Posted by & filed under Student Contributors.

Editor’s Note: Jenny Tato is a Dialogue Facilitator working with us this semester who was dedicated enough to make the trip to NYC recently for the People’s Climate March. We asked her to share her experience as we believe conversation – and the call for it – can take myriad shapes and forms. Shout out to everyone who attended the march. Stories like Jenny’s (along with countless others) and the incredible turnout for the event continue to inspire us to create conversations that matter around climate change!

JennyTI woke up at 3am early Sunday Morning, sleepy-eyed, running on only couple of hours of sleep. I combed over my messy hair, got dressed really fast and packed a small backpack with water, a sweatshirt and my wallet. Half asleep, I mounted my bike to go to the bus stop. I got to the bus stop, climbed onto the bus and sat next to a friend. I looked up to the front of the bus as one of the leaders of Fossil Free PSU greeted us with excitement, “Alright, everyone! In five hours we will be in New York City marching for climate change! Here we go!” I smiled as everyone hooted and hollered with excitement.

I must have quickly fallen asleep again, because soon after I woke up to the familiar sight of New York City. As we drove to the block where the march would begin, I was immediately awake and filled with anticipation. Here I was: I had the chance have my voice heard about the things I care the most about; climate change, sustainability, food production, and human rights. Better yet, here I was at a place where I would meet others who care just as much as I do about these issues, so much so that we all came to one place to march and speak out about them together.

I heard from many people that this was going to be the biggest social demonstration on climate change in history. However, nothing could have prepared me for the image of hundreds of thousands of people in one place, marching for change. I could try to describe every moment from getting off the bus stop until we got to our place in the march, but there would be no description that would be able to translate the feeling of home that overcame me as I walked among people who truly care about the future of humans and earth.

Signs that were held and displayed all throughout the crowds of people were by far the craziest details of the march. People in advertising would have been all over that shit. It was like there was a competition to see who could reach out in the most creative way to someone who couldn’t care less about climate change and force them to care by writing a small, yet powerful statement on a recycled cardboard pizza box. People from all over the world came to this march. The colors of the world were there and everyone embraced each other with peace, love and kindness. The LGBT community, Indigenous peoples, or college students; you name it and I bet they were there.

Once my group got to the part of the march for people in education designated as “the future” section, we all realized how many people were truly a part of the march. We couldn’t even see the street anymore, just the tops of people’s heads, their signs and flags. Helicopters passed by overhead and the energy of the crowd started to buzz from excitement and anticipation for the march to begin. Here it was; the moment to show how much we truly care because for us we know the time is here. The time for action is now. The people are speaking out and we could not be ignored. People made up chants that other would catch on to incredibly fast and soon strangers next to me became a friend with a common love for our planet and one voice shouting out the need to protect it.

The march begun and then it ended. It was one of the most exhausting days of my life. I screamed, stood, walked, chanted and held up signs for over seven hours. Running off of only a couple of hours of sleep it was truly one big delirious mess. All of these things happened but its not what stands out for me on that day. The one thing I will always remember is the moment of silence. At 12:58pm we were told that we were going to have a moment of silence for all of those who had lost their lives or had been affected in some way by climate change. This silence was to last two minutes and then it was to be followed by our shouts. Raising our voices to the world in hopes that people will realize climate change is happening, it’s real, it’s here, and now that you’ve heard our voices: if you choose to not respond then you’ve ignored not just us but yourselves – and the world now knows.

The silence didn’t last anywhere near two minutes (or so my watch said) but I don’t even remember how long it did last because at that moment, 12:58pm, it seemed like the whole world went quiet to grieve and time didn’t exist for me anymore. In that moment all I could hear were the birds and it was as if they knew we were fighting for them as our silence soothed them and asked them to hold on. 12:58pm. Our hands went up in the air and 400,000 people went quiet. Like I said, I know I can’t expect anyone to fathom that number or understand what that could possibly feel like because I am having a hard time believing it happened myself.

Four. Hundred. Thousand.

