Bringing her experience working to address global conflict, Anderson intends to use data to better assess how hostilities emerge and evolve.
Jessica Anderson
Jessica Anderson

In early 2019, Jessica Anderson was working with the nonprofit Global Communities in Sri Lanka to help mend societal scars from the island nation’s past civil war when Sri Lanka suffered the worst terror attack in its history. Six coordinated suicide bombings ripped through churches and hotels during Easter services, killing 258 people and shaking the nation.

For Anderson—whose job with Global Communities was, in part, to help create programs to help Sri Lanka recover from its national strife—the attacks were disheartening and personally harrowing. She had been in the country only a month prior to the attacks and had previously stayed in one of the hotels that was bombed.

But the violence also stressed the need for the work she was doing. And Anderson, who received her BS in Foreign Service from Georgetown University in 2014, will continue her global focus when she attends the University of Chicago Harris School of Public Policy as a Pearson Fellow with The Pearson Institute this fall. One of Anderson’s goals is learning how to use data-driven strategies to predict when discord might intensify—and, ideally, to create interventions to prevent conflicts from escalating into bloodshed.

“Research is pointing to patterns that we may not have previously understood in how violence evolves,” Anderson said. “And I think there are a lot of opportunities to use data and other analytical frameworks to find patterns in what might otherwise appear as just something terrible. That gives me hope.”

Raised in Minnesota’s Twin Cities—home to a number of immigrant and refugee communities— Anderson grew up hearing the stories of people who had fled violent conflicts. When she was in sixth grade, her family moved to Cameroon for a year so her mother could work in a rural hospital. In college, Anderson learned Arabic and studied abroad in Jordan.

“My experiences growing up brought the reality of those communities a lot closer and it made them more than just news stories that happen to people on the other side of the world,” Anderson said.

Anderson’s work with Global Communities has included supporting country offices to coordinate construction of a National Blood Transfusion Center in Haiti and to strengthen citizen participation in local governance in Nicaragua. But most of her work has been related to Sri Lanka, where she has assisted in developing a program to support the Sri Lankan government and civil society to organize peace-building efforts, such as multicultural festivals, regional forums, and community and economic development activities.

“Trying to understand a complex conflict and its implications for program design, and then dealing with the nuts-and-bolts issues of implementation, forced me to face practical questions about how you get at the factors really driving a problem and what it takes to turn a potentially good idea into something tangible.” Those questions eventually led her to Harris Public Policy and The Pearson Institute, which works to identify data-driven, pragmatic strategies to mitigate such conflicts through policy.

“I liked the idea of public policy as the science of trying to solve big social challenges, and I was drawn to the quantitative, analytical approach of, ‘How can we solve those problems using data and structured methods?’”

At an Admitted Student Day at Harris, Anderson said she was further convinced to attend when listening to a talk given by Harris Deputy Dean and Pearson Institute professor Ethan Bueno de Mesquita, whose research focuses on using game theory models to understand political violence.

“He said that you could design the most technically ideal policy solution, but if no one would take it up and it can’t be implemented, then it’s not a good solution,” Anderson said.

Although Anderson said she knows conflict and violence are inherent to humanity and will always exist, she noted, “I think there’s hope in people. And as cliché as it sounds, humans are capable of both really terrible and really amazing things.”