• Jerrid P. Kalakay

Episode 47 - Center for Peace and Commerce's Work in the US Mexico Borderlands w Rachel Christensen

On today's episode, we connect with Rachel Christensen, Assistant Director of the Center for Peace and Commerce, at the University of San Diego. Rachel shares how much of her work and pedagogy stems from living in the borderland of the US and Mexico. She shares her journey into social innovation work and how she sees herself first and foremost as a bridge-builder bringing people together.


Rachel Christensen is the Assistant Director for the Center for Peace and Commerce. She cares about inviting more cultural brokers and bridge builders into the public, private, and social sectors to help individuals and communities flourish. Formerly, she worked with social entrepreneurs in education in 9 countries across Africa, Asia, and Latin America with Edify, Inc. She also worked with a grassroots non-profit advocating for green transportation and placemaking in uptown San Diego neighborhoods. She lived in the Dominican Republic, working with microfinance and SME models to improve education and studied mental health in rural Brazil. She has a Master's in Public Administration and is Chairwoman of the Board of Directors for the bi-national non-profit Create Purpose.


Ashoka Big Talk "Teaching In Between"

Tedx Talk "Borderlanders"

Personal Website on Living In-Between

Example of teaching design thinking across the border

Acumen Resource Library

USD Fowler Global Social Innovation Challenge

Impact Gap Canvas

Gap Frame (SDGs)


Equity & Design Thinking

Designing Your Life


Jerrid Kalakay 0:09 Welcome to the Teaching Change podcast, where we explore issues a Social Entrepreneurship, education, and innovation. I'm your host Jerrid Kalakay. On today's show, we're talking with Rachel Christiansen of the University of San Diego. Rachel, welcome to Teaching Change.

Rachel Christensen 0:23 Yeah, thanks for having me.

Jerrid Kalakay 0:25 Yeah. So, Rachel, I would love for you to kind of start out by talking a little bit about, introduce yourself, and then talk a bit of your work. You've done a bunch of stuff, a bunch of things, and now you're working in higher education, still doing a bunch of things. So anxious, just kind of who you are and what you're doing currently, and then we'll sort of dive off from that.

Rachel Christensen 0:45 So my name is Rachel. I'm based in San Diego and park relevant a little bit for what we'll talk about today is probably two things. So my context is the US Mexico borderlands. We're about 15 minutes from Tijuana, Mexico. And that's part of Our pedagogy and how we interpret our context for the Social Innovation work that we do. And the other piece that's relevant to today is that I run our Center for peace and commerce, which is a center that's a partnership. I think it's a pretty cool radical way between the School of Business and a school of peace and justice. So the idea is we're trying to bring together sometimes disparate worlds, and paradigms around change, some of them that believe in business models, and some of them that believe in negotiation and, and community organizing, and realizing that we're going to need all approaches for us to make sustainable social change. And what that looks like on an operational level is I help primary students from the University of San Diego and our partner institutions around the world from about 12 countries to try their hand at building a social enterprise. So we kind of culminate a lot of our activities in a global social venture Pitch Competition that's oriented around the Sustainable Development Goals and really has as primary goals and learning and connecting around the Sustainable Development Goals and as a secondary goal and generating some ideas that could be sustainable social enterprises.

Jerrid Kalakay 2:09 Wow. Wow. So that's a lot of stuff. It's a lot of stuff. What I think is really neat it talk a little bit more about your school of peace and justice and the School of Business coming together in the university to create the center that you work in. how unique is that in the landscape of higher education in the United States? And how did that come about?

Rachel Christensen 2:34 Yeah, it's, um, it's very unique. There are. So just having a school of peace, or a school of peace study is very rare, usually to be normative like that. Usually it's war and conflict and peace or something like that. And so to study explicitly in the direction of pieces were in itself, there are only a couple schools and then to have a partnership between a business school and a p school is Common in higher ed, however, pretty necessarily emerging because it's been going on definitely conversations much longer than this. But since the 70s, there's been scholarship around economic development and peace, commerce through PP through commerce initiatives, and in the peacemaking space, economic generating activities are deemed as essential. And the conversation of course, around what's business for has shifted, have either shifted or depending on who you ask, go back to the basics of assuming that business is should be pro-peace and that business should be could be pro-poor. And so those conversations are fairly common, but the actual institutionalization of two schools coming together from sometimes very different paradigms fairly rare. And how did you come about? It's the centers been around since 2011, some visionary leaders from the University of San Diego. Definitely, right I need to reach across the aisle sometimes and, and sometimes it requires also retraining our brains as staff, faculty, students, community stakeholders of how we think about change and how it happens.

