Promoting Human Rights in the Developing World, with American Jewish World Service's Robert Bank
April 24, 2018
MAGALIE LAGUERRE-WILKINSON: Welcome to Ethics Matter. I'm Magalie Laguerre-Wilkinson, and joining us today is Robert Bank, CEO and president of American Jewish World Service (AJWS), which works to end poverty in the developing world and support human rights. Mr. Bank has made it his life's work to combat just those things, and he joins us today to tell us a little bit more about that.
Robert Bank, welcome to Ethics Matter. Thank you so much for being here.
ROBERT BANK: Magalie, it is a delight to be here, and please do call me Robert.
MAGALIE LAGUERRE-WILKINSON: Of course. Thank you, Robert.
So Robert, you are a native of South Africa.
ROBERT BANK: Yes.
MAGALIE LAGUERRE-WILKINSON: Having grown up in apartheid-era South Africa, what brought you to do what you do today?
ROBERT BANK: Well, thank you for asking that questions, Magalie. Clearly, everything that I experienced growing up in South Africa brought me to what I was doing even prior to what I am doing now and what I am doing now as the CEO of American Jewish World Service.
So I grew up in Cape Town, South Africa in the 1960s and 1970s. Cape Town, by the Group Areas Act—a hellacious, heinous part of the legislation of South Africa—was restricted only to white people. But there were African black people and so-called "colored" people in South Africa, and Indian people, and Malay people, and a diverse, beautiful community that actually lived in Cape Town.
So I experienced as a child brutal police action against people of color who were not allowed to live in that city, although their livelihoods and their lives were in that city. As a child, I observed literally people being clubbed and pushed into the back of police cars. Between the ages of whatever it was, anything from five to 12 years old, you observe something like this, and it is shocking. You don't understand why people are being treated with such violence.
Also, I was very fortunate to be brought up in a progressive Jewish family where my parents and others were fighting apartheid, were very supportive of those who were trying to support the African National Congress, those who were fighting for freedom, and for the right to vote. Let's remember that there were 5 million white people in South Africa and probably anywhere from 20 to 30 million black people. Not one of those people had the right to choose anything about their lives by being able to vote in an election.
MAGALIE LAGUERRE-WILKINSON: Even hearing this today and knowing the history—we've seen footage, we've seen films. We know about Nelson Mandela—but hearing it, it is still unimaginable.
You said that you grew up in a progressive household, but you also had family members, and one particular family member was very involved with Nelson Mandela and fought with him side by side. Explain a little about what you witnessed and who this person was.
ROBERT BANK: Well, this person is a cousin in my family, and he was in what was called the Rivonia Trial, which was a trial held in 1964 in South Africa where the defendants were charged with sabotage and treason, and as a young person knowing that in fact sabotage and treason actually meant freedom, that was explained to me. It was very powerful for me and is very true in my work today.
I am recognizing that when people who are protesting are shouting in the streets, it depends which side you are on about what is liberty and what is authoritarianism. So I think it's very apt many years later to the kind of work that I am leading at American Jewish World Service today.
MAGALIE LAGUERRE-WILKINSON: Let's jump ahead a little bit. You decide to come to the United States to escape military service in South Africa. So you're coming to this beacon of freedom here, and yet you arrive, and you have a completely different experience. What was that like?
ROBERT BANK: I think one of the things about being an immigrant, especially if you are fleeing from a country that is a dictatorship, a country that is persecuting its own people, is that while you might know that there is no perfect country in the world, you certainly hope that the values that America stands for will shine brightly.
I do have enormous faith in America today and always have. However, it was quite shocking as a 17-year-old to come to the United States and discover that of course the history of slavery, the deep-rooted racism in America today is very, very much with us.
I had a first-hand experience, I have to say, about this because my first career was studying music at the Juilliard School which is, as some people know, on 66th Street and Broadway in New York City.
MAGALIE LAGUERRE-WILKINSON: Very prestigious, of course.
ROBERT BANK: Yes, connected to Lincoln Center, etc. It is one part of the world, and I decided to participate in something called the Lincoln Center Institute which was a pull for me—and I think that also linked back to my South African roots—to introduce the performing arts to underserved communities in the broader New York City environment.
