Peace Fellow transforms academic theory into practical application
Gethen is in the midst of an ice age. It’s a bitterly cold planet where even the warmest summer day is frigid. This is where Florence Maher spent her childhood. Figuratively speaking, of course. Gethen exists only in the tales of Ursula K. Le Guin, predominantly in her 1969 novel, The Left Hand of Darkness, one of many speculative works of fiction that Maher grew up reading.
“A lot of science fiction looks at social issues, but in a different context,” Maher says. “It allows you to ask big questions about how the world would be different if things had evolved in a different way. I’m very interested in those sorts of structural issues and how they look in practice.”
As an adult, Maher continues to ask those big questions as she looks for ways to maximize her knowledge and skills by pairing them with global institutions. Today, this Rotary Peace Fellow works as a social scientist for the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development, gathering data and forming policy recommendations to achieve more diversity in the nuclear energy sector on a global scale.
Growing up, rural Oregon (on planet Earth) was home base for Maher, but her father’s work took the family all over the Pacific Northwest, including Alaska. However, one move took them to Berlin for two years soon after the reunification of Germany in the 1990s. “That was the moment I realized there’s a bigger world out there,” she says. “That experience started me down an international career path.”
Maher spent two years at Earlham College in Indiana (where the undergraduate student population totaled about 1,100) before taking time off to backpack around India and work as an au pair in Germany. “By the time I had finished scratching that itch, I realized I was not going back to Indiana,” she says. “I wanted to do something different.”
Although she was interested in the world, she didn’t know a lot about her own country. She wanted to put herself in situations where she could grow, she said, and she completed her last two years of studies at Howard University, a historically Black college in Washington, D.C., to learn more about diversity in the United States. Being a white student at Howard, she tried to be respectful of the history and traditions in that welcoming environment, to learn without being the “center of attention,” she says. “As a white person, this is not my space. I’m here to shut up and listen.”
Maher graduated from Howard in 2009 and, following a lengthy, intimidating, and competitive hiring process, eventually landed a job as a foreign service officer with the U.S. Department of State. “At the time, it was definitely my dream job to live around the world and represent our government overseas,” she says.
Maher was assigned to consular duties in Mexico, where she conducted visa interviews. The work drained Maher emotionally as, contrary to her own impulses, she often had to deny people entry into the United States under the law. “You may feel different personally, but you’re not there to give your personal opinion about how the world works,” she says. “You’re there to interpret U.S. immigration law.”
In 2018, Florence Maher addresses an audience that includes her classmates at International Christian University in Tokyo. A year later, she takes a break during an applied field experience in France.
Courtesy of Florence Maher
Maher was then sent to Italy as an economic officer and vice consul before relocating to Washington, D.C., in 2018. That’s when she realized that this may have been the dream job of her 20s, but not of her life. She applied for and received a Rotary Peace Fellowship at International Christian University in Tokyo. “I needed time to explore and find myself,” she says. “I wanted two years to take classes, have professional experiences, and perform field research. ICU has a very strong emphasis on doing a research-based thesis, and I was able to do field interviews and really develop my research skills to complement my practitioner skills.”
- Bachelor’s in economics and political science, Howard University, 2009
- Rotary Peace Fellowship, International Christian University, 2018-20
- Board member, Rotary Peace Fellow Alumni Association, 2023–25
Specifically, Maher examined an attempt to develop a national action plan on business and human rights in Mexico. The endeavor, conducted between 2015 and 2018 by representatives from the government, business, and civil society, was ultimately unsuccessful in building a coalition. Nonetheless, in her 50,000-word thesis, Maher researched how Mexico’s attempt to create the plan offered a framework through which long-standing structural grievances might be better understood and more equitable social structures erected in their place.
Maher graduated from ICU with her master’s in peace studies in 2020. Now, at the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development, she believes she has found that sweet spot where academic theory can find practical application — and where her individual aspirations, paired with her well-honed skills, can have their greatest impact. “In June,” she says, “our member countries passed an international policy instrument to improve representation of women in our nuclear sectors. There’s a well-established body of research showing that diverse teams perform better in innovation and performance,” which could offer significant benefits to combating climate change. More women in the nuclear sector, Maher adds, could also help garner trust in and support for nuclear technology, closing the gap between how it’s perceived and its real potential.
Some of the research supporting these conclusions was provided by Maher. “I don’t know if I would have been successful with the data collection if I hadn’t been a peace fellow,” she says. “Having done a robust, research-based thesis, I had the confidence to gather the data and write the report.”
Last year, Maher was elected to the board of the Rotary Peace Fellow Alumni Association. “The identity of being a peace fellow has been very powerful,” she says. “It tells the world that you are aligning yourself with certain values — of trying to work on structural change, of trying to make the world a better place.”
This story originally appeared in the February 2024 issue of Rotary magazine.