Jerrid Kalakay 4:15 And approximately how many people are involved in the center's work? I know the two schools are probably pretty large. And then they've kind of come together with the center but how many people kind of are involved with the center's operations and, and the work that you all do?

Rachel Christensen 4:30 Yeah, so it's, um, it's intentionally involving for on the doing side on the implementing side, all the stakeholders. So we have a team of part-time faculty who have teaching roles who also advised the center, and then we have to staff me and another person, and then students staff, part-time who is on learning and in-class and also work for the center. So that involves sort of the three main stakeholders at the university level staff, faculty and students and terms of participation. However, we work with dozens of Faculty, helping them learn how to embed SD G's into their syllabus learning how to embed experiential learning opportunities into their coursework. And then we have students participate at the University of San Diego from the undergraduate and graduate and Ph.D. levels. And then as mentioned, we have about 26 university partners per year that come from about 12 countries in Africa, Latin America, Asia, Europe, Australia, and I don't think I mentioned North America, US, and Canada. And so those would be at the participation level. We have hundreds of students across the US.

Jerrid Kalakay 5:39 That's, that's incredible. And just as a reminder, the university has, what's the enrollment at the university? Yeah, we're

Rachel Christensen 5:47 around 10,000 undergrads and grad. Yeah, so it's a fairly small university. It's an engaged Catholic University that is contemporary and interfaith and much of the work but I'm trying to teach Catholic social values. In the sense of care for home, and dignity of work and some of those values that we bring to what we do, but it's just a fairly small private university. You know,

Jerrid Kalakay 6:10 it's a beautiful campus I was on. I was on your campus A number of years ago for the showcase exchange. And it's absolutely gorgeous. Absolutely gorgeous. So, Rachel, how did you come to this work? It sounds like it's, it kind of sounds a little bit exhausting. I'm sure some of my listeners are listening and going, Wow, that's a lot of stuff, managing, balancing to complete schools, bringing them together, and then you've got students in the mix and you've got international students and faculty. It sounds like an awful lot of stuff that you're kind of balancing. I know you're not doing it alone. But how did you come to this work?

Rachel Christensen 6:48 Well, I'm also be like my grandparents and wish that I would speak more slowly. So some of it could be a function of my Yeah, the answer is really easy. Maybe two parts. One is that I do consider it bridgework because you must. Yeah, I keep saying, you know, bridging worldviews and bridging disciplines. I think that that's, I've always found myself doing some kind of bridgework. Prior to this, I was doing first in Field Operations role, I was based in the Caribbean, specifically in some of the lingo, and then would liaise with office space in the US. And then I flipped and was based in an office in the US and would liaise with premier Latin American teams. So I think that that was bridgework. And I think if I went back any job I've had prior, and a lot of that has to do with how much my education formation happened here at the, you know, added that at an international border. So I think that the bridgework is one piece of just like we find ourselves, sometimes doing similar roles across organizations. And then the other piece is probably the Social Entrepreneurship piece, which I don't think maybe some The students that are in school now could have gotten a degree saying, I'm going to be a social entrepreneur. When I was in school, I didn't think that that was a path. So definitely admit that I tripped into Social Entrepreneurship, only really discovering it as a field after graduation. And so I came to it through working doing work that was business training and acceleration services for small businesses in the education space, and then over time, realized that there was a whole space and then maybe more became more interest over time of like-new models that could be social enterprise or could be more broadly in a Social Innovation space. So like most things, I think, just like who you are, the bridge piece, and then stumbling into things and then realizing that it's a good place to act out those commitments in the world.

Jerrid Kalakay 8:51 Absolutely. And are you from originally from San Diego?

