Alum in Action: Kathryn Babineau

Kathryn Babineau (MPP ’13)
Kathryn Babineau (MPP ’13)

From lawsuits filed by Uber drivers to reports of workplace abuse at Apple-affiliated factories in China, questions of labor rights are flooding our news feeds. Kathryn Babineau (MPP ’13) has been fascinated by these issues ever since she began her undergraduate studies at UVA—back when she didn’t even know that degree programs in public policy existed. At the time, Babineau saw law school in her future. But her plans changed completely when she learned about the Batten School, which became the supportive academic environment she needed to start transforming her interest in public policy and labor rights into thoughtful research and action. 

After furthering her studies at Oxford, enforcing a fair labor rights code on behalf of East Coast farmers, and shedding new light on Latin America’s illicit supply chains, Babineau has returned to UVA to complete her Ph.D. in sociology. She also taught a January term course, “Corporate Social Responsibility: Re-imagining Business as Usual,” with Social Entrepreneurship at UVA, a Batten School initiative. We caught up with her to chat about both her time at Batten and her career’s impressive trajectory.  

What drew you to the Batten School?

The world of public policy was very exciting to me, and I knew that I wanted to go somewhere where the professors knew my name. After meeting many of the faculty and staff, I realized that Batten was the kind of place where I could not only study issues that interested me, but also work with people who were going to care about what happened to me in the long term. Batten seemed like an inclusive and supportive community, and I wanted to be a part of that. 

Since leaving Batten, you’ve devoted your career to labor rights. Can you tell me more about what you’ve been up to? 

After I graduated from UVA, I enrolled in a graduate program at the University of Oxford, where I focused on labor rights and human rights: in particular, on how those issues relate to business activity on a global scale. 

I went on to work for the Fair Food Standards Council, where I was on a team responsible for monitoring workplace compliance with a human rights-based code of conduct known as the Fair Food Program. The workers’ organization that founded it, the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, had managed to get 14 major buyers—including Walmart, McDonalds, and Whole Foods—to sign on. I came away from that experience realizing that there are a lot of problems within our globalized economy when it comes to labor rights. But I also saw that there are really innovative solutions to these problems—solutions I had never considered before.

After that, I spent two years in Washington, DC, studying illicit supply chains. My work focused on Latin America and tried to understand how illicit products—including timber, gold, drugs, and even human beings—are exploited and moved from the point of production to the markets where they are bought and sold. 

How did your experience at Batten figure in these different endeavors?

One of the things that helped me get both of my jobs was my background in public policy. I already knew how to write memos, get up to speed quickly on important issues within an organization, conduct research under pressure, and adapt to a project's last-minute demands. All of this served me well in the early stages of my career. 

Were there any particular professors at Batten who had a lasting impact on you?

It’s really hard to think of a Batten professor who didn’t have an impact on me. I certainly wouldn’t be where I am without Professor Trawalter, who taught one of my favorite courses - Values and Bias in Public Policy – and spent many hours helping me to put together my PhD applications and learn how to navigate the academic world. Professor Mahoney, who taught me Introduction to Policy among other core courses, continues to be a well of thoughtful advice and knowledge as I re-enter academia. Finally, Dean Rockwell was a central part of student life at Batten, and invaluable in helping me find my path after leaving the program.  

You just finished teaching a J-Term course on corporate responsibility. What did you enjoy most about that experience?

Corporate social responsibility can quickly become a pretty pessimistic field—it’s easy to get bogged down in which organization is failing to do what, not to mention the stories you hear about workplace disasters, human trafficking, and factory collapses. However, what I enjoyed most about teaching the course was showing students that there are solutions to these daunting problems— while we need to be clear-eyed about the scope of the challenge, we are also capable of developing innovative policy ideas within our global economy that can improve labor rights for all.
 

Kathryn Babineau is a Ph.D. student in the University of Virginia's sociology department, where she studies globalization, labor rights, and public and private regulation. Previously, she worked as a human rights investigator for the Fair Food Standards Council and as a research coordinator at National Defense University. She holds a Master of Philosophy in Latin American studies from the University of Oxford and a Master of Public Policy from the University of Virginia. Babineau lives in Charlottesville with her terrier, Henry, and is frequently visited from Washington, D.C., by her partner, Solomon Banjo (MPP ’13), among many of her other Batten classmates.

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