In 1970, a group of Danish hippies set out on a mission to save the world. Thirty years later, some of the young acolytes they recruited claim the group has become a cult, amassing riches in the hundreds of millions of dollars under the direction of an elusive and mysterious founder. Now, with recruiting efforts reaching into the United States, ex-members say the mission is no longer to save the world but to conquer it. North American headquarters? Massachusetts.
A low cloud clings to the perfect pastures of the Institute for International Cooperation and Development, a tiny offbeat institution hidden deep in the wooded foothills of the Berkshires outside Williamstown. It’s just before lunchtime, and the campus is abuzz with activity. A young woman from New Zealand coaxes an oversized lawn mower along the hillside at the base of the main lodge, which was renovated by an earlier group of students and christened Bella Vista for its impressive mountain views. Inside the brand-new state-of-the-art video editing suite, a freckle-faced 20-year-old from Indiana just back from six months in Angola is putting the finishing touches on a presentation about her experiences in that war-ravaged southern African nation. In the kitchen, a group is whipping up a quick vegetarian lunch of humus, pita bread, and three-bean salad. Other students are glued to computers, Web surfing to learn more about the Third World countries where they’ll soon be planting trees, building schools, or digging latrines. They are mostly 18, 19, or 20 years old, and are as wide-eyed and well-intentioned a group as you’re likely to find. Some of them are practicing their Spanish or Portuguese, others are on the phone tracking down visas, or huddled together working out the details of fundraising excursions to Burlington, Boston, or Amherst. Although they’ve shelled out $5,000 each to be here, before they go overseas they are expected to raise far more than that, mostly by soliciting handouts from strangers in college towns or affluent suburbs across New England. They are a tight-knit group, drawn together by hard work and communal living, and are not much younger than the teachers charged with preparing them for the harsh realities of Third World life.
Those teachers were students here once too. It was only two or three years ago that many of them first contacted the school after noticing flyers stapled to kiosks or to dormitory walls offering opportunities to “volunteer, live, and learn” in southern Africa or Central America. Some of them had traveled together to Nicaragua, where they lived sparely in the mountains among the coffee growers and built a medical clinic for the region’s lone doctor. When they returned to Williamstown, exhausted but empowered, they were invited to stay on. They signed over their salaries, their time, and their labor and entered the ranks of an international brotherhood of like-minded souls known as the Teachers Group. In return for their commitment to the group, they get room and board, free travel, and a new family of friends. They live together and work together and in their collective strength believe they’ll accomplish great things for the poorest, most destitute of their Third World brethren.
But there’s a catch. Former members, government investigators and journalists who have studied the Teachers Group in Europe say it’s a cult. Beneath the warm exterior lurks a dystopia revolving around skewed ideas about helping the developing world. Among the core leadership, there is a seemingly voracious appetite for money and influence. A social movement founded 30 years ago in a rural farmhouse in the village of Tvind in eastern Denmark, the group has been described as a cult in government reports in Belgium and France and in books and articles by European journalists and longtime members from Scandinavia. Two years ago Steen Thomsen, who had been the headmaster of a Teachers Group school outside London , left after 16 years and published an exhaustive personal account he submitted to the Danish Ministry of Education. “What I for so many years regarded as a peacemaking organization, working for the oppressed and poor,” he wrote, “has turned out to be a cult with all of its important characteristics.”
Something rotten in the state of Denmark: Thirty years ago, Danish high school teacher Amdi Petersen launched a social movement that many contend has since become a cult. Petersen has not been captured on film since 1979, when this picture was taken. The group he started now runs dozens of schools in Scandinavia and countless development projects in southern Africa.
Despite the financial prowess of the Teachers Group – journalists and government investigators in Europe speculate that the combined value of its holdings is in the hundreds of mil lions of dollars – its public face has always been that of an impoverished grassroots organization. Even its own members rarely have much knowledge of the true scope of the group, whose most senior devotees direct non-profit humanitarian organizations structured to obscure all signs that they are under common control.