That number will stick with me forever and so will that silence. To me, the silence spoke more than our shouts that followed soon thereafter. It started from the back of the march as a faint heavy prolonged breath and then it made its way to the front of the march where we were in a matter of seconds, like a flood that couldn’t be stopped. The dull vibration of shouts and the wave it sent to the front of the march made the hairs on the back of my neck stand out and chills took over my body. I have never felt so in tune and connected with so many people in a short amount of time. Our voices became one and just like that, we were heard.

 

Posted by & filed under From the Director, Staff Insights.

LauriePhotoForBlogWe regularly hear about the varied ways World in  Conversation alumni apply the skills and knowledge they acquired during their time at the Center to their life in the paid-for-work world.  By contrast, Laszlo Bock, senior vice president of “people operations” at Google, points out the less-than-seamless fit between university learning and the needs of the paid-for-work world. In his words:

“G.P.A.’s are worthless as a criteria for hiring, and test scores are worthless…We found that they don’t predict anything…I think academic environments are artificial environments. People who succeed there are sort of finely trained, they’re conditioned to succeed in that environment. One of my own frustrations when I was in college and grad school is that you knew the professor was looking for a specific answer. You could figure that out, but it’s much more interesting to solve problems where there isn’t an obvious answer. You want people who like figuring out stuff where there is no obvious answer.”

How to Get a Job at Google, NY Times, February 22, 2014

That’s a harsh critique for those of us who are university teachers. But I must admit, I often wonder about the way tests and textbooks directly influence the readiness of a graduate to seek employment–especially because I notice a rampant lack of inspiration for classes and the work of academic learning among college students in general. So Mr. Bock’s observations challenged me to think more fully about what we are doing at World in Conversation because I have the impression that we are bridging that gap between worlds for students who are facilitators-in-training.

Simply, I think our classes provide an opportunity for undergraduates to gain skills. In particular, they often achieve advanced communication and negotiation abilities that apparently correlate well with the many ways they are working with people in their jobs. And we’ve heard from those who are managers leading teams and solving problems with employees, doctors and nurse practitioner who are better able to seek more private health information from patients, entrepreneurs who have acquired a unique ability to build trust with potential clients and even police officers who can assess and address potential threats with more options than force.

I think this positive correlation stems from the fact that our learning methods and measures are very different from traditional models.  For our purposes, GPAs and test scores and figuring out the right answer are truly “useless,” as Mr. Bock points out. We actually cannot teach in a way that values a right answer because there is no single answer when executing effective communication strategies and leading dialogues.

Further, we offer to facilitators-in-training the tools and the practice in exploring ideas–because that is what they are employed to do. As a result, they learn to build connections between ideologically oppositional perspectives (and people), and to problem-solve on their feet.

That’s key. Problem-solving on their feet. For example, when group members decide that they are not interested in having the conversation that the facilitators are prepared to lead (which does happen), what does the facilitator do? Well, they definitely don’t walk away in defeat because we didn’t cover that chapter in their study session. They stay. They face the situation that they don’t think they have the skills to face. They use what they do know and, very often, they discover creative capacities that they didn’t know were there. And even better, they are better prepared for the next time they get thrown a curve ball. And even if they “fail,” they have learned what they need to learn–and they see the value of learning it.

This is the essence of how education works at World in Conversation–because it has to.

Sure, there is a set of basic communication skills that can be “taught. “ But once those are combined with the infinite number of possibilities that occur when we mix together people, personalities, contentious subjects, personal histories, emotions and limited abilities to communicate the most difficult things about ourselves, the decisions of a facilitator are a lot more like art than science, a lot more like life than a university classroom.

Being willing to learn in this more risky way sometimes feels like being a little human standing with a tiny shield before a fire-breathing dragon. But our students do it. And they do it well. And they lead conversations day after day, night after night. And they thrive–and become more and more skilled at managing the myriad situations that come to them unexpectedly, situations that we could never predict. And they become more prepared to take on bigger challenges.

 

I have a suspicion that Mr. Bock would love to hire graduates of Penn State who have trained with World in Conversation.

 

 

Posted by & filed under Thought Blog.

