In a deeply polarized world, the quest for truth, reconciliation, and uniting humanity takes center stage. In this powerful episode, Anne Pratt engages in a heartfelt and authentic conversation with Dr. Victoria Mora, President of United World College U.S.A. and a member of the prestigious International Women’s Forum. The topic explores conflict resolution strategies and the importance of calling people in instead of calling them out. Dr. Mora discusses how the relationship between truth and reconciliation can reshape the course of history, and how ordinary individuals can bring about extraordinary change. Be inspired by her compelling insights on focusing attention and intentionality in this age of distraction. Learn how the call for unity, rather than division, can pave the way for healing and progress. Tune in now and emerge empowered and enlightened, ready to take your own thoughtful, bold actions towards shaping a better, more united future for all.
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“Courageously Call People In, Not Out” to Heal Conflictual Divides with United World College (UWC) USA President Dr. Victoria Mora
How to Unite, Not Divide – Truth, Reconciliation, and Healing
Greetings to all of you, future board leaders. Thank you for joining us from around the world. Our bold leader joins us from the county of San Miguel in the dry arid Southwest region of the USA in the state of New Mexico. She is a first-generation college graduate from a traditional New Mexican family and went on to complete her Ph.D. with distinction at Yale University.
She is a member of the International Women’s Forum, President of United World College USA. She serves on the UWC International Board, a global institution founded in 1962 with 18 college campuses on 4 continents. It is globally led by current and former purposeful Presidents, including Queen Noor of Jordan, President Nelson Mandela, and Lord Mountbatten.
Stay with us as we learn, explore, and uncover how a childhood moment on a school bus fueled her calling to help provide quality, inclusive, and accessible education; how her COVID plan and strategy to open up her college campus early ahead of the curve was initially branded as reckless and later applauded as brave; and how a global educational institution can be a powerful movement and force for good in the world to help unite people, nations, and cultures, and bring peace and create a sustainable future. We warmly welcome Dr. Victoria Mora to the show.
Victoria, thank you so much for joining us. I’ve been super excited about this conversation and your work in the world. Education is such a force for good. Thank you for joining this conversation.
Thank you so much for inviting me. I love nothing better than talking about the power of education, the importance of access to education, and United World College, which I’m so dedicated to.
As a starting point, it would help our audience if you sketched a little more about United World College being a movement for change and a force for good in the world, internationally, and in the USA.
United World College is an international educational movement. The various parts that make up our movement include 18 campuses worldwide on 4 continents. These campuses range from 2-year programs for the junior and senior or senior and 13th year of high school. It’s a college in the British sense, the years before university. Others of our campuses are full-school or three-year programs. It’s a range of different kinds of schools. It is very different in their local contexts.
We also have 150 national committees worldwide. They select many of our students who come to the campuses. In addition, we have an international office that coordinates this big, wonderful, diverse group of schools and national committees and an international board, which I’m honored to serve on under the leadership of Musimbi Kanyoro. She previously was the CEO of the Global Women’s Fund.
She is quite a powerhouse in her right.
She is amazing.
I was also curious to learn more about United World College USA. You’re based in New Mexico in the USA, your home state. Perhaps you can share a little more about the school and the college in the USA.
It is indeed my home state. It’s wonderful to have the only campus of the United World College right here in a tiny little town called Montezuma, New Mexico. We are on a beautiful campus surrounded by mountains, forests, and blue skies most every day of the year. We bring students. We have about 94 countries represented.
Our students come to live and learn together, not only in the classroom where they pursue a rigorous academic program, the International Baccalaureate but also to expand the experiential pieces of that education into the local community and local environment. Our students do a lot in the way of community service. They do a lot in the way of learning about sustainability and peace from the standpoint of these two years and this place-based experience.
This campus was founded in 1982. Armand Hammer founded it. He was working closely with Prince Charles of England, who was fulfilling his Uncle Lord Mountbatten’s vision of expanding the United World Colleges beyond the first campus that was founded with the wealth of the Royal family at Atlantic College in Wales.
I was struck by the mission of United World College to be a force for good in the world and unite people, nations, and cultures. You said being a force for peace and sustainability. What struck me about that, and perhaps you can share a little more about the selection criteria, are there a number of established principles that talk to leading boldly into the future? What kinds of selection criteria do we need to enroll these young role models for the world?