At the center is a former high school teacher named Mogens Amdi Petersen, who started the group in 1970 when he led a small band of hippies on a cross-continental odyssey, traveling by bus across Europe and the Middle East and into India. Petersen went underground 20 years ago and, beside one brief encounter with a journalist in the Cayman Islands in the early ‘90s, has not been spotted by reporters since 1979. From locations in Denmark, Florida, and the Caribbean, he is said to direct a world wide empire that over the years has reportedly included not only schools and development projects, but also office buildings, commercial plantations in Latin America, beachfront property in Miami and the Cayman Islands, a satellite television network, computer and lumber companies in China, a clothing factory in Morocco, a shipping company in Florida and the Caribbean, and used-clothing stores all across Europe.
And Massachusetts is its North American headquarters.
A little more than a decade ago, after being hounded in Europe by the press and by government investigators, the Teachers Group, sometimes known as Tvind for the Danish hamlet where it began, decided to expand to the untarnished frontier across the Atlantic. With little fanfare and scant scrutiny, it arrived in this country with a bold plan to swell its ranks, and its coffers, by exploiting the good intentions and public-minded volunteer spirit of many young Americans. From an old 4-H camp near Northampton, it created the Institute for International Cooperation and Development, which, in turn, spawned spinoffs in Michigan and California. Three years ago it started collecting and selling used clothing under the name Planet Aid, a non-profit branch set up near Boston that now has four stores and more than 1,200 familiar bright-yellow collection boxes and last year generated more than $2 million in sales, mostly as unsorted bulk sold to commercial wholesalers.
The Teachers Group has big plans for the United States, plans being put into motion through a complex network of foundations, holding companies, and non-profit organizations. It is preparing to recruit more students and more teachers, and open new schools. As Planet Aid, it hopes to gain the name recognition, if not the scope, of such used-clothing concerns as Goodwill or the Salvation Army. In parts of Europe, where Teachers Group affiliates have more than 100 stores and thousands of bins, it has already reached that status – although in the last few years its operations have been largely shut down in Great Britain and France because of tax law violations. If all goes well, sometime in the next five years its American arm will operate thousands more of those clothing collection bins in shopping centers and on street corners, and as many as 25 used-clothing stores, including one already planned for Harvard Square. Flyers advertising its overseas programs will blanket the walls on every college campus, and it will be flush with cash raised from tuition, the sale of used clothing, and generous grants solicited from a new corporate office on Wall Street.
All of this capitalist flash belies the origins of the Teachers Group in the counterculture of the late 1960s. In the beginning, the young Scandinavians who founded the group were driven by a genuine desire to combat injustice, inequality, and the suffering of the poor. But as in so many other revolutionary movements, things quickly changed. The good works began with schools in northern Europe that, once they became money making enterprises, paid the way for expansion into southern Africa, where the fight against apartheid became a focus. In many circles the conventional wisdom was that strengthening South Africa’s neighbors, known as the frontline states, was one of the best ways to help topple the apartheid regime. The Teachers Group put its energies behind the rebel leader Robert Mugabe, who was fighting a brutal war for independence against the white government of Rhodesia. It supplied food and clothing to the war refugees pouring into neighboring Mozambique, and informed Mugabe that, following victory, it would help him build a new country. Mugabe has now been president of Zimbabwe for 20 years, and for all that time the Teachers Group has been his friend. It has built schools, clinics, and Teachers Group teacher-training colleges, and has recruited veterans of the war into the Teachers Group. In return, it has reaped considerable influence in Zimbabwe, where two years ago it inaugurated a new multimillion-dollar headquarters at a ceremony attended by Mugabe and other government officials. The Teachers Group also has a significant presence in Angola and Mozambique.
