Transforming Students into Global Citizens
BY PAKSY PLACKIS-CHENG
Alethea Tyner Paradis, lawyer and history teacher turned entrepreneur is on a mission to send tens of thousands of students abroad for a cultural exchange beyond ‘voluntourism’.
Peace Works Travel founder and CEO Alethea Tyner Paradis shares the challenges of building a social enterprise, how the human race was saved by someone who studied abroad, and how students can become new types of ambassadors, creating innovative engagements with the world.
Why Peace Works Travel?
What inspired me to start this company was 9/11.
I’m hearing my students repeat the calls to war as if that’s the answer to our national grief. And being a history teacher, you see these patterns. You see this groupthink mentality or you see human beings making the same kinds of mistakes over and over again. I was emotionally distraught and agitated by that.
Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States spoke to me, remembering how the mainstream often silences the voices left out of the narrative. I decided that by taking students to places where history happened, suddenly they have a reason to engage and get interested in our own democracy.
So after 9/11 I took a group of kids to Vietnam and introduced them to our former enemies. Children affected by Agent Orange, and what we had done to the landscape. They met Vietcong soldiers and our old allies. And students observed how– with the Buddhist culture — the Vietnamese had moved forward towards forgiveness.
That was one of those inspirational watershed moments. From there, I kept building curriculum for destinations and realized that the winning model is to have curriculum that inspires students before you leave the classroom. That way, we avoid being the Ugly American who shows up completely ignorant of the history and geography of a place.
What would the difference be with what Peace Works Travel does and ‘voluntourism?’
It’s so great that you ask, because this is one of the major pivots I’ve made along the way. I did start out doing voluntourism because on the face of it, it seems good. I’m going abroad, I want to do something to “make a difference.” I believe kids are naturally compassionate. We teach them, we show them, and they want to help. But bringing over a bunch of unskilled teenagers to dig a hole or paint a wall?
That’s really more about us feeling good about ourselves, right? That isn’t making a positive difference for anything but our egos. Superficial “community service” projects are actually harmful; it’s colonial and it’s also insulting.
The pivots that I made away from that are about engaging with social entrepreneurs and nonprofit principals on the ground. Empathy mapping, designing thinking activities, our travelers pen-palling with kids over there, having intercultural relationships before we get there, and using digital storytelling.
Give me an example.
In Cambodia, the students learn about the landmine issue. They stay at an organization called Metta Karuna. It’s a Jesuit organization where the kids build prefabricated wheelchairs that are going to the poorest of the poor. Part of the Peace Works program is contributing to that.
Similarly, in Guatemala, students learn about the coffee trade and how exploitative the commodity chain can be. We have the kids out in the fields picking the beans, meeting the farmers, hauling some of the beans down the mountain. Taking it down to the farmer’s house, roasting it, peeling it.
Then, we have them engaging in a World Trade Organization exercise. They’re guessing based on the cost of a five-dollar cup of coffee: What do you think the farmer should get? Where do the percentages go?
The storytelling component is the most compelling aspect of what we’re doing because it allows the kids to concretize and amplify their shift of consciousness. They can have this “aha!” moment wherever they are, but if they don’t have a way of articulating that to the broader population, it is less impactful. But when kids document their own learning through photography, video, blogging – and magnify their insights to an audience outside their immediate circles, that’s powerful. The learning lives on long after the trip is over, which is the goal of studying abroad.
Give me an example of the impact of studying abroad?
During the Cuban Missile Crisis, President Kennedy was surrounded by all these war hawks that were insisting things were dire and that we had to pull the trigger first or otherwise we were going to be on our knees.
There’s all this intense pressure to be the military aggressor, to get the Russian missiles out of Cuba. An intense time period; people’s fantasy notions that nuclear war is winnable. Kennedy was already smarting under the failures of the Bay of Pigs invasion. He inherited that from Eisenhower and went ahead with it. It was a total disaster, so he’s got all this pressure bearing down.
There was one guy in his group, Llewellyn Thompson, who had studied abroad in Russia and even lived with Khrushchev. He knew enough from that cross-cultural experience to think more compassionately about the enemy. He was able to advise Kennedy because there were two telegrams in question. The first was conciliatory, the second one was more belligerent. Thompson advised Kennedy, “Go with the first one. Don’t react to the belligerent one. Let’s operate from the first and empathize with this guy. He’s probably got all the military generals on hand. He’s got to save face; he’s in the same position that you are in.” His experience of being abroad fostered in him an awareness of a different cultural approach that arguably saved us from nuclear Armageddon.
Even in the Muslim community, for example, it’s really easy to say, “They are all terrorists, they are all suicide bombers.” Well, no, they aren’t. They’re afraid and confused and have fringe lunatics just like we do.
So how do we understand and build more trust and reciprocity with the same among us?
On the business side, this must have been an incredibly complicated exercise. You’re dealing with foreign entities, schools, students, and parents. How do you get everybody behind the mission?
Building partnerships with teachers is critical, teachers who resonate with what we’re doing. Going to destination countries, and crafting an itinerary through research. I do a lot of reading on the history of the place, crafting an itinerary, going there myself.
The number one priority is safety and security. You can’t have fun if you’re sick from street food and being frightened doesn’t go well with experiential learning!
Unless you have a pipeline of repeat travelers, every trip becomes a one off. That’s the challenging thing. Because the teachers are amazing, they push everything through the pipeline with their administrations and they interface with the parents. They’re the wow factor for the kids.
One of the challenges is to make sure that it’s not a one and done. The school adopts it with the curriculum and you know it becomes more invested in that. As an annual offering.
Scaling must be really difficult.
Yeah. I have a small team. What I’m looking to do is find an investor partner who’s good at taking a small enterprise up to the next level. We need to replicate ourselves in a bigger way.
