Scholar Spotlight: Donald Cassell

Donald Cassell is a Senior Fellow at Sagamore Institute and directs Sagamore’s Africa portfolio. A native of Liberia, Mr. Cassell works “to encourage and nurture Liberia’s growth and development through scholarship, conversation, and action with the hope of strengthening civil society and business investment in Liberia.” Prior to joining Sagamore Institute in 2009, Mr. Cassell spent 20 years working as an architect in Indianapolis. Recently, he helped establish an architecture course at the University of Liberia, combining two of his greatest passions. Sagamore Institute spoke with Mr. Cassell about his past and present work in Liberia. We invite you to read about Mr. Cassell’s past, present, and future endeavors below.

Sagamore: How would you describe your experience  growing up in Liberia? What made you decide to move to America?

Cassell: I was born and raised in Monrovia Liberia West Africa, in a Liberian family with close ties to the Christian Church and a certain Westernized gloss. My recollection is mostly of a peaceful and pleasant childhood that was rudely disrupted just as I was making the transition from high school to college. Liberia suffered a bloody coup d’état that was most consequential negatively for every facet of Liberian society. 

Before this horrible occurrence in 1980, when I graduated from high school in 1979, I visited the United States as graduation gift from my mother, and was encouraged to return there for college. But I was rather reluctant to come back to the US for undergraduate studies and thought more of it for graduate studies. But the occurrence of the coup the following year in April made my mother press her claims more that I should begin undergraduate studies in the US.

What was it like, moving to the US?

The transition from Liberia to US was rather smooth except for the severe cold. I thought the winters were hulkish. My school was in Boston, Massachusetts. And the learning curve was a challenge doing architecture engineering rather than architecture design. But I grew spiritually and intellectually, learning humility. Things much to my profit. The growth experience in Boston did lead me to study theology after I graduated from architectural engineering school. Theology, as a kind of meta science, began to help me attend to the larger questions that I was asking about knowledge and life.

How did you get involved with the Sagamore Institute?

Upon graduating from Seminary, I sought employment in architecture and was fortunate to find employment in Indianapolis. Because Liberia disintegrated into war and wholesale destruction, I could not go back home. And so I stayed on in the United States with Liberia still very much on my mind and in my heart. My stay in the United State was very rewarding in every way, spiritually, intellectually and professionally. 

When I met the Sagamore Institute, I had been practicing architecture for about 16 years. My involvement with the Sagamore Institute was occasioned by a visit of then Candidate Mrs. Ellen Johnson Sirleaf. Mrs. Sirleaf was running to be President of Liberia. The Sagamore Institute was kind enough to take a chance with me and agree to help me and some good friends receive Mrs. Sirleaf formally in Indianapolis in 2005. Much to our delight, Mrs. Sirleaf went on to win the Liberian Presidency, becoming Liberia’s 24th President and the first elected female head of state in Africa. 

The Sagamore and I continued our dialogue discovering that we had a common interest in International Development. And so I was brought on initially as an Associate Fellow and in time as a Senior Fellow.

Can you describe the Liberia Initiatives in Sagamore's Africa Rising research portfolio?

Liberia rose in 1847 and fell in 1980 and is now rising again since 2003. The Liberian Initiative at the Sagamore Institute is a response to Liberia’s second rising. Liberia’s rising is a part of the larger rising of Africa, and a part of the Sagamore Institute’s overall research interest in Africa’s rise, socially, culturally, and economically. The Sagamore Institute in its research interest seeks to encourage and nurture Liberia’s growth and development through scholarship, conversation, and action with the hope of strengthening civil society and business investment in Liberia. 

We have developed principles and policies from our research and study in the art of nation building and national development. Our principles include “Progress is our successes on our way to full knowledge and full love”, as well as “Human existence is something more than ordinary existence in time and space. For man, to be means to know and to love” (The Meaning of Civilization).

In our policy statements, we have tried not to reinvent the wheel but instead have looked to case studies and best practices of what is working now and have worked in the past. We have insisted on meaningful international partnerships in Liberia’s efforts at national development and nation building. International partnerships will be necessary and must be deep to be effectual and consequential.

Will you elaborate further on these policy statements?

In our research we have underscored the importance of case studies. Building a modern nation-state is indeed a difficult task, but other nations and peoples have done it successfully. We have tried to study their success to see how it might be adopted to the situation in Liberia. We have highlighted an institution in Brazil, EMBRAPA, the Brazilian Agriculture Scientific Corporation that has proven so strategic to Brazil’s success in agriculture productivity. We have also dealt with the visioning process in Kenya and Rwanda where the process has proven to be much more fruitful and productive than in Liberia. We have studied citizenship laws around the world to see how Liberia might expand its citizenry to develop and secure the country. 

