Melinda Lemke, associate professor of educational leadership and policy, grew up in Niagara Falls, N.Y., where proximity to the Canadian border led to an early awareness of other cultures and ways of seeing the world.
While an undergraduate at Bucknell University, she interned at the Women’s Resource Center (WRC) and participated in a university relief program that built a health clinic in Managua, Nicaragua, following Hurricane Mitch. After graduation, she taught English in South Korea through a Fulbright Fellowship. Lemke then worked in Texas K-12 public education, arriving at UB in 2016 after completing a PhD in policy and postdoctoral research in the United Kingdom on forced displacement.
These experiences influenced Lemke’s career as an interdisciplinary feminist scholar committed to making public education inclusive, equitable and free of gender-based violence (GBV). In a recent article in Journal of Education Policy, Lemke and co-author and PhD student Kate Rogers utilize feminist theory and apply the “lens of GBV” to examine U.S. educational policy efforts designed to improve students’ social-emotional learning and well-being. A key finding from their study is that New York State’s own educational policy “neglected to address GBV experienced by adolescent girls.”
Reflecting on her time at Bucknell and her life in Austin, Texas, Lemke discussed the role of “context,” contrasting the relatively open northern border of her youth, with what she described as a “very different experience” with the southern borderlands. As a teacher, she saw “firsthand” the stress experienced by Mexican and Mexican American families. She also recalled the bewilderment of students confronted with possible removal from the country they thought was home. Commenting on the “institutional violence” experienced by historically minoritized populations in states like Texas, Lemke said many of her students had to “deal with a whole host of policy-based and institutional-based difficulties that shouldn’t have existed for them.”
Lemke continues to examine neoliberal reform, policies and programming concerning the social determinants of health, and structural inequities faced by underserved populations. “I’ve looked at policies—at international, national, state and local levels—and how they are or are not addressing the needs of women and girls,” she said. “Policy essentially sets up deserving and undeserving groups. These types of theoretically driven projects beg certain questions about who’s benefiting and who’s not. And what does that mean for all of us?”
Through a college scholarship, Lemke studied abroad on the “Semester at Sea” program, which visited 10 countries, including Vietnam. She took this picture in a serendipitous moment while traveling by boat through the Mekong Delta. In discussing the photograph, Lemke commented on the U.S. governmental “lack of understanding of a country, a people, a place” and “the healing and resilience of a formerly colonized people.”
Lemke’s father served in the U.S. military in Vietnam from 1968-69 and brought back this nón lá, or conical leaf hat. Lemke recalled her interest in understanding his experience alongside studying “the influence of colonialism, neocolonialism and the U.S. military-industrial complex.” Lemke wrote her history major thesis on the “American War in Vietnam.”
The National Organization for Women and Keep Abortion Legal protest signs are from Lemke’s participation in the Women’s March on Washington to protest then-President George W. Bush’s reinstitution of the “global gag rule.” This order restricts funding for international family planning services provided through the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID). Overseas entities that receive USAID funds also cannot use their own resources to provide medically accurate information about abortions and/or offer reproductive healthcare services. Lemke recalled helping “organize a bus” to the march with the Bucknell WRC and Multicultural Center.
The student protest signs, including a peace dove, Black power fist and peace symbol, were created by Lemke’s former U.S. history students as part of a multidisciplinary unit on U.S. politics, policy and the counterculture movement. “I kept them because they are a reminder of my professional roots and inspire some of my current work. They represent a snapshot in time of what youth thought about activism, which hasn’t changed much in over 20 years working in public education—that even if laws are not designed to give power to the masses, every individual makes some impact on their immediate environment … and every individual can come together in a collective to make incremental differences that leave our planet a better place.”