I love that question because that’s one place where we’re a little different—most educational institutions control who comes into their school. The school itself very carefully does admissions. At many schools, we are looking for students who have already demonstrated a level of excellence. At United World College, we are certainly looking for students who have demonstrated excellence, but we think about that excellence in terms of promise and potential.
While there are different ways to come to the United World College, what differentiates us is a national committee system where students don’t apply directly to the campus but apply to the national committee in their home countries. They compete with students from all over their country for a limited number of spots.
Those students must be willing to take risks and be assigned to any campus. What it means is that we select students who are bold and willing to take risks that are worthwhile. We select students with more in mind for their education than what it means to them personally or for their resume as they move on. They’re looking to make a difference in the world. We create our programming to help them learn what that might mean in a local context with global significance (ie, connect local context to global significance).UWC selects students who have more in mind for their education than just what it means to them personally or for their resume. They're really looking to make a difference in the world. Click To Tweet
If I understand correctly, these students applying in their home country could be allocated to any of these 18 campuses on any of the 4 continents in America, Southeast Asia, Africa, or Europe.
That is exactly right. I know that experience from a parental standpoint because my child applied to United World College. I can still remember saying, “What will I do if that child gets assigned to Singapore?” It was the nervousness about where this child could end up. They were so brave. They knew they wanted to be in a place focused on making a difference in the world.
I remember when they got in. It was such an exciting moment. One of my proudest moments as a parent was when they opened the letter that said they’d been assigned to the USA campus. That would’ve made sense because they were from New Mexico. It was a chance to have a student who could host as a New Mexican student. I remember being so proud that they weren’t the least bit disappointed.
As I watched the experience unfold and invited students from all over the world to our home for New Mexican traditions like making tamales for Christmas or learning to eat red chili during Thanksgiving on mashed potatoes instead of gravy, I realized this child was getting an international experience even if they were right up the road.
What year was that?
That was in 2011. They graduated in 2013. They have gone on to do and are continuing to do wonderful work with environmental justice. Nothing in Maureo’s family background would’ve indicated that kind of trajectory. It was the impact of being here and recognizing the power of learning how to engage across policy and cultural differences that they worked with a nonprofit called Clean Water Action. It’s a national nonprofit. They’re the Associate Director for the state of Massachusetts and doing incredible work.
Did that, in any way, influence your decision? You joined and became president in 2016? Did your child’s experience shape your decision in any way?
It did. If I could have, I would’ve been shameless enough to come while they were here. Once I saw the impact, it was an interesting move for me because I had been in tertiary education. Moving here was a moment of recognizing that my educational background had frankly focused me on trying to get an education. It was so important for me. I’m 1 of 6 children. My wonderful parents are hardworking, neither of them had completed high school. The fact that my siblings completed high school was already a big step forward for our family, but then to go on to college and a Ph.D. was something that was out of the box.
In some sense, I got over-focused on continuing to educate myself. Coming to UWC was a moment of watching my child and realizing that education has the capacity to be a force for good. That is the mission. It is to make education a force for peace and a sustainable future. Who doesn’t want that for their children and for the children of every mother in the world?The mission is to make education a force for peace and a sustainable future. Who doesn't want that, not only for their own children but for the children of every mother in the world? Click To Tweet
That’s a wonderful segway into the next question. In your mind, what are the big leadership challenges in the world?
The biggest leadership challenges in the world are how to address the various destructive impacts of inequality. Among them is the inequality of access to excellent education, healthy food, and clean water, the basics of a good human life. Polarization is one of the leading challenges for leaders. We have so many people who are digesting their media and news on electronic devices, which are curated at every moment of the day.
Algorithms are working overtime to ensure we are being fed the things we tend to gravitate to. What that means is that we are not necessarily engaging in other points of view. We are in echo chambers, which leads to greater polarization. A function of one result of polarization then comes isolationist thinking like, “Let’s think about ourselves.” Working here is such a daily recognition that we are so interconnected. What is happening in one part of the world is affecting other parts of the world.
When you think about peace, sustainability, and the major drivers of conflict in the 21st century, those are inequality, polarization, unequal access, and climate change. There is not a single place in the world not being affected by climate change. Yet, governments and businesses continue to be like deer caught in headlights or worse, obstructing any kind of serious moving forward at every level, whether it is local, national, or international. There are forces in that direction, but those are maybe the key things facing leaders.
That is so interesting because climate change is such a game-changer in the world. As human beings and leaders, we will have to find a new way to create these collaborative experiences. This is a battle for the human race.
