Q&A with TOMODACHI Program Participants and TOMODACHI Alumni: Rachel Brooks
Rachel Brooks was a U.S. delegate for the 2018 TOMODACHI Mitsui & Co. Leadership Program. She is a Rotary Peace Fellow and MA candidate in International Relations and Security Studies at England’s University of Bradford. Her research centers around democracy, corporate social responsibility, and technology policy, particularly the fight against disinformation. Prior to her Rotary Peace Fellowship, Rachel managed social impact and experiential learning programs for the Center for Business, Government & Society at Dartmouth College’s Tuck School of Business. Before Dartmouth, she spent two years teaching English on Jeju Island, South Korea with the U.S. Department of State’s Fulbright Program, and she now serves as a Fulbright U.S. student alumni ambassador. As a Sharpe Community Scholar and Honors fellow, Rachel graduated from The College of William & Mary with a degree in public policy and honors in interdisciplinary studies.
The interview was held on November 17, 2020 by Reika Mihara, TOMODACHI Alumni Intern (2020) based out of Tokyo, Japan.
Q1. How did you become passionate about democracy, peacebuilding, and security?
I studied public policy in undergrad where I largely focused on education policy and sociolinguistics. I recognized that education systems looked vastly different around the world, but I had not had a chance to visit any other countries except through my readings. Then, I got a chance to teach English on Jeju Island in South Korea for two years after graduation. That was where I fell in love with peace studies and international security, including peacebuilding in East Asia.
While teaching abroad, it was eye opening to see how my students perceived the United States and why. At the same time, it was sometimes challenging to represent the entirety of my home country as one person with only one set of experiences. When I returned to the United States, I was resolved to learn more about the roles of different sectors in solving some of society’s biggest issues. In my current Rotary Peace Fellowship, I have been able to focus on peacebuilding and security, especially the free flow of information and the future of democracy.
Q2. What are the most challenging and beautiful aspects in working on the issue of disinformation? How do you think we can be responsible in distinguishing reliable information?
I think the challenging part is that there are so many bad actors intentionally spreading harmful and untrue information. That is also what makes this a really critical space for research. It is exciting to see all of the innovation and efforts of people trying to protect information online. The challenging and beautiful pieces are two sides of the same coin. Freedom of speech is one example. The fact that we value free speech and public debate is so important to democracy, but those values also create vulnerabilities bad actors can exploit by spreading disinformation. I think that being able to think through how we help make the world a safer place online and in person is both a big opportunity and a big challenge.
When we think about what we as citizens can do in distinguishing disinformation, there are a few pieces of advice that come to mind. One would be questioning the content that we see on social media, even if it comes from people we trust. Also, reading articles fully before sharing them is important to make sure that you agree with what you are sharing beyond the headline and that it comes from a verifiable source. Disinformation relies on attention and amplification, so be thoughtful about what articles you share. While I think that digital platforms and governments have a large role in addressing this issue, there are a lot of really great digital and media literacy resources for us as citizens looking at the information environment to educate ourselves.
Q3. What was your most significant takeaway from the TOMODACHI Mitsui & Co. Leadership Program?
Something that truly stood out to me was recovery, resilience, and innovation following a disaster. I learned a lot about disaster recovery that applies to my peace studies and security work now. I was particularly moved by the stories of people in Ishinomaki, Miyagi Prefecture, on the response to the earthquake and tsunami. Learning about community-based responses and innovation after the tragedy, I thought it was really incredible how the responses spurred growth in social entrepreneurship and different innovations to help rebuild Japan.
I knew about the Great East Japan Earthquake before participating in the program, but witnessing the responses in the cities, some of the lasting effects on the landscape of the area, and how people’s lives had been impacted on individual and community levels was really powerful. Meeting people in different Japanese communities was one of my favorite parts about TOMODACHI. We spent several days focusing on innovation and entrepreneurship in Tokyo, and we also went to various areas in the Tohoku region, where I had an experience that I don’t know if I could have ever had otherwise. It shaped the way I think about disaster recovery after the earthquake and tsunami. There were a lot of really moving lessons in how Japan responded to the disaster.
Q4. Looking back on your experience in the program, what does TOMODACHI mean to you?
What comes to mind is my favorite Japanese phrase that I learned on the TOMODACHI program: ichigo ichie (一期一会) – having this moment and this opportunity. I think it really encapsulates my TOMODACHI experience because I am always going to cherish those moments and find them so powerful. It is such a fantastic program and I am so grateful to have been a part of it. One thing that I really appreciated in the program was that both the Japanese and U.S. delegates came from such a diverse array of backgrounds and industries. I think there is such thoughtfulness in building the TOMODACHI programs. It was exciting that, even within the ten U.S. fellows and the ten Japanese delegates, there were people who came from government, business, and nonprofit backgrounds and various regions of the U.S. and Japan. I think that intentionality really enhanced the program. It shows how people in different industries can come together to keep strengthening U.S.-Japan relations. I am excited to stay connected and happy to be a resource if people want to learn more or ask any questions.
Q5. What are your future ambitions, and how do you see them in terms of the U.S.-Japan relationship?
I would love to continue doing democracy and anti-disinformation work following my graduate fellowship. I plan to keep thinking about how we can innovate democracies and build a safer internet through technology policy. I am also really passionate about corporate social responsibility and sustainability. Those are the two pathways I could see myself really delving into because I believe disinformation and the climate crisis are two critical issues of our time.
I see international cooperation as the pillar of my career thus far and moving forward. Within peacebuilding, it is important to think not just about conflict but also about peace, which is sometimes harder to measure. Peace-building is so multi-faceted. Soft diplomacy programs like those of TOMODACHI are so important to strengthening relations, for they give citizens of different countries an opportunity to see a new location and understand people from different backgrounds. This international cooperation is something that I am really excited to stay engaged with. I will carry my experiences in Japan with TOMODACHI throughout my career pursuing different kinds of international security operations.
Q6. Looking back on your experience, what do you think is important for students and young professionals?
I think my answer would be to find what really drives you. I am grateful for opportunities to test out different hats and see what fits best and what aspects I am most passionate about. From being an English teacher in South Korea to my current Rotary Peace Fellowship, I have been able to find the threads that drive me. Maybe you care about disinformation and democracy but feel more passionate about something else. I think that is important because there are so many challenges facing today’s society. Test out those interests and do not be afraid to change course. Even within my TOMODACHI program cohort, I saw people who had vastly different passions that propelled their career interests from human resources management to autonomous vehicle safety. We need people in each of those spaces. Take note of what you get really excited about or what problems you keep coming back to. Take those problems and keep thinking about how we can solve them. Find the challenges that you feel frustrated by and see what you can do to help solve them.