April 22, 2016
By Grant Olcott
In his talk, Debanjan quoted poet Marianne Williamson who said, “Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us.” Indeed, Debanjan focused on access: people need support in order to overcome their fear of being unstoppable. They need guidance to find their light. As a teacher and activist, Debanjan hopes to help keep education open and accessible. Personally, he wants to achieve this task, while being remembered for his light, laughter, and fire.
Debanjan believes everyone has his or her own place and path in the world. Finding the specific way that one fits into the jigsaw puzzle of life is why education is so important. Perhaps recognizing that one has the power to decide which part of that puzzle to contribute to invokes a certain fear. Individuals can overcome it, and Debanjan wants to dedicate his life to helping them do so.
While working with Chicago teens, Debanjan witnessed the incredible difference that lending support to talented children can bring. This experience bridged the ideas of individual power and the importance of access. By working with teens, he gave them the confidence to access their rap skills and set them on their path to success and self-discovery. He saw how important access to mentorship was. As a teacher and activist, he hopes to always support the light of others at the times they need it the most.
Mentoring teens is one way Debanjan hopes to apply Williamson’s words to his life work. What will always matter to him is making sure doors are open. As long as he ensures it, people will find what they love and life’s puzzle will become less terrifying. They will become unstoppable.
Blogpost Reflection Friday April 8, 2016
When Professor Nadia Horning finds out she’s on the CSE blog, she might feel embarrassed. To post her reflection Friday — which criticized productivity and achievement — is rather ironic. Although this blog inherently promotes Nadia by publishing her thoughts, it also achieves what she identified as her goal: “to enable young minds to find their purpose and to think and rethink the world they live in.”
What matters to Nadia is serving others. She left Madagascar to receive an education so that she could help change her country and continent. During her time abroad, she found a new home in academia and realized teaching was the most effective way to help Africa. Her reflections focused on college: the vehicle by which she makes change. Her ideas on student life and accomplishment constantly point to the CSE’s mantra “what matters to you and why”
Nadia introduced the topic of college life by talking about students’ big goals and the rigor they put themselves through to achieve them. Society’s flawed measurements of self-worth (the accumulation of awards and material things) detract from the experience of learning. They trick people into worshiping productivity. They blind good intentioned and disciplined students into believing that the more they do, the better they are. They make college a means to end.
Oftentimes, students end up sacrificing what’s important to them to “play the game.” They rack up handfuls of extracurriculars and achievements not for themselves, but their Linkedin Profiles. This conflict of quality versus quantity transforms into its cousin dilemma, appearance versus reality. Students stuff their resumes fuller and fuller, while they feel emptier and emptier inside.
Nadia doesn’t see all of this as purely negative. She also saw her education as a means to achieving her goals for Africa. However, in order to put a positive spin on this monotonous grind, a student needs to be three things: keen, prepared, and ready.
Keenness comes naturally to many students. They want to do the best with the opportunities they have. They want to get out and make a change, therefore they need to go through the process of preparing themselves. However, they also must realize when they are ready to focus on the one thing that matters to them most.
One of Nadia’s goals as a professor is to help students find that drive. She encourages debates and broad, self-aware thinking. She designs each lecture as a spark for a debate to blow up, leave the classroom, and resettle at Proctor.
The way society sets up life as a race makes finding meaning more of a challenge. Thus, the question Nadia poses to the Middlebury community is, what do you propose to do to change that?
Reflection Friday 3/18
During the semester’s second Reflection Friday, CSE Fellow Gabby Fuentes ’16, led the community on a genuine and intimate tour of the thoughts she ponders daily. “What matters to me and why? Me,” she responded.
In allowing herself to toy with the narcissism taboo, she emphasized the importance of the self, to the individual and also to the community. Through her explorations and abstractions, important moments and dreams, she gave the community three powerful principles to reflect on.
