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Laura Cahier

Breaking Down the Urban-Rural Divide


Laura Cahier grew up in a rural French village of about 80 inhabitants, deep in the Department of Ain. From age 5 to 12, she attended the same small school, with 38 other kids coming from only 3 other villages. “Multilevel classes, lack of funding, geographic isolation, and political neglect: this is how I would retrospectively analyze our experience, as in many other rural areas. Though I did very much enjoy my childhood, I later became aware of the structural barriers restraining our access to higher education and larger opportunities.” Laura would be the first in her family to go to college.

I had never heard about Sciences Po Lyon, my alma matter; until a few months before taking the official entrance exam, when my history teacher mentioned it.The lack of diversity at my elite college hit me hard during my first days, and I felt like I did not belong. It was then I realized how strong those structural barriers were, when I understood how “natural” and “easy” it was for others to navigate college life.

After taking her first sociology class, Laura began to understand why she was one of only two kids from her school to go to college that year. While theory was helpful, she was eager to take action and challenge the structural inequalities that prevented so many of her peers from equitable access. During university, Laura became a tutor for high school kids from French inner-city and rural areas to prep them for the Sciences Po entrance exam. Most of her work was not based on theory, but on addressing the concrete and daunting emotions that many of those coming from non-traditional backgrounds never dared to voice elsewhere – will I fail? Will I fit in?

In 2017, Laura joined Lumir Lapray (a fellow rural HIA Senior Fellow) in creating the Optimist Network. Their goal is to provide trainings and workshops to students from lower socioeconomic, rural and inner-city backgrounds to help them make the most of their college experience.

Aside from volunteering in student-led organizations, Laura sought more tools and influence to turn her opportunity to access higher education into something else.

My social utopia is a radical one, because we can’t afford being modest when it comes to idealizing a fair and equal society.

“As a 20-year old Humanity in Action fellow, there are many reasons why spending one month in Sarajevo was a life-changing moment. First, because it felt like joining a new family – except we would ALWAYS talk politics at the dinner table! Today, everywhere I go, I look for ways to (re-) connect with other fellows in order to “catch up” and spend time with some of the most inspiring people – some of them whom I consider my best friends.” 

“Moreover, being emerged in post-conflict Bosnia exposed me to the multi-layered complexities of societies, and realize some of my own privileges – being white in French society with, now, access to higher education.”

Since Laura applied to Humanity in Action, her involvement in the field of human rights has deepened. Laura’s action project focused on women’s rights, indigeneity and rurality. Based on a collaborative methodology with a local organization of Maya Kaqchikel women in rural Guatemala, Laura co-shot a 54-minute long documentary on these indigenous women’s fight for sexual and reproductive justice. In March 2018, she screened the documentary “Maya in Action. Narratives of resilience from Guatemala” for the first time in Saint-Etienne, France, in partnership with a local NGO helping women who don’t speak French access public health services.

The idea was to build bridges between different communities who face comparable forms of structural discriminations.

After a dozen of screenings, three festivals and the 2019 Prize for Social Entrepreneurship of the EM Lyon, the documentary will soon be given back to the Mayan Kaqchikel women, to be used as a tool for their advocacy campaigns.

Today, Laura is pursuing a PhD in International Law at the University of Aix-Marseille and Georgetown University. Her research focuses on indigenous women’s claims for new diplomatic spaces and their fight for the effective implementation of their rights in the U.S. and Guatemala. As the representative of the French Institut des Amériques in Washington D.C., Laura also organizes seminars with academic researchers, activists and NGOs about justice in the Americas.

“A collective driving force – this is probably the best way I could describe Humanity in Action.”