Rachel Christensen 8:54 Actually, I was sort of I am from California, but I was raised the much of my elementary years in New Jersey, right, right on the line to New York. So I think a lot of a lot of those early years were actually east coast. Yeah.

Jerrid Kalakay 9:08 Gotcha. Gotcha. I was just so that might be why you speak so quickly. Yeah, yeah. The North North East folks in the US. Yes. And the move quick didn't move quickly. I'm originally from Connecticut. So I so I know. The reason why I asked you that question is, is I was wondering how much of your work and kind of of your of yourself is influenced by being so close to an international border, you know, with Tijuana, being right across and all the issues that come along with that, especially, you know, especially in today's world where there's, there's a lot of issues going on around borders in the US and many other streets.

Rachel Christensen 9:49 Very, very influenced. And part of that's because of who my teachers were. So I went to school at another university, but also here in San Diego. And you know, I Sort of outed myself actually at a talk I did. About a year ago, where I admitted to the fact that I met I miss lots of birthday parties, final exams, classes, etc. During my undergraduate, because I was spending all my time in Tijuana. And specifically spending all my time in the boardroom, wait to come back. And so when I started, when I started sharing that story, which is just more just youthful, boldness or something, I don't know, just thinking, thinking I was going to take control of my own education, were maybe two things. One is that I realized that I was receiving my education primarily, and I wouldn't even say just antiquated I was receiving my education in the crossing in the in-between and partially because of the actual wait time to get back to the US back when I was crossing. Some of that was the height of that was in 2008 2010, which actually was when most people from San Diego stop going to Tijuana. Because of various geopolitical things and things that had to do with some cartels and conflict, and so a lot of the stuff that I learned there was influenced by that time. And by the So anyway, that in that in-between and then learning how to kind of integrate ways of being from two sides was probably the most formative thing of my life. And I kind of got it to show the board and I know sort of way not trying to be poetic, but just trying to be honest, I'm playing the border sort of chose me it wasn't something that I chose as an area of academic study or a location for friendships, it just happened. So to make all that, more explicit for the pedagogy, I mean, that was how I was taught about a lot of things when I was studying Latin it, you know, I did a degree in Latin American Studies and political administration was studying Spanish and other things. So it was a natural place for me to study those things. But now when I teach design thinking or Social Innovation, I try to do it in by cultural and balance. Will and by national context. So we have students that will come up from the quanta. It's a pretty easy trolley ride or Uber ride or etc. And they'll come to our campus often and study the same with faculty. And then I'll take students to Tijuana. And we'll do things that try to equalize the power of facilitation and allow everybody to realize that there's regional issues in common and potential solutions in common. So it's sort of by like, framework and the water we think we swim in terms of our context, so very formative for me and how I now teach.

Jerrid Kalakay 12:36 You know, I love that. And I'm really interested to hear a little bit about so how do you balance and how do you balance the cultures and, and the sensitivities that need to be balanced when you have students from Tijuana and students, you know, from San Diego and everything in between? I mean, how do you do that in the classroom or in the workshop? You mentioned trying to balance and being sensitive to all those things like when you're teaching design thinking, what are some things that you do to create that safe space for everyone to be themselves?

