GoAbroad Interview

Dave Santulli - Founder & Executive Director

Dave Santulli - Founder & Executive Director

David Santulli is the Founder and Executive Director of United Planet, an international nonprofit that connects volunteers who want to make a difference with communities in 35 countries. United Planet volunteers have the opportunity to learn, teach, work, engage and immerse themselves in a culture outside their comfort zone. Since 2001, United Planet volunteers have dedicated over 1,000,000 hours to many areas, which include education, women's empowerment, health, and environmental sustainability.

What was the impetus for your founding United Planet almost 14 years ago?

It was a surprising journey that I could never have expected. It started when I visited the Soviet Union as a child and met a woman at the Bolshoi Theater in Moscow, who asked me “Why do you hate us so much? Why do you want to destroy us?” After college, as I traveled around the world alone with a backpack and tent, I was welcomed into one home after another for lunch or for good night’s sleep—from the Cook Islands of the South Pacific to the medinas of Morocco.

Volunteering in Honduras

Dave in earlier days volunteering in Honduras.

I realized that my life had been totally transformed and enriched by my cross-cultural friendships and global experiences. I understood that if only we could create stronger relationships rooted in respect, appreciation, and understanding, then there would be no limits to the challenges that we could overcome and the endless possibilities that we could realize.  

I could see no greater purpose to my life than to encourage people to step beyond their borders, discover the magic in each other, become inspired by the world they live in, and work together to support and learn from each other.

United Planet was selected as one of ten non-profits in CNN’s “Be the Change” initiative in 2001 as a result of your creation of the Cultural Awareness Project. What did the project entail?

We were selected as one of only ten non-profits in the world, not just for the Cultural Awareness Project, but for our entire range of programs, which include local, online, and international relationship-building initiatives. 

The idea of the Cultural Awareness Project came to me when I returned to the U.S. after nine years living in Japan. After moving back, I felt disconnected from the world and I was experiencing a lot of reverse culture shock. When you live abroad, you sometimes have a heightened sense of learning and growth because everything is so new. Even after nine years in Japan, I felt like I was learning a great deal every time I stepped out of the door. It was a full body learning experience.

United Planet Founder in Jordan

Dave in Jordan.

When I first returned to the U.S., I felt like I would no longer have this opportunity. But as I adjusted and walked the streets of Boston and other parts of the country, I realized that I was not disconnected from the world, but surrounded by it. I started to hear Spanish, Arabic, Chinese, Russian, etc. I realized that even though we are surrounded by such incredible cultural diversity, we are not sharing and learning from each other. Even though we are one of the most multicultural societies in the world— Boston University alone has students from over 100 countries—many of the neighboring local public schools have no access to this cultural wealth and wisdom.  

The Cultural Awareness Project brought in speakers from different countries, and with different international experiences, to give presentations and to meet with public school students about their countries and cultures. After 9/11, this program was particularly critical.  There was a tremendous amount of fear—negative stereotypes about peoples from the Middle East were at an all-time high. The Cultural Awareness Project created opportunities for students to form their own perspectives through personal encounters and people-to-people interaction.

In this way, we were able to encourage people across cultures to understand and appreciate the common humanity in each other. In fact, CNN thought this program—albeit simple in concept—was so important and innovative that they followed our speakers into classrooms throughout the Boston Public Schools and did a story on the program. Today, our volunteers are encouraged to share and exchange their cultures when they visit communities around the world.  

You are the creator of the Relational Diplomacy concept, the principle under which United Planet runs. What does this concept entail, and how is it incorporated into United Planet’s programs?

I developed the concept of Relational Diplomacy after researching the peace-building efforts on the island of Cyprus between the Greek Cypriots and the Turkish Cypriots while studying international development and peacebuilding in graduate school. Peace-builders on either side decided to not focus on the tragedies of the past, but to find commonalities among the people on both sides of the conflict.

Volunteers in Ghana

United Planet Volunteers in Ghana.

They created what they called bicommunal groups—groups of people with common interests, such as music, sports, dance, and poetry. These groups learned to appreciate and respect their common passions, built friendships, and developed a rapport together. Once they created stronger relationships around common interests, they were able to address the harder issues. Ultimately, they found a way to work together, organize massive demonstrations, and influence the government to open the borders between the two countries. It was absolutely remarkable. 