- Compartmentalization. Working on obligation-to-obligation requires one to repress various emotional, spiritual, and personal aspects of the self. While this requires a great amount of drive and selflessness to sustain, it is a learned behavior. One must not overlook the hidden cost: personal health and wellbeing. She quoted the saying, “You can’t give others a drink if your cup is empty” to highlight this point.
Rather than focusing on this idea as something to fix and change, she merely urged everyone to be aware of it. In what spaces is there this pressure to compartmentalize a side of oneself? She believes community reflection should start with this question. Whether it is a student who can’t make a faculty member’s office hours due to problems at home, or one who feels out of place in the social scene, this question can help create a more understanding community. The self does not exist in a vacuum.
- Difference. Acknowledging and respecting the external and internal differences between people and the sides of the self leads to a more respectful community. Being okay with difference is the goal. To understand internal difference, one should not label difference sides of oneself as fake. Different people and places give off different energy.
- Inclusivity. This principle brings the other two together. Inclusivity means acknowledging other people for who they are. In an inclusive community, one does not ask people who are different to compartmentalize and repress parts of themselves. Inclusivity is achieved when the community recognizes compartmentalization and appreciates difference.
Gaby painted a personal picture of her experience coming to Middlebury as a Posse Scholar. By verbalizing all her ideas, she highlighted several of the dilemmas college communities face today. Although she apologized in a self-aware way for making too many abstractions, all her thoughts provide a clear solution to fostering an inclusive community: develop awareness for compartmentalization of the self and difference.
Reflection Friday March 4
By Grant Olcott
Elizabeth Ready spoke with Daniel Adamek ’18 at the CSE’s spring semester’s first Reflection Friday. The conversation covered some of her experiences in the Vermont State Senate and John Graham Housing Services Center, but focused more on philosophy. To the question, “What matters to you and why?” Elizabeth said justice. In her ideal world, everyone belongs to a place or community. This hope connects to some of the main tenets of Buddhism, which inspires her outlook on life and passion for service. The CSE lists the four steps of the changemaking process as reflect, connect, analyze, and engage. Elizabeth focused on the first.
Reflecting on personal awareness can bring change to the world. From one conversation, Elizabeth realized the size of the ego inherent in any opinion. After she told a friend about an Iranian family she helped in the shelter, the friend opposed it. He had grown up on a Kibbutz, and he didn’t want anyone coming to the country whom he associated with any anti-israeli feelings. The topic of the conversation changed as they talked more and more about the nature of opinions. Any opinion is merely an extension of the opinion bearer, they determined.
When one becomes an activist in any context, one should reflect and become aware of personal reasons for why that cause is important. Embracing this awareness helps throughout the changemaking process. When it comes time to act, the first impulse is just one impulse. Other thoughts and opinions are just as valid. By removing the self from reflection, one improves judgment and reduces selfishness.
The story also reveals insight into unlocking the power of fear and anger. Beneath one’s fears is a place of vulnerability. The friend truly wishes for peace everywhere and the health of all refugees, once the painful memories are stripped away. Becoming a changemaker involves allowing oneself to live in that space.
Elizabeth’s Reflection Friday talk was more spiritual than most. While justice is her cause, she values the concept of understanding the most. Understanding means seeing people as people. Despite the somewhat revolving door at the homeless shelter — she often gets the homeless into homes only to see them return a few weeks later — she understands them as people in need of help. Giving up on the problem would deny individuals that help. To illustrate this point she used the refugee crisis as an example. To those who think it is a bottomless pit: is a child washed up on the beach, a child in need or a bottomless pit?
To Elizabeth, an ideal world is one where everyone asks: what serves here? People reflect on their values and strengths and discover how they can best serve each other. They appreciate the interconnectedness of humanity, and use it to create beneficial and supportive places. They come to an understanding.
Mohamed Hussein ’17 is a CSE fellow who spent a month in Cuba as part of his Ambassador Corps assignment.
