035: RJ Khalaf, conversation 1: Leading in the West Bank with the Dalai Lama, full transcript

April 12, 2018 by Joshua
in Podcast

RJ Khalaf

Listen to the conversation.

Listening to how much RJ has gotten done and the maturity with which he speaks, I think you have to work hard to remember the guy’s only 21 years old. I find it tremendously inspirational to hear what he’s gotten done as well as gratifying because this project began as a homework assignment in my social entrepreneurship class. Listen as always, successful leaders they focus on the other people and you can hear how RJ is in this a little bit from self really working on how to affect other people. Also listen and compare how RJ’s approaches with the millennials are very hopeful recalls a lot Frances Hesselbein. You remember her from Episode 31. Their view on millennials is very hopeful, very different than what you read in the mainstream media. So I really love listening to… He started big, iterated and iterated because he ended big but he had to go through a lot of changes in between. That’s pretty typical. So let’s listen to RJ talk about his projects and taking on his personal challenge.


Joshua: Welcome to the next Leadership and the Environment podcast episode. I’m here with RJ Khalaf who is a former student of mine. And normally when I pick people to be someone who is a leader or someone who has experience in leadership I think of someone who’s very experienced. And RJ by contrast, a former student of mine, he’s still [unintelligible] NYU and in this case it’s the trajectory of his that I think is most important probably because I think that as far as the environment is concerned [unintelligible] the more you’re going to face the effects of environmental change it doesn’t sound like it’s getting better all the time. It sounds like it’s getting worse all the time. And so, I want to have some of his trajectories [unintelligible] to see… I think what we’ll see for RJ is that youth is not an impediment here and I hope it will be an advantage here. So, first, RJ, how are you doing?

RJ: I’m pretty good. How about yourself?

Joshua: I’m great. So let’s see, you and I met about two years ago in my classroom.

RJ: Yes, sir.

Joshua: And since then you’ve become, what do I tell this, you have a leadership fellow at NYU. Is that the right title?

RJ: Yeah, yeah.

Joshua: And NYU is a very prestigious, globally known school. But that’s not enough. Because you’re also 2017 Dalai Lama scholar, Dalai Lama fellow?

RJ: Fellow, yeah. Dalai Lama fellow.

Joshua: So most people I think when they think of student leaders think of people running student organizations on campus and working with other students. Now, you are not in NYU campus right now, right?

RJ: No. I’m in the Palestinian West Bank.

Joshua: So tell me about what project you’re working on, where are you and what are you doing.

RJ: Yeah. So right now I’m sitting in my apartment in a city called Ramallah, in the Palestinian West Bank, and Ramallah is about an hour away from a city called Nablus. [unintelligible] call Nablus is a refugee camp called New Askar. And so, I volunteered in this refugee camp before about seven years ago and it was at this refugee camp that I was offered my first cigarette by a 12-year-old kid named Raday. Now New Askar is a host to a multitude of problems. There is a 70 percent unemployment rate. There is absolutely zero police presence. There’s high drug abuse. I mean in absolutely insane levels of poverty. The way the land zoning is is the Palestinians are not allowed to actually build housing or structures on these lands with any permits. So a lot of the foundations of that which they build these buildings on are pretty faulty.

So what it matriculates to is a situation where there is a three- or four-story tall buildings on foundations that are really only able to withstand one or two stories worth of you know building and materials and all that. Its population is 6000 people and 3000 of them are youth. And so, this refugee camp called New Askar in Arabic translates to military or militant. And if you go back through the history of Palestinian-Israeli politics after the Second intifada or the Second uprising by Palestinians many of the militant fighters that came out of Palestine came out of this refugee camp and then within Syria and militant or militancy actually literally translates to Askar. So this refugee camp actually got its name from that simple fact that so many militant fighters come out of this refugee camp.

