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How did you get involved with the CTSS internship program?
Nicolette: In August of 2016, I think it was, I applied to be a part of the general internship program offered by the Center for Terrorism and Security Studies. Originally I did so because I always had an interest in terrorism and the social sciences in general, but as a business major I never really had an opportunity to dabble in that. And I just saw an ad on the website for it and so I applied thinking I would get a database project, but I ended up being offered the opportunity to work with the Peer-2-Peer project: Challenging Extremism.
Tell us a little bit about your specific Peer-2-Peer project?
Nicolette: So our project, or now our non-profit organization, originally started out as a project that came out of Peer-2-Peer, which is sponsored by EdVenture Partners, the Department of Homeland Security, and Facebook. Essentially, the whole idea of Peer-2-Peer is to create countering violent extremism initiatives that are completely out of the thought process of university students. The idea is that university students are closer in age to the target audiences of most terrorist organizations so we can better think in the way that a potential violent extremist recruiter may think. Part of the idea also may be that college students exist in this ‘critical thinking space.’ We are in academia, we are about to move into the job market, and we are just constantly thinking about how we can solve problems, how we can solve our own problems, and most people who get recruited by a terrorist organization are either teenagers or in their early to mid-20s, so we’re right in that wheelhouse. But, simply put, we were given the prompt by the sponsors to counter violent extremism online in the most effective way that we saw fit. Many initiatives that came out of this program seem to be largely social media based, but we are very different in the sense that social media (or counter narratives) is not a main pillar of what we do.
Before we decided on developing Op250 (our organization), we started thinking about how we could best address the prompt given. We spent about a month, the entire month of September, researching about how terrorist organizations recruit online, how children are susceptible, why children are susceptible, and we ended up on our own coming to this conclusion that as children we never received a proper education on terrorism or violent extremism. We never really had a discussion about this with our parents, with our teachers, or with anybody formally in the school system to be quite honest. We identified that there’s this lack of knowledge among American youth about terrorism and we decided that maybe this lack of knowledge or this lack of awareness might be making them more vulnerable to being recruited by a violent extremist recruiter online.
So we quickly became fixated on this idea of lack of knowledge. And in compliment with that, we researched other problems that maybe contributing to radicalization among American youth, and we recognized that online safety is a core aspect of it. Children are being taught the basics of online safety, but as the world is digitizing and everything is now evolving around the online sphere, children need to be far more properly equipped to protect themselves. I mean, sexual grooming comes up a lot in schools, teachers talk about bullying and very basic safety things but I don’t think anyone has thought about terrorism as being a direct threat to our children. And quite honestly it is, violent extremist recruiters are moving into the spaces where children exist and they are talking to them. If a child isn’t aware that this individual may be in their sphere then they cannot necessarily protect themselves, so Operation250 was born out of these two main problems that we believe need to be addressed jointly.
We address these issues directly by providing children with an education on terrorism, how terrorism works, and we do that in compliment with an online safety curriculum. We mesh the two together and try and show them how they work in tandem, or how they can work in tandem. We have three main audiences, we have our children, who are the main audience, and then secondary audiences are the parents and educators. And the reason why they are a part of our target audience is because they are the central gatekeepers to children.
One can say all they want as an organization, ‘I want to work with children,’ ‘I want to change our education system,’ ‘I want to make children more aware.’ That’s all fine and dandy but you can’t do that without working through the people who are closest to them. So we have almost a secondary curriculum, or a secondary way that we deliver our knowledge to them. We give a lot of presentations to parents and educators about how they can protect their children from radicalization, seminar and work shop style generally.
The really interesting thing about Op250 is that with the three very different target audiences we have material that is tailored to all three. And in some way all our content is intertwined and there’s this cross applicable shared theme within all of our content. It’s been a very complicated thing to figure out and a very complicated thing to nail down but we are very happy with the fact that all of the people who work with our content seem to really enjoy how we’ve melted it all together.
Through the Peer-2-Peer competition, Operation250 was selected as a finalist to go to D.C., how was that experience?
Nicolette: Going to D.C. was a very different experience. It was very interesting. I mean the preparation that was necessitated in order for us to be successful in D.C. was really challenging but it was also really rewarding. We spent weeks memorizing our presentation; creating these really aesthetically pleasing PowerPoint slides. We really wanted everything to be perfect because we were presenting to people who we felt really needed to see the best of Operation250. And it was really exciting, but it was also a bit scary. I think we were really confident in what our idea was and what we did, but now we really had to sell it. We had to convince people that this is going to work and this is what CVE needs to look like going forward. So for us it wasn’t really just a competition, it was proving ourselves to the countering violent extremism community.
