Meet New CFK-Kenya Board Member, Karen Austrian May 13, 2015 by Carolina For Kibera
By: Nick Johnson, Communications and Fellowship Program Coordinator
Karen Austrian is no stranger to Carolina for Kibera. As the co-founder of its Daughters United program (Binti Pamoja), she has been involved with CFK since its inception. Now, after several years away from the organization developing an extensive portfolio of evidence-based public health research, she has returned to CFK as a member of CFK-Kenya’s Board of Trustees.
Karen first traveled to Kenya to spend her junior year of college abroad. Upon graduation, she wanted to return to lead a photography project involving adolescent girls. With a short time-frame of a 3-month travel grant, it made sense to look for local organizations with whom to partner. That’s when she found Salim, Rye, and Tabitha—while CFK was still in its infancy. “We used to joke that CFK was an organization that lived in a backpack,” she says. “It’s amazing to see how an organization that lived in cyber-cafes and empty school classrooms has become such a permanent presence in the community.” At that point, CFK had just launched a soccer program for girls, so a partnership with Karen was a welcome addition.
Thus, the foundation for Daughters United was built. Over the years, it became more established, with leadership being transitioned to Kenyan women. Meanwhile, Karen came back to the U.S. after two years to attend graduate school, where she earned a Masters in Public Health from Columbia University. As if getting a degree wasn’t enough work, she also began working for Population Council as a consultant. Population Council is a worldwide research organization that generates and uses data to push for change in 3 thematic areas: HIV and AIDS; reproductive health; and poverty, gender, and youth. After earning her degree, she began working for them full time. Her primary project? Fittingly, she served as the Principal Investigator of a study looking at the effects of combining Safe Spaces and access to savings accounts for adolescent girls in Kenya and Uganda.
While working at Population Council, Karen also completed a Ph.D. in Public Health and Epidemiology at Ben Gurion University. Now, as Dr. Austrian, she leads Population Council’s Poverty, Gender, and Youth Program in East Africa. She currently serves as principal investigator on 3 studies in Kenya and Zambia, all of which focus on the empowerment of adolescent girls. (You can check them out here, here, and here.) One of Population Council’s guiding principles is its commitment to evidence-based programming, using thorough research to push for change. “In order to conduct responsible research,” Karen explains, “you cannot just stop with the results. You have to use the results to then design effective, evidence-based programs and to advocate for policy and funding changes.” Her expertise using research to inform how programs are built will prove vital to CFK, as the organization makes strides to focus its efforts on monitoring and evaluation of programs.
While Karen stayed involved with Daughters United as an advisor, she was astounded by how much Daughters United had grown. “Sometimes, I would visit and realize that I didn’t know any of the girls in the program,” she recalls. “To me, that is a real sign of success. Binti Pamoja had taken off and grown.” Daughters United—like the rest of CFK—grew and continued to gain standing within the community of Kibera as a safe place. Karen has witnessed the extent of this, based on an experience she had shortly after the post-election violence of 2008. “Everything around the CFK office was burnt or destroyed,” she says, “but the office itself was left untouched.” That image has resonated with her as a testament to CFK’s influence in the community since.
When asked why she decided to return to CFK, Karen emphasized that after taking time away from the organization, it seems fitting to return. With her extensive experience with evidence-based research through her impressive academic background and work with Population Council, she is excited to serve as a resource for CFK as it continues to grow. “CFK is at somewhat of a turning point, and everyone is committed to seeing new, refreshing ideas come through.” With Karen’s experience and the leadership of her and her fellow board members, there is no doubt that CFK will embrace its potential and see its goals and vision for the community come to fruition.