And so kind of an understanding that situation we looked at a lot of the issues of youth empowerment in the area. A lot of these kids they don’t go to school, they smoke cigarettes, they get involved in gang related activities. They might find the only way to which they can grow or prove themselves worthy as a man or as an individual is by lashing out against Israel, by throwing rocks, potentially stabbing people. Even just getting in trouble with [unintelligible]. There is really high rates of students hurting each other in classrooms being verbally and physically abusive to one another.

So in understanding these issues we kind of looked at, “Well, what are some ways in which we can help empower youth to look at other ways to really kind of find the means out a way to solve the problems around them, in a way to build an internal locus of control?” Now what that does is it lets you look at your situation and say, “Hey, I can do something about this. I’m capable. I’m strong. Yeah, this situation sucks but there’s something that I can do within me because of the talents that I’ve been given as an individual.” And so leadership is a way that you can actually do that.

And our team we believe that leaders are not born. We believe that they’re made. We believe you go through experiences throughout your life that help you become a leader. A leader is not necessarily someone standing at the front of the room dictating people you know what to do where to go, it’s not a man barking orders at people. But it’s a more personal experience, it’s understanding your strengths and weaknesses, it’s understanding how to work with others. I believe leadership is something… Good leadership at least comes from a place of kindness and love and respect not only for yourself but for those around you and it’s bringing together a group of people to solve a common goal.

And when you look at the studies, adolescence is a major time for development. It’s the time in which you either… It’s kind of a make it or break it time. You know you can say it like that. So if we can intervene with these kids at adolescence you know between 13 and 15 years old where you know they’re going through some of the most trying developmental issues and just kind of show them a definition of leadership that they can buy into, we think we can have profound impacts on their life. Because so many of them only view leadership like a military leader or the president. And it’s not something that a student sitting in the back of the classroom can really buy into. It’s the definition that’s only reserved for very few charismatic and maybe forceful individuals but a definition and view that probably won’t help the plight of the students.

And so in order to do that it’s a week-long summer leadership camp made up of fun, hands-on leadership games and workshops and activities and lessons for a group of students and beyond that there’s a mentorship component. So the camp counselors are a group of six local university students who speak English and Arabic who will serve as the camp counselors, they will serve as the instructors and after the culmination of the camp they will transition into a year-round mentorship role similar to that of Big Brother and Big Sister but a space for them just to hang out with the students, engage with them mentor them, really look out for them in kind of service someone that holds them accountable, someone that they can look up to and someone that can help keep the sustainable impact of leadership involvement for the youth.

Joshua: So you said a lot there.

RJ: I’m sorry. I just kind of went on [unintelligible].

Joshua: Well, I mean I couldn’t interrupt because I wanted to hear what was coming next and what was coming next. I presume that people listening also. So what I’m hearing is a common theme that it’s coming up in virtually all the conversations I have with leaders is that in contrast to what a lot of people think of like putting on the blue face paint, charging the battle they’ve been following it seems to be much more about… With effective leaders it’s much more about the other people rather than feeling like, “I’m doing it for me.” It seems to be much more about, “I feel compelled to do it because of these others that I must… the people that I’m leading, they’re actually before me.”

RJ: Yeah. You’re absolutely right. And if I was doing this project solely for myself to make myself feel good, then I’m missing the point completely. You know you’re not looking at the community and you’re not looking at their unmet needs is something that you can help address but you’re just looking at your own self-fulfillment and your own ego and trying to fill up that. And I think that’s a detriment to yourself. You know you’re never going to feel I think fully fulfilled and you’re not going to really help have a tremendous positive impact on this community if your focus is on you know how you’re going to make yourself feel better or if everything you’re doing is only for yourself.

Joshua: By having that in mind it doesn’t mean that you can just get started. I’m guessing there’s some bit of awareness, some sense of responsibility that I have this easy life here but that doesn’t mean you’re going to have an easy time getting started. You might be spinning wheels for a long time or you can give up. How did you get started and what keeps you going?

