Many of my posts up until now have focused on building community within localized communities. However, it is equally important to consider how we build community with people outside of our regular circle of connections. In a recent communitiesknow interview, John McKnight alluded to this when he described his powerful experience of living in an international house during his university undergraduate years, and again when he highlighted the importance of welcoming strangers into our lives. Peter Block, in another interview, echoed this sentiment in stating, “living in another community is also priceless. It opens us to the stranger, which we need to wake up again.”
Reaching either within or outside of our own communities to ‘welcome strangers’ is often rewarding, but not always easy. However, even in the most challenging situations, one can find inspiring examples of building connections. Take, for example, the contentious divide between Israelis and Palestinians. Part of what is frustrating about this particular social, political and geographic division is that that the media tend to highlight divisions and conflict between Israeli and Palestinian communities. However, some of the most impressive stories of positive community building come from this same region. Here are four examples that have inspired me:
1. I had the pleasure of acting as a houseparent to Mujahid Sarsur for two years. However, as is so often the case in education, Mujahid provided me with more education and insight through his thoughtful leadership than I could ever share with him. This was augmented by his request to share a room with an Israeli student. It was no surprise, then, that since graduation from Lester B. Pearson United World College, he has continued to lead in the area of community building. In 2009, he invited his former Israeli classmate, serving in the Israeli army upon graduation, to visit him in Palestine. Their visit was made into an inspiring documentary film Breath of Peace, by their fellow Pearson alumnus, Wilmer Chavarria. Subsequent to this visit, Sarsur went on to start the Bard Palestinian Youth Initiative (BPYI). This project has dual aims: it hopes to build a strong society in Mas’ha West Bank, but it also actively promotes cultural community exchange. BPYI is facilitating a sister-city relationship between Mas’ha and Red Hook, New York – a relationship that hopes to forge greater cultural understanding between Palestinians and Americans. The BPYI is attempting to accomplish the same goal inside Palestine, most notably by organizing the first Palestinian educational group to visit Yad Vashem, the Holocaust museum in Jerusalem. Those interested in other exchanges between Israeli and Arab youth, should check out Sedaka Reut and the United World College short courses.
2. This summer, a group of Israeli women defied the social and political borders that divide them from their Palestinian neighbors. Seven times, Israeli and Palestinian women worked in partnership to sneak Palestinian women into Israel to relax on the beach and enjoy a swim together. While some of the trips have been more successful than others in terms of being able to let go and enjoy the moment, the most recently reported visit ended with a shared meal and dancing at the home of an Israeli host. While the efforts needed to reach across these borders are significant, simple activities such as swimming on a beach, eating and dancing are all powerful ways of reaching across borders to build community. More is likely learned in these moments than in any meeting in a political office.
3. In recognition of the importance of educators as community builders, Seeds for Peace runs two cross-border workshops per year that bring together Palestinian and Israeli educators. Seeds of Peace also run international Middle East, South Asian, and American youth camps that bring together and empower youth from regions of conflict. The organization follows up their gatherings by engaging alumni in a number of activities, including the publication of the Olive Branch – a magazine that helps individuals continue to share their experiences and thoughts. Seeds of Peace offers teacher’s guides to educators for free.
4. Julia Bacha argues that the media spends too much energy on the conflict in the Israel and Palestinian region, and not enough time reporting on the peaceful actions that citizens undertake to break down borders. Bacha dedicated eight years of her life to learning about these efforts to resist peacefully, and created a film about the experience. Listen to what she learned in her TedTalks presentation. You might also want to check out All for Peace, a joint Israeli-Palestinian radio station that broadcasts in four languages.
Are you building community across borders? When are we particularly compelled to reach beyond our local communities and become global citizens? Are there borders or divisions that exist within our neighborhoods, workplaces, organizations, schools and universities that we can actively work toward tearing down? In the spirit of Bacha, can we share stories about peacefully building understanding?