One of the first conversations I had upon returning to Oxford in the new year took place at the Atlantic Institute, in a part of Rhodes House that I had not come across during the Michaelmas term. It was with Ms. Evie O’Brien, Program Director at the Institute. We began by recalling an event from a few months ago, organised on the occasion of Evie’s arrival for her new role, accompanied by family and friends: a discussion on the theme of Māori leadership. Each person began by giving her mihi, which is a form of personal introduction tied to one’s place and people. (Most spoke in te reo; the rest of us resorted to English.) People shared stories from their work, which ranged from building indigenous tertiary institutions (wānanga), to tackling issues in the criminal justice system, to ethnomusicological research on the genre of the lament in Māori chant. From many of those present I felt a strong commitment to “whence one came”, and at the same time I also heard expressions of ambivalence towards the visit to England. After all, it was from Oxfordshire or surrounding parts of the country that some of their ancestors left for New Zealand, only to fatefully encounter others in their family lineage.
As a Senior Atlantic Fellow for Social Equity, Evie brings an acute awareness of place even to her current role of coordinating global programmes at the Institute. We spoke about the challenges of bringing together Atlantic Fellows (many of whom are seasoned activists) in the historically potent space of Rhodes House, as well as the process in many parts of the world today, in which localisation takes the form of retreating into narrower identities. There were many elements from what she shared that felt relevant to the immediate environment around me—how many young people often first learn to deconstruct their worlds before reconstructing; how the Atlantic Institute’s emphasis on lifelong fellowship (98% happens after the initial period, to use Evie’s words) can be a point of reflection within the Rhodes community. By the time we stopped to check the time, the morning was all but over.
Just a week before the earlier discussion on Māori leadership, Rhodes House was the venue for another set of discussions, the Schwarzman-Rhodes Symposium on Public Leadership. Our Warden began on Saturday morning by raising the question: What is our theory of change? She illustrated this point with two leaders that have left a mark on the world, Viktor Orbán and Nelson Mandela, asking us to consider how two leaders could arrive at such different visions for society. As a Hungarian-American, she acknowledged that this question was of some urgency. Over a coffee some days later, another attendee helped to clarify the significance of the title, “public leadership.” After all, not all leaders are good, and the ones that come out of Oxford are no exception. What seems possible at this moment, perhaps more so than at later stages of professional development, is to deliberately bring the Warden’s question into our everyday lives.
Towards the end of Michaelmas I attended a discussion organised by my department, also with a Rhodes connection. Students from the University of Göttingen (recipients of the German Academic Scholarship, Studienstiftung) had come over to Oxford for the Adam von Trott Memorial Lecture at Mansfield College. Trott studied in Göttingen before coming to Oxford as a Rhodes Scholar in 1931. Thirteen years later, he would be executed for taking part in a plot to assassinate Hitler. We followed the lecture by discussing Brexit as well as the dynamics of populism in Europe. Students talked about attempts to overcome invisible walls in society – from speaking with family members of opposing political stances to planning social forums where people from different walks of life can meet. The word “peace” rings with simplicity. But this is deceiving, if we find peace by ignoring all those unlike ourselves, or by assuming that our nations are guaranteed to cooperate. As I write this, preparing for seminars on interwar European history and returning from a conference at Ditchley Park—established in the decade after WWII—, I cannot help but recall the profundity of this human desire that is also most ordinary and perpetual.
We find ourselves here in Oxford. Evie put it well, when she quoted one of those who travelled here with her: You may believe that you are arriving only with a suitcase, but you are bringing your whole whanau (“extended family”), and now that you are here, you may reflect on the people who have brought you here. To my ears, this was not a reason for nostalgia, but about having two feet rooted on the ground, rather than in utopia—in the sense of being in no place. The theme surfaced during the Public Leadership Symposium when I spent time with a childhood friend, also a Schwarzman Scholar. We grew up together in Hong Kong. During her year in Beijing, she recalled, this upbringing put her in a particular position to mediate between peers of different backgrounds. Even among people from around the world, while unpacking one’s suitcase in a land away from home, place remains.
Winding down along St. Clement’s Street as Magdalen Bridge comes into view is, to me, a special feeling. It is the architecture, as well as those who have dwelled within these buildings; it is the people with whom I share a life here as well as people who shape me across geographical distance. At its best, it is a place of nourishment as well as contestation. The difficulty of achieving this combination struck me as I meandered through the Alhambra of Granada during the last days of 2018, where 526 years ago the Christian kingdoms overran al-Andalus, and Columbus received royal privileges to explore and transform a new world. This much I feel able to say: In order to steer clear of indoctrination, in order to make possible plural modes of leadership, we work harder, not less, to find those real spaces for dialogue.
Lucas Tse (Hong Kong & Hertford 2018) is a Rhodes Scholar currently reading for an MPhil in Economic and Social History at the University of Oxford.
Photo: Alhambra and the Sierra Nevada mountains of Granada