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Wilder School Spotlight

Meet Grant Rissler

Grant Rissler
Grant Rissler

By Tiffany Murray-Robertson

With more than 17 years of service working with and on behalf of vulnerable communities, Grant Rissler, a doctoral candidate in public policy and administration at the Wilder School, is giving back through a life of consequence.

Rissler, assistant director of programs at the Commonwealth Educational Policy Institute, has spent those years of service in roles of progressive responsibility covering a range of functions—from issue advocacy to marketing, communications, resource development and paralegal services. Those nonprofit and policy organizations include the Faith and Politics Institute, the South Texas Pro Bono Asylum Representation Project and the Mennonite Central Committee (MCC), a faith-based organization that provides relief, development and peace building interventions in more than 50 countries.

At MCC, Rissler served as an associate at the organization's United Nations liaison office, representing the agency at the Beijing + 5 and the Millennium World Peace Summit of Religious and Spiritual Leaders.

Rissler’s academic credentials include an M.A. in international relations from Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies, a graduate certificate in conflict transformation from Eastern Mennonite University and a B.A. in history from Goshen College. He plans to defend his dissertation on the provision of English language instruction and services for Limited English Proficient students and parents in Virginia this spring.

Off campus, Rissler's a board member for the Richmond Peace Education Center, an organization that promotes inclusive and nonviolent communities through workshops and education trainings. He is also a board member and past chair of fair trade store Ten Thousand Villages. 

For all his good works and heady achievements, Rissler is as down-to-earth as his missionary roots—he was born the second of three boys to Ed and Jean—faithful Mennonites from Pennsylvania who resettled to the Shenandoah Valley—and never strays too far from the spiritual center that clearly shapes his personal and professional life.

“In a career in which I’ve often been distracted by very useful and worthwhile ventures, my Mennonite faith has been the thread that runs through everything,” said Rissler.

A complex and diverse Christian denomination, Mennonites include a range of religious sects known for a commitment to peace and nonviolence and to serving others. 

 “One of the strongest and most defining characteristics of the Mennonite faith is the active commitment to pacifism,” he said.

“There is this sense that if Mennonites will not engage in violence, we must be leaders in peacebuilding, in conflict transformation and in service and in development and relief efforts that respond to basic human needs as well as the need for justice.”

This duty toward service has taken Mennonites all over the world, Rissler’s family included.

Rissler was born in 1976 in a village outside of Nairobi, Kenya, during a time when his parents taught at a rural boarding school supported by Eastern Mennonite Missions. The family moved back to the United States when Rissler was 2, but returned to Somalia when he was 8. For the next two years, he attended the American School of Mogadishu with students from 16 nationalities.

“That experience of being a child in a different culture—one that was predominantly Muslim and predominantly African—was a tremendous gift,” Rissler said.

“Understanding that things aren’t the same wherever you go makes you aware that things can change. We can even make different choices about our society on a range of issues.”

Not surprisingly, Rissler, whose current research includes immigration policy, representative bureaucracy and education accountability, credits the experiences of his early childhood in setting the direction of his life and service.

“For me, living abroad and traveling in the years since have given me an outside perspective and a propensity for looking at societal problems through different prisms.”

He also credits the inspiration for his work—a passion for the protection and advancement vulnerable populations—with the belief that “you cannot build peace without first creating justice.

“It’s all part of the same caring ethic and active pacifism of the Mennonite creed that I hope will continue to guide and inform my work."