If professors wrote a “What I did on my summer break” essay each fall, Cyndi Banks’ composition would read like it was written by an ambassador to the developing world.
That’s because Banks, chair and professor of criminal justice and criminology at Northern Arizona University, is an expert in juvenile justice protection and gender issues and specializes in helping nations to build high-functioning justice systems—areas of law that many countries are beginning to shape.
Banks weaves into courses her newfound summer knowledge and collective lessons of the past, giving students a look at international justice systems through more than a textbook.
“I try to juxtapose issues in the U.S. along with examples from wherever I have worked so that the students understand this is what’s happening around the world and they’re not necessarily unconnected,” Banks says.
Her skills are highly sought after by international organizations like UNICEF, which in July dispatched Banks to Myanmar to work on behalf of the Strengthening Juvenile Justice for Children Project.
She visited several institutions and met with police, the Supreme Court and the Myanmar Council of Churches to assist in evaluating the conditions and practices in place for juvenile victims and offenders.
In much of her work—which has included assignments in Iraq, East Timor, Sudan, Bangladesh and Papua, New Guinea—she has seen more victims than offenders in custody of the government, oftentimes because they have nowhere safe to go.
And while her efforts around the world benefit countless individuals she will never meet, bringing her first-hand experience back to the university furthers her reach as she offers insight her students couldn’t get from a textbook.
“The university supports these kinds of international connections because it’s part of the mission,” Banks says. “They see the benefit of sharing ideas and bringing those back to teach students and provide programs where they can see a bigger world than Flagstaff or Arizona.”
Banks approaches her work with an interdisciplinary perspective, which is challenging but enjoyable, she says, because it requires more than transplanting a practice or law used in the West into another culture and “telling them it’s best because it’s our way.” Instead, Banks looks at the larger context including cultural practices, with respect to disciplining children for example, and proposes government policies and systems that protect children’s rights while respecting and working within set cultural values.
“A solution has to be found within that context or it won’t work,” she says.
The demand for her skills as a researcher and evaluator of governmental systems could provide full-time employ, but Banks says her summer ventures along with teaching during the academic year is a great combination.
“I enjoy being able to help the students hopefully create a situation where they can see there are other perspectives and other ideas and other ways of doing things and that we can all learn and benefit from each other,” Banks says.