The complexities of peace and conflict in Africa—as well as the ways race, gender, and political violence intersect on the continent and beyond—are at the heart of Zoe Marks’ work. A lecturer in public policy at Harvard Kennedy School, Marks is currently working on two book projects—one about rebel groups in Sierra Leone and one on women in resistance movements, co-authored with HKS Professor Erica Chenoweth. She teaches courses on African politics and on gender, power, and feminism around the world. We spoke with Marks about her research and teaching.
Q: How do your research and teaching connect to the solution of pressing problems in the world today?
My research and teaching are closely related. Most of my research is focused on peace and conflict, post-conflict reconstruction, and social movements in Africa. And I have a particular focus on gender and gender equality in all of the work that I do.
I look at countries that have been affected by conflict; over 20 countries on the African continent are grappling with the ongoing or aftereffects of violent conflict. One of my research questions has looked at the way that armed groups survive. I’ve talked to many members of the former rebel group in Sierra Leone—I’ve been doing work there since 2008—trying to understand why an unpopular war lasted so long [from 1991–2002]. But I’ve also been working with communities that are trying to recover from war. I try to look at how the systems that are part of the problem can also be part of the potential solution. For example, I’m currently doing research with colleagues in northeast Nigeria who are working with communities to recover from, and continue to build resilience against, the Boko Haram conflict. We found really important gendered patterns in how people respond to conflict, how they evaluate risks, and how communities try to stitch together social support networks that aren’t militarized and that are affected by conflict.
My research in political science first started by looking at women’s participation in conflict. I’ve always been interested in trying to retrieve and better tell and understand the gendered stories that can exist behind war and politics. To that end, I’m currently working on a project called Women in Resistance with Erica Chenoweth—we’re collecting data on women in both violent and nonviolent movements around the world since 1945. We’ve found that women’s frontline participation in mass uprisings is an important precursor to democratic progress and to women’s empowerment more broadly.
Q: What do you want your students to take away from your classes at the Kennedy School?
I teach two classes at the Kennedy School, one on African politics and one on global feminisms. Those classes allow me to take the work that I do and expand it to look at two really big issues that are otherwise often not at the top of our headlines in the United States and not always getting as much attention in policy circles.
My class “Africa in Global Politics” takes Africa’s precolonial politics as the point of departure, but works toward the future of African countries. One in three people in the world will be African by the end of this century. And what’s exciting for me is we have students from all over the continent, global citizens who’ve worked in the region, and also those who have never had a chance to study Africa in depth. We look at the diversity of African countries and their different developmental trajectories and political legacies. What I love about that class is it reframes completely how we think about the rest of the world. It helps us better understand the foundations of capitalism. It helps us better understand the origin of the nation-state as something that was derived from African liberation movements. And it also helps us work towards what the future of sustainable economic development and inclusive political participation will look like. In a lot of ways, African countries are at the cutting edge of technological change, entrepreneurship that’s more inclusive and sustainable, and democratic innovation.
In “21st Century Global Feminisms” I’m also interested in focusing our attention on the future. I believe that as we train people for the future, we need to focus not just on the lessons of the past or even current affairs, but begin thinking, “What are the frameworks, the tools, the conversations that we want to be having in 10, 20, 50 years?” So the class takes as its point of departure some of the very best theory and practice in the pursuit of gender equality: intersectionality, transnational and decolonial feminism, and the gender expansive liberation movement. And it goes forward from there to systematically analyze what we are up against. Where are we seeing success, and where are we seeing failures in ending sexist oppression? And what can we learn?
Q: What experiences influenced your academic direction?
I get this question a lot because I’m not African, and I study and teach about African politics. Nobody asks me why I teach about gender and feminism—we all have our biases about who carries what knowledge. But for me, I went to public schools in Seattle, where I grew up, and I experienced internally segregated schools that were very diverse in their entirety. As a result of that I was acutely race conscious from a very young age. By high school, I was trained as a facilitator in antiracism and diversity conversations and was really interested in racial justice. My racial justice work made me more curious about African politics and African history because it had been so excluded from my curriculum growing up. So, when I was in college, I went to South Africa to study abroad. And I learned that my mental models for racial justice did not travel very well to South Africa—that, in fact, South Africa’s system of racism was quite different from the one that I knew in the United States, although there are important similarities. I think that experience opened a lifelong journey to better understand systems of inequality and of oppression in their full diversity around the world and to cultivate this understanding of African politics and African liberation that I understand to be directly connected to the fight for racial justice in the United States and the fight against white supremacy globally. That’s been my guiding light.
I would say that I came to understand the centrality of gender a bit later, even though I was raised by a feminist and I always considered myself to be a feminist. But, I didn’t fully appreciate the way that gender and racism—or sexism and racism—work intersectionally to distribute power in ways that are unequal and unjust. I’ve learned a lot from intersectional scholars like Kimberlé Crenshaw and bell hooks, and others, to ensure that I’m using a gendered lens anytime I’m also trying to understand global racism and the forces that marginalize and oppress people, communities, and sometimes entire countries.
Q: Has COVID-19 affected your approach to your work or changed your thinking about how to connect with students and colleagues?
The travel lockdown has been hard. It has been incredibly frustrating and difficult not to be able to go to Nigeria, to Sierra Leone, to South Africa, where I’m currently working on a collaboration on decolonizing academia with some colleagues. I try to go to Africa at least once a year—I can’t keep up with the radical changes that happen in my colleagues’ lives and in the countries where I work unless I’m able to see them firsthand. I miss field work. But I also just miss those relationships and getting to see a place that has been a second home, but can otherwise can feel quite distant.
However, there are two really good things that I have a deeper appreciation for as a result of our shift to online learning and online professional work. One is that I have a much richer understanding of my colleagues’ and my students’ lives: We get to see people’s partners and roommates and children and dogs and houseplants over Zoom. I enjoy getting to see people in that more well-rounded way. And the other thing that has really changed is that I’m working to make our learning at Harvard more accessible. Last semester was the first time that we published the students’ final assignment to the world. That’s part of trying to seize on the way that Zoom can shorten the distances between us and increase accessibility. I know that Harvard events, for example, have had much higher rates of global participation than ever before, partly because they’re online. I’m trying to do the same in my teaching to ensure that what we’re learning in the classroom, as much as possible, is made available to the world. I think that’s particularly important when you work on African politics or gender, which have otherwise been marginalized in academia and American media. Making that knowledge available can serve a dual purpose: It can make us better thinkers and learners, and it can also help to change the conversation.
Banner photo: A woman checks her name on the voters' register at the start of the Osun state governorship election in Ifofin village in Ilesa, southwest Nigeria. Photo by Akintunde Akinleye
Faculty portrait by Benn Craig