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Ali Institute works to end violence and social injustice

by Janene Zaccone last modified Feb 07, 2011 04:42 PM

There’s a connection between someone being shot on the street in Louisville and war on the other side of the world. The same connection exists between spousal abuse in Montreal and disregard for the environment in the rain forest.

Ali Institute works to end violence and social injustice

The Ali Scholars are at the core of the institute's work.

They’re all manifestations of violence; they all stem from injustice.

That’s what the University of Louisville’s Muhammad Ali Institute for Peace and Justice believes, and that premise — that injustice is at the root of all violence — drives everything it does.

The institute, an academic partner of the Muhammad Ali Center in Louisville, grooms students to be peace builders — and that means more than bringing people together to end conflict or forcing parties to maintain peace once it’s won. It means righting the social injustices that caused the conflict and making sure that people have access to what they need to live a life of dignity, said institute Director Stacy Bailey-Ndiaye.

Getting to root causes takes time, she said. It isn’t always sexy, but it’s the only way to bring about a just world and to sustain peace.

Ali Scholars

The Ali Scholars program is the core of the institute’s work. A two-year program open to students of any major, it includes an intensive immersion in social justice issues, international travel and community work.

Those are enough reasons to draw participants, but “What makes this even more meaningful is that we are using Muhammad Ali’s life as a guideline. He is known around the world not only for his incredible boxing career, but for his dedication to humanitarian causes and international peace-building,” said Bristol Mann, a second-year Ali Scholar and a senior majoring in geography with a concentration in environmental analysis.

Muhammad Ali and his wife, Lonnie, have monitored the program since its inception. They visited with Ali Scholars and toured the institute last fall.

“The Ali Scholars program graduates purposeful young men and women to become ALI ambassadors who will go forth in life equipped with the skills and tools necessary to become vanguards of social justice in their respective communities,” Lonnie Ali said recently.

“Muhammad and I are very proud of the Ali Scholars program, its mission and the good will it spreads to communities across our nation and globe. We are especially proud this program could be housed and nurtured under the auspices of the University of Louisville and the city of Louisville, our home town, where everything is possible.”

Ali Scholars start their work with an intensive retreat where they study the six manifestations of violence — domestic, community, economic, environmental, political and hate — represented in the institute’s SeeRedNow campaign.

“It was meant to be more like the Truth Campaign. It’s sort of ‘in-your-face’ to appeal to young people. We developed it just as a conversation starter … an intellectual framework to think about these issues differently,” Bailey-Ndiaye said.

The scholars use what they learn at the retreat and throughout the year to develop campus programs. They also take those lessons and apply them to building international connections.

Ali Scholars last summer traveled to England to establish partnerships with students and institutes. They went from there to Ghana.

“We spent a week with students working on development projects in rural villages” in the more underdeveloped Upper West region of the country, Mann said.

Back in Louisville, the scholars are applying their increasing knowledge and skills base to helping people get access to fresh foods. They’ve brought together Wesley House, a nonprofit organization that helps families, individuals and communities become self-sufficient, and New Roots, an organization focused on sustainable food and getting food into neighborhoods that don’t have access.

The project, said Bailey-Ndiaye, is not just about healthy eating and getting access to healthy food. It’s also about community empowerment.

The Ali Scholars program changes the people in it, too.

It “has lit a fire within me to continue being an advocate for the youth and to be a part of programs that focus on the well-being and success of young people in difficult situations,” said second-year Ali Scholar Amanda Simmons.

The senior psychology major said the program “has had a tremendous affect on who I am now and my perspective. The trip to Ghana was the most significant because it totally shaped my worldview. I am more humble, more hardworking. I live simpler. I am not as afraid. I see so much beauty around me — and I truly believe that love and care can change the world. … My purpose is to help others, plain and simple,” Simmons said.

The program has affected Mann’s outlook, as well.

“I think that my participation in this program will affect how I choose a career in the future,” she said. “After gaining a unique perspective about issues surrounding human rights and social justice here in Louisville and around the world, I see myself choosing a meaningful career that fights inequalities and injustices. … I am definitely more inclined to not just volunteer for service hours, but to really commit to finding answers to systemic inequalities.”

Beyond Ali Scholars

Students aren’t the only members of the UofL community involved with the Ali Institute. A relatively new program called the Faculty Resource Group pulls together faculty from a variety of disciplines to conduct research and write about their findings.

“We have faculty members from a variety of disciplines across the campus,” Bailey-Ndiaye said of the group. “Our faculty in residence is Dr. Kevin Chapman, in psychology, and we have members from public health, education, theater, sport administration, and other departments. On the surface this is really an eclectic group of people, but the idea is because we have this broad view of peace building, they can connect in some way either to what we are doing here at the institute or at the Ali Center.”

Already the institute has been approached to do research on the effectiveness of lay counseling for Rwandans with PTSD type symptoms resulting from the genocide there in 1994.

The institute also may work with a member of the Faculty Resource Group on an international sport for peace project. Faculty group members have also contributed to Creating Our Future, the Ali Center’s character education curriculum based on Muhammad Ali’s six core values. This project has Bailey-Ndiaye working at the Ali Center two days a week as project director.

Eventually, she said, the institute hopes to set up Ali Scholars programs at other universities around the world.

“The idea, the dream, is that every-other year we would bring the Ali Scholars from around the world together for a major international conference here in Louisville — which would be phenomenal. We’re in the process of building those relationships now.

“The institute is about connecting theory to practice. This is an educational institution, but if what we’re doing isn’t relevant for real people’s lives, then we’re missing something,” she said.

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