Long before he began humanitarian work in Africa in 2008, Steven Leach ’07 has been a living example of the philosophical concept of ubuntu.
“It’s not necessarily religious,” says Leach, who earned a bachelor’s in ancient Mediterranean studies from Trinity. “Ubuntu is a word you hear often in South Africa meaning ‘I am because we are.’ It’s the idea of unity, that we’re all in this crazy world together. We all try to do our part in whatever corner we happen to be in at the time.”
Leach’s service work dates back to his days growing up in Houston. Besides volunteering with shelters after Hurricane Katrina while a Trinity student, he also traveled to Guatemala before he became a Tiger and to Nicaragua during spring break. Since then, his service outreach has extended all the way to South Africa.
The corner in which he’s currently working is Tanzania, focusing on peacebuilding in the midst of concerns about violent extremism. As part of his research for his Ph.D. from London Metropolitan University, he’s studying a population in Zanzibar perceived to be at high risk of radicalization.
“When you look at the youth in Somalia, most do so out of economic necessity,” he says of young men who join the militant group Al Shabab. “They aren’t ideological extremists, but they joined because they are promised a wage.”
Through his research, Leach hopes to one day help support policies that build entrepreneurship and training opportunities to combat poverty, rather than treating these young people as enemy terrorists.
Before beginning work on his Ph.D., Leach’s internship for Princeton Theological Seminary sent him on his first long-term international service trip—to a South African congregation focused on social justice issues. After he graduated with a Master of Divinity, he headed back to South Africa for a two-year pastoral position at a Presbyterian church in Cape Town. While there, he was a part-time hospital chaplain and prison chaplain, working with juveniles and young adults awaiting trial to help them disengage from prison gangs.
After completing that position, Leach wanted to see more of Africa, so he set out from Cape Town headed for Cairo on a 10-month backpacking journey. Afterward, he returned to Cape Town as a conflict transformation practitioner and researcher and built a professional network all across the continent, which also led him to connections in Europe. Leach wrote several reports, including a mediation resource for a Swiss university about community-based approaches to preventing violence.
Alongside his Ph.D. research, Leach works as a consultant for Peace Direct, a London-based international advocacy organization focused on fighting human rights abuses and other problems at the local level as a starting place to avoid war.
“One of the reasons high-level negotiations fall short or have limited impact is because not enough attention is paid to what’s happening between human beings in their communities,” Leach says. “A national accord doesn’t necessarily address local grievances.”
Leach has been working remotely for Peace Direct and also traveling back to Tanzania from his current home in Denver over the past 18 months. But he rarely stays planted in one place for long. He considered going back to Tanzania in early 2018, but he will likely remain in Denver to continue other projects, including being a security fellow with the Truman National Security Project.
The organization is a membership of leaders who advocate for national security solutions by focusing on military defense, diplomacy, economic development, and democracy. He’s particularly excited about being accepted to the 2018 class as a security fellow because of how it relates to his research.
“The Truman Project is a knowledgeable, progressive voice in the national security conversation,” Leach says. “My experience in Tanzania shows a military response would be ill-matched to the context. We need to support a development response to secure the future of these young men.”
Leach says Trinity challenged him to view the whole world in this way—to see the “integrated-ness” of life, no matter where he is.
“My values prioritize people and relationships over stuff and things and achievements, which ties back into ubuntu, our responsibility to the collective,” Leach says. “I came out of Trinity feeling like a whole human being, and I’m interested in growing as a whole human being.”