While it is easy to get caught up in the current political climate, there are individuals who rise up and push to enact change. Rhea Mahanta is one of those individuals. Mahanta, a graduate student at the University of Chicago currently pursuing her master’s degree in International Affairs as a member of the Committee of International Relations [CIR], singlehandedly founded the Peacebuilding Project, an organization dedicated to the academic instruction of conflict resolution and outreach towards afflicted communities. I interviewed Mahanta to get the gritty details of how she pulled off such a feat.
José Porrata- Thank you for giving me the chance to interview you. How about you tell me a bit about yourself and how you became interested in conflict resolution.
Rhea Mahanta- Well, I grew up in a very under developed region in Northeast India, and I saw how conflict took hold of everyday life. And rather than responding to conflict with more violence, I wanted to understand how we could change social structures in order to resolve conflictive situations. All my life I studied topics related to politics, social service and development, and I wanted to incorporate my knowledge at both the grassroots and diplomatic levels. In trying to understand both these levels, I decided to study at the University of Chicago.
So, from what I gathered from looking at the project from a distance, it seems to me that it’s an educational project dedicated to showing the community what’s going on in the world. Is this vision of the Peacebuilding Project correct?
Absolutely. I like to think that the project has two components. The first is creating academic awareness on topics of conflict resolution, peace building, the science of peace building, all of which seems to be lacking in academia. The second component is taking that knowledge and translating it in order to have it impact the community, so the same people that are attending our workshops, conferences, and training sessions on conflict resolution are going out to the community and volunteering and doing humanitarian work.
You mentioned that the Peacebuilding Project does workshops and conferences. Could you go into more detail in how it goes about engaging both the academic and social communities?
Most of our engagement has been limited to on campus, with some social outreach programs we have implemented which I’ll get at in a bit. First, what we do is host sessions on campus such as our launch Workshop Session on Conflict Resolution and Mediation. So, we had around 60 people attending, and we trained them under the head trainer from the Chicago Center for Conflict Resolution who taught ways to carry out conflict mediation. Our second session was a panel on Religion and Peacebuilding. We just explored different tenants of peacebuilding and what kinds of tools we can adopt in our everyday lives. At the moment we have done activities around twice a month, then we had our third session with Syrian refugees to learn about the hardships they had to go through after coming to the US after leaving behind what they had back at their old homes. Our next session would be [will] on the behavior of conflict management, basically how psychology plays a role in conflict resolution. We partner up with local NGOs [Non-Government Organizations] and invite them to present their research and show us what methods work and we show that information to bodies such as the Pearson Institute [for the Study and Resolution of Global Conflicts] at the Harris School [of Public Policy at University of Chicago] and encourage them to explore these topics in more detail. We also have a steady program of volunteers who go to the Syrian Community Network in the north of Chicago and they engage with the community through tutoring of Syrian Children and linking up certain students with our volunteers and have them mentored in how to apply to college, scholarships, take language tests and the like.
Wow. That’s a noble endeavor the project has undertaken. I am curious though, how did this project start?
This is a long story. In the interwar period, in the 30’s and 40’s, there was a huge anti-war movement in U-Chicago. The president, Robert Maynard Hutchins, led this anti-war movement and invested in a world government doctrine and somewhere along the line that development died down. The Pearson Institute was then launched in 2015 dedicated to the study and resolution of conflict, which made me want to come to the University. I thought that there was a lot I could do through this University in the field. When I arrived, it was a lot of research on conflict itself but none whatsoever in the peace processes by which one resolves conflict. Say, you are studying conflict in Colombia: you study how the conflict came about but not the mechanisms in which peace treaties and ceasefires are implemented and sustained. There really was no insight into ‘how do we get out of conflict’ or ‘what happens after conflict’. I met with professors all over the University and I realized that if a program doesn’t exist, I’d have to create one! This was encouraged due to my experience attending the Alliance for Peacebuilding Conference in October 2017 in D.C. This gave me a lot of insight into what kinds of topics I could explore and when I came back I applied for funding.
Quite an impressive history! It took a lot of research! I can only imagine. Could you give me a bit more insight as who you contacted and partnered with to fund and promote the Project?
