I recently had the opportunity to interview Alberto Ibargen for the Stanford Social Innovation Review. President of the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation , a $2 billion foundation that promotes quality journalism, media innovation, community engagement and the arts, he has had a remarkable career. You can read the beginning of the interview here.
Where did you passion for community service and civic engagement come from?
I think the origins of my attitude toward community service came from my time as a student at Wesleyan University. Wesleyan was and continues to be a place that doesn’t distinguish between work and family and community, but rather sees them as a continuum. It was highly engaged in civil rights and Vietnam, so all that had huge impact on my life. When I left Wesleyan, I went into the Peace Corps for five years, and then went to the University of Pennsylvania for law school. My first job out of Penn was actually at the Legal Aid Society.
For me, this is a very deep kind of commitment that continues to this day. I really saw my work in newspapers as being a different kind of community service: providing a free flow of reliable information, which is at the core of effectively running a community in a democracy. I’ve always felt this, and I’m in a position to do something about it at Knight Foundation. That very much inspired the work that I did for most of my adult life.
Your experience serving in the Peace Corps interests me because my grandfather was in the Kennedy administration and was a core author of the Peace Corps blueprint. How has that affected your career and rippled through to who you are today?
I was a Peace Corps volunteer in the Amazon territory in Venezuela. It was a remains one of the most important experiences of my life. I was constantly being allowed challenges for which I was not technically ready, all of them stretching, all of them difficult, and all of them leading to a young man who leaves the Peace Corps with enormous confidence and five years’ worth of foreign living and an understanding of other cultures. The quality and amount of management experience that I had at the end of that time I would put up against anybody in any corporation: the lessons about adaptability, the happiness of people who didn’t have and didn’t consider necessary the material things we thought were requirements, the length of time that it takes to make real social change happen. These are lessons that you simply never forget.
Even then I understood that the great beneficiary of the Peace Corps is the United States. It was not the work that we did, although that was often good. The benefit is the learning of the Peace Corps volunteers and the tens of thousands of people returning to the United States who now understand the world and economics in a broader and very personal way.