Center for Community Engagement

So Important, So Present Day

Nora Lawrence ’10: a Synthesis of Academics and Engagement

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Photo by Julie Keresztes '12

For most Amherst seniors who choose to write a thesis, such a project is a yearlong undertaking, or more often like a three-month-long mad dash through the spring semester. For Nora Lawrence ’10, the work for her thesis began sophomore year. She just didn’t realize it at the time.

As a sophomore, Nora developed an interest in environmental justice, specifically the environmental degradation on Native American reservations. After she took two courses in environmental history, her interest soon turned into a fascination, almost an obsession, during her junior year. In writing a paper for “Global Politics of Gender,” taught by Professor Manuela Picq, Lawrence discovered a connection between environmental violence on reservations and sexual violence towards native women. This finding “was the most exciting thing” Lawrence found in her coursework, though “exciting in [a] perverse and awful way.”

As a History major, Lawrence was comfortable with taking a historical perspective, studying primary documents and digging into the past with research. However, she realized quickly enough that violence towards native women wasn’t simply history. “I knew that nobody cared about this issue and that so few people were working with these women. It is so important, so present day, and it was exactly what I wanted to study.”

In order to combine her passion with her academic concentration, Lawrence applied for and received a Fellowship For Action (now known as Civic Engagement Scholars) from the Center for Community Engagement. The fellowship provided funding for her summer internship with Cultural Survival, an organization in Cambridge, Massachusetts that advocates for global indigenous human rights. Lawrence worked as a research and communications intern, writing educational material for Cultural Survival’s website and conducting research on sexual violence against Native American women. She invested herself in her research in a manner nearly impossible in the classroom: “My internship introduced me to a lot of the complexities of native studies, and because I worked with a fair number of indigenous individuals, I really got a sense for how careful you have to be when you’re doing academic work, so you don’t end up ‘othering’ or exoticizing the people you’re working with and writing about.” Her internship culminated in the cover article for the Fall 2009 issue of Cultural Survival Quarterly, the organization’s esteemed publication.

Before she began her summer internship, Lawrence had possessed  some idea of writing her thesis about native women. “I had fallen head over heels in love with native studies, so I knew I was going to pursue that general field. But I couldn’t have looked at these issues through the lens that I did if it hadn’t been for my internship.” Her work with Cultural Survival—especially the independent research for her article—sharpened her academic focus. The internship helped Lawrence hone in on a single topic, and her enthusiasm never waned. “I didn’t think I would ever get so excited about something I was working on in school. And yet I did, because I wasn’t just working on it in school, but outside of school as well.”

Lawrence’s thesis—titled “An Imperfect Balance: The Code of Handsome Lake and the Seneca Struggle for Stability at the Turn of the Nineteenth Century”—looked at a specific cultural shift two centuries ago when Seneca tribe women, previously venerated and revered, started to be sexually violated by native men. She explored this development from a historical perspective, all the while keeping in mind the ways in which such violence is currently manifested on Native American reservations. “This issue is rooted in the past, but it’s still directly relevant in contemporary society. My thesis would have been very different had it not been for that contemporary perspective.”

It comes as no surprise that Lawrence will still be involved with this issue after graduation. Next year, she’d like to be working with Cultural Survival, and continue to write for their magazine. As for the distant future? Lawrence says she will either pursue a J.D. with a specialty in tribal law, or go the academic route with Native American history, though she’s leaning towards the J.D. “It would be great to be a legal advocate for women who need to navigate the justice system, which is known as the ‘maze of injustice.’” With such an ambitious plan for her future, Lawrence’s past three years constitute the beginning of a long career of merging past with present, of combining academics with engagement.

Sean Doocy ‘11 is a staff writer for the CCE. He is an English major with a concentration in 20th century American fiction, so naturally he spends a jarring portion of his life with books. The rest of his time is spent on the ultimate frisbee field, behind the front desk at the CCE, or in the office of The Indicator, for which he is the Publisher.