"Achieving Education for All, Realizing Engaged Communities, and Creating Global Citizens for Change Through the UNESCO Chairs Program." Dr, Mark Brennan
Good afternoon. Honored guests, family, and friends, welcome. And a warm welcome to our thousands of friends and supporters who are watching this worldwide. Thank you all for being here! This is an amazing day that we have been waiting so long for. Today, we reinvent international community and youth development.
I am deeply honored that you are here. More importantly, I’m honored that you are here standing to be counted as we begin the amazing journey that is the UNESCO Chair program at Penn State. Together we will do unbelievable things and guarantee social justice for communities and young people worldwide.
I can’t help but believe that we are all connected on this journey and I’m starting to believe it is all meant to be. As President Erickson mentioned, this quest for social justice actually began right here at Penn State sixty years ago this month. Just a few steps away in Old Main, Penn State President Milton Eisenhower began a new role. It was 1953 and his older brother Ike was in his first year as USPresident. Milton was his most trusted advisor and he would leave State College on Friday afternoons on an Army plane from Black Moshannon forest and spend the weekend shaping foreign policy in the White House.
As the first Chairman of the US National Commission for UNESCO, he saw amazing potential for engaging the US in the post-war community of nations through UNESCO. He saw UNESCO as a something unprecedented and transformational. Here are some of his words:
“A body unique in history. It unites in one assembly, spokesmen of the arts, sciences and learned professions; of the education system at all levels; of radio, motion pictures and the press; of the education interests of labor, agriculture and of religious bodies; and of many other groups that are now working for the establishment of peace.”Milton had a dream, much like you have had, of a fair, equal, and just world. It is a dream that is still out there -- a dream that together we can achieve. Today we rekindle this important relationship between Penn State and UNESCO, and continue the work started so many years ago by our President Eisenhower. It’s really amazing isn’t it?
So today I want talk about two simple ideas: Education and Community. Tell a few stories. That’s all. No big deal. But keep in mind if we work on nothing else but developing these two things, your long held dreams of making the world a dramatically better place will be achieved. It’s as simple as that.
EDUCATION FOR ALL
The first thing I want to share with you is the importance of education. The UNESCO Chair program, it is not about academic exercises. It is not about wishful thinking, theoretical ramblings, and charitable intentions. It’s not about filling our libraries with books and reports that are rarely, if ever, read. To me it’s about action and it’s about justice. It’s about Education for All.
We strive to guarantee the single most important human right: That absolute right to education and knowledge. Knowledge that opens up a world of possibilities for a young girl in rural Africa. Knowledge that convinces a young boy in Sierra Leon or Rwanda to pick up the pen instead of the gun. Knowledge that empowers youth to make life saving decisions about their health. Knowledge that empowers communities to take care of their own needs.
Education has been my salvation--even when I didn’t know it. You see my educational path has been at best odd. Certainly most people, including myself, would not have predicted my being here accepting this great honor. Truth be told, many would not have predicted my graduation from high school. Certainly not the completion of university or advanced graduate degrees, a professorship at one of the world’s greatest institutions, and now a UNESCO Chair would have been seen as absolutely delusional.
My educational training began at schools that were increasingly failing. Schools that no longer exist. A lack of funds, resources, and commitment led to decreased student outcomes. Burned out teachers, that would much rather have been somewhere else, further contributed to a deteriorating educational environment. I certainly could have easily fallen through the cracks. At times I did.
Now there is plenty of blame to go around, for myself in particular. I was bored, unchallenged, uninterested, probably lazy, and did at best adequate work. I was well-read, misbehaved, and angry. Worst of all I saw no purpose at all in what I was doing.
In college I found a different world. There were fresh ideas. There were calls to action. It was education with a purpose! And most important there were teachers that were interested and encouraging. Excited teachers who worked 80 hours a week not because they had to, but because they loved it so. Amazing people, with amazing stories and lives. They had been everywhere and seen everything. They were remarkable and extraordinary at their calling. Still that was not enough though.
It wasn’t until I saw the actual impacts of education throughout the world that I realized its importance. It wasn’t the chore and burden it had seemed when I was younger. It was the key. The single most important factor in shaping my life and the lives of so many others.