As part of Ambassador Corps’s (AC) first cohort, I had the pleasure of conducting a month-long research project on social entrepreneurship in Cuba. From the very first day, the island taught me to reconsider my assumptions and keep them in check. After a two-hour delay in the flight, I arrived in Havana at 4:00 pm and had to wait for more than three full hours before the luggage had arrived. This incident highlighted the polychronic nature of Cuban culture; time here is slow and thick, like viscid honey pouring down sulkily from an unattended jar.
Even before I arrived, the culture started humbling me in unexpected ways. While waiting in line for my flight, the woman ahead of me in line called my attention to the fact that I was the only person whose baggage was not wrapped in plastic. I asked why such wrapping was necessary. She laughed, explaining how, otherwise, some of my personal belongings might get ‘lost’ on their way to Havana. This showed me that the existing social capital is minimal between inhabitants of the island and their expat counterparts on the mainland.
The third initial lesson was my over-dependency on the internet and electronics. Since internet costs $10 an hour, I have kept my use to a minimum. It was quite hard to not know what is happening in the rest of the world and have very limited and little access to information. At first it was stressful; later, it just was.
After one week of living in Havana, I calmed down after my initial ‘spasmodic’ reaction. The city grew on me with its chaos and crowded buses that cost 5 cents. There is something oddly trancing about the feeling of solidarity aroused by melding into a desolate background with hundreds of people going about their lives. To a passerby, I was just another Cuban. This visual reality eased my life, encouraging strangers on the streets to open up to me, albeit my foreignness. These encounters allowed me to draw a more detailed image of Havana and life under a socialist regime. The stories I gathered interweave to form an intricate canvas that makes no sense. I see contradictions everywhere.
During the third week, my know-all attitude got me sick. Thinking that I would save money, I bought ingredients from local markets and started cooking. An eggplant, some chicken, onions, and carrots—nothing too fancy. The vegetables and fruits were 100% chemical-free (by product of necessity than environmentalism but that’s beside the point) so they tasted fresh. With these simple ingredients, I started making an Egyptian dish that I have perfected over the years. I ate to my heart’s content but got quite ill that night.
You see, even though the vegetables looked the same, they were variations of the same species, which changed some of their essential characteristics. The eggplant, for example, was too absorbent of the oil in which it was fried and the chicken’s muscular tissue needed longer to be cooked. My impulse to apply my culinary knowledge to a different context without adapting has resulted in a failure that harmed me. Instead, I gave money to my host mother, who prepared delicious food for me within a tight budget.
This incident has made me realize that the future of development for Cuba may have a very similar reality. Like me, idealistic international organizations may come in, ready to apply their skills and knowledge. They will want to get their hands dirty and do things themselves, distrusting the Cuban governmental agencies and existing structures. A better approach would be to find their ‘host mother,’ a local structure that do more than counsel them on culture. Cubans do not need skills and knowledge—their biggest asset is their human capital, since the government spends more than 10% of GDP on education, compared to US’s 5.2%. The island is in need of material support, the money to buy the ingredients that makes sense to them and their context, more than anything.
The CSE Friday Speaker Series: Eric Archambeau
May 1, 2015 | by Otto Nagengast ’17
Before getting into social entrepreneurship, Eric Archambeau spent over 20 years working in technology. After finishing his studies in Engineering and Computer Science, Eric got his start by working on product design and manufacturing, a move that he recommends to anyone starting out in any field. He later launched numerous ventures, before moving into investing in 2000. Eric is currently a General Partner at Wellington Partners, a pan-European venture capital firm with around 800 million Euros under management.
Eric has also long worked in social entrepreneurship. In fact, his work with Social Impact International, which he co-founded in 2003, played a role in the coining of the very term social entrepreneurship. On Friday, Eric talked about two of his latest projects.
In 2010, Eric co-founded Quadia and is currently chairman of the company. Quadia is an impact investing firm with around 100 million USD in assets. Although still a small firm, Quadia is growing rapidly, and Eric hopes that they will be significant player in the next five years.