Although we did end up coming in third, people came up to us afterwards and said, ‘I think you could have gotten first.’ And it was really a subjective thing I think. I think all four teams in the competition in D.C. deserved to get first in some way, shape, or form. Everybody had a really interesting take on the problem. What people really complimented us on, and I’m not saying they didn’t compliment others on is, but they thought the idea was highly sustainable. They thought that it could really be further developed and could grow to be something that is truly used across the country and could really affect a lot of different people in a lot of different ways.
The countering violent extremism community was something that we knew and watched on social media. We watched their websites, we were following the papers and all the different centers that study CVE, but to really be in the midst of it and talk to all these people that we have often “met” online and try to basically pitch them our idea was something that was really exciting. I think that sometimes of course we stumbled, it was our first time doing it, but that practice really gave us the confidence to be where it is we are right now.
We were lucky enough to meet with a very well-known UMass Lowell Alumni, Roger Cressey, and Roger has been very successful in the security field. Roger invited us to come meet with him to share our organization and our ideas with him. He seemed to really like it and donated money to us. And I think that money had a lot more significance than the financial implications. I think he showed a level of confidence in us that really helped to continue our drive to further develop Operation250 and to make the idea come to into development essentially. After we left D.C. we had Rodger backing us, and the university was very supportive. They wrote a couple about pieces on us, they made a video, and it was really wonderful to have all of this support instantly from people. Quickly we had other CVE organizations wanting to partner with us and we have reporters reaching out wanting to learn more about us. It’s been a really interesting experience since then. And I don’t know if it was necessarily what we expected.
What are the future plans with Operation250?
Nicolette: Right now Operation250 is in a bit of a transition period. We have spent the past 6 or 7 months building up the platform, building up the network, we’ve been creating our program, and expanding our organization both in terms of people capacity and in terms of our financial portfolio. We’ve been very lucky to receive some generous donations from individuals, from the university, and from different competitions to sustain our efforts and we’re very excited about that. So right now we’re making that transition from being an online educational platform into an organization that visits schools and works with children and more regularly is interacting with our target audience.
Going forward, the one-year plan for Operation 250, as in what we hope to accomplish by the end of spring 2018, is a bit multi-faceted. One, we are launching two pilot studies next semester. Starting in the winter we’re going to be working with Harvard University to test our effectiveness both empirically and academically (as a part of a larger CVE effectiveness study). Also, around the January/February time frame Opeartion250 is partnering with the University of Massachusetts Lowell to launch a separate pilot study where we come up with our own methodological framework to test our effectiveness. We’re very excited about that opportunity. Secondly, we are partnering with school districts around Massachusetts as we speak, and within the next few weeks we’re meeting with different superintendents and principals about Operation 250 working with their schools. We are visiting classrooms in the next few months, and we are also putting on a large conference for educators in the Spring. In terms of three-year plan, I think the goal is that Operation250 has been proven effective, we are a well-known thing across Massachusetts, and we’re looking to go into other parts of the country, possibly even going internationally. So we’re very excited and I think it’s only been made possible because of all of the partnerships and the expansive network that is supporting us.
During your time in this internship, what have you gained from it?
Nicolette: A lot. A lot. A lot a lot a lot. I’m going to try and articulate that better. So originally when the internship started I think I gained the basic skills that come with most internships. You do group projects in class but I don’t think I had ever been more fully immersed in a work style experience that involved collaborating with others to solve a problem, and that was really fascinating.
As a business major I felt in many ways that I had to make up for the fact that I wasn’t a criminal justice major or a political science major, and I wasn’t getting this regular education that everyone else on the team was getting about terrorism. Of course, as a part of being of being in this organization, I had to learn a lot about terrorism and current CVE practices. It has involved a lot of reading and a lot of books, but it is all highly interesting.
What are you looking to do after graduation?
Nicolette: I think that as a business major and minor in foreign languages, I might have a slightly different path than others who are coming out of the center. I don’t really like business, I like having that knowledge I’m just not interested in it, I never really had very much interest in it. I think right now what I am mulling over and what I am trying to figure out in my head is what my field is going to be. I think that everyone else has a vantage point from which the view the problem that we’re trying to address. Some people are political scientists, some are forensic psychologists, some are in security studies, and some are historians, so I think that the first step for me would largely be picking what I want to do my masters in, what the vantage point is I want to view the problem from. And I think that this may be something that I want to go into, it would just be figuring out what angle I want to tackle it from, whether that be academia, the government, or the private sector. I’m not really sure. There are a lot of different options with what this is. Over the summer I worked for a Middle East think tank, or Middle East policy institute, and I worked for people who did work on terrorist financing, jihadists, and CVE. It started making me think about what my specialty might be in the future. I have a lot of interests and I am not really sure what interests me the most. Radicalization, sexual grooming, and other semi related subjects are also fascinating. Terrorism has a lot of cross applicable qualities that can fall into other fields, and I think that is something I enjoy about it.