The CSE Friday Speaker Series: Robin Pendoley, Founder & CEO of Thinking Beyond Borders
by Otto Nagengast ’17 | April 24, 2015
In his junior year at UCLA, Robin Pendoley travelled to Bolivia on a study abroad program centered around development. He had long been exploring questions relating to development, privilege, and the obligation to serve. This exploration, however, had been solitary. But in Bolivia, surrounded by the twenty-two other participants on his trip, Robin finally had a space in which he could share with others in exploring these challenging questions. “I finally found my tribe,” Robin says.
During the semester, the group travelled to Lake Titicaca, which straddles the border between Bolivia and Peru. They chartered a small boat and went to Isla del Sol, an island that lies in the middle of the lake. On the island, there is a small, natural spring that the Incas believed that everyone Incan should visit because it is the source of all life. When the group arrived at the spring, Robin sat down, pulled out his journal and began to reflect. Over 100 million Incas had lived across what is today Ecuador, Peru, Bolivia, and Chile. Just one hundred years after the Conquistadors arrived, the Incas numbered less than ten million. He had come thousands of miles to the mecca of an ancient civilization that was all but wiped out after the arrival of Europeans. In this moment of profound reckoning of past and present, Robin heard his group mates swimming and splashing around down in the lake. The juxtaposition of their attitudes deeply troubled Robin.
For the next three days, he buried himself in his journal and dwelled upon what happened on Isla del Sol. When the group arrived back in Potosí, they had to present on their trip to Lake Titicaca. In the middle of the presentations, Robin could not bear it any longer. He ran out of the hotel and through the streets. He ended up sitting on a stoop, head in his hands, sobbing. He had found his tribe of people, a community in which he thought he could find some answers to the questions that had troubled him for so long, only to lose this community. Any answers he felt like he had found in the past months all vanished. He was back to square one in his journey.
At the end of his undergraduate years, during which he majored in International Development Studies, Robin’s advisor and director of the International Development program at UCLA gave him a book, The Pedagogy of the Oppressed by Paulo Freire. Robin says that the book taught him that society is like a net that we sit on. We can question some assumptions of our society, and undo some lengths of the net, but it remains intact. But once we question enough assumptions, the net is undone, we feel through, and we experience a social death. Robin realized that his moment on the stoop in Potosí was his “grieving of his own social death.” He realized that pretending that he had the answers was not a privilege he was comfortable having.
Years later, Robin watched on television as two planes crash into the twin towers on September 11. He went to his local bookstore in Eugene, Oregon and left with 2,500 pages of reading on “great agents of change,” like Ghandi and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
A few years later, Robin co-founded Thinking Beyond Borders. Thinking Beyond Borders (TBB) is in many ways a culmination of Robin’s long personal journey toward finding his place in the global society. TBB runs semester and year-long exchange programs for gap-year students. Students spend every five-weeks in a different country; TBB has programs in Bolivia, Peru, Ecuador, Cambodia, Thailand, India, and South Africa. At the end of the program, students spend time in Washington, D.C. with development policymakers on Capital Hill and at the World Bank and the IMF.
At Thinking Beyond Borders (TBB), they embrace Dr. King’s belief that “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice,” and they believe that it bends because there are people who bend it. There will always be people with good skills and good intentions, says Robin, but he thinks that “Do-gooders aren’t very good at doing good.” The reason is that they lack the right balance of love and intellect. Too much love results in entrenched support for one group of people and blindness for other perspectives. Too much intellect results in the abstraction and dehumanization of people.
To accomplish this, TBB aims to build Higher Order Empathy Capacity among their students. This enables students to see the value in connecting with everyone, even enemies, on a common, human level. Students realize that they don’t have the answers to everything, but they can have lots of questions and humility enables them to explore the questions with others.
Robin is emphatic that TBB is “not a volunteer or a service organization.” TBB is an education organization. Students are expected to humbly embed themselves in a different context, not in the hopes of improving the place but of improving themselves.
Since its inception seven years ago, TBB has 164 alumni, and it is growing each year. Last year, 34 students were part of the full-year program, and 20 were part of the semester programs. But Robin says that at TBB they “believe in the scope of the impact, not the scale of impact.”
As TBB grows, Robin says that he has to learn something new everyday. For Robin, TBB is part of a greater project of bending the moral arc of the universe, and his personal part in that project is intertwined with TBB. His role, he has found, is helping others to find theirs.