Conversations with Vishakha N. Desai, Special Advisor for Global Affairs, Office of the President at Columbia University in the City of New York
Interviewed by Divya Arora, National Director of AFS Intercultural Program India
BIOGRAPHY (copied from Columbia SIPA website) Dr. Vishakha Desai is an Adjunct Professor at the School of International and Public Affairs. She also serves as Senior Advisor for Global Programs to the Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation. Dr. Desai served as President and CEO of the Asia Society, a global organization dedicated to strengthening partnerships among peoples of Asia and the U.S. from 2004 through 2012. As President, she set the direction for the Society’s diverse sets of programs ranging from policy initiatives and national educational programs to ground breaking exhibitions and performing arts programs throughout its network of eleven offices in the U.S. and Asia. Under her leadership the society expanded the scope and scale of its activities with the opening of new offices in India and Korea, a new center of U.S.–China Relations, various leadership initiatives, and inauguration of two new architecturally distinguished facilities in Hong Kong and Houston. Prior to becoming President, Dr. Desai held various senior positions at the Asia Society from 1990 to 2004. Before joining the Asia Society in 1990, Dr. Desai was at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston as a Curator and the Head of Public Programs and Academic Affairs. She has taught at Columbia University, Boston University, and the University of Massachusetts where she was given a tenured appointment. A Scholar of Asian Art and a public intellectual, Dr. Desai is a frequent speaker at international forums on subjects focusing on cultural roots of Asia’s economic and political transformation and challenges. She has authored opinion pieces on political, cultural, and women’s development in Asia that have appeared in more than fifty publications around the world.
Before joining the Asia Society in 1990, Dr. Desai was at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston as a Curator and the Head of Public Programs and Academic Affairs. She has taught at Columbia University, Boston University, and the University of Massachusetts where she was given a tenured appointment. A Scholar of Asian Art and a public intellectual, Dr. Desai is a frequent speaker at international forums on subjects focusing on cultural roots of Asia’s economic and political transformation and challenges. She has authored opinion pieces on political, cultural, and women’s development in Asia that have appeared in more than fifty publications around the world. Author of major exhibition catalogues and editor of a major scholarly publication on Asian Art History for the 21st Century, Dr. Desai is internationally recognized for her leadership in presenting contemporary Asian arts and ideas to western audiences. Dr. Desai holds a B.A. in political Science from Bombay University and an M.A. and Ph.D. in Asian Art History from the University of Michigan. The recipient of numerous international and national grants and fellowships, Dr. Desai has received four honorary degrees from American Universities. For her work on Asian American issues, she has received awards from the University of Massachusetts,
Dr. Desai holds a B.A. in political Science from Bombay University and an M.A. and Ph.D. in Asian Art History from the University of Michigan. The recipient of numerous international and national grants and fellowships, Dr. Desai has received four honorary degrees from American Universities. For her work on Asian American issues, she has received awards from the University of Massachusetts, City University of New York, Asian Americans for Equality, and Leadership Education for Asian Pacific Americans (LEAP). For her leadership in the arts, she has been honored by Art Table, a national organization of women leaders in the arts, and has received a Gold Medal from the National Institute of Social Sciences. Dr. Desai was selected by Crain’s New York as one of the “100 most powerful women leaders” in New York, by India Abroad, the leading national weekly for Indian Americans, as one the “50 most distinguished Indian Americans,” and was honored by Zee T.V. (India) as the outstanding International Woman of the Year.
In 2012, in recognition of Dr. Desai’s leadership in the museum field, President Barack Obama appointed her to serve on the National Museums and Library Services Board. She currently serves as the sole female independent director on the Corporate Board of Mahindra and Mahindra, one of the five largest global companies in India. She has served on numerous boards of not-for-profit organizations nationally and internationally. These include; Bertelsman Foundation, AFS Intercultural Programs, Auroville Foundation of India, and the House of World Cutlures, Berlin. She also serves as the Chair of the Advisory Board of the Smithsonian’s Asian Pacific American Center and an Advisory Trustee of the Brookings Institution. She served as President of the Association of Art Museum Directors (AAMD) from 1998 to 1999 and on the board from 1995 to 2000. She has served on the board of the Andy Warhol Foundation for Visual Arts, College Art Association, ArtTable, and the Massachusetts Foundation for the Humanities.
