Joe Preston Sumo, Sr.: Change-maker and Global Citizen

Joe SumoWhen he started his master’s degree in sustainable development at SIT Graduate Institute two years ago, Joe Sumo wasn’t thinking much about the power of religion to support sustainable societies.

With a BA and an MA in public administration from the University of Liberia, Joe had been working as a regulator in the telecom sector in Monrovia for about a decade when he decided he wanted to learn more about reducing the environmental impact of cell tower sites.

“There are very high-volume microwave transmission from those sites, so I was looking at how to green the sites and adhere to environmental safeguards. And, I was looking to add value to what I had already studied,” Joe recalls.

On August 12, Joe will be among 23 graduates receiving their master’s degrees in sustainable development from SIT Graduate Institute in Washington, DC. This group is SIT’s sixth sustainable development graduating class in the nation’s capital, where the focus of the program is on international policy and management. (Sustainable development is also offered on SIT’s campus in Brattleboro, Vt., where the emphasis is advocacy, leadership, and social change.)

We asked Joe how he got from cell towers to his capstone presentation last week, titled:A Critical Analysis of the Relationship between the World Bank and Faith-based Organizations in Sustainable Development.”

What made you decide to pursue a master’s degree in sustainable development?

I was looking at ways to add more meaning to what I learned over the years in terms of sustainability. For instance, the environmental impact of cell sites and how those sites take into account environmental degradation and pollution.

Why did you choose SIT Graduate Institute?

My cousin had applied to SIT’s (peacebuilding and conflict transformation) CONTACT program. So I did some research, and I began to come across Liberians in high-level administration and policymaking positions who had come through SIT. I saw that SIT grooms people in the nonprofit and policy worlds and makes sure their work is outstanding. So I decided this was the place I needed to go.

How was the transition for you, coming from Monrovia to Washington, DC, and SIT?

Our education environment is all academic; we do not have a culture of experiential learning. So SIT was quite different for me. This is not my first time in DC, but it’s the longest I have ever stayed in this area. So not only have I gotten to learn the culture of the “political capital of the world,” I’ve also been able to engage in the classroom with folks from diverse backgrounds, and that has been really helpful.

But one of the biggest things I took from here was a dream come true: my practicum at the World Bank through SIT. That experience lasted six months. I was assigned to the Faith Initiative within the Global Engagement Department. The Faith Initiative brings together the religions of the world under the canopy of development. It looks at what the Muslims are doing, what the Christians are doing, what the Buddhists are doing, what the Hindus and Jews are doing.

I realized that religion has a very important role in development because religions have a huge influence on a huge amount of people. Pew Research Institute found 87 percent of the world’s population ascribes to some religion. You cannot negate that number; it’s clear that you cannot just take development from a political angle. It has to be from a religions perspective, too, which looks at who are being hurt the most, or marginalized.

Do you have a religious background?

I do come from a religious background. In my church I worked with young people on development issues and I moved on to be director for empowerment and welfare. One of my tasks was to do a project for a youth center, to train young people and give them life skills – whether home arts or brickmaking – so that young people, especially those coming out of war, have something meaningful to do so they don’t drift back into a conflict environment.

At the World Bank, looking at what faith-based organizations are doing, I could relate that to back home, where it was religions that to a large extent helped to manage the conflict in 2014-15. It took religious institutions and leaders to convince the citizens of the country that this was not the right path. When pastors, imams, and other religious leaders took to the airways to disseminate information, the locals trusted them when they didn’t trust the government. There were also religious institutions that were involved with the Ebola crisis. Reflecting on what transpired during that time was something that made me realize this had a lot of meaning.

What were some of your most meaningful experiences at SIT?

One experience I had with SIT that still resonates with me was a field study course in Jordan, where the population has increased dramatically because of the refugee crisis. This is the second poorest country in the world in terms of water resources, but they’ve been able to bring about workable, sustainable solutions to the point that you hardly know there’s an issue with water. There is massive agricultural production of fruits and vegetables that are organic and fresh from the farms. If Jordan, with limited water resources, can make this impact, what about Liberia, which has almost six months of rainfall and accounts for 30 percent of West Africa’s tropical rainforest? Surely we can be self-sufficient in food production. We must get our policy makers thinking in a sustainable direction. I want to create that awareness.

So, coming to SIT has given me a broader perspective about how people in the field -- in NGOs and civil society organizations – create the framework to look at a program in its entirety. I find myself open to everything; I see myself as a change-maker and a global citizen, willing to go wherever I can to apply what I’ve learned – back home or elsewhere – to share what I’ve acquired here. My focus now, after being here, is to work for a multilateral organization like the World Bank or other another agency involved with development of communities that are wholesome and sustainable.

I’m grateful to SIT for the opportunity to get a much-needed education and helping me to rethink what my career path ought to be. The way the SIT program is structured is a very good mix of academic and field work that gives more credence to knowledge acquisition. SIT was tough and compelling, intensive, and overall a very good experience.