Catalysing leaders in the fight against social injustice

In Vietnam, thousands of people with disabilities who might once have been invisible in their communities are going to work and to school.

In Ghana, where domestic violence has historically been seen as both a stigma and a private matter to be handled by family, gender-based violence courts are making it easier for women and children to seek legal recourse through the judicial system.

And in Brazil, where the recently elected president has said he wants to take over indigenous territories – by giving guns to ranchers, if necessary – in order to focus on economic development, human rights law offices have begun popping up to protect nearly one million indigenous people across 305 ethnic groups.

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.

The Ford Foundation has amassed more than 4,300 stories like these over the past 18 years that demonstrate cumulatively how providing one potential change-maker with access to higher education can improve a multiplicity of lives.

In 2001, it launched its International Fellowships Program (IFP), an international scholarship for social justice activists from marginalised communities who have a vision for social change. The fellows included rural dwellers and hill people, people with disabilities and indigenous populations, women and racial minorities.

Recipients received funding for a graduate education at the university of their choice and living expenses. A year of academic preparation, such as English language lessons, was also provided as needed.

It was a US$420 million gamble, but the ‘big bet’, as it was sometimes called by sponsors, confirmed their hunch: “If you create the conditions for academic success, the social change outcomes will come,” says Brandeis University Professor Joan Dassin, who created and helmed the fellowships programme through its first phase.

Now at the half-way point of the second phase, the latest research sheds light on the transformative potential of higher education to spur sustainable change.

Potential to spur sustainable change

By last year, 97% of fellows had completed their studies. Over the years since its 2001 launch, alumni have created nearly 700 organisations and programmes, most of them promoting equity for local populations that have faced social exclusion, across 22 countries.

Nearly 30% are public officials, in many cases drafting laws and raising funds, often at a national level. Others are introducing more equitable policies in their workplace, and working for international organisations such as Save the Children.

Collectively, they have created or produced nearly 50,000 pieces of work advocating for social justice. These include, for example, books, websites, book chapters, art, conference presentations and media appearances.

In other words, the ripple effect of the programme has catalysed positive change across a broad swath of society, says researcher Mirka Martel, who has been tracking outcomes for the Institute of International Education, the New York-based non-profit that released the findings in the spring.

“Having seen the incredible work that the alumni are doing in their communities has been very powerful, but what has been even more powerful, and I’m kind of surprised [by], is how they were able to do it.” Other studies are already in the pipeline that will continue to track outcomes.

Developing social networks

A big takeaway from the most recent study, based on a survey of 1,284 alumni, was how fellows developed social networks. Among fellows who had achieved success by working together, there was a “realisation that their shared identity is in itself a factor”, Martel says. “Instead of individual trajectories, it’s really about how are they leveraging their networks.”

Most respondents said they had been in touch with at least one colleague in the past three years, the survey found. In addition, 130 survey respondents indicated they are working together on new organisations or programmes, and 263 said they advocate with other alumni on social justice campaigns.

Just under half (46%) said an IFP alumni organisation had been established in their country.

Alumni in Indonesia have established a social justice network that, among other things, organised a youth camp and contributed to the development of a social justice index being used at the local and national level to advocate for policy changes.

Ghana’s IFP alumni association participated in observing elections in 2012 and 2016, and has organised training workshops in communications and other professional skills. By staying connected through WhatsApp, they have stepped in to help when emergencies arise. For example, upon learning that a village had flooded, several IFP alumni alerted government officials or provided direct aid.

IFP alumnus Samuel Kwotuah also presides over the Brandeis Graduate Association of Ghana, whose members include a number of IFP alumni. Established in 2014, the group has dedicated itself to promoting poverty reduction. It was through his masters programme at Brandeis University in the United States, Kwotuah says, that he developed skills that have enabled him to look for solutions to policy issues “through the lens of a free and fair society”.

One of the many projects he has worked on since returning to Ghana was to advocate for gender-based violence courts, which use technology such as closed-circuit television to allow victims to testify without having to come face to face with the accused. Over the past decade, a gender-based violence court has been established in 10 of the 16 administrative regions in Ghana.

Leveraging experiences

In other countries, IFP alumni are leveraging their experiences to similarly strengthen local networks and organisations.

In Vietnam, the Disability Research and Capacity Development Center in Ho Chi Minh City, founded by IFP alumnus Hoang-Yen T Vo, has developed a different kind of network: It supports more than 35 local communities that work together to advocate for change.

Vo, who earned a masters degree from the University of Kansas in the United States, says her passion has long been to change public perceptions about people with disabilities by raising the profile of people like herself (she uses a wheelchair) in society. Since its founding in 2005, the centre has, among other things, provided nearly 400 scholarships for college students and consulted with nearly 2,200 job seekers and with more than 500 employers.

The centre has also played a national role in shaping disability law and policies in Vietnam, and Vo last year received the Ramon Magsaysay Award, sometimes called the Nobel Prize of Asia.

Her proudest personal achievement, she told University World News, is being a role model.

“Many young people with disabilities have told me that they no longer feel hopeless and will take actions (such as going to school or advocating for disability rights) to change their lives,” Vo says. “And public members look at me and change their belief that people with disabilities are incapable and hopeless.”

Collectively, the alumni pursued studies in 49 countries. The international option was in part a recognition that higher education systems in some countries may not have had the resources they needed. The largest share of fellows (1,300) chose to enrol in US universities, and the second-largest (900) chose the United Kingdom.

One condition of the scholarship was that alumni return to their home countries upon completing their degree, a nod to the concerns about brain drain. About 87% have returned home; respondents who had not returned home typically said their home country was not ready for political change or for the work they are doing in social justice.

Human rights pioneer

Among those who chose a university in their home country is Paulo Celso de Oliveira of Brazil, who is of Indian Pankararu ethnicity. Named a fellow in 2004, he earned a masters degree in law from Pontificia Universidade Catolica do Paraná in Brazil, and then served as ombudsman of the National Indian Foundation, a government body that establishes and carries out policies related to indigenous populations.

“My friends and family always told me that I could not forget my heritage, my culture and the indigenous people,” says Oliveira, who in 2015 co-founded one of the first human rights law firms in Brazil.

Much of his work today aims to defend the legal rights and protect the cultural identity of indigenous populations. They are threatened by Brazil’s president, Jair Bolsonaro, who wants to open up reservation lands, including in the Amazon rainforest, to agriculture and mining, an objective that also affects the environment.

Oliveira’s strategy is to strengthen traditional organisations of indigenous peoples so that they can “continue living in their territories according to their own ways of life”, he says.

The alumni overwhelmingly agreed that the fellowship gave them the resources, the confidence, the skills and the perseverance to pursue their passions, survey findings show.

But change often remains an uphill battle. More than half of respondents said they “still face injustice every day”, mostly related to ethnicity, political discrimination, gender and race, the report found, but they noted being more comfortable and vocal, the report found, in “recognising social injustice, making their communities aware of it and in advocating for social justice to those around them when they see injustice”.