10271526_10154158225485215_4849704933354654502_n

As a Black man in America I experience many things differently than other races. Everyday I experience challenges to my identity.

One that has recently been weighing heavily on my mind, as it has been on many others, is the events concerning Mike Brown in Ferguson, Missouri. The loss of Mike Brown makes it undeniably clear that my life as a black male in America is considered less valuable than those of all other races. One could argue that this idea is more than irrational, but the event in Ferguson is far beyond an isolated incident. So how else should I interpret the fact that the same story continuously repeats itself?

Eric Garner was choked to death by a New York police office for allegedly selling cigarettes. Marlene Pinnock was brutally beat almost to the point of death on the side of a highway because an officer said she was she was endangering herself for walking on an interstate. Trayvon Martin was shot and killed in Florida because a vigilante citizen, not even a police officer, felt that he was a potential threat to the community. Dante Parker was essentially tased to death in California because he was apparently near a bicycle in an area where a thief was reported to flee by bike. Even Rodney King, years ago who was in fact driving under the influence and tried to outrun the police, was met by five police officers who beat him within inches of his life. And now Mike Brown, in Ferguson, Missouri shot six times.

The recurring themes in these incidents are seemingly consistent: (1) The evidence is often convoluted. (2) The police officer tends to be a White male. (3) The police officer is almost never penalized to the extent of their crime. (4) There is usually a public outcry of how the events are race related. (5) The victim is usually met with an intense brutality that no person should have to experience. For instance, shooting an unarmed man six times.

All that I have previously mentioned has taught me to be overly cautious for my life because not only does it seem that my life is valued less than others, but it also seems like there are people, particularly police officers, who are willing to take it from me. Moreover, there will be very few people who will seek justice for my life. And those who will, will not receive the reception that a human life deserves.

Please don’t read this post and think that all of my concern comes from watching the news. I have had my share of first-hand experiences of being viewed as a target by law enforcement. For example, one day during my senior year in high school, in Prince George’s County, Maryland, I took a drive to see a friend with three other guys. Suddenly, we were pulled over by three police officers who approached our car with stun guns drawn, screaming to us to keep our hands visible. Apparently, we had made a left turn without using a turn signal. Before I could realize what was happening, the four of us were outside of the car getting frisked. As I stood there shaking with terror, one of the officers aggressively asked me, “Why are you shaking so much?” It was most likely because this was the first time I was being illegally searched by police officers for no apparent reason. As a young black man, who had heard “horror” stories of being profiled by the police, I was afraid that this was the moment where my future would be taken from me, that in this moment I would end up in jail or dead because the color of my skin isn’t favorable in the American society. No person, let alone a teenager, should experience a fear such as this.

All so quickly, the four of us were sitting on the concrete with no shoes, our hands visible, and our ankles crossed.We were eventually told that we matched the description of assailants charged with a robbery. But even after a witness admitted we were not the assailants and the officers realized their mistake, our pictures were still taken and our vehicle illegally searched. For an hour and a half, we had to remain seated on the ground. And in the end, we weren’t allowed to leave, but had to call our parents to come get us–even though we had done nothing wrong. On top of everything else, I was frightened by the rage that my mother would surely have when she came to pick me up. But I was met with a surprise. We exchanged very few words, but among them the most vivid was, “You need to be careful.” My entire life my mother told me to go to school, mind my own business, choose friends that won’t lead me into trouble, to do right by others, and to lead a generally moral life. But never had I thought that she would tell me to be cautious involving encounters with police officers. Police officers supposedly protect and serve, yet for me they also reflect potential to put my well being in jeopardy. Never had the asymmetry of racial dynamics in this country been so clear to me.

Since then I have multiple encounters with law. In fact, I have had enough encounters that being racially profiled no longer frightens me. I often expect that I will be looked down upon by police officers. One may call this paranoia, but I more than assure anyone that have been profiled more than enough times to say that it is no coincidence. As a Black man in America, I have been conditioned to be viewed as a threat and as the enemy. To me, that is tragic.

Posted by & filed under From the Director, Staff Insights.

