Bridging the divide: Resolving conflict from Prospect to Belfast

"How can a community of learning really thrive without fully immersing itself into its surrounding environment?" asks John Kiess.

While some UVA students are content to live inside the academic and social cocoon of the University, Kiess, who graduated in 2001, worries about the divide between UVA and its community. For the past year and a half, the Massachusetts native has been winning grants and helping out the low-income Prospect neighborhood.

That dedication to community recently paid off for Kiess, a Phi Beta Kappa graduate, as he was recently selected as one of 11 George Mitchell scholars for 2004. From a field of more than 300 applicants, the Political and Social Thought major was awarded one year of study at an Irish university.

He leaves in September for Queens University in Belfast, where he will pursue a master's degree in Comparative Ethnic Conflict, studying how ethnicities are defined and how conflicts can be resolved peacefully. His focus will be the unrest in northern Ireland as well as farther-reaching places like Rwanda and Bosnia.

Kiess may have already begun his work here in Charlottesville, where he has been examining the racial and socioeconomic divides of the community. Lamenting the visible racial separation, he says he's trying to "work out the historical challenges embedded in Charlottesville," and to dispel the "myth that we're not connected."

Having formed close relationships with Prospect Avenue residents before moving to the neighborhood, Kiess says he was warmly welcomed by his neighbors in his seven months as an AmeriCorps volunteer for Charlottesville's Abundant Life Ministries, a program serving residents around Prospect Avenue.

"He made a step to identify with the quality of life issues families face on a daily basis," says Abundant Life Ministries director Rydell Payne.

Kiess, who has landed more than $50,000 in private grants for his community, works with neighbors to stimulate grassroots leadership in the community and promote collaboration between his neighbors and City Council on issues such as safety and drug abuse.

He co-leads a life skills program for fifth through eighth graders and has secured an AmeriCorps grant that will bring two to three of the organization's volunteers to Charlottesville each year. He is also working with UVA to create opportunities for students to serve a multiyear volunteer commitment to the community.

While he's unsure of what will come after Belfast, Kiess hints that he's inspired by the "organic intellectuals who are practitioners first and whose writing emerges from experience."

Will he return to Charlottesville? "That's an unfair question," he says with a smile. "But I'll definitely come back to visit the close friends I've made."