Florida State University

College of Social Sciences & Public Policy

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Kerr Initiative Works Toward Education And Understanding

by John Mayo, Kerr Initiative Director

This year marks the 10th anniversary of Monsignor William Kerr’s untimely death on May 13, 2009. One month later, in June 2009, FSU launched the William A. Kerr Intercultural Education and Dialogue Initiative. Kerr dedicated the last two decades of his life to the expansion of educational opportunities for underprivileged youth around the world and to the creation of a vibrant international dialogue among people of different nationalities, ethnicities and religions. The mission of the Kerr Initiative is to honor the life and legacy of our friend and mentor by enhancing intercultural dialogue and understanding, both on our campus and around the world.

The organization sponsors seminars and institutes to prepare emerging leaders for conflict resolution and partners with universities in other nations to support collaborative research on how best to reconcile differences among cultures and faiths.

Since its inception, the Kerr Initiative has partnered with numerous faculty members and campus organizations to promote peace through interfaith dialogue and cultural understanding. In 2018-2019 it did so again in partnership with the Center for Global Engagement’s (CGE) Engage Your World Series, the Center for the Advancement of Human Rights (CAHR) and the Broad Lectureship on International Affairs.

In November 2018, a symposium entitled Security from Below: Grassroots Democracy and Change in West Africa, brought together five distinguished scholars to interpret security and development trends in the region. The interdisciplinary event was organized and moderated by Dr. Joseph Hellweg, Associate Professor of Religion at FSU. Speakers highlighted the security-related issues they believe are beyond the purview of government control. They also examined the lengths to which non-state actors must often go, and the obstacles they must overcome, to enhance civic participation in national life. In doing so, they agreed that Western assumptions about both secular and state power are frequently irrelevant.

In January 2019, Dr. Anup Kumar, Associate Professor of Communication at Cleveland State University and a former journalist in India, presented a lecture entitled Peace Communication in South Asia. The event was co-sponsored by the Broad Lectureship, the Center for Global Engagement and the South Asia Media and Cultural Studies Conference. In his talk Professor Kumar cited the importance of cross-border, citizen-to citizen communication as a means to bring peace between India and Pakistan. Calling upon both nations to strengthen both their private and public diplomacy, he observed that “peaceful communication [must] draw on shared culture, familial bonds and the collective well-being of citizens of these nations.”

Kerr Fellows

Each fall the initiative awards fellowships to a select number of graduate students from nations that have experienced religious and/or cultural conflicts in recent years. Kerr Fellows are selected on the basis of their academic qualifications as well as their professional aspirations and leadership skills. Financial support is provided to each fellow for up to two years.

The Kerr Fellows sponsored to date have come from 12 countries: Afghanistan, Bangladesh, China, India, Indonesia, Iran, Libya, Palestine/Gaza, Rwanda, Syria, Turkey and Uganda. They have earned graduate degrees in a wide variety of disciplines, including: Public Health, Public Administration, International Affairs, Education, Mathematics, Electrical Engineering, Information Management and Sports Psychology.

There are seven Kerr Fellows on campus this fall, our highest number to date. They are:

Rose Caren Achar is a master’s student from Kenya, majoring in International Affairs. She earned a B.S.C in Computer Science and Mathematics from Jomo Kenyatta University in Nairobi. Subsequently, she worked for a year and a half in customer service and information services positions with the Kenyan Government. Upon completion of her graduate studies, Rose plans to return to Kenya to work with nongovernmental or inter-governmental organizations that champion women’s rights and empowerment. Her long-term goal is to become a human rights advocate or a diplomat.

Venous Babolhavaeji is from the ancient city of Hamedan in Iran. She earned a bachelor’s degree and a master’s degrees in Urban and Regional Planning from the University of Hamedan. She was the first person in her family to attend college. Upon completion of her first master’s, Venous worked in tourism development planning and community design for both the public and private sector in Iran. She is currently in the first semester of FSU’s master’s program in Geographic Information Science. Upon completion of that program, her goal is to obtain an internship with NASA where she hopes to apply her knowledge of planning, remote sensing and mapmaking to challenges associated with global climate change.

Mina Akbari is originally from Iran. She earned a bachelor’s degree in textiles at the Tabriz Art University in Tehran. She is currently enrolled in FSU’s master’s program in Information and Library Science, having already earned a master’s in Art History. Mina works as a graduate assistant at Strozier library, managing numerous projects, including graduate and undergraduate instruction and consultation, and collection development for the College of Fine Arts. Previously, she worked in the Art Department’s library and interned at the university’s FSU Museum of Fine Arts. Upon completion of her graduate studies, Mina’s goal is to work as an art librarian and, in that capacity, to familiarize students and faculty members with the latest resources and strategies for conducting research

Parvathy Binoy is from the South Indian state of Kerala. She is currently a first-year Ph.D. student in Geography with interests in environmental justice, race, gender, colonialism and social movements. Previously, she taught and conducted research for a number of international and grassroots organizations in India, Sri Lanka and the U.S. They included UNICEF, Amnesty International and the Coalition of Communities against Police Brutality. Prior to enrolling at FSU, Parvathy also worked and studied at Syracuse University, Gustavus Adolphus College, Oregon State University and Portland Community College. She is a fluent speaker of Malayalam, Hindi and English and has a working knowledge of Tamil, Urdu, Bengali and French.

Mohammad Rahiminejat is originally from Ahwaz, Iran, one of his country’s largest southern cities. He is pursuing a master’s in Geographic Information Science at FSU. Previously, he earned bachelor degrees in both Industrial Engineering and English Language Translation at the University of Tehran. Upon completion of his undergraduate degrees, he was employed by an engineering company in Tehran. Mohammad’s goal is to return to Iran and apply his GIS knowledge and training to the improvement of the country’s transportation services and infrastructure.