I would travel to parts of New York City that I had never traveled to before—in the Bronx, in Brooklyn, in Queens—where I met the most wonderful people who were subject to the worst of public education. It was actually quite shocking to see that in the United States of America, a country that I thought was so much more advanced than where I came from, that the education was so subpar.
MAGALIE LAGUERRE-WILKINSON: Can you remember a couple of experiences, things that stick out for you where you thought to yourself, What is going on here?
ROBERT BANK: Yes, I remember very distinctly an experience in the Bronx where I was invited to play for the students. The piano, when I arrived, had wet paint all over the keys. The headmaster couldn't control the students, and the way the headmaster was trying to control the students was so inappropriate. When I walked into the school, I felt as if I was going into a prison to be checked for guns, etc.
So always my question is what's at the root of this problem? That was always my question. I can trace it right back to what I was talking about earlier when I would see one group of people incarcerating another group of people. I would ask, as Martin Luther King Jr. did in a beautiful statement: "When you throw a coin at the beggar, let's ask what is the edifice that gave rise to us needing to throw the coin at the beggar?" So for me always there was an intrinsic deep questioning around why is society like this. It doesn't need to be like this. There's certainly enough to go around, and what are we going to do about it?
MAGALIE LAGUERRE-WILKINSON: Well, posing that question to yourself can make you go in either direction. Either you want to take it on head-on, or you run in the other direction and say, "This is someone else's problem." But you decided to take something like this head-on, and you ended up going to law school. Why was that? Was it because of what you saw that led you to do this, and what would that work be as a lawyer?
ROBERT BANK: Thank you for asking that. As you were asking that, Magalie, I was thinking that our lives are comprised of so many different pieces. Another thing that always inspired me toward working in the area of social justice was that growing up in South Africa and observing this enormous racism and discrimination and persecution of other people simply because of the color of their skin was also very powerful for me because I myself felt "other" growing up, because I knew very young that I was gay. To be gay in the context in which I grew up in a Jewish family in Cape Town, South Africa at that time in the 1970s was almost like—the idea of telling someone that I was having those feelings was, frankly, almost like thinking that I could fly to the moon. It was so outside of my consciousness and my ability.
I think about that a lot in my work today because I think that another person might have had that ability or that agency or that potential had they had the support to actually believe that they had the right to be who they wanted to be. I can take myself as a young kid right now to rural Rajasthan in India where we work at American Jewish World Service and actually can identify in some ways with a young girl who's 12 years old, and there is a piece of her who knows that the man who is 15 and is being brought to my house by my parents this afternoon in order for me to be married, that is not what I want to do.
MAGALIE LAGUERRE-WILKINSON: That is not who I am.
ROBERT BANK: That is not who I am. I want to finish my schooling. I want to be able to have a career. I want to be able to have choices about when and who I will marry at some point. But without support, that kind of self-realization or that kind of agency or empowerment is not allowed to happen.
So that was a long way of saying that when I came around to really wanting to—based on all the experiences I had, especially this last one I was talking about with underserved people in New York City—I very much wanted to do law with a focus on social justice. I saw law as a way to really make change because I had now learned enough about the United States to realize that the way to really make change happen is to change policies and laws. Then after that, of course, we need to change hearts and minds, which is probably the harder piece, but it is always useful and most important to have laws in place.
MAGALIE LAGUERRE-WILKINSON: You mentioned hearts and minds, and you have said your life's work today is to change hearts and minds. But it's about also injecting yourself in places with differing points of view. Why do you want to subject yourself to that?
ROBERT BANK: I don't see it as a choice, actually. I just feel it instinctively and deeply. But why do I want to do it, intellectually? Because I see such potential, because I'm a lover of people. I'm actually a victim of the human potential movement, as someone once said to me, a wonderful consultant that I worked with. I really do believe that talent is universal, opportunity is not. That has been said often.
I travel all over the developing world in my role as the CEO of American Jewish World Service, and I meet the most incredible activists who believe in themselves and who lead others in their community to make change, and I see the results of that change. That just simply makes me very happy. It's as simple as that. I love seeing social change in operation.
MAGALIE LAGUERRE-WILKINSON: You talked about the little girl in Rajasthan, you've done a lot of work in India, and you see some of yourself in these experiences going to these places. How do you effectively make change in cultures where these norms are so embedded, they're so ingrained? Of course, there's the cynic in me who says, "Well, Robert, you show up and have all these plans, but you are going to get on your plane and leave tomorrow." How do you maintain that? How does that stay?