Laurie MulveyI teach a class called “Social Conflict” where we examine the Israeli-Palestinian conflict by talking directly to individuals living in the region. On Tuesdays, we are huddled in front of a screen talking to those in the Gaza Strip; on Thursdays we are talking to those in Israel. I am always gratified by what happens when individuals have the opportunity to talk to “the other side.” Here are end-of-semester reflections from two of the Penn State students who took the class last semester–one is Jewish, the other is Palestinian. When I read their essays, I am reminded of the possibility for changing the world that exists in a real conversation.

 

 

Jewish Student Blog A) :

As the semester comes to a close, I must say this class has definitely changed the way, which I approach, not only the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict but also how I look at the world and the way in which humans view their identity, develop an attachment to their environment and the way in which humans handle adversity.
 
Identity, which is shaped throughout our lives and throughout our experiences, should evolve as we gain new insights and knowledge about the world around us. Every Tuesday and Thursday I felt that I was taking a trip abroad into another country not that I was just attending a typical class at Penn State University in Pond Lab but rather that I was in Israelor Gaza. Completely internalizing what people from across the globe had to say about their culture and national identity allowed me to partake in a conversation about the conflict that I’ve never had before.
 
Registering for the class was a last minute decision that probably would never have happened if I hadn’t heard that this class was looking for more Jewish students. Thinking about that has made me realize how completely engulfed in my Jewish identity I am and how that shapes my sense of responsibility and loyalty I feel towards “my group”.
 
Never having had the chance to hear the Palestinian narrative, this class allowed me to form an impression and a window to understanding the Palestinian perspective. I was nervous coming into this class, as I thought about how I would defend a land that I think of as my own when I really had never studied the conflict in depth before. This leads me to what Nick said today in class when he spoke about having to prove yourself to people whose culture you share and to what extent you have to know certain information or believe certain ideas before “your group” accepts you as one of them. This stuck out to me as we as a class separated ourselves from our “side” in order to fully participate in discussion and dialogue and work towards understanding our biases and appreciating what the opposing side had to say despite our own personal beliefs. I was relieved that this class required listening more so than the need to be able to defend or argue against “the other side” and therefore provided a safe way to learn more about the conflict and the people who are involved.
 
The benefit I have found in taking on different perspectives is that for me personally it has allowed me to develop my own opinions based on first hand information from what I have heard in class and Skype sessions with people in Gaza and Israel. I no longer rely solely based on what I have been told by my peers throughout my life to understand the conflict as I have never been given a more complete picture of what is occurring in the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict until this class. Although it is harder and arguably a longer process to take the time to get to know people on a human level, in reality, I believe this is the most beneficial way to resolve conflict. When you know a person and the different facets of that person, as Josh used the metaphor of “separate ID cards, which show the face of the same person, only representing a different aspect of that person” dialogue becomes more meaningful as your not just talking to a “side” your talking to a real human being who has had their own experiences which have shaped that person and formed their background and why they believe the things that they do.
 
Leaving this class I will take with me the ability to question everything, internalize other peoples emotions as valid even if I do not agree, and to take the time to understand my own biases and formulate my own opinions based on experiences rather than preconceived ideas of what I believe to be true.

 
Palestinian Student Blog B):

Too often we walk through life dead, doing what we are supposed to do, thinking the way were supposed to and maintaining the routine taught by our fathers, and their fathers before them and so in. We live the life that society teaches us to live, we are aligned with the people we are meant to be friends with, and enemies with people we are meant to hate. It becomes a complicated practice, when you step back, when you realize that you are in fact a dead. That you have moved through your life, thinking you knew everything when in reality you knew nothing. We cling to assurance, like a child clings to his fathers hand, we cling to the concrete and the certain. When in reality it is known that nothing is certain and nothing is predictable, we are incapable of predicting the future because it goes where it wants and we have no choice but to follow. We have no choice but to adapt. Isn’t this the story and the beauty of mankind? It is our ability to make do with the circumstances that we are given that makes us truly human. It is our attachment to predictability when there is none, it is our hope that life will get better when it might not, and it is our capability of living when everything around us death.
 
