Global Mentors Forge Collaborations in Charlottesville and Beyond


Global Mentors Forge Collaborations in Charlottesville and Beyond

Sean Contreras, Dustina Gill, Micah Gill, Susan Thomas, and Rupa Valdez Seated at a Dining Table on Charlottesville's Downtown Mall

ive shining faces sit around a table of food and wine on Charlottesville’s downtown mall. This is not an ordinary family outing though, rather a meeting of community activists from around the world. Present are Dustina Gill, Sean Contreras and Micah Gill of Nis’to, Inc., a Dakota-directed non-profit focused on creating conditions for the flourishing of Dakota youth on the Lake Traverse Reservation, Susan Thomas of SEWA, a union of self-employed women workers based in Ahmedabad that has operated for 50 years across India, and Rupa Valdez, from UVA’s departments of Engineering Systems and Environment, Global Studies, and Public Health Sciences. Gill and Thomas are two of UVA’s Global Mentors, a program that brings practitioners from around the world and a variety of sectors to UVA to work with students– and each other.

In March, mentors from different countries were able to meet in person for the first time, as the first cohort of mentors were virtual due to the pandemic. This in-person component has opened up possibilities for collaboration between mentors. The mentors enjoyed hiking Humpback Rock, visiting local art collective Visible Records, and participating in classes on Disability Justice, Global Development Theory, and Global Activism.

“Knowledge is generated outside the academy, and that includes conceptual, theoretical knowledge,” explains David Edmunds, director of Global Development Studies, a track in the Global Studies program.

Putting this sentiment into practice, Sophie Wong, a  Global Studies student reports, “Working with Dusty [Gill] has truly been a transformative experience for me as a researcher. There is plenty of discussion about including indigenous perspectives and methods in science, but no one is able to teach you how to actually go about that.  I’ve also never really been exposed to Native perspectives and experiences before my participation in this program, but something this project has really helped me with.” Giving the mentor perspective, Gill explains, “To connect to the students as a global mentor has created an opportunity to become a live interactive textbook, which has proven to be very impactful for all of us.”

To connect to the students as a global mentor has created an opportunity to become a live interactive textbook, which has proven to be very impactful for all of us.

The connections between mentors have also been an important component of their time in Charlottesville. Edmunds mentioned that Dustina Gill and Xolile ‘X’ Madinda– director of The Black Power Station, an arts and activism center based in South Africa– are in touch with each other, so are artists and leaders at Visible Records and Phoebe Crisman and Noel Lobley and Rupa Valdez about developing design & arts projects in South Africa and South Dakota.

Global Mentors Hiking at Humpback Rock
Global Mentors Hiking at Humpback Rock

A Charlottesville artist is also in touch with Gill to explore the possibility of an art workshop at the Lake Traverse Reservation and Gill has sent a grant opportunity on assisting formerly incarcerated youth to an artist at Visible Records. “Connecting with the other global mentors has created a unique global network for the work we do. While we work in different capacities there is a thread of similarity in our work, to improve the lives of our people,” adds Gill.

According to Cliff Maxwell, director of Global Grounds and administrator of the Global Mentors program, the committee required faculty to think through how the Global Mentor can be fully integrated into all parts of the curriculum– beyond the scope of a guest lecture or even a weeklong visit. “The idea is to create something that benefits UVA students and faculty and the practitioners and their communities by developing relationships. For students, this could mean taking a course with a Global Mentor attached to it, which could lead into a summer internship and then future collaborations,” explained Maxwell.

Discussing the future of the program, Maxwell explains, “We have had such strong relationships that have led to students going to South Dakota and to South Africa and we need to be able to keep those relationships alive, while also funding new ones.” This has provided an opening for a bigger conversation about what a global interaction in the classroom could look like at UVA in the coming years.