Kristina Stefanova

Rising to the challenges of a complex world

For a citizen of the world, with a global view and an intention to make a difference, Kristina Stefanova finds herself at a compelling juncture: there is the climate crisis, gender equity, complex international relations, the future of democracy and then there’s life, which just happens while you’re working on everything else.

Kristina and daughter Clementine

It might help to draw on your past for inspiration and the confidence to know you can contribute something meaningful to the often -febrile debates about our future. For Kristina that means reflecting on a varied career that has taken her from journalism in Washington to climate change advocacy in Australia and building a range of roles that all point to action now as the best way to establish sustainable outcomes for diverse communities.

If that sounds vague, even motherhood, it is certainly not a reflection of Kristina’s drive or focus, but a way of trying to characterise the common thread across her diverse philanthropic activities, that range from chairing the leadership circle for ActionAid’s ARISE Fund to her role as a trustee at the Australian Museum Foundation. She is also a member of Philanthropy Australia’s New Gen group of younger philanthropists. Underpinning all of this is a precise understanding of the need for action now. And some of that urgency has led Kristina back to where she has been and what she has known.

After working through her teenage passion for journalism by becoming the youngest reporter they had hired at The Washington Times, Kristina stepped sideways and went to London to do a Masters’ degree in development studies at the London School of Economics. Her thought was that she could turn an understanding of global economies into the next phase of her journalism career. But it didn’t quite work out that way: she went back to Washington and was lured into a role writing about international development and then being part of the international development cohort, travelling all over the world. The World Bank was the next step and it was where she met her husband, Australian James Schultz. Together in 2008 they started GreenCollar in Sydney, an environmental markets investor that helps rural and regional landholders to integrate new sustainable income-driving opportunities into their businesses. Kristina was at The Climate Institute for five years, was the inaugural CEO of Australia’s first ethical fashions rater – Brand Ethics – and last year travelled to Vanuatu as part of the ARISE Fund that aims to support women to lead their communities in preparation and response to emergencies, many of which will be climate-induced.

She says with only a hint of humour that she doesn’t really have a full-time job now, but a range of roles that she must balance, including as a mother to two-and-a-half-year-old Clementine. All of which means she is busier than most people in full-time work. It is though, the international situation, the pressing need for action, that keeps her engaged with the big issues.

She’s frank about the breadth of the problem: “The world, with (US President) Trump is a vile place for women at the moment.’’ And equally passionate about the capacity for change through initiatives such as ARISE. But the on-ground challenges in the developing world are significant, as she found in Vanuatu last year, where Cyclone Pam destroyed 90 per cent of the tiny nation’s infrastructure in 2015. “Sometimes the government doesn’t actually find out what happens after a crisis – like a cyclone – for two months,’’ she says. In the interim, there are all kinds of social problems that flow from the physical devastation – an increase in family violence, increased school absenteeism and even more grinding poverty because the already precarious infrastructure is often destroyed.

All the more reason to find ways to prepare communities for the worst eventualities that are predicted to become more frequent and more far-reaching as the climate crisis unfolds. One way to improve preparedness is to be able to communicate that a storm is imminent. Often, residents in developing nations have no access to the data that gives them that information, they have no idea the location of evacuation centres and what to pack for an emergency. In Vanuatu, there are mobile ‘phones but they don’t carry data. Through ARISE, ActionAid is working with a telecommunications company and the Bureau of Meteorology to arm local women with climate data, mobile phones and free SMS service so they can better prepare their communities for extreme weather events. Kristina says that from a philanthropic point of view, these initiatives are a “no brainer’’ but there is also great power in the gender equity behind the new approach.

“The local women are taking on this leadership role and things are slowly changing. The government might still be a bit of a boy’s club but initiatives like this help promote women’s leadership and more women are going into politics,’’ Kristina says.

There are simple demonstrations of how this plays out, when local women have a better solution than government officials. When the government proposed building a school a long distance away from the school destroyed in the cyclone, local women lobbied to rebuild the original school because they knew that travelling a distance to the new school would prevent many children from attending.  The change is slow but there is evidence it is happening. Vanuatu’s First Political Adviser, Internal Affairs, Anthea Arukole, noticed how local women have become more confident. “Nobody had ever asked them what they thought, or what they wanted in this area, so they didn’t talk about it. They didn’t know how,’’ she says. “Now they are able to articulate their needs and they can come and speak about issues that affect them.’’

Mary Jack, in Vanuatu

The ARISE Fund is in 10 countries, including Vanuatu, Nepal, Cambodia, Bangladesh, Kenya and Haiti. Its goal is to empower a million women in five years to be able to lead their communities during a crisis.

And while all this is going on Kristina will also be keeping an eye on the Australian Museum, currently closed for extensive renovations ahead of its re-opening in spring. In February 2021, the Museum will host the Tutankhamen Exhibition, one of only 10 global cities to do so. Even a renovation represents an opportunity, to engage new young donors as part of the Museum’s own Next Gen donor program so they too can wowed as Kristina was during her own behind-the-scenes tour of the museum’s extensive holdings – the ancient rocks, the amazing science, the vaults of treasures and the experts with their compelling and unrivalled knowledge. “There’s a whole year for our new generation of supporters to access the museum, so by the time it comes around to the opening next year, interest will be at its peak,’’ Kristina says. A lot can happen in a year, of course. And then again, progress is slow. It’s a dichotomy Kristina knows and understands. But she wants more of us to be prepared now for what may happen later - wherever we live. 

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