It seems fitting that New Orleans native, Julie Kokemor, who lost her family home to Hurricane Katrina one week after starting college at Richmond, would be dedicated to fighting poverty and social injustice. The way she's doing it, with double majors in religion and women, gender and sexuality studies and a minor in studio art, is less predictable.
"I was raised in a Catholic family that was very religious. Over the years, I've taken a very spiritual journey that's made me less focused on religious denominations and more focused on trying to understand God's view of his global church and how having this understanding of Christianity impacts life and particularly, social justice," Kokemor said.
Kokemor had always been interested in India, in part because of her Catholicism and Mother Theresa's work in Calcutta, India.
"Mother Theresa wanted to restore dignity to the destitute and the dying. I wanted to dedicate myself to fighting poverty, but I wasn't sure how to go about it."
Then Kokemor joined Women Involved in Living and Learning (WILL), a Westhampton College program that offers female students at Richmond the chance to explore women's issues in the context of leadership training. The program, along with classes in the Department of Women, Gender and Sexuality Studies, helped Kokemor begin to see connections between poverty and gender that she hadn't seen before.
She began looking at oppression of women and particularly sex trafficking.
"There are lots of reasons women sell their bodies, but most of them are economic and in many cases, it's not for themselves but for their families. Families who can't afford healthcare for aging parents or food for younger children sell their 8, 9 or 10-year-old daughters into brothels," Kokemor said.
At a missionary conference called Urbana in St. Louis, Missouri, Kokemor enrolled in the slum and urban community track. In addition to attending presentations, she and her roommates were charged with surviving on six gallons of water throughout the trip, a reminder of the circumstances in which millions of people throughout the world find themselves every day.
Kokemor came back to Richmond charged. In her Women in the Law class, she made a presentation on trafficking; in her Ethics, War and Religion class, her final paper touched on whether it was even possible to eradicate human trafficking at all. Next semester, she'll tour Peru with Dr. Rick Mayes' International Public Health & Human Rights course. Next summer, she hopes to travel to Calcutta, India, on an Intervarsity Christian Fellowship to teach trades to women coming out of prostitution.
Kokemor's hope is that her interests will come together in the thesis she writes next year on women, religion and India. Eventually, she'd like to go to law school and one day work for the International Justice Mission, a Washington, D.C. based non-profit that sends attorneys around the world to combat bondage and sex labor by gathering evidence and prosecuting offenders within the context of individual country's legal systems.
While Kokemor is dedicated to aiding the poor abroad, she's very aware of the issues facing the poor in her own hometown.
"When the mayor reopened the city two months after Katrina hit, my mother and grandfather had spent six weeks bouncing between Houston, Baton Rouge, Virginia and Maryland in their car. Suddenly, it was time to go home but the entire culture of New Orleans is built on the culture of the poor. It's now mandatory to have flood insurance in New Orleans, but no one but the very rich can afford it. No one even knows where the city's poor are. The homeless population has quadrupled overnight and the city's heritage is being lost. The city is being rebuilt but not by the people who made the city great."