Rachel Christensen 13:13 I'm guaranteeing you I'm doing it perfectly first. I think a second thing is design thinking. I was just actually working with some women peacemakers from this network that USD manages called women. Women waging peace, which I think is brilliant. And we were talking, you know, they use design thinking in their daily work. And we were talking about how human-centered design can be used to collectivized people, particularly in the empathy stage. And so even if you're not developing sort of solutions radiating together, which generally comes next, and just the collectivization of folks is a valuable first step. And so I think using that stage empathy is critical. And I think another thing that's important and something that sometimes in higher ed, we do well and sometimes we We do for the wrong reasons but we should continue to do is you know, acknowledging positionality is important. And I am, you know, as a white woman and lots of the students I bring maybe white but many of the students that I if I'm using the example of bringing students into quanta, they're often not they're often from all over the world. And I think most of them take for granted that talent is distributed equally and opportunity is not so I think some of it is the positionality some of its empathy and the collectivization. And I think some of it is just like very practical, how people sit, how people are engaged. So circle would be better than, you know, sitting one behind another. Having some convention, whether it's raising hands or something else where people can speak. And then I think language so if we're doing it into quanta, we privilege Spanish and then translate back to English. So I think some of its the language used and so I've been to quite a few design thinking workshops. one that comes to mind is actually run by MIT D lab in partnership with some universities in Columbia and a university in the US, called Colorado School of Mines. And they did the whole process with small scale miners, most of the women, most of them very much at the edge of poverty. And so seeing design thinking used in a room where there are people that traditionally don't have a lot of power. And then people like MIT D lab, you know, educators who have a lot of access and power, I think it can be done well, definitely in perfectly. But when you privilege, maybe the language that's more comfortable to people, make sure that everybody feels comfortable through the empathy process, maybe elongate that and don't rush it. Sometimes it can take a whole day. It's not like you just do one empathy activity, and you're done. And then the ongoing last piece, and then I'll get off the potential soapbox is, is like the ongoing relationship piece. And so being able to do this in the US, Mexico Borderlands is different because we can keep going back. We can Keep making come in many cases, not all cases can cross the US and have to acknowledge that they can always cost us. But, you know, it's just so much possible to have these sustained relationships when you're 15 minutes away.

Jerrid Kalakay 16:12 Yeah, yeah, absolutely. And I and I think it's a relationship that causes meaningful changes. Yeah. You know, if it's not, it's not just one semester, and it's done a type of scenario. You know, and as and as academics, I think we, our predecessors, have sometimes done the one and done gone into some communities did their research and then left. And so it's really good to hear that you're very mindful of that, you know, building that relationship and realizing that anything good is going to come out of the relationship, not not the other way around. That's really, really exciting. Why do you do what you do? There's there's a million things you could probably do that would be would argue a lot easier. I've got a whole page of notes of things that you've already been talking about. I'm sure that I'm sure the University of San Diego doesn't millions of dollars a year to you. So why do you do what you do?

Rachel Christensen 17:16 Yeah, I think that there's

Rachel Christensen 17:19 there are those moments when you're doing. Again, it's mostly tripping into finding something that worked for my passions, my skill set, and my interests. And so I'm accidentally finding myself in spaces and then being able to have that moment of reflection, where you realize we're in this case, I realized that it feels good to be able to do great work at the like institutional level, or maybe structural change level and then do relationship work. To your point earlier, I haven't seen in my life, anybody changed their mind about anything that wasn't through meeting somebody that was from that group that they formerly didn't under, etc, etc. I mean, my main theory of change, I guess in the world is that you meet somebody and you might change your mind. And so being able to do both the sort of like institutional stuff that like checks my strategy my like, the boxes I have for strategy. And they like academic learning, and then the relational pieces that I get to do at the student level at the institutional level between universities, and all of that in between work, and I guess there are checks enough of the boxes for me that I can't really imagine I can imagine doing different work in terms of content. I can't imagine doing much else that wasn't sort of bringing people institutions together. I think I would it wouldn't check enough in my boxes and I think that would be wandering looking to get back to it. Yeah,

Jerrid Kalakay 18:46 yeah, totally, totally understand that. So here's, here's my million dollar question. Because you're, you're in academia, but you're not a traditional role, and I'm not so So has your Have you figured out how to explain what you do to your family?

Rachel Christensen 19:06 I'm lucky in that my dad before social entrepreneur was a thing was a social entrepreneur, and my mom now here's a board that is looking at sustainable models for housing for adults with autism. And so I would call her a social entrepreneur as well. And my sister runs a Social Innovation incubator in Boulder, Colorado. So go figure that and even though I don't think any of us would have called us, ourselves, social innovators growing up at all, we would have used different words. I think we've all found ourselves in this space. So I'm lucky in that way. Your questions valid though? can I explain it to my aunt and uncle having a harder time and so one, one thing that's helping is there is shifting language. And there's more thought leadership that's kind of like making its way out to people like my aunt and uncle, that they are reading about these conversations around like nuclear kinds of business and like might have heard of a benefit corporation, and understands that, like, a lot of charity is toxic, and we need to like rethink how we try to help people. So I think that the conversations about how we do the work and are not that hard to have. Sometimes people are surprised that a university might pay somebody to do this work because it seems it seems too abstract. But that is true a lot about people that look at the academy and don't understand what the practical benefit is. But I have less of that problem. Because I can tell me I can tell stories of students and whether or not their venture was, successful. That's not really the point. The point is I did they learn these skills that are going to help them be an entrepreneur, a change maker, wherever. And I can tell those stories, and then they can nod and understand, right?

