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Humans of OLAM: Ben Vorspan

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This story comes to us from our friends at OLAM and first appeared on their blog as part of their Humans of OLAM series. Below, OLAM Program Manager Shani Rosenbaum profiles Ben Vorspan, who channels his profound academic experience at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem in his work in the developing world.

Sharing the wealth of global resources to transform communities

Though Ben Vorspan has been involved in development programs throughout the world – from Sub Saharan Africa to South Asia to the Middle East – his journey toward global justice work began at home.

Ben grew up in Austin, Texas in what he calls “a liberal Austin bubble. Austin is one of the most segregated cities in the US; even growing up on the side that is diverse and accepting, I recognized that I was on the privileged side of an unjust system.”

Ben follows a family legacy of engaging in justice and service work. “My grandfather in New York was the Vice President of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations, and the President of its Social Action Committee. He was a pioneer in [raising] the Jewish voice for civil rights, and was a big actor in the civil rights movement in the United States and the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa.” Ben’s grandfather worked closely with Martin Luther King, Jr., and worked on justice issues in Middle Eastern countries such as Syria, Jordan and Egypt.

“I was raised with the understanding that social justice is what one should do, and that the Jewish community was not doing enough,” says Ben.

Ben himself seems to have taken that charge full-on. In his late teens and early 20s, he traveled the world, teaching English and working in communities throughout India, Nepal, Ethiopia, and Southeast Asia. Over the course of this journey, Ben says, “my interest in justice brought me to Jerusalem.” Arriving at the age of 21, he eventually began university in Jerusalem, and worked with a number of youth empowerment programs in Palestinian NGOs in East Jerusalem and the West Bank, fostering leadership skills for recent university graduates. “I came for an Ulpan,” he laughs, “and stayed for 7 years.”

During those years, Ben discovered the Glocal Community Development Studies M.A. Program, which seemed “a good way to combine my interest in development and global justice.” Integral to Glocal’s 2-year program is an internship in the developing world. Ben experienced one of the more inspiring moments of his development career thus far as a result of his Glocal internship in Madagascar.

The organization where Ben was interning focused on “environmentally sustainable economic activities that are alternatives to slash-and-burn agriculture,” using the tool of ecotourism. (“Slash-and-burn” refers to a method of cutting and burning natural vegetation in order to clear farming plots, which has been noted to have troubling environmental effects and also does not provide long-term sustainable income for local farmers.)

“The organization had established a working cooperative of community members to run an eco-lodge. The organization itself hadn’t done a great job in working with the community’s interest; they had imposed a French model [rather than developing a local model]. So the community was engaged because they were making money, but as soon as salaries were cut, they (understandably) went back to slash-and-burn agriculture.”

The project’s saving grace came in the form of “a core group of three guides” from the local community: “one sweet 70-year-old man who had grown up as fisherman on the coast – who had a visceral respect and appreciation for the environment – and his two understudies. My focus…was to work with those three to market their program and access different advertising channels across the region.” Ben didn’t know how transformative these men’s impact would be until he returned several years later. “I went back to visit as an eco-tourist and stopped by their site; they had done an incredible job of maintaining this business and advocating for alternatives to slash-and-burn agriculture.”

The change in the local community’s attitude and investment was tangible. “When I had worked there, I would be in this beautiful forested site, but look across to the next mountainside stripped of trees and burning; and I would speak to community members and opine how sad it was, but they weren’t so interested. But when I came back [two years later], I saw how those who had been touched by these three guides seemed to really appreciate the nature around them. These community members had worked to maintain something they felt was important.”

How has his training at Glocal affected Ben’s practice in the field? “What I took out of Glocal on a very macro level is that most development workers are very privileged individuals in the sense of having access to all the resources that exist due to globalization. We’re the privileged minority as far as globalization goes – we can have an Indian dinner, read Chinese philosophy, wear an African scarf, go to school in Sweden.”

Understanding his position as a privileged minority focuses Ben’s mission as a development professional. “If I can in some way facilitate access to global information, then people can be informed in guiding their own development.” In aiming to apply this approach in practice, Ben tends to focus on “programs that employ a rights-based development approach: working with people [so that they] understand their rights, and I would add their responsibilities, and… can start to develop their own plans for development and not the plans of whoever wants to develop them.”

Having his training in Jerusalem has raised tough questions for Ben about the role of politics in the development sphere. “A lot of Israeli development focus is on innovation. I think that those are valuable tools, but the Israeli focus on development right now should be on how to, on a global level… be less exploitative. How can Israel trade arms with a country’s capital – contributing to crippling instability – and then teach farmers about irrigation in the village next door? I have the exact same criticism of my country, the United States, and development agencies around the world…. It feels to me like putting a bandaid over deeper wounds that we are creating.”

On top of this, Ben feels strongly that Israel and Jews should focus on “taking issues facing the Palestinian population just as seriously as those facing populations around the world…Our drive to work towards Tikkun Olam is real, so why does it often stop before taking a critical look at issues happening right at our doorstep?” He notes that he is proud to have worked with Israeli development workers who take both issues seriously, “bringing a remarkable depth to their work.”

Ben is grateful that the Glocal program has made significant space for engaging these and other challenging questions, both among cohorts of current students, and as an ongoing virtual conversation within the network of talented graduates in the field. He speaks with fondness and respect of his colleagues and professors at Glocal, who, he says, “have taught me everything from the technical, professional skills… to the critical outlook required for this field.” The field presents no shortage of challenges, but Ben and his colleagues – equipped with honed professional skills, a drive to bring global resources to vulnerable communities, and a healthy dose of critical humility – seem up to the task.

The Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation is proud to empower emerging leaders to explore their values, identity and new ways to strengthen their communities. We believe that as we work together to repair the world, it is important to share our diverse experiences and perspectives along the way. We encourage the expression of personal thoughts and reflections here on the Schusterman blog. Each post reflects solely the opinion of its author and does not necessarily represent the views of the Foundation, its partner organizations or program participants.