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Walden Magazine // Jul 01, 2015

Calling All Social Change Leaders

Powerful advice from people who have committed their lives to making a difference around the world

Walden University Knowledge is judged worthy to the degree it can be applied … to the immediate solutions of critical societal challenges.” That sentence, drawn from Walden’s vision statement, forms the foundation for the university’s curriculum. It’s also a clear and compelling charge to all who choose to earn a Walden degree: Students and alumni are expected to be active agents for positive social change.

For the past 45 years, thousands of Walden graduates have answered that call. All over the globe, these alumni volunteer, educate, advocate, and fundraise for causes they strongly believe make the world a better place. A Walden education provides students a wealth of knowledge and skills that are crucial to making a lasting, positive social impact. Yet some lessons can only be learned through years of experience.

In the following stories, one board member and three alumni give insights into their personal and professional efforts to create and sustain social change, in Atlanta, Austria, Africa, and beyond.

Collaborating across departments

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Often, social change is born of necessity. During her nearly five decades as a professor and administrator at the University of Southern California (USC), Dr. Barbara Solomon, now a Walden board member, and her colleagues sought to increase the diversity of the faculty. They struggled to do so because they encountered very few diverse doctoral degree-holders in higher education.

 “We were essentially playing musical chairs—stealing minority faculty members from other institutions rather than increasing the pool so we could all benefit,” Solomon says. As she and her colleagues looked more closely at the problem, they realized its root existed not in colleges and universities but in compulsory education. “Public schools were not making it possible for minority students to get to college, much less go beyond a bachelor’s degree. We had to focus on the issue of access to higher education.”

In 1989, Solomon helped establish the Neighborhood Academic Initiative (NAI), a 7-year enrichment program designed to prepare low-income students for college. Since then, more than 1,000 students from the Los Angeles area have participated in the program and graduated from high school—and nearly all of them have gone to college and beyond. One graduate recently completed her doctorate in education at Loyola Marymount University, Solomon says, and the student wrote her dissertation on the NAI.

 The NAI’s success, says Solomon, required breaking down long-standing silos in academic and administrative departments within USC. “We involved almost every discipline over the years,” she says. “We worked with the school of business to teach financial literacy, the school of cinema and television to help document the program, performing arts, the sciences—every department was asked, ‘What can you contribute?’”

Such cross-departmental collaboration is rare in higher education, Solomon says—but she knows that kind of cooperation is common at Walden based on her interactions with faculty members and students. “Walden can do a more effective job addressing these kinds of problems. Social change isn’t a community service project here—it’s central to the mission,” says Solomon. “That’s what will keep Walden a leader in this field.”

 She encourages students and alumni to carry that approach into their careers as social changemakers. “Major social problems can’t be solved by one agency or organization alone. They require collaboration,” she says. “Because of that, priorities and conflicts of interest are inevitable. The key is conversation and managing those conflicts to solve problems.”

Finding the right partners

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 Olympic athletes spend most of their lives training their bodies for peak performance in competition. Many, though, prepare less effectively for academic success. That’s a gap Atlanta 1996, The Legacy Institution of the Atlanta 1996 Centennial Olympic Games, and its CEO, Dr. Marc-Daniel Gutekunst ’91, a PhD in Health graduate, have worked hard to close for nearly 2 decades. Gutekunst has forged strong relationships with public-and private-sector partners, allowing Atlanta 1996 to build a world-class facility that helps aspiring athletes from all over the world chase their Olympic dreams and a quality education—at the same time.


Gutekunst’s organization traces its roots to the five-athlete delegation from Burundi, which made its Olympic debut at the 1996 Summer Games in Atlanta. Burundi’s team had few pieces of quality equipment and little beyond the basics in their Olympic Village living quarters. Gutekunst—who had lived in that small African nation in his childhood— encouraged several friends in the Atlanta area to join him in “adopting” the team. The hosts provided Burundi’s athletes and staff with new shoes and clothing, home-cooked meals, and more.

 Then, against all odds, Burundi athlete Vénuste Niyongabo won gold in the men’s 5,000-meter race. For two weeks after Niyongabo’s victory, both sides of Burundi’s long-running civil war declared a cease-fire. This incredible result prompted Gutekunst and his friend, Prince Albert II of Monaco, to wonder: What if they could expand the generosity they showed Burundi’s athletes to others? The seeds of Atlanta 1996 were sown. Its mission? “Peace and reconciliation through sports and education.”

“So many athletes from Burundi and around the world have little or no education. They may win a medal, but that medal doesn’t have a long lifespan,” Gutekunst says. “Education can change a person’s life. You can flee a war-torn country and take your education anywhere.”

 After the Atlanta games, Gutekunst began building the partnerships that would make the foundation’s dream a reality. His negotiations with government leaders in Georgia’s DeKalb County paved the way for Atlanta 1996’s 102-acre residential training facility. A 2002 agreement Gutekunst brokered with the DeKalb County School District allowed athletes training at Atlanta 1996’s facility to continue their studies at DeKalb’s elementary and secondary schools. A 2010 pact between Gutekunst and Georgia Perimeter College (GPC) enabled older students to take college courses and qualify for GPC’s transfer guarantee program, opening the doors to 36 institutions offering 4-year programs in Georgia and beyond. Since last year, Gutekunst has finalized negotiations with eight American universities to send 10 former international Olympians to chiropractic school tuition-free.