Now my story is largely average. Many of us wandered that long path to where we are now. Many of us began our education in less than desirable settings. My challenges don’t even deserve to be mentioned in the same sentence as the challenges seen in our inner cities, rapidly failing rural schools, and throughout the developing world. But the reality is that we have forgotten why education is important. We have distilled its usefulness down to a few small outcomes, such as getting a better job. We’ve told ourselves and our children it is something that we need, but stopped understanding why.
Not so in the developing world, where even young children are excited, honored, and enthusiastic about the prospect of going to a one-room schoolhouse with next to no resources. They understand what we have forgotten. They understand what our grandparents held so dear. Education is the single most important thing we can attain. It is the single greatest gift that we can give. And if we have one chance of having better lives, it all comes through the doors that education opens. I’m sure you are asking how so? Well the facts speak volumes. There are countless ones, but here are a few examples.
Let’s start with general education:
If all students in low income countries obtained just basic reading skills, 170 million people could be lifted out of poverty. This is equal to a 12% cut in global poverty. Just by providing basic reading skills.
How about the connection between education and health?
Life expectancy has gone up for most people in the past couple of decades. The increase has been largest for people with the most education. There has been one exception. Those without a high school diploma have actually experienced a decrease in life expectancy.
But how about really moving the human race forward?
I’ve been surrounded by amazing women for my whole life. Insanely smart, tough, well read, critical thinkers. Fighters. I’ve seen the challenges they have faced, because of their gender. I’ve seen the fights they fought. Because of these, gender equity is close to home for me. Education is the key to women’s rights, equality, and community building.
How important do you think? Well for example:
Countries lose more than $1 billion a year by failing to educate girls to the same level as boys.
One additional year of schooling beyond primary school reduces the probability of becoming a young mother by almost 10%.
A child whose mother can read is 50% more likely to live past age 5!
In sub-Saharan Africa alone, approximately 2 million children’s lives could be saved every year if their mothers had at least a secondary education. How many Einstein’s, Steve Jobs, Gandhi’s, or Da Vinci’s never got the chance to better the world because of this? We need them now more than ever.
Nonetheless, almost two-thirds of the world’s 800 million illiterate adults are women. They are the foundations of civil society. And we need to invest in them.
All of this has to costs a lot right? How much do you think? 100 trillion? 1 trillion? No! For $16 billion a year in aid we can send all children to school in low-income countries. A lot? Sure. This is about half of the amount Europeans and Americans spend on ice cream annually. It is two less fighter jets in the US arsenal. It is $1 a month for each citizen of the G7 nations.
It’s the right thing to do. This is not about charity. This is about justice. Investing in education is more effective, cheaper, and leads to the best development outcomes. We have a large body of knowledge that backs this up.
Let me share one more example: Chris Aredo from Kenya. Chris had a normal childhood until the age of 12 years when he was orphaned. He found himself living in the rough streets of Nairobi, scavenging and stealing to survive. He lived this way for six years. I don’t think many of us in this room, certainly myself, are that tough or strong. After 6 years he was enrolled in the National Youth Service, which is a boot-camp, providing basic vocational skills. Shortly thereafter he met Paul Maina, who was beginning to form the Children and Youth Empowerment Center.
Chris joined Paul, and in late 2006 the Centre opened. Here Chris had an opportunity to help shape better lives for young people. He also had the opportunity to travel to Germany where the importance of education became even more evident to him. Upon his return he enrolled in high school, which he quickly completed. With the assistance of the Centre’s support network, he was able to enroll in University and will receive his BS degree this coming December in Business Information Technology. Chris has been the Chairperson of the University’s chapter of the Red Cross Club and President of International Association of Students in Economic and Commercial Sciences. He is UNESCO sponsored youth leadership development program as a mentor, facilitator, and community leader.
