Why these 3 social impact leaders are motivated to 'build bridges, not walls'

By Catherine Cheney 29 November 2016

A 2015 New York Global Glimpse delegation at the San Rafael community outside of Constanza, Dominican Republic. Global Glimpse students wake up before sunrise and accompany local families to their daily jobs. Photo by: Global Glimpse

The day after Sept. 11, 2001, Robin Pendoley found himself in a bookstore, where he bought all the literature he could on Martin Luther King and started reading. Pendoley, who was running an after school program and working at a cafe in Eugene, Oregon, wanted to learn how King became such an effective agent of change, what it takes to develop the higher order empathy that enabled him to love his enemies, and how he might help others develop those capacities themselves.

Fifteen years later, the day after the recent United States presidential election, the founder and CEO of Thinking Beyond Borders found himself returning to the words of this hero.

“The news this morning shines a bright light on the fact that those who want a more just, equitable and sustainable world face serious headwinds. But, this isn't new,” he wrote in an email to staff and alumni on Nov. 9, when much of the world woke up to the news that Donald J. Trump would become the next U.S. president. “Humans have always struggled against injustice, inequity, and unsustainable living, and we probably always will. But, this doesn't mean we can't create meaningful change. We can bend the arc of the moral universe toward justice.”

Pendoley, who founded a nonprofit organization that sends students on educational gap years to develop a critical understanding of how to pursue meaningful social impact, sat down with Devex on election day to chat about what he describes as humble learning. After the election results took the world by surprise, Pendoley got back in touch with Devex, providing a window into the hard questions he’s now asking himself.

“Ultimately, our goal isn't necessarily for our students to work in international development, but to work for equity, justice, and sustainability in whatever communities make sense to them,” he wrote via email, explaining that the Thinking Beyond Borders mission is realized in the long-term outcomes of the work of their alumni, which happens both domestically and internationally. “It's a long game, but I think we're already on the path to meeting this critical need. We'll see as the months move ahead if we decide to shift our approach.”

Pendoley is not alone in processing what the U.S. presidential election — and the issues it brought to light — means for organizations with missions to educate and empower the next generation of leaders. Devex checked in with the founders of Thinking Beyond Borders, MovingWorlds, and Global Glimpse to understand how they view their role moving forward.

Communicating the results

On Nov. 9, Eliza Pesuit, executive director of education nonprofit Global Glimpse in Oakland, California, wrote a piece called “If I met Trump when he was 16.” She described a moment that stuck with her, when a 16-year-old Mexican American girl from East Oakland told her the most impactful moment from a recent trip to Nicaragua was discovering a white girl would want to be her friend. Pesuit went on to emphasize the need to create more avenues for young people from disparate backgrounds to connect in the United States.

“Imagine what our world would look like if every young person in America had a transformational experience that opened their eyes and motivated them to build bridges not walls,” she said in a call to action for more people to commit to the next generation.

By revealing the consequences of divisions, the election provided an opportunity for organizations that connect people across borders and backgrounds to market their missions, raise funds, and call for applications, which they expect to see more of than ever. Global Glimpse, which is celebrating its 10 year anniversary, sent an email asking for donations, explaining that it is more critical now than ever to provide ways for young people to find common ground.

Following the election, Mark Horoszowski, the founder of MovingWorlds, wrote about how a lack of empathy bred the misunderstandings and divisions that led to a result that took the world by surprise.

“I want to reassure you that now, more than ever, the ideals we stand for as a diverse, global community are to be embraced and celebrated,” said the founder of the Seattle-based organization that connects professionals with opportunities to volunteer their skills abroad. “Only by working together, accepting each other, and learning from one another can we create a healthy planet free of injustices and inequalities.”

A sure way to build empathy is through human connection with diverse groups, Horoszowski told Devex in a follow-up interview, explaining that the election results only reinforced his belief in the importance of this mission. The newly launched MovingWorlds Institute builds on the idea of Experteering, but takes empathy building a step further by adding curriculum, global networking, and mentoring to prepare people to take leadership roles that allow them to unite people from all walks of life.

Pesuit, Horoszowski and Pendoley all agreed they feel their work, and the work of related organizations such as OneWorld Now!, Global Citizen Year, and Atlas Corps, is more important now than ever.

