Robert M. La Follette School of Public Affairs
Thursday, January 20, 2011

Christopher values process of community engagement

Colin Christopher returned to Madison, where he grew up, to work on President Obama's campaign, then went to India for a year.


Colin Christopher is in Washington, D.C., where he is policy education coordinator for the Network Lobby and executive director at Green Muslims.

The process of engaging people is far more important than the end result, believes Colin Christopher, a first-year international public affairs student.

"There's nothing I get more satisfaction from than facilitating a diverse audience in dialogue about tough topics and then implementing an action based on the knowledge we gained," Christopher says. "Too often in life, people are goal-oriented without recognizing the importance of the process. Community organizing occurs when there is a certain amount of information attained and people are interested in engaging with that information and bringing about a change."

Christopher saw that process play out in a neighborhood of Mumbai, India, when he worked on a project that brought people together to talk about how to improve infrastructure to make it more conducive to bicycling. He went to India in 2009 as a David L. Boren fellow to study Urdu and to make a film as a project for Partners for Urban Knowledge Action and Research, an Indian organization that facilitates community-based research on urbanization and globalization.

He enrolled at La Follette in fall 2010 to gain the quantitative skills he needs to work in international and community development. "I'm interested in learning about conditional cash transfers," Christopher says. "Providing a community's residents with resources, enabling them to harness their abilities and become sustainable, whether in Mazomanie, Wisconsin, or Mumbai, India, is powerful."

After graduating in political science from George Washington University in 2006, Christopher moved to New York where he administered the Fulbright program that brings as many as 450 graduate students a year from Pakistan to study in the United States. He returned to his native Madison to work as a deputy field organizer on Barack Obama's presidential campaign in Dane County and then went to India.

In collaboration with a young Indian architect, Christopher co-founded the Open Bicycles Project to organize people in a Mumbai neighborhood to rethink city transportation infrastructure to better accommodate bicycles. "In India, even though only 7 percent of the population uses cars, most of the government's transportation money goes to roads," Christopher says. "Walking is the most common mode of transportation, followed by bicycles and buses."

"We had outdoor public forums and programs that drew hundreds of people," Christopher says. "We developed ways to bring people together and collaborate despite economic, ethnic and language barriers. Although the neighborhood was the model for talking about getting dedicated bicycle lanes and lockup facilities, we weren't so worried about the final results as the process of bringing people together to talk about how they could make their neighborhood better. It was really exciting to be there as the project took shape."

While in India, he also started interviewing people for his documentary film Bombay to Brooklyn. Amidst increasing Islamophobia and misinformation about Islam and Muslims, Christopher feels compelled to present Americans with a more accurate and complete picture of the faith and its followers. Talking with over 50 people in nine countries, he attempted to find what role Islam plays in the daily lives of various Muslims.

"It was quite an adventure," says Christopher, who is still editing the film. "I had some contacts in every country, and I also just got into conversation with random people who eventually asked what I was doing. For example, I was walking back from Al Aqsa in the old city of Jerusalem, and I saw a guy dressed in hip-hop hip gear, which made it likely he spoke English, so I asked him what was going on because there was a large crowd. He told me that a prominent black Arab woman had passed on and the community was holding her funeral. I told him I was sorry, we continued talking and he invited me into his home to meet his family. He played for me his own music recordings and spoke of his affinity for New York hip-hop. He even perfected a traditional Brooklyn hip-hop accent from listening to MTV. I'll never forget that night."

Christopher also tracked down and interviewed the Palestinian women's national soccer team after reading an article by an American academic who mentioned her niece used to play on the team. "I e-mailed her, told her about my project, asked if she would put me in touch with her niece," Christopher says. "The diversity on the team — Muslims and Christians — was fascinating."

At the University of Wisconsin–Madison, his knowledge of Islam and Muslims helped him land a project assistantship through the Global Studies office as one of two bloggers for Inside Islam, a new-media initiative that challenges misconceptions and stereotypical perceptions about Islam and Muslims worldwide. Inside Islam is a collaboration of the campus' nine area and international studies centers, Wisconsin Public Radio and the public.

He returned to India in summer 2011 to intern with Basix, a for-profit livelihood promotion institution. He traveled around the state of Andhra Pradesh and spoke with bankers, regulators, academics, firms and farmers about microfinance. He put together an 18-minute documentary on the trends and role of microfinance in India's economy. At the end of his internship, Christopher worked with a member of India's Parliament to formulate a legislative strategy for passing a comprehensive legal framework to regulate microfinance in India.

He held the first public U.S. screening of A Sinking Ship, Microfinance and the Andhra Pradesh Crisis in November 1 at the La Follette School.

People can read about and intellectualize "diversity of opinion," Christopher says, but "people need to see and hear that diversity for themselves. Film is a start in that it can facilitate dialogue and introspection, largely on an individual level, and maybe even engage communities through discussions held after a showing. But the most important thing is for people to go out and see the world for themselves. What it really is. Film may spark an interest in beginning that curiosity."

Diversity of opinion and experience became a non-intellectual exercise for Christopher, for Bombay to Brooklyn, when he interviewed a Palestinian social worker in a café in a refugee camp outside of Bethlehem. The man had spent time in an Israeli prison for attempting to kill Israeli soldiers patrolling the camp by placing small explosive devices on the street. "He said religion did not motivate him; he doesn't even believe in Islam," Christopher says. "The act was solely about the humiliation of his community by the Israelis". "Intellectually, what he said was not new to me, but it still blew my mind, there in that café. As a 17-year-old he wanted to try to do something so he and his community would no longer be humiliated."

The public policy courses Christopher is taking may be far from the refugee camps of the Middle East, but he hopes to combine his experiences abroad with his new skills to challenge the "status quo thinking" of bureaucrats here at home. "It's important to have both real-world experience and an understanding of graphs, tables, and charts," Christopher says. "If you don't have the former, you'll never truly understand the impact of the policies you make. But you'll probably never get a seat at the table without the latter."

Last modified on Wednesday, November 5, 2014