ROBERT BANK: Magalie, that is exactly the right question to what I will give you as an answer, which is I don't actually believe I have the power to do anything. Where I have the power is to lead an amazing organization in the United States of America that is supported by an incredible group of progressive people, tens and thousands of people who believe in our approach to social change. We have a very specific approach to social change which has nothing to do with Robert or anyone else floating in and flying from above, top-down, into whether it is Rajasthan, or Nairobi, or the rural villages outside of Port-au-Prince. Our philosophy is that local people actually have the answers to the problems that they are faced with. We see this over and over again.
The founders of American Jewish World Service in 1985—a Jewish philanthropist named Larry Phillips and an expert international aid worker named Larry Simon—had from the very beginning a vision. They said that American Jews have been involved in philanthropy in the building of social movements in America for many years, starting with the labor movement, with Julius Rosenwald many years ago in the South building schools and supporting education for African-American people in the United States. They were involved in the women's movement. They were involved later in the LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender) movement. So let's build on this generous idea. Let's build on this Jewish value and teaching of tikkun olam, meaning "repair the world."
Let's actually find in local communities talented leaders who themselves believe that that young girl in Rajasthan should not be married at such a young age for very obvious reasons, because her life will essentially end. She will start having children at a young age. She will potentially die during childbirth. If that happens, of course she won't have all those opportunities of getting education, etc.
Our belief is that in every country we are able to find people themselves who do not believe that the social norms in their country are necessarily the ones that are most healthy for their citizens. We would never go into a country and say: "Child marriage bad. White man from North coming to tell you that." Do you know what I'm saying?
MAGALIE LAGUERRE-WILKINSON: Of course.
ROBERT BANK: It's so not our approach.
Let me just tell you a story about one that I am so proud of, of a grantee that we do support. This is actually in Pune in Western India. It is called Kashtakari Panchayat. Kashtakari Panchayat is basically an organization that supports women who are working in garbage. They are working amidst garbage. They are working in mounds and mounds of garbage and scrap, and sorting it out so that they can sell pieces of it to be reused, etc. This is a horrible job, very hard job.
MAGALIE LAGUERRE-WILKINSON: It is unfathomable.
ROBERT BANK: Unfathomable. This particular woman that this organization helped is called Rekha. Rekha was married at 12. She had her first child at 13. She obviously could not get an education. She was both child-rearing as well as working all day in this garbage dump, essentially.
But today with the help of this amazing organization that is working to support Rekha about how to access education for her daughters, how to advocate to local officials that her daughters should have a better life than she has, how to be educated about the fact that her daughters don't have to be married at the age of 12, and just the most beautiful story is that this particular woman, Rekha, has three daughters. One is training to become an engineer, one is finishing is middle school, and one is finishing high school. That is what really just gives me joy because it is enabling someone to give their children something better than they had the opportunity to have. That is what American Jewish World Service believes in.
That is because we find leaders in communities to do this. The way we find them is, again, not top-down. The way we find them is that we spend a lot of time with local people in India, or Haiti, or Kenya who are leaders, who are experts in the field of social change, in the field of social norm change. We work with them and partner with them, and then they accompany the organizations that we fund. Really, this is very much about sort of a deep partnership between the North and the South.
MAGALIE LAGUERRE-WILKINSON: A synergy.
ROBERT BANK: I would say accompaniment and solidarity. We always start at the grassroots because we believe that is where change starts from, and that is where real people live as individuals in a society sort of grasping for their human rights.
There is a beautiful quote by Eleanor Roosevelt in which she says: "Where, after all do universal human rights begin? In small places, close to home, so close and so small that they cannot be seen on any map of the world." [Editor's note: See In Your Hands, a booklet presented by Eleanor Roosevelt to the UN, produced under the auspices of the Church Peace Union, now Carnegie Council.] This is the world of the individual human being, so this is the world of Rekha and her daughter, the engineer, and her other two daughters. Whatever they do, they will not be sitting in garbage all day, and their mother is so proud of them, as am I.
MAGALIE LAGUERRE-WILKINSON: That is extraordinary. I want to go back into your résumé a little bit because you were very involved as well with the Gay Men's Health Crisis (GMHC).