Relational diplomacy strives to apply this approach of building relationships around common interests as a framework for uniting the world in a community beyond borders. We focus on common interests, such as key shared global issues (education, health, environmental sustainability) as well common passions, such as cross-cultural sharing.

Your academic background is in International Affairs, Diplomacy, and Law, and you have also served as a teacher, how do you apply all of your varied experiences to your work with United Planet? 

I believe in the Japanese expression that everyone is a teacher and also a student. I have learned much from my academic training, but I believe that I have learned more from my experiences. I try to learn from my mistakes. If there is one thing that I have learned, it is that I still have so much more to learn. This keeps life very exciting for me – a continual adventure.

You have studied Arabic, Chinese, French, Japanese, Russian, and Spanish, what would you tell volunteers about the importance of language learning prior to and during international travel?

I consider language to be the key to a culture. Language contains so much of the philosophy and values of a society. It is very difficult to truly understand a culture if you don’t have some level of understanding of the language. At the very least, it is critical to be able to say thank you, good morning, and other basic greetings. Whenever I go to a new place, I pull out my notebook and start asking, “How do I say this or that?” Then, I start to use the new language right away. It creates an immediate connection with the local people. Despite my sometimes horrific accent, they appreciate so much that I am making an effort to learn the local language. It is also a lot of fun!

Volunteering in Ecuador with children

United Planet Volunteer in Ecuador.

You spent just under a decade living in Japan, how did your experience in Asia influence United Planet’s programming? 

In Japan, harmony and respect among the community is highly valued. Perhaps this custom comes from the ancient rice-farming tradition in which each family had to cooperate with each other to share a common source of irrigation. Cooperation was a necessity for the society.  For whatever reasons these characteristics evolved, I appreciate and respect them so much.  If we could all learn to respect and cooperate together, the world would be a very different place. Of course, I also value independence and self-reliance. When you experience different cultures you are able to pick and choose different values and try to assimilate these values into your own life.

You’ve traveled to over 100 countries, what has been your most memorable experience abroad, and where was it? 

The more I travel, the less I feel that I have seen and the bigger the world becomes to me. I look at the world as an interconnected whole, part of the same common body. It is impossible to pick a place or a culture that I like most. The whole idea of United Planet is building appreciation and respect for each and every culture in the world. We have so much to learn from each. I look forward to continuing to learn from each country and culture even the ones that I have already experienced.

You were the recipient of the President’s Call to Service Award as a result of your accumulating over 4,000 hours of volunteer work. Do you consider this to be your biggest accomplishment? If not, what has been?  

My biggest achievement is being fortunate enough to have a loving family and an incredible team of coworkers to share this journey with, as well as the opportunity to continue learning about and experiencing the world.

What has made United Planet’s programs so successful?

The organization is the people, and we are so fortunate to have people from all over the world who believe in and care about United Planet’s non-profit mission and who work so hard to realize it. At the same time, there is a sense of joy and fulfillment in doing important work, building understanding across cultures, and working together.

Dental Volunteering in Ecuador

United Planet Dental Volunteer in Ecuador.

What is the most fulfilling part of your job?

Hands down, it is the privilege to work with some of the most passionate, caring, interesting, global, and adventurous people I will ever know, including our volunteers who serve in more than 35 countries around the world!

What does the future hold for United Planet? Any updates we should know about?

The United Planet community is only as strong as each and every volunteer, leader, partner, and supporter. We are so excited about the growth and momentum that we have as an organization. Our team has worked so hard across cultures to develop and train our staff; we look forward to continuing to develop as a global organization. We hope to bring about more multilateral participation, create more accessibility within the programs, and to provide more opportunities for ongoing engagement. I cannot close without sharing my favorite quote:  “Individually, we are one drop. Together, we are an ocean,” by Ryunosuke Satoro. 

The world will never be united unless we all realize our role and act upon our responsibility.  When you think about it, a united planet exists in our own hearts and minds already – we need only to find it within ourselves to unlock it.

I hope that United Planet will continue to become an ever more important and positive catalyst in bringing people closer together and creating a more peaceful, sustainable, and united world.