At the heart of their investment strategy is to seek out companies that have abandoned all-together the corporate social responsibility approach to social impact and instead have made social responsibility part of their core business model. Many companies make profits their only criteria for success, and to mitigate, to some extent, any negative externalities of their operations, they devote some money to projects that have positive social impact. But Quadia is seeking out firms that have positive social impact in their DNA. And while many impact investing firms gravitate toward investing in developing countries, Quadia also aggressively seeks out opportunities in developed countries.
Eric says that a major constraint for market growth of impact investing firms is impact measurement. How do you quantify the positive social change of investments? Eric explained how before the Great Depression, there was no common accounting system. This made it difficult, if not impossible, for investors to compare companies. The field of impact investing faces a similar obstacle today. Eric says that “measuring impact is the synthesis of many small parts,” which makes constructing a reliable metric a challenge. Quadia employs three full-time analysts that work to build the company’s multi-dimensional impact metric. This enables them to track companies’ progress in terms of impact and to compare impact across companies.
Eric also serves as the Global Chairman of the Jamie Oliver Food Foundation. Eric met Jamie Oliver, the celebrity chef and food activist, at TED 2010. He was struck by the passion and vision that Jamie shared in his TED talk, and afterwards Eric approach him. He asked Jamie if the supply chain of his 80-plus restaurants adhered to the same principles of ethical food sourcing he advocated for in his talk. Jamie didn’t know. A few weeks later, Jamie got back to Eric, after speaking with the chefs and managers of his restaurants, and told him, no—his restaurants did not live up to the standards he preached. He asked Eric to help him change that.
As Global Chairman of the Jamie Oliver Food Foundation, Eric is not only leading the philanthropic arm of the Jamie Oliver Group, Jamie’s for-profit company, but he is also helping the company to put strict ethical standards in place. Soon, all of the seven million meals served at Jamie’s restaurants will be made with food that was sourced adhering to Jamie Oliver’s Food Standards. Because of this transition, the Jamie Oliver Group will soon be an “impact-grade” company for impact investors. And Eric is optimistic that the Jamie Oliver Group could even become one of the first European companies to become B-Corps certified.
Over the past couple of years, there has been a sea change in impact investing. Before, companies couldn’t talk about impact without other companies looking at them like they were crazy. Now, it’s becoming increasingly normal for businesses to talk about impact. Eric said that Quadia does not have to go look for clients; the clients come to them. This is a heartening sign that impact investing is entering the mainstream in the investment world. With his experience in social entrepreneurship and investing, Eric will continue to lead the push among businesses to make positive social impact not just a public relations tool but a fundamental component of their business model.
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.
The MCSE Friday Speaker Series: Chris Howell ’04.5, Founder, Vermont Farm Tours
by Otto Nagengast ’17
Chris Howell’s work in Vermont agriculture began when he was a student at Middlebury. During his time here he was involved with the college’s organic farm, and he helped it to grow into the integral part of campus, and our community, that it is today. After graduating in February 2004, Chris and his father founded a five-acre farm in New Hampshire. Chris says, with a chuckle, that it was an adjustment going from Midd where he could spend three hours in the dining hall with friends eating dinner to sharing parsnips with his dad on the farm each night.
Chris’ interest in agriculture eventually took him abroad, and through World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms (WWOOF), he “WWOOFed” in France, Spain, and Italy. In Italy, Chris worked with a cheese-maker who was famous in northern Italy. The man, Chris says, “was so connected” to the cheese that he crafted. The cheese also connected the man to his town, which in northern Italy became synonymous with excellent cheese. In Italy, Chris came to more fully appreciate that food can deeply connect people to a place.
