IDS alumni, former staff members and research partners gathered at the Oxfam America offices in Washington, DC, on the night of January 28th to learn about and discuss the new IDS strategy.
As IDS director Melissa Leach and director of research John Gaventa were scheduled to be in US capital to meet with a variety of new potential collaborators, the alumni office and the US alumni ambassadors organised the evening as an opportunity for the IDS community in DC to engage with the institution’s new leadership and to think about ways to build greater engagement with colleagues from ‘across the pond’. More than thirty people turned out for the event, as well as a handful of IDS alumni who participated virtually from Boston.
Melissa Leach presented on the changes in the organisational structure at IDS, from teams to smaller clusters, which aim to create more cross-cutting work across the thematic areas in which IDS has historically had extensive capacity and reputation. Leading with a refrain of ‘engaged excellence’ she discussed a variety of new projects and initiatives around accountability, capacity building and taxation which have recently launched. As ever, the IDS approach is premised not only on the expertise of researchers but also on the experience partners on the ground. For this reason, Leach argued that IDS is not a building in Falmer but a global web of partners and innovators around the world.
Building research collaborations
This opened a wider discussion of how to engage alumni and other potential collaborators in the US. No set answer to this question was provided, but the event itself was seen as an invitation to imagine what kinds of alumni collaborations might be possible. There was much interest amongst those who work with universities in collaborating directly with IDS. Questions were posed about the opportunities and challenges of establishing research collaborations with US universities.
While such collaborations remain limited, Jonathan Fox of American University was on hand for the event. He has recently carried out work on governance and accountability with IDS fellows and published some of this work in the IDS Bulletin, giving one example of how these partnerships might look. As well, alumni working with large NGOs and development organisations in DC expressed enthusiasm for remaining involved and facilitating partnership working with the Institute. Alumni working as independent consultants also inputted ways in which they could support the Institute’s efforts to be more connected to movements, communities and innovative grassroots initiatives in the US.
Because resources and opportunities for such collaborations will only be a small part of the IDS portfolio, John Gaventa emphasised the importance and value of the growing alumni network as an asset for alumni everywhere, but especially in Washington, DC, where the alumni community is large and distributed across many sectors and organisations in the city. As the IDS alumni office works to build an up-to-date and searchable database of alumni the world over, it becomes easier for former classmates to reconnect and for new graduates to seek mentors and colleagues in their areas of specialisation.
Likewise, events such the gathering at Oxfam provide opportunities for alumni to meet face to face and develop relationships and potential collaborations of their own. Indeed, many who attended the presentation at Oxfam stayed on for dinner at a nearby restaurant organised the US IDS alumni ambassadors, Susan Fleck, Michelle Peña Nelz and Felix Bivens. The dinner provided another space for alumni and friends of IDS to connect, network and generate ideas for future meetings and collaborations between their organisations and each other. Indeed, the alumni network is generating its own independent projects, such as a gathering in Tennessee in December 2015 which involved five IDS alumni.
Continued support from the institute will facilitate more such connections and activities by graduates in the US and elsewhere, as well as more opportunities for direct collaboration with IDS itself. An exclusive members-only online platform for IDS alumni to connect is being launch in April 2016, as announced in the latest alumni newsletter. This effort to build a more interconnected alumni network is enthusiastically welcomed by those in DC.
The alumni community in Washington looks forward to future visits from IDS leaderships and fellows. In the meantime, the US alumni ambassadors will put together profiles of the alumni who attended the Oxfam event and will share this information amongst the group to promote more interactions locally. As well, the ambassadorial team will be organising more frequent informal events in Washington, DC, like happy hour gatherings after work.
Many thanks to the IDS alumni office and the staff at Oxfam America for making the first US alumni event of 2016 a success.