I mention his story not as a feel good moment, though it certainly is. I mention it because it highlights the common human condition. If provided with the opportunity for learning and education, people will seize the moment. Through a small investment and his hard work,
Chris’s life and those of others were transformed. In less than ten years, from a homeless street youth, to a high school graduate, to a college graduate, to a leader, activist, and agent of change. Think how tough, determined, resilient he is--and he is not terribly unusual. He’s the kind of person I want on my teams. If you give me him and 20 others like him, and we will make history! Also remember there are more than a billion youth like Chris out there and just think of the impacts of reaching a fraction of them or even better yet think of empowering them all.
Education is power and sets the stage for strong communities that take care of their own needs. This focus on Education for All will be a cornerstone of our work, and that’s the first thing I wanted to share with you today.
REALIZING ENGAGED COMMUNITIES
The second thing I want to share with you is the importance of community. Just like education, community shapes productive and stable lives, just in a different way. Combining the two is magical in their impact.
But why think about community? Community contributes to individual, family and social well being. It is our first contact with the world beyond the family. It is the setting for socialization, our institutions, and the development of rules and culture.
Community establishes and maintains channels of communication and interaction. I always tell my undergraduate and graduate students to think about community as one big relationship. Think about what happens in your relationships. It’s the same with community. When you first meet you communicate constantly, interact continuously, and do everything together. As time goes on the communication and interaction become less frequent. And as we all know, it sometimes is not long before problems occur. Where mountains are made out of mole hills and relationships become strained, sometimes to the point of breaking. The same is true in communities. It involves more people, and is a bit messier, but the process and structure is the same. Just as in our relationships, we need to constantly be working to maintain community.
Often during presidential elections, I ask my students to count the number of times that community is said during debates and speeches. In these settings where every word counts and costs money, it is common for the term community to be mentioned dozens of times in an hour long speech. Why though? It’s an amazing idea community. It’s tremendously powerful. It bring up all those warm and fuzzy images--real and imagined--of what life was like or could be.
Now, before you think me an academic hippy or that I’m advocating for free love and touchy feely ideas, this is not the case at all. The impacts, outcomes, and potentials of community are real, tangible, and measurable. Strong communities are more resilient, adaptive and less likely to be exploited. They connect residents, institutions, organizations to each other. They promote stability, have less crime, and show increased local well-being. They increase involvement in local decision-making and participatory democracy.
There are also tremendous personal impacts. Community enhances our social, psychological and emotional development. It promotes civic responsibility, which is a commitment to helping others. It increases cultural understanding and empathy. It provides life skills such as critical thinking, interpersonal, leadership, and conflict resolution skills.
This is an impressive list that is by no means complete. We have mountains of research data, program valuations, thousands of books and journal articles to prove that this is the case. Even better, we’ve studied this process across the world. It’s true everywhere. The conditions and context might be a little different, but one thing holds true: tremendous things happen when people care about each other and the place they live in. This is not an idea. This is not a plan. This is fact. Strong communities equal stable, civil, and just societies.
For me the need for community is close to home. I was born and raised in a small town in northeastern Pennsylvania. I came from people who left Ireland and Europe seeking survival. All of these are absolutely great places. Places blessed by amazing natural resources, amazingly diverse cultures, tremendous food you can’t imagine. Cultures whose unique experiences and knowledge for dealing with the challenges of daily life were massive and effective. Places rich in social supports, from family, neighbors, religions, and schools. Places to me that held a tremendous amount of magic
But you know, as the musicians Lou Reed sang, there is a bit of magic in everything--and then some loss to even things out. The loss in these areas was characterized by exploitation from abusive outside interests. Abuse by corporations and governments that harvested local natural resources, including people, for far far less than they were worth. Places where youth were eventually forced to leave for lack of opportunities, denied their rightful heritage, and forced like so many youth worldwide to become the nomads, the diasporas. For many, education became not an opportunity, but a painful reminder of what might have been. After all, why bother learning of the wonders of Paris, Rome, and Tokyo when the odds of you getting to there were as good getting to the Moon. For most the mill, the mine, and often the unemployment line were our destiny. These were environments where citizens were slowly convinced that they were irrelevant.