Sarah Tabassum is from Dhaka, Bangladesh. She is a first-year master’s student in Urban and Regional Planning. Previously, she earned a B.S. in Architecture from Bangladesh’s University of Engineering & Technology. Upon completion of her undergraduate studies, Sarah was employed by several architectural firms in Dhaka. She then decided to pursue graduate training in urban planning and development with specializations in transportation and land use planning. Upon completion of her master’s, Sarah aspires to gain additional professional experience in the U.S. and then return to Bangladesh to work for the betterment of urban life though the development of impactful solutions for Dhaka’s growing traffic problems.

Wang Min is from Henan, China. She is a third-year Ph.D. student in Educational Leadership and Policy Studies, majoring in International and Multicultural Education. Min received a B.A. in English Translation at Sias International University in China and a M. Ed. in Environmental Education at Florida Atlantic University. Prior to coming to the U.S., she was involved in variety of projects dedicated to expanding women’s rights and child protections. Her research at FSU focuses on strategies for increasing educational opportunities and social mobility in rural China. Upon completion of graduate school, Min intends to return to China to conduct research and to be a change agent, working to expand access to education in rural areas and to improve its quality at all levels.

Intercultural Communication and Leadership Seminar

The initiative’s eighth annual Intercultural Communication and Leadership Seminar ran for six weeks last summer. Thirteen students (seven graduate students and six undergraduates), along with three professors (Coonan, Mayo and Taylor), participated. As in previous years, the seminar focused on the essential communication, conflict-resolution and consensus-building skills required for leadership and social change in diverse cultural settings.

In addition to the students’ varied cultural backgrounds, they represented a broad spectrum of academic fields, including International Affairs, Political Science, Social Work, Educational Leadership and Policy Studies, Asian Studies, Urban and Regional Planning and Intercultural and Multicultural Education.

By the end of six weeks, participants were able to: (1) assess their strengths and weaknesses as cross-cultural communicators; (2) work constructively with counterparts from different academic disciplines, nationalities and cultures; (3) understand the complex human rights and development issues presented by numerous case studies; and (4) demonstrate creativity and leadership in the design and presentation of individual projects.

Global Peace Exchange

The Global Peace Exchange (GPE) was founded in 2006 by three enterprising FSU undergraduates with the encouragement and support of Monsignor Kerr. Since its inception, the organization has fielded more than 120 students to work with governmental and nongovernmental organizations in 12 countries: Brazil, Cambodia, Ecuador, Ghana, Guatemala, Haiti, Moldova, Nepal, Peru, Rwanda, Thailand and Uganda. Partnerships have been formed in those countries to support development initiatives in multiple sectors, including education, community health, business & social entrepreneurship, women and youth empowerment and the environment.

With direction and support from the Initiative, along with travel grants from the College of Social Sciences and Public Policy, teams of GPE volunteers were placed in three countries last summer:

Brazil – Located in the heart of the Atlantic rainforest in the Brazilian state of Minais Gerais, Iracambi is a nonprofit, nongovernmental organization whose motto is Saving Forests and Changing Lives. Its mission encompasses reforestation, regenerative agriculture, environmental education and economic sustainability. When GPE volunteers Karina Amalbert, Valeria Baduell, Sarah Calzada, Sofya and Jesmel Moreno arrived at Iracambi they did not know quite what to expect. Their initial days were spent touring the rainforest and learning about the organization’s facilities. They also were briefed on the organization’s efforts to protect the rainforest and thereby to secure its inhabitants’ livelihoods. Subsequently, in the span of eight and a half weeks, the five volunteers learned how to seed and harvest forest plants, including coffee, and how to practice sustainable agroforestry. In so doing, they also acquired a greater understanding of how climate change is occurring, both locally and on a global scale. They also made many Brazilian friends and as one volunteer observed upon her return to campus this fall: “this was the best reflective and immersive summer most of us have had in our lives.”

Ghana – In Kasoa, GPE Ghana, volunteers Bibencia Bertrand, Bivencia Bertrand and Elizabeth Smith partnered with Patriots Ghana, a community development organization that, in addition to combating child labor and human trafficking, focuses on youth empowerment, microfinance and public health. The volunteers lived in the Akkuful Krodua community and worked on its Water Sanitation and Hygiene (WASH) project. The objective was not only to examine the physical condition of the community’s water supply and distribution system, but also to educate citizens about its health and social effects. The volunteers also arranged to have the community’s water tested in Accra, Ghana’s capital. After presenting their findings and suggestions to the local chief and other key stakeholders, they held a series of meetings on water and other public health issues at local schools and gatherings. The volunteers found working with Ghanaian government and local leaders to be difficult but highly rewarding. The challenges they encountered improved their research, public speaking, and communication skills. They also increased their motivation to pursue careers in community development and public health.

Ecuador – Marquita Rusley, a senior Environment & Society major, traveled to Quito, Ecuador, to work with Manna Project International. Manna is an NGO that employs a holistic approach to community development. It has established relationships with dozens of neighborhood partners scattered throughout Quito and its suburbs. Under the supervision of the program’s directors, Marquita’s efforts were focused on Manna’s educational programs that take place at its community center. In addition to leading English classes and developing a “science hour,” she drafted grant proposals and sought out potential donors. By the end of the summer, she had raised more than $1,200 for the organization. Marquita says her service at Manna allowed her to “strengthen [her] teaching skills, along with adaptability to teaching in another country and language.” It also strengthened her desire to pursue a career in the nonprofit sector, working in underserved communities.