After brief stints as a carpenter and a logger, Chris launched Vermont Farm Tours in 2009. The company offers a range of trips, from vineyards to maple sugarhouses to artisan cheese makers, all in Vermont. Edible Green Mountains Magazine says: “There is no one better qualified to take you behind the scenes to experience the story and flavor of our unique culinary landscape than the charismatic owner of Vermont Farm Tours, Chris Howell.” Chris says that his clients are after “a cool Vermont experience.” He builds his trips on personal connections with farmers, some of which he made during his time at Middlebury. This personal touch requires a lot of planning, but it sets his trips apart from the rest. “From a business standpoint,” Chris says, “it’s a terrible idea to have all these logistics. Could I streamline it? Yeah.” But the fact that his business model is not scalable is because his work is incredibly personal, which is what Chris loves about it.
Chris says that the biggest “why” about his work is that it matters. Vermont agriculture is at a crossroads. In 2009 the Farm to Plate Investment Program Legislation was approved, codifying a movement that had already been underway at the grassroots level and getting millions in government funding behind the initiative. The goal of the Farm to Plate movement is to help preserve Vermont’s agrarian identity. Chris is a leader in this movement. The Vermont agro-tourism industry is already about a 10 to 20 million dollar business. The industry, however, isn’t new, Chris says. In the 1890s, a member of the Vermont Board of Agriculture, Victor Spear, said that “The summer boarder is perhaps our most profitable crop.” Chris envisions that within 10 years hospitality training will be widespread among farms and a sizable portion of farms’ incomes will come from tourism.
One of Chris’ latest initiatives is promoting Vermont spirits. He sees enormous potential for Vermont spirits, because they can be 100 percent Vermont-made, including even the grains. He even hired a public-relations consultant to help promote fully-Vermont distilled spirits, and the story got national attention.
In just ten years, Chris went from pulling his first weed at the Middlebury organic farm to being a leader in a movement to preserve Vermont’s agrarian identity. By searching and ultimately finding his passion, and seeing the opportunity to turn it into a livelihood, Chris is connecting people to Vermont through farm and food. His work is not only meaningful to him but its helps farmers to sustain their livelihoods and preserve a Vermont way of life.
April 3rd, 2015 – by Otto Nagengast ’17
The United Nations estimates that 150 to 200 species go extinct every day. Much of this is due to the staggering scale of deforestation in the world today, which is also responsible for 20 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions. Over one half of the world’s forest have already been destroyed, but the Rainforest Alliance (RFA) is fighting to stem the ever-increasing rate of global deforestation.
Seventy percent of forest removal is for agriculture. The RFA’s model is built on creating sustainable livelihoods for farmers around the world, so that the farmers don’t need to chop down precious forests to make a living. With around 400 staff working in over 100 countries, the RFA works to promote supply chain sustainability from the ground up. At the farm level, the RFA collaborates with the Sustainable Agriculture Network (SAN) to evaluate farms along 10 criteria, ranging from Ecosystem Conservation to Fair Treatment and Working Conditions for Workers to Community Relations. Richard Donovan, Senior Vice President and Vice President of Forestry at the RFA, says that for farms “the baseline is not injuring [the environment]…we want to push them to improve.”
At the corporate level, the RFA works with companies like Hershey’s, Unilever, and Dunkin’ Donuts to help them source their products more sustainability, not only for the sake of the environment but also in the interest of profits. When the banana producer Chiquita transitioned to more sustainable sources, they reduced costs by 12 percent and increased productivity by 27 percent. Unilever reduced paper costs by $5 million by switching to a sustainable producer. Both Lipton and McDonalds increased market share by over 6 percent by offering sustainably-sourced products. Thanks in part to the RFAs work, firms now expect to be able to trace their sources back all the way, whereas before the RFA had to convince firms why traceability mattered.
There have also been enormous economic benefits for indigenous communities thanks to the work of the RFA. By helping 1.1 million farms in 43 countries gain certification for their sustainable practices, the RFA has helped indigenous communities earn around $38 million dollars. Today, over 30,000 households are supported through community forest operations.