This is how people live through bombs, wars and destruction. This is why people who live in the deadliest places still live, still maintain a culture, a way of life we assume is missing. Because how can someone live like that? How can someone be so content with knowing he may not live the next day, he may not see the sunrise, or his daughter clinging on to him for strength? Is it not beautiful to understand this means acceptance of death, of mortality, and yet his capability of living the fullest life? The story of humanity is the story of survival. I am Palestinian, this is how I define my identity, and this is always how I have chosen to define myself. It is so entrenched into my being, of who I am, of my identity that I know nothing else, and don’t want to know anything else. A socially constructed identity that I was handed down by my parent, by my culture and was ultimately meant to cling on to. It is this strength I placed on identity that makes me cringe, as I look back. Without exploration, without hesitation, and without questions I accepted my identity and everything that came with it. The ideals, and opinions that I was meant to have and the way I was supposed to think. Isn’t this the cost of being in a group of belonging?
 
It is the fear that we will ultimately be alone that keeps us coloring within the lines. As we remain in the boundaries society has drawn for us because of we don’t the consequence is isolation. Borders, we construct, enemies, we construct, in the name of security in the name of protection. Protection from whom? We seek protection from our enemies that could be our friends tomorrow, if we truly wished it, people probably more alike to us than we would ever like to admit. The important thing for me here is the fact that our beliefs, our enemies, and our hate are all constructed. And just like we constructed we can easily demolish, just like how we built the wall, to separate, and to justify, we can deconstruct, and join. The question then changes, it isn’t about who is right and who was wrong, who has justice on their side, and who is the oppressor. The lines are never distinctly drawn. No side is the victim forever, because the victim becomes the suicide bomber, becomes the spiteful, as he satisfies a self-fulfilling prophecy from his “enemy”. He from the beginning told him this what he was, spiteful and hateful. The victim is no longer the victim when he is the bomber of innocent children; it is then that the roles reverse. And the oppressor gets a taste of the helplessness, the victim feels constantly. He is ripped down from his throne of power. The question is how did it end up this way, and how can we go back?
 
To a time where all of this didn’t matter, where complicated layers that intersected were never present. To a time, where the sun shone on your neighbors house, as you looked at him as merely a human being feeling no need for protection, no need to hate him, or avoid him. I don’t believe, at least for right now, that humanizing alone is sufficient to going anywhere. Empathy is a step; humanization is a step, and a very important one. But if we do nothing with what we have learned, if we are not bold enough, courageous enough to step out of the borders that have defined our identity, we will remain in a never-ending cycle. To step out of our comfortable lives and be thrown into a world of reality, a reality that can’t be avoided. We build walls, barriers and we justify it by saying it is a mean of protection of security from something out there. Without having any idea whatsoever about whom this other is, nonetheless, what this other is. He is not human, he cannot be a person like me, he is barbaric, savage, and uneducated and that is why I have the right to be better than him, to oppress him, to want to hate him. This is what we are taught. We are taught to avoid reality, so that we are safe, so that we don’t have to experience the fear of rethinking everything we were taught was correct.
 
It is because we are taught to avoid the unknown to cling to uncertainty that doesn’t exist. So is it that life is uncertain, and our story is survival, and this is what makes us all human. United by this theme of never truly knowing anything, of rethinking and then thinking again, and being okay with the fact that you may truly never know anything. We are alive to feel things, to experience the reality of things, even though they may put us in the role of the oppressor, the role of the hateful, the bad guy. It may put us in situations of fear, and hate, of love and loss. But this is life, and experiencing all of these things make us alive, and our ability to feel, to hope, to dream and to be full of sorrow and confusion is what makes us human, this is our common humanity. Our attempt at trying to avoid life, to feel safe and secure all the time, is our attempt at creating an illusion, of being dead while we persuade ourselves that we are alive.

Posted by & filed under From the Director.

Sam in Doha small

World in Conversation Center lost a dear friend and a key collaborator yesterday. Dr. Walter “Terrell” Jones, Penn State’s Vice Provost for Educational Equity, died after a four month struggle with cancer.