One of the things we do at UWC-USA is to look at climate change from the standpoint of our location here in the arid Southwest. Our students are learning about challenges with water and opportunities for clean energy and protecting against fire danger. They are learning how to work with the forests in ways that can protect life in the event of a fire, which is on the rise in the Western United States.
In addition, we have a lovely little farm where our students learn to grow food within a local context and provide it for their dining hall and also for the larger community. Those kinds of experiences, especially young, are so formative because reflection is what allows us to act intentionally. You have the best leaders when someone is acting with full intention. We’re trying to teach that to our students who aspire to be global citizens and leaders in whatever sector they enter. That’s part of our charge as educators at United World College and certainly here in Montezuma at UWC-USA.
Pivoting slightly, you grew up in a wonderful family. I was wondering. What has been an early childhood crucible moment for you? Can you take us back in time to a moment that was challenging? What was the context? What was the situation? How did you feel at the time?
Regarding education, a real moment for me was in the sixth grade. It was a day this whole sixth-grade class got to go on a field trip, which is an experiential learning excursion. I don’t know. It was something like going to a goat farm and learning how a farm operates. It was a very exciting prospect for a sixth grader.
We were on the bus. I remember the parking lot. There were a number of buses lined up. We were all getting checked with our permission slips as we got onto the bus. There was a little boy who didn’t have his permission slip. I remember the teacher asking him why he didn’t have his permission slip, and then I remember the boy also saying he didn’t have his lunch sack. The teacher said, “Go get your things. You won’t be able to go on the field trip.”
I remember the other buses started to pull out of the parking lot. I was listening to the child’s answers. Neither of his parents were at home that morning. They were both at work. The student was ‘tearing up’, and the other kids getting annoyed because our bus wasn’t leaving with the other buses. I felt like I had to do something.
I got up from where I was sitting, walked up to the teacher, and said, “Why can’t you call this student’s parents and ask for permission over the phone so he can go on the field trip?” The teacher said to me that I needed to sit down and mind my business, so that was not a great outcome, and then said to the student, “Go get your things. Let’s get you off the bus.”
Something in me snapped because I thought the parents were the ones who didn’t do what they were supposed to do, and the school was failing this child. Yet, the child was the one being affected. I stood up quite spontaneously. I wasn’t thinking. Dramatically since I was a very dramatic child, I asked the student, “Stand behind me. Don’t get your things.” I initiated a protest and blocked the aisle. I’m almost embarrassed to say this because it is so ridiculous.
I started singing the song “We Shall Not Be Moved.” It was sung in Jackson, Mississippi, during one of the Woolworth counterstrikes. It was where Black youths were sitting at the counter and told to move. They were on the receiving end of terrible blows and so forth. We studied it in history class. I know the situation couldn’t have been more different because there was no systemic oppression and inequality in applying the law. I get it, but the sixth grader in me saw that the student’s ability to get an education was being denied. I didn’t want to see it, and I caused quite a stir.
What happened? How did you pivot out of this?
There was no pivot. I was taken off the bus in addition to the student. We both missed the goat farm that day. I got hauled into the principal’s office, which ended up being the first of many unplanned visits, usually in the name of some kind of social justice. It stands out to me because it was about feeling like that student’s educational access was being blocked. It didn’t sit well with me. Years later, I’m still fighting for students’ access to an education that every child deserves.
Were you able to resolve it in the principal’s office?
The principal was terrific. This was not the last trip there. It was usually defending the rights of someone who was being bullied or having a hard time. The principal was wonderful. Unlike the teacher who told me to mind my business and sit down, the principal talked with me, “You’re not wrong. It’s not just. You are right about that, but you didn’t go about it well because you were being disruptive. You were disrupting the educational access of the rest of the students.” I was like, “I didn’t think of that.”
One of those conversations deepened the experience rather than something punitive. As I continued to parade into the principal’s office over time, we would chuckle when I came in. He’d say, “Filing system.” That’s why I always had some punishment, something I had to do. I became a very good filer and typist as a result.
How did you feel at the end of the conversation with the principal?
I felt like I’d done the right thing. I didn’t feel ashamed. I felt like the system wasn’t working. It didn’t make sense to me that parents didn’t have the time or bandwidth to ensure this child left with a sack lunch and a permission slip. There was something wrong with that. I left with a sense that a school that can’t be flexible, help a student, and able a student to do something important is also not right. I remember feeling proud of what I’d done, but I also felt helpless regarding a whole system that doesn’t work.