We have a lot of partners both inside and outside the University that have shown a lot of interest in the project. For starters, I owe it to the Graduate Council in UChicago, who organized the Think Tank trek in November. I got to talking to different representatives about my project and what they could do to help out. After talking to the Grad Council and getting sponsorship, I got the approval to make the first workshop and reached out to the Chicago Center for Conflict Resolution, where they agreed to talk to our students. The Peace Exchange, whom I was a speaker for, were also invested in the project. We are trying to incorporate their educational models on conflict resolution and build upon them to use them on schools at the south side of Chicago. Next, the Obama Foundation gave me training to start off this project; they had a community training day. I met President Obama, and for 12 hours we discussed how to actually engage with communities and individuals and teach them how to make our project ideas into a reality. Finally, our partnership with the Syrian Community Network has been paramount to our engagement. Oh, and the Pearson Institute has funded our Dinners with Refugees during Ramadan.
As a fellow U Chicago student, I know the think tank trek gave you the capacity to work on the project. As an individual, I’m quite surprised and amazed at the capacity that the University has helped out. Color me intrigued.
Well, what I told you is the rosy side of things. I managed to do all of this during my limited time as an M.A. student. The project will die down if I don’t find someone to carry the project forward. As you know, the CIR’s program is a one-year program, and it cuts the investment I can offer to the project due to the small time period. Also, the Project has no money of its own, and application for funding is done on an event-by-event basis. You need to go through the tedious application process and accept the limited amount of funding the University can give, as well as the venues we can use. We can’t fly in the guests we want due to the Project currently not being registered as a student organization. It’s also a year-long process that due to time constraints, as mentioned, we can’t do.
First, do you feel that there are individuals that can continue on your legacy by using your connections and knowledge to continue the Project within UChicago and outside of the University into other areas in Chicago where there are afflicted communities? Second, has the project considered undertaking fundraising events to be able to fly in individuals to participate in training workshops?
I haven’t even Googled how to go about fundraising. We got selected for the Clinton Global University Initiative, which means that in October, me and two of my teammates will be meeting with potential donors from across the world and whether or not they can offer the necessary funding for our project. UChicago also has offered grants for training public school students, which we plan to use to incorporate ADR training, which stands for Alternative Dispute Resolution. We were hoping to demonstrate how punishment and detention for negative, criminal behavior have not been effective in reforming individuals and reducing crime rates for youth in the south side of Chicago. The students would be offered to take ADR training and learn to manage behavior and emotions, or they would be punished for their behavior. Introducing a program like this in schools would be great for showing how conflict management can help improve society, but we’d have to partner up with the education system and get the green light to implement the program, as well as getting legitimate ADR trainers for the program. We are hoping to get responses to implement these projects, but we haven’t heard back yet.
As for someone who can take up the torch, everyone I worked with is graduating. However, we are reaching to incoming students to see if they are interested in joining and managing the Project. My faculty has been really helpful in supporting the project and are the ones trying to reach out to incoming students. It’s hard to be committed in to managing a project like this in UChicago. Volunteering once a week isn’t a big deal, but even if managing the Peacebuilding Project doesn’t take much effort, which fortunately it doesn’t even if it seems that way, classes and other things take up too much time. Leading the project also sounds very intimidating and that pushes away prospective recruits.
Even so, you managed to create an extremely solid foundation for the Peacebuilding Project, and tangentially you will be working with the project to train the next generation.
Yeah, like, I’m not leaving the Project, just the University. I’ll still be engaged with our partners, just that we need an on-campus insider and coordinator for the project to continue, as well as a decent number of volunteers.
So, having the dirty insider details, what are the expectations you have for the overall growth of the project? I mean getting the project started basically by yourself is an accomplishment in and of itself.
I wish I could’ve gotten more undergrads involved in the Project earlier. As for further plans, I would like to expand the Project to northeast India. I learned about the ongoing conflicts in my region due to my research in Chicago more so than when I was growing up. I really wish the Project could have a more practical approach to conflict management in that area. I wouldn’t say this is my choice of employment, I really do wish to work in diplomacy in the future and work with already existing organizations in different conflict resolution projects. But this project is something I feel committed to and will always take time to work on when needed, as well as bringing the skills I learn to the Peacebuilding Project.
With your record, I really hope to see you in the diplomatic stage of the world. So, before we go, do you have anything to say to any future diplomats and mediators that want to create their own humanitarian organization?