I first met Terrell in the mid 1990s when he stepped in to support the growth and development of Soc 119, the “race and ethnic relations” course that I’ve been teaching since Fall 1991. Since that first, prescient meeting Terrell has consistently supported nearly every one of my proposals related to diversity financially, politically, and personally. He was a stalwart supporter of the Race Relations Project (now, World in Conversation) from its very inception in 2002, spending the past year as a key member of our inaugural Advisory Council. If I could, I would like to say to the tens of thousands of students who have passed through the halls of Pond Lab on their way to or from one of our dialogues: Not one of you would have had that experience had it not been for the vision and insight and tenacity of Terrell Jones.

The depth and breadth of this loss will be deeply felt as the Penn State community moves forward without him.Terrell Jones

In a more personal way, I have come to recognize that Terrell has been a true mentor to me throughout my career at Penn State. I spent many hours in his office receiving his counsel as he helped me to think through one initiative or another, and even personal life decisions. In fact, I have said many times that every success I have had at Penn State in some way has Terrell’s stamp on it. I will always be deeply indebted to him for profoundly helping to not only shape my career in positive ways, but also to make me a better person. Our collaboration ended much too soon and it will be a long time before I stop having the impulse to pick up the phone and call him for advice. The grief is extraordinary.

 

And now, as World in Conversation continues its mission of expanding perspectives through peer-facilitated dialogue, I am conscious that we are carrying on the legacy of a man with a vision who was committed to bettering the lives of people, especially Penn State students–even though most of them who benefited had no idea who was responsible.

Posted by & filed under Collaborators and Partners.

Takkeem MorganRight now the global community is at war. Today over 1,000 people are dead as a result of another war between Palestine and Israel. Another 298 people were blown out of the sky due to conflict between Ukraine and Russia. Countries are at war yet have no real understanding about each other’s daily lives. And of course, it’s a lot easier to demonize and destroy the lives of those who we do not know. From 2003-2012 over 500,000 human lives were lost during the US invasion of Iraq (may peace be upon them). And to many Americans, the Iraqis were an unknown people. These episodes of violence create a demand for new ways of bringing global communities together. They also expose the limitations of traditional diplomacy.

Formally there are three “tracks” of diplomacy. Track One consists of official dialogues organized at the highest levels of government and usually involve highly trained diplomats. For example US Secretary of State John Kerry is currently engaged in Track One diplomacy between the leaders of Palestine and Israel since his appointment by President Obama a few years ago. Track One is not really about creating “understanding” as much as it’s about deal making. Track One diplomats are very well educated, have a keen understanding of global politics and work in the interest of the political establishments of their sponsoring nations.

Tracks Two and Three involve unofficial dialogues and problem solving activities aimed at building relationships between nations. The two tracks differ in that Track Two is carried out with prominent individuals and institutions with established structures, Track Three lacks such gravitas. One example of Track Two diplomacy occurred in 2001 after a US spy plane crashed into a Chinese fighter jet over Hainan Island in China. Several US non-governmental institutions brought together Chinese and U.S. defense officials to ease the tensions. Track Three diplomacy has the greatest potential for bringing about understanding and long-term peace, although it is crippled by a lack of infrastructure. Without infrastructure there is no reliable way to develop long-term understanding between communities.

World in Conversation has figured out a systematic way to bring global communities into contact and create understanding. Through World in Conversation, I have witnessed dialogues where NATO cadets gain insight into the daily lives of civilians in a conflict zone for the first time. I have watched Iranian men speak openly with American students about the nuances of religious politics in their country. World in Conversation is a bold new innovative approach to Track Three diplomacy that has the potential to be a powerful platform for global unity.

The World in Conversation infrastructure for global dialogue begins with the recruitment of young intellectuals who embrace the concept of global citizenship. Next they are trained to be professional facilitators. As facilitators, the students learn to be effective enablers of radically open global dialogues about critical issues. World in Conversation operates on the principle that censorship does not lead to greater understanding. Understanding develops when trust is established and the right questions are asked. Finally one of the most critical pillars of this infrastructure is the adoption and development of video-technology tools that decrease the impact of distance.