You transitioned into being part of the system and then help them transform the system. That takes us into your world of work. If we think about what Victoria learned then and how Victoria has transformed within your life, what is an example in your working life that has been a difficult challenge for you? If you can paint a picture, take us back to a moment.
That one’s easy. Anything I’ve dealt with in my life and career that has been difficult pales compared to dealing with COVID in an international boarding school. Country borders started closing. I was in Tanzania Business School and needed to return to the States. This was in the spring of 2020. At the end of February 2020, which might have been spring, I’m trying to get back. In the meantime, borders are closing. My leadership team on campus was trying to decide, “Should we recommend sending the students home or hunkering down?” We had known about the virus. It had come up interestingly on our campus because the mainland Chinese students discussed it quite a lot.
Was it before the US government made an official announcement and declaration?
It was starting to get into the news, but the students discussed it beforehand. It resulted in a very interesting conflict between the Chinese and Hong Kong students. They were having some conflict around the protests that were going on in Hong Kong and the different viewpoints on that. There were some insinuations that the mainland Chinese students were talking about this virus to distract from the views on campus with respect to the protests. It got intense very fast.
I had been involved in those conversations before I left for my meetings. Coming back, we were working with the unknown. This was a little bit of weird foreshadowing. I had to have all my community meetings on Zoom to determine whether we could go forward. The thing that I realized in the various meetings was that whatever decision I made was going to make somebody unhappy. The students wanted to stay. The staff and faculty were deeply concerned about the unknown and thought we needed to send them home.
After talking with the staff and faculty, I realized they weren’t with me in keeping them. We would have to send the students home and pivot to online learning. We did that, but the difficult part was sitting down after all that rush. This was all done within two and a half weeks. We’re talking about students from over 90 countries. There were visas and travel arrangements. The logistics were incredible, and my whole staff was phenomenal. We got it done, and then the challenge began.
What was the a-ha moment in this moment of uncertainty and fierce debate?
The a-ha moment is so clear in my mind. I was on Zoom. I told the staff and students that I would make a decision within 24 hours. I turned off Zoom, called my husband, and said, “We must send them home. I don’t feel good about it. I’m worried about them traveling.” I saw a different unknown, but I can’t lead them to stay if my staff isn’t ready for it. I said, “We have to address the fear and uncertainty. We have to understand whatever little bit is knowable about the virus. Once we do that, we can start working to bring them back. Until we address the fear and get beyond it, this won’t work. There’s nothing I can say or do. It’s not right to try.”
It was that phone call and having that conversation.
You make a decision like that, and it sets things in motion. It’s not like you can pull it back. The next 24 hours got me thinking, “Why isn’t this settling well with me?” As I thought through that, I realized what wasn’t settling well with me was for some of these students, the access to education here is transformative. For some of our students, they have resources. They’re going to go forward and are going to be fine. For a large portion of our students, this is a game-changer.Education is a game-changer. Click To Tweet
Education was a game-changer in my life. I know that power firsthand, not just in terms of whatever you do in your career but personally in terms of how you raise your family and the quality of your life. I want that for all of our students regardless of where they start. Within 24 hours, I thought, “How can we bring them back?” This is before we know whether it is airborne or on surfaces. It seems to be contagious. We know that. How will you keep the contagion from resulting in a disaster with teens? They aren’t exactly the most disciplined regarding not being together, hugging, and touching. What would that look like? It was a moment of recognizing, “There’s no playbook for this. We’re going to have to figure this out together.”
I learned online with my team that I don’t have a developed enough sense of risk, so I must rely on risk-takers to find a balance to go forward. That was the key insight. We put together a task force and began the work of considering how to come back. To return to the fear point, the only way to get past fear was to start thinking in larger terms. What better terms than our mission? Who would be most adversely affected if we didn’t re-open?
They’ve gone back. You’re doing a hybrid.
We’re doing a hybrid in the spring. The question (and answer) is we transitioned. We went online in the spring. The decision (and question) is, do we bring them back? Do we bring some back and do a hybrid, or do we say, “We’re going to do it online this year?” We know there are some students who won’t have connectivity and access. They don’t have computers, but this is safer.
What did you elect to do?
We elected to try to bring everybody back.
From what date?
It took 1 month to 1.5 months to bring the staff along to see if we could do this. It was a good thing to do. I’m not saying ‘the right thing to do’ because I don’t think we knew what a right or wrong approach was. We knew it was good to do both for the educational access of our least resource students. Regarding our staff community, who could/would lose their jobs if we went online?
