Kayly Ober (SIS/BA ‘08) is a recognized expert on climate change, migration, and displacement issues. As the senior advocate and program manager of the Climate Displacement program at Refugees International, Ober researches and reports on issues related to climate change, disaster, internally displaced people, and refugees. We spoke with Ober to learn more about her time at SIS, her position at Refugees International, and lessons learned from a career in research and advocacy.
Discovering a New Perspective at SIS
Ober came to SIS dreaming of a career in diplomacy. She knew SIS was one of the top schools in international affairs, and that knowledge, combined with a scholarship to attend AU, solidified her decision to pursue her bachelor’s degree at SIS. During her time here, she formed an interest in an international affairs career path other than diplomacy.
“What was nice about the School of International Service is you could choose different tracks that you were interested in, but you were also encouraged to take a number of other courses—like international communication, international development, and international relations,” says Ober. “It’s through one of those courses—International Development—that I really decided to do something other than become a diplomat.”
Ober explains that the international development course she took changed her worldviews, prompting her to reflect on her place in the world, its power imbalances, and other dynamics that determine how and where people live. As a third-generation immigrant, she has always been interested in issues of migration. Her SIS class work and the opportunities she pursued outside of the classroom deepened that interest.
Ober says that SIS helps lay the foundation for those interested in a career in research and advocacy, but it is important to seek opportunities outside of the classroom to further develop the skill set needed for a career in this space: “Because of the location of SIS in Washington, DC, I was afforded the opportunity to have internships at different organizations that helped shape my career. Make use of SIS’s connections and location to be able to work for organizations that mean something to you and that inspire you.”
During her junior and senior years at SIS, Ober interned with the World Resources Institute, focusing on energy governance and climate change. The internship helped her understand better the intersection of climate change and migration, and she later had the opportunity to research and write about climate migration issues during an SIS class on migration and development.
After graduating in 2008, Ober pursued a career path that focused on climate change, migration, and displacement. She got her first job as a program assistant at the Wilson Center’s Environmental Change and Security program in 2009, where she honed her abilities to write about and conduct research on climate migration issues.
“For me, it was very important to dedicate my career to something that was impactful,” says Ober. “SIS gave me the background and tool set to figure that out.”
A Career in Research and Advocacy
Ober continues working on climate, migration, and displacement issues today, serving as the senior advocate and program manager of the Climate Displacement program at Refugees International. Before joining the team at Refugees International last year, Ober held positions at the Wilson Center, the Overseas Development Institute, the World Bank, and the Asian Development Bank.
Refugees International is one of the only organizations in the world that has a program dedicated to climate and displacement issues, which was started over a decade ago: “It was just a natural fit for me to seek out a job with Refugees International, given my background and given the work that they do. I’ve always followed their work very closely, and I thought very highly of my predecessor, who was there for a decade before me.”
Refugees International functions as a research and reporting organization that focuses on the refugee, displacement, humanitarian, and human rights issues that need urgent attention and action from government officials, policy makers, and other international organizations. According to Ober, the organization was on the forefront of acknowledging climate-related displacement, her particular area of focus.
“There’s a spectrum of different types of movement related to climate change and its impacts,” says Ober. “But we can see very clearly that climate change has a role to play in when people make decisions to move.”
As part of her work, she researches post-disaster crises and recommends ways for policy makers to support displaced people in these contexts. This year, she has written on the impacts of Cyclone Harold in the Pacific, the collision of Cyclone Amphan and the monsoon flooding in Bangladesh and India, and the abilities of the affected countries to deal with these natural hazards alongside COVID-19.
Reports published by Refugees International are often based on direct interviews with internally displaced people or refugees, ensuring that their points of view are incorporated into policy making and decision making: “I really enjoy working at Refugees International because we have a very clear mission. All of the folks I work with are driven by the same compassion and realization that we need to center people who might not have a voice in certain political halls of power and amplify those voices.”