Social Development, Education and VISIONS. Member Spotlight: Elika Dadsetan-Foley

As a whole, education represents the most fundamental basis to foster social development and nourish the thrive of the individuals and the communities they live in. This is why Elika Dadsetan-Foley dedicated most of her life to promoting education in the most different contexts as the key to building more awareness and resilient communities, both in the United States and abroad. Elika demonstrates to be an experienced education and social development specialist with a rich curriculum in several humanitarian areas. Currently, she stands out as the CEO/Executive Director of VISIONS, a non-profit consulting and training organization focusing on equality and social justice. 

Elika has been a valued member of MBBI for five years, besides also newly being a part of Rotary International, a historical partner organization for MBBI.

VISIONS: working with differences to overcome racism in the US. 

“I love what I get to do – who I get to work with and the impacts made”, Elika says enthusiastically while describing her current position as the CEO of VISIONS. Started in 1984 by three brave black women and one Jewish man, VISIONS’ main area of work involves consulting with individuals, communities, and various business industries to empower the creation of communities where differences are recognized and appreciated, and difficult conversations about sensitive topics dealt with smoothly and proactively. All this with the aim to shape more synergic and cohesive societies where differences are valued and turned into assets rather than representing points of conflict. “Fewer conflicts would occur (and be protracted) if we identified differences as a strength”, Elika says. Disposing of a working model based on psychology and transactional analysis, VISIONS carries on “vigorous interventions”, namely transformative processes that act “deeply” on several levels and are usually sustained over a multi-year timeframe. “For any change to occur, it needs to happen simultaneously on four levels: personal, interpersonal, cultural, and institutional, for this change to be really effective, it needs to be shared among social groups, and often repeatedly”

Topics such as race and cultural differences became particularly hot in recent times since the Black Lives Matter movement managed to put under the limelight the situation of systemic racism and discrimination existing in the US. “Unfortunately, racism is embedded in the DNA of the US”, Elika mentions. Of Persian origins but grown up in America (with a brief stay in France), she recounts having been subject first-hand to various types of discriminatory behaviors during the course of her life, caused by her Iranian roots. “Especially after 9/11, I have been confronted with many forms of aggressions connected to the fact that I had Iranian origins, for this reason, I have often had a complicated relationship, especially when asked ‘where are you from?” A border should not define who you are”

In the early stages of her career, Elika followed up law school by working in the DA’s office in San Francisco. In this instance, she was assigned to the misdemeanor division concerning narcotics and domestic violence. This experience gave her the opportunity to touch in person the situation of racial inequality in the US. “You could see the difference between a white young man with a lot of cocaine versus a Black man having a little marijuana. The first would just pay a small fine, while the latter would be put in jail for a long-time, sometimes forever – this was during the ‘three strikes you’re out’ era. I realized that the system was broken”. Such a realization finally drove her away from the legal profession. Probably, both her personal experience as an immigrant and this latter epiphany are the elements that still inspire Elika to bring forward the mission of VISIONS, seeking to contribute to a change in the way all types of differences are seen and discussed in the US. 

A career-focused on social development and education. 

Leaving the legal field seemed like an easy choice for her, and Elika likes to cherish adaptability as one of her main strengths. Once she left law, she got into the education field, starting out by teaching at the Notre Dame High School in Los Angeles (where she went to school) and later, a progressive Project Based Learning school, High Tech High International in San Diego. Thereafter, education would become the guiding thread of her career, one she took even afar from U.S. soil. 

For almost a decade, she worked abroad in development and humanitarian contexts, including access to education and child protection, as well as juvenile justice, restorative practices, and psychosocial programming all over the world. For instance, Elika conducted extensive work in Sierra Leone and other countries of West Africa, firstly with Defence for Children International, carrying out literacy campaigns, dealing with the rehabilitation of street children and former child soldiers, and supporting the development of guidelines to connect indigenous forms of conflict resolution with the national penal system. In the same area before, and in Tajikistan afterward, she worked with the World Bank, serving as a Social Development Specialist and focusing mostly on the negative impacts on communities of a complex hydroelectric dam project. Along her time abroad, she successively got engaged with World Vision as the Program Director of the “No Lost Generation” project, aiming to create social cohesion in Lebanon in regards to the critical condition of the refugees in the country, Syrian, Palestinians and IDPs, and was responsible for designing educational and psychosocial programming for communities. Later, she operated as a Global Education in Emergencies Specialist, a position in which she was consulted vis-à-vis humanitarian emergencies to advise on how to re-setup and keep the education system running despite any number of crises. 

Eventually, Elika made it back to the US, after 7 years spent working across Africa, the Middle East, and Central Asia. “I miss doing that kind of work abroad, but what brought me back was realizing I had been gone from home for too long. There were other things in my life that took precedence, and there was plenty of work to do here, as well.”  Back in the US, Elika had to reinvent herself to make her background fit her new chapter. Once again, she fell into education, this time working as an Administrator for the Los Angeles Harbor College, managing a team to support incoming students to transition smoothly into college and feel comfortable in their new schooling environment. Despite ‘settling down’, Elika still had the opportunity to travel and work abroad, taking on some contracts supporting educational and psychosocial programming, and teaching as a Visiting Professor at the University of Duhok, in Iraqi Kurdistan. Concurrently, she is an Associate Professor in the Negotiation, Conflict Resolution, and Peacebuilding Program offered by the California State University Dominguez Hills, teaching courses on mediation and cross-cultural communication and conflict resolution. From the past to the present commitment, education and teaching remain key staples for Elika. 

Notably, Elika will also teach a restorative justice course at the New York University (first time offered), starting next fall. This latter subject represents a key area of commitment for her, in which she had the opportunity to work as the Director of Programs at Community Conferencing Center (now Restorative Response Baltimore) supporting various ways to apply restorative justice practices to local communities, and due to her capstone research looking at indigenous methods in Sierra Leone and background in law.

The involvement with MBBI.  

Elika has been a member of MBBI since 2016, as she pursued her desire to stay connected with like-minded professionals, especially on the side of restorative justice. Today, she could not be happier of this choice, “MBBI’s membership is fabulous, truly passionate about achieving an impact, even during this last year, with so much change happening in the world and the crippling pandemic, it was beautiful to see the community of MBBI step up and provide trainings and tools, sharing best practices and lessons learned, to support the overall situation in the US. It was amazing to see such a mobilization”. Keeping education at the heart, Elika figures among the founders and formerly co-Chair, and currently Advisor, to the Children & Youth Alternative Dispute Resolution Working Group, the MBBI group devoted to advocating for the use of ADR practices with children and youth. Elika concludes by saying that VISIONS and MBBI are hoping to build their partnership, and she would love to see the creation of a strong synergy between the two organizations, as their values and objectives align brightly. 

We look forward to taking part in VISIONS’ upcoming trainings!

Written by Matteo Piovacari: MBBI Writer