My biggest recommendation is to work with your university. You would be surprised at the resources available for you when you look for them. Of course, that presents the problem of searching for those resources, and taking time to get them, but if you engage with your faculty and try to create something new, you’ll be able to get a project running to address the right causes. The University of Chicago, in particular, really has been supportive in spite of the bureaucratic processes. Like I said, just look for the necessary help and you’ll be on your way!
Mahanta is a prime example that if a human’s drive to do right is true, we can unite people for the right causes.
You can follow the Peacebuilding Project at: https://www.facebook.com/ThePeacebuildingProject/
The CPSchools’ Professionals Series is a collection of experiences lived and relayed by teachers and education professionals who work in Chicago public schools. Here, teachers, guidance counselors, specialists, coaches, administration, and other professionals in CPS are given the space to speak to their perspective on schooling in Chicago, and how their experiences have informed their outlook on education.
We are now giving these often-undervalued professionals the necessary platform to share their stories, challenges, and triumphs while supporting students in CPS. This series will serve to inform and encourage everyday Chicagoans and policy makers to take action in representation of the students they aim to support.
Stay tuned for CPSchools’ Professionals Series stories coming soon!
Being a mentor can be incredibly rewarding on both ends, but as many professionals know, time is a valuable commodity. Spark, a career exploration and self-discovery program that brings middle-schoolers to local companies and organizations, has found a way to combat this. Students are paired up with a mentor to receive direct guidance and to work on projects related to their interests in the company’s local office. Originally launched in the San Francisco Bay Area, Spark expanded to Chicago in 2011 and worked with 68 students that year. Now in neighborhoods like North Lawndale, Back of the Yards, McKinley Park, Englewood, and Near Southside, 11 schools and 400+ students are paired up with Chicago companies to provide mentor relationships between middle-schoolers and professionals.
Spark students at Vibes: Mobile Marketing Solutions
Lindsay Horwood, who works at Chicago-based mobile marketing and technology company Vibes, began volunteering for Spark at her previous employer and brought the connection over to Vibes. Since 2012, Vibes and Spark have impacted the young minds of many, providing career exploration and self-discovery opportunities for these middle schoolers. Sahrish Saleem, Senior Manager of Corporate Partnerships at Spark, says the program helps students “understand, experience, and pursue what’s possible for their future.” This year in Chicago, students are working in orthodontics, constructing remote control cars, creating websites, and even rewriting Macbeth to make it more modern and student-friendly.
Since their partnership, Vibes has consistently been recruiting new volunteers for Spark, one of which is Jennifer DeCilles. Horwood and DeCilles say they enjoy watching their mentees grow throughout the program. DeCilles says Vibe’s connection with Spark has given her an “understanding that in being a mentor, you can just be a positive presence or an ear for someone to talk to.”
In the Fall, students work in Spark Labs, where they visit a variety of companies and get to see what each one does on a day-to-day basis. Come Spring, Spark matches mentors and mentees based on skills used in the workplace and interests of the students. They work on a project that they present on “Share Your Spark,” a culminating showcase held in Daley Plaza that Saleem says is like “a carnival meets a science fair.” Students, mentors, and anyone interested in viewing the projects the students have created celebrate together the accomplishments of the students.
Spark works with students who might not have been exposed to an office environment otherwise. “Sometimes they are less than a mile from the office, but they live in very different worlds,” Horwood said, highlighting the exposure the students get to the corporate environment but also the insight she now has to Chicago Public Schools. Both Horwood and DeCilles have found themselves more engaged in CPS and the education system at large because they work with individuals who are directly affected by it.
Spark students at work in the Vibes office
For 14 years nationally and 7 years in Chicago, Spark has impacted the lives of many young individuals. To continue doing this, they rely on donations to help support the program. This month is the Mentoring Matters Campaign, a peer-to-peer fundraising campaign that allows mentors to share their mentoring stories within their personal networks. This year, the goal is to raise $40,000. Funds help support transportation for students, background checks for mentors, and general program supplies and maintenance.
Spark and Vibes are making a very real difference in the lives of these young individuals in Chicago. Students are gaining real-life experience in the workplace, building social-emotional skills, and working on team-building, all while uniting diverse communities of students, parents, and professionals. And in the end, DeCilles says, it’s just about “being a friend to these middle-schoolers.”