Right now the cycles of violence and destruction across the globe highlight the devastating impact of the conflict and war infrastructure. And right now the global community is in desperate need of new ways to bring about cross-cultural understanding. World in Conversation has developed a new type of infrastructure, one that empowers young people with communication skills and technology, engages global communities in critical dialogues, and provides a platform for developing long-term peace through greater understanding.

 
 

Editor’s Note:Takkeem Morgan is a 2nd Year MBA student in Penn State’s Smeal College of Business and former facilitator who has assisted the organization’s development efforts over the past several years.

Posted by & filed under Staff Insights.

BrentonWinC

“To travel is to take a journey into yourself.” – Danny Kaye

A little over a month ago, I set off on  a journey with my mother, fellow trip chaperones, and thirteen fellow Korean adoptees to a cultural learning tour of South Korea. Inspired by a previous trip with the same organization, I was honored and excited by the opportunity to chaperone and give back to an organization which had given so much to me and my fellow adoptees. In addition, thanks to World in Conversation, I felt very prepared to dissect, learn, and explore the culture of my motherland. I was excited to experience Korea for a second time using my WinC branded lenses of critical thought and to return to Pond triumphant, with insightful paradigm-changing perspectives to share. I felt excited to lead deep, thought-provoking, and transformative conversations with my peers because that’s what I do at World in Conversation. And then, reality set in.

As I began the journey, I became aware of how my ego felt crowded by my mother’s engaging and charismatic personality and presence. I saw how the other adoptees were getting the special attention and praise that I had once received. No one was introducing me as a chaperone or a leader of rich conversations.  No one really asked me to do anything. One might think, “As a self-aware and responsible individual, Brenton must have taken responsibility for himself, shifted his perceptions of his mother, and asked for what he needed.” Unfortunately, one would be wrong. Instead of taking responsibility for myself and my needs, I slipped into a tireless cycle of self-pity and victimization. I kept thinking, “our trip leader will surely give me some identifiable responsibilities” and “an opportunity to start a transformative, soul-exploding conversation about Korean adoptee identity issues will present itself at any minute.” Resentment towards my mother, other tour participants, and the leadership of the tour grew. I would sit quietly hoping to be perceived as contemplative, and kept my inner monologue to myself. I waited and waited until I finally realized we had only three days left on our tour, and it hit me like a ton of bricks: “if my expectations are not being met, then I need to change my expectations.”

Instead of expecting this trip to provide insightful learnings about norms, traditions, and societal agreements outside of myself, what about looking inward to the narratives, practices, and patterns within myself and how I choose to respond? Instead of waiting for someone to hand me something and tell me how great I am, why not focus more on being myself (which is likely what had inspired my invitation for a second tour) and let go of what I had expected?

Within minutes of this seemingly obvious “a-ha” moment, I began to feel differently about my mother’s presence, the “lack of direction” from the our trip leader, and my sense of self within the group. I began to see my own norms more clearly as well as the norms of the Korean culture around me. Opportunities for deep, connected, and thought provoking conversations I had planned on facilitating began to appear and seemingly facilitate themselves. Suddenly, my role became clear; I was here to be myself, assist when asked, and figure out how best i could support others.

“To travel is to take a journey into yourself.” These words from American actor, singer, and dancer Danny Kaye ring true for me as I reflect on my experience in Korea. The journey was about continuing to learn about my Korean heritage, sharing the experience with my mother, and being able to support an organization which has come to mean a great deal to me. The journey was also an opportunity to look critically at my inner “cultural” norms and make decisions to change patterns of thoughts. I had to relearn the importance of getting myself, my preconceived notion of what I was, how I was, and how I thought I wanted to be out of the way in order to actually be. I had to make a choice about how I saw myself and in turn saw others. In making the choice to let go of my expectations and allowing myself more space to be, I found myself feeling more connected, fulfilled, and open to understanding.

Posted by & filed under Collaborators and Partners, From the Director, Staff Insights.

