Growing the Grassroots

Get to know Ariel Moritz, GLA's Director of International Programs in Africa and Europe, and her passion for international development at the grassroots level

For Ariel, working in the international service-learning space and introducing teens to cross-cultural experiences was a natural progression from growing up learning to value Tikkun olam (Hebrew for “repairing the world”), the idea of taking action in pursuit of social justice. We caught up with Ariel to learn about how she brings her core values and international experience to designing responsible service-learning programs and running the GLA International Foundation, as well as her grassroots approach to international development and what she wants students to learn this summer.

What drew you to the world of international service-learning? Did you have an “Aha!” moment that inspired you to work in travel, education or social impact?

A few things led me to my “Aha!” moment. In high school, I participated in a program called HACIA Democracy (“toward democracy” in Spanish; also an acronym for Harvard Association Cultivating Inter-American Democracy), which is an annual Harvard-run summit for high school students who are passionate about democracy, debate and social responsibility. I was fortunate to attend this summit every year of high school, in a different Central American city each year. On these programs, I got to spend five days—a fairly short amount of time, yet deeply, deeply immersive—surrounded by peers from other countries. I always came back from these weeks abroad feeling incredibly energized.

I also got involved (totally by luck!) in Model OIS, which is similar to Model United Nations in that teams of high school students are presented with real, current global issues and are tasked with representing a country and formulating an opinion and response to it.

These early experiences planted the seed for a lifelong love of Latin American culture—the dance, the food, the energy of it. They were my first introduction to the value of cross-cultural exchange and immersion.

What happened next?

In college I studied Sociology, Politics and Music. I got really involved in political work—specifically, immigration work—which is naturally very cross-cultural. A college internship eventually led to a full-time job at American Jewish World Service, which is a global organization dedicated to ending poverty and promoting human rights in the developing world. AJWS grew from a small organization into one of the world’s top human rights funders, yet still remains unshakable in their commitment to taking a grassroots approach to international development. I think that really formed the foundation of what I believe in.

Ariel at a local Women's Event

Pause for a moment—can you explain what you mean by “taking a grassroots approach”?

Sure. A classic example of not taking a grassroots approach is when volunteers swoop in to build a school, in a community where no teachers are available. I had a mentor who was very vocal about criticizing organizations that go about international development in a corporate way, with bottom-line goals, or visions that serve the organization’s donors more than the communities.

The truth is, in my experience, many small communities just need funds, tools or resources for building an organization, not a home or a school. That’s not a long-term vision. So, one element of grassroots development is to contribute to “general operating” costs and projects. That might sound boring or less concrete than putting up the roof and four walls of a school, but it’s the most impactful form of giving. Helping communities and organizations establish a good, working foundation that they can then build off of on their own is really key to creating long-lasting change.

Tell us about the mentor you mentioned, or another role model that you strive to emulate in your line of work.

The mentor I mentioned, Ruth Messinger, is definitely the role model I look up to. She’s a badass. She was the Democratic nominee for Mayor of New York City in 1997 (losing to incumbent mayor Rudy Giuliani) before she became President of AJWS. When I worked for her, she was 70 years old and I couldn’t even keep up with her. She was someone I learned a lot from and someone who really believed in me.

Ruth Messinger actually paved the way for me lead international service-learning programs abroad. She recommended me to another department in the organization, and I found myself traveling to Central America again, to be a part of young people’s education and transformation.

Ruth Messinger meeting the late anti-apartheid activist Nelson Mandela at New York City Hall after his 1990 release from 27 years in prison. (Photo: American Jewish World Service)

Did you enjoy moving into the field?

I loved it. I learned that I enjoy being a facilitator, being part of young adults’ education and transformations. I realized that beyond the impact I hoped to make, selfishly, I loved it as well. There was a moment where I was leading a program in a rural community, practicing my Spanish again, running these educational programs and I had that realization.

The “Aha!” moment.

Right. And eventually, I wanted to go through that transformative experience for myself. I had been changed through facilitating others’ experiences, but I needed to do it for me too. So I ended up living in Turkey for a year on a community development fellowship, which was a major turning point. My experience in Turkey was incredibly impactful for me.

How did you come to work for GLA?

Re-entry to the United States was difficult. A lot of questions swirled in my mind. What does it mean to volunteer? What does it mean to be an outsider and come in and help? I learned my own personal strengths: being able to live abroad as a woman, overcoming challenges, taking risks, pushing myself. I was so incredibly grateful for the experience and how much it challenged me to grow as an individual. I saw that through GLA, I could share a similar experience with students, and have a hand in shaping it. 

To be continued...