RJ: Oh, man. I mean when I started it was a completely different project. I remember talking on the phone with my mom in front of Kmart on Astor Place where I was telling her, “Mom, I want to figure out how I can bring in my passion for Palestine and Palestinian rights and the youth in Palestine and my skills and leadership. And how do I bring that together, mom?” I think she was just being a good mom and just you know trying to help me figure out whatever questions I was having, thinking I’m probably just having one of those college crises where I’m trying to find my place in the world and…

Joshua: Let me guess. And she said, “Be a lawyer.”

RJ: Yeah, probably be a lawyer or go to law school or go to Stern, get your MBA and just raise money for them or something, I don’t know. I mean but the answer that I came to was I’m going to move to the Gaza Strip, live there for two years and I’m going to develop student councils up and down the Gaza Strip, and that was my plan. Even though even before that my plan was, “I’m just going to write a business plan for the Gaza Strip as to how they should redevelop themselves.” And that I thought it was that simple.

Joshua: Like you’re just going to tell them, “Oh, here’s your answer.”

RJ: This is your answer. You can do it. And I’ll be here for two years to help you.

Joshua: You should have just known…Too bad you didn’t figure it out on your own but I figured out for you.

RJ: Don’t worry. Me, 19-year old NYU student, you know I’ve got all the answers. And then it kind of a transitioned into, “OK, I’m going to develop student councils up and down the Gaza Strip and I’m going to live there for two years.” And even when I was in your class, Josh, that was largely the focus of the project that I did. You know if you remember, the project was to design some sort of social venture and that brings good. And that was my social venture. I was going to live in the Gaza Strip and I was going to develop student councils and it was called the Gaza Strip Youth Development Program.

And you know one of the lessons that you taught us was the importance of going and getting market feedback and acting on that market feedback and adjusting your ideas and I mean refining it and you know really looking at the unmet needs and seeing how do you properly address these unmet needs. And kind of in doing that the project switched over from the Gaza Strip to the West Bank because there is just a lot of bureaucratic challenges to the Gaza Strip. I mean I don’t think I would have even been able to get into the Gaza Strip. It’s very difficult to get in or out. You know questioning whether or not I’d be safe in the Gaza Strip. That’s another question. And so, transitioning to the West Bank.

And then, you know asking myself, “Well, do I really have the resources and you know all the emotional and physical energy to live in the West Bank for two years and to carry out this program? You know how can I start small? How can I really get a base and a foundation to develop it?” And so, then it shifted into three refugee camps each four-weeks long. Then it transitioned into one refugee camp four-weeks long. And now we’re at one refugee camp one-week long. And then I don’t see it as a way as like lowering, like taking an easy way out but more so really looking at what is the most effective and impactful way, you know the best use of resources and what am I really physically able to give to this program right now. And that’s kind of how the trajectory has gone.

Joshua: This is a program that you created.

RJ: Yeah.

Joshua: You’re saying “we” so it sounds like… How many other people are involved with it?

RJ: So at this point that’s kind of a tricky question. I think from the main the Palestine team you could count me, the co-founder Hannah Benson, she’s also a student at NYU, and someone who joined our team named Ashraf Hamad. And so, he’s my cousin as well. He graduated from University of Santa Clara where he has a really profound background in social entrepreneurship in terms of measuring impact and impact assessment. And so that between the three of us we’re the main team from the United States and then I also kind of count in our counselors. So we have six counselors all from the local university and we also have the people at the center to which we’re influencing the camp. So there’s kind of one director and then beneath him though there’s five or six people that are there on a constant basis just really serving as resources to us. So the team now has grown to, I’m doing quick math in my head, I mean almost 20 people.

Joshua: Wow. And is this a fair characterization of the project it is that you’re going to teach skills to avoid violence but to get the results that other people using violence for which include, I think it’s part of this self-expression of, “I’m a person of value” and they want to get that out but also “I want to change the environment that I’m in and empower myself in my community.” And you’re achieving this through techniques of leadership, of self-leadership, of group leadership as opposed to throwing rocks and carrying weapons.

