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Khant Khant Kyaw ’11 awarded Davis Project for Peace Grant

<r Khant Khant Kyaw will spend this summer traveling the world, camera in hand. Her pictures will do more than document her time abroad, though. The recipient of a 2010 Davis Projects for Peace grant, Kyaw will use photography to foster community development among youth in Burma, officially known as the Union of Myanmar. She will spend two months in the country running a program for teens that will teach photography skills and encourage community dialogue on local issues.

The $10,000 Projects for Peace grant is part of an initiative founded by philanthropist Kathryn W. Davis in 2007 to “bring new thinking to the prospects of peace in the world” by funding 100 projects from 90 college campuses across the country.

Kyaw’s community photography project comes out of her passion for grassroots-based international development and love of photography. She is pursuing a special major in international development, and has been involved with a number of development organizations around the world during her time at Carleton. Last summer, Kyaw worked with a local NGO in Cape Town, South Africa to teach sex education to teenagers. She went on to spend the fall of 2009 in Nairobi, Kenya, where she visited the Mwelu Foundation, an organization that teaches photography and filmmaking skills to empower children in Nairobi’s slums.

Kyaw began developing her photography skills as a student photographer in the office of media and public relations at Carleton. During winter term, she had an exhibit of photos from her time in South Africa and Kenya, “Colors from Africa,” on display in the library. With her upcoming project in Burma, “I’m combining two of my biggest interests that I developed at Carleton,” said Kyaw.

Kyaw, who spent her childhood in Burma before moving to Singapore, is familiar with the country’s culture and language and will use her knowledge of available resources to help in the planning of the teen program. She has returned to Burma several times with family members, and this summer will be her third service trip to the country. In 2007, Kyaw led a group of 12 students from Singapore on a week-long trip to the Burma, where they taught English and first aid skills to orphaned children. In 2008, when Cyclone Nargis swept through Burma in the worst natural disaster in the country’s history, Kyaw helped raise money and awareness on the Carleton campus as part of the Doh Burma Club and traveled to five affected villages to deliver relief supplies.

Kyaw believes that Burma is especially well-suited to benefit from her community photography project. According to World Bank figures, the country is one of the poorest in Southeast Asia. Socio-economic obstacles there mean that many young people have limited opportunities for formal or informal education, said Kyaw. A project like hers, that teaches both practical skills and a greater understanding of community issues, “can generate so much energy and motivation for the youth,” she said. In the long-term, her project may serve the role of promoting media literacy, a skill that will become increasingly important in Burma and across the globe.

Kyaw also hopes that the project will help change public perceptions of Burma as a politically oppressed country under military rule. Though it is important to acknowledge the political situation in Burma, there is a danger that a perception of monolithic political oppression can prevent positive dialogue on social issues, Kyaw said.  The country’s politics have made headlines, but “there are also other facets of Burma that haven’t been recognized,” she added. She points to the creative innovation she observed in poor communities in Africa as an example of the type of adaptation to poverty that she wants to capture on film in Burma. By teaching teens to photograph their everyday life, Kyaw’s program will highlight the country’s rich culture, as well as bring the community together to talk about the issues behind the photographs.

For Kyaw, the project is also one of personal development. “I feel like I’ve learned so much from just going around and talking to people,” she said said, discussing her goals in the field of international development and her past experiences abroad. “I am hoping that through the youths, I will know more about Burmese culture.”

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