Chris Lowney gives a speech to students during the launch of the Jesuit Commons - Higher Education at the Margins project in Kakuma on March 15, 2011. (Angelika Mendes/JRS)
Nairobi/Kakuma, 21 March 2011 - Chris Lowney, President of Jesuit Commons, was in Kakuma refugee camp (Kenya) for the official launch of the Jesuit Commons – Higher Education at the Margins project. In an interview with JRS Eastern Africa, he explains his understanding of education and leadership in a refugee-related context and shares his impression of the camp and the people living there.

Chris, you are the president of Jesuit Commons. Can you explain how Jesuit Commons was born and what it is?

One part of the idea was born among people who are working in distance education in universities in the US. They heard a presentation at a meeting about a distance education project on the Thai-Burma border and they became interested in doing something. Then, Charles Currie SJ, who is the head of the Association of Jesuit Colleges and Universities in the US, asked if I would have any interest in becoming involved and I did. I thought it was an interesting idea. 

What struck me was that it is about the fact that the Jesuits with their collaborators, on paper, have an extraordinary network around the world but it is not used nearly as well as it could be. Another fact is that many people in that network have a desire in seeing benefit for poor communities. Yet another fact is that technology is really changing everything in terms of how people can work together. So to me, the idea of Jesuit Commons is trying to put those three facts together: can we use technology to meet each other, in ways that will serve poor communities. 

Kakuma is one of the places where a Jesuit Commons project providing higher education is now being implemented and you just attended the launch of this project. What did you feel, what crossed your mind? 

One of the things that struck me is how crazy the idea was, but it is actually working. It is really quite remarkable. And the students touched me. They are very smart people, very talented and obviously very desirous to do this. Also, the multi-national nature of it struck me very much. I knew where the students are from, from reading, but I expected people to be in their own national groups. To me it is very interesting that they are blending together across ethnicity, including different faiths, including women. 

Going back to the idea of the programme, can you say a little more about how the idea to provide education for people at the margins was born? 

What that group at the Thai-Burma border was doing was a very desirable idea. The problem was that we did not have a partner. JRS International Director, Peter Balleis SJ, was coming to the US and he was interested. So JRS came forward and they represent an incredibly needy population. 

And we wanted to start with the hardest thing to do. If you did something with extremely poor people in urban areas you would find bandwidth and electricity all over the place. It is much more complicated to start something like this which already has a high degree of difficulty in the most difficult places on earth that have neither electricity nor bandwidth. In a way it makes it more fun and more headaches too to deal with the infrastructure challenges. But if we pull it off in the most difficult areas, we know we will be able to replicate in other areas.

If you look at how the programme is being implemented on the ground, does that correspond to the idea you first had?

We in no way had a highly developed idea at first. Then people went for the assessment visits and when they came back they made a recommendation. And actually, the reality is probably extremely close to what was envisioned. 

In the beginning it took a while for the bandwidth and computers to be ready, then there was some improvising but right now this is like online education that somebody sitting in New York might do with a university in Boston – more or less. Frankly, it has been more successful at this moment than I would have imagined, I would have suspected more compromises.

At the moment, almost 60 students are enrolled in the programme and more will participate in the future. How do you think they will benefit?

It has been interesting to me to see how many functions there are in these [camp] communities. These are very difficult communities but there is a lot going on: there is business, there is – through NGOs or not - a lot of addressing of community needs etc.  

Probably, many people in the US, including myself, imagined that the programme will help refugees just to fulfil their natural dignity of being an educated person, even if they never leave the camp setting. And that it could be a value for those  who return home or will be resettled [to a third country]. 

But I don't think I had as clear an idea as I have now of how many immediate leadership opportunities there are right in these communities. One of the things that has pleasantly surprised me is how immediately relevant this programme will be. There are many opportunities for these people to use their gifts immediately as leaders in their community. 

Leadership and community service are both crucial components in the courses that are being offered to the students. Why is that and how do you see these two interconnected?

I think it was everybody’s conviction that community service should be a very strong component. It was always a strong feeling among those involved in the programme that the point is not you; the point is your community or somebody else. People felt that they wanted to allow those into the programme, who share these values and who are living them. 

In regard to leadership, there is always the debate of whether anybody who has followers is a leader. I think there are a lot of broken concepts about leadership and sometimes leadership is very connected to status, power and positions. It is not for me to talk about this region or this continent but many of the people, not only in this camp but in this region, would say that some of their stereotypical leadership models are not very edifying models. 

So against all those ideas there is another strain of thinking: that good leadership is fundamentally transformational, meaning that it lifts up the morality and the behaviour of both the leader and everybody with whom he or she is working. Therefore, the idea of leadership has fundamentally something to do with serving the community. 

Before the background of the book you have written on leadership, how do you understand leadership in a refugee context?

Yesterday we had a seminar with the refugees about leadership and I did exactly the same seminar I would do with a business group. One of the very first exercises is to ask people to think about leaders and typically they will think of famous people, presidents etc. Then I will ask them to think about qualities they associate with good leadership and they will name a list of qualities, none of which has anything to do with being famous. Some of the qualities the group listed were to be inspiring, to be compassionate, to be a good communicator, to be honest, to be loving – all those are qualities anybody could exhibit. 

