Hera Jay Brown

Hera Jay Brown

Hera Jay Brown (ΦBK, University of Tennessee, Knoxville) is a 2020 Rhodes Scholar at the University of Oxford pursuing her Master of Philosophy in Development Studies with an intent to pursue a doctorate in International Development. She also recently completed a Fulbright-Schuman Research Fellowship for the European Union.


As a child, what profession did you envision for yourself when you grew up?

You know, it’s really funny; as a child, I was immensely fascinated with dinosaurs and early hominids. I couldn’t get my hands on enough books about fossils, evolution, and the like. I remember having my prized fossil collection of trilobites, insects in amber, nautiluses, and spear points. By having each of those, I felt like I could reach out across centuries and interact with worlds very different from this one—it was kind of my way to daydream and escape. It wouldn’t be until I got to college that I learned about Anthropology and its subdisciplines like socio-cultural and archaeology and so on. I suppose I have always wanted to be an anthropologist; my, how that dream has come true in the most beautiful way with a slightly different focus, today!

What was the most transformative course from your undergraduate education?

I get asked this question a lot, and I always find myself caught equally between two courses of study: Modern-Standard Arabic and Anthropology of Human Rights with my mentor, Dr. Tricia Redeker Hepner. I’ve been extremely fortunate to study Arabic throughout my undergraduate education and after; that skill—a new way of thinking, processing—has been invaluable to me as an advocate with refugees from the Middle East, a lover of languages, and continual student.

As for Anthropology of Human Rights, this class really was the first to connect my passions to theory and practice that I still draw from today. Working with Dr. Hepner, a world-renowned scholar, the course gave me working frameworks, cases, and theories to understand the human rights corpus of our contemporary times. Dr. Hepner and the course also helped me understand that human rights-focused work must constantly be interrogated, reviewed, and adapted. It was ultimately this course and mentor that introduced me to the King Hussein Bin Talal Development Area, the primary site of my research on refugee labor and social integration in the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan. I am deeply appreciative for the education and mentorship I have had thus far, thanks wholly to the public education system in Tennessee. 

You recently served as a Fulbright-Schuman Research Fellow to the European Union. What did your role and research encompass? What was the most impactful part of this fellowship for you?

Until recently, I was investigating how Golden Passport Schemes—national investment policies that offer citizenship in exchange for in-country investment—operate for wealthy migrants compared to other naturalization processes for refugees without access to exorbitant amounts of wealth. I think COVID-19 has, for many, unveiled who and what governments have and continue to prioritize: capital. And, in the case of class-based naturalization policies across the E.U., my research has shown that this is true even in deciding who gets to take a place in the public commons (voting, moving, working, etc.) as a citizen and who may not. Disproportionately, this has meant that refugees without capital are systematically disenfranchised while wealthy immigrants may simply purchase citizenship and the rights bound within it. Fundamentally, citizens and migrants in states like Malta and Cyprus are negotiating the questions of what does it mean to be a citizen? What are the expectations and rights? What responsibilities does one have? Through partnering with community-based organizations, these questions are coming to the forefront while centering disenfranchised voices of refugees in the naturalization process. As a U.S. citizen, I find these questions to be important, especially because the U.S. has similar investment-visas that fast-track wealthy migrants towards citizenship while the state is routinely denying rights and protections to refugees and asylum-seekers across the U.S.

The lasting value of this grant for me has been the opportunity to traverse the European Union (E.U.), meeting five exceptional advocacy organizations in five E.U. countries. The refugee and advocate communities I have met continue to demonstrate that collaboration, especially between organizers in different states, must continue as we each work towards common goals of justice, agency, and dignity for refugee communities around the globe. 

You’ve also been elected as a Rhodes Scholar. What excites you about this opportunity? What do you hope to learn or accomplish in your time at the University of Oxford? 

Had you told me four years ago that I would be heading off to Oxford to work with some of the very scholars who inspired my undergraduate fieldwork in Jordan, I probably would have fallen over! I am so very humbled and honored to have this opportunity to continue pursuing my life’s work of advancing rights and protections for marginalized people. Beyond my degree program, I am also immensely excited to be with my new Rhodes cohort. My undergraduate training taught me that I learn just as much if not more from the company I keep; in that same vein, I am about to embark on an adventure with 99 of the world’s budding thinkers and doers, and I am just so honored to be along this journey with them. Personally, it has also meant so much to have the honor of being elected as the first openly Trans woman in the program’s history. Representation is not liberation, but I hope that my election, if anything, could give some encouragement to other Trans and queer people. Seeing someone like you represented in media for the first time is a profound experience; it was for me in my own transition. But, there is still so much more we—individually, socially, politically— must do to address inequities affecting Trans and other marginalized people. Who we are can’t be a roadblock to what we have to offer the world. 

Academically at Oxford, I am hoping to work with Dr. Alexander Betts, one of the world’s leading thinkers in issues concerning refugee communities. Ultimately, I want to continue my fieldwork in Jordan while expanding to other countries in an effort to map and understand how our international refugee system can be expanded to address displacement issues stemming from climate change, pandemics, and economic disparities without losing the vital ground already obtained through the 1951 Refugee Convention and 1967 Accords. Immediately following the Rhodes, I plan to pursue a J.D. in the U.S. These programs will equip me to pursue my short-term goal to found and lead a US-based, pro-bono asylum and refugee-rights law firm that draws upon the regional expertise and legal training of advocates with J.D./Ph.D. backgrounds in order to defend asylum, economic entitlements, human rights, and legal protections for refugees and asylum-seekers in the US.

What was the best advice you were ever given and who gave it to you?

“Not all things are possible at all times” was probably the most important piece of advice I ever received from my undergraduate mentor, Dr. Tricia Redeker Hepner. Dr. Hepner taught me to understand life’s limitations and what could or could not be done well at a specific time. I still think about this daily and despite much of our American culture pushing us to constantly produce, this framing helps me push back against those ideological pressures. 

Do you think Phi Beta Kappa and a well-rounded, liberal arts and sciences education are important in today’s society? 

Honestly, my own interdisciplinary education through the University of Tennessee’s College Scholars Program allowed me to delve deeper into the issues I care about. Phi Beta Kappa signifies the importance of various tools different disciplines offer, and, ultimately, those tools are vital to understand complex issues in today’s rapidly evolving world. 

What book are you reading right now? Are you listening to any podcasts or watching any shows? Anything you'd recommend?

I just finished rereading Pedagogy of the Oppressed and if you have not read it, you should! As for podcasts, I highly recommend Trillbilly Worker’s Party and Revolutionary Left Radio for stories about the intersections of labor, class, American life, and current affairs. With shows, I am a diehard historical fiction kind of gal, and really enjoy shows like “Reign,” “The Tudors,” and “Versailles.” The shows are just fantastically shot and aesthetically very sumptuous.