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Building an Engaged Citizenship with Diana Engel Gerbase ’16

“Even when you’re in different fields, you realize that you’re not dreaming alone.”

Diana Engel Gerbase ’16 has not been gone long. She left International House in October of 2016, and returned to her native Brazil to work on her nonprofit civic education initiative, Mobis. She hopes the program will encourage children in her home country to become “engaged citizens.” In February of 2017, she traveled back to New York to network and pursue sources of funding. Unsurprisingly, her trip brought her home to I-House.

International House has had a profound impact on Gerbase, and continues to be an empowering influence as she works to get her nonprofit off the ground. The cross-cultural, interdisciplinary environment helped her see possible paths for creating change at home.

“We have a lot of challenges in Brazil, but they’re not only Brazilian challenges, they’re human challenges,” Gerbase explained. “At I-House I found people that identified the same issues in their own countries…  [and] we could identify solutions and adapt them to our own situations. Even when you’re in different fields, you realize that you’re not dreaming alone.”

Gerbase earned her Master’s in Public Administration from Columbia in 2016, and took advantage of the opportunities at I-House to add value to what she was learning in the classroom. She participated in the Women’s International Leadership program through which she connected with colleagues and friends who would become instrumental to her efforts.

“We’re all in different fields, but we’re all engaged with human causes,” she said of the Fellows she met in the program, with whom she remains close. “We give each other guidance. We share a lot about vision, purpose and aspiration. We’re not just friends, but peer counselors. We hold each other up.”

She also received a 2015 Davis Projects for Peace grant that enabled her to pilot her educational program In Porto Alegre, Brazil. Taking lessons from that pivotal experience, she plans to launch fellowships for four to five teachers to test her revised curriculum in Fall 2017.

As she continues to refine the curriculum, the first of its kind in Brazil, she will make it available online to schools and teachers at no cost. The goal is to promote “the knowledge, the skills, the attitudes and the social capital Brazilians need to spark their civic behavior and lead the transformation of their own realities.”

She used the peace-building mission of the Davis grant in conceptualizing her pilot program. “It was so amazing to see how the idea of peace became possibly the most important aspect of the project,” she said. “Even before you teach people about the concept of democracy… the idea of social cohesion is so important for things to get working. There’s sometimes a lot of conflict inside the classroom among the kids, so for them to do a project together, they need to get to know themselves and the group better.”

Her advice to other I-House Residents and Alumni interested in starting nonprofit ventures: “Create small cycles of iteration that allow you to test your ideas, and see how they resonate with the world. Find a balance between high speed and perfect quality – you can’t be at either of these extremes. If you do something too fast, it’s so shallow that it’s sort of worthless. But if you do something extremely high quality, but it takes you three years, you miss your window of opportunity. Be strategic about that balance.”

Like Gerbase, fellow Davis Projects Grantee and International House Alum, Shahbaz Salehi ‘15 (born in Iran but now a US Citizen), has continued the work he started with the grant by establishing a nonprofit. Through his New Citizens Project, Salehi is developing a web platform to connect refugees with communities around the US for assistance in resettlement, job training and more. He was able to call upon the vast talent and experience across dozens of fields represented within the House. “This venture, which has the potential to help so many people in need, was really made possible by having been a part of the I-House community.”

Gerbase had a similarly collaborative experience at I-House, and urges Alumni to take full advantage of the connections made during their time as Residents. Merina Henry (born in Switzerland but now a citizen of Australia), who is still an I-House Resident, worked closely with Gerbase as a consultant, helping her to model and understand the global state of civic education.

While she appreciates I-House for the opportunities and connections she has been able to leverage, Gerbase is also nostalgic for the human interactions that were commonplace for her at International House. “Dinners in the Dining Room at the round tables, karaoke at the pub, and dodge ball games, which I was leading for a while. Those are the moments that you connect with people in a simpler, relaxed and even more genuine way. Not only do these moments give you that sense of balance, they give you a sense of home.”

Gerbase’s goal of bringing civic education to Brazil is ambitious, but her time at International House helped to open a path ahead of her. She found the right combination of unique opportunities to develop her program, a robust network of peers with which to collaborate and a supportive community to lift her up as she faced new challenges. When Mobis launches its curriculum, the communities it serves will benefit from all that Gerbase has learned at I-House, and the balance of personal and professional support she received from her family at Riverside Drive.