That there was no need to act or be involved locally, convinced that they could never ever make a difference. In truth this impotence was not the result of the Illuminati, the Freemasons, the wealthy, or whatever version of the ‘Man’ that we created. It was not the standard issue boot of the Pinkerton Agency, the police or others, kicking in our door, forcing us to be compliant. It was something much simpler and infinitely more ominous. Something much harder and painful to admit, truth be told. It was the systematic breakdown of our communities. ut nonetheless we were the lucky ones. From Africa to Southeast Asia, to South and Central America, and eastern Europe these conditions would be eagerly welcomed in the face of war, genocide, disease, and extreme poverty.
But I’ve good news! Maybe it’s not so bad. And if it is, it certainly does not need to be. We actually have lots of proof that our communities can be brought back to life. We’ve tremendous evidence from the field. From do-gooding idealistic activists, to battle hardened program agents, to government officials. From shrewd business interests to charities and nonprofits. Capacity is being built and citizens of all ages are being empowered, but particularly those amazing agents of change: young people.
To understand this, let’s talk a bit about what community is. Let me tell you about a good way to think of it: an interactive approach to community. At the core of community is the interaction and interdependence among local people. Here people make up local interest groups that are loosely bounded arenas for interaction.
All of these seek to look after their own interests. Community evolves as members of these very different groups interact with each other, realizing their common, general needs. This doesn’t mean we give up who we are or sell out. We just realize that we have common needs, and that we can work together to overcome these.
As groups and residents interact, what has come to be known as community agency emerges. Agency highlights the fact that engagement has power. It shows that local people, working together, have the power to transform and change society. When they do this, community can emerge.
I want to stress this is a process though. Community is not a given. State College will always be on a map. But the connection between people that makes this place so special may not, unless we work at it. Keep in mind that community is a variable. Our locality is always changing, with people coming and going all the time. We need to constantly be working to maintain our connection to it and welcome in new people to be part of it. When we stop interacting, communicating, and being inclusive, it simply--and quickly disappears. But if developed, community results in amazing things here and abroad.
Let me give you some examples:
Civically engaged youth are 22% more likely to graduate from college than those that are not Civically engaged youth are 4 times less likely to exhibit “risky behavior” such as drug use and other dangerous behaviors.
Youth are 8 times more likely to believe that they can influence decision making if they are civically engaged.
This is important. The fact of the matter is that there are very few obstacles to us changing the world. We’ve just convinced ourselves that we can’t make a difference and shouldn’t act. This is largely because we’ve been uninvolved for so long. We’ve forgotten how to act and be engaged.
One more thing. Education and Community intersect in a big way. Where community involvement and education are low, the odds of extremism, gangs, and terroristic organizations more than quadruple.
This was brought home to me during visits to Cambodia over the years. Every time I go, I make a pilgrimage to the infamous Killing Fields near Phnom Penh. At their national Genocide Museum are thousands of photos of the victims. You see a fraction of them here behind me. But of all of these--one haunts me. I bring her flowers every year. I don’t know her name. No one does. But I can’t forget her eyes. I can’t forget that had there been a little more education and community capacity, the extremism would have been stopped in its tracks. She and several million other Cambodians would be with us today. The same is true in Germany, Rwanda, Bosnia, Argentina, and elsewhere. We owe it to her and the countless others to build strong, educated communities that will ensure extremism does not take root and run rampant.
If nothing else, remember this: Community builds capacity. It provides structure and social supports, builds empathy and understanding, and provides the basis for action and activism. It protects against poverty, extremism, and chaos.
The importance and central role of community will be the other cornerstone of our work and was the second thing I wanted to share with you.
Transforming the World through the UNESCO Chairs Program
We’ve been looking forward to this day for years. Because every now and then an opportunity comes along that just changes everything. We’ve been working really, really hard and have lots of plans that are ready to launch. I want to share three of them that we are really excited about. They really are amazing and beautiful creations.
First is the UNTWIN Network on Youth and Community Development.
With this, we reinvent the idea of global partnerships and collaboration! UNITWIN are the UN university twining and partnership networks. They open up all kinds of opportunities for rapid research and action and funding. While UNESCO Chairs are rare, UNITWIN networks are even more so. Only two exist in the US. We got the go ahead from UNESCO to start developing number three! However, ours will be unmatched in size, scope and impact.
