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A Note from GRI's Director

A preview of this note appeared in our June 2020 newsletter and is available in full on this page.

In normal times, I don’t get personal when writing the Director’s note for the GRI newsletter. But this is not a normal time. 

Two weeks ago, people across our country and the world reacted with horror to the murder of George Floyd. Like many of you, I was spending a lot of time at home with my family as a result of the current global pandemic. I remember sitting with my 25-year-old daughter, as we watched back-to-back videos of black men being murdered -- first George Floyd and then Ahmaud Arbery. I started to pontificate about ways we should help. My daughter was quiet. I went on...“We need to give money to bail out protestors, join Williamsburg Action, make posters, march…” And on I went, loudly. My daughter was quiet. I asked, “What do you think?”  She said, “I think you need to listen. No Dad, really listen, before you do anything. Then you need to figure out how to do things that matter.” 

The next day I spoke with a young colleague who said she thought “this time might be different...people are actually paying attention. They are listening to Black people in a way they previously have not.” These and countless other conversations with family, friends, current and former students, faculty, and staff at the GRI have caused me to reflect on the value of listening. Listening well is a value in itself, but listening well is also a means to an end. If we are open to listening, especially to voices that are too often unheard within existing institutions and hierarchies, we will ask different questions, explore different solutions, and increase the quality of our responses. This is the case when discussing institutionalized racism, but it is a lesson that travels well to other contexts as well.

At the bottom of the email I discuss some of our commitments moving forward -- things that, I hope, actually matter for those who are members of the GRI community and those who will be part of GRI in the future. These commitments will be grounded in research, but they will also reflect the specific suggestions of black, indigenous, and people of color who work at William & Mary and at other institutions of higher education. 

Before I do this, I’d like to use the newsletter stories below, and a few that we have shared in the past, to reflect on how listening to previously unheard voices can improve outcomes in the academy and the world beyond the ivory tower. The stories about multidisciplinary global research listed below are pretty typical for a GRI newsletter -- they tell stories of creativity, hard work, evidence-based solutions to policy problems, and research-based teaching. But as I’ve re-read them through the lens of listening, it is clear that our best work at the Institute also depends upon listening to voices that are too often not heard.

For example, AidData has pursued a multi-year research stream entitled, “Listening to Leaders.” This project is premised on the novel idea that by listening to the views of policy practitioners in the developing world, we can learn a lot more about the causes and consequences of international development. The person making the case for listening to leaders in the video linked above is Samantha Custer, AidData’s Director of Policy Analysis and the PI on the project. I encourage you to listen to Sam in her own voice making the case that we ought to listen to folks in developing countries in order to design better development policy. The parallel to our current conversation about race in the United States and which voices we should privilege is compelling.  

The first feature in this issue of our newsletter is a story and video about an undergraduate student, Austin Strange (‘12), who had the audacious idea to track Chinese foreign aid at the project level. Brad Parks (‘03) describes listening to the idea of his student and Austin describes a collaboration that empowered him to push his idea forward. That idea has led to a half dozen funded research partnerships, hundreds of academic and policy papers, and data analysis that provides inputs to the U.S. government’s policy decisions. This project exists because a faculty member was willing to listen to an undergraduate student and invest in him. As Brad says in the video, “The best ideas don’t always come from people with PhDs.” 

A story below on GRI’s Blockchain Lab highlights six new seed grants awarded to student-faculty teams from Economics, Government, Physics, the Law School and the Business School. This lab is led by Troy Wiipongwii (MPP ‘18), who pitched the idea of the Blockchain Lab to W&M’s Vice Provost for Research and me back in late 2019. We listened to Troy not because he is an established professor in the field - he is not - but because good ideas can come from anyone and Troy has both ideas and a work ethic that makes you want to listen. In this case we listened to a twenty-something entrepreneur who combines a background in computer science and public policy who is equally adept at teaching 19 year old freshman and 55 year old college professors.

My colleagues who work with me on the TRIP project have long argued that one voice missing from policy debates on U.S. foreign policy is the collective voice of IR experts -- faculty who teach and do research on international relations for a living. If the COVID crisis has taught me anything, it is that policy made without regard to data, evidence, and expertise is not only likely to be bad policy, but may cost lives and damage the reputation of the U.S. government at home and abroad. TRIP snap polls give voice to the collective “wisdom of the expert crowd” on issues ranging from the U.S. COVID response, multilateral cooperation, and how the U.S. leverages its foreign assistance to realize its interests. Going forward, we would all be well-served by listening to and rehabilitating substantive expertise in policy debates. Our elected leaders have failed to listen to repeated warnings from scientific experts on climate change, trade, and public health. We are all suffering as a result. 

I could go on, but I’ll end with my favorite story linked below. It is written by a William & Mary freshman, Alexandra Byrne. She tells a story about the International Justice Lab and a faculty member, Kelly Zvobgo, who is herself a predoctoral fellow here at GRI. Kelly was willing to make a bet on this young woman even before she enrolled at W&M. Please listen to Alexandra describe IJL in her own words. I read her essay on a particularly dark day last week and it provided a reminder of what we gain by listening to each other and then working on real world problems together. Insight, and in this case inspiration, can be found in the words of the youngest among us. 

What does this have to do with the current moment? As the Director of a research institute that focuses on global issues, I lack both the authority and knowledge to make an immediate and significant difference in the way American cities police their streets or how the federal government might reform sentencing guidelines so that they are less discriminatory toward Black people. But while I do not have that expertise or authority, I do have the ability to shape the hiring practices, investments in research projects, who gets invited to give lectures at the Institute and what kind of tone is set by GRI leadership. My daughter’s admonition to listen, and then to “do things that matter'' will guide me going forward. As the stories below demonstrate, listening to voices that are often unheard leads to better research, better policy, and can help to construct a more diverse culture and community at W&M and the GRI.

But these are not the only ends. I promise to continue to listen, but it is now also time to move from acknowledgement to action. In the coming days, weeks, and months GRI will fulfill President Rowe’s promise to the university community to “make a meaningful difference” and act in a way that directly enhances the lives and opportunities for individuals from underrepresented groups here on campus. These actions will be reflected in our hiring practices, our HR policies, our fundraising priorities, and the investments we make to support student-faculty research. To hold ourselves accountable we will report back on our efforts and our results by the end of 2020 to ensure we keep focus and make progress. If you follow us on a regular basis, you will see concrete actions before that.

As always, thank you for your support, and I would welcome any thoughts you might have at [[mjtier]].

All best.
Mike Tierney