Neal Keny-Guyer, chief executive officer for Mercy Corps, will be the keynote speaker at the June 11 commencement ceremony. Mercy Corps is a humanitarian organization dedicated to providing relief for communities experiencing extreme strife or natural calamities, partnering with local organizations to improve those programs so they can eventually operate without assistance, and helping to develop sustainable communities.
The organization’s international headquarters are in southwest Portland, where it has grown from a small room to a three-building operation, with a fourth building soon to open. Mercy Corps operates in over 30 countries, meeting critical needs and building a base for future stability and community-controlled improvement.
Despite having lived in Portland for almost 11 years, Keny-Guyer still retains the Southern charm and twang from his Southern roots. His office at the Mercy Corps headquarters is dominated by a National Geographic wall map of the world, adorned with dozens of tiny red flags indicating established Mercy Corps operations. He seems perfectly at ease in his roomy, naturally lit office in the midst of several large and stunning portraits from communities all over the world.
A Tennessee native with a casual demeanor and piercing blue eyes, Keny-Guyer graduated from Duke University in North Carolina with a bachelor’s in public policy and religion. He also received a master’s in public and private management from Yale.
Remembering his time as a fresh college graduate, Keny-Guyer notes that his professional trajectory “certainly wasn’t a chartered path.”
“You can take some risks,” he advises graduates. Above all, “follow your passions.”
It was doing just that which led Keny-Guyer to his next step after his own graduation.
“I really knew I wanted to work with inner-city kids in Atlanta,” he said.
In 1980, after working with at-risk youth in Georgia and Washington, D.C., Keny-Guyer moved to Thailand to aid Cambodian refugees as a field coordinator for CARE/UNICEF.
Despite his record of working in some of the world’s most war-torn and ravaged countries designing and implementing relief strategies, Keny-Guyer’s most challenging position was the year he spent as a home-dad with his first child.
“It was my hardest job yet,” he said. Keny-Guyer is the proud father of three children: two boys and a “little princess.”
In light of ongoing efforts at PSU to establish and improve university-community partnerships through many programs such as senior Capstone programs, it’s not such a surprise that Keny-Guyer was asked to speak at this year’s commencement exercise.
Every Wednesday this term, PSU partnered with Mercy Corps to offer “International Humanitarian Relief: Reports from Mercy Corps Staff” so that students could learn and discuss many topics related to Mercy Corps’ humanitarian efforts. PSU also donated $2,000 to Mercy Corps this year, all funds raised by students to aid in the tsunami relief efforts. In the past, Keny-Guyer has guest-taught in the Conflict Resolution Department at PSU with Dr. Robert Gould.
Though his demanding schedule keeps Keny-Guyer traveling for 40 percent of his working hours, he says he is happy to make time to speak to PSU graduates.
Historically, PSU has chosen keynote speakers based on a variety of criteria, whether artistic accomplishment and cultural relevance, as with James De Priest, former conductor and laureate music director for the Oregon Symphony, in 2003, or outstanding albeit controversial extracurricular achievements as with Miss America Katie Harmon in 2002.
“It’s an honor whenever you’re asked to talk to folks at a critical part of their lives,” he said. “Portland State is an important part of this community.”
And community is of the utmost importance to Keny-Guyer and Mercy Corps.
“I feel it’s important to integrate my professional life, which is so international, with the community,” he said.
Keny-Guyer stressed that globalization is one of the most significant issues at hand for Mercy Corps and the world, and therefore for graduates getting ready to take on the challenges of this world.
Regardless of one’s views on the rights of international investors and on the impacts of transnational corporations, the phenomenon of globalization is real and unavoidable. “None of us really understand. The change is so overwhelming,” Keny-Guyer said.
Other issues Keny-Guyer cited as being important globally are poverty, world relations to Islam and peace building.
“The question is can we, in our way, meet humanitarian needs but also build a bridge of understanding,” Keny-Guyer said.