Q: So you studied PPE (Philosophy, Politics and Economics) at Oxford for your undergraduate degree. How do you think studying that specific course has influenced your overall “life path”?
A: Massively. I don’t think I realized it at the time but it is the root of all I’ve done since, I think. In terms of trying to understand structures of power, having the philosophical underpinnings to think about what power means and how to wield it. I think it has massively increased my ability to be curious with purpose and to think critically. I’m so glad I did that degree.
Q: What does it mean to be curious with purpose?
A: To feed your curiosity with questions and problems that, when answered, will go some small way to contributing to useful solutions or improvements for the world. Curiosity with good intent!
Q: So you are currently in a transition period before starting as Chief Global Officer for Change.org in January. What sparked this transition?
A: I had taken Crisis Action to where I wanted to take it and with an amazing group of people. It was almost like that sense of completion, actually, and a realization that if I stayed I would suppress — in some ways — the potential of the organization to reinvent itself. So I didn’t want to be like a champagne cork, keeping all these bubbles captive. And, yeah, it was the right moment for me as well. I felt that it was the right moment to go.
Q: Crisis Action itself tends to stay relatively anonymous. Why is that and how do you think that affects the work Crisis Action does?
A: So that’s one of the things which is really, really important. It was designed like that for a number of reasons. One: because if you want to get people to work together well and play nicely together, you can’t be in any way competitive with them. You have to be part of the salve that enables them to cooperate. And so, by working behind the scenes, you are not competing for publicity. The first-person narrative is never you. I think it means that there is something very altruistic built into the DNA of the organization because you have to serve this network, this community. You help people come together and have more impact on policymakers together than they would alone. The behind-the-scenes role is one of the, if not the most, important practices of the success of the organization.
Q: And do you think that will be different from how your experience will be at Change.org? What are your hopes now that you are moving on to this new stage? What do you hope to achieve?
A: So I do and I don’t think it’s different. It’s obviously different in that Change.org is a big public brand. People know what it is. Hardly anyone knows what Crisis Action is [and that is] by design. Change.org provides a platform to enable people to make effective change. And in some ways, so does Crisis Action. The nature of the platform is very different, but they are both about empowering and enabling other people as opposed to doing it themselves.
While Crisis Action was looking at big intergovernmental policy and change, Change.org is saying, “Well, how can you empower individuals to make change?” That starts to happen systematically; then you start to change the structure by which people interact with the people who represent them and that adds up in aggregate to big institutional change as well. So one is quite bottom-up, and the other is quite top-down. I really wanted to get fully acquainted with both those things.
Q: Why do you think that people and governments adopt a sort of apathy on occasion when faced with these types of issues? Everyone knows about many of them — like the European migrant crisis — but very few people actually move beyond words about what’s going on.
A: I think for governments, it’s really, really difficult to gain traction and make a big difference in some of these problems. I don’t think a lot of people in power are doing quite enough, but I don’t think it’s legitimate to say it’s easy to fix it. That you can do it in a heartbeat. You can’t. The other reason why, I think, is just [that] the process of trying and the obstacles they confront are incredibly wearying and demoralizing.
And I think it very much depends on the conflict, the degree to which it is immediate or not. Definitely, some of it is due to the drip-drip-drip, the constant erosion of the issue to the point where you get desensitized to it. And partly, I think it is just the sense of — certainly for something like Syria — “What can you do about it?” It’s an absolute loss of faith that there is a clear path through the issue. I don’t think any of them are insurmountable, but they’re really tough.
Q: And in your opinion, what are the crises and conflicts that people should be most aware of right now?
A: There should not be a person at this university who is not aware of the magnitude of the Syria crisis and the extent to which it will define the geopolitics of the world for your generation and the generation beyond you. And I don’t just mean Syria — I mean what’s happening in the Middle East. This is tectonic plates shifting — it’s big stuff. And just in terms of our moral reaction to what is happening, we will be judged by how we act in this moment of history. We will be judged. This is huge. This is the biggest refugee crisis since World War II and we should deal with it accordingly.
On the other hand, you look at something like the plight of the Rohingya in Myanmar which is very, very underreported. There was something on the Yale News saying that a lab at Yale had found evidence of genocide against the Rohingya. We’re talking serious, serious persecution. Getting onto boats and fleeing the country and being repelled by many of their neighbors. I think that is a terrible conflict which the student body should know about. Particularly because Aung San Suu Kyi is such a moral hero for so many of us interested in social change. And there I think you have a very exceptional, brilliant leader in many ways, who by merit of who she is and where she comes from may not necessarily be the person who is going to provide the moral leadership on this issue. And therefore, it must come from elsewhere. I think the student body around the world, including Yale, is an important moral force in this aspect.
Q: What are your words for students seeking to work on those matters? What can they do?
A: I’d say there are two things. One is to be conscious of your own journey toward becoming somebody who is truly engaged in social change. And it doesn’t matter how you start. It doesn’t matter how micro — how small the issue. The most important thing is giving yourselves those experiences where you feel an agency. You feel that you’re part of making things better. It doesn’t matter how small the thing is.
The second is to stay connected to the world on a human basis, whether you raise money for the Integrated Refugee & Immigrant Services here in New Haven, which helps a lot of refugees and will help the Syrian refugees resettle, or sign up for something like thesyriacampaign.org, which is a really easy way to do clever targeted campaigning online. [It] doesn’t take up a lot of your time but will help you stay connected to the narrative of what’s going on and how you can react against it. For example, people made micro-donations to buy ambulances for a self-organized civil defense force in Syria. That saves lives. You can feel the tangible connection to something. The politics are terrible but you can still contribute pieces that are clearly part of the public good.
Have the sense that you are all actual and moral leaders of your own generation already. Make sure you are conscientious in how you think about refugees, that you think about how you will welcome these people to your community and your country. All of that matters. There’s a lot that you can do here without going too far beyond your daily experience.
Q: What is it like being a World Fellow? What do you like about being here?
A: I feel so grateful. I feel very grateful to Yale and the program team that gave us this opportunity. I feel very grateful to all of you guys. I feel very grateful to talk to students. I haven’t spent time with 18-, 19-, 20-year-olds for — well, I don’t know. And it’s so important. I think it’s so important to be in conversation with 360 [degrees] on each side of the argument. That includes your generation. It’s so inspiring. And I think it’s very reinvigorating to be surrounded by such incredibly brilliant young people.
And the World Fellows are just an amazing group of people. Just to be given the opportunity in my adult life to come and spend time here, it’s like going back to university…
Q: Like doing undergraduate studies again?
A: Yes, it’s like four months of accelerated, intensive learning — that feeling of “Oooh, what wonderful people I get to make friends with and learn about life with.” So yeah, brilliant. I’d recommend it to anyone. (Laughs.)