As you probably know by now, we, at Handled, actively seek out people we find impressive, empowering, and inspiring. We do so because we want to share their stories with not only you, but with as many people as possible. We choose those individuals whose stories just have to be heard, and Karen Craggs is no exception.
Born in Nakuru, Kenya, to a “colonial” father from Darlington, England and to a Gujarati mother, Karen struggled in her childhood, not only because she wasn’t identified as part of one group, but because she could not identify herself. Growing up in a Kenyan city half-white and half-Indian provided her with the experiences that have founded her mission of global equality today. We had the honour and the privilege to sit down with Karen over lunch and ask her about the experiences that have led her to that mission.
Q: We would first love to know a bit about your background – where you grew up, went to school, etc.
I was born and raised in a small town called Nakuru, which is known as the town of flamingos in Kenya [laughing]. In my early 20s I came to Canada to do my undergrad degree, with a focus on international development and looking at inequalities amongst countries. In other words, why is the north is doing so much better than countries in Africa, and how can I help to close that gap?
The topic of equality has always shaped my work, and my life. I grew up in a very unique household. My dad is white, he has three children who are white, from England, who have gone back since, I have a brother who is half-Kenyan, from a previous relationship, and then there’s me, who’s half-white and half-Indian, with a Gujarati mother. Somehow, I had to figure out who I was, where I belonged, and how I fit in, all in this micro-global context within my own home.
Our home was a rich tapestry of complexities and seeming contradictions. I was raised as a Jain but my dad owned the best steak house in town. Every Wednesday my strict vegetarian mother and I would go to the restaurant and even though my she didn’t like it, she let me make my own choices which sometimes meant me ordering a filet mignon, despite this being blasphemous to her beliefs. This mixed upbringing- cutting across race, religion, language, values, and even diets- contributed to why I never felt like I could fit neatly in any one box. I didn’t feel ‘Indian-enough’, ‘Jain-enough’, ‘Oshwal-enough’, ‘white-enough’ or even ‘African-enough’. The issue of identity and how it shapes what you can and can’t do in life was always an active struggle for me.
Eventually I just decided that I don’t need to fit into anybody’s one box. I get to create my own box, and everyone can fit into mine.
Q: What inspired you to become an activist for global equality?
When I was about 4 or 5 years old, I noticed how my brother (who has a different skin colour than me) was treated the same as me in my house, but in the community he would be treated badly because he had the “wrong” skin colour. I started to see at a very young age that the world was unfair and that my love wasn’t enough to fix it. The fact that I loved him wasn’t enough to make up for what he was experiencing and dealing with amongst the outside world. It made me want to DO something to address the injustice I witnessed. And so I secretly would try to make up for it by doing things that were within my control – like pouring more Coca Cola for him than for myself, or giving him the bigger piece of pie. Looking back, without even knowing it, I was practicing the principle of equity.
A pivotal lesson came when I was 8. I was horrified by the suffering caused by the Ethiopian Famine and at the same time, I was blown away by the efforts of Sir Bob Geldof, who refused to stand by and do nothing about it. That’s when I decided that no matter how big the issue, not matter how impossible it may seem, there is always something I can do. This is my guiding principle.
I took an interest in learning about slavery, colonialization and race relations in Africa and the US, and eventually, through an internship at the Gender Unit in the UN, I taught myself about gender equality work. Through my work & exposure, I came to the realization that while gender is a great entry point to understanding and addressing inequality, it isn’t nearly enough. And so I have developed my own framework to promote a more holistic, intersectional approach to understanding and addressing equality issues, which in some circles is known as GBA+ (Gender-Based Analysis Plus). It’s all about the plus, right? After all, we are made up of so much more than just our gender.
Q: In your opinion, how has global equality, as an issue, changed over the past several years?
For the first time in history, we have global evidence and consensus that promoting gender equality is the single most powerful strategy we have to drive economic development, reduce poverty, end harmful practices such as early child marriage, reduce early maternal child health mortality, improve food security… the list goes on and on. Promoting gender equality is considered key to achieving sustainable development goals and to building a more equal, peaceful and prosperous future.
Q: So where do we go from here? How do we keep pushing forward?
Over my 18 years of focusing and leading the conversation internationally on equality issues, I’ve learned that having good intentions is not enough. First, we need to reframe the equality conversation to be more inclusive. Equality isn’t about women versus men. Or men versus women. It’s about men AND women, and how our social norms affect us all. Next, we need to use an intersectional (read: multi-faceted) approach to understanding and addressing equality issues. In other words, there’s no silver bullet. There’s no one fix to the problem. We won’t achieve true equality – gender or otherwise- if we just focus on 1 population, or 1 thing.
At the recent Women of Influence Radical Change Summit there was a resounding agreement that it is time to focus on concrete solutions that work to bring women in, help them stay and enable them to climb the ladder into leadership and decision-making roles. It also included a powerful speech by Blake Irving (ex-CEO of Go Daddy Inc.), who led the charge at Go Daddy to truly transform its identity, culture, policies and practices by meaningfully engaging both men and women in the process.
