Criminality, Community & Justice: Watson Fellow Rachel McKay ’17

Rachel McKay '17 and Katharine Joss '17, both Davidson scholar athletes, have been awarded the prestigious Thomas J. Watson Fellowship. McKay and Joss were among 40 fellows named from a national field of 149 finalists. McKay's project will explore how justice is meted out in three culturally disparate countries. Below, she discusses the project in her own words. Learn more about Joss's project on female empowerment through sports here

Criminalization says more about a society than it does about crime, and structural approaches to justice reveal more about a society than about the individuals adjudicated. In my Watson year, I will travel to South Africa, Rwanda and New Zealand to study community-based approaches to justice and incarceration. Specifically, I will investigate the ways in which communities are experiencing their respective systems of justice and incarceration, and identify challenges shared among these systems.

To carry out this work, I will partner with organizations that approach justice and incarceration through means rooted in the realities of the local and national population, where race, ethnicity and tribal heritage play an important role in how justice is perceived and administered.

I worked in a public defender's office last summer, and it was frustrating to see how inequality is embedded within the structure of the justice system. We know inequalities exist, but seeing people go through the system for things that would go unnoticed in other places, or would go unnoticed if I did them, was eye opening.

I also find frustrating the level to which people in the system can be out of sight and out of mind. Some attorneys have the time and resources to check on the physical and mental well-being of their clients, but not everyone has an attorney like that. And then there's the question of how we uphold a process that recognizes people as human while addressing the crime or injustice in a way that allows people to move forward.

These are not new or easy questions, but I think it's important to keep asking them, and I'm interested in how people are talking about them in other countries.  

Number of people incarcerated:

  • South Africa 161,984 (292 per 100,000)
  • New Zealand 9,914 (210 per 100,000)
  • Rwanda 54,279 (434 per 100,000)
  • United States 2,145,100 (666 per 100,000)

Approaches to community justice go hand in hand with questions of incarceration. A community is a place of interdependency and support. High incarceration rates disrupt community stability, as the members of the community become increasingly defined by their relationship to the criminal justice system rather than to each other.

I also want to understand how communities are treating interpersonal understanding and community needs not as a privilege, but as a central component of justice. I plan to immerse myself in a spectrum of approaches to justice to examine how these approaches are perpetuating or combating social inequities.

I am most excited for how open the Watson year is. This will probably be the least structure I've had at any time in my life, so I'm really looking forward to being present with the people I meet, and open to opportunities and experiences in a different way than I've been before.

McKay, a sociology major from Solon, Ohio, is a member of the cross country and track teams and has held a range of leadership roles on campus, from defense adviser for the Honor Council to hall counselor to member of the Shades of Brown step team. Her passion for issues of social justice is evidenced by her consistent involvement with civic engagement work during her time at Davidson, including with Amnesty International and International Justice Mission, and as an alternative break trip leader and service odyssey leader. McKay is the recipient of a 2016 Goodwin-Exxon Award, given annually to sophomores, juniors and seniors who exemplify the highest standards of character, good sportsmanship, friendliness and consideration for others.

The Thomas J. Watson Fellowship

This 49th class of Watson Fellows comes from six countries and 21 states and will travel to 67 countries exploring topics ranging from pediatric cancer treatment to citizen journalism to wildfire management.

Watson Fellowships allow scholars to pursue independent research projects while traveling for a year outside the United States after graduation. Fellows receive $30,000 for 12 months of travel, and college loan assistance as required.

The children of Thomas J. Watson Sr., the founder of International Business Machines Corp., and his wife, Jeannette K. Watson, established the Thomas J. Watson Fellowship Program in 1968 to honor their parents' long-standing interest in education and world affairs. In its 43-year history, more than 2,800 people have embarked on a Watson Year, which provides fellows with an opportunity to test their aspirations, abilities and perseverance through a personal project that is cultivated on an international scale.

Watson Fellows have gone on to become international influencers in their fields including CEOs of major corporations, college presidents, Emmy, Grammy and Oscar Award winners, Pulitzer Prize awardees, artists, diplomats, doctors, faculty, journalists, lawyers, politicians, researchers and inspiring leaders around the world.


  • April 21, 2017