Here’s a profile I wrote on Professor Carl Hobert, Founder of Axis of Hope, a non-profit organization on conflict resolution.
It’s all about the Children
It’s the first class of the semester, and a group of students shuffles across an oval wooden table in SED Ryan’s Library. Hardly familiar with each other’s names, they follow Professor Carl Hobert’s directions for ice-breakers and trust-building exercises. In a rather complicated “circular handshake”, students learn to develop trust and confidence, and begin a practical learning experience. The class is Educating Global Citizens and it is a rather unusual setting. Then again, this is no ordinary professor. His library shelf boasts an eclectic collection of books from Paul Kennedy’s “The Rise and Fall of Great Powers” to the Bible. Intricate mementos and souvenirs from all around the world adorn his office walls; a bright tunic from Ghana particularly stands out. On meeting him, you might notice his unique ties, which feature flags from all over the world, epitomizing his commitment to global citizenship. On inquiry it is revealed that they are from Save the Children, cementing his idea that “it’s all about the children.”
Boston University professor Carl Hobert is founder and executive director of Axis of Hope: Center for International Conflict Management and Prevention, a nonprofit organization committed to peace by targeting children in their “formative years”. Axis of Hope gives students the opportunity to learn essential problem-solving skills and “preventive diplomacy”.
Hobert brings together schools from different socio-economic backgrounds, and students learn to appreciate diversity through unique case studies like “Whose Jerusalem?”
In 2009, students from the Harlem Renaissance School worked with students from Spence, an all-girls school from the wealthier side of town. Hobert says that the way students worked together was absolutely amazing, though he’d been nervous about. Through a collection of ice-breakers and team building exercises, students appreciated each other’s differences and similarities.
One of his old students, David Binin Jastrab, recalls that experience.
“His talent was undeniable there; he was completely in the zone. We started with a cafeteria full of bored, disinterested students and Hobert found a way to identify with them, connect the Jerusalem case study to their lives and got almost all of them to participate earnestly.”
Hobert explains that this is because students learn that the team is more valuable than the individual self.
“The flame starts to grow and glow. But it takes time. I always tell my students to feel the fear and do it anyway” he explains excitedly.
Every Thursday, he visits an Italian Home in Jamaica Plain, in lieu with his ideas on public service and giving back to the community. His international focus is highlighted by conflict resolution trips to Rwanda every summer, where he teaches children important integration skills. Hobert inspires students through his passion and optimistic outlook on life. David Binin Jastrab calls it his natural charisma.
“I joined his class a week or two in and immediately noticed how much he loves a crowd. Like a university president, he charms, enlightens, boosts egos and challenges others as well as anyone.” Jastrab says.
Another student, Isabelle Richardon-Borfiga shares Jastrab’s views and was enamored by his commitment to social change.
“Professor Hobert did not teach us one particular subject but a better understanding of cultures, communication among people and appreciation of conflict resolution for progress” Borfiga says.
Hobert traces his early ideas on conflict resolution to his experiences growing up as a child in Minneapolis. At a time of increasing diversity among public students, the administration began bussing kids from different parts of Minneapolis.
“I got to know Native Americans, African Americans, people who’d come over from Cambodia during the Vietnam War or from Laos…Pockets of different people and it was cool to get to know them.”
Amidst these changes, his friends from the wealthier parts of town began to group together. They were forced to interact with different ethnicities and social backgrounds in school, but they were not comfortable playing with kids who were different from them outside of school. Sometimes fights would break out in the playground and racism would raise its ugly head. Yet Hobert thought differently as a fifth grader in Kenwood Elementary School.
“I had such a great time with them playing football and hockey and baseball with these friends from other parts of town, particularly from north Minneapolis because this was a predominantly African American part of town. I still think of playing football with Jerome Benton. He still lives out there and he’s a dear friend and a musician for Prince” he says.
He investigated this later in terms of research, particularly the effects of early childhood language acquisition. He discovered that language wasn’t the only barrier. Differences in cultures affected children in their formative years. Conflict resolution was important so “kids can play roles dealing with another conflict but then apply it to their own lives” he says.
“Then the light-bulb goes off: that’s what you’re doing here! It works” Hobert says.
