Colloquium: “How do Moral Beacons Foster Community?”

“How do Moral Beacons Foster Community?”

Hanesbrand Theater in Winston-Salem, NC 

April 17th and 18th, 2018

Event Purpose: Recent years have seen an increased interest in the study of “moral beacons,” or the morally exceptional in society. However, current society is characterized by a lack of agreement over the nature of community, and disagreement over fundamental questions of identity, citizenship and ideology. This raises the question of whether moral beacons do in fact play a positive role in fostering character and community development. Such a discussion would help facilitate discussion of important questions including the following: Do moral beacons enable people to work across differences that exist across different communities (as moral beacons such as Martin Luther King Jr. did), or does the current climate mean that our silo-ed communities are doomed to have its own moral beacons? Can “moral beacons” foster positive societal change? Is a dearth of moral beacons in contemporary society indicative of deeper problems in our community? We believe that the time is ripe for a discussion of the role “moral beacons” have in fostering community and dialogue across different communities, as well as their place in contemporary society.


Tuesday April 17

Talk from Larry Walker, Professor of Psychology at University of British Columbia, Moral Psychology Research Knowledge Expert

Talk from Deogratias Niyizonkiza, protagonist of Pulitzer Prize-winning author Tracy Kidder’s bestselling book Strength in What Remains

Registration for Tuesday April 17

Wednesday April 18

Talk from Larissa MacFarquhar, the author of “Strangers Drowning: Grappling with Impossible Idealism, Drastic Choices, and the Overpowering Urge to Help”

Panel Discussion with all speakers

Registration for Wednesday April 18



Deogratias Niyizonkiza—The protagonist of Pulitzer Prize-winning author Tracy Kidder’s bestselling book Strength in What Remains, Deogratias (“Deo”) was a medical student in Burundi during the ethnic civil war between the Hutus and the Tutsis. When the violence broke out, he was working in a hospital that was demolished by rebel soldiers. He was the only survivor. Traveling alone, he managed to escape Burundi and arrived in America with $200, knowing no one, speaking not a word of English. The story follows Deo through the extraordinary events that led him to attend Columbia University within two years of his arrival in the US. He attended medical school in the US and has gone on to establish Village Health Works, which serves the southern half of Burundi, including thousands of recently repatriated refugees from Tanzania. VHW operates the nation’s premier health center, agricultural development programs, educational services, women’s income-generating activities, and a number of other community development programs. Deo is the recipient of numerous awards, including an honorary degree from Williams College, the 2011 International Medal Award of St. John’s University, and the 2010 Women Refugee Commission’s Voices of Courage Award. In 2013, he received the prestigious Eisenhower Medallion Award in recognition of his “exceptional contribution to world peace and understanding.” In 2014, he was honored by the Dalai Lama as an Unsung Hero of Compassion. Deo’s story is simultaneously the quintessential American immigrant tale and a powerful account of redemption though education and the compassion of everyday people.

Larissa MacFarquhar has been a staff writer at The New Yorker since 1998. Her Profile subjects have included John Ashbery, Barack Obama, Noam Chomsky, Hilary Mantel, Derek Parfit, David Chang, and Aaron Swartz, among many others. She is the author of “Strangers Drowning: Grappling with Impossible Idealism, Drastic Choices, and the Overpowering Urge to Help” (Penguin Press, 2015). Before joining the magazine, she was a senior editor at Lingua Franca and an advisory editor at The Paris Review, and wrote for Artforum, The Nation, The New Republic, the Times Book Review, Slate, and other publications. She has received two Front Page Awards from the Newswomen’s Club of New York, and her writing has appeared in The Best American Political Writing (2007 and 2009) and The Best American Food Writing (2008). She is an Emerson fellow at New America.

Dr. Larry Walker, Professor, Department of Psychology, University of British Columbia. Dr. Walker’s program of research focuses on the psychology of moral development, particularly in terms of moral reasoning, personality, motivation, and identity. This research is aimed at developing a more full-bodied account of moral functioning that may help explain the psychological dynamics in exemplary moral action; thus we examine both individuals’ conceptions of moral excellence as well as the psychological functioning of a range of actual moral exemplars. Dr. Walker also serves as Associate Dean for Graduate and Postdoctoral Studies.