This is critical. There is a lot focus on increasing the numbers of women: the number of women at the table, at the leadership level, at the board level. But if you don’t work with the men to change the space – the environment- in which those women are working, it’s impossible to create equality. We have to go beyond just having numbers in order to achieve equality.
If you look at the women in the science field, for example, in Canada, only 23% of science researchers are women. So that means 77% of researchers in Canada are men. How can you achieve equality for women researchers if that 77% of men continue to create exclusive environments? Transformative change will require engaging that 77%. It will require changing something in their space and not just focusing on women and putting the burden on women to not only climb the ladder, but then also somehow impact the organizational culture in the process.
The lesson I’ve learned – from my childhood experience of not fitting neatly into a ‘box’ to each project I’ve tackled- is this:
We cannot expect to solve equality issues by reducing people and our understanding of their challenges down to ‘women vs. men’ or ‘Canadian vs. immigrant’ or ‘anglophone vs. francophone’. Women are not a homogenous group, nor are men or any other social group for that matter. We do more harm than good by avoiding the complexities that come with being human.
Q: What advice do you give someone that’s facing issues of equality?
What I’d say is two things.
First, get clear on your own power and privilege: When it comes to equality, certain people are portrayed or see themselves as having no agency, as having no voice, while in fact, we all have a voice and we all have some space that we can have influence in. I discovered my own personal power in moments of real struggle and vulnerability. No matter what your situation, you ALWAYS have some power and privilege that you can tap into. You can be a person of colour who has just come into this country, you’re struggling and trying to make a life for yourself, and, if you look closely, you’ll see you that you have some form of power and privilege that you can tap into. It all depends on the conversation you’re having with and about yourself. So, get clear on the power that you do have and how you can use that power to lift yourself and other people up.
Second, you don’t need a formal title or qualification to make a difference. You don’t need the title of activist or expert, or a degree in women’s or feminist studies, to be somebody who makes a real difference. All you have to do is be clear about what it is that you care about (which very often comes from a personal experience). So, take the time to think, “What’s important to me? What issue would I want to make a difference in?” And then figure out how to use the privilege and power you do have to do something about it.
I was talking to my friend about privilege and she said that the privilege conversation is implying that a) she has it, b) she hasn’t earned it and c) she needs to get up and give her seat to somebody else. I’m not saying that. I’m saying it’s not a zero-sum game. Having privilege doesn’t mean that helping someone move forward requires that you have to take one step back. We need to reframe our perceptions of power to be win-win, because when we do that, we all truly do win. When two people can come to a conversation with, “I have all of this and how can I use it to help you have more?”, we will see major positive changes in families, companies and communities.
Q: Do you like the dialogue around the #MeToo movement? Would you change anything?
I think it’s about time.
The #MeToo movement did a few things really well: it gave us a voice, it made it culturally appropriate to talk about violence against women, and it helped men who had never thought about it understand that this is a massive issue and then decide whether or not they want to do anything about it.
This is just the tip of the iceberg, one that is simply saying this behaviour has taken place and at this massive scale. What needs to change are the icebergs themselves, which are the values and attitudes which our sons and daughters grow up with about themselves and each other.
That said, I don’t know that the #MeToo movement has created the space for men who have experienced that kind of rape and violence to be included. It is still incredibly taboo for men and boys to talk about the sexual violence they have experienced at the hands of other men or women. Also, what about violence against marginalized groups, such as indigenous women or the LGBTQI2S community?
Q: Have you faced any challenges as a spokesperson for global equality?
Yes, I have.
I was recently named Global Goodwill Ambassador by the GGA Foundation, which recognized my efforts towards taking action to make a difference in the world.
After winning the award, I received a sea of supportive comments which was truly heartwarming. But at the same time, I also received some hateful comments from people from across the globe who don’t know anything about me.
It was a learning experience for me. It was so upsetting that in a world where so much work still has to be done, there are people out there who are willing, for no reason at all, to knock the wind out of you. But, I also realized that the stronger my message is, the louder my voice gets, the more people I reach, the more likely it is that I will have these encounters. I need to be prepared for them – after all, in many countries activists risk getting jailed, beaten, tortured or killed for standing up for equality.
Q: How do you combat that?
A big part of that is practicing forgiveness and choosing to not feed the anger and hatred. I learned that skill a long time ago.
When I was 13 , I was raped. For many activists who have gone through a sexual or violent experience, it is their anger that fuels that their activism.
For a while, I took that anger and shot it back at the world as an activist, ‘fighting’ for women’s rights and gender equality. It was a productive use of that emotion, but I soon learned that my anger was actually hurting my cause and getting in the way of my ability to promote healing, harmony, partnership, understanding, love and compassion between women and men. I could not be effective- as an activist, an advocate, a leader, a person– through my anger so over time, I let it go.
What fuels my activism now is love. Love for humanity in all its diversity. I speak from my heart, I make genuine connections with people, I help to build bridges, rekindle partnerships, inspire leaders into bold action.
I am serving my purpose, all because I chose to stop feeding the anger and hatred.
Q: Did you identify it as anger at the time?
It took me a long time. It took a lot of people mentoring me, coaching me, helping me see that yes, what I am doing is useful, but what is underneath it is not powerful because it was not authentic or empowering.
