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Spotlight Series

Michigan State University's Global Youth Advancement Network (GYAN) introduces the Global Voices Spotlight Series as a next phase in GYAN's Global Voices brand, joining our Essay Contest and Webinar Series. This series provides a space for intergenerational conversation between young people and professionals devoted to meaningful global engagement and problem solving via research and outreach activities related to youth. Alongside recognizing contributions to youth-focused initiatives by members of the MSU Community in International Studies and Programs, and beyond, the interviews will include pointed advice from the interviewees to young people interested in pursuing their fields of study and career paths. Join in to hear voices from multiple perspectives on some of the world's most intractable challenges!

Eligible contributors to this series are:

  • MSU Students
  • MSU Faculty or Staff
  • MSU Alumni
  • Young Innovators
  • Industry Experts

If you would like to nominate yourself or a colleague to be interviewed in our Global Voices Spotlight series, please do so using the Global Voices Nomination Form.

In case you are between 18 and 35 years old and wish to become a youth interviewer, please fill out the GYAN Youth Volunteer Form. Or if you know of a motivated young person who would be a great fit, please reach out to gyaninfo(at)

Featured Spotlight: Dr. Stephen Esquith

Sarah Potts interviewed Dr. Stephen Esquith, who shared enriching insights about international development, including his study abroad programs in Mali and "Everyday Peacebuilding" initiatives. Dr. Esquith is a professor of political theory and ethics in the Department of Philosophy at Michigan State University. He has been engaging in work around ethical problems in developing countries since 1990 and was a senior Fulbright scholar in both Poland and Mali. Most recently, he has been working in Mali to develop a “Peacebuilding through Photovoice” project to empower Malian youth in IDP camps. Sarah Potts is a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of English at Michigan State University. She works with the Global Youth Advancement Network as a Global Citizenship Representative Intern.


August 14, 2023

Abridged transcription of Sarah Potts’ interview with Dr. Stephen Esquith.
SARAH: Hello and welcome to another session of our Global Spotlight Series. My name is Sarah Potts, and I am a Global Youth Ambassador for the Global Youth Advancement Network. I am joined here today by Dr. Stephen Esquith, who is a professor of political theory and ethics in the department of philosophy here at MSU. He has been engaging in work around ethical problems in developing countries since 1990, and was a senior Fulbright scholar in both Poland and Mali. Most recently, he has been working in Mali to develop a “Peacebuilding through Photovoice” project to empower Malian youth in IDP camps. Welcome, Dr. Esquith, and thank you for joining me here today.
DR. ESQUITH: Thanks, Sarah. It’s a pleasure. I’m excited about GYAN and hope that some of the things I have to say will be of use to students, both MSU students and students abroad.

SARAH: Can you start by telling us a little about the team that you have been working with in Mali and how you all came together to launch this “Peacebuilding through Photovoice” project?

DR. ESQUITH: We have faculty and graduate students from one of the universities in Bamako, the capital city of Mali. We have team leaders who are participants in past programs that we’ve run in Mali who are now working for NGOs there, such as the International Sports Alliance and Canadian Right to Play. We have a photography studio that is helping us with technical training and skill building, and a faculty member at the university in Bamako who was an AAP visiting scholar who worked with me here at MSU.

SARAH: I know that you’ve previously led study abroad programs for MSU students in Mali. Can you talk a little bit about what that experience was like for the students from MSU, and how that has shaped the work that you’re doing today?

DR. ESQUITH: The study abroad program began in 2004, and was run every other year over a ten year period, five times in total. There were approximately 10-15 students from MSU and other universities in the U.S. They spent 5-6 weeks living with each other in a residential facility, traveling throughout Mali, and working at a community school in a small village. Many of these students went on to pursue development after graduation.

Dr. Esquith says: "My advice for students who are thinking about international development would be to learn something about the work before you make a major commitment to it, for example, going on a study abroad program, or volunteering for a related-NGO. And be curious! Being at this university is a real luxury, so take advantage of the fact that a place like MSU offers so many areas for study and connection with international students and international faculty."

SARAH: “Everyday peacebuilding” seems to be a foundational concept for the work that you’re doing. Could you describe what is meant by “everyday peacebuilding,” and how that applies to the project you’re working on?