It will cover 6 continents, 9 geographic regions, 35 partner institutions (and growing weekly), thousands of youth, and three UNESCO Chairs. This will allow for immediate research, program development, and educational program delivery.
The network will be led by three UNESCO Chairs at three interrelated multidisciplinary centers: the Child and Family Research Centre (NUI, Galway), UNESCO Centre for Research on Children and Youth University of Ulster), and the planned UNESCO Institute for Global Humanitarian Development (Penn State). The three bring together nearly 200 of the world’s best researchers, teachers, and program developers.
The network will have a common framework of Community Capacity Building, Youth Development, and Conflict Mitigation, but will pursue specialized projects on health and well-being, education and literacy, social and economic development, the physical sciences, agricultural development, civil engineering, and many other areas as they emerge. We will be able to conduct international comparative research, design programs, and deliver them worldwide in a matter of months -- not years as is often the case. Think of the potential!
With not much work, we can reach 10,000 kids and 1000 communities in the next few years. 10,000 kids and communities who see a brighter future, are contributing members of society, lead productive and safe lives, and take on ownership of local life. With your help and some hard work, we can triple the number of youth and communities we can reach.
UNITWIN goes live in April 2014. It’s already growing beyond our control! It’s a game changer and a once in a lifetime opportunity.
It’s going to be our legacy and we have a seat at the table for you!
The second big item focuses on identifying the best practices for youth and community development...worldwide.
Today we redefine global comparative research. There are lots of people doing great and effective work worldwide. We are going to begin a long-term research program to identify these best practices in all locations, but with a strong focus on rural areas.
But you might ask why? There is an increasing ‘youth bulge’ that exists alongside a heavy dependence on agriculture in the developing world. The UN has documented this, with nearly half of the world’s population residing in rural areas.
Over 90% of all rural residents live in less developed regions.
Equally important, almost a third of the world population is age 15 or younger, and half are under age 25.
85% of all youth live in less developed countries.
This reality creates an environment where the active engagement of communities is essential to future growth and development.
Another really cool part of this research focuses on building partnerships. We work to build capacity and partnerships through North-South and South-South partnerships that shape regional capacity. We’re already seeing great things, such as in Kenya and Zambia where we have linked programs that are working together like crazy.
Through the UNESCO Chair program, we will link organizations in 25 countries to share resources, best practices, and expertise, create a dynamic series of partnerships in the Global South, and form a community of nations focused on youth and development of civil society.
Third, is our Global Educational Programming. Today we revolutionize global education. We are planning a global educational program focusing on leadership and community building across the life span. Included are courses in leadership skills, community capacity building, entrepreneurship and small business development, positive youth development, conflict mitigation, and many others areas.
Penn State is a leader in distance education. It recently dedicated major resources to MOOCs: Massive Open Online Courses. What this means is if a citizen of this planet has access to the internet, to an internet café, or even a cell phone, they will be provided with college courses and instructional materials.
You’re asking how much will these cost right? That’s a great question. How does free sound? We’ve got it covered. All we ask is that you take the knowledge and skills and use them to make life better. The best courses in the world, taught by the best faculty. Free of charge.
Distributed through Penn State and the global UNESCO network. If people need more than the basic knowledge base, we can do that too. Certificates and even degree programs at all levels, with costs to be covered by foundations and international development agencies. Just think of the potential for primary and secondary schools, and for educators in the developing world. Think of the life changing impacts for a young girl in rural Zambia, a street child in Kenya, and a young farm worker in Cambodia. It’s beyond belief and utterly amazing! It changes everything!
So those are three of the big things that are happening now. We have lots more in the works and ready to launch. These and other efforts will help us realize our dreams of a better world. Come be part of all of these! We can pick some great fights together! I promise it’ll be awesome and we’ll do miraculous things!
Be Part of the Journey
We will do all of the things I mentioned. And much, much more. The key to this is you. You’ve been asked to be here today because we know you will fight for social justice. We need you to help us raise awareness, to help develop programs and research, and help us find funding to ensure this is a reality.