When did they come back?
August 2020. We started working at the end of March, the beginning of April 2020 to figure out how to return them.
That’s 2021, right?
2020. We brought them back in August 2020. We took a summer to put together a plan. We involved the whole community. We involved our board of trustees. We came up with a general strategy based on some very simple insights. We created protocols in alignment with that strategy. We began a full-on campaign educating parents online about what we were doing and how we planned to do it. I had to say quite confidently that we believed we could keep their students safe or safer than they would be at home. We’re going to go forward with our educational mission. We brought everybody along.
How has that been in terms of the strategy and the protocols working?
It’s amazing. It was safe, and it has been. We’ve had no communal spread. We’ve had cases when students come in from travel and among our staff. Our fundamental insight and what we base the whole strategy on was the most likely introduction of the virus will be when people come in from travel, students, or staff who go back and forth and live their lives off campus. The most likely spread will be among students because they’re in a congregate setting.
All of our protocols were based on those fundamental insights and recognizing that, in a way, we had to create a barrier between staff and students and a good set of protocols to be able to contact, and trace in the event that we had any kind of viral introduction or spread. It was a more restrictive environment, for sure. We did a lot more outside. We’re blessed to have sunny, blue skies throughout the year. All of that was wonderful.
How have the stakeholders responded regarding how people feel about that decision and the outcome?
There was a lot of gratitude as the year went on. Maybe the most powerful moment for me as an anecdote to answer that question was when one of our facilities workers had to leave at the end of that academic year. That was in the spring of 2021. He stopped by to see me and said he wanted to say goodbye. He wanted to say something to me that he hoped wasn’t disrespectful but that it was important for him to say. I thought, “I wonder what this is going to be.” I said, “I’m listening.”
He said, “After we sent all the students home and you came forward and said you wanted to reopen the school,” and we had all of those conversations, he said, “A lot of us left those early meetings thinking you were reckless. We thought you were putting us in danger. As we worked together, brought them back, and as the year went on, I realized you weren’t reckless. You were brave. You made all of us brave. This is the proudest year of my life because we did something many places didn’t even try. These are the students who are going to lead in the future.” I listened to him and thought at that moment that it made it all worth it.
None of us knew whether it would work or not, and not working could be a disaster, but it wasn’t. We brought back another class during what we call COVID 2.0. We are still having cases. Happily, we’ve worked so closely with the local community, like the Department of Emergency Management and the Department of Health. Ninety-six percent of our community, including our students, are vaccinated. We are in good shape. When I tell this story, I have to say virtually everything went right to make it work. That’s a great blessing.
Anything could have gone wrong. We didn’t know, but we worked together. We followed the science. We created a strategy that made sense, given our local context. We kept asking everybody to come along with us and do what they could from where they were. Each of us had a leadership role to play in how we conducted ourselves. It brought our community together in a powerful way.
Shifting gears slightly, we both share an admiration and a love for a great iconic leader who has been closely associated with United World College. He was the honorary president of 1999 Nelson Mandela. As you talk, much of what you shared about this global diversity makes me think of Mandela. You visited South Africa in 2019. With Mandela being an honorary president of United World College, he said, “Education is the most powerful weapon which one can use to change the world.” What is your Mandela Moment? What moment did Mandela inspire you or light the fire that shaped you?
You mentioned my visit to South Africa, which we had talked about. That was wonderful, In visiting Robben Island. I did have a moment there contemplating leadership from the standpoint of how history treats it. History treats leadership as though the outcomes were inevitable. There is something about looking back that feels like an inevitability, but looking forward, there’s no inevitability (only ‘possibility.’)History treats leadership as though the outcomes were inevitable. But of course, looking forward, there is no inevitability. Click To Tweet
Seeing that small cell on Robben Island was a moment when I thought about leadership and the sense of inevitability. There’s a different Mandela Moment I’d love to talk about. It was when Nelson Mandela’s grandson, Ndaba, visited our school. He visited our school on the occasion of the 100th anniversary of Nelson Mandela’s birth.
That was in July 2018.
That’s right. Ndaba visited before that in the spring of 2018, re-dedicating a garden that we have on campus, which is called The Mandela Peace Garden. There’s a lovely bust of Nelson Mandela. It’s a place of real beauty, quiet contemplation, and views of the gorgeous vistas in Montezuma. It’s surrounded by this stand of very sturdy ponderosa pines. It’s a perfect spot for that Mandela spirit.
