Six USD Thought Leaders Share Knowledge Their Way as Peace Innovators

Chell Roberts, PhD, is the dean of the University of San Diego’s Shiley-Marcos School of Engineering. Given his academic role, the last kind of way one might have expected him to give a presentation at the Kroc School’s Peace Innovators event Thursday night was by way of a one-act play.

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How Did I Get Here and Where am I Going?: A Journey Through Engineering to Peace

Roberts’ talk was the leadoff among six USD thought leaders sharing their expertise in topics such as mathematics, gender equity, technology and knowledge advancement, changemaking and edupreneurship before a capacity KIPJ Theatre audience. Kroc School Dean Patricia Márquez introduced each speaker.

“I wrote the script for this. Why does something like this pop into your head? I don’t know, but when they asked if I wanted to do this, I thought ‘how would I tell something about my life, my story? I thought it would be best to do it this way,” Roberts said.

His approach worked effectively. He wore a hat backwards, was animated as he moved around the stage acting as a youth with enthusiasm and continuously using props to mark different stages in his life as he “got older.”

“I haven’t done acting for 20 years, but I think you have to create where you come from. That was a part of my life. I wanted to be an actor (growing up), but I’m also really good at being an engineer. You have to make choices and that’s what I did. I went back and forth on it, but acting was a big part of my life. I miss it, so I got to do it for a little while here. There’s not many opportunities to do it, but I felt it was the right forum to appreciate this,” he said.

A takeaway from Roberts’ peace perspective is that engineering students, especially those being trained academically and experientially at USD, come from varied backgrounds, thrive in an environment where the degree program is a BS/BA hybrid and students reshape the boundaries of an engineer in what they do and how they, as in Roberts’ case, act.

Gender Equity: The Power of Crowds and Fearlessness

Jen Bradshaw, a Kroc IPJ program officer for Women, Peace and Security, stands behind a series of statistics that were used to highlight the 2019 Women PeaceMakers Program and the power of having more women at the peace table. Peace agreements with women involved are 64 percent less likely to fail. When women participate, the resulting peace agreement is 35 percent more likely for lasting peace. Unfortunately, since 1992, women only accounted for 2.4 percent of chief mediators on peace agreements.

Bradshaw’s response to these statistics was to educate the audience on what has happened and she provided a few examples of fearless women around the world who are giving Bradshaw and countless others who strive to see more gender equity in all peace negotiations and in the peace process.

“Think about what that means,” Bradshaw said after mentioning both the 35 percent statistic and that the United Nations made a powerful declaration to the world when it passed Resolution 1325 to start the global fight to ensure equal representation of women in all decision-making roles in peacemaking. “Thousands of lives can be saved by just having more women at the table.”

Providing female peacebuilding leader examples of Miriam Coronel-Ferrer from the Philippines, Nigeria’s Hamsatu Allamin and Kenya’s Nyambura Mundia, Bradshaw’s storytelling helped shape how these women serve not only as role models for new generations of peacebuilders, but how, through crowd-accelerated innovations, it can be possible to achieve gender equity in peacebuilding by 2030.

“It’s about people being inspired and hearing these stories of women who are amazing peacebuilders who are finding effective ways to address problems that sometimes seem unsolvable,” Bradshaw said after her talk. “I think there’s a real feeling in the air of hopelessness, or people are kind of giving up, but my hope is with these stories that people are re-inspired, people know they can be part of this and there are women who are pushing the limits of solving these problems. It doesn’t happen overnight, but things are moving forward.”

Touching Mathematics

In only eight minutes, Satyan Devadoss, the Fletcher Jones Chair and Professor of Applied Mathematics, was able to translate the last 15-20 years of his work life into a passion for reimagining mathematics in the 21st century for human flourishing.

“Because of the power of mathematics, today, we see it is the reason, the foundation, in which technology is fueled,” he said. “It’s how solar power works; it’s how the automation of cars work; how computational photography works; most any kind of technological advance is fueled by mathematics.”

But he’s still working through how mathematics on one hand has value in some areas and it struggles in others. He looks at the digital world of music with files that can bring out crispness in the sound of music and yet vinyl records are making a serious comeback in the market for listening to music.

“You have literally flawless music (digitally), why would you not get that, but instead, get something made of degradable material that’s actually scratched? Because we’re humans. We don’t believe in music that doesn’t have weight. We want to touch music with our hands. It’s so attracted to us in this digital age.”

What does it mean for math to have hands and feet? Devadoss stated: If math is supposed to last into the future what does it mean for math to be embodied? He spoke about the visibly large mural that welcomes visitors to USD’s math department that is based on a published research paper he and his students did by taking high dimensional objects and pushing them to a lower dimension. Devadoss was also among an interdisciplinary group of professors at USD who built a sculpture, Unfolding Humanity, that was transported to northwest Nevada’s Burning Man event two years ago. There’s also the Fletcher Jones Math Studio that serves as an incubator and promoter of a radical, physical experience in math research.

“Those are just a few glimpses of what it means to think about math in a physical way,” Devadoss said.

