By Anne Hartman Raether
Philanthropist Kathryn Wasserman Davis believed students were “the real movers and shakers”—so much so that she contributed $1 million on her one hundredth birthday to start the Davis Projects for Peace, an initiative for students at the Davis United World College Scholars Program partner schools and International Houses Worldwide to design and implement grassroots projects around the world that promote peace and address the root causes of conflict. It was this very grant that gave UChicago master’s student and International House of Chicago Graduate Fellow Hekang Yang the chance to travel to Guangzhou, China, last summer to promote better access to health care for members of the African diaspora community.
Now in its twelfth year, Davis Projects for Peace provides $10,000 in funding to twenty students each year through International Houses Worldwide. Resident members of International Houses Worldwide are encouraged to use their creativity and employ innovative techniques to design projects that focus on conflict resolution, reconciliation, and building understanding. Since the program began, International House of Chicago resident members have traveled the world—to places like Bangladesh, Russia, Nepal, and Peru—to meet Davis’s call to resolve conflict and maintain peace.
“We hope to encourage initiative, innovation, and entrepreneurship focusing on conflict prevention, resolution, or reconciliation,” said Denise Jorgens, Director of International House Chicago. “In general, we look for projects that will be building blocks for a sustainable peace. The overall program is intended to be worldwide in scope and impact, but specific projects may be undertaken anywhere, including in the U.S.”
The idea for Yang’s project, “Curing African Diaspora Community in Guangzhou: Disease Stigma and Health Care,” was sparked during a visit to the city in 2017. Curiosity led Yang to the African neighborhood in Guangzhou, which has the country’s largest African population. Through speaking with local organizations, it became clear to Yang that these residents had difficulty accessing basic services, like housing, legal support, and medical care. Providing access to healthcare, Yang thought, would help the African residents build a more sustainable and peaceful community in Guangzhou—and he could also create a model that could be followed by similar communities throughout the world. These initial ideas evolved into more concrete plans that were put into motion through the Davis Projects for Peace grant.
“The Davis Projects for Peace grant [provided] a rewarding opportunity to implement my idea into practice,” Yang said.
To prepare for the six weeks he would spend in Guangzhou carrying out his project, Yang received support from I-House staff, who helped him with logistics, travel plans, weekly schedules, and budgeting, among other details. One of the biggest obstacles that foreigners face in Guangzhou is the language barrier, so Yang created a pamphlet with information about medical services and how and where to seek medical help, which I-House GRAD Global Impact Interns translated into French and Arabic.
Yang established contacts at the Dengfeng Community Foreign Service Center, which sees as many as eight thousand visitors each year. Yang continued to grow this collaboration upon arriving in China, with his ultimate goal being to help the center establish a health division. Over the course of the summer, Yang conducted a field survey of the African community to better understand the health challenges they faced. He purchased blood pressure and blood sugar monitors for the center, along with first aid supplies, contraceptives, thermometers, masks, and other materials. With this new equipment, the center provides free basic physical examinations to local Africans. Yang also set up a long-term African Children Vaccine Program at the center for the more than one hundred African children living in the neighborhood.
Additionally, Yang aimed to educate the community on health issues. He distributed the pamphlet he created through the help of I-House staff, and established workshops at the center on topics such as family reproduction and healthy eating.
Yang saw many successes while in Guangzhou, but he faced a fair share of challenges as well. Simply establishing his collaboration with the Dengfeng Community Foreign Service Center was difficult; Chinese students investigated the African community the previous summer, and their report was utilized by the U.S. government to comment on human rights issues in China. The center was wary of Yang’s project producing a similar outcome, but Yang spent hours building trust and reassuring staff that his only goal was to establish better access to healthcare.
Yang showed focus from the beginning, Jorgens said, and a willingness to reevaluate his plans when facing barriers. It’s this determination to overcome challenges that often makes a successful candidate for a Davis Projects for Peace grant.
The Davis Projects for Peace program is currently seeking applications for projects for summer 2019. Though Davis passed away in 2013 at 106 years old, her legacy lives on through members of the International Houses Worldwide community who continually touch the lives of people throughout the world.
“There will always be conflict,” Davis noted. “But I’ll remind you that love, kindness, and support are also part of human nature.” Her challenge to students among the International Houses Worldwide: bring about a mindset of preparing for peace instead of preparing for war.
For more information about the 2018 Davis Projects for Peace grant program or to read about past projects, visit the Davis Projects for Peace page on the I-House website.