His early childhood experiences sparked an interest in political science, and he went on a Study Abroad program in France as an undergraduate student at Middlebury College. His host family was a well-off Jewish family; he was Protestant. Dinner discussions ranged from Jews and the Second World War, Lutherans and Martin Luther King, Catholics and Catholicism and the North African immigrant experience in France.
“My French mom and dad said those north African people coming from Al-Maghreb were so lucky to have the green light to come to France as cheap labor, as part of Charles de Gaulle’s open door . They looked upon immigrants as people lucky to be there but for the government to keep them out of Paris now” he says.
His experiences sculptured his personal life, and his importance to family life is painted by pictures of his three daughters that sit neatly on a desk stacked with papers and books. You can see a twinkle in his eyes as he describes his trips with his daughters, filled with experiences he calls “service learning exercises.” Even raising children, his academic streak kicks in as he talks about getting inspired by the Swiss psychologist Piaget and the renowned B.F. Skinner to ensure that his daughters grow up to be the best well-rounded individuals they can be. But this often caused friction with his wife of fifteen years, a Massachusetts sub-urban who wanted to raise the daughters Catholic and in her own parenting style. Her idea was more conventional, “summer the girls in the Cape, bring the kids up in Metro west” Hobert explains.
Hobert was more adventurous; he wanted to “show them the world and prove things to myself.” To him, education theories were not just academic: they were real, and they were personal.
It has been a challenging road. Two of his girls, Leah and Olivia, were adopted from China when they were babies. His youngest, Juliana, is his biological child though. One incident of insensitivity particularly stands out to him. He was at Stop and Shop with his children and can never forget the time a stranger posed a question:
“He looked at me and looked at the two other girls and said “Who are the real parents?” and it’s those sorts of experiences that are tough to deal with”. He explained to his daughters that the person was not well-educated in terms of adoption or what parenthood can be like.
“I buttressed it up by taking them to disadvantaged kids who have been victims of this stuff too.” Hobert chooses his vacation time carefully with very carefully planned service learning exercises, first locally, then in New England and eventually other parts of the country. Last summer he took them to Paris, France and they stayed with his old host family from his college study abroad days. I took them to Paris and stayed with my family.
Hobert’s personal challenges shaped his compassionate outlook in life. When he was a 15 months old, he developed encephalitis because of a mosquito bite. The disease that causes inflammation and swelling of the brain affected his later life, and as an adolescent he developed epilepsy. Later, he had a grand mal seizure. Thus, started a cycle of medications, and he was told that this affected his ability to have children. But he got his own personal miracle in June 1999, when a neurologist from Brigham Young Hospital recommended extensive surgery to have the scar tissue removed. It was successful, and this personal transformation heightened his sensitivity to people who were downtrodden, facing medical problems, socio-economic challenges, and even racism.
Inspired by Martin Luther King’s Civil Disobedience – a big reason why he brought the program here to Boston University –Axis of Hope learns from the works of Gandhi, Mother Teresa, Howard Zinn, Elie Weisel and Noam Chomsky.
Hobert says that if students have an advantage in terms of their education, being able to give back, teaches them street smartness and to not only appreciate what they have, but also help others.
“My goal is for kids to experience something international before they graduate from high school.”
As part of this vision, he is submitting a proposal to the Nobel organization to create a Nobel Peace Prize for children at the age of eighteen or under every year.
“That’s how you connect kids and it all goes back to Minneapolis. Children learn on a level playing field which for me was sports. This is a new kind of sport, where you’re working together in a team to confront these issues and conflict.”
A student from Educating Global Citizens, Ian Leatherman thought that working with Hobert was a unique learning environment where international relations, both past and present, could be analyzed on a broad scale by understanding the point of view of the media source giving information.
“The classroom model of role playing and small group analysis shows that peacekeeping takes work but given certain skills, any leader can unite a group to work for good, no matter how diverse that group may be,” Leatherman says.
Leatherman was inspired by the class, and thinks Hobert instills values of hope in every student.
This might be because Hobert leaves students with inspirational quotes.
“Discover your passion and pursue it, Figure out how to make some money off it later, but first pursue your passion” he says, pure conviction in his deep voice.