Helping people coexist

Tarek Elgawhary Coexist Landon School

In this blog post, Dr. Tarek Elgawhary '97 shares how he has dedicated his life to unifying communities in post-conflict areas around the world. Elgawhary, who has his Ph.D. in Islamic law from Princeton University, is now president of the nonprofit Coexist Foundation and CEO of Coexist Corporation, which work together to promote social cohesion across the globe through education, religion and economics.

When the charity Coexist Foundation was founded in 2006 in the U.K., I was working for one of the trustees and became part of the initial board. I always had embedded in me this idea of coexistence, but I never articulated it until the charity was formed to bring people together in these areas that had been divided by conflict. It was what I had been looking for my whole life, as far back as my days at Landon.

I love Landon and love so many of the teachers I had here. But as a Muslim I was an ultra-minority at the school at that time — so I always had this instinct that I had to explain who I was to other people so that I could fit in. I was good at that. As I grew older and began to travel, I realized even more that being able to translate who you are and what others are saying is an invaluable skill. I always found myself at this intersection of translating cultures and beliefs from one group to another. When I was living and studying in Egypt and started a communications business, that really brought home to me that the ability to translate what one side is saying to the other is something that is needed in every arena — government, business, schools and faith communities.

So when Coexist came long, I felt like I was looking in a mirror. I attached myself to it, and have been with it ever since. Coexist began as something small and narrow and it now has become a grassroots project where we do many different things. For example, we're helping farmers build schools in Uganda. And in the West Bank, we're using Israeli non-governmental organizations (NGOs) to get greywater treatment installed in Palestinian villages there.

In the course of doing that work, it became apparent that there was another way to approach the problem of social cohesion. We were doing it by getting people together to learn and worship together. But there was also an economic component that was not being utilized.

A lot of people in the places we operate are farmers. I realized that if were able to get them to work together that would make their life sustainable, and therefore the charitable work we do would be more sustainable — rather than us having to constantly fund it, it would fund itself. That's how we developed the business from the charity. Coexist Corporation's goal is to solve the other half of this social cohesion problem, which is how to get farmers to work together.

In this case, we trade directly with a series of coffee cooperatives in eastern Uganda. We buy the coffee directly from them, we cut out the middlemen who actually devalue the price of the products, and through the charity we put some of the profits back into their community to develop the schools.

Coexist Corporation is still in its infancy stage, but the possibilities are endless. There is coffee, tea, cacao, cardamom, chia nut, cinnamon, vanilla, cotton — any commodity that we consume or wear — and the people who produce them in that part of the world have the same social problems. We could have a whole platform of traceable ethical products to provide to consumers, and we can mitigate those social problems through this model. Of course, we have social cohesion problems in Baltimore, Detroit, Los Angeles — it's not just in Uganda and other places thousands of miles away. To that end, we hope to roll out a Coexist Club program in U.S. high schools this year.

With the current political climate, there is no greater opportunity than right now for the human race to do something powerful because of the resources we have, the technology we have, and the leverage that we can bring to solve some of these problems. I firmly believe in the goodness of humanity and that when people come together and understand one another, it unlocks the creative magic of humanity. The fact that there is so much negativity right now toward "the other" — whatever that means — actually provides the best opportunity to educate. Whereas people acted as though everything was fine before, they now want to talk about our problems. And therein lies the opportunity for change.