ROBERT BANK: Yes.
MAGALIE LAGUERRE-WILKINSON: LGBTQ rights are also at risk in many countries in Africa, in India, all over the world. You have worked in Uganda in particular.
ROBERT BANK: Yes.
MAGALIE LAGUERRE-WILKINSON: Tell me a little bit what is at risk for these populations now and what work is American Jewish World Service doing to address and help these groups?
ROBERT BANK: Well, thank you so much for asking about this because it is one of the key areas in which we work. We work to stop violence against woman, girls, and LGBT people in developing countries.
Uganda has been brought to the fore over the past many years because of the draconian anti-homosexuality act that was about to be passed, then was passed, and all of us have been following that with horror. We have supported local leaders, experts in the field in Uganda, who have fought against this abhorrent persecution and discrimination against sexual minorities in Uganda.
I would like to tell you very specifically about a grantee that AJWS supported. The organization is called Chapter Four. Chapter Four is a part of the Ugandan constitution that actually stands for the right of people to be free and to associate. The organization was started by a gentleman by the name of Nicholas Opiyo. Nicholas Opiyo, together with many other organizations, worked very hard in coalition to fight for the human rights of LGBT people in Uganda.
In 2014, they were successful due to the funding of AJWS and others to overturn that draconian law. They overturned it on a technicality, which means they did not change the hearts and minds necessarily of the legislature or the parliament, but that law is no longer in effect.
Are there potentially attempts to resuscitate that law? There always will be. Will we be always proactive and relentless in stopping it from reemerging? Will we challenge it again if it comes up? We will, in partnership with these leaders in Uganda.
While the situation there, again, Magalie, is difficult, is hard—I've been in Uganda recently, met with one of the leading groups there that we also fund called the Human Rights Awareness and Promotion Forum, another remarkable man called Adrian Jjuuko who leads this organization. When we were visiting, unfortunately what happened was that the day after, just completely by coincidence, we heard that one of their wonderful young paralegal men was followed home from work, pushed into his home, attacked, raped—
MAGALIE LAGUERRE-WILKINSON: Oh, dear.
ROBERT BANK: All of his machinery from his work was stolen. So we immediately jumped in with those that we know in-country and our amazing in-country staff person and supported this young man and supported the organization.
This is a little bit the course of doing business in the human rights field. When you are working with human rights defenders who are people who stand on pedestals for me—I mean, they are people who every single day risk their lives to protect others.
What is particularly, I will say, moving about the two gentlemen that I have just been talking about, Nicholas Opiyo and Adrian Jjuuko, is that actually both of them are straight, and they are committed to fighting for LGBT rights. Adrian says it so beautifully when he says, "I do not want my two daughters to grow up in a country where one group of people is persecuted."
MAGALIE LAGUERRE-WILKINSON: I didn't know you were going to end the story that way. That is really extraordinary.
Speaking of Uganda, the Christian churches there—I am not going to ask you to pick on one or anything like that, but it seems as though the clergy has been incredibly silent regarding LGBT rights. Does your organization work with local clergy, with churches, to try to see how people can be protected? It just seems so anti-Christian, frankly, to support so much hate.
ROBERT BANK: Yes. Thank you for asking about this. I would like to say another thing about the churches in Uganda. Many of them have been inspired to hate for two reasons, one of which directly relates to the church and another just relates to colonialism, because I always like to look at the root causes of everything, you will begin to realize.
MAGALIE LAGUERRE-WILKINSON: Yes.
ROBERT BANK: There is a gentleman called Scott Lively who [is from] Massachusetts who is someone who in the early parts of the 2000s, of the 21st century, became determined to transport homophobia from the United States of America through the evangelical church to African countries, and this is very well-documented. Part of the enormous discrimination against LGBT people in Uganda comes specifically from our country. I did want to sort of just highlight that. We have supported a case that was brought against this gentleman on behalf of Ugandans to actually stop this kind of hatred from continuing. That is one thing I want to say.
Another thing that I want to say is that—and I think it is quite interesting that there is a lot of attention being paid recently to the fact that many of the laws that penalized LGBT people, that criminalized same-sex activity in Africa, actually came from the British or came from the colonization that occurred in Africa. Those laws were in the penal code of those countries and were very much propagated by those who weren't local Africans. I just want to always also give that context.
