For Kaley Hearnsberger (10), learning fast and adapting have been constants throughout her professional journey in the international nonprofit space where, she says, every day looks different:
“As the director of communications and development for YARID [Young African Refugees for Integral Development], I might be at a community event, creating content for a website blog, or on a boda boda motorcycle on my way to one of our bridge-to-school field sites. Or I’ll be in the office, writing reports and getting YARID’s story out there. I try to stay flexible and help out where needed!”
This theme of flexibility in the face of each day’s unique challenges has followed Kaley from studying media communications and video productions at PLNU to running her own video production business, “Your Platform Media” to working for several large international development nonprofits, even to rural Kentucky where she got into farming with her husband and son. Very often, as many in the nonprofit sector experience, Kaley feels she’s a magnet for being “thrown in at the deep end,” but her passion for creating a more just world always keeps her afloat.
“To me,” she said, “the biggest things are listening and learning and keeping a mindset of humility and growth, no matter what’s thrown at me, whether it’s Hurricane Harvey disaster relief or growing fish and vegetables in an aquaponics facility with refugee farmers!”
Born in Texas, Kaley moved to central California as a 12-year-old, where she later discovered her love for making movies through a video production class at Fresno Christian High School. Armed with the knowledge of what she wanted to study, she toured PLNU and connected with the Media Communications & Video Productions department. She vividly remembers a friendly tour from now-retired professor Alan Hueth, Ph.D., during which she was awed by the ocean views but was even more impressed by the relational feel of the campus and the 1:1 connections with professors.
Rob Gailey, Ph.D., director of PLNU’s Center for International Development, and Jamie Gates, Ph.D., former director of the university’s Center for Justice & Reconciliation, were two relationships in particular that influenced her to tie social justice and nonprofit work to her interest in media. When Kaley started “Your Platform Media” during college, Gailey and Gates both set Kaley up with connections to nonprofits and social justice organizations, for which she created promotional videos and short documentaries on social justice issues. Reflecting on this experience, she mentioned the resurgence of videography in her current work for YARID.
“[Dr. Gates and Dr. Gailey] really helped me connect the dots and make it a meaningful experience that has now transferred over to what I’m doing now, specifically. It’s funny to come full circle with that! Because I haven’t always been using my degree so specifically in the job world. PLNU definitely had a huge impact on me in that way!”
“[Dr. Gates and Dr. Gailey] really helped me connect the dots and make it a meaningful experience that has now transferred over to what I’m doing now… PLNU definitely had a huge impact on me in that way!”
Kaley’s first position out of college working at a farmer’s market connected her with local farmers and a passion for agriculture, which she carried throughout her professional life –– especially during her internship for the International Rescue Committee (IRC) that grew into a six-year career. Working with refugees in the areas of community health and food security supervising community garden programs across San Diego, she heard refugee stories and learned the importance of access to healthy land and food.
Additionally through the IRC, Kaley met her husband, Cedric, during an event where he worked as the Swahili translator for her aquaponics workshop. They married in 2015, then put a pause on normal life in 2016 to move to Uganda and work for YARID, as well as to travel and volunteer. YARID, which Cedric co-founded with friends in 2007, is a Uganda-based, refugee-led nonprofit that began as an initiative to bring the community together and talk about local issues on the soccer field. It soon grew into a robust bridge-to-formal-schooling program for refugee children in Uganda, with additional programs focusing on women’s empowerment through vocational training and English classes for adults.
Uganda, Kaley explained, is the fourth-largest refugee-host country in the world and the number-one refugee-host country in Africa with over 1.5 million refugees.
“It’s an incredible time to be in the work of refugee support, especially in Uganda, which is such a welcoming country,” she said. “There’s lots of need, and YARID meets that need in a very community-centered way.”
