Institute for Developing Across Differences

Tribute to Janet Bennett, PhD

To join the memorial & celebration of Janet's life on Saturday, 6 August, 2022 beginning at 8AM Pacific Time, register at

IDD_Janet Bennett In Memoriam_220128February 14, 2022

Standing tall with a regal presence, Janet Bennett was truly a rare breed: A generous, gracious yet tenacious leader who, through her stewardship of the Intercultural Communication Institute (ICI) and Summer Institute for Intercultural Communication (SIIC), was the de facto keeper of the intercultural field.

Indeed, countless tributes shared in the past weeks bear witness to her intelligence, talent, drive, and generosity as both an educator and interculturalist—as well as, of course, her abiding love for the color purple.

Few, however, knew just how ill Janet had been in recent years. I was fortunate that throughout 2021, our relationship, which had slowed down in the few years prior as I dealt with some health issues of my own, was rekindled. 

Janet was an Honorary Patron of the IDD, and our last conversation was in early December—on December 6, St. Nicolas Day, in fact. This, it has been pointed out to me, was in many ways a wonderfully special farewell gift. The 3.5(!) hour call was one in which wise insights were shared (by Janet), copious notes were taken (by me and my colleague Michaela Carrière who also joined us for this particular session), and earnest conversations about our work and its importance, sprinkled liberally with doses of laughter, were had (by all including Sandy Garrison, ICI Librarian who assisted Janet until the end).

Following are a few personal reflections of gratitude and admiration for an individual who genuinely leaves us better for having known her as a scholar, a practitioner, and a mentor.

“Intercultural work is very, very complicated. […] We will never master it entirely.”

— Janet Bennett, PhD

A Brazen Beginning

I had known Janet as many do, first from her many publications and excellent training materials, then from the famous Intercultural Communication Institute (ICI) and, of course, the even more famous Summer Institute for Intercultural Communication (SIIC). 

One of my first personal encounters with Janet was just around the time that I took on leadership of “All Things Educational” at AFS Intercultural Programs in the organization’s global headquarters in 2009. 

For years, the ICI had kindly allowed 1, 2, or sometimes a few more AFS volunteers and staff to attend the Summer Institute. And we were extremely grateful for this. 

But I had been charged with seriously reinvigorating AFS’s educational roots, beginning with capacity-building among key volunteers and staff worldwide. So, together with my interculturalist colleague Lisa Cohen, we brazenly asked Janet if she might consider, beyond 1 or 2, just a few more scholarships for AFSers. Actually, many more. Like, say, oh…20 a summer?

We were sure we’d be shot down. 

Imagine, then, our delight when Janet’s response was, “Yes, let’s see what we can do.” So between us, thanks to her generous tuition scholarships and my budget to fund volunteer and staff travel and lodging, we went on to establish a robust international AFS presence at SIIC each year. This included eventually assuming the role of the quasi-official SIIC Karaoke Night sponsor (AFSers know how to have fun in any culture!). 

Deepening Ties

Aside from the learning at the Summer Institute that so many AFSers benefited from, one of our greatest accomplishments was when several of our AFS non-formal educators —Marcela Lapertosa, Sherifa Fayez, and Jana Hollá— were given coveted spots in the SIIC program and course list.

In addition to accommodating the annual AFS-SIIC contingent, Janet kindly volunteered her time and talent for AFS in many ways over the years:

  • Before she joined the Peace Corps, Janet, along with ICI co-founder and intercultural theorist Milton Bennett, had been a chaperone on one of the famous AFS Bus Trips across the US—something that she said “sparked [her] interest in facilitating intercultural understanding.”
  • Janet served as a board member for AFS-USA, the US branch of the global organization.
  • Janet referred me and AFS to countless experts who have since not only advised the organization, but have become close friends and colleagues including Mick Vande Berg, Nagesh Rao, and Darla Deardorff among others.
  • And, in what turned out to be the last time we saw each other in person (rather than over computer screens) she headlined the AFS Academy in 2016 in Budapest. Previous Academy keynoters had included Geert Hofstede and Thiagi.

A Dormant Relationship is Rekindled

As happens, though, time passes and circumstances change. Shortly after I encountered some health challenges of my own around 2017, so did Janet. Sadly, this meant that the beloved summer program could not go on as planned in 2019. And, then, of course, the pandemic brought us all to a standstill. 

The gap—or rather gape—left by SIIC’s absence has been felt by many and certainly us.

You may have read my colleague Mick Vande Berg’s introduction to this institute, the IDD. In it, he elaborates on just how inspirational our forebears—Janet in particular—were to us when we set about to establish our still nascent organization. We do not aim to replicate what she led; that is irreplaceable. But my co-founders and I admit wholeheartedly and unreservedly that the ICI and SIIC have helped us develop personally and professionally, and it motivates us to both do and be better in what we might offer back to you, our colleagues, and the field.

Indeed, from Day 1, when considering whether and how to establish the Institute, it was essential for me to have Janet’s blessing for this new undertaking. There was simply no question about it: If one was to attempt to undertake any type of serious endeavor to help nurture the field and its multipliers (many of whom trace their beginnings directly back to Janet) then it required Janet’s wisdom and guidance

And so we re-sparked our relationship, complete with calls negotiated across time zones (Janet did not like calls before noon her time!) and more. The reward was a coveted chance to converse with and continue to learn from someone who had paved the way for the rest of us.

Janet was appointed an inaugural Honorary Patron of the IDD in August of last year. At her request, we waited to announce this news; she wanted to get her statement “just right” for us before sharing it. We were finally set to do so this month.

(Keep) Fighting the Good Fight

While she had not been in good health for some time, Janet’s very rapid decline and passing caught me by surprise: Indeed, we had planned to talk earlier that week but, Janet being Janet, rather than complaining that she wasn’t feeling well, had simply requested that we reschedule our conversation for early February. I am so sad that this call will never happen. 

However, realizing now that more of her days of late had been bad ones rather than good ones, there is a small measure of comfort in knowing she no longer suffers, even if we are left to mourn.

I’m also grateful for our last conversation together in December. In it, she shared (and recommended that we follow) her own five key considerations for selecting faculty for experiential intercultural learning programs. Then she detailed, expert-by-expert, her reflections on every single former SIIC faculty member and suggested I reach out to each of them individually.

I realize now, that while I was fully expecting another call, Janet may have already realized that there wouldn’t be one. This makes the time that she spent once again sharing her insights so graciously, generously, and considerately, all the more treasured. 

Finally, while Janet is now at peace, her determined spirit certainly lives on. It lives on in you, in me, and in all who had the good fortune to encounter her and her work. 

And of this I am sure: She wanted all of us to carry on and keep up the good fight, working together to advance our shared belief that we and our fellow inhabitants of this planet do have the capacity to learn to live together equitably—and that even by the act of engaging in this challenging but necessary work, we make each other better. 

Thank you, Janet.