MAGALIE LAGUERRE-WILKINSON: Of course.
ROBERT BANK: Now I want to say that it is also true that churches in places like Uganda and churches all over the world, and parts of denominations of all religions, have tended to be very homophobic, not in support of gender quality, not in support of rights for all.
This is something we work on all the time, and we work on it in two contexts. In Uganda, we work on it by funding organizations that themselves are engaging with clergy, realizing that clergy will be a stepping stone. If you can change the hearts and minds of someone of the cloth who has so much power in their community, then surely they will speak to their people. So this is always a model of work for us, and we support organizations that have actually been quite successful.
We have a wonderful story actually, not in Uganda but in Kenya, of an amazing lesbian woman who worked in an organization called PEMA Kenya. She worked with clergy with herself and a bunch of other LGBT people, and said they wanted to talk about problems in their community and solving problems—not LGBT problems; problems about access to health care, problems about police violence.
MAGALIE LAGUERRE-WILKINSON: Starting small.
ROBERT BANK: Starting small. It is a technique that apparently for about three months, they would come together, and they would work on these things. Whenever the clergy might say something like, "Oh, those gay people—they should be killed," they would remain silent. They wouldn't come out.
After getting to know these people—and this is sort of going back to our discussion about changing hearts and minds because I am a strong believer in this approach. Somewhere about three months into this incredible work they were doing together to build community, the next time someone made a homophobic comment, Essie—the leader of this organization—said, "You know, I am a lesbian." Of course, her new friends were shocked. "You can't be. You can't be. Those people are evil people. Those people are predators. Those people," all of the clichés and the stereotypes. In fact, this is I think what is one of the most promising interventions in the world, this notion that one meets another human being and then realizes that in fact we have so much in common.
MAGALIE LAGUERRE-WILKINSON: Because we are part of this community. We have the same problems. We have the same issues.
ROBERT BANK: Right. I want to talk about another way that AJWS really works in the multi-faith or interfaith community.
MAGALIE LAGUERRE-WILKINSON: Yes, of course.
ROBERT BANK: As a Jewish organization, we obviously believe that—and with our premise being that all people are born equal and entitled to the same rights and dignity—we work across faith, and we do a lot of work in the United States in our government affairs work in Washington, DC where we join with other progressive religious groups who are fighting for equality. It is a wonderful sacred moment when together we go visit a senator in the United States Senate, and I am accompanied by a rabbi and a priest and an imam. There is a sense that the world could all just work out if all of us can understand that we really care about one another. I know that sounds somewhat Pollyanna-ish, but when it works, it works.
Another thing: American Jewish World Service provides American Jews with this enormous platform for opening themselves to the possibility of understanding people who are different to them or come from different cultures. When I travel with investors and philanthropists to developing world countries and we come as a group of, not only, but the majority, Jewish people, and we are in Hyderabad with a group of Muslim women who are fighting domestic violence in their community and being given opportunities to have education, not get married young, etc.
MAGALIE LAGUERRE-WILKINSON: You're showing up as a human helping another human being.
ROBERT BANK: Exactly. It's across faith, and it's such a wonderful sort of moral example of what the world could be like.
MAGALIE LAGUERRE-WILKINSON: Activists can make noise but sometimes can't effect change. How are you able to be both activist and game-changer?
ROBERT BANK: That is a beautiful question. We don't like noise for noise's sake. I think we like noise when it is really going to have an impact, and I do believe very strongly in advocacy, in speaking truth to power, in speaking truth to our government in the United States, in speaking truth through our grantees to their governments, and making noise because one needs to make noise in order to be heard. There's no question.
But I think I am more interested on some level in the combination of that noise and what I would call quiet competence, the ability to really focus as the CEO of a social change organization in the United States that works in the developing world on what is the best way to make social change. What is the way to really build solidarity and partnership with people in local communities to enable them to move up the chain vertically?
Let me explain what I mean by that. I think starting at the grassroots is the most important thing. I think it is always critical that local communities, people themselves, need to be given the opportunity to ask for and to understand their rights and what they are entitled to. I think that builds very robust and vibrant communities.