In these countries, and in Latin America and the Caribbean, the Teachers Group’s nonprofits appear to be legitimate humanitarian organizations. While there have been benefits to this work, however, there have also been many problems – so many, in fact, that some critics in the development community wonder if the group is doing far more harm than good. Rather than working with locals in Mozambique and Guinea Bissau to develop their own plots of land, for example, the Teachers Group owns enormous cashew plantations that employ hundreds of local farmers as part of a program that teaches them commercial agriculture techniques. Critics say the plantations pay the same comparatively low wages as any other commercial enterprise, and funnel the profits back into the Teachers Group.
Working on the principle that if you believe in something, you can accomplish it, the school in Massachusetts sends young untrained volunteers to work on complex projects such as implement ing health education programs or training experienced farmers in new growing techniques, often providing little or no guidance. “I met a couple of 18-year-old girls who were trying to teach 40- and 50-year-old farmers how to farm,” says an aid worker who ran into Teachers Group volunteers in Zimbabwe. “They had no background for this work, not to mention the language barrier.” In Mozambique, one former volunteer says he was instructed to plant a whole grove of fruit trees, even though it wasn’t the right season. “We planted thousands of seeds,” he recalls. “I heard that a few weeks after it was all done, everything died.” Another aid worker, also based in Mozambique, says Teachers Group volunteers built a school in his area two years ago without government authorization. Since that time, the building has remained empty. “It’s like these people are from another planet,” he says. “I don’t understand what they are really doing.” Zahara Heckscher, whose upcoming book on international volunteer programs warns people away from Teachers Group programs in a section about the Institute for International Cooperation and Development, cites the school’s cult affiliation and many examples of mismanaged development projects. While conducting her research, Heckscher traveled to Zimbabwe, where she interviewed confused young Americans who seemed to have no idea what they were supposed to be doing. “When I arrived, I was in culture shock city,” one woman told her. “There was no one here telling me what to do. The two people I am here with were completely unsupportive.”
Ten years ago Cara Siano, Laura Chomentowski, and Stanley Gildersleeve paid out $7,700 to join a volunteer travel program in Central America, and soon found themselves hitchhiking through Mexico, living on $2 a day for food, with virtually no budget for lodging. The Teachers Group runs all its schools under a strict philosophy of self-reliance, which is why the trips are often poorly planned and students get so little guidance from the largely untrained staff. Overseas programs run by the Teachers Group are like a cross between the Peace Corps and the television show Survivor. The group contends that adversity builds character, and that the best way to understand the poor is to not only live among them, but to live just like them. Problem is, many students have never even been overseas, let alone to a Third World country overrun by war, starvation, and disease. A letter one group leader sent back to the school in Williamstown gives a good idea of just how bad things can get. “We have hit some hard times here in Angola,” the teacher wrote. “Most of us have had malaria now, some worse than others. [Naomi] is scared and wants to go home. [Hillary] has been severely depressed and homesick for over a month now. She has just had malaria for the second time.”
Over the years there have been many reports like this, from schools in Europe and the United States. Students have gotten malaria, typhus, and worms in their intestines. They’ve been robbed, assaulted, even shot at. Despite all these trials, many still say the ordeal was worthwhile. Even Siano, whose group filed a lengthy complaint with the Massachusetts Attorney General’s Office, says she had “a great experience despite the problems.” Mikael Norling, the director of the school at the time that complaint was filed, wrote a letter to the attorney general, dismissing the students’ allegations that the school had lured them in with false advertising, then put their lives at risk. “They had been explained very clearly what the program was all about,” Norling says today. “It’s not kindergarten. These are adults who come to us on a volunteer basis.” The attorney general has never taken action against the school.
For many students, surviving life-threatening situations in Third World countries draws them together. Those most energized by the experience are likely to be recruited by the Teachers Group. Even the most senior members have spent time fighting off disease, hitchhiking through the desert, or sleeping in the dirt. When they speak of their travels, they sound like proud veterans telling war stones. “You learn about things you never thought you could do,” says Fred Olsson, head of Planet Aid in Massachusetts, who many years ago rode with a group on a bus through India. “I hopped on that bus and I’ve been on it ever since.”