But deforestation still occurs on a massive scale and the RFA is constantly evolving to address the ever-changing challenges deforestation presents for a sustainable environment. The very word “sustainability,” says Richard, has become stale and the RFA is still debating using more language like “eradicating deforestation” instead of “promoting sustainability.” The RFA is among the first wave of NGOs to use matrix management. Instead of siloing talent into separate departments, the RFA has teams of people from different backgrounds and areas of expertise that work together on projects. This allowed Carly Fink, who graduate in May 2014 with a degree in Environmental Studies and Geography, to smoothly transition into her position at the RFA. She has spent the past year working with RFA president Tensie Whelan on exploring new initiatives. Richard says that today it is becoming increasingly important to have an area of expertise, but also a broad understanding of how your expertise fits in with others that you’re collaborating with.
Carly says that at Middlebury she learned about the countless problems that ail our world, but that it is “exciting to work with the Rainforest Alliance on actually solving those problems.” The RFA has already done hugely consequential work, and they’re striving to do even more.
by Otto Nagengast ’17
During Ekow Edzie’s senior year at Middlebury College, he sent off application after application for internships across the country and abroad. By the time he graduated in May, with a degree in Environmental Studies and Biology, he had accepted three internships in San Francisco. He spent the next year zipping around the Bay Area on his bike going from the Antenna Theater where he researched for an environmentally-focused art initiative, to 826 Valencia where he tutored kids and built programs, and at night he would across the Golden Gate Bridge to Oakland where he taught swim lessons.
Although the work he was doing in San Francisco was exciting, Ekow says that he didn’t see how it was helping him to do the kind of work he really wanted to do. He applied to the Peace Corps, and a year later, he was off to the Dominican Republic. When Ekow arrived in March 2011, there was great political change underway. The president at the time, Leonel Fernández, appointed a new Minister of the Environment, Jamie Mirabal, son of Dedé Mirabal who is a national hero in the Dominican Republic. Part of Jamie Mirabal’s task was to reclaim control of the country’s natural resources that had long been exploited by wealthy land-owners. One of his first steps as Minister was to change the National Forestry School into the National School for the Environment in order to groom a generation of young Dominicans that would protect their country’s environment.
Ekow was assigned to work with the director of the new National School for the Environment. Professor Jon Isham, who spent three years with the Peace Corps in Gabon, raised his hand during the talk to add that Ekow’s assignment is a “dream post” for a Peace Corps volunteer. For two years, Ekow taught at the school and worked to expand programming. In the summer of 2012, Ekow’s high school Spanish teacher and current Director of Curriculum and Program Development at Education First contacted Ekow to explore the feasibility of collaboration with the National School of the Environment.
Education First (EF) is the largest private education company in the world. For 50 years, they have enabled people, particularly young people, from around the world to travel and discover the world. One of their staple programs are student trips. George Stewart wanted to expand EF’s programming to include service-learning trips. Ekow knew that the interest and opportunity were there in the DR, but he didn’t know about the scalability and profitability. He reached out to other organizations, and found several more who were interested in partnering with EF. In May 2013, he was hired as EF’s Program Manager in the DR.
Ekow says that his time in the Peace Corps enabled him to see what his four-year investment of college was really worth. It also taught him key skills of social entrepreneurship, like how to get to know a place by listening to the local people. Drawing upon these skills, Ekow saw that trips built on detailed itineraries, the standard format for EF trips, was not possible in the DR. Instead, he is designing trips centered on themes, like youth empowerment or the environment. Ekow also saw that he may not be able to guarantee that a group can work on a theme because the opportunity may not exist all the time, but he can guarantee that they can learn about it through educational programming while in-country.
Ekow loves that his work not only helps the trip participants to travel and learn, but the trips also help local organizations financially, they creates jobs, and they have a positive impact on pressing issues in the DR. Ekow is transitioning out of his role with EF in order to pursue further studies, but he is grooming the current field director of the DR program to replace him. After their success in the DR thanks to Ekow’s work, EF is now expanding their service-learning programs throughout Latin America.