Hopewell Gone Global: HHS Alumnus Fights for International Human Rights
By Sarah Steele Wilson
Jun 22, 2012, 17:29
HOPEWELL - Layne Hartsell was born and raised in Hopewell.
Now, he’s a professor at Sungkyunkwan University in Korea. He is also the founder of the Integral Trust Fund, which collects and holds funds for projects needed in villages in Southeast Asia, and the Seoul Global Study Group, which promotes discussion of global issues.
His journey from Hopewell High School student to international activist has been a long one with many stops along the way.
Some of the seeds that have grown into Hartsell’s life’s work may have been planted in Hopewell, where he attended West End Christian School as a child.
“Early on, most of it came out of a Presbyterian upbringing that emphasized service and was favorable to science,” Hartsell stated in and emailed interview in response to a question about how he developed an interest in work related to human rights and village development.
As he studied and learned about human rights work from around the world, he came to see that those ideas were “universal and general.”
He also credits Virginia State University professor Dilip K. Sen, with whom he studied for his Master’s of Science in Biomedicine, with introducing him to Gandhi and Martin Luther King, international human rights icons.
Hartsell’s mother Susan Robertson, who now lives in Prince George County, said she could see how some of the traits her son displayed as a child played into his desire to leave a lucrative career in medical research for a life of travel and service.
“I call it traveling around with a bag on his back and a guitar under his arm, just living wherever and whenever and trying to make it and trying to live simply and not having very much and doing what he could for other people,” she said, describing his lifestyle.
In the mid 1990s, Harstell began traveling to Native American reservations to learn more about development projects and a culture he had romanticized as a child.
“As a young adult, the reality couldn’t have been further from my romantic ideas,” he said. “The poverty at Wounded Knee was shocking.”
He and a group he worked with took clothing and food to the residents at Wounded Knee, which was the poorest county in the United States at the time, he said. Robertson also recalled visiting her son while he was teaching at a reservation in Arizona, where she said she was shocked by the poverty she saw.
In 2001, Hartsell learned of Dr. Muhammed Yunus, a Bangladeshi economist who formed the Grameen Bank and pioneered the concept of micro-credit. In 2006, Dr. Yunus and the bank won the Nobel Peace Prize for their work.
“He found that by creating teams, mainly of women, he could loan small amounts of money, and through team support, the women could repay their loans,” Hartsell explained. “For $50, a woman could buy chickens, which produce eggs which she could sell, and then later eat the meat or sell it.”
The concept enabled people in the third world to grow businesses and has now spread throughout the first world. The repayment rate for Grameen loans is 98 percent, where as traditional banks tend to run closer to 70 percent, Hartsell said.
He put those ideas to use in Mexico, where he worked with Catholic monks on service projects, issuing a micro-credit loan to a group of women in Veracruz. They repaid their loan with interest. Hartsell repeated the project in Mexico, and eventually in Thailand and Cambodia. The international financial crisis disrupted Hartsell’s work with micro-credits, but he said that he and his wife plan to do more of that kind of work in the future.
“My finding is that the poor don’t lack motivation or ability or intelligence,” Hartsell said. “They lack opportunity and fair distribution of wealth and access to financial tools.”
Hartsell is currently very interested in seed banks, where plant seeds are stored, and funds one in Northern Thailand where he and his wife own a farm. They have plans to create another seed bank this summer.
“For the poor, seeds are like gold...better than money,” he said.
Hartsell was also involved in raising approximately $60,000 to build about 3,000 bamboo houses for 9,000 refugees living on the Thai border while fleeing from brutal regimes in neighboring areas.
“It is kind of a natural reaction we have when we see human need,” Hartsell said, explaining his involvement in projects like seed banks and the bamboo houses.
He said that the kinds of projects he has supported are important not just in emergencies, but on a day-to-day basis.
“In the case of a massive migration of people to get away from harsh military governments, or from famine, or any other extreme cases, there is a going to be a human rights catastrophe since people need to eat and need medical care. They will need shelter and water. Thus, that specific kind of work is like emergency care. The other kind of work, which is everyday work, is to work on proper distribution of wealth and to realize the UN Development Goals. Achieving those goals would reduce much suffering and give the hope of a better future to the world’s four to five billion living on about $3.00 per day. Also, achieving those goals would go a long way towards decreasing conflict,” he said.
Back in Hopewell, people who remember Hartsell as the soccer and football player who his mother said was voted “best dressed” during his senior year of high school can follow his work by reading interviews with him in The Global Digest, at www.gbdigest.com, and on the Facebook page for the Seoul Global Study Group.
“He’s a very interesting young man,” said his Robertson, who has had to work to accept his path.
“It took me a long many years to be able to accept what he did because it was so different from the normal,” she said, describing the worrying she’s done over the years.
Hartsell said that the principals that inform the work he does abroad are possible and necessary to understand
“Civilization has not yet sufficiently overcome the challenges of basic human needs, or conflict, or disease. The principles of equality in liberty, justice and universalized understandings of the human condition are all understandable,” he said.
“It takes some deep introspection and reflection when we have busy lives and many distractions, but it is a necessary activity of any citizen.”
He said that people will need to organize and work together to solve some of the world’s thorniest issues.
“At the moment, we are faced with at least four very serious issues: nuclear weapons, geofinancial instability, anthropogenic climate change and grinding poverty,” he said.
“This is why I say that people are going to have to be smart, organize and work together. I can’t think of any other way to a make a future possible for ourselves and the children which are dependent upon what adults do today.”
Hartsell is finishing his Ph.D. at the University of Oslo, with Thomas Pogge and John Weckert, and launching a Project for Listening and Dialogue, a series of interviews with leading thinkers. He welcomes communications from residents of his home town and invites them to write him at email@example.com.