Building a Village of Peace

Cathi Peterson with students

“We’re all fighting back the tears. … The children thanked us and promised to work hard and do well. This is just the beginning. ... and we aren’t leaving this place behind, we are taking it home with us.” — Steve Cooper

Steve Cooper traveled to eastern Rwanda with a team of co-workers this December. The group’s main assignment? To build a wireless infrastructure for a new school about to open and to welcome 125 students. The group doesn’t build networks in developing countries all the time. Their day jobs are with Liquidnet, an electronic exchange firm on Wall Street. But Liquidnet considers itself a different type of Wall Street firm.

To start, the company distinguishes itself by donating 1 percent of its revenue to charity. Brian Walsh, director of global social engagement (GSE) at Liquidnet, explains that founder Steve Merrin wanted to re-imagine a company’s role in philanthropy. “We’re trying to establish a new model,” he says, “one that shows you can be successful while giving back.”

Merrin and the GSE team also wanted to be sure that their giving wasn’t diluted by being dispersed among too many causes. They decided to focus on a single project where they could achieve a measurable social impact.

View of Student Housing

Walsh explains how they chose a project in Rwanda called Agahozo Shalom: “The Rwandan genocide represents the failure of the global community to act, while Agahozo Shalom represents people from around the world uniting to solve a global challenge.” In response to the genocide, an entire village is being created for orphans left behind.

Inspired by communities built in Israel after WWII to house orphans of the Holocaust, the village is an effort of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee. Built on a 143-acre site overlooking Lake Mugesera, the village will include a school, a medical clinic, a library and an arts center. The community will strive to provide a nurturing environment where children can recover from the trauma of the genocide — and also an enriching environment that will help the children develop vocational and leadership skills.

Liquidnet has committed to a “robust partnership” with the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, says Walsh. Besides substantial financial resources, Liquidnet supports the project through strategic planning, website building, budgeting and forecasting, supply drives and technology infrastructure. In addition, more than 20 employees have traveled to Rwanda to provide on-the-ground support and to witness the project firsthand. By the looks of the employee blog, the trips have been powerful experiences for all involved.

“I want to let you know this trip is the best gift I have ever got in my life,” wrote Liquidnet employee Zheng Xu on the blog, “the privilege of giving our warm hearts to the village and being a representative of Liquidnet.”

“But looking at their faces!” wrote Tony Contreras. “So extraordinarily happy to get another chance at life. Every day the kids … seem to be a little bit more comfortable.”

And Cathi Peterson: “The joy that is in each one of the kids was written all over their faces.”

Two weeks ago classes began at Agahozo Shalom, the beginning of an education that will open doors for these children. The same week, the Liquidnet team held a lunch meeting with their colleagues back home to share photos and stories of the village that they have been instrumental in bringing about.

“It’s been a really life-changing experience,” says Walsh. “Everyone wants to be a part of something larger than themselves. To give back and be a part of something really meaningful.”

American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee

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