DR. ESQUITH: In academic conversations around peace and in the field of peace studies, there are three terms often used: peacekeeping, peacemaking, and peacebuilding. Peacemaking, in simple terms, is about how to bring conflicting groups together to sign a peace accord, treaty, or ceasefire arrangement. Peacekeeping refers to the steps that follow the peace accord, including a variety of initiatives focused on maintaining peace, such as demilitarization of the country and demobilization of production forces, and shifting employment from war industries to education, social services, textiles, etc. It also includes the reintegration of individuals who grew up in a society at war, and helping them establish new lives. Peacekeeping also includes tribunals or truth and reconciliation commissions for those accused of war crimes and human rights violations, their rehabilitation, and reparations for those affected.

Peacebuilding, though, is a long-term process that can occur simultaneously with peacemaking and peacekeeping, addressing the underlying causes of the conflict. Peacebuilding can be done from the top down through international NGOs and national commissions, but everyday peacebuilding is from the bottom up, asking people in villages what would make their everyday lives more peaceful. Our focus is empowering young people to be changemakers of everyday peacebuilding in their communities.

SARAH: Thank you for that helpful explanation. It speaks to the way that everyday peacebuilding is essential for international development work more broadly. Could you talk more specifically now about the photovoice project and how the project is working to empower youth? How did you come to the decision to make use of photovoice along with other forms such as written text?

DR. ESQUITH: There are two reasons we chose photography. The first is that many schools in countries like Mali have been closed due to violence over the past few years, meaning there are fewer opportunities for young people to gain literacy skills needed to communicate their views. Photography provides them with another medium to understand what is happening in their world and communicate their views. The second reason we moved towards photovoice in the Internally Displaced Person Camps is because many families were leaving their villages out of fear. 500,000 Malians out of a population of 16 million now live in IDP camps, and they are primarily women and children.

SARAH: Could you share some stories or examples of the kinds of photos that Malian youth have been taking in these camps, both photos that depict the great hardships and difficulties that they’ve faced, but also photos that capture more positive emotions or assets toward peacebuilding?

DR. ESQUITH: Sure. The project has a few goals. We want to train university students to be mentors of the young people in the camps. We want to help those mentors and their mentees express their views about life in the camps, including either the absence of educational opportunities or the ways in which education occurs in the camps. And we want to bring those two groups together so that they can discuss what they've seen, and why they’ve chosen the pictures they’ve chosen with other people in the camps and outside the camps. We see the project as a stepwise project of teaching the mentors how to be good mentors for young people who don't have literacy skills, and teaching the mentees to recognize the complexity of the world they live in and be able to express that complexity in their own words using photography.

They talk about the pictures they take and then use a forum—what we're calling a democratic dialogue forum—in the camps and in other venues in the country to allow them to connect with other groups outside the camps. The goal is to train the mentors, empower the mentees, and, with the two of them working together, spark community discussions and dialogues about what everyday peace could be in these camps and how life does go on within the camps.

I have a few pictures that'll show you the range of images that both the mentees and the mentors have chosen and why they chose these pictures in the hopes they will become prompts in these community dialogues that we're organizing right now.

