A Vision for Peace: Notes on the Human Forum of Puerto Rico

By Melissa Chianta
Web Exclusive

holding hands and a flower, symbol of friendshipThis past winter, Web Editor Kimber Pasquali and I were invited to attend a peace and social justice advocacy conference in Rio Grande, Puerto Rico. The Human Forum of Puerto Rico was held in early December 2005 and was sponsored by the Alliance for a New Humanity, a nonprofit organization formed by such luminaries as Deepak Chopra and Nobel laureates Oscar Arias and Betty Williams.

About 30 nonprofits or “exchange agents,” 50 panelists, many of whom represented their own nonprofits, and several hundred attendees came together to talk about issues involved in working for social change.

Of the many groups attending, we focused on the work of six that specifically address the needs of children and teens. A brief synopsis of each follows; look for more extensive coverage of their work in future issues of Mothering

Seeds of Peace
Seeds of Peace was founded in 1993 with the intention of helping youth from the Middle East become leaders in the movement for reconciliation between Israelis and Palestinians. The group has since expanded its work to include youth from South Asia, Cyprus, and the Balkans. Seeds of Peace participants first attend an International Camp in Maine, then the Seeds of Peace Center for Coexistence in Jerusalem, and then go on to international youth conferences, regional workshops, educational and professional opportunities, and an adult educator program. The goal is for the more than 2,500 participants to develop empathy and respect for each other, self-confidence in themselves, and leadership and negotiation skills.

If the Seeds of Peace conference representatives are any indication, it looks as if the group is taking big steps toward achieving this goal. Two confident young women, one Palestinian and the other Israeli, spoke of how they became friends through the Seeds of Peace training, and made concrete changes in their communities as a result of what they gleaned from the program

Hand in Hand
The new Hand in Hand Bridge Over the Wadi elementary school, in Israel’s Wadi Ara region, is also planting the seeds of Palestinian-Israeli reconciliation. The school is one of several Hand in Hand schools, in which Palestinian and Israeli instructors and students come together to teach and learn in classes taught in Arabic and Hebrew. The Bridge Over the Wadi school is run by an Israeli-Palestinian husband-wife team, Yochanan Eshchar and Nuha Khatieb, who recently became new parents. They believe the political courage required to create the school is paying off: Israeli and Palestinian children who first refused to sit next to each other are now creating close friendships that in turn are necessitating shifts in their parents’ perceptions of each other

Originally an acronym for Youth for Environmental Sanity, YES! now works with international youth activists involved in myriad causes. Through its workshops and retreats, YES! provides renewal and a sense of community to these young leaders so they can continue their work with enthusiasm. According to the YES! website, alumni have accomplished much, from winning class-action lawsuits on behalf of oppressed refugees to saving hectares of rainforest

CityKids uses discussion groups and performing-arts classes to teach inner-city youth skills that help build self-confidence and self-esteem. With a core group of 200 and an active membership of 600, CityKids teaches kids to write and perform their own life-affirming songs, dances, and theatrical pieces. Participants have performed in venues ranging from local community groups to Madison Square Garden and the White House. Meanwhile, the organization’s weekly Coalition workshops provide a forum for youth to discuss difficult issues, including violence, drug use, sexual identity, and national politics

Chat the Planet
Chat the Planet sponsors live video chats, via satellite, during which American teens dialogue with youth from various countries, such as South Africa, Jordan, and Australia, about major political and social issues. The “Bridge to Baghdad” and “Bridge to Baghdad II” chats gave American youth and their Iraqi peers a chance to talk with each other two weeks before and two weeks after the US invasion of Iraq began in March 2003. You can watch video clips of various sessions on the organization’s website, which also provides a forum for online networking and opportunities for taking political action

Challenge Day
Video clips: http://www.challengeday.org/video/index.html

This organization brings its unique Challenge Day workshop into schools in order to create learning environments free of prejudice, oppression, and violence. Through innovative activities, Challenge Day participants learn how to create new levels of respect and communication with their peers, teachers, parents, and among themselves.

A video shown at the Human Forum documents one of the workshop’s exercises: In a large room, nervous high school students stand behind a line of masking tape affixed to the floor. A workshop leader asks them to cross the line if they have ever been ridiculed for the color of their skin, the shape of their bodies, the way they speak, and numerous other attributes. By the end of video, everyone has crossed to the other side of the room and, teary-eyed, former rivals are apologizing for having hurt each other. To see the clip for yourself, click on the link above, then on “Teen Files,” then on “Lines that Divide Us.”

Conducting a Challenge Day is a first step toward becoming what the organization calls a “Be the Change”school, in which kids are encouraged to act daily against prejudice and violence

Melissa Chianta is Mothering magazine’s managing editor.

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