Jerrid Kalakay 20:52 Yeah, yeah, absolutely. Why? And I asked that question because it was years before I finally found the language explain what I'm Doing an academic, it's my family. Because I was I was not the model student, as our as my listeners will know, in my younger years, but so obviously you're very, very talented in this kind of work and so forth. Many of our listeners may be teaching a class on design thinking or human-centered design or, or social entrepreneurship of some level of social innovation. But a vast majority of the folks that are probably out there in the US and around the world that are engaged in the academy may have interest in this, but don't know how to get started. And so obviously, what you've done and the center and the two schools coming together, that didn't happen overnight, clearly, what would you suggest to the faculty, and not by hitting by you necessarily? Yeah, but you certainly run with it, along with the rest of the folks that work in it, but what would you What advice would you give to a faculty member that wants to learn more wants to do More with their class with a class. How do they get involved in? I mean, they have to take on the world all at once? Or what would they do? What would you suggested, you

Rachel Christensen 22:09 know, and actually, a colleague and I, both of us are administrators. So we're not faculty. But you know, both have advanced degrees in this space. And we're actually teaching a workshop on this. And we're hoping, in about a month and we're hoping to make that actual argument, that same argument to faculty that you don't have to bite off the whole bite to get started. There are so many ways and so some of the ways that we offer are you can just ask questions. So we're trying to engage actually around Sustainable Development Goals, one of the ways is to you know, use, action-based learning, experiential learning, and maybe Social Entrepreneurship curriculum and design thinking, but it's all around the Sustainable Development Goals. And students are demanding at least our university, you know, survey that they want to have even in their like, intro to marketing class. You know, what Is this mean, for gender equity? You know you can. And some of it's just how you moderate your questions to be able to, like, engage people around some social justice issues potentially. So it could be questioned. There are so many resources online. And I don't know if there's a possibility to put links here. But I'll mention a couple. They're really easy to Google, really easy to Google, around the SD GS gap frame is one that you can go and see how different countries and regions are doing around different Sustainable Development Goals. And so you can interact with charts and that's a great way to start conversation in a class and could allow you know, somebody who's teaching something around anything for in the math department, for example, where you're having to figure out how to display information that would be a way to engage with this content, but being able to continue to teach your module but then there are also so many resources, I think, as you know, and you would have more to share to around sign thinking, certainly ideas around Social Entrepreneurship. Certainly, acumen comes to Mine, among others. And, you know the power of YouTube to I mean, something general as storytelling might lead to many results on YouTube. But I, when I'm preparing for a workshop, I often will try to find content from different areas coming from different voices. So I often will just kind of look to see what video content out there some of its very good, but almost all this stuff is open source. And then your last last thing I'll say is if somebody is wanting to get started, you can always start at home so that this like, you know, very famous book these days, designing your life is something that any faculty member could start reading and applying to their life and we've had quite a lot of faculty do that at USD. And then you start having that being approach, you know, experiment, to get more information to bias towards action, and making sure that you start with your own why and understanding what the actual problem is the defining stage, all those things then become like an approach that you would bring to everything. So those are like some ways that wouldn't require a lot of time or like a year's lead time to just get started and trying. And some things like in this in this design thinking space, you maybe have to let go of some of the control, some things will fall on their face and some things will stick. And that's how you learn with your students and they'll teach you to

Jerrid Kalakay 25:26 absolutely, that's fantastic it's a fantastic answer. Thank you. Yeah. So what keeps you going? Where do you go to recharge? Are there are there conferences? Are there certain types of books you like to read that keep you motivated? Because I'm sure that there's obviously tough days, like in any, any job or any profession, there are good days and there are bad days. And so what do you have when you have a tough go of it? What do you turn to?