But I am thinking of a case, for instance, in Haiti where we—and I am very proud of this—after the 2010 earthquake, American Jewish World Service was fortunate to have been supported by many of our donors who were, like everyone was at the time, just overwhelmed and shocked: 200,000 people dead.
MAGALIE LAGUERRE-WILKINSON: It was devastating.
ROBERT BANK: The devastation of this catastrophe was so awful, and then later with Hurricane Matthew.
We have always decided that the way we are going to go into a country is only if the people in that country really want us and want us in a way that will have the best impact for them. We are not an organization that goes in and out.
We had been in Haiti, working in Haiti, because it is a country that I love deeply, and it is a country that has immense possibility and some of the most beautiful people in the world.
MAGALIE LAGUERRE-WILKINSON: I agree wholeheartedly but go on.
ROBERT BANK: I think it has been subject to external forces, talking of root causes, that are appalling. I am not going to go into the history of Haiti because you know it and I know it. Enough said.
MAGALIE LAGUERRE-WILKINSON: That is another broadcast.
ROBERT BANK: That is another broadcast.
We were working in Haiti since 1999, and then when the earthquake happened, what we wanted to do was to make sure that the grassroots groups that we worked with had the capacity to rebuild and had the capacity to work in their communities to become what they were before. We were supporting a group of women feminists, an amazing organization called Solidarité Fanm Ayisyen (SOFA) with some of the leading feminists in the world today, and we wanted to make sure that their building that had collapsed could be built. We wanted to make sure that their affiliates in other parts of the country where they would have health clinics would be able to be revived, so we followed their lead.
We also now in 2018 in Haiti are doing another whole piece of work following the lead of what is going on in Haiti right now. That is what I call starting up the grassroots and leading all the way up. Now what we are doing is we are working with an incredible organization called Kolektif Jistis Min (KJM), which means, I believe, Justice in Mining Collective. This is a remarkable group that I have visited twice, and they blow me away, I mean some of the most talented people on the Earth today who are doing what I call—and it sort of relates to my work at GMHC.
I used to talk about prevention a lot, that prevention is the most important thing. They know that Canadian and American groups have been working with the World Bank to do mining in Haiti. Mining is one of the most destructive forces in the world today, especially when done badly. It forces people off their land. It poisons the water and the land, and people are cheated into giving up their land with a promise of jobs and gold.
This amazing group—it is a coalition of many, many organizations—is smart enough to know that there must be other countries in Central America where mining has proliferated, and what have they done, because mining is sort of at the beginning in Haiti. American Jewish World Service funded for the last 12 years organizations in El Salvador, a country of 6.3 million people, that over many, many years, starting at the grassroots, moving around different departments in the country, persuading the Roman Catholic church to actually get involved in fighting for water over gold, was their moniker.
MAGALIE LAGUERRE-WILKINSON: Clean water.
ROBERT BANK: Clean water over gold because the cyanide that is used in metallic mining can cause serious illness and death, especially if done illegally and without close monitoring.
This went all the way up to the highest legislature of El Salvador. In 2017, El Salvador—little El Salvador—became the first country in the world to ban metallic mining, so they chose water over gold.
MAGALIE LAGUERRE-WILKINSON: Is that so?
ROBERT BANK: This amazing Haitian group has decided that what they want to do is learn from the Salvadorans, and we, American Jewish World Service, are enabling this partnership. What were the techniques that you used? What are the advocacy skills you used? How did you persuade the local population who actually sometimes is very attracted by the offers of —
MAGALIE LAGUERRE-WILKINSON: Of course.
ROBERT BANK: —in a language that they sometimes don't understand, sign at the bottom, etc.
We are for inclusive development, not destructive development. This Haiti example of this amazing group, KJM and one of my favorite grantees—I hate to say that because they are all my favorite, but they are certainly one of my favorites—because I believe I can see that 10 years from now, they will have achieved what their El Salvadoran brothers and sisters did. That is very, very exciting to me, and it is a combination of fierce activism, speaking truth to power to the Haiti government and saying they want to call for a complete review of everything that is going on, organizing skills up to the top, as well as a grassroots group that, frankly, is working day to day on cultivating crops, sharing seeds.
MAGALIE LAGUERRE-WILKINSON: They're on the ground. They are there.