Eric Newman, a progressive and affluent young Californian, was recruited to the Teachers Group in the early 1980s, when he was still a student at Hampshire College in Amherst. In those days, the group’s only project in North America was a small school for juvenile delinquents in a rural backwater in central Virginia. It had lined up contracts with local authorities to take in criminal youth no one else could handle. As in Denmark, where the Teachers Group still runs many similar institutions, all teacher salaries were collectivized and funneled toward the growth of the organization, helping set up new companies or new programs in southern Africa.
Eric Newman worked at that Virginia school, a place where students regularly assaulted members of the staff. One young criminal once set off a pipe bomb that exploded in his own hand. Newman felt he was doing good work, and the young “comrade,” as Teachers Group members often refer to each other, took to it with dedication and zeal. Later, Newman traveled to the group’s head quarters in Denmark, and when he returned home, he recruited Ted Lewis, another young American, to help lead the struggle for expansion into the United States. In 1986, the year after the Virginia school closed following decertification by the Department of Corrections for failing to meet state standards, Newman and Lewis launched the first incarnation of the Institute for International Cooperation and Development at the old 4-H camp near Northampton.
It was a ragtag facility with a skeletal staff, but Newman and Lewis were running the show and loving every minute of it. They were revolutionaries recruiting among their peers and, together, they believed they just might change the world. In 1988 the growing band of American teachers detailed their plans in along letter to Bodil Ross Sørensen, a stern doctrinaire who, to this day, remains part of the inner sanctum around the group’s reputed guru, Amdi Petersen.
They wrote of exploring the “thousands of ways that diligent efforts can make money in this country,” of expanding “our travel/solidarity courses as soon as possible,” and of seeking out interns on college campuses – “bright, committed people” whom they might introduce “gently yet powerfully to the Teachers Group.” In another letter they wrote of the potential benefits of uprooting the school from “liberal, complacent New England” and described a “15-year plan that would have us organizing whole industries and even towns according to the principles of the Teachers Group.”
Back in Denmark, the leaders of the group were unimpressed. They felt that, unsupervised, the American teachers were getting out of hand and needed to be reined in. They dispatched Bodil Ross Sørensen and another veteran teacher, Mikael Norling, to restore order. ‘Ted had introduced the idea of becoming independent from the Teachers Group in Denmark,” recalls Tom Heineman, another early recruit in the U.S. “We banged the idea around for a while and then sent a fax to the headquarters in Denmark. Within 24 hours there was a Danish woman named Bodil at our door.”
Cults maintain control of their members by restricting freedom of thought and independence of movement. In the Teachers Group there has always been the illusion of free will, former members charge, but not much more than that. They say many of the teachers in Massachusetts wanted to break away from the Danes and from their strict dehumanizing ideology. The Teachers Group does not believe in amassing personal wealth, for instance, and discourages anything that distracts from the Work at hand – including family commitments, leisure, or love. American members give power of attorney over their income to an organization known in English as the Society of Petty Savers, which reinvests the money into countless profitable ventures the members rarely hear anything about.
Somerville-based cult counselor and author Steven Hassan first ran into the group five years ago, when he noticed pairs of young volunteers soliciting donations in the middle of Harvard Square. “They talked just like young moonies,” says Hassan, who was once a member of the Unification Church, an enormous and wealthy organization with eerie parallels to the Teachers Group. “Even though they appear to be doing good works,” he says, “the bottom line is that they’re helping themselves.” In what Hassan calls a classic model of mind control, the Teachers Group directs virtually every aspect of its newest teachers’ lives, including their time, which is consumed by meetings, travel, and manual labor; their personal endeavors, which take a back seat to “the work”; and their money, restricted to a small monthly stipend for snacks, clothing, and other personal expenses, sacrifices outlined in internal documents and on the Web site for the group’s new school in California.