What’s Gutekunst’s secret for enlisting such valuable support for his cause? Understanding potential partners’ positions so well that his ideas for change reflect theirs.

“Find out what they want, what’s in it for them, and then introduce your idea in a way that makes people say, ‘I want to see this happen!’” Gutekunst says. “People begin to realize that our success is their success—and that’s why we’re able to implement change for these athletes and these nations.”

Making a long-term commitment

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 Major social change can’t be made in a few months or a year,” says Dr. Lynn Cockburn ’09, ’07, an assistant professor at the University of Toronto. “Ten years is a more realistic time frame.”

That’s why, for more than a decade, the PhD in Public Health and MPH graduate has traveled to the impoverished North West Region of Cameroon at least once or twice a year. There, the occupational therapist works to improve the quality of life for people with disabilities as well as to address other health challenges in the region. Last year, she committed to continue that effort for at least another 10 years.

 Cameroon has held a piece of Cockburn’s heart since she lived in the central African nation from age 11 to 13 with her family. “I was a white girl from a small town in Canada,” she says. “I had access to everything I needed, and these people didn’t. It changed everything for me.”

Long after she returned to North America, Cockburn felt confident her interest and, eventually, expertise in occupational therapy could make a difference for the people she had met in Cameroon. She decided to pursue public health graduate work at Walden so that she could expand her impact to more systemic change in Cameroon.

 Her public health research dovetailed with an opportunity to help improve and expand rehabilitation and health systems in North West Cameroon—a particularly poor and under-resourced region. Today, in addition to directly serving clients, Cockburn and her colleagues educate health professionals and community leaders across the country. They have worked to improve communication among hospitals, rehabilitation centers, schools, and workplaces by establishing an annual conference and several smaller regional seminars and events.

Such work requires managing many diverse partnerships—with individuals and institutions. It also requires deep knowledge of the political and social history of the region, an understanding that can only come with time.

 Cockburn advises aspiring change agents to be prepared for the long haul. Making headway against major social problems is slow and patience is critical. Finding inspiration in the process, though, is one way to keep putting one foot in front of the other.

“Your biggest asset is attitude,” Cockburn says. “When I see the tenacity, persistence, and optimism of those who have so little, how can I not be inspired?”

Standing up with courageWalden University

 “You just couldn’t show fear,” Mike Brennan ’08 recalls about growing up in a rough community in Jacksonville, Florida. The MS in Education graduate had no inkling at the time how useful that experience would be about 20 years later, after he found himself bloodied on a train platform in Vienna, Austria.

Brennan was commuting home from his teaching job at the Vienna International School one afternoon in February 2009 when two undercover police officers attacked him, mistaking him for a suspected drug dealer they were tailing. The reason they targeted Brennan? He was black. As he recovered from his injuries in the hospital, Brennan learned he wasn’t alone in his plight.

 “I started talking to people of color who had similar interactions with police. They were afraid—they knew black people who had been beaten, or even killed, by the police,” he says. “They said things to me like, ‘We’re glad someone’s here to help us, to speak out.’ They thought I could make a difference because I was American.”

Ready to tackle the challenge, Brennan worked closely with the United Nations and agencies like ZARA, a Vienna-based nongovernmental organization that tracks human rights violations, particularly at the hands of police. He took part in several news conferences, including one carried internationally by Radio Afrika. Friends and allies took to social media, creating a “Justice for Mike Brennan” Facebook group and publishing a blog.

 Brennan himself worked with Amnesty International to include his incident alongside many other examples of systemic racial discrimination by the Austrian police. Victim or Suspect: A Question of Colour, published in April 2009, was “the first official report to contextualize human rights abuses by Austrian authorities,” according to The Vienna Review.

As he pursued charges against the two officers in Austrian courts (one was eventually charged, pleaded not guilty, and received a fine of 2,800 Euro), Brennan remembers being monitored by Viennese authorities but insists he never felt afraid. “I was fighting for people who couldn’t speak for themselves,” he says, recalling his childhood in Jacksonville and his days as a Walden student. “Walden gave me the passion to stand up for what’s right and the intellect to make it happen.”

 More than 6 years later, Brennan is still teaching—though now in Florida, not Europe. He’s pleased that minor progress has been made in the way Austrian police receive training and approach minorities in the wake of the Amnesty International report. Yet he knows others elsewhere are still struggling.

Today, Brennan is exploring the possibility of writing a book about his journey and establishing a nonprofit organization that can provide resources and support for victims of racial discrimination worldwide. He hopes his recent selection as one of South Florida’s African American Achievers for 2015 is a step toward making those endeavors a reality.

Brennan’s advice to others who seek to make a difference as he has is at once simple and daunting: Just get started.

 “Don’t be afraid to go out there, to try and fail. Get out there and talk,” he says. “Anytime I have a chance to speak to my students, go out in the community or influence people, I do it. You just can’t sit back.”

Illustrations credit: Jonas Sickler.