ROBERT BANK: Making sure that they have livelihoods. I think it is very much both/and, and I'm actually a strong believer in something I learned once very young in my career, that service—providing service to people—plus advocacy equals change.
MAGALIE LAGUERRE-WILKINSON: Of course you are an advocate for social change. We understand that. It's not a one-size-fits-all model.
ROBERT BANK: Absolutely.
MAGALIE LAGUERRE-WILKINSON: So every country you enter, every culture you are discovering, it's almost like the first day on the job for you in many ways. How do you mold social change in different societies, in different environments? What kind of a challenge is that for you?
ROBERT BANK: For me, Magalie, this goes back to our approach, which is very much about trusting local communities and trusting local experts. In each of the countries in which we work, we spend a lot of time choosing these people. Actually, quite remarkably, they seem to come to us, which is rather lovely. It is another thing, I think, about this attraction of this model.
People have been working for many, many years in improving the communities in which they live. They are in their country and they love their country, and people who love their country want to see change in their country.
MAGALIE LAGUERRE-WILKINSON: They don't want to leave their country.
ROBERT BANK: They don't want to leave their country. So the people I have been talking about today actually are all supported through our staff that are in these countries. In Haiti we have two amazing staff members who are Haitian who teach me all I need to know about their communities. I trust them. Our organization trusts them because they have been committed.
I was with a group of donors in Haiti recently, and an amazing woman came to speak to us at dinner. We were talking about the challenge with the Haitian government and corruption, etc. We could be talking about many countries. When this incredible woman finished speaking, this American gentleman from Newton, Massachusetts said, "I have one question for you."
She said, "What is that question?"
He said, "Why don't you run for president of Haiti?"
She has been working in social change. She runs a group called GAR [phonetic] that is actually working right now with Dominicans of Haitian descent who are being forced back into Haiti. We are doing a lot of work on that issue, this whole issue of statelessness and really the persecution by the Dominican government right now.
MAGALIE LAGUERRE-WILKINSON: What was her answer?
ROBERT BANK: That is a great question. Like a true, good activist she said, "I will do it when there's enough wind behind me because one person can't make this change."
I'm working with building coalitions and a just society within the communities that I work. Another big area that we work all over the world in places and spaces where we see the potential is with youth. I am such a great believer in young people. For instance, something like 50 percent of the continent of Africa are below the age of 25.
MAGALIE LAGUERRE-WILKINSON: They can't be discounted for sure.
ROBERT BANK: Yes. There is an amazing grantee that we support in Senegal called Y'en a Marre.
MAGALIE LAGUERRE-WILKINSON: "We're fed up."
ROBERT BANK: That's it. They marshalled 300,000 young people in recent elections to oust the local president who wanted to stay for many terms, way beyond what the constitution allowed. I have a great belief in youth, and we support them. We learn from them. We don't only teach them; we learn from them.
MAGALIE LAGUERRE-WILKINSON: You said something recently which stuck with me about your work, about your life's work, about the work of activism, of implementing social change, which was, "Even in the darkest times the problems scream, and the solutions whisper." Incredible.
ROBERT BANK: I really think that is true. I think that in life, there's the classic glass half-full, glass half-empty kind of thing. I do love that. Someone told me that once, and I have loved repeating it, the problems scream and the solutions whisper. Therefore, we pay more attention to the problems.
What I am all about is really finding those nuggets and those kernels of success and scaling them, building upon them, and believing in them. I believe that is one of my life and my sort of management philosophies, actually. I think it is true for the people who work at American Jewish World Service. I am only one person of a staff of 130 people. I have the most remarkable staff who work in the United States and all over the world, and they inspire me every day.
My job is—very much like a conductor of an orchestra in some way—to ensure that every instrument has its beautiful voice heard and that this melody is given the opportunity to really soar. I see that all over the world, so I am just the luckiest person on Earth because I see every single day the future. I see the possibilities for a better world.
MAGALIE LAGUERRE-WILKINSON: On that note, Robert Bank, let's continue to see these possibilities. Continued success in your work and in your travels. Perhaps we can have another conversation again very soon.
ROBERT BANK: That would be delightful. Thank you so much, Magalie. It truly has been a delight.
MAGALIE LAGUERRE-WILKINSON: Thank you.
I'm Magalie Laguerre-Wilkinson. Thank you so much for joining us on this edition of Ethics Matter.