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Alumnus and Global Playground promote cross-cultural conversations

  • An international education:
    An international education:  Global Playground coordinates art exchanges, pen pal programs, environmental campaigns, and other activities that encourage students to engage with the rest of the world.  Photo courtesy of Global Playground
  • Art exchange:
    Art exchange:  Students created pictures based on what the word “community” meant to them, then shared their work with other students at Global Playground sites around the world.  Photo courtesy of Global Playground
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The following article originally appeared in the winter 2017 issue of the W&M Alumni Magazine - Ed.

When Global Playground founder and William & Mary Board of Visitors member Doug Bunch ’02, J.D. ’06 traveled to Khe Sanh, Vietnam, to help open a school for 140 children in 2008, he took a tour around the community. Located in the Quang Tri province, the area is among the poorest in central Vietnam and still feels the effects of the Vietnam War, with unexploded ordinances and remnants of Agent Orange.

“It was moving for us to go there as Americans,” Bunch says. “Those unexploded missiles have American flags on them.”

But as the Global Playground team visited families in the neighborhood, they realized that was the furthest thing on the residents’ minds. The grandmother of a future student approached the team and told them that although her husband had fought against the United States in the war, she wanted to thank Global Playground for building a new school for her grandson.

The people of Khe Sanh were focused on the future. “In a moment like that, you realize that you really can have an impact and make the world a better place,” Bunch says.

Bunch, co-founder Edward Branagan ’03 and the other board members of Global Playground have had these types of experiences in places all around the globe. Their mission is to raise awareness and share resources with people of the developing world to create educational opportunities where they do not exist. The organization is committed both to funding the education of children in underdeveloped and developing countries, and to promoting the importance of education and cross-cultural understanding in these places. The staff of Global Playground believes that education is the most promising means to eliminating poverty, violence, intolerance and misunderstanding in the world, and believes that young minds are most open to cross-cultural understanding and appreciation of cultural differences.

“We use Global Playground in a more metaphorical sense,” Bunch says. “What we strive to create at our project sites is an environment where kids can be kids, where they can exchange ideas, learn about each other and educate each other on their cultures in a way that breaks down barriers of intolerance and misunderstanding. That environment we create among our schools is our global playground.”

Currently there are over 2 billion school-age children in our world. Eighty-six percent live in less-developed regions. By the year 2050, that number will increase to over 90 percent. Underdeveloped countries do not have the educational resources necessary to support their large school-age populations. Educational attainment and enrollment in primary grades is consistently lower in these regions of the world. At the beginning of this century, nearly 115 million children old enough to attend primary school did not; nearly 94 percent of these children live in developing countries. To the degree that underdeveloped countries lack the educational resources they need, Global Playground aims to provide them. The organization funds projects that increase access to and quality of education in these regions. Teaching fellows in each of the schools carry out programs that bridge the cultural divide.

Currently there are over 2 billion school-age children in our world. Over 1.75 billion, or 86 percent, live in less-developed regions. Global Playground funds projects that increase access to, and quality of, education in these regions. (Photo courtesy of Global Playground)It’s not mandatory to be a member of the William & Mary community to be a part of the organization, but looking at the credentials of the staff, it certainly seems that way. In addition to Bunch and Branagan, two other members of the board are William & Mary graduates, and one is a professor emerita. Three of Global Playground’s recent teaching fellows are graduates or current students, and its volunteer staff is equally populated with William & Mary alumni.

“I think that William & Mary trains students to think broadly about the world around them, and to think about what they can contribute as forces for change in the greater community,” says Bunch. “They think about how what they’re doing in one place connects to something that might be happening halfway around the world. That broad perspective is something we value in William & Mary students and alumni, and it’s an important part of what Global Playground is and what we do.”

Bunch remembers coming to the William & Mary campus and feeling like it wasn’t so small that you were running into the same people over and over again, but wasn’t so large that you fell through the cracks. “It seemed like a place where faculty really cared about students, where students really formed relationships and challenged each other,” Bunch says. “I knew it was the right place.”

After graduating from William & Mary, Bunch went to Harvard, where he earned a master’s degree in education, with an emphasis on higher education. While at Harvard, he clerked for the Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights and was inspired by the attorneys he worked with, which rekindled his interest in law. He returned to William & Mary to earn his law degree.

During the first summer between years in law school, Bunch went to New York to work at a firm that had civil rights litigation as one of its practices. Bunch also ended up focusing on securities fraud litigation.

“Oddly, though I had no finance background, and it seemed like a foreign thing to me, I found it engaging and challenging, and all the cases were really cutting-edge,” Bunch says. “When I returned to William & Mary, I focused on that my second and third years of law school.” After law schoool, Bunch accepted a position at Cohen Milstein Sellers & Toll in Washington, D.C., where he has been for 10 years, becoming a partner in January.
Branagan went on to work at JP Morgan in New York. He and Bunch began discussing how they and their other friends who were young professionals needed an outlet to give back to the rest of the world, some platform for service, like they had as students at William & Mary. Both had experiences where their work friends would go out on the weekends and drop $300 on drinking or going out to eat.

