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Respect and tolerance focus of leadership school in Malaysia

Tuesday 20 February 2018 2:43pm

Robbie Francis image
National Centre for Peace and Conflict Studies PhD candidate Robbie Francis in Kuala Lumpur.

Robbie Francis has dedicated her studies and spare time to championing respect, tolerance and diversity, so attending a prestigious international leadership school promoting exactly those same values, was a "reaffirming" experience for her.

In December last year, Robbie was among 30 students selected for the Association of Commonwealth Universities Residential Leadership School, the only student representative from Otago.

Held at Heriot Watt University Malaysia in Kuala Lumpur, the school was the final stage in a pilot leadership programme in partnership with Associated Commonwealth Universities and the Common Purpose leadership organisation. It brought together 30 students from 20 Commonwealth universities to explore practical measures for promoting tolerance and better intercultural relations at their home institutions and countries.

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Robbie in a presentation with her fellow ACU students.

Students visited the Global Peace Centre, met community leaders, workshopped solutions to promote tolerance, and shared the struggles of their respective communities. As the only New Zealand student, Robbie says having the chance to see cultural respect and tolerance building was an “eye-opening” experience.

“Over the programme I got to see peace and respect in practise, up close and personal, in a short space of time. I was very lucky to meet some brilliant young people.”

"Over the next four days we talked, listened, learned and grew."

Robbie is a Peace and Conflict Studies PhD candidate and disability advocate who has studied and worked around the world. She has also built a business on ensuring and promoting diversity, inclusion and equality in society for all people.

As co-founder and Director of The Lucy Foundation, a social enterprise business creating training and employment opportunities for people with disabilities in the global coffee industry, Robbie has created a “bean to cup” coffee business called the Pluma Coffee Project, which brings coffee from Pluma Hidalgo – an isolated coffee-farming village, high in the mountains of Mexico – to New Zealand, and creating job opportunities for disabled people from both countries.

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Robbie and her fellow ACU leadership school students in Kuala Lumpur, with Heriot Watt University Malaysia in the background.

“In New Zealand, we’re very lucky to have processes and structures in place to challenge intolerance. We still have sexism, ableism, homophobia etc., but often it’s subtler. To see the issues that other students were struggling with on their campuses and in their countries, they were the same as us but the context and consequences were so vastly different.”

Robbie said all the students were anxious upon meeting, but realising they were “all in the same boat’ helped get them excited to start, and exercises allowing students the chance to present their personal leadership style were great introductions.

“Over the next four days we talked, listened, learned and grew.”

Robbie says applying for the Residential Leadership School was a chance decision. After a long wait between being selected to represent the University of Otago from 130 candidates to having her recommendation accepted by the Association of Commonwealth Universities, she found herself packing up her office and booking flights all before Christmas.

“It ended up being a busy period but it was an amazing opportunity to see these students change their perspectives in just four days. I haven’t seen that up close before, not in such an intense way. I study it, and theoretically it works, but sometimes it can feel a bit abstract.

"Bringing together young people from diverse backgrounds to work on a shared goal actually works.”