Concordia professor strives to prevent violence before it starts

As co-chair of anti-radicalization initiative, Vivek Venkatesh is focused on prevention over punishment

Concordia professor Vivek Venkatesh balances many responsibilities, from director of the university’s Centre for the Study of Learning and Performance to creator of Project Someone, a multimedia initiative designed to promote digital literacy and prevent hate speech. Now, he has one more role to add to the list—co-chair of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO)’s new chair on the prevention of radicalization and violent extremism.

The initiative, which recently received $400,000 in funding from the Quebec government to be distributed over the next four years, will focus on goals that include developing research programs to shape public policy and enhancing cooperation between researchers, communities and other stakeholders that play a role in preventing violent radicalization.

Venkatesh’s involvement with the chair began in October 2016, when he spoke at a UNESCO conference on the subject of youth radicalization via the internet. Following this conference, he worked with Université de Sherbrooke professor David Morin and Université du Québec à Montréal (UQAM) professor Ghayda Hassan to create a chair proposal that focuses on the prevention of radicalization.

“It needs to go beyond simply incarceration. It needs to go into the field of rehabilitation, of community resilience and bringing the public voice to bear,” Venkatesh said of the chair’s approach to addressing the issue.

Venkatesh noted that there is no single definition of radicalization agreed upon by governments and academics, although it is often considered a process in which people who would normally hold “moderate viewpoints” on political and social issues shift to more extreme perspectives. Venkatesh added that the UNESCO chair is not focused on all forms of radicalization, but rather on instances in which radicalization leads to violence.

For Venkatesh, the issue of radicalization has personal significance, as he has lost a family member to a terror attack. “It shaped the way I think about hate,” he said. “It shapes the way I think about how we can build spaces to have dialogues.”

The chair proposal, according to Venkatesh, was first vetted by group of professionals working with the Canadian Commission for UNESCO before being presented to and approved by the UNESCO headquarters in Paris.

Although all three co-chairs bring their own unique research and expertise to the table, Venkatesh is heavily invested in exploring the ways in which art and multimedia platforms can be used to prevent and understand radical violence. The three professors are also not working alone; they have support from over 25 international partners, including universities, non-profit organizations and other UNESCO chairs.

Before becoming co-chair of this effort, Venkatesh was already working to address hate speech and radicalization in a highly digitized world through Project Someone, which includes programs that provide learning resources on digital literacy, and an “anti-hate” comic series intended to start classroom dialogues on the issue.

Ultimately, Venkatesh said he believes the success of this chair will hinge on the diverse experiences and perspectives that he and his co-chairs have brought to their work.

“One of the things that will be successful to this chair is the fact that […] we have our experience and projects,” he said. “We know what we do well, and we know how we can help each other do better.”

Graphic by Zeze Le Lin

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