RJ: Absolutely. I think that’s a very fair characterization to what we’re trying to do. You know we are building some capabilities within them that in 10 years when they’re the doctors and the teachers and the parents and the business leaders within the community they’re going to have this ideation of an ethical empowering leadership that will have more profound impacts on the greater community. In the meantime, these children, these young university students you know they have friends. So hopefully this will also create a ripple effect in terms of how they actually engage with their own friend groups.


Joshua: And on the ethics side, on the emotional side, how does it feel for you? What do you see in them? If you’re not seeing quantifiable results yet and even if you expect them to be in the long term, how do people feel now? Can you tell? And yourself too.

RJ: I am really excited. In myself I’m excited. It’s you know you’ve been there since the beginning so you know like the two years and conversations we’ve had. And it’s been a scary process I would say honestly, I mean designing this program. Because there’ve been a lot of moments where I wake up in the middle of the day where I say, “Damn, I’m really in over my head.” I don’t know what I’m doing. And this is just a big thing that I just don’t know how to do. And then you breathe and you regroup and you go to your networks and you go to your resources and you just kind of ask for help and then it all comes back together. So it’s really humbling to kind of see it all come together.

And I am a pretty religious and spiritual person so a lot of that I just thank God for you know for kind of giving me, I believe, giving me the strength to kind of push forward with this. I know for myself I’m someone where I have a lot of ideas and I’ll try and tackle a lot of things at one time but I don’t always follow through with them just because I get so excited by so many projects but I just physically can’t follow through with them. So one of my prayers and something that I’ve really made of like focus to is to not allow this project just to be a fading desire or fading interest but something that I really focus on and see it to the end. So it’s exciting, I mean more than anything it’s exciting to see it come to fruition.

Joshua: I also can’t help but comment on a perspective that I’ve come across a lot lately because one way of characterizing what you’re talking about and in kind of corporate speak is like cultural change. And I came across a quote recently about how people in corporations view cultural change. The quote was, “Cultural change is a suicide mission.” Because it’s really hard to do I and it’s not such clear metrics to go by, it’s much easier to do it just kind of cash flow and recommend some investment or something like that. And I’m trying to do cultural change in the environment and a lot of times I think you know as people listening to this podcast a lot have heard me say before but I’m glad that we have Elon Musk and people like him doing the entrepreneurial approach to environmental change. I’m glad that we have Al Gore and politicians doing a political approach and all these different approaches.

But I do not see people leading individual people like you and me in particular to change the perspective from environmental change or some deprivation and sacrifice. It’s really hard to do and we should only get people of these tiny little things. And when we say to people do this tiny little thing, it implies more is hard, it implies that you don’t want to do more. Whereas in my experience what’s driving me to do this is that the bigger the change, the better improvement in my life because all these polluting ways are not… I don’t find it… Now I don’t feel like polluting is like making my life better. And anyway. So I think what we need I think what’s missing is Martin Luther King of the environment, a Mandela of the environment, a Vaclav Havel of the environment, someone to apply leadership principles not just spreading facts, not just trying to pass laws without popular support, not just to talk about gloom and doom scenarios but to have people change your views.

Ok, so I think of myself as possibly becoming the Martin Luther King of the environment which is like big talk. It kind of feels weird to say it knowing that I also want people to listen to this and some people are going to be like, “Who do you think you are?” But an important perspective that you made me think of now is that I don’t think of myself as Martin Luther King giving the I Have A Dream speech. I’m thinking of Martin Luther King during the Montgomery Bus Boycott. Everyone knows Montgomery Bus Boycott now but Montgomery is like a potent town in middle of nowhere. The bus boycott no one knew would succeed. I mean we all know Rosa Parks name now but no one knew it then. He was just a grunt who was trying to get people to not take the bus. It’s not a particularly glamorous thing to do. And he was an outsider. I looked it up, four months of the year the daily high is over 90 degrees or like above 90 degrees or higher. Of course, people want to take the bus and not walk. There’s no Internet to coordinate people, you’ve got to [unintelligible] and people are going to want to defect and so forth.