And we have made prominent in our studies the micro city-state of Singapore (polyglot, multicultural and diverse) for excellence in leadership, transparency, lawfulness, discipline, efficiency, good order, and professionalism. Singapore is now considered one the best managed states in the world. Singapore, as it was developing, used other states as models. Singapore aspired to be like some the best manage small nations in the world.

Agriculture. In this area the Sagamore Institute has two senior fellows who in five years in Liberia built an agricultural research center and a demonstration farm in Ganta Nimba County on the campus of Liberian International Christian College (LICC). (We were also a part of the team that established the LICC which was recently given the authority to grant bachelor degree.) Their work plan included introducing new sustainable farming methods to people in the villages, and teaching the agricultural sciences. With more funding and appropriate international partnerships, local training and participation, the work could be expanded to every county in Liberia. We have written several research briefs on agriculture policy, agriculture education and research, infrastructure, support of small scale farmers, sustainability, deforestation, livestock production, transportation and land tenure. This includes a case study of Brazil’s EMBRAPA mentioned before.

On statecraft and leadership, our position is that the only real revolution is in the enlightenment of the mind and the improvement of character (Durant). And for this reason we are convinced that the quality of the state will depend on the quality of its people. John Stuart Mill said, “the worth of the state in the long run is the worth of the individuals composing it.” This is a fact that is not evaded without substantial cost. Thus, we have emphasized spiritual and intellectual development and growth, seeking leadership training through character and intellectual development. The ISOKO Leadership Workshop (ILW) has been established to disseminate these teachings in Liberia. ILW is usually conducted annually in Liberia. These are the controlling principles guiding our recommendations against declaring Liberia a Christian state. Our appreciation of the meaning of human freedom is closely tried to our understanding of human responsibility. These are two faces of one coin. There can be no celebration of meaningful human freedom without form.  

We are cautiously optimistic of Africa’s rise. We see a great potential for the Liberia Philanthropy Secretariat in taking advantage of the huge opportunities and good will in the international environment for development and national growth. The philanthropic space, including remittances and private investment, is nearly 1 trillion dollars large. We think that Liberia and Africa should continue to engage China with discernment. We have submitted a critical response to Liberian Vision 2030, and think that as a matter of strategic importance, Liberia should leverage its historic tides with the United States as a major development partner. As we have seen with England and Singapore, geography is not destiny. Rather, destiny is all about leadership, policies, ideas and powerful practices. Our piece on state capacity in Liberia’s first republic could help in our understanding of Liberia’s past, and what Liberia’s future could be.

We continue to work on policy issues regarding Liberia and Africa. We have continue our leadership series in the Art of Leadership, a new article published in Marketplace Liberia 2017. We have written a review essay on Calestous Juma’s The New Harvest: Agricultural Innovation in Africa, and have published a researched brief on decentralization in Liberia. Instead of decentralization, we are suggesting a policy of deconcentration. We might be able to accelerate the ongoing revitalization at the JFK Medical Center with the assistance of international partners. We have published a brief on state security in the fall 2018. And now we are working on a book with hopes of publishing at the end of this year 2020 or within the first quarter of next year 2021.    

Liberia needs a think tank, that is, a policy research institute both for training and providing policy analysis to assist with developing competent leadership and good research to inform public policy choices. We are prepared to help in this endeavor in a non-partisan and non-ideological way that is strategic and pragmatic, and in the best interest of Liberia and its local and international partners.

The key to success in Liberia is best establish in modestly assessing our competitiveness as a country, that is, being humble enough to appreciate our needs as a people, that there is a substantial gap in our capacity as a people in knowledge and life. We are hopeful that the rise of Liberia will issue in a better Liberia.

I understand that architecture is one of your passions. Can you describe some of your architectural work and how it relates to your work in Liberia?

Of my years in architecture, I have been singularly impressed by this one great book, The Timeless Way of Building, by Christopher Alexander. I began work with the now defunct Everett I. Brown Company where we did mostly school work, K-12. My time with the local architecture firm of Browning Day Mullins Dierdorf was professionally formative. I particularly remember my role on the Union Station renovation in downtown Indianapolis, Westview Hospital Healthplex on 38 street, and a small press box project on the campus of Ball State University.

At the firm of United Consulting Engineers and Architects, I was privileged to work with local municipalities, of which Vanderburgh County was the largest in terms of project size. During this same period I was provided with the opportunity to make an addition to and renovation of my home in Indianapolis. We took advantage of that opportunity. Contemporaneous with joining the Sagamore Institute, I did a lot church project of which one of my best was never built. Sometimes that happens.

Recently though, I was a part of a team of architects, mostly Liberians, that coordinated, in cooperation with the University authorities, the establishment of a professional course of study in architecture at the University of Liberia. This is especially delightful being so long in coming. It is my understanding that plans for an academic program of study in architecture at the University of Liberia goes back to the 1970s. Our efforts are more recent, however, extending back to about 2017. We are happy and thankful that this is done. We hope to sustain and strengthen the program through international partnerships beginning with local institutions right here in Indiana.

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