How do you look for someone like that?
I network and also have a really great advisory board. I’m constantly talking to people. What I’ve heard is that scaling a service-based industry is difficult because there’s no commodity. Education is one of those things too. It’s a long game. It doesn’t look as attractive to invest in because where are you going to get your return? Well, your return is a more just and peaceful and intelligent citizenry!
No war, maybe!
Right, that’s your pay off. Human beings, we’re extraordinary. What we can accomplish if we aren’t putting our energy towards fighting but on innovating things.
What kind of insight could you give women entrepreneurs?
My goodness, that’s funny. Women are so strong. We have this incredible resiliency and then we’ve cultivated this array of strengths. They’re the ability to navigate through a patriarchal society. Getting paid less, getting regarded as less, being objectified.
You’re supposed to be smart, you’re supposed to be beautiful, you’re not supposed to age. You’re supposed to have a perfect house and be a perfect hostess. Your children are supposed to be gorgeous, well behaved, brilliant, and accomplished.
I struggle myself so I don’t want to sound like I’ve got a monopoly on any kind of wisdom. Even if you believe in something and you’ve tested that there is profitability, whether it’s viable, you’re just gonna keep hitting barriers. Trust your intuition and keep scaling around those walls.
What do you struggle with as a woman?
My gosh, balance. Perfectionism. It’s an illusion, right? Especially in this business. We’re dealing with people’s kids. There are the schools and teachers; we’ve got to meet their expectations and all their thresholds.
Then you’ve got the parents who are paying to send their kid on an adventure. They want their kids to have an amazing, authentic, life-changing experience, but they don’t want it to be so authentic that their child is traumatized. So holding all of these things and tensions simultaneously.
There’s one other thing, and I don’t know how to put this into context. But just being comfortable with the idea that it’s okay to make money. Particularly in teaching, my gosh. Teachers just work and work and work and work. You don’t get a bonus for putting in that extra time, or changing that kid’s life. There’s no metric on that. One thing that I’ve been having to get my head around is: it’s okay to make money. You can do it in a way that empowers other people.
I grew up really poor. I grew up in Santa Cruz [California] but for a while we were homeless, living in a VW bus. My parents were divorced and my mom was disabled. I got jobs at a very young age to help support the family. I was 13; I was tall and looked older, lied about my age, and got a job working graveyard shifts at a newspaper. Working the assembly line in the basement shutting the advertising supplement into the paper.
Then I would go to school. Three days a week graveyard shift as a kid is almost Dickinsonian.
Building a company is peanuts…
That’s the thing; I became acclimatized to struggle. Starting your own business, and bootstrapping it up. It’s been an extraordinary struggle. But I’ve also seen how my passion for doing good in the world is making a difference.
A lot of it is born out of the relativity of all of our suffering. We all suffer and it’s easy to get, “My life is so hard.” All you need to do is engage with someone else and hear their story and see all that they’ve overcome.
It fills you with this incredible sense of perspective and joy that you are capable of making a difference. When you meet survivors from war you think, “I’m lucky I made it out.” I never had to resort to prostitution, or I never had to face some of the impossible challenges that some women around the world face.
That drives my very spirit. It’s so overwhelming to students that another black man got shot. There’s this point where you reached saturation where you’re almost callous or desensitized.
But if you can peel back that layer and show students what’s going on and give them pathways to take action. You can’t just show them something awful. Guilt is counterproductive.
Even if it’s as simple as giving the kids a voice; raising awareness is doing something. At least you’re not passive anymore. Then suddenly you have this community of people who are caring and are interested in asking, “Where did my clothing come from? Was it made by a seven year old girl chained to a loom somewhere? My hair products, are they bad for the environment?”
The consumer’s dollar is big power, right?
You can shut down things that you don’t believe in! The law is wonderful, but ultimately people in countries engaged in mutually prosperous relationships don’t bomb each other. That is going to be more effective than laws and treaties. Ultimately for the matrix of long-term global stability that’s what’s gonna make a difference.
We always ask interviewees what they think is needed for social change, but this is it: mutually prosperous relationships.
One hundred percent. Because if you are thinking about that nameless, faceless person that picks your tea leaves, or you’ve met an individual who’s suffering, then you think differently about your own choices. How you want to engage.
With great knowledge [power] comes great responsibility. Is that a Spiderman slogan or something? [Laughs.]
You’re not the first person we interviewed that mentions Spiderman somehow.
[Laughs.] It is Spiderman, Batman…it’s Wonder Woman!
As a nation we’re incredibly powerful. American youth, who have so much, girls but boys too, are constantly being told how inadequate they are. All these negative messages that are designed, of course, to make you purchase something that’s driving the consumer machine.
What if you had a strong sense of how lucky you were and had a real awareness of your privilege? Then you are able to put that in action for someone else. That’s a lot of what our trips are about, inspiring kids to find that.
What has been a challenge building Peace Works Travel?
A challenge has been finding people you trust who are willing to work with you to make things happen. Even if they love it, they’re not you — not meaning skill or competency wise. They have their own family, their own lives, and their paycheck they need to earn.
Then on my side it’s a challenge to remember that and to not be critical of their boundaries. “What? You’re not eating, sleeping, and breathing this like I am?” [Laughs.]
I’m totally determined to make a big impact. We’re sending about 250 kids abroad every year. I want ten times that. Imagine if we, as a nation, are sending more young people abroad with cameras and computers than we are with guns. What a difference in the world. If we’re not doing this, the nation is just the leader in consumerism, resource acquisition, and domination.
There are different impressions of what the United States is. If we can start with our young people, on faculty-led study abroad trips, where the students are the ambassadors, it would create new kinds of innovative engagement with the world.