Rachel Christensen 25:54 Yes, it's a great question. I mean, I think like many folks, you know, friends and family and I think the peace officers there is certainly being you know just being seen by people where you don't have to you know, you can kind of take the mask off that we sometimes put on is a thing but I think also just conversation partners I have so many friends who are lawyers or are environmental activists or you know work in business and don't have an explicit some of the social change peace but they are so strange person and just having conversations around work 21st century work? What really to answer your question what really helps me recharge sometimes is being I guess I belong in the academy maybe being philosophical about these things instead of focusing hyper-focusing on the individual challenges or sometimes politics helps me to zoom out maybe it would be part of the answer. And zooming out also can happen to your you know, your suggestion, either in conferences or can meetings, I'm lucky that I get to chat with our partner University from all over the world all the time, on Skype, Zoom, WhatsApp, text, message, whatever. And so I feel like I'm often in good company because I'm often working with my counterpart and other universities and that always helps us zoom out to realize a lot of these things are trends not work at all. And we're in it together. And then I think that the big thing for me is this like I'm very I benefit a lot from a lot of folks in San Diego who tried to make my neighborhood more walkable so walking my neighborhood, meeting people consuming and small businesses. A lot of them found it you know, San Diego has received traditionally lots of refugees and asylum seekers. So there's many businesses, micro-businesses, many of them that sell great food and coffee, very close to my house, and to go and see sort of like the power of community and be able to just like sit and enjoy food or coffee across generations and any other boundary who might have always recharges me and connects me back because like the whole so the real answer is probably walking around my neighborhood with nobody agenda and trying to turn off the ideas.

Jerrid Kalakay 28:03 Absolutely. Yeah, absolutely. That's, that's awesome. Yeah, I had a colleague A number of years ago who, who got a dog just so that they would be forced to walk and and and be outdoors. Do you know? So what would you hope three years from now? What would you hope the country of the United States you'd be dealing with? What do you hope, the design thinking and that entire movement and social entrepreneur movement in general, but what do you hope and things would look like?

Rachel Christensen 28:36 Well, I certainly hope that on the US level that we could magically shift to be able to practice in the model or civil dialogue. I think that without having to have agenda for changing anybody's mind if we could spend more time in conversation with people, that would be both an important step on That design process to thinking about our democracy, but also would be something that would shift a lot of the heart the harmful conversations I think we have. So that would be my hope for my country. And for in terms of this space, and so some furniture been signed thinking, the way I see it going, which I think is a promising trend. I just worried the same way I worry about greenwashing or anytime there seems to be more substance or more hype in the corporate social responsibility, etc, than the actual substance. I hope we put our money where our mouth is in the trend I see happening, which is more of the conversation happening around equity and community. So there's a lot of design thinking for firms that are trying to send her equity in the conversation. So design thinking as a way to sort of shift power dynamics is a powerful possibility. Again, when centered this the way that we tried to send her humans in the process, centering equity, and then having a lot of a lot more case studies around community entrepreneurs. worship and team-based entrepreneurship rather than by an individual or by an outsider. Since it was made from hidden, formerly hidden assets within a group, I think that's where we're going. I think we're moving away from Hero ownership and towards featuring and supporting teams, and with complementary skills and different backgrounds. So I think it's encouraging. And I would hope that we do that in a way that would change some structural

Rachel Christensen 30:30 barriers.

Jerrid Kalakay 30:32 Awesome. Awesome. Well, Rachel, she's been absolutely wonderful. Is there anything else? Is there anything else you'd like to share with the listeners before we end?

Rachel Christensen 30:43 I guess I would

Rachel Christensen 30:46 like to share my experiences that I think this is obvious to most of us that are in the education space, but students learn a lot more from who you are, then what you say. And I think that that's not to put extra pressure on us because We're not supposed to be perfect. But just to to remember that especially in this space, many of us, maybe would recognize ourselves as social innovators, maybe would embrace the term change maker. But the way that we the way that we live in the way that we treat people is probably the best way to teach our students how to be different kinds of leaders and people in the world. So keep doing it.

Jerrid Kalakay 31:23 Till next time, be nice and change some stuff.

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