stubbornly insisting that access to quality education is a basic human right for everyone, everywhere.
Lauryn works in close partnership with a variety of Afghan women’s organizations and international charities, from UNICEF, Global Rights, medica mondiale, the Afghan Research and Evaluation Unit, the Women and Children’s Legal Research Foundation, USAID, and Womankind Worldwide, among others.
She has been involved in leading charity work with Canadian Women for Women in Afghanistan, founded in 1996, and founded the Vancouver (1999) and Montreal (2001) chapters of the organization, before joining the board of directors in 2005, until 2008 when she became the organization’s Projects Director, managing their education projects in the field.
Lauryn has led projects in Afghanistan such as a teacher training program that has so far trained over 4,000 teachers, a network of village libraries, and basic literacy classes for girls and women who missed out on their educations under the Taliban. She’s worked to make educational materials accessible to teachers in their own language through several translation projects, and the creation of the first online library for teachers in Afghanistan. These projects have ensured access to schooling for thousands of Afghan girls and women.
Lauryn is a frequent commentator in the Canadian media, writing regularly for The Calgary Herald, The Huffington Post, Troy Media, The Propagandist, and occasionally for other publications ranging from The Globe & Mail to the blog, Butterflies & Wheels. In 2008, The Globe & Mail named her as the first of Ten Canadians to Watch in 2009, and in 2013 she was awarded a Queen’s Diamond Jubilee Medal by the province of British Columbia. Coverage of her work in Afghanistan has been featured in Elle, Ms., Trek, Vancouver Magazine, The National Post, 24 Hours, Chatelaine, Canadian Living, The Calgary Herald, Edmonton Sun, The Times Colonist, The Province, among others.
Lauryn holds a BA Honours in International Development Studies from McGill University, a MA in Human Security and Peace building from Royal Roads University, and a PhD in Language and Literacy Education at the University of British Columbia. Her doctoral research focused on the development of mother tongue teaching resources using information communications technologies (ICT) for primary teachers in northern Uganda. She has twice been awarded a Social Science & Humanities Research Council award for her scholarship. In 2013, Lauryn won the Leadership Award from her Alma Mater, Royal Roads University.
As a speaker, Lauryn draws from her trials and triumphs as a 14-year-old with a simple conviction that Afghan girls deserved better, to her last decade-and-a-half of experience in the development and humanitarian aid sector.
- The Right to Read
This presentation is about the power of education to transform individuals, their communities, and ultimately, societies. From the magic inherent in the moment when a child learns to read to the power of literature to bring hope during the darkest moments in our history, Lauryn delivers an enthusiastic ode to the written word, and in particular, to the pivotal role of teachers in igniting young minds. Drawing from her work advancing education in Afghanistan, she shares insights that ring true in the mud classrooms of rural Central Asia as much as in the modern classrooms of the industrialized world. She makes the case that human capital is what drives societies and economies forward, and is what gives us the tools to solve seemingly insurmountable challenges, and it is for this reason that teachers carry the weight of the world on their shoulders. In the milieu where Lauryn works, this duty can be a deadly one, and accounts of the bravery of students, teachers and parents committed to learning, under perilous circumstances, strikingly attest to this. Invested with the extraordinary responsibility of preparing the generation that will inherit a world marred in conflict, hostility and inequalities, good teaching has the power to save lives, revolutionize thinking, and even to end wars.
- The World is My Backyard
Lauryn had the unique experience of stepping onto the tarmac of Kabul International Airport when barely out of her teens, and discovering for herself a land that has long been both romanticized and acutely misunderstood by outsiders. In the years that she has since spent ‘commuting’ between Canada’s sleepy west coast and the stirring deserts and mountains of the depths of Central Asia, Lauryn found a people closer to us than we might expect. A witness to a decade of dramatic social change in Afghanistan as well as an unfinished struggle for women’s rights and for peace, she found that the values we so often espouse as our own—good governance, the pursuit of knowledge, human rights—are facing their most momentous battle yet, in classrooms and polling stations in a country thousands of miles away. With an emphasis on our shared humanity, Lauryn challenges complacency in the face of these battles, taking aim at our own tribal thinking. She incites us to think of the world as our own backyard, and to confront injustices whenever and where ever they occur on our watch.
- In Witness of the Pain of Others
On a daily basis we are affronted with news of pain and suffering, near and far. As aspiring global citizens, how do we respond in a way that is ethical and compassionate? This presentation is about how we practice empathy and courage in our daily lives, in navigating a world complicated by inequalities, poverty, and oppression. Lauryn will draw from her many years working in conflict zones as a human rights defender and an advocate for the rights of women, and how her experiences in both places like Afghanistan and back home in Canada helped sharpen a conviction that we must do a better job defining and then defending the values we stand for, even when it is hard to do so. Turning to historical precedent, she demonstrates how we have in the past managed to challenge injustices, and topple unjust institutions and regimes. From the role of individual ‘positive deviants’, to the astounding promise evident in the empowerment of women and girls, she gives us hope through stories of transformative social change underway in the most unlikely of spots, in bringing forth a message that is ultimately one of hope, but also an urgent call to action.