Rakesh Rajani, MTS ’91, grew up in the African nation of Tanzania. As a young man, he returned home from college during breaks and noticed an uptick in children living on the streets. Day after day he saw them harassed, even beaten. He vowed not to stay silent in the face of such "brutal injustice."
"I came to understand the forces that propel children to the streets have to do less with poverty and lack of resources, and much more to do with violence and denial of rights," he says. "I also came to appreciate the chutzpah and ingenuity of how children dealt with harsh circumstances. These encounters taught me lessons about how to analyze the world, as well as the importance of struggle and of solidarity."
For nearly a generation, Rajani has dedicated himself to advocating for the rights of children and citizens in East Africa. As an activist and social justice entrepreneur, he has worked to promote government transparency and democracy, education, human rights, sexual health, and other causes.
Now, as the recently named director of the Ford Foundation's program in Democratic Participation and Governance, Rajani oversees U.S. and global grant-making initiatives that include increasing civic and political participation; promoting electoral reform and democratic participation; and promoting transparent, effective, and accountable government.
This work has earned him the admiration of his fellow Harvard Divinity School alumni and a place among the recipients of the 2015 Peter J. Gomes STB '68 Memorial Honors.
"Peter Gomes embodied the best of HDS," he says. "He was simultaneously hopeful and grounded, and knew that a life of value takes struggle. I am grateful for the ways in which these values and the people at HDS have helped me navigate my work on children's rights, equitable education, and open government in East Africa."
Rajani says that he came to HDS to reflect on activism and to think hard about drivers of social change. This interest began while he was in college at Brandeis, where his senior thesis focused on poor people's organizing. Saturdays were spent volunteering at Haley House, a soup kitchen and drop-in center for the homeless in Boston's South End. Upon graduating from Brandeis, the next step was to move into the center and enroll at HDS.
"I came to HDS to do two things," he says, "to learn more about liberation theology, and to use my time there to reflect on my activism. The idea was that reflection would improve practice and the practice would better ground my academic engagement. I continued to live at Haley House and volunteered there full time while I was at the School."
In the lead-up to the first Gulf War in 1990, Rajani worked with other HDS students to plan rallies and make the case against what he calls "the lazy rhetoric of war." He recalls a particular encounter that taught him a key lesson.
"There was a planning meeting that ran late one evening," he remembers. "Many of us were exasperated at how people could be so gullible about the war. Then a fellow HDS student asked us, in a very quiet but intensely and palpably angry voice, why 'those' people should listen to us and to be open to how we thought, when we hadn't taken a minute to listen to their point of view, to genuinely seek to understand. That moment stayed with me. It helped me see that smug righteousness is both intellectually and morally deficient. While it may make us feel good about what we do, it does not persuade, and it is not an effective way to advance the cause of social justice."
To sum up his experience at HDS, Rajani refers to an eminent theologian: Charles Schultz, creator of the comic strip Peanuts. He cites a cartoon where Charlie Brown walks up to Snoopy, who's perched on top of his dog house with a typewriter.
"I hear you’re writing a book on theology," Charlie Brown says. "I hope you have a good title." "I have the perfect title," Snoopy responds reverently: “Has It Ever Occurred to You That You Might Be Wrong?”
After graduation in 1991, Rajani returned to his hometown of Mwanza to co-found the Kuleana Centre for Children’s Rights, an organization that worked with street children and advocated for children's interests in government policy and budgets.
In 2001, Rajani started a new organization, HakiElimu, which played a key role in promoting citizen engagement in education reform, and greater government accountability. Then in 2009, after stints as a consultant for the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, Google.org, and other agencies, he started another nonprofit, Twaweza, "to promote basic learning, advance access to information, and enhance government responsiveness across East Africa."
"Twaweza is a Swahili word that means 'we can make it happen,' " Rajani explains. "It reflects the notion that change starts with us, that it will not be delivered by a messiah from up high, that indeed 'we are the ones we have been waiting for.' Our tag line is 'Ni Mimi, Ni Wewe, Ni Sisi'—meaning 'It's me. It's you. It's us.' It marks a shift from a primary concern with being a watchdog and telling it like it is, towards getting things done."
While still at Twaweza, Rajani worked with the White House and several activists to help conceive and establish the Open Government Partnership (OGP), which now involves 65 countries covering over 2 billion people. The OGP seeks to connect reformers in government and pragmatists in civil society to provide them with a platform to work together to make governments more open, more collaborative, and more accountable.
"The going has not always been easy, but some of the progress made has been remarkable," says Rajani, "We must keep at this because reimagining how governments can work for people is one of the most pressing challenges of our time."
At the end of 2014, Rajani stepped down as co-chairman of OGP and as head of Twaweza to take up his new position at Ford.
"I spent seven years setting up Twaweza and leading its first phase, so it was time for fresh leadership," he says. "Ford was asking hard questions about the foundation's effectiveness and how to take its social justice agenda forward, which appealed to me. I was eager to do less broad management and keen to focus in on a few substantive areas."
Today, Rajani says that he remembers HDS as "a place with an incredible breadth of people, ideas, scholarship, engagement, and opportunities." As he goes forward, he says that the values fostered at the School will continue to inform his work on behalf of citizens, communities, and children around the world.
"What matters is the integrity and humility with which one navigates this terrain," he says. "Sometimes I've done well; often I haven't. HDS taught me that cultivating the principles and desire to keep searching and keep trying are some of the most important attributes one can develop in life."
—by Paul Massari