“I have been doing this work for a decade and finally people are beginning to understand and value our mission and our model,” Pesuit wrote Devex. “There is incredible momentum behind the work we are doing and I am driven to expand our impact exponentially.”

But while the assumption in much of the social impact sector is the greater the scale, the more meaningful the impact of the work, in this line of work the value lies in the scope versus the scale of impact, Pendoley said.

“Our vision is that our alumni will follow their passions and continue their critical engagement throughout their lives, carrying this approach into their higher ed and professional careers,” Pendoley said, adding that their way of engaging with their work and the world will catalyze others toward a more critically conscious approach to their work and impact.

One example of this is Zander Rounds, who participated in the second year of the Thinking Beyond Borders program, and is now based in Nairobi, Kenya, where he is researching the social impact of Chinese investment in the country. He, like so many alumni of programs focused on global citizenry, are drawing on their international experiences as they process what these election results mean for their place in the world. For Rounds, it means empathizing with those who voted for a candidate he said he could never support, and treating the results as an opportunity to make movements towards a more just society, he wrote Pendoley from Kenya in one of many cross border email exchanges to emerge in the weeks following the election.

“This will require imagination and empathy, a striving to humanize and connect with those that we currently are inclined to hate,” he said.

Finding the way forward

Clare Platt, a senior at George Washington University in Washington, D.C., spent last weekend with her family in rural Wisconsin. Like so many of her friends, she sat around the Thanksgiving meal with family members whose views differed from her own. But her experience with Thinking Beyond Borders prompted her to approach those hard conversations differently.

“I am trying to continuously question my own positionality,” she told Devex. “I am one person with a set of lived experiences that have shaped my reality, and the way I think about things is not the way others think about things. The thing we have to do, and why we got into this mess, is that we need to be listening to each other and listening in a way we are seeking to understand, not protect our own position and our own viewpoint.”

Thinking Beyond Borders is a global gap year program that sends groups of 18 students and three teachers to three countries on three continents where they work alongside local NGOs and gather for daily seminars with inquiry-based curriculum. The first and last seminar is built around the question, “What is development?”

Pendoley said he sees this as a spiritual question and one that anyone working in social impact should constantly be asking themselves. Students often emerge from the program with more questions than answers after spending seven months thinking about their place in the world.

Thinking Beyond Borders students explain to the young people who participate in their program that they are there to learn, rather than to help. Service, Pendoley says, assumes these students have something to give, and that there is a need these young people can meet. Rather, he sees these organizations as the experts and emphasizes the goal for these students is to learn, so that they can develop the skills they need to make an impact in the future.

Acknowledging that not all young people can have the same opportunity she had, Platt explained that what we need now more than ever is empathy, which can be generated in other ways. Get out of your comfort zone, she said, and surround yourself with people who do not think like you do and help you ask the right questions. The more we insulate ourselves, the less we will learn, she said, echoing Pendoley, who encouraged global development professionals to create learning communities.

“Our lives and the lives of our friends and our families depend on our ability to bring our best selves forward now,” Pesuit said. “I would encourage people to get out of their routines and comfort zones. We need to feel uncomfortable right now, we need to act.”

It is more important than ever to stand up for those who are vulnerable, across the U.S. and around the world, and find common ground across geographic, economic, racial, and cultural divides, she added.

In his note to alumni and staff of Thinking Beyond Borders, Pendoley had three pieces of advice. Ask the big questions, the hard questions, like how you have wielded your privilege to create negative and positive impact, or what are the big and little things you can do to live the life you want and create the world you want? Take care of yourself and the people around you. And stand on the shoulders of giants, consuming content about their struggles, and exploring their words and thoughts, as he has done with King.

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About the author

Catherine cheney devex
Catherine Cheneycatherinecheney

Catherine Cheney covers the West Coast global development community for Devex. Since graduating from Yale University, where she earned bachelor's and master's degrees in political science, Catherine has worked as a reporter and editor for a range of publications including World Politics Review, POLITICO, and NationSwell, a media company and membership network she helped to build. She is also an ambassador for the Solutions Journalism Network and the Franklin Project at the Aspen Institute.


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