CALL TO ACTION
- May is Spark’s designated month to fundraise for its Chicago partnerships, and they have a goal to raise $40,000. Donate here!
- Interested in partnering your business with Spark? They’d love that! Find out more information here.
- Check out the program in action! Attend this year’s (free!) “Share Your Spark” Day on June 1st from 3 to 5 PM in Daley Plaza and support the students in the program.
Between its beaches, museums, restaurants, and malls, there’s no shortage of attractions that Chicago has to offer college students. But what can these students offer Chicago?
The People’s Lobby is a grassroots movement focused on fighting structural inequalities by implementing specific policies and electing officials that support those policies to put the interests of the community before big corporations, according to its website. The People’s Lobby addresses issues from wage policy to environmental justice to mass incarceration and more.
What does this have to do with students? Chicago Student Action is a branch of the People’s Lobby that serves as a way of building bases of students on college campuses around the Chicagoland area. From there, students organize on their campuses for issues that affect those campuses directly, as well as coming together as a whole to fight jointly on policies that affect them as Chicago students.
Chicago Student Action members chained themselves up and blocked the intersection in front of the Art Institute to hold a protest and press conference advocating for free higher education.
According to Dominic Marlow, a senior and student organizer at University of Illinois at Chicago, what separates students from other activists is their optimism. “Young people in general are a lot more willing to question the status quo. They have the belief that things can get better a lot more than older people generally do.”
Having grown up during the 2007-2009 U.S. recession and seeing the toll it took on much of his family, Marlow got involved as an activist when he came to college, where he learned “[the recession] was totally avoidable. That was really big for me in realizing the public sector is run by people who are not representing our needs.” He also explained that his exposure to Chciago’s diverse community made him realize “we have been intentionally divided in order to keep us from building anything sustainable to make a government that works for people.”
Chicago Student Action members on their final day of the March to Springfield. Members marched 200 miles from Chicago to Springfield for the People and Planet First Budget.
Unlike many non-profit organizations, which rely on donations of labor, money, and time from their volunteers, Marlow explained that Chicago Student Action and the People’s Lobby emphasize investing in their members as people to help them develop as leaders. “Our vision is for real powerful communities that can actually advocate for themselves.” Members of Chicago Student Action and the People’s Lobby strive for “an intersectional movement that is diverse and representative of the people we’re actually fighting for.”
Marlow described some of the accomplishments he has seen during his time with Chicago Student Action and the People’s Lobby.
- March to Springfield: In May of 2017, Chicago Student Action and the People’s Lobby members led a 200-mile march from Chicago to Springfield to fight for the People and Planet First Budget which began with a kickoff rally in downtown Chicago. Once in Springfield, members took part in a sit-in in front of the Governor’s office and held the building for 10 hours before being arrested and moved. That year, the state legislature passed $100 million in revenue by closing corporate tax loopholes.
- Cook County $13 Minimum Wage: Members of Chicago Student Action and the People’s Lobby disrupted Cook County budget hearings and organized for electoral work to reclaim some of the commissioners districts. Eventually, they garnered the nine votes needed to pass the $13 minimum wage.
- Election of Theresa Mah: Theresa Mah is the first Asian-American Woman elected to the Illinois General Assembly.
- Election of Kim Foxx: Kim Foxx, now the Cook County State’s Attorney, has helped reduce the Cook County jail population by over 1,000 inmates.
Call to Action
It’s no secret that public schools in Chicago have struggled to meet the needs of their most vulnerable students. Ever since the 2013 closings of 47 underutilized Chicago Public Schools [CPS] elementary schools—the largest number of schools closed in one year by any district in the country at the time—public scrutiny of the school system’s budget shortages, policy overhauls, and overturning leadership has only intensified.
Amidst this turmoil, the day-to-day challenges confronting students affected by poverty can fade from focus all too easily. For more fortunate students, it might be inconceivable that these pervasive cracks in the system and a host of other factors can deprive students from low-income families of resources as simple as pencils and notebooks.
With this chasm between underserved students and their peers in mind, Matthew Kurtzman founded Back 2 School Illinois [B2SI]. “The need is staggering,” he says, adding that 1.2 million students in Illinois come from low-income households that often cannot afford the basic school supplies their kids need.
