Changing perceptions

Graduate protects education from attack, fights stereotypes

Growing up the daughter of a pilot and a flight attendant, Courtney Erwin had the privilege of traveling a lot. From an early age, she knew she wanted to see the world.

And like many law students, Erwin was interested in pursuing international law. With her drive and commitment, she created a way to make it happen. Her work with various organizations has taken her to Southeast Asia, North Africa and the Middle East. Along with seeing the world, Erwin is working to change it.Erwin

"My belief is that you should do what is your passion," she said. "I'm doing things that I've wanted to do since I was a kid."

Erwin '05 lives in Doha, Qatar, and is the legal accountability manager for Education Above All, an independent non-governmental organization established by Her Highness Sheikha Mozah Bint Nasser Al-Missned.

 A policy research and advocacy organization, Education Above All is concerned with a single policy area: protecting education from attack. EAA aims to protect, support and promote the right to education in areas affected or threatened by crisis, conflicts and war. It serves as a catalyst for concerted action among partners around the world in order to prevent attacks on education, and to respond more effectively to attacks.

Before this job, Erwin had other interesting positions, most recently as chief of staff and director of Programs at the Cordoba Initiative, an international NGO that promotes engagement between the United States and Muslim-majority countries. Though she didn't work on it specifically, it's the organization that is behind the controversial cultural center proposed near Ground Zero. Erwin also worked at the InterFaith Conference of Metropolitan Washington as coordinator for Religious Freedom. As the first to assume that role, she created and implemented its religious liberty and church-state separation program, focusing on education, advocacy and policy. 

Before law school, Erwin had considerable international experience, including a master's degree in Islamic Studies from McGill University in Montreal and a bachelor's degree in Foreign Service from Georgetown University.

In her current role, Erwin leads EAA's legal accountability program, which seeks to diminish impunity and strengthen accountability for protecting education from attacks.

Education should be considered just as important as other human rights like health care," she said.
"Nobody else is squarely addressing this issue."

Erwin said Her Highness is a strong woman who empowers other women and young people.

"She is incredibly influential and very much involved," Erwin said. "I admire her tremendously."

She enjoys the challenging position and the country of Qatar, a wealthy and somewhat liberal Emirate bordering Saudi Arabia.

"There's a learning every single day," she said. "It's a country that's basically created itself and I'm watching something being formed before my very eyes. The pace of development is incredible."

To keep up with rapid economic growth, there are hundreds of thousands of workers from other countries there performing professional and service jobs. In fact, expatriates outnumber Qataris by about five to one.

"You are immediately embraced," Erwin said. "I have made friends from around the world in Doha."

She doesn't need to conform to the traditional dress of black head scarf and cloak Qatari women wear, but she is modest and respectful of cultural and religious traditions, careful not to reveal too much skin. But she says she is treated as an equal.

"I don't ever feel disrespected or inhibited from doing what I want to do," she said.

lluminating experiences

Erwin was well prepared for the Qatari and Muslim customs from her previous jobs and education. While at Cordoba Initiative, based in New York City, she managed the Shariah Index Project, which seeks to clarify Islamic legal principles related to society and governance and measure today's states against that standard. She initiated and managed the government relations and legislative affairs department.

"The office was one of the most diverse places I have encountered," she said. "In addition to my Egyptian-American Imam boss and his Kashmiri wife, I worked with an Evangelical Christian who is an expert on Yemen, a Pakistani Muslim who worked with Iraqi 'fixers,' a Cote D'Ivoirian architecture student, and a Jewish-American former military man now at Harvard."

Her projects provided unparalleled experiences, including meetings with Secretary Madeleine Albright, Sudanese opposition leaders, and religious leaders in the Holy Land.

As part of that job, she traveled twice to war-torn Sudan to observe the country's first multi-party elections in 24 years and gained an entirely different perspective than what she had seen on the news.

"Sudan is one of my favorite places, mostly because of the people," she said. "I tried to speak to as many people as possible about their thoughts on democracy, Darfur, the U.S. and al Bashir. Most of the people I spoke to thought that the international media hadn't accurately captured the political issues and had served to complicate the situation further."

When she returned, others were surprised to hear of the warmth, wisdom and sophistication she encountered there. Once again, she found herself trying to dispel misconceptions and feels fortunate to have had experiences that have enlightened her.

Her interest in Islam began years ago, and she earned her master's degree in Islamic studies a few months before the 9-11 attacks put Muslims under such scrutiny and attack. The negative stereotypes of Muslims have in fact increased in the past several years, Erwin said, and she wants people to be more open-minded.

As part of Education Above All’s mission to protect education from attack, Erwin recently visited a school in the village of Thula, Yemen.

"In the decade that I have spent studying the religion and language, working with and in Muslim communities, and traveling to places like Yemen, Sudan, and Palestine, I have never been treated in a way that has compelled me to change my focus," she said. "I have been treated with incredible hospitality and respect by men and women alike. In fact, the most common reactions I encounter are surprise that I know anything about Islam and can speak some Arabic and gratitude that I am working to ensure respect and justice on equal terms between Muslim and non-Muslim communities."

Erwin is grateful to Seattle University School of Law for helping her on her path of international human rights work. While in law school, she advocated on behalf of asylees fleeing religious, ethnic and political persecution abroad at the Northwest Immigrant Rights Project and worked on human rights and public interest litigation, including torture and detention cases at the Public Interest Law Group. She was also editor in chief of the Seattle Journal for Social Justice.

"Law school was an important time in my life," she said. "It made me a better and more strategic thinker. My writing improved dramatically, and I think I took every international law course offered."

But even with all her experience, finding the jobs she has landed is not easy. She found her present position through connections she made at an earlier conference. She encourages students who want to work abroad to get to know as many people in as many places as they can - and to consider jobs that might not initially interest them.

"You have to know people and be open to different possibilities," said Erwin, who describes herself as laid back but also very focused.

She loves Doha, but living in a desert, where the temperature reaches 125 degrees, does require some adjustment. Facebook and Skype help keep her in touch with her family in Issaquah, Wash., and sister in Paris, and she takes the opportunity to see another country with every trip she takes.

"It's as different from my life in Seattle and New York as you can get," she said. "I love traveling, but I am a Seattleite at heart."