A New Vocabulary for Social Change

November 20, 2013
Casper ter Kuile

Casper ter Kuile was as surprised as anyone when he found himself applying to divinity school.

"I think I always experienced religion as aggressive and judgemental—a place that didn't want me so I didn't want it," says ter Kuile.

But after years on the front lines of environmental movements in the UK, ter Kuile felt like he needed to reframe his approach.

"I had been an activist and worked in the nonprofit advocacy space for a while. I knew that I wasn't being fulfilled by it, but I didn't know why. So I labeled it 'burned out' and decided that a policy degree from Harvard might solve those problems, or at least give me a break from my day to day frustrations."

Since 2005 ter Kuile has been working as an activist for youth empowerment and to combat climate change. He is the cofounder of the UK Youth Climate Coalition and Campaign Bootcamp, both organizations working to inspire and support young people to take action in their communities. Ter Kuile has also been involved with Avaaz.org, Futerra Sustainability Communications, and Oxfam.

A policy degree from the Harvard Kennedy School (HKS) made sense for ter Kuile and his activist peers. His decision to instead apply for a double master's degree in theology and public policy was more surprising.

"I had been in the Christian fellowship group at my school. But then hearing my math teacher, who was leading the group, have some not-very-nice things to say about homosexuality, I realized that that wasn't the place for me."

Growing up in England in a secular family, ter Kuile lived a relatively non-religious life. Although he avoided organized religion, ter Kuile was interested in spirituality, especially the transcendent feeling he found while singing in different choral groups.

It was his love of singing that inspired him to push past his math teacher's condemning words and seek a more inclusive and affirming religious community. While in college, ter Kuile joined the Revelation Rock Gospel Choir, a half-evangelical, half-secular group.

Motivated to make a difference

It was around this time that ter Kuile began to get involved with the climate change movement. While they had exciting new ideas, he and his friends were frustrated by the lack of opportunities for young people to get involved beyond volunteering for nonprofits.

The son of two entrepreneurs, ter Kuile saw this as an opportunity to start something new. In 2008 he helped to cofound the UK Youth Climate Coalition, a nonprofit organization that works to empower and support youth who are interested in taking positive action on the issue of climate change.

During that year's global economic crisis, ter Kuile noticed that many of the organizations, like Oxfam and the WWF, that had offered him important investment and training opportunities were cutting programs for young leaders out of their budgets. In response, ter Kuile and his friends created Campaign Bootcamp, a five-day residential program to give young leaders the skills, training, and support they need to initiate effective and successful campaigns.

"I felt a real responsibility to give other people some of the opportunities that I had."

It was at the Campaign Bootcamp retreat this past June when ter Kuile felt a shift in the way he perceived his work.

"It was really funny for me to run Campaign Bootcamp this past June when I knew that I was coming to HDS. I had used the word 'ministry' for the first time in my HDS application. Now I was leading opening circle, passing around the talking stick, bringing vulnerability into the space, and trying to be really affirming to everyone. I realized, 'This is ministry!' "

As a candidate for a dual master's degree, ter Kuile will spend three semesters at HKS and three at HDS. Last year ter Kuile began his masters at HKS, where he took classes with Professor Marshall Ganz on community organizing. He also became a member of the Harvard Graduate Student Leadership Institute, a cohort of 30 graduate students from across Harvard.

Throughout the academic year, ter Kuile and his peers come together to develop their leadership skills and understanding through workshops with deans, professors, politicians, and other highly influential individuals across the spectrum of public leadership.

Embracing ministry

Ter Kuile, who began his degree program at HDS in September, says that being at the Divinity School has "given me a new vocabulary for the work I have already been doing."

"For the last four years I have been really uncomfortable with the word 'activism' and the professionalization of social change. Using words like 'ministry' and 'calling' was really new and uncomfortable at first. But now I feel like, 'Yes! That's what it is!' "

This semester ter Kuile's course load includes a class on sacred music. "It's really exciting for me. I get to visit different congregational worship services and see how they incorporate music."

Ter Kuile sings weekly at the Wednesday Noon Service. He has also become active in the HDS Humanist group. "I am interested in being a humanist minister, but that might take many shapes."

In the long term, ter Kuile says that this could mean a career in politics, business, or social action. More immediately, ter Kuile is interested in forming loving and meaningful communities of people who support and sustain each other.

Looking back on his work with climate change, ter Kuile says that, "In terms of how I think of the environment now, I see it as one issue of many. But the only way that I can really make a change is by starting with myself and then building a community of people who have a relational commitment to each other to live the best life we can."

—by Erica Long