Global justice: From refugees to elections, alumna helps humans flourish

Illustrations by Liz Rowland

Hannah McMillen ’11 could feel the buzz of election excitement as soon as she stepped off the plane in Kiev. Although she couldn’t read the election posters or completely understand the Ukrainian TV campaign ads, she quickly fell into her assignment there.

As one of 750 international election observers in the country, she followed poll workers, watched campaign ads, kept an eye on vote tabulation, and helped ensure the legitimacy of recent election results in the budding democracy.

“I was expecting that people would feel wary of our presence,” she said. “But universally, at every polling station I visited (more than 60 over the course of six weeks) and with everybody who was working the elections, they expressed immense gratitude that other countries were committed to the success of their democracy.”

McMillen, a member of SPU’s first Global Development Studies cohort nearly a decade ago, called it one of the most unusual experiences she’d ever had. Under the auspices of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, she worked with a diverse group of people committed to promoting international cooperation and democratization.

She was recruited from a register of American voters who had served as election judges in their own home district, something she said gave her “way more knowledge and more pride in our system than I’d ever had before.”

Overseas election observers are expected to understand the basic mechanism behind working an election, and the premise of genuinely free, fair, and secret elections, said McMillen.

Once in the Ukraine, McMillen worked with a partner diplomat from another country to help oversee both the primary and runoff elections. Teams observed polling station security and the voting process, from poll opening to tabulation and announcements of results. During the primary election, she worked 33 hours without stopping.

“You just don’t ever expect to sleep,” she said with a laugh.

Even so, she enjoyed the challenges, and she returned to the U.S. with plenty of stories to tell.

Team members were typically paired from different backgrounds, so McMillen expected to be partnered with someone who was older, with a lot of election experience. She was surprised when she met her assigned partner, a Slovak diplomat.

“She was the exact same age, she had also really not done this very much before, and her name was Hannah,” she said. “So we kind of looked at each other and said, ‘This can’t be right!’”

The two Hannahs together discovered a distinctly Ukrainian tradition: If you meet two people with the same name, you stand in between them and make a wish.

“We have a lot of photos of ourselves with every Ukrainian election worker we met, standing in between us and grinning, because they’re making a wish between two people named Hannah,” she said.

In an unfamiliar culture during a busy election, election monitoring provided plenty of surprises. But McMillen said the experience also dovetailed well into her career trajectory, giving her a chance to advocate for justice and promote individual rights.

global justice illustration

At SPU, she interned at World Relief then volunteered to help refugees at what is now known as Seattle World School. She also interned and worked overseas in Turkey and Bosnia. Today she teaches job skills through the Ethiopian Community Development Council’s African Community Center, a Denver-area refugee resettlement agency.

“It’s very challenging,” McMillen said. “It’s where my heart is, and I’m really grateful for the instruction and encouragement that I got at SPU.”

She leads the “We Made This” team, an endeavor that trains refugee women with traumatic pasts to sew as a way to integrate into U.S. society and navigate social challenges.

“Each participant, at the end of her training session, develops a deep trust toward Hannah,” explained Barbara Guglielminotti, McMillen’s supervisor at the center, in an email. “Hannah believes in respect and dignity and has a keen affinity, a know-how, to work with people of all walks of life, making them feel respected and important.”

At SPU, McMillen’s first and primary influence was Kathleen Braden, professor emerita of geography, who headed up the Global Development Studies program and keeps in contact with many of her former students. Braden said McMillen conducted original research on the development of civil rights in Uzbekistan even before she graduated from SPU.

“She got out onto the frontline immediately in Eastern Europe, in refugee and human rights issues,” Braden said. “That just shows a remarkable consistency in her chosen vocation, which was ‘I want to be out there helping people in terms of human rights.’ And that’s why she’s so happy that she’s getting to be an election observer.”

Braden helped whittle diverse interests into a reasonable career trajectory, said McMillen.

“I remember sitting down with her in her office, early in my time at SPU, and pouring out to her all these passions I had, things that could pull me in different directions,” she said. “I remember her nudging me, not to disregard the stuff I was passionate about, but to lean into those areas where people are on the fringes, that maybe haven’t been considered, places where the research maybe hasn’t gone.”

“When a foreigner resides in your land, you don’t mistreat them. You love them as your native-born.” —Hannah McMillen

That kind of research led McMillen to write a thesis on Uzbekistan and democratization — a project Braden describes as “graduate-level” — after which, she never looked back.

“A lot of students are intelligent, and very motivated and talented,” Braden said, “but Hannah stood out in my mind for how dogged she was as a researcher. Once she was on the trail of something that was important for her to research or to do, she just did not give up.”

Professor of Moral and Historical Theology Richard Steele also influenced McMillen during her SPU years. He encouraged his students to participate in worship at diverse congregations around the city, from Baptist to Russian Orthodox to Episcopalian.

“Not only did it help me broaden my understanding of my own faith, which was pretty evangelical,” said McMillen, “it gave me tools to learn about other faiths, which put me in good stead as I work with a lot of different cultures.”

Much of her motivation, particularly around working with refugees, stems from her faith and Scriptures calling for Christians to care for the poor and marginalized.

“It’s one of the things that the Bible is pretty unequivocal about,” she said. “When a foreigner resides in your land, you don’t mistreat them. You love them as your native-born, ‘Because you were strangers in Egypt.’ Not only is it something that I can really cling to because it’s part of the heart of God, there’s also so much work to be done.”

The work is rewarding — though not always financially.

“There are ways you can do this work that can be stable and lucrative,” she quipped. “But I haven’t pursued any of them.”

Still, she doesn’t doubt her path. As a reminder to herself, she keeps a quote above her desk by philosopher and author Cornel West:

“Never forget that justice is what love looks like in public.”

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