Humanity is facing monumental challenges — violent conflict, poverty and inequality, economic crisis, ecological destruction, peaking fossil fuels, climate change — we only need to glance at the newspaper headlines to know that life is far from good for most people on the planet. Changing the course of humanity requires dialogue and partnerships that transcend borders, imaginative thinking and action. The Rotary Ambassadorial Scholarship creates these possibilities by sending ‘Ambassadors of Goodwill’ to ‘further world understanding and peace’ while engaging in formal education. As the largest private scholarship fund in the world, since 1947 the programme has sent over 41,000 women and men to other countries for a year of graduate study. Previous scholars have included high commissioners, pulitzer prize winners, acclaimed musicians and reputable journalists. What follows is the short story of how I ended up in Devonport as a Rotary scholar, and what I’m planning to make of this opportunity.

After a unique childhood defined by immersion in an island environment and culture, I made a challenging transition from the beaches of Hawai`i to the chilly redwood forests of Northern California. I nearly left twice during the first lonely semester away from family, but my excitement for learning helped me to pull through. Concerned by the many social and ecological problems my professors introduced me to, I majored in Environmental and Feminist Studies, and got involved in organizing for trade justice and farmworker rights. Those four fast years also found time for an ecological field study in the Himalayas, a summer with women’s fair trade cooperatives in Chiapas, volunteering at the Women’s Shelter, tutoring young girls at underperforming schools in Watsonville, and a research assistantship on environmental law.

Returning home after university, I spent three years co-directing a non-profit organization, Malama Kaua`i. Our commitment was to sustainability and social justice through development of local food and energy economies, and the integration of indigenous values of aloha and malama `aina (love and care for the land) into law and planning. This included facilitating networks for collaboration between social and environmental organizations, hosting a radio show and weekly newspaper column, creating the state’s first Green Map and Green Business Program, developing a four-acre community garden and a school gardens programme, publishing detailed policy papers, organizing free workshops on topics ranging from water-catchment to solar installation, seeding a local food distribution business, lobbying state and county government, and much more…It was a busy few years.

Both enriching and exhausting, my work with Malama Kaua`i inspired me to go back to school to explore deeper questions about the challenges facing humanity and the possibilities of social change. Keen on adventure, I headed for the furthest island from Hawai`i, spending over a year in England doing a Masters degree in Science, Society and Development. My programme included students from over 40 countries, and we had a great time challenging each other to broaden our perspectives. The more I learned from my fellow students, the more I realized how little I know, so at the end of my year in Europe I applied to do a PhD at University of Auckland. Thanks to Rotary, I am now here, hosted by the exceptionally friendly and fun Rotary Club of Devonport and truly enjoying this sweet little village across the bay.

My research continues to take shape around the the politics of global hunger, food and agriculture, and social movement responses. At a historical moment when over one billion people are going hungry on a planet with more than enough to eat, poverty and inequality have become moral catastrophes of humanity. Because I see the separation between ‘thinking’ and ‘doing’ as a false one, I have continued to work with and learn from several organizations around the world aiming to change agrifood systems.

One of the best things about my “ambassadorial” duties is that they include visiting with other clubs around New Zealand and chatting with diverse Rotarians. Rotarians tend to be interesting and engaged people, and I’ve appreciated their receptivity to thinking about, discussing, and challenging orthodox views about hunger and poverty. Because Rotarians are committed to “Service Above Self”, there is a common bond around sharing a responsibility to one’s community, both local and global.

My Rotary journey has already opened so much up to me, but I also know this is only the beginning!

By Andrea Brower, Rotary Ambassadorial Scholar 2012