“What if people instead used their money in a more constructive way?” Bunch says. “Put all that money together and imagine what we could do with it.”

Both Bunch and Branagan had a strong interest in education. Bunch had his master’s in the subject and Branagan had taught in the Bosnia program at William & Mary, as well as taught English in Costa Rica.

“We had this dual interest in education and development, and we were also emotionally motivated to do it because of William & Mary’s emphasis on service and leadership and giving back to the world around you,” Bunch says.

Global Playground began in 2006 with Project Uganda, a school for 325 children in the country’s rural Wakiso District. The organization collaborated with Building Tomorrow, a nonprofit founded by George Srour ’05. Now the organization has projects underway in countries around the world: Project Cambodia, a middle school in the outskirts of Phnom Penh; Project Thailand, a library for 200 children in the remote Mae Hong Son province; Project Honduras, a learning center equipped with technology for 200 students (which was completed with Students Helping Honduras, another William & Mary organization); Project Vietnam, a primary school for 140 students in the country’s Quang Tri province; Project Myanmar, a primary school for up to 40 children in Shan State; and Project Philippines, the reconstruction of three classrooms at a Capiz elementary school destroyed by a typhoon. Project Kenya is Global Playground’s latest endeavor, to build a library and media center for the Siana Girls’ Secondary Boarding School in Narok County, Kenya. Global Playground hopes to work with two William & Mary faculty to complete the project.

At the end of October, Bunch headed to Cuba with Ann Marie Stock, faculty fellow at Swem Library, and David Culver ’09, an NBC Washington reporter and anchor.
“We have a unique opportunity to integrate into William & Mary’s structure,” says Scott Gemmell-Davis ’17, who served as a Global Playground fellow in Vietnam. “I think there are a lot of students interested in doing service or traveling or working in education.”

Gemmell-Davis transferred from Amherst College in Massachusetts to attend William & Mary and run Division I cross country, and for the stellar reputation of the business school. He appreciates the diversity of people on campus — not just what people look like, but the variety of things they’re interested in and the activities they’re involved in, and he has loved being able to figure out who he is within the William & Mary community.

After running his sophomore year, Gemmell-Davis gave it up to pursue service activities on campus and in the community, becoming involved in Lafayette Kids, Ask Not (a national service organization) and Greater City.

Gemmell-Davis departed from Dulles Airport to spend a winter break abroad in Southeast Asia. Bunch was in the airport at the same time, on his way to the Philippines to look at a new school site for Global Playground. Bunch saw the group of William & Mary students and struck up a conversation with them. “Then we had a 14-hour flight, so by the end of it, we became pretty close,” Gemmell-Davis says.

The two decided to meet up again a few months later when Gemmell-Davis was visiting Washington, D.C. Bunch suggested he go to Vietnam as part of Global Playground’s teaching fellows program.

Global Playground’s teaching fellows are selected through an extensive application process. In addition to the application, fellows are interviewed to determine their sense of judgment, their ability to adapt, to process challenging situations and react.

Gemmell-Davis was interested in doing a gap year and traveling. “What was really unique about the opportunity with Global Playground, was the freedom and the responsibility,” he says. “Other programs are very regimented. Global Playground was like, ‘here’s what we expect, here’s where we are going to put you, now go.’ And I loved that opportunity to build something on my own. There’s a lot of autonomy and ownership in this organization.”

Gemmell-Davis worked in Khe Sanh, Vietnam in 2015. In addition to remnants of Agent Orange and unexploded ordinances, dog tags of fallen soldiers from the Vietnam War were sold by the town’s residents. Gemmell-Davis would often pay $10 or $15 for the tags in the hopes of returning them to their families. Through this process, he found a man who was the son of a U.S. soldier and a local woman. Because he looked different from everyone else, this man had been ostracized from his community and lived away from everyone on a hill outside town. He was a trash collector, and Gemmell-Davis was the first American this man had ever met, even though, biologically, he was half-American. Gemmell-Davis appreciated that this showed the after-effects of the war and a collision of cultures.

“I think we’re so privileged in Western cultures to grow up in classrooms with people from different backgrounds, who have different thoughts and stories,” says Gemmell-Davis. “We know from growing up in the United States that just because someone looks different or acts different doesn’t make them any less of a person. In a lot of these other countries, that’s not the case. They’re taught that their culture is better, and they don’t have any experiences with other cultures, even if they’re right down the street. Bringing that aspect into the classrooms can have really lasting effects on communities, as far as building tolerance.”

In order to build that tolerance, a major goal of Global Playground is cross-cultural exchange. Davis says that teaching helps with that in some ways, but there are a lot of other ways to do it. He set up English classes outside the normal school hours. Stronger students were connected with local tribes and other ethnic minorities and that was used as a medium for cross-cultural dialogue.