If you think about it, there is no better place than here to begin our journey. Lest we forget we are in Pennsylvania. This place that saw the birth of the Molly McGuires, the original union movements, and the knights of labor. It was where Milton Eisenhower dreamed of the potentials of UNESCO. Where Benjamin Franklin founded the Pennsylvania Abolitionist Society seeking to end slavery. Where our founding fathers conceived more than a nation, but the idea of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness--not just for us, but for our fellow citizens of the world. All of these people have passed the torch to us today. Let us make them proud in continuing their quest for social justice, for equality, and for creating a better world.
Now is our moment. Of all the opportunities out there, none have greater potential for immediate and long term impacts than education, the transformation of communities, empowerment of the excluded, and the positive development of youth. None. Absolutely none.
Now I know we hear inspirational speeches a lot. We are always being asked to open our hearts, and then our checkbooks. But this is different. We have never before had such structures, partners, and resources to make our dreams a reality.
I know we are all tired, overworked, and maybe a bit cynical of all this. I know there will be those outside of here that will tell us that the world is too big, too corrupt, that the victims deserve their low lots in life, and that maybe for the sake of our careers we really should look busy while doing nothing. But I’m asking you today to try one more time. Take one more leap of faith. I promise we won’t let you down.
I promise that we’ll be part of something legendary together.
Nonetheless as you question our ability to really change the world, I would simply ask you to remember back to our younger days when we were absolutely certain that we could do it. We were right. You were right. You were right and your dreams are still out there.
I want to share one last story. I recently read a wonderful essay by Joseph Laplin looking back on the 55th Anniversary of Jack Kerouac’s legendary novel On the Road. This was a novel that sent many young people (including myself) out on that road of discovery, in search of the limitless possibilities beyond our hometowns. A book that mandated the questioning of authority, the questioning of social conventions, and the challenging of the moral blind spots of our age. For me this book was magical.
Laplin’s essay took aim at those of us who have grown up, become established, and think we’ve grown wiser. Especially those of us who now dismiss Kerouac and this novel that once inspired us, as idealistAc, childish, and ridiculously naïve in its call for social change.
But Laplin had a wonderfully reaction to such people. Here is what he said:
“Perhaps these people never took to or went back on the road due to fear or family and therefore can no longer revisit Kerouac’s work. Perhaps it’s hard to even look at his writing, because, readers are actually looking at themselves. And it’s easier to say, well, Kerouac’s naïve, than to say I missed out on something. Maybe some readers have given up on the search for beauty and spirituality, or realized that they’re not one of those people who ‘burn burn burn like fabulous yellow roman candles’, and that knowledge is painful.”
I want to state it again. You were right when you once thought we would change the world. And you are still right. Your dreams of a fair, equal, and just world are still out there, and together we will reclaim them and make them a reality.
I say this not to preach to you or guilt you into action. I just want to put it into perspective and ask you to be part of this journey. If we live up to our ideals and commitments, in the not too distant future, you can put your children and grandchildren on your knee and tell them about once upon a time. Once upon a time when education was only for the privileged few. When women were treated as second class citizens. When injustice and inequality were the standard. And when communities were constantly trampled on by outside interests.
Most importantly, you can tell them that you were a part of fixing it. That the world is a far better place because of what we did. That they have a great bright future because of our bold efforts that began today. With such potentials and possibilities at hand, how can we ever explain to them our inaction or how we stood by and let appalling things continue?
As we close, I want to ask a few final questions.
There are many places to put your efforts...
But if not the thousands of communities we can help, then where?
If not the billions of young people we can empower to have better lives, then who?
And if now is not the time for bold, daring, and nearly miraculous actions, then when?
If you need proof of miracles than look no further than this stage. Here you have a former (or perhaps not so former) punk from rural Pennsylvania, of Irish descent, standing before you accepting one of our greatest honors. It’s absolutely humbling. And the honor is only eclipsed by the responsibility this opportunity brings with it. But it’s not intimidating. Not at all. Because I know we are in this together.
And for all of this I will be forever grateful to you for sharing this wonderful day and being part of this journey that will transform the world.
Thank you all very, very much.