Building a Living Book

Austin Choi-Fitzpatrick is an associate professor in the Joan B. Kroc School of Peace Studies, and many of his ideas and his life, revolve around books. “My academic routine is writing books. If I’m not publishing a book, I’m writing a grant to get money to write a book or I’m holed up somewhere writing the book.”

So, it’s little surprise that Choi-Fitzpatrick’s topic for Peace Innovators involves a book project. In this case, though, it’s a book that is being tested by going beyond the norm. The Good Drone: How Social Movements Democratize Surveillance, is both Choi-Fitzpatrick’s latest published work (July 2020 release) and it is an open book. Openly reviewed by academic peers, as usual, but through a collaboration with MIT colleagues, his book will be a “living book.”

“We’re building a website that will capture all the information about how the book has been received by my peers, by the public, how it is being talked about on Twitter, how it is being reviewed in the press. The Good, Bad and the Ugly we’re going to wrap all of that information around the book itself. You can read the book and then zoom out and see how the book is being talked about.”

It’s a chance to really gauge his readership in a new technology format. “We’re asking the question, what does the future of knowledge look like? It’s an interesting, real experiment,” Choi-Fitzpatrick said.

Unpacking Changemaking Here and Now

As associate director of the Changemaker Hub, Juan Carlos Rivas has a unique, vital responsibility to educate USD students. He and director and professor Mike Williams offer prime opportunities for students to create positive social impact locally and abroad through multidisciplinary approaches that develop empathy, critical thinking, and problem-solving skills. They firmly believe that everyone at USD can practice changemaking.

The term changemaking became a bona-fide word/action in 2011 with USD’s Ashoka U designation as a Changemaker Campus. Now one of 50 institutions worldwide with this identity, Rivas has been present from the start. His role and his focus have evolved as new techniques, programs, events and student leadership involvement grows.

But during his Peace Innovators talk, Rivas wanted to get the message out loud and clear what changemaking is and how students can make a difference here and now.

“We tell students college is a time for them to explore, learn more about themselves, and about humanity’s challenges, but we only have four years in college. You can tell them about all of the great change they’re going to do once they graduate, but fortunately, at USD, we emphasize the need for them to engage in social change right away and many of them do so. They get involved in community projects that are really meaningful to help them see and understand the world in themselves.”

But there’s a risk in that. “Students tend to externalize problems and many come to believe that problem-solving exists somewhere else — in other neighborhoods, cities and countries; Anywhere but here, on campus, and there’s irony in that.

“Every day, this is a space where you can actually find social justice issues that are in the system at large — sustainability, inclusion and diversity, food insecurity, mental health. Every day there is a social justice issue our students face. I believe the university is the perfect setting for them to actually try things on and explore ways to address these issues,” he said.

He brought up a few recent examples of student successes via the Changemaker Hub. Charlotte Vitak, a 2017 alumna, with My Story, an evening event of student storytelling and empathy that is both popularly attended by students and is now a national social program that Vitak takes to high schools, colleges and more; and Ernesto Truqui, a graduating senior, whose idea from the 2018 Changemaker Challenge was to create an institutionalized process for furniture disposal to benefit the local community and reduce waste.

Perhaps the same success could be achieved by anyone, whether you’re at USD or not?

“It needs to be local solutions for local problems. We don’t have to wait,” Rivas said. “What about your immediate community? What frustrates you?  What moves you? What are you waiting for? Let’s change the future of our community together. Let’s practice changemaking here and now.”

Edupreneurship: A Passport out of Poverty

Paula Cordeiro, former School of Leadership and Education Sciences dean and now the Dammeyer Distinguished Professor of Global Leadership and Education in the Kroc School, enjoyed being a messenger. She took the audience on an “education safari,” speaking about the importance of low-fee schools in Africa and introducing them to three edupreneurs.

“This work is not about me, I want to tell the story of others. This represents students who go with me. It’s a huge team effort,” Cordeiro said.

It starts with edupreneurs. “Edupreneurs open social enterprises — sometimes in their living rooms and sometimes in their garages,” she said. “There are more than one and a half million low-fee, independent schools.”

Two major challenges exist. Getting capital is tough because banks won’t lend without collateral and edupreneurs often have little to no training in business or leadership. The goal, of course, is to provide a quality education to children, and Cordeiro, has for the past nine years been connected to Edify, a non-profit organization that provides training, loan capital and education technology for global education purposes.

She shared three edupreneurs’ stories in different parts of Africa. Each had their work cut out for them, but each has found the support to thrive.

“The secret sauce is Edupreneurs + Microloans + training/follow-up is the combination for improving millions of schools around the world,” she said.

Through a USD-Edify partnership, Cordeiro and students have put together evidence-based training materials, held trainings in nine different nations, trained dozens of local trainers and more than 5,000 edupreneurs.

Cordeiro is a passionate educator who, alongside others, work for the ultimate outcome.

“I believe with all my heart and soul that we can eliminate extreme poverty if we educate all children,” she said. “Let’s give them a passport so they can begin their education safari. Can you imagine that? I can.”

— Ryan T. Blystone

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