Activities like these occur at Global Playground sites around the world. “GP Goes Green,” one of the organization’s monthly themes, enables students to learn about respect for the environment and perform a campaign to clean up their towns. Through art exchanges, students write or illustrate things based on the question, “What does culture mean to you?” As part of Global Playground’s “100,000 Acts of Kindness,” begun by Kendall Lorenzen ’15, former teaching fellow and current deputy executive director of the organization, students at project sites are performing acts of kindness in their communities. All these projects focus on relationship-building and creating cross-cultural experiences.

Global Playground also hosts the “Virtual Playground” — an online collection of cross-cultural curriculum and activities for lifelong learners in schools around the world.

Here, people have the opportunity to examine what culture really means to communities across the globe.

Of course there are challenges that come with creating these experiences. Gemmell-Davis had that challenge working in a communist country where Global Playground’s focus on multicultural education was not always appreciated.

“I learned how difficult development is and how interrelated politics, culture and socioeconomic issues are,” Gemmell-Davis says. “It was really eye-opening to realize that just because I can teach English, just because I do this community development work, it doesn’t mean I’ll be able to create lasting change. It was very humbling to know that. The savior complex was really beaten out of me during my time there.”

“It really takes a special type of person to thrive in those situations,” Bunch says. “And we’re lucky that we’ve had a lot of William & Mary students do so successfully. I cannot overstate how much their lives change during this. I’ve seen our fellows develop tremendously based on these experiences, gaining a greater sense of their own identity and learning what it means to become a global citizen. That’s something you can’t get in the classroom.”

The individual relationships he created in Vietnam mean a lot to Gemmell-Davis. Two of the girls he worked with started giving English lessons to some of the people in the hill tribes during their free time. These young girls were 12 and 13 at the time. Gemmell-Davis was impressed with their ability to grasp the English language. The two of them read all the Harry Potter books in five or six months — not bad, considering English is their second language.

“But these girls weren’t unique,” Gemmell-Davis says. “There were so many that were just so eager to learn and so eager to engage in cross-cultural dialogue. Those moments and those relationships made it so worth it.”

His students must’ve thought so, too. Gemmell-Davis often played guitar for them, and at the end of his fellowship, they presented him with a drawing created from a photo of Gemmell-Davis playing guitar in his classroom.

Gemmell-Davis feels like Global Playground differentiates itself from other international education nonprofits with this cross-cultural dialogue. “I really believe that aspect is so important in today’s increasingly globalized world,” Gemmell-Davis says. “But despite all our differences, a playground or a playing experience is something that is shared across all these different cultures. Even if it’s not an actual playground, it’s that concept of learning and fun,” Gemmell-Davis says.After his fellowship, Gemmell-Davis stayed with Global Playground to help with its daily operation. He thinks the organization has the potential to grow, starting with William & Mary’s campus and its service-mindedness — he sees more underclassmen getting interested in the organization and fundraising, and more students and recent graduates going after those fellowships.

“The fellows program gives these recent graduates incredible perspective and helps them reapproach the world with this new mindset that has been informed by the lives of people in these other places,” Bunch says. “It really changes their worldview. I would not be the same lawyer if it weren’t for Global Playground; I wouldn’t be the same board member at William & Mary.”

Global Playground plans to move into four more countries within the next several years.

“We found that our mission and our work at these project sites that promotes cross-cultural dialogue had increased relevance, given the current political landscape in the United States. It’s refreshing for people to hear what we do,” Bunch says.

“2016 was full of a lot of noise and Global Playground has spent it in conversation, trying to encourage students to gain a greater understanding of their peers halfway across the world. When you show a kid living in Uganda or Vietnam a video created by someone their age across the world, you see an epiphany as they realize their peers across the world are not unlike them.”

Despite being partner in a law firm, Bunch is involved in Global Playground with the recruitment, hiring and mentoring of teaching fellows, efforts to plan for and execute new projects, marketing and branding, and fundraising. “I enjoy it, and in many ways it complements the rest of what I’m doing in my life. The experiences I’ve had being a part of Global Playground have had a huge impact on my life. I visit a place like Cambodia or Vietnam and spend time with the community, walk through their villages and see their homes, and it gives you perspective. It reminds you that we are extraordinarily lucky to live where we do and we have an obligation to pay it forward and give what we have to help other people.”

Bunch says his organization will never meet all the educational needs in the world. But he hopes to continue building schools, if not at the rate of one per year, then pretty close to it.

“I hope that we continue to give college students or recent graduates the opportunity to live and work abroad,” Bunch says. “And continue to have an impact on the students in our schools and the communities where we work.”

As a BOV member, Bunch hopes we can continue to think about how we can connect our students with the rest of the world and how we can affect communities around the world. The collaborative nature is what Bunch hopes to mirror with Global Playground.

“I’m proud that we’ve been able to get a conversation going among students at our project sites via our teaching fellows about what it means to be a kid in the developing world and what it means to be part of a community and what it means to take care of the environment,” Bunch says. “These are conversations that, if it were not for Global Playground, would only occur between kids in the developed world. Only the privileged have the opportunity to have these conversations and be exposed to people who are different. But with Global Playground, kids in some of the poorest communities in the world have the opportunity to interact and learn from each other. Seeing that occur on a daily basis is what I’m most proud of.”