The first step in that process was giving up my shame. I decided that I would not be defined by what happened to me and I chose to release myself from it.
The second step was that I could not let that experience fill me with hate. Just because that one person hurt me, it does not mean that everyone else around me is similar.
The third step was giving myself permission to be me, with all my flaws and that has allowed me to be more open and genuine with others. I’ve made a lot of difference in the world by loving people. That includes people that write to me when I get an award and say awful things or that disrupt one of my sessions because they don’t agree with me. When I receive these kinds of responses from someone, I respond with compassion and understanding because it is an opportunity to help me heal someone.
Q: As a Canadian, do you feel that you have a unique perspective on global equality?
We are incredibly lucky to be in a place where you can move freely. We take so much for granted in this country. The ability to walk out your door and get into your car and drive that car as a woman and get to your destination and walk your dog at night without worrying about who’s behind you. To raise your children and not worry that someone is going to kick your door in and hurt them.
I grew up in a country where those things happened all the time. They happened to me! When I was 11, I was riding my bike in a coffee plantation and these little African boys were running beside me. I thought, “oh, you want to play!” and I slowed down to let them catch up with me. They grabbed me off the bike, threw me on the ground and ran off with it. I ended up walking the last three kilometers home, shaking the whole way. Later I realized that I was blindsided by my own ignorance. I had no idea how difficult life must have been these kids in order to force them to steal my bike. To me it was a toy, but to them it probably meant saving them hours of walking to school every day. So rather than being angry, I chose to be compassionate as a result of the experience.
The ability to feel compassion for ‘the other’ has served me well over the years. I was one of a handful of Indian girls in my high school in Kenya. When everyone was out of the room at recess time one of my classmates, a large black boy, pinned me against the wall and said “your people think that they can run this country, huh? Just wait and see what I do to you and we’ll see what they can do about it”.
I saw the resentment and pain in his face. “I get it” I said. “You’re angry. My people have privileges that yours don’t. We have made it and left you behind, some of us are truly bad people and for that I’m so sorry but hurting me now is not going to change the pain you feel or change how things are”. He looked at me – deciding what to do – and put me down. I could have reported him to the Principal, had him expelled from the school, caused a lot of problems for him but instead I developed a friendship with him afterwards and changed his view that Indians were terrible people.
What Canada offers is an opportunity for us to have unimaginable freedom. But what’s happening in Syria, Sudan and elsewhere are not disconnected from us. That’s the thing that keeps me up at night. That we, who have so much, can sit here and have this nice lunch and not be thinking about that starving family in Ethiopia. As we throw out half of the meal we just ordered.
If all of us here in Canada decided to do something about it, we would make a massive difference in the world.
Q: Explain the role family has to you?
Last July I was involved in a car accident and almost died. Since then I’ve often thought, if I didn’t exist anymore, what difference would I have made?
I’ve travelled the world, dedicating my life to others for the last 18 years. But what sunk in for me in the aftermath of the accident was the people for whom I mattered the most – my children and my husband. My family is so important to who I am, what I do, why I do it.
Q: Do your kids appreciate the work that you’re doing? Do they understand it?
Yes. I find it very interesting that my career took off when I first got pregnant, and I’ve travelled extensively from the time they were born. It’s always been important to me that they understand why mommy’s going away, where mommy’s going, what mommy’s doing. Some of my work colleagues would say they’re too young to know about displaced children in Colombia who have been stolen from their homes to be part of the war. They’re too young to hear about children in Ethiopia who don’t have shoes or water. What my children have taught me that it’s never too early to talk about world issues and to develop a sense of global responsibility. Kids get it – faster and more clearly than you think.
My oldest daughter tells the story of how when she was 3 we were washing the dishes, as an ad came on the TV from Plan Canada (I was a Senior Gender Advisor there at the time), and I don’t know why but I just started crying as I watched it. Here I had this beautiful human being who had everything she would ever need in the whole world, and right in front of her was this other side of the world, the part of the world that I was trying to bridge with ours.
My children don’t see activism as something they have to ‘choose’, or ‘do’ like a club you join. For them, it’s just part of who they are. It’s in their DNA and they know that what leaving the tap running here means less water for people somewhere else in the world. I’m proud that they have learned that from me. In fact, it should be something we all take on as members of the global community.
And now for some fun ones:
Q: What advice would you give your 20 year old self?
HAVE MORE FUN!!. There’s nothing wrong with who you are and how you are. Just put out love because it will come back. And there’s no harm in looking good!
Q: You’re on a desert island – what five things would you want with you?
That’s easy! My three kids, my husband, and my dog.
Q: Is there anything you’d like to say that we haven’t asked you?
My closing thought is this: No successful person – woman or man- would ever be where they are without strong people believing in them, helping them, and supporting them. I have not come this far on my own. A lot of people have helped me make it all work – my husband, my kids, my parents, my sisters-in-law, our friends…and I am thankful for all of that support. It is not easy to be married to or the child of a person who is constantly travelling, often missing important family events etc. My family makes great sacrifices because they believe that what I do matters and through me, they are making a difference too.