Despite their deep roots in Uganda and YARID, Kaley and Cedric returned to the U.S. in 2017. She would go on to work for the American Red Cross, start a family farm in Kentucky, earn a master’s in management and leadership, and gave birth to their son, Justice, whose name originated during a rally which Kaley and Cedric — a refugee himself — attended in support of migrants at the Texas-Mexico border. While hearing story after story of migrant families being separated from their children, Kaley thought about how soon she would be a mother, and the pain and injustice she would feel in their shoes. And so, Justice’s name was inspired, as Kaley said, because “the world always needs more Justice.”
This pursuit of a more just world permeates every part of Kaley’s professional journey, and the social justice aspect of her early video work added meaning and drive to her craft.
“My worldview and belief system — a lot of it having been shaped from my time at PLNU — centers around the importance of social justice,” she explained. “There are systems in our world that aren’t fair or equal, and I want to continually be learning about these systems, how I should interact with them, and in a professional setting be in organizations that are humanitarian in nature.”
“My worldview and belief system — a lot of it having been shaped from my time at PLNU — centers around the importance of social justice.”
While she acknowledges humanitarian organizations are never fully perfect, she nonetheless wants to be in these spaces, creating systems that contribute to a more equitable world.
During her time at the American Red Cross, Kaley was thrown into the field of disaster management when Hurricane Harvey hit the Gulf Coast. As a senior engagement specialist, she was given the task of coordinating over 6,000 volunteers who showed up to help at the Austin Convention Center.
“This was an incredible experience, despite having to figure things out quickly,” she said. “It was amazing to see a community step up and help those who lost their homes.”
Then, following the murder of George Floyd in 2020, Kaley led conversations among her Red Cross peers; not because she’s qualified, she clarified, but instead, “because these conversations are important, and it takes people to voice that they want to have these conversations in larger organizations to bring it to the level of personal experience.”
Experiences like these in nonprofit leadership inspired Kaley to pursue an online management & leadership degree from Western Governors University. One of the most meaningful guiding principles Kaley gleaned from her graduate program came in the form of a quote from sixth-century Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu, who wrote: “A leader is best when people barely know he exists, when his work is done, his aim fulfilled, they will say: we did it ourselves.”
This quote resonated with Kaley who, throughout her career, has experienced effective leadership as not governing from the top down, but rather helping people feel their participation and ownership.
“It’s so important to involve the community, yet so many organizations don’t have that straight. I’m lucky to see YARID as a prime example of that, and that’s why it’s so effective and impactful with so few resources.”
Moving back to Uganda in 2022 to work for YARID full time, Kaley’s role has been, she said, “to get YARID’s story out, to break down barriers to resources, and to gain more access to more competitive, high-level funding.”
Uganda has, in Kaley’s experience, a refreshingly friendly and relational workplace ethic. Her colleagues take time for tea and getting to know and care for her. This ethos, she said, extends to the work they do daily in the wider community.
Looking back on her time at the Point, if given the option, Kaley would’ve created her own major melding media communications, international development, and social justice, since at the nexus of these three lies her career. But, for anyone interested in following in Kaley’s footsteps, she advises that it was the relationships and conversations with professors that influenced her path more than anything else.
“I’ve had a great career because I wasn’t seeking a career, but rather being involved in places and spaces where people were doing what I felt were important, world-changing things,” she said. “Whether you’re growing fish and vegetables in an aquaponics facility with refugee farmers, or you’re in Kentucky with your kid watching your sheep […] it’s really how you shape your experiences in life, and what you try to get out of that! There are people at PLNU who have definitely shaped me in that way, in how to engage with the world.”
“I’ve had a great career because I wasn’t seeking a career, but rather being involved in places and spaces where people were doing what I felt were important, world-changing things.”
A lot of what she learned during her communications degree, Kaley said, has become redundant due to the fast-paced changes in the tech world. But the conversations about social justice –– how to engage with it and frame it for the outside world –– have remained the most meaningful aspects of her education. In her words, “That’s what being in the PLNU environment can do: challenge you to consider different ways of seeing things.”