Lee Sorensen takes a pragmatic approach to changing the world
In a sea of female faces, some stand out more than others. Their intensity is coupled with a certain calm; an unmistakable strength that comes from battles fought and won. Their bond to one another is undeniable: These women come together each year to celebrate their successes and to strategize solutions to the challenges that lay ahead.
Even though most attendees of the International Women’s Day Breakfast are female, there are a few men sprinkled about the gathering. Most are there to show their support for those fighting the good fight, but at least one is doing a whole lot more than just talking about solidarity. Lee Sorensen — who earned his master’s in Peace and Justice Studies in 2007 — is changing the world.
“International Women’s Day is an opportunity to celebrate and recognize what women have accomplished to achieve peace. It’s a critically important day, and a reminder that there’s still work to do in furthering the rights of women,” says Sorensen. “Women are such powerful agents of social change.”
A line of people forms to say hello, hoping to talk to Sorensen about what he’s been up to in Sierra Leone. It’s exciting stuff: He’s been working with and helping fund the African First Ladies Fellowship Program, which brings together some of the most powerful female figures in Africa to foster relationships, communication and understan-ding so that they in turn can help lead their countries toward peace.
When asked why he picked this particular program upon which to focus his resources and time, Sorenson thinks for a moment, his dark eyes flashing as he searches for the right words. “Putting the power in the hands of the country and its first ladies is key for the success,” he says. He takes great care to explain how minimal his role is, even though he’s clearly the catalyst for change.
Case in point: At a recent meeting in Washington D.C., the first ladies made it clear that their primary need was capacity-building. Never one to miss an opportunity to roll up his sleeves and immerse himself in the process of peacebuilding, Sorensen wound up in Sierra Leone with the country’s first lady, Sia Koroma.
“President and first lady Koroma have an agenda for change. I’m impressed with the way they’ve approached rebuilding the fabric in their country,” he says. “She’s a leader by example, and is evidence of the power of an effective leader who doesn’t have the same authority as the president. She can be the mother of the country.”
As accomplished as Sorensen has become in the peace commu- nity, he’s relatively new to the scene. A businessman by training, he owned and operated a chain of geriatric health care facilities in California. Around 2005, he couldn’t shake the feeling that something was missing, and he embarked on a journey that would refocus his interest in health care into a career serving the needs of the less fortunate. “I thought I wanted to go to law school and focus on health care policy,” he says. “But in my research, I learned of the Kroc School. It was a perfect alignment of my interests and goals.”
So he sold his business and applied to the Joan B. Kroc School of Peace Studies (KSPS), in order to study the connection between human security and health care.
“The only way to sincerely promote peace and well being is to think in terms of human security,” Sorensen explains. “When populations experience food insecurity, poverty and poor access to education, health insecurity and threats of aggression or oppression, violent conflict is imminent. Peace is not enough. Engaged non-violence is bigger than peaceful protest alone. It takes form through the multiple development actions of many promoting positive peace.”
During his time at KSPS he traveled to Tanzania, Ghana and the Democratic Republic of Congo. He quickly saw the need for mobile medical clinics that would address remote health care needs, primarily for expectant mothers. Infant mortality is extremely high in Africa, largely due to the poor condition of clinics, coupled with the tendency for high-risk pregnancies to go undiagnosed and untreated.
Mobile clinics provide a clean and safe alternative for women and their babies, as well as a higher level of care. Sorensen wanted to share the life-changing experience he’d had with his classmates, so he sponsored his cohort and brought them to Tanzania to live and study for a month in a Congolese refugee camp.
At the time, KSPS did not have a mandate to travel abroad during the graduate program, but Sorensen knew that being on the ground would help bring the classroom theories he and his classmates were learning to life. “It galvanized what we were learning in theory, and it really bonded the cohort,” he says.
Sorensen continues his work in Africa while also staying involved with peace and justice issues in San Diego. He serves on the advisory board of the KSPS and contributes to the local nonprofit Foundation for Women. The owner of seven Sylvan Learning Centers throughout Southern California, Sorensen is well recognized across campus as a major supporter of USD initiatives and students.
“All of our students are unique, but Lee represents an unusual combination of qualities — he came to our program after having a successful career in private business,” Dean William Headley says. “Now he blends his business-savvy with his training in peacebuilding. It’s a powerful mix.”