Originally known as the Illinois Currency Exchange Charitable Foundation, Back 2 School Illinois became a 501c (3) nonprofit in 2010 and has continued to grow in the ensuing years. At the heart of the organization’s efforts is its free school supply distribution program, the largest one in the state. The program helps kids develop the confidence they need for bright, successful futures, while lessening the financial burden felt by their families. “There’s a whole self-esteem thing that comes into play when kids don’t have the basic supplies they need to succeed in the classroom,” Kurtzman says, highlighting how discouraging it can be for students who don’t have access to the resources that students from wealthier families enjoy. “When a kid goes back to school and they don’t have everything they need, it can be very demoralizing.”
Kurtzman has a long history working with nonprofits. He organized a walk-a-thon while in college that raised $100,000 for the American Cancer Society, and during a twenty-year career in marketing he encouraged clients to participate in community outreach activities. By the time he started B2SI, he had a strong sense of education’s profound importance in society at large. “I just think education is a universal concern because we’re all affected by it, directly or indirectly.” Given today’s polarizing political climate, Kurtzman says, a quality education is more important than ever. “So many of the problems we’re seeing: the divisiveness in our society and the inability of people of different mindsets to have constructive dialogue all goes back to education.”
Back 2 School Illinois’ work to create and support educational opportunities that enrich the lives of underserved students may empower some community members to want to help. Those interested can visit B2SI.org to make a donation or explore other ways to get involved.
B2SI distributes its signature Back 2 School kits (filled with core school supplies children need) in partnership with more than a dozen government agencies and community organizations, including the YMCA of Metro Chicago, Boys & Girls Clubs of Chicago. JCC Chicago, Operation Homefront & the USO. In the past year alone, B2SI helped to distribute 34,200 of these kits—over one million school supplies in total.
Continued expansion is in-the-works at B2SI. Later this year, they plan to begin a financial literacy program, in which volunteers from sponsoring financial institutions will help students understand the basics of sound budgeting and thoughtful financial planning.
B2SI even has an eye on areas beyond Illinois’ borders, with the recent creation of Back 2 School America. “We’re starting to test the waters a bit,” Kurtzman says of the expansion into other states. “We’re talking with a potential distribution partner in Texas and did a program up in Milwaukee last year with Operation Homefront,” a non-profit that provides resources to military families. A collaboration with Bernie’s Book Bank to include books in B2SI’s school supply kits is also on the horizon.
B2SI’s mission clearly is to step up to help fill the gaps of a poor state economy and help alleviate challenges to our schools and low-income families. Through its events and volunteer opportunities, B2SI has established a base of dedicated volunteers. And there’s no need to look further than B2SI’s own alums for examples of how “giving back” and community service can inspire. About a month ago, Kurtzman heard from the first recipient of a college scholarship awarded by B2SI, a young woman who now lives and works in Philadelphia. “She said that she’s so appreciative of the scholarship and what it did for her, that now she wants to help,” explains Kurtzman. “So, we’ve asked her to speak at our annual Kick-Off fundraising dinner in May.”
Call to Action
You can support Back 2 School Illinois’ mission in a variety of ways. For starters, individuals or groups can buy school supply kits (which contain 30 basic supplies) via B2SI’s Buy-A-Kit program, and then pick up and distribute the kits themselves to a local school, church or community organization, OR folks can simply buy the kits and then have B2Si distribute them to the organization of its choice.
B2SI’s Build-A-Kit program is a great team-building activity for organizations large and small, and involves businesses, law firms and community groups buying bulk school supplies from B2SI and then building school supply kits for underserved kids. It makes for a fun, rewarding experience for community groups and organizations, and/or for a great corporate team building event.
Also, coming up on May 9th B2SI is holding its annual fundraising Kick-off Dinner; volunteers are needed for the event, as are silent auction items. Finally, coming up on April 10th, from 6pm- 10pm, B2SI is hosting one of its “Notes of Inspiration” event at Elixir Lounge in Lakeview. The event offers volunteers an opportunity to personalize notes of encouragement to be included in B2SI’s school supply kits. Folks can contact Back 2 School Illinois if they’re interested in hosting their own Notes of Inspiration event.