April 28, 2022
Meet-a-Ram: Jessica Trisko Darden
Her background as an international pageant winner gives her a unique perspective on gender in politics.
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Editor’s note: Meet-a-Ram is an occasional VCU News series about the students, faculty, staff and alumni who make Virginia Commonwealth University such a dynamic place to live, work and study.
Jessica Trisko Darden, Ph.D., an assistant professor in the Department of Political Science in the College of Humanities and Sciences, is an expert in U.S. foreign aid, development and security, human rights and gender issues and security. Trisko Darden’s research focuses on the role of women in genocide. Raised in Canada, she studied at McGill University and the University of Texas at Austin. In 2007 she was crowned Miss Earth, winning the annual international pageant that advocates for environmental awareness, conservation and social responsibility.
I’d like to start by talking about your thoughts on pageants and global politics. Does your experience as an international pageant winner shape how you look at gender in international politics?
I plan on writing a book on the international politics of beauty pageants. I wrote an article for The Guardian, and was quoted by CNN on this topic. Right now, we think of these things as kind of like, “Oh isn't that nice?” But really, representing your country on an international level, whether it's as a chess player or Olympic athlete or a diplomat, we all carry the burden of representing our country, its values and its ideals. In this instance, it includes a country’s ideals about how to best represent womanhood and national identity on the world stage. So, it is at once both a very gendered experience, but also a very political experience as well.
I think that kind of life experience really shaped how I look at gender in international politics and how I teach issues on the front page and, of course, on women in global politics. And having engaged in gender at the international political level myself, I think it allows me an interesting window into the experiences of women who represent their countries abroad.
With that, I’m curious how you feel Camille Schrier, a VCU grad, represented women and science during her time as Miss America In 2020 and 2021?
Women like myself and Camille Schrier challenge the stereotypes that we all hold about women by demonstrating that women are capable, talented and complex individuals. You don't have to be either/or. You can choose to be both and pursue what may seem to others as incompatible interests.
What fascinates you about women and their roles in genocide?
We know that one-third of German women were members of the Nazi party in the 1940s. We know that roughly 5,000 women were concentration camp guards in camps like Ravensbrück, but we don't know what happened to them after World War II. So currently I'm working with VCU undergraduate students through the federal work-study program to do a holistic study of German women's postwar accountability for their Nazi-era war crimes.
During your studies, who was someone that made a lasting impression on you?
I think it was less about an individual professor and more about the freedom to study whatever I wanted: To go down any kind of intellectual rabbit hole. So, for instance, I was an international development and Russian major for my undergrad. I got really interested in this Russian literary movement, which was a group of poets and writers who called themselves the Scythians. This group of writers claimed a Eurasian cultural identity — neither East nor West — for themselves. And as someone who is of mixed Asian and European heritage, this idea that someone could actively hold this in-between identity was really appealing to me. So I feel like the most formative part of my college experience was the exposure to so many new ideas and approaches that went well beyond anything that I had been, or would have been, exposed to otherwise.
Why did you decide to teach at VCU?
Like many academics, my husband and I faced what's known as the “two-body problem.” We both needed to find jobs in the same city, which is much harder than it sounds. We were lucky and moved to Washington, D.C., where my husband is tenured at American University and where I taught for the six years. This position popped up at VCU. [Professor Herbert Hirsch, Ph.D.,] had passed away, and I was hired as part of the line to replace him, which was quite an honor because he was a really well-known scholar of genocide and genocide prevention. So, I'm definitely carrying on his spirit. I moved my family down to Ashland, and my husband commutes to Washington for work.
Do you have a favorite vacation spot?
We go to the Naples, Florida area in part because it has wonderful access to Gulf Coast swampland. But we were recently at First Landing State Park near Virginia Beach, and we were introduced to the Virginia cypress swamp. So I think we're hoping to explore the Great Dismal Swamp and other areas like that in the future.
What is it about swamps that you find most interesting?
It's where different ecosystems meet, where you have a lot of life underwater, but also these amazing tree canopies and birds nesting above. So there's a world that's hidden and mysterious underneath — the world that you can't see — particularly in tidal areas where the level of water shifts over the course of the day. At some point, these two worlds become uncovered or meet.
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