As I continue my social research, I had the opportunity to sit down with Dr. Grassellini at UNESCO of Central Florence to understand the work this organization is doing. Our discussion shed light on several misconceptions that I had prior, notably three things: their work abroad, their use of interns, and their focus on education above all else.
Situated beneath the umbrella of the Unit- ed Nations, UNESCO of Central Florence works to “put into practice what UNESCO (international) says is ideal” states Dr. Grassellini. Their purpose is contrived from UNESCO’s target outreach areas; dealing with social matters associated with education, science, culture, and communication / information. As a non-government organization (NGO), they are not considered an international entity; therefore they do not formally operate at the diplomatic level and must adhere to local laws. What is surprising to learn is how despite this organization being locally based, its work still extends beyond the city limits, reaching even as far as Cambodia.
While their UN counterpart disperses aid via the top-down approach, this agen- cy does the opposite. Using the strategy known as bottom-up, they work to create change within the people and the community, hoping the social repercussions will move upward to create change at the national and international levels. UNESCO of Central Florence works together with other NGOs, both local and abroad to tackle contemporary social issues. Dr. Grassellini explains their method is somewhat unique- an approach called Co-development; where the same social issues are simultaneously addressed in both developed and developing nations. Therefore, the goal will be the same despite the contrary societal norms, but the objectives to achieving such goals may vary. For example, take the goal of teaching subject matter that public schools do not cover; in a developing nation the method of doing so may be to teach alphabetization. In a developed nation, where students are able to recite the alphabet but do not know about the transmission of STDs, the method may consist of providing sex education classes. Admittedly, the organization can at times find it difficult to perfectly mirror the UN- ESCO ideals, mainly for two reasons: money and size. Their status as a local NGO means they do not receive funds from the Italian government to run on. The agency is financially self-sustaining off of the money they receive from either private grants, or the fundraisers that they hold. This is one of reasons why Dr. Grassellini hopes to spread the word on the work that he and his team are doing; “one dollar can make a difference”, he says. To be honest I found this reality surprising, as I like many others I suppose, heard the term UNESCO and arrived at the conclusion that they were funded via UNESCO (international). Fortunately enough, their affiliation to one of the most internationally recognized organizations in the world, has drawn together a group of young individuals sharing a dream to change the world. Although I cannot foresee the future and thus, the fate of UNESCO of Central Florence, some- thing tells me they can survive and prosper. With a staff consisting of individuals who are educated and prepared to navigate both, political and social avenues, they have an advantage.
Furthermore, I must take a moment to applaud their use of interns constructively and without reservations. Comprised of a modest staff, with four clerks and one President, the organization relies heavily on volunteers and interns alike. Particularly for young professionals looking to gain formative work experience within an agency dedicated to social justice, this may just be the place. Although it is affiliated with one of the most reputable, international organizations in the world there is no need to have reservations about being lost in the crowd, or becoming the staff secretary and making daily coffee runs. Here, interns are utilized in the most professional manner, typically over the course of six months. Through hands-on involvement with tasks such as: planning / promoting fundraisers, project development, and community outreach, they learn the expectations of working within an international NGO and will professionally evolve from, what Grassellini calls, “a 0 to 8 worker”. Moreover, if interns display a performance of good quality, they will be provided with a formal cover-letter and recommendation for their portfolio.
In fact, it is this standard of active participation from all those contributing their time which supplements the fulfillment of the organization’s mission. When you have a group of people from all walks of life, engaged in daily problem solving, it ignites a cultural exchange. Each person has a different mindset and thus, their own cultural paradigm, so the key is working together to find a mutual solution. From the inside, this is just one way that the agency works to promote cooperation and understanding between those of different cultures…a UNESCO (international) goal. External promotion consists of building community awareness through holding public events that highlight various cultures, or offering courses/lectures that explain the origins and characteristics of different cultural backgrounds.
As champions for access to education, their charge is encompassed by a UNES- CO quote: “Sometimes a teacher can save more lives than a doctor”. It comes as no surprise then that the future plans of this organization include an academic agenda, both locally and abroad. Specifically in Thailand, they are attempting to increase the amount of English being taught. In Italy, they work to continually provide instruction that the government does not have as part of the public curriculum, specifically HIV prevention, as the data reports statistics of 12 new infections each day, predominately among teens.
In a place where it seems that cultural preservation is the lifeblood of the city, I was again surprised to discover this organization’s emphasis on education. I must admit that being an entity whose title includes the word culture I was jotting down questions inquiring about the rehabilitation process of ancient, marble statues in preparation for the interview. What I found was an agency taking, what I consider, a step outside the cultural box. Their work is very modern indeed, as Dr. Grassellini informs me on my way out that UNESCO is still an up-and-comer in the Western world. Although there are nearly 100 site locations throughout Italy, they are only just beginning to grow and develop in the United States.
In a time such as this, where globalization is no longer a theory of the future but rather standing at our gate, someone who has knowledge has power. Operating within the light of education is something that UNESCO of Central Florence cannot stress enough when it comes to the agency’s work. As Dr. Grassellini says, education is the key which opens many doors and will create what he calls, “a new kind of citizen” for the world of tomorrow.