When Ndaba visited, we also scheduled several things with the local state government. There was a moment when Ndaba met, and I was there with him. We met with leaders of various Native American pueblos in Indian country, as they call it. There were several tribal leaders there. Various of them gave him gifts in honor of him and Nelson Mandela.
One of the things that was presented sits in my office. It was presented during those ceremonies. It’s an actual photograph of Nelson Mandela. The artist imposed several symbols as tattoos, which Mandela did not have. These are symbols of contemporary Native American indigenous warriors searching for justice and peace on various issues. The artist is Jaque Fragua. He is a member of two of our Indian pueblos in New Mexico, Hemez and San Felipe.
The Mandela moment for me was in watching Ndaba receive this and thinking about the pressure that he must feel with the name Mandela. It was the weight of that name and the expectations. History focuses on exceptional leaders. The Mandela name has become synonymous with leadership and moral ground. For a moment, I saw the weight in Ndaba. I thought about how difficult that weight must be on his shoulders and on the shoulders of others who come from families who have great leaders among them. I also thought about what a limited view of leadership, that exceptional thinking, is.
Every day, so many acts of leadership change the world right in one’s backyard, so to speak. The world may not take note, but that’s where social justice happens. Those warriors who are standing to block pipeline access in native lands maybe don’t make the BBC or the news often. Those moments of standing up for home, justice, and environmental justice matter. All of that was an insight into that moment with the piece of art and watching Ndaba receive it. It was a convergence of that sense of power and leadership and the pressure of leadership.
I have two thoughts. Firstly, the pressure on Ndaba and, equally, the pressure on his grandfather. Nelson Mandela himself said the world sanctified him for going through 27 years of incarceration and coming out forgiving his oppressor. He then negotiated a National Unity government across divides to create a nation of hope, peace, and sustainability.
If I think about what you’re saying, even the pressure on Nelson Mandela, or Madiba as we fondly call him, he said, “I’m not a saint. I’m a sinner who keeps on trying.” It triggers the thoughts around even the demands we place on great leaders. We are all humans. To err is human. The pressure on each person standing up there in powerful positions, where are our human acts of forgiveness and our ability to see these people in their human light, not in our glorified and sanctified light?
You are exactly right. It’s so difficult. As the leader, you know you are being looked at and judged at every moment. For an ethical leader, a leader who’s intentional, you know that how you act could affect your cause of what you’re trying to affect or accomplish. That’s an enormous pressure. People both want you to be perfect and show vulnerability.
The demands on leadership are so great in the age of social media, where people’s lives are being documented every minute of the day. They’re not sleeping. Sometimes, they are. The pressure becomes enormous. It can dissuade people from leadership or leave them in a position thinking that leadership is only for someone who’s exceptional. Both of those ways of looking at leadership limit opportunities for many people to exercise leadership wherever they are.
Your second point is equally powerful. The truth is instead of trying to seek the heroes or these global icons, it is for so many people who exercise leadership on a daily basis with great moral courage. To your point, each person has a hero lying within them.
That’s true. If you are open to it and you see it, it allows people to rise in ways that they might not have expected they could. It’s so important for us to make room for that. Returning to my conversation with our facilities worker, I loved that he was confident enough to come forward and speak his mind. That tells me that whatever failures I have on any given day, my community is starting to believe what I’ve been saying all along. Everyone here has an opportunity to lead because everyone here matters in what we do. That was such a moment to see.
Not only did he believe it, but he was acting on it. He said, “I am only leaving because my wife works elsewhere. This time, it’s her career we’re following, but I want to come back.” I love that. It’s something that I wish we would afford our leaders at the highest levels to be fully human, admit when they don’t know something, and call on all of us to join them to accomplish what needs accomplishing. No one person can do something. Nelson Mandela understood that. It’s why he didn’t give in to polarization. He didn’t say, “I am in power. What’s going to happen to the White minority?” He could have, but he didn’t. It was that inclusiveness and moral compass, sinner though he may have been.
Ndaba’s book, Going to the Mountain, shared some of that complexity and humanized Nelson Mandela in a way for us. Mandela kept a moral compass and ensured he was intentional in the big decisions. That’s a much more realistic version of leadership than the exceptionalism version. You got to be intentional. You will misstep, but you’ve got to keep the compass. You’ve got to keep what you’re trying to achieve before you. That takes a kind of daily discipline. You live your life from the inside out rather than the outside. You can’t always worry about how you’re going to be perceived.You need to keep the compass. You need to keep what you're trying to achieve before you. You can't always worry about how you're going to be perceived. Click To Tweet
You still hold yourself to high standards of responsibility and accountability, which Mandela did in a very fastidious discipline where it’s those balances. To that question, how relevant do you think Mandela’s life and leadership are to the leaders? If he were alive standing up at a commemoration for United World College and all the students worldwide, what would he say to them?