Dr. Desai is married to Robert B. Oxnam, a China scholar, who was Asia Society’s President from 1981-1992. Currently, she also holds the position of Board Chair, AFS International Board of Trustees at AFS Intercultural Programs.
How do you feel that AFS as an organization can contribute in fostering intercultural competence around the world especially during these times of uncertainty?
First of all, we need to realise that AFS has a rich culture of more than 102 years. That means we have learned a lot over these many years. Dealing with cultural differences can be a key to resolving conflicts. When I hear that there is backlash against global connections, it’s important to recoginse that in the 21st century, we need to understand no matter what we think of globalisation we are going to remain more intertwined. Hence recognize the need to learn the skills and approaches to deal with issues of prejudice, stereotyping and better understand the world.
In AFS, we work with students and this helps as they are young. I was talking to a returnee from Philippiness, now a senior business leader, and he mentioned how the program has helped him to grow and understand the world better. As AFS students, we live in community and with a family, that is different, and it is evident that these learnings stay with you lifetime. AFS effect means developing a skill set for understanding different cultures and the world we live in.
Education has always been the key to expanding the vision of people. How do you feel intercultural learning incorporated within the educational framework to help in broadening the overall learning process for individuals? What everybody is
What everybody is recognising is that education in a new age – it is the age of innovation – it is not only just about learn about facts. It is about the way of learning. What ICL does is to actually prepare you to connect with one another – collaborate with one another. Every trade or business that anyone does is important and they need to recognize that we have to work with a diverse team – so people sitting in China, India, or the USA is working together and they need to know one another. If a group wants to move forward, it needs to develop an understanding. To recognize reality of workplace we need to work with diversity, and ICL makes that happen. It makes you understand the changes and the diversity. ICL gives effective ways to handle cultural differences in community conflict.
What groundbreaking initiatives can be undertaken to shape the international education worldwide as well as develop leadership amongst educational forerunners?
We have to penetrate deep into education market. We have to work with teachers. We have to utilize technology and social media effectively and understand how important it is. Also look at impact has made in ones live, especially leaders. AFS returnees who are playing leadership role in various organisations should be asked to share their experience. They can share and show that AFS program changed their lives. We should ask them why and how it has changed their lives. AFS has played important role in my life even after 40 years. In Rio we had a good discussion and relected upon how we do good work and world does not know. We have to go out and share our work. We have to show how host family have enriched their lives after hosting a student. They need to show to the world how it has effected them We must connect our personal experience to global impact.
Any suggestions as to how the intercultural learning can be given due importance/ awareness in lesser explored areas so as to reach out for more openness and awareness in obtaining intercultural learning.
We must think about blog post, YouTube, and Thought Leadership. We need people to look at us. We need to project it out and showcase how we work. We are doing excellent work and we need to share this with the world. When people think of ICL – they should think of AFS. We are still focusing inward. By creating Thought Leadership, we would be connecting strategies which we have and have not yet projected to outside world.
Intercultural learning facilitates the knowledge of working and collaborating in diverse work cultures. Please share your views on this.
We have to recognize ICL helps us to understand systems, frictions and actually help us learn about different cultures. We need to work hard. Cultures are more than language, dress, and food customs. It is not only learning how to use chopsticks but creating deeper understanding hich is equally very important.
Volunteers are the pillars when it comes to the functioning of AFS. What more initiatives can be brought forth to garner motivation amongst the volunteers?
We have to make volunteers understand that they are leaders. They need to say and share what they have learned. We need to assess the impact of the AFS on them. We have to conduct research not only about returnee experiences but larger body of volunteers who work tirelessly to make the program a success. We need to assess it and make them understand how important they are to the organization. We need to work towards creating international learning opportunities for them. The key is to make sure the timing and planning are correct so that the impact is there, else it would only lead to wastage of time and energy. How has the AFS
How has the AFS experienced/helped you?
I go back to AFS program 40 years back. My main take away from the program are – I put myself in others’ shoes. I don’t make a quick decision – I think about other opinions before I decide. I know that how I look the world, is not the only way – this has helped me to create new way of thinking.