And I think that a big path to leadership for a lot of people is what I call the Grunt model. You got to do the groundwork. And that’s kind of what I feel like I’m doing now and it resonates with what you’re talking about is like you want to give up, you don’t see a path to the future although if you don’t do it, you feel compelled like if I don’t do it, no one’s going to do it. And you know [unintelligible] change them except to the extent that they want to do what they want to do with the tools you give them. It’s from my perspective very refreshing. I can’t wait to hear how things go. Something about the way you describe things I think years from now you’re still going to be doing this. I mean the only thing that would stop you was I guess a lot of success or you don’t need it anymore and you want something else but if you’re not done yet, I don’t think you would give it up.

RJ: I mean when you’re in New York honestly, Josh, when you’re in the bubble of Greenwich Village I have faced or when I’m in the bubble of Greenwich Village I’ve faced more internal pushback and more internal doubt versus when I’m here and just kind of working on it with my hands and with my heart. When you here there’s just a different feeling of vigor about all the work that you’re doing.

Joshua: That emotional compulsion and attachment is really to me…It’s such a big part of leadership. I mean leadership is about motivations and emotions, I think. We talked before about you contrasted what you’re doing with authority and using authority to lead which I would call management, I usually find not that effective. So I’m not surprised to hear this. The passion and that the passion is greater and more fulfilling when you’re getting things done.

RJ: It feels like we’re getting things and we’ll see what happens once we actually measure our impact.

Joshua: So talking about impacts and measurement and things like that, now we’re in a transition. I would love to keep asking you about what you’re doing and so on and so forth. I have one question. I’m going to leave this question out there. If you want to answer, answer it. But is age a factor for you? I mean you were 19, so you are 20-21 now?

RJ: 21.

Joshua: Actually, I am going to go into this because I don’t know if people who care about the environment… Probably the younger you are, probably the more you care because the more the temperature rises globally and the sea levels rise and pollution happens, the more it’s going to affect you if you’re younger. People who are 80 today they going to face these things. So is age a factor? Does it slow you down? Does it help you? How does it affect what you’re doing, if it all?

RJ: The way I see it my generation, the millennials and you hear a lot of good and bad about millennials, I think we are the most kick ass generation out there. I think we are creative and we have access to resources that no other generation had at an age in which no other generation had. We are more educated, we read a lot, I mean these really impressive studies about millennials. And just kind of comparing to the students that I get to go to school with at NYU, you and I are friends Josh but you are not a millennial but I mean there are some really impressive students who are my age out there solving some of these incredible issues. And so the way I see it my age is neither a strength nor a deterrent to my future success but that has no impact on me. But the truth is there are the resources available to me right now as a 21-year-old that no other 21-year-old in previous generations ever had. And that’s a really exciting feeling. And our world is more connected and that’s an awesome feeling. Movements are able to spread in a way that they weren’t able to spread before. You’re able to spread messages and information and like ideas in a way that you never were able to before. And so, the way I see it my age is not a deterrent or disability in any way at all.

Joshua: Cool, I’m glad to hear that because I feeling that have a lot of old people on the show.

RJ: I’m sorry to anyone that’s not a millennial. You are all wonderful people and I appreciate you.

Joshua: Well, I mean as other guests and I want to make sure that people who are not older and don’t have access to stuff that comes with… Somethings only come with age, experience and connections to other people who [unintelligible].

OK. So right now we’re going to switch perhaps a little too abruptly but I want to talk about the environment and one of the big things about the show is that I want people who are guests to commit to a personal challenge. And I told you about it before but I’ll just repeat that the goal is not to try to change the world overnight and to solve the all the world’s problems. It’s not to do anything that I’m trying to get you do. If you have something… But it is to move the needle somewhat, to have some measurable effect on the environment and it could be global warming, it could be pollution, it could be not using so much natural resources. And a lot of people that I talk to whether on the show or not when I talk to them about it they often have something in the back of their mind like they’ve been meaning to not use air conditioners so much or they’ve been meaning to cut down on their meat if they live in a place where it’s all factory farms and stuff like that. And it can be short term but I hope that the mindset that you have when you do it if you choose to take one is to even if you do it short term then still to think about, “Maybe I’ll keep doing this long term” and to put your heart into it even if you choose to stop later. So have you thought of something that you could do?