I’ll start with the first question. Do I think he’s still relevant? Two things come to mind right away. First is his insistence on the connection between truth and reconciliation. If there is no reconciliation, you can’t move forward until you tell the truth. The truth doesn’t leave anybody looking like they were the only good or bad guy. Usually, the truth means a lot of perspectives and reckoning with ourselves, our actions, and the extent to which we fall short. That’s one way that he is incredibly relevant. We focus a lot on ‘Calling People Out.’ Instead, Nelson Mandela’s focus on truth and reconciliation is a blueprint for ‘Calling People In.’If there is no reconciliation, you can't just move forward until you tell the truth. Click To Tweet
The second point of relevance to me is that in calling people in, you have a chance to start chipping away at polarization which seems to be not only natural but so easily stoked and amplified. The way he went about his presidency was all about refusing polarization. The minute you take a side that is extreme, it doesn’t mean you have to be wishy-washy or you don’t think there is a right answer or the best answer that you work toward, but it does mean that you can’t indulge in fingerpointing at the other side. That’s what gives polarization its marvelous, destructive power. He didn’t do it. He wouldn’t give in to that. Those are two ways that he remains relevant. What do I think he would say to our students?
Also, to the young students of the world. He loved children. He honestly believed in the children being our future. He loved that. I’m curious to hear what you think he would say to your students and students worldwide. What would he say?
I think he’d say, “Stand up. Don’t let the prior generation get off the hook with respect to the big issues facing us. Don’t let them push us into isolationism.” He would’ve said, “Don’t let us, my generation, push the world into isolation, polarization, and an unsustainable planet. Stand up and remind us why we should all care about the future.” That would’ve been the call. Part of that call is to ensure you’re using your attention where it can make the biggest difference. We are living in an age of distraction. He would’ve said, “Your attention is precious. Use it wisely because the planet is hanging in the balance.”
Do you have any closing thoughts about leading boldly into the future?
You mentioned his famous quote about education being the most powerful weapon we can use to change the world. One closing thought is, let’s use it. We’ve never been afraid to use weapons in the whole history of humankind. How about using one that can make all the difference regarding a positive, healthy, and equitable future for our children?
Let’s wield education as a weapon. Let’s ensure that everyone is focused on educational access, not just for our children, which is a natural impulse. We want our children to be well and do well. Let’s go beyond that and focus on making education a weapon for positive change for every child to wield. That’s what I would leave us with. To me, that’s a life worth living to focus on in any way we can from whatever position of leadership and wherever we can wield that weapon ourselves.We want our own children to be well and do well. Let's go beyond that and really focus on making education a weapon for positive change for every child to wield. Click To Tweet
Victoria, it was such a great honor to speak with you. Thank you so much for those closing thoughts. Thank you for standing up and calling us in. Keep your wonderful flag flying high. You’re such a force for good and change in the world. Thank you so much.
Thank you so much. I’m honored to be able to serve in this capacity. I’m so grateful to you for inviting me to talk about it.
What powerful leadership insights in this heartfelt and authentic conversation with United World College USA President Dr. Victoria Mora, who serves as Vice Chair on the UWC Global board and is also a member of the prestigious International Women’s Forum. Three compelling insights come to mind.
1. First, we must resist the temptation to expect exceptional leadership, which often produces national and international heroes.
By doing this, we fall into the trap of thinking that we are not exercising leadership unless we consistently deliver on a grand scale. Yet, that is untrue. Instead, we must refocus on where, when, and how the everyday wheels of change and justice turn. History has shown us and continues to show us that change and justice are made possible by ordinary people who take a stand and do bold and extraordinary things.
2. The second compelling insight is that focused attention and intentionality are increasingly important in this age of distraction, where human beings are said to have an attention span of less than a goldfish. Critical leadership questions include: Who Am I? What Do I Care About? and What Do I Stand For?
3. Finally, Victoria’s reference to South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) is the third compelling and perhaps most powerful insight. It is how the relationship between truth and reconciliation requires that ‘we call people in’ rather than ‘calling them out.’
