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Bahira Sherif Trask teaching during her Diversity and Families class at UD.

Teacher and global leader

Photo by Evan Krape | Photo composite by Jeff Chase

Prof. Bahira Trask helps the United Nations and UD students understand family challenges

In her keynote address during the United Nations’ 2018 commemoration of International Day of Families, University of Delaware professor Bahira Sherif Trask asked the audience members to close their eyes and re-imagine the world.

“A world where there is no war,” she said, “where there is no political conflict, where we’re not worried about climate change, where everybody has enough to eat, people have shelter, and they have access to education for their children, and they have access to health services.”

Trask’s vision for the future of humanity -- not unlike what John Lennon asked the world to “Imagine” in 1971 -- broadly reflects the goals outlined by the United Nation in its 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, an ambitious global plan that aims to address 17 of the world’s most dire problems, including poverty, hunger and disease.

Despite the many obstacles that currently threaten this vision for an equitable future, “the focus,” Trask explained, “needs to be on strengthening and supporting families,” which includes implementing gender equality and helping families negotiate work-family responsibilities; otherwise, these goals will be neither achievable nor sustainable.

Trask knows whereof she speaks.

Professor and chair of the Department of Human Development and Family Sciences (HDFS), and the author and editor of five books and countless academic papers, Trask has been researching gender and family related issues for over 20 years.

She’s delivered TEDx talks on changing families and the struggles of negotiating work and family life. She has served as a long-time member of the National Council on Family Relations (NCFR). And for the past eight years she’s travelled to 17 countries on five continents, working with the United Nations and other international agencies, to encourage the implementation of supportive policies that promote and strengthen families and simultaneously bolster economic life.

“Dr. Trask’s grasp of the underlying social and political policy that can hinder or support women and families allows her to envision solutions to global economic problems,” said Diane Cushman, executive director of NCFR. “Her willingness to share her knowledge freely is a testament to her passion and desire to make the world a better place for families — the core of healthy societies.”

When not advocating for change on the world’s stage, Trask can be found teaching and mentoring students at UD. Her highly popular introductory course, "Diversity and Families," is designed to inspire the next generation of change agents to reimagine the world and solve humanity's most daunting problems.

The professor is in

Born into a multicultural family and growing up in Connecticut, Trask came of age during the cultural revolutions of the 1970s. In the midst of the second wave of feminism, Trask arrived at Yale University in the late 1970s, where she would go on to earn an undergraduate degree in political science with a concentration in international relations.

“I was part of the first 10-year cohort of females to attend Yale University, and we were encouraged to think of ourselves as completely equal to men,” Trask said. “My goal, and that of my classmates, was to be economically independent and to pursue careers and leadership positions that would change the world.”

Although Trask went on to earn a doctorate in cultural anthropology from the University of Pennsylvania, those formative experiences at Yale helped shape her teaching philosophy.

“When I was an undergraduate, Yale required all faculty — regardless of rank — to teach first-year students. I found that very inspirational,” Trask said. “So, when I became a professor at UD, I emulated that model. Incoming students benefit immensely from hearing from experienced scholars and it sets the foundation for their own learning.”

That is why she continues to teach HDFS’s largest introductory course, inspiring over 300 students every semester.

“I took Dr. Trask’s 'Diversity and Families' course as an undergraduate and my life changed forever,” said Kenny Daughtry, who earned his bachelor’s degree in 2014 and his master’s in 2017. “She’s gifted in bringing out the best in you personally, professionally and academically. After undergrad, she inspired me to pursue my Ph.D. and she’s been a great mentor through it all. I consider myself extremely fortunate to have Dr. Trask as a mentor.”

As department chair, Trask has also introduced a variety of new initiatives including collaborating with UD’s Horn Entrepreneurship to establish a Community-Based Social Entrepreneurship program.

Coursework teaches students to think of social institutions like startups and nonprofits as mechanisms for finding solutions to many of today’s social and cultural problems. Students learn to leverage a strength they see in a group or community — for example, a food bank, domestic violence shelter or early childhood center — and apply business principles to make their initiative come to life and flourish.

Idea giant on a global stage

Trask is recognized as an international expert in the field of globalization, gender and families, having dedicated her academic life to identifying and addressing the challenges faced by women and families around the world, including how the transformation of gender roles has impacted families from a social, economic, political and cultural standpoint.

“Working with the United Nations, I have found that gender equality and gender mainstreaming are at the top of national and international policy agendas,” Trask said. “However, many of the discussions that are taking place currently really just focus on the U.S. environment — and sometimes the European context. There is very little discourse about the situation of girls and women in other parts of the world.

Girls and women, especially those who are low-income, are extremely vulnerable to exploitation, said Trask. With few rights in their own families and communities, women worldwide are frequently disadvantaged vis-à-vis the men in their lives: They may receive less food, less medicine, less access to education and are more likely to be victims of domestic violence, ultimately leading to long-term consequences to both physical and mental health.

Trask is acutely aware that the answer can’t always be found within the Western values system. “When advocating for policy changes, the U.N. and national and local policy makers must evaluate the challenges faced by women and families through the lens of different cultures and contexts,” she said.

This mindset makes Trask such a valued asset. She is a coalition builder, calmly encouraging solutions that place women and families at the center of global conversations.  

“She connects the dots between women’s equality and healthy economies,” Cushman said. “She never loses sight of the role of women as caregivers and economic catalysts who must overcome outdated barriers to equality and success in order to contribute fully to the well-being of their families.”

Progress can be slow, but Trask remains optimistic, noting that even small changes can have a lasting impact.

She gives as an example of a recent initiative in Bangladesh where 9,000 girls received life skills training related to gender rights and negotiations. After three and a half years, 31 percent of these girls were less likely to be married before the age of 18 and were more likely to be earning an income.

“All children have abilities and capabilities, but these need to be encouraged and furthered,” Trask said. “As a global society, we need to promote and utilize the talents of everyone, not just a chosen few.”

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