The group’s most powerful tool has always been guilt: guilt about not working hard enough, not raising enough money, not giving 110 percent. ‘They always made me feel terrible about myself,” recalls one former member. “I was chastised beyond belief.” Personal letters show that Bodil Sørensen once scolded a member who had been secretly carrying on a relation ship with a woman outside the Teachers Group, questioning his commitment to the cause and attacking him for neglecting “the work.” Although the young teacher’s girlfriend wound up joining too, the stress of trying to juggle a relationship with the demands of “the work” quickly took its toll, and the union collapsed.
Along with avoiding romantic entanglements, former members, say the group, like many cults, urges detachment from close family and friends. In a letter sent to the leadership, one former teacher wrote of the need to “define me and my life as separate from my parents” so that “I can be away for a long time.” “I am making many separations at once,” she wrote. “If I do not take care of this main obstacle of my family, it will come up again more strongly in the future.”
In 1989 the Danes took control of the Northampton institute from Ted Lewis, who had been the director of the school. Under pressure to resign, he left the Teachers Group and moved to California. “I found that some aspects of the ideology were not supportive of my humanity,” says Lewis, who now runs more main stream overseas programs through a non profit organization called Global Exchange. “I’ve always felt a little responsible for being the cultural decoder of the whole thing, for helping them make sense of what they were saying to young Americans.” With Lewis gone, Mikael Norling took over as director, and the following year moved the school from the 4-H camp to its current location on the site of a former transcendental meditation center outside Williamstown.
In Europe, the Teachers Group has been successful at soliciting government handouts and manipulating tax laws, thanks to a battalion of lawyers, accountants, and financial wizards. It made its first millions reinvesting the collectivized salaries paid out to its schools by the Danish government, which subsidized private schools until recently, when the laws were specifically changed to under cut the group.
In Britain, France, Denmark, Sweden, Norway, and now the United States, the Teachers Group has played what appears to be a complicated shell game, in which money is shuffled around from non-profit organization to for-profit corporation and back again. As long ago as 1984, the Danish government estimated the value of the group’s assets in Denmark alone at more than $40 million. Although the true extent of its global financial empire remains a mystery, in parts of Europe reporters have devoted years to tracking the complex links between the various for-profit and non-profit arms of the Teachers Group. There are articles, books, documentaries, a master’s thesis, and, in Britain, an extensive Web site maintained by British journalist Michael Durham, who has devoted enormous amounts of his own time and money to unmasking the group.
While the Teachers Group itself is not a legal incorporated entity, it appears from interviews with current and former members and from letters and internal documents that it is a structured hierarchical organization whose members are account able to a core leadership based in Denmark, Zimbabwe, and other locations around the world. As Mikael Norling explains it, although companies are registered under the names of individual teachers, they are, in fact, part of the larger collective. “If you are in the Teachers Group, everything belongs to the Teachers Group,” Norling says. “The me-and-you distinction is not there.” Put simply, that means that all the independent schools, companies, and charities fall under the umbrella of the Teachers Group collective, a group whose non-profit corporations have increasingly come under fire.
An investigation into its used-clothing operation in France led the government to conclude that, while the group had been registered as a nonprofit for 10 years, it was, in fact, a profit-making enterprise. After the government demanded a decade’s worth of back taxes, operations in France were shuttered and the Teachers Group member directing them was reassigned to the United States, where he now runs the New England branch of Planet Aid.
In Britain, the group has run into considerably more trouble. Following an investigation by the British newspaper the Guardian, its used-clothing business, operating under the name Humana, was closed down by the British Charity Commission. It reopened in 1998 under the new name Planet Aid. In that same year, two of its schools for emotionally disturbed children were shut down by the government after inspectors voiced concern about health, safety, and education standards. Over the years there have been numerous other allegations of impropriety, including an investigation in Sweden in 1990 that found that only 2 percent of the proceeds from the non-profit used-clothing operation in that country actually went to charitable uses.