How do we unite people instead of dividing them in this deeply polarized world fueled by fear, anger, and anxiety? We want to ‘call people out’ in an increasing search for truth, justice, and accountability. We want them to own up, admit their wrongdoing, and pay a hefty price in punishment.
Yet, for every finger we have facing forward, pointing at one another, three fingers are facing backward, pointing at ourselves. It begs the difficult, inward-focused, and potent question in any crisis, chaos, or conflict. What is our part in this mess?
‘Calling people in’ rather than ‘calling people out’ stops us from fingerpointing, blaming, and shaming. Instead, we seek the whole vulnerable truth with accountability but without judgment. That is when truth leads to reconciliation, and real healing can begin.
Until next time, remember that leading boldly is about making thoughtful, clear choices. Bold leadership is about taking bold action one small step at a time. One step for you, but together, a giant step for humanity. Come back soon and share with your friends. Join this Global Mandela Leadership Movement for Change.
Why? Because the world needs you to lead boldly, too. Take care and take thoughtful, bold action.
- United World College USA
- Going to the Mountain
About Dr. Victoria Mora
Victoria J. Mora is an avid learner and visionary leader. Wherever Victoria has served in leadership roles, she has been a changemaker who brings a keen ability to see what isn’t there yet, a dedication to questioning the status quo in service of possibility and excellence, and strategic thinking that is both disciplined and flexible. She has made her career in education, having experienced first-hand its transformative power.
Between 1992 and 2016, Victoria served as faculty member, dean, and vice president for advancement at St. John’s, the “Great Books College” in Santa Fe, New Mexico and Annapolis, Maryland. As dean, Victoria worked collaboratively to update the academic program, develop innovative admissions programming, and transform college demographics by introducing diversity within the student body and faculty. As vice president for advancement, she set a new strategic direction, oversaw college-wide restructuring, and designed, executed, and exceeded the goal of a major fundraising campaign. Since 2016, Victoria has been president of the United World College-USA in Montezuma, New Mexico, the only U.S. campus in an international movement of 18 schools and 150 national committees dedicated to making education a force for peace and a sustainable future by bringing young people from all over the world together to learn and live while confronting social, economic, and national and cultural divides. Joining during a time of turmoil, Victoria effected a turnaround at the school, set the vision and strategy for a new direction, and is currently enjoying implementation of the strategy as well as leading a campaign to fund it.
Grateful to be an all-scholarship, first-generation college student, graduating Magna Cum Laude and Phi Beta Kappa from the University of New Mexico in 1985 and receiving a PhD from Yale in 1992, Victoria gives back by serving on educational, community, family foundation, and international boards. Specifically she is a board member for non-profits Creative Santa Fe and the Simon Foundation, and for a start up for-profit element6 Dynamics. She additionally serves as the Vice Chair of United World College International and seeks opportunities to mentor women new to leadership roles. She is a member of the International Women’s Forum. Victoria is married to Tomas Fernandez, with whom she has two sons, three stepsons, three daughters-in-law and four grandchildren. She loves to spend time with family, read, garden, and travel to the many countries her students leave to become part of a global community at UWC-USA.
About UWC and UWC-USA
The 18 UWC schools and colleges make up a movement that includes more than 70,000 alumni around the world. While each campus is distinct, the commitment to the mission is shared across the movement. Indeed, the UWC mission and philosophy is more relevant now than ever: given the tensions and crises that exist, the world truly needs the compassionate citizens, committed activists, and thoughtful leaders who graduate from UWCs.
German educator Kurt Hahn, founder of Outward Bound, conceived the bold concept of United World College in the 1950s at the height of the Cold War. Hahn believed that much could be done to overcome religious, cultural, and racial misunderstanding if young people from all over the world could be brought together to live and learn.
No matter which school they attend, UWC students develop a deep sense of self, a passion for values in which they believe, and an understanding of their individual capacity to impact the world. Graduates are equipped and inspired to become change-agents. Taught the skills and values that reflect international understanding and deep respect for others, they are poised to lead positive change in their future communities, institutions, and beyond.
At UWC-USA, Hahn’s vision is most evident in the rigorous IB curriculum and the four signature programs that challenge students to learn about themselves while forging powerful relationships with each other that last a lifetime. The signature programs – Wilderness, Sustainability, Arts and Culture, and the Bartos Institute for the Constructive Engagement of Conflict – are woven into the fabric of the school and the UWC-USA experience.