Improving the pipeline of social justice leadership

The world today needs a fresh pipeline of leaders to strengthen work on inequality and exclusion. The old ways of generating leaders are sound, but on their own insufficient to meet the world's need to address inequality.

This article is part of a series on Transformative Leadership published by University World News in partnership with Mastercard Foundation. University World News is solely responsible for the editorial content.

Part of the solution may lie in fellowship programmes that build on the talent and determination of local leaders from marginalised communities.

The Ford Foundation pioneered such a programme between 2001 and 2013 in low-income and marginalised areas overseas. It found just over 4,300 local leaders – change-makers with proven track records in reform and community service, but no opportunity for advanced education that could make them even more effective. Each received fully-paid Ford fellowships for graduate study in universities around the world.

The thinking that drove the programme was this: proven leaders at the local level would greatly benefit from high-quality graduate education and then return home, forming a new pool of leadership talent their countries would draw upon. They would have a strong sense of urgency about improving conditions for others at the margins.

Research now shows that almost everyone, 96%, completed the degrees their fellowships supported at first-class universities, many with distinction. And as predicted, most (84%) went home and are living and working there on social justice barriers. A few others are pursuing further studies and a small number found it too dangerous to return.

These data contradict sceptics who, at the programme's start, said the selection processes would be corrupt, most students would be underprepared and fail, and those few that got advanced degrees would be ‘brain-drained’ away from home countries.

This record is particularly striking since before the programme the applicants had very limited access to advanced education and virtually none to international study. Fifty-seven per cent had mothers with only primary schooling, and most had unexceptional college records, often reflecting the financial and other struggles they had along the way.

In Tanzania, one scholar who pursued advanced study in law at Columbia University was the first in her family to have a university degree. She is now a judge in the High Court of Tanzania.

In Kenya, another scholar, after earning a DPhil from Oxford University, is now a senator and secretary general of a major political party, and a fierce advocate for girls' education and women's rights.

In South Africa, after obtaining an MA at the University of Sussex's Institute of Development Studies, another scholar founded and led a social programme incubator in the Eastern Cape in 2014 and won the US$100,000 McNulty Prize for the best integrated rural development programme in the world.

And in the Brazilian Amazon, an indigenous scholar who received an MA at the University of Florida and a PhD at Indiana University received the Rainforest Alliance's Steward of the Amazon Award and returned home to start a University of the Forest. It builds knowledge for local people to improve their incomes with non-forest products and conserve forest resources.

What can we glean from the International Fellowships Program (IFP) and the inspiring individuals the programme supported? Most important is the truth that marginalised communities abound in undiscovered talent already struggling for greater equality and ready to move to new levels of achievement. In fact, with more funding, the programme could have taken in multiples of the talented thousands it supported.

Second, just providing a fellowship is often not enough – often more is needed when the gaps in advantage and experience are wide. The IFP created competitive but supportive interview and selection processes to overcome the fear and unease applicants would naturally have.

And in advance of departure for graduate study and once in the university settings, the students received various kinds of preparation for what they would find difficult. Students reported that these extras increased their confidence and also, presumably, their success rates.

Finally, the benefits of such programmes are likely to accrue not only to the individual leaders, but also to their communities and nations. Relations between countries can improve when students far from home form lasting relationships with rising talent from other nations, often building life-long, cross-border bonds of trust and cooperation.

With such a striking record of success, it is natural to ask why programmes like the IFP are rare, especially since a fair proportion of newly wealthy donors focus on educational opportunity and are proven innovators. Perhaps because they are more drawn to the important task of opening the pipeline in the early years of schooling.

Perhaps the investment of time and money that programmes like the IFP require is daunting. And donors are often unaware of the impact of advantages like having money to travel to interviews, funds for application fees, and the confidence to compete for a place in a distant centre of excellence. It is easier and less risky to do business as usual, especially since there are critics who regard special help to ‘others’ as unfair advantage.

Unfortunately, business as usual can mean further entrenching privilege, and at times stifling innovation. Those of us who wish to build a better future need to be creative and willing to break moulds that constrain opportunity. We need to focus on all levels of the education system because talent is already out there at all age levels. And now more than ever, the world needs an expanded supply of social justice leaders, not just a trickle.

Susan V Berresford is philanthropy consultant in the offices of the New York Community Trust. She was president of the Ford Foundation from 1996-2007.