When the Teachers Group bought the Williamstown campus for $550,000 in 1990, it wasn’t through the non-profit school that would be operating there, but through an off shore holding company called Argyll Smith, based in the British tax haven of Jersey and run by several members of the Teachers Group. The group makes every effort to keep its money in the family. The Williamstown school pays rent to a corporation owned by members of the Teachers Group, which reinvests that money in other projects run by the group. Other related companies donate or loan out money to non-profits also connected to the Teachers Group, then take the tax write-offs at the end of the year.
The Planet Aid office on Wall Street is down by the East River, just past the J. P. Morgan Building. The Teachers Group moved into the spare unadorned space about a year ago, after Mikael Norling left the Institute for International Cooperation and Development to become the full-time president of Planet Aid in North America. Norling, essentially the most senior teacher in the U.S., is a tall gaunt man with sunken cheeks and intense bulbous eyes. He is a real “soldier,” according to former colleagues, fully dedicated to ensuring the financial well-being of the cause. “ New York is a good location for raising money from the largest donors,” he says. “We’re reaching out to pharmaceutical companies, the United Nations, big foundations. So far we’ve only gotten smaller grants. Landing the big money is not something you do overnight.”
Norling has been in the Teachers Group since its very beginning and is most notorious for publicly espousing rather unorthodox political views. Although he dismisses press reports in Europe that have characterized the Teachers Group as a Maoist organization, he acknowledges the group has had ties to China, Cambodia, and North Korea.
Norling has been to all three countries, and once hosted a party in Denmark commemorating the birthday of North Korea’s founding father, Kim 11 Sung. In addition, he has given numerous speeches defending as misunderstood the former Cambodian strongman Pol Pot, widely recognized as being responsible for the deaths of more than a million of his countrymen. “Just because the press worldwide says that he’s the mean guy, it doesn’t necessarily mean that’s the fact,” he says. “I think there has been a lot of misrepresentation of the whole scene.”
Norling is a true believer and a tireless worker. He embraces a Teachers Group ideology that is an odd combination of socialism and capitalism. While many longtime Teachers Group members live spare communal lives their devotion to making money for the group sometimes borders on the fanatical. They are perpetual students of business strategy, corporate law, and great capitalist pioneers. Recently some of them have been reading a new biography of Wal-Mart founder Sam Walton, whose phenomenally successful retail model they’re thinking of applying to their used-clothing stores, including the one they’re planning to open in Harvard Square this fall.
In New York, Mikael Norling knows that the best way to round up the financial support he needs to get more stores and more development projects off the ground is to work the conference and cocktail party circuits. “If you know nobody, you are nobody,” he says. In the last year, he continues, he’s spoken briefly with UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan, and a few months ago another Teachers Group leader made an even more high-powered contact, when she led Ted Turner, whose UN Foundation supports development projects, on a tour of an installation in Mozambique. Although the tycoon has yet to pledge a dime, Norling says the most important thing is that “he knows us personally.”
While Norling and his peers focus on lending an air of legitimacy to Teachers Group operations world-wide, Amdi Petersen, the presumed guru, has yet to show his face. If any of the stories about him are to be believed, this mysterious charismatic figure lives extravagantly somewhere in Europe, Africa, or even the United States. In an e-mail to British journalist Michael Durham, one former teacher described Petersen’s home as a compound in Zimbabwe, where he has a fleet of Mercedes Benzes and his own collection of wild zebras. Other reports have placed him behind a barbed-wire fence in Denmark, in a luxurious villa that’s guarded by rottweilers.
Mikael Norling, who describes Petersen as little more than an “advisor,” dismisses these tales as part of a European smear campaign against the group. ‘What’s important to us is that the actual work is accomplishing what we want,” says Norling. “If you dare to start something that has the ambition of becoming big, you will attract people who like you and people who think you are crazy.”