BAIL Banter: Perspectives from Bay Area Internationalists (Eva Vander Giessen)
Special Edition! With the holidays we’re publishing this week’s blog early and taking next week off. More in January. Wishing everyone in the BAIL community a happy new year!
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BAIL Banter is a series of interviews with San Francisco Bay Area experts and members of the BAIL community. If you’d like to be interviewed or to recommend someone we should feature, please contact Prairie Summer.
This week we are excited to introduce Eva Vander Giessen, Creative Director at MEET (Middle East Entrepreneurs of Tomorrow), where she designs strategies to engage new investors, deepen relationships with stakeholders, and raise awareness abroad of MEET’s positive disruption of the status quo in the Middle East. She has also led citizen diplomacy projects in Central Asia and the Middle East, and art+tech educational programs in the San Francisco Bay Area. Eva serves as a member of sister city committees between Afghanistan and the US, and on the board of directors of Afghan Friends Network, an NGO that promotes dignity, nurtures potential, and supports bold steps in Afghanistan.
BAIL: Tell us about your role at MEET and what you enjoy about it?
I’m the Creative Director at MEET, which educates young Israeli and Palestinian leaders to make positive social and political impact through technology and entrepreneurship, in partnership with MIT. I bet I’m not alone in what’s most exciting about MEET – the people! – but what is unique about this is that I get to work with a bi-national team from board to staff to students. That is crazily rare, especially as Palestinians and Israelis are becoming increasingly isolated and extremist voices are loudest on all sides. I’m the only American on staff and everyone else is based in Jerusalem or Nazareth area where our programs happen.
So when these young 15-year-old students come from the West Bank or from Jerusalem and meet someone from the “other” side for the first time, they’re actually seeing the staff model the bi-national partnership that is so difficult and vital. They are walking the talk that even the government leadership does not. My time with MEET has been the most humbling and hopeful experience I’ve had, hands down.
BAIL: What drew you to the work that you do?
I’m an idealist who loves pragmatists. I believe compassion is only as good as the action it inspires, and that I learn a ton from people who apply technical mindsets to social issues. My background is in therapy but, after years of working in conflict resolution fields, I wanted to be with people who brought together this kind of emotional/cultural wisdom with a sense of breaking down a problem into pieces and really tackling them. I also wanted to work with people making change from the inside, which is critical in a region that is burned out and doubtful that peace is possible.
This drew me to MEET, because its mission is creating a more peaceful, dignified and equal future for Israelis and Palestinians, but the way we do that is by building a bi-national network of Palestinians and Israelis who have the skills, mindset and motivation to actually work together on change.
We’re doing a campaign now that I’d appreciate you checking out: Why We MEET (ends 12/31!).
BAIL: What is most challenging about doing the work that you do in the Bay Area?
Isolation. I miss being part of a physical team who can brainstorm in person, share ups and downs live. (Can I get an “amen” from my peeps out there?). Co-working spaces like Impact Hub are great and I’m lucky to work with two amazing board members locally who are also co-founders of MEET, Anat Binur and Yaron Binur. Second to isolation, I’d say the other challenge is engaging people who are here with what we’re doing there. How do you enable meaningful collaboration? We’ve been fortunate to have influencers like Eric Schmidt, Ali and Mark Pincus, Randi Zuckerberg, and more visit and get involved in MEET. But it’s still a challenge I bet a lot of us face doing international work.
BAIL: What’s the advantage of being based in the Bay Area?
To quote Anat Binur, imagination. And access. And diversity. There are few places more imaginative than the Bay Area. You see it in people wearing tutus on the street corner, at dance parties at 8:00am in SOMA, and at startups that may not even have merit but signify a belief that WE CAN DO [fill in the blank]. This kind of optimistic creation has its pros and cons, but I believe it’s a similar energy that drives the Palestinian and Israeli students to work together during the hardest times and say, “hey, this may be a huge problem with no easy solution, but we’re talented and we respect each other and – most importantly – we’re gonna invision a new future because the current reality is just not acceptable.” I don’t want to over simplify the magnitude of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict because it is complex and misunderstood and has taken so many lives. However, imagination, access to resources, and people from widely different backgrounds and skillsets working together towards a shared goal is what will ultimately make a change.
BAIL: What do you love about being in the Bay Area? Favorite spot?
In addition to imagination, access and diversity, as a nature nut I have to say there is nothing like listening to the waves after a stressful day, or going hiking in the redwoods to soak in peace and perspective. We’re so lucky to have beauty around us.
Forgive me for saying this, but we are far too Bay-centric. Even city-centric! Don’t we all grumble about driving “down” to the Peninsula, or “all the way up” to San Francisco? This means we lose humility and a willingness to learn from people around the world. I’m always amazed when a taxi driver in Southeastern Afghanistan knows more about US news than I do. Curiosity and humility are values we all believe in, but beyond that I think they’re essential qualities to grow smart businesses or build relationships as global citizens.
As for a favorite spot, Tin House ranks up there. Eerie and beautiful and at the summit of one of Big Sur’s trails. Love it!