If you look in the dictionary, one of the definitions of leadership is to point out a way or direction and to influence others toward it. Everybody has this kind of opportunity. Many of the refugee students are parents. This is the first chance you have to point out a way and influence people – with your own children. 

So we spent a lot of time trying to imagine the idea that everybody has a leadership opportunity and responsibility. The scale of the opportunity – that, normally, you can't control in life. The more important question is, do you understand you have a current opportunity and what do you do with it. And the refuge students all have opportunities, they have family, they have communities, most of them in fact have large opportunities because they are doing some kind of work, e.g. in counselling, so it gives them a pretty big platform to show some leadership. 

As are a former Jesuit you are familiar with Jesuit principles and values. How do you think they are still relevant today, particularly in this education programme?

A very strong aspect of St. Ignatius' spirituality is that people need to understand themselves and their place in the world - in some very deep way, this is the Spiritual Exercises. And people do this early in their career as a Jesuit so in Ignatius’s thinking this is a very foundational aspect. 

Education in general but certainly the kind of education that we are doing here very much promotes self awareness. People are of course learning facts in the courses we offer but they are being forced to articulate their own understanding of self and their place in the world. 

Ignatian spirituality is also very worldly. Some of the spiritualities before Ignatius were withdrawn from the world because they considered the world a bad place. But Ignatian spirituality is very much based on the opposite principle. We need to have a spirituality that involves us in the world all the time and Kakuma will be a good place for proving this kind of spirituality.

Kakuma is quite an unusual place. You have been here for three days – what is your impression of the camp and of the people living here?

Many things have been very interesting and surprising that I could never have imagined or predicted and I think many people in developed settings, certainly in the US, would have very different concepts of refugees and how they live. 

One of the things that impressed me is there is no fence around the place. We think about refugees as being fenced in, but there is no fence here. Another one has been the sheer scale and sophistication of this place; it is multinational and there are many things going on. 

The terrain in which people are is quite forbidding and it is hard not to be struck by that. It has a feeling of being thrown down in the middle of the world. You drive through the desert to come here. That struck me. 

And the refugees themselves struck me. Anybody who is here, by definition, I guess, is very resilient. But I really was struck by the resilience of the people I met. I know life is very difficult here and people try to be positive to visitors because you don't want to be glum. But at some level they must have some despair in their lives. I really wonder if I could have that level of courage and depth of resilience and positiveness if I was in their situation. 

Is there a moment, an encounter or a conversation you had during the last three days, that touched you in a particular way and that you would like to share?

The whole experience had a huge impact on me and I could bring to mind a lot of moments that struck me. Some of the students told me they are interested in writing a book. That somebody has that kind of drive is a very impressive and touching thing. I was touched by the women I met. I don't think this is culturally an easy environment for them and I met some really impressive women. 

In some ways the most touching moment for me was the video message from Regis University staff, it was probably the highlight of the programme. I was watching the students, not the picture, and they clearly had an enormous interest in making a connection with the people they had been interacting with only over the internet. It is a shame that their teachers could not also make the trip because they are deeply touched by what they are doing.

There are many things that are terrible about the modern world but there are many things that are beautiful about it including the fact that this could not have happened 10 years ago. You are watching something that is a miracle in a way. 

You mentioned that this programme started with imagination. If you think another 10 years on, what is your dream how it should look like?

In a way we have been a little premature with everything we are doing. Nothing has been easy. But the technology is changing so quickly that to be too early means one year, not 15 years. Even while we are starting, new and faster solutions emerge. 

My business feeling about any project that involves technology is if you are not too early you are too late. Because if you wait until you feel the technology is ready for you it will already have moved further and other people will already be there. So it is the right thing to be a little early. I don't know what it will look like in 10 years but nothing like this. It will be so much easier in 10 years. 

The other, more general idea is that, while we are doing a prototype and a pilot I feel the Jesuit world really has a great opportunity to help pioneer how higher education should be done in extremely low resource environments. 

Previously people left their countries, e.g. as missionaries, and built hospitals and schools. But this is not the way the 21st century will work. So what is the new model for higher education in extremely poor communities? Nobody really knows and has figured it out and while some professionals are inventing very interesting solutions they cannot do what the Jesuit networks do. They don’t have the range of networks and expertise and local presence that Jesuits and their partners do. 

I think this is a very unique opportunity and I hope that we make a small contribution to help develop ideas for how to do this and help people imagine this more easily, because they see it already happening. 

That would be my dream that the Jesuits in the end become at the forefront for helping to imagine how to do higher education in very low resource communities in the 21st century and they really make a run at that. 

Would you like to add anything?

I would like to say that for JRS this has involved a lot of failure risk, a lot of risk-taking, a lot of difficulty and a lot of inconvenience and there certainly would be nothing today without JRS making a commitment and being faithful through difficulty. So I give great credit for the success of this to people in JRS and their dedication. And when I say this I mean from staff members on the ground up to the international director because we needed all these levels. 

Thank you very much.

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