RJ: Yeah, let me know if this is kind of outside the scope of what you’re thinking but… So here in Palestine for example we’ve been drinking so many… We’ve been drinking a lot of water just straight out of water bottles just because the water here isn’t necessarily safe to drink right away. You know with bacteria or whatever. So you got to drink a lot of bottle water. And so it really kind of disgusts me how much bottled water that I’m consuming. So I want to make a vow whether…Since I’m in the States because here I don’t know how quickly I can change it, we’re back in the States in three weeks or four weeks, to make the change to cut bottled water out of my consumption habits as an individual.

Joshua: OK. So that sounds like something long term but it sounds like something also short term too. I think most people think that the bottles are recyclable and while in principle they are, I think maybe 80 percent of them are going to go just straight to landfills. And so, of the 20 percent that don’t go to landfills, many of those get incinerated which just puts stuff into the atmosphere and a lot of that stuff isn’t recycled and then even the recycled stuff which is now we’re down to like a single digit percentage I believe is… It’s all with the down cycle. So it’s not really useful. It’s not really as much reused as you think. So it’s basically throwing the stuff away and we then from the United States we ship it to the third world nations and pay them to take our garbage. So, sorry, I was just… You may want to watch that.

RJ: Yeah, no, that sounds interesting.

Joshua: It may help motivate you. So when do you get back? The next step after someone commits to something is to schedule when the next conversation will be to talk about what the experience of it is like.

RJ: Cool. I get back on the August 25.

Joshua: Oh, yes so that’s roughly 3 1/2 weeks from now.

RJ: Three and a half weeks, yeah.

Joshua: All right. And then after you get back, how long do you think you want to get into it before we talk? Like a week, two weeks, a month, six months? What seems right?

RJ: I think the if I’m correct the standard thing for SIDCHA is like a month, right?

Joshua: I love that you put that Self-imposed Daily Challenge Health Activity. Everyone should go to sidcha.com and check out and comment on this stuff. I’m very flattered and honored. I love that you said it. Yeah, I mean it could be a month. I have a feeling you’ll get into it in a shorter period than that.

One of these things I hope to come out of this with people that do these different challenges that once they get in their heads that they will have an experience like me which is like you do a little bit, “Oh, it works” or “I stopped there but now that I’ve realized that I didn’t have to stop there, I am not going to stop here either.” So I’ll be curious if that happens.

RJ: Yeah. I’d be happy to share all my reflections.

Joshua: So, anything to cover before wrapping up?

RJ: No, I’m going to just thank you, thank you for giving me the space to talk about it. You always ask really great questions and questions that kind of forced me to reflect a bit. So, thank you.

Joshua: I think anyone listening, it’s not difficult to find very interesting questions because it’s hard to stop. I mean I look forward to when you’re back and we meet in person and we can talk more because I’d love to…Because there are a lot of details.

RJ: Absolutely.

Joshua: So I’ll close with a note to remind people that I expect the video is going to be exciting and thrilling and probably very emotionally, probably a mix of…What will it be? It’s probably the frustration followed with hope and expectation. And I think people will be pretty impressed by RJ. So thank you very much.

RJ: Thank you, Josh. I appreciate it.


Is everybody listening as amazed as I am at the results that RJ is getting? Offline I’ve heard some of the challenges of reaching Gaza, reaching the West Bank, being able to connect with these young people and RJ is doing it and he’s getting other people involved and the regard that he gets from the people on the ground who’ve been there, who’ve seen other styles of leadership and effectiveness of what he’s doing. So I’m also very interested to hear how… With the achievements he has done I think that water bottles are going to be something that is just the beginning of something more. So I really look forward to hearing conversation number two.

Read my weekly newsletter

On initiative, leadership, the environment, and burpees

We won't send you spam. Unsubscribe at any time. Powered by ConvertKit

Leave a Reply

Sign up for my weekly newsletter