Each one is taken by a different mentor or mentee and there are three different types. This is a picture taken by a young mentee, Diadie Diallo, who lives in Falajie, which is the most poorly resourced camp that we worked in. This is a picture that he took after a rainstorm. In the foreground, it shows the lack of drainage and sanitation in the camp, and in the background, the general quality of the living conditions for families in the camp. He chose this picture and said this is what happens sometimes after a rainstorm. He didn't say, “This is how we always live,” but clearly, it's a danger when you know they don't have the infrastructure in the camps to handle that kind of problem.
In contrast to that picture is a picture taken by another young man, Sidi Tall, who is about 16 years old. He and other young people are part of a group that collects leaves off the trees surrounding the camp. This camp is a different camp, Mabile, and it's one of the better resourced camps. The leaves are used as a material for a sauce called Fokoje, which becomes part of the meal for the day for each family. The leaves are left out to dry after they've been collected, and he was proud of the work that he and his fellow young people had done to collect all of the leaves. So those are two pictures that describe the differing living conditions, both after a rainstorm and the productive capacity of members of the camp to provide food and resources for themselves.
This is a very different picture taken by another mentee, Moussa Diallo, and the woman depicted is from an ethnic group called the Fulani. She had to leave her village because of ethnic conflict between  the villagers and the neighboring village. She is a grandmother, and she's here preparing food. You don't see what she's working on, but she's working very hard. What struck Moussa about this picture was the dignity and the strength that he said he could see in her face and in her posture, and in the fact that as a Fulani, she was still wearing the jewelry that she would typically wear in her own village. It was important to her to maintain those traditions and to wear them even while doing fairly difficult housekeeping work.
This picture is taken by one of the university students and mentors, Tenimba Sissoko. It's a picture of a group of young girls who organized themselves as a kind of a charcoal search party. What they're carrying on their heads are buckets of charcoal, but they have managed to find leftovers in other family cooking spots. Because there isn't enough wood around, there's charcoal that is sometimes purchased, sometimes donated for each of the families to use to cook their one meal a day. These girls are collecting what you might call the leftover charcoal for the next fire for their families. What Tenimba Sissoko said she loved about this picture was the camaraderie and the enthusiasm. You can see it in their posture. You can see it in the smile of the girl in the foreground. And she said when she talked to them, she said: “This is hard work, and it's difficult when it gets really hot!” They said, “Yeah, but it's time for us to be together. It's time for us to be together.”
This is another picture taken by one of the university mentors, Maimouna Doumbia. This is a picture she took because it breaks a stereotype. It is a husband and wife working together to cook the family meal made out of a kind of cereal. Here you have husband and wife working collaboratively and cooking, where typically in a village like that the husband would not be there except when it was time to eat lunch. But here they had to work together.
These are pictures taken by both mentors and mentees. We discussed their captioning and their arrangement in workshops made up of mentors, mentees, and team leaders. In the workshops, we discussed how to arrange the pictures and organize a community forum to talk about issues such as how people are able to make a life, what kinds of education young people get from role models like these, or what kinds of education they get when they work together. We also ask what kinds of everyday needs they have as a community, such as the sanitation sort of needs that the first photograph illustrated. Those are examples of about 30 pictures that we've selected out of over 500 taken over the last year and a half by the mentors and mentees.
SARAH: Thank you so much for sharing those with us. It's really fascinating to see the different kinds of photos that the youth are taking and also hear their rationale behind why they took each photo. I wonder if you could share with us any advice that you have for young people who would like to work in international development, or who might be looking for ways to be a value in other parts of the world?
DR. ESQUITH: That’s a really hard question. When we first took people to Mali for the study abroad program, we asked them: “Why did you choose this program?” And invariably, they said, “Oh, I knew I would never go to Mali unless I did it on this program.” And that was probably true! Most of the people who come into the program come in without much knowledge of the area, without local language skills, and without experience in a situation which is fairly demanding, both emotionally as well as physically. The first thing that they encounter is their own surprise and uncertainty, asking “Can I really do this? Can I be here for five weeks?” And I would say for students who are thinking about development work, my advice would be that you want to learn something about the work before you make a major commitment to it. Going on a study abroad program, volunteering for an NGO that does work in these areas, getting a better first hand grasp of what everyday life is like in those situations is important.
My own feeling about this work is that it takes a long time to make changes. Changes come slowly in poor countries like this, but the important thing is to keep working at it because the people who you're working with don't have the luxury of going home somewhere else.
SARAH: What about for young people who are interested in learning more about peacebuilding, or they want to develop some similar projects to the kind of work that you are doing in Mali? Do you have advice for them?
DR. ESQUITH: Being at this university is a real luxury, so take advantage of the fact that a place like MSU offers so many areas for study and connection with international students and international faculty. And be curious! That would be my advice to young people: be curious about things you don't know anything about. Those first study abroad students who said they took the trip because they knew they wouldn’t have gone to Mali otherwise—that was a good reason. They were curious and they wanted to go where they knew they wouldn’t go themselves. Be curious enough to take courses that may not be in your major, take a language course that may not satisfy requirements, or go to events that involve international students or international faculty.
A lot of times we encourage students to follow their passion. I would say be curious, and if you're curious about something that makes you think you may become passionate about it, let the passion follow the curiosity. That would be my advice to young students who are wondering whether development is for them.
SARAH: It's great advice. Thank you so much for all the advice you’ve shared and for sharing about the really important work that you're doing. We have come to the end of our interview with Dr. Esquith, who we thank for joining us and sharing about his work experiences today. And thank you so much for watching!

Past Spotlight Interviews