Laurie MulveyMy heart has been heavy these days given the escalation of conflict between Israelis and Palestinians. Because I teach a class that examines this conflict through virtual dialogues with individuals living in the region, I am deeply connected to people on both sides of the border. So every day I ache with the stories I hear about what is unfolding in their worlds. But this morning, I awoke to a tiny bright spot…but a bright spot nonetheless. The essay below was written by Shayna Friedman, one of the students in my class last semester. She is currently living in Israel. I am impressed by her courage in expressing this.
 
 

Shayna-Friedman-mediumMembers of the Reserve Service of the Israeli Defense Force are called back to duty, sirens sound throughout Israel, rockets and missiles rain down, Israeli citizens across the country run for cover in bomb shelters, and I remain aware and mindful of the devastating effects of attacks simultaneously striking the residents of Gaza.

 

This past spring I took an Israeli-Palestinian conflict course, directed by the organization World In Conversation. Each week my class would Skype with Palestinians in Gaza and Israelis in Israel to discuss the day-to-day lives of each people and to gain a better understanding of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. I took away from this class the ability to question each preconceived idea that I held in regards to the conflict and gained the tools necessary to understand that the best opinions are those that are formulated based on ones own personal experiences and conversations with those directly involved in the conflict.

 

Now visiting Israel for the 4th time and spending the past two and half months here, immersed in Israeli culture, I have observed and experienced for myself from an (often uncomfortable distance), the rising violence and danger in Israel as a result of the constant rockets being fired by Hamas militants. After weeks of escalating events, both Israelis and Palestinians have come to use violence and destruction as a wake up call to the other, making the statement that neither people will stand for the injustice they feel has been inflicted upon them.

 

Running to a miklat (bomb shelter) everyday for the past three days and living in the reality of the uncertain and ever-present danger has opened my eyes to both hatred and humanity in times of crisis.

 

The Israeli-Palestinian conflict calls for citizens in each society to choose sides, and to reject whomever is seen as being the other. Therefore, in order to stifle the constant strain, members of society go along with the prevailing sentiment in the community which one resides to avoid rejection and to feel accepted as part of the in-group.

 

Throughout my course on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, I came to find that understanding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is based on the ability of a person to separate themselves from their biases and from the side, which that person would otherwise take. Instead focusing on listening and empathizing with the opposing view, and thereby acknowledging the reality in which the other side lives is key in understanding the other perspective.

 

I am aware that understanding the perspectives of others can only go so far in resurrecting a solution, for how can everyday civilians even begin to empathize with the other side, when society conditions each side to fear the other? The outright truth is that without open-mindedness and acceptance being omni-present in one’s society, the social stigma placed on an individual for rejecting the norm is just not worth going against the grain, only to receive backlash from ones friends and family. The reality of the matter is that it could be those people who are shunned by their communities and told to keep quiet with their non-conforming and innovative ideas that could be the people who are the ones capable of finding a resolution to this conflict. If only these people were supported instead of pushed away so that they are not to be heard by the masses, would they have the guts to speak out!

 

Echad, shteim, shalosh – three rockets strike Jerusalem, a mother cradles her small child, whispers of prayer fill the miklat, everyone wonders where the missile landed and if everyone is okay, other Israeli’s go about as normal, ignoring the sirens and missiles all together.

 

When there is immanent danger, it is the harsh reality that the average person is not interested in talking; they’re not interested in discussion, or working things out with their words. Rather the parties involved with the disagreement are interested instead in getting straight to the point and getting the message across to their enemy in the clearest way possible. However, it is only rational and clear communication that can and ever will be the resolution to solving any problem, as there is no problem that can’t be solved through dialogue, no matter how severe.

 

The Israeli-Palestinian conflict deserves a real conversation that can only be had if each side is able and willing to make the difficult transition of separating themselves, if even for a moment from the us vs. them mentality. If and only if in every action and in every reaction that transpired between Israelis and Palestinians, each group imagined the validity of the other sides perspective, the way in which we went about resolving conflict would without a doubt be handled with more empathy and understanding.

 

The suffering and heartache felt by both Israelis and Palestinians cannot be reconciled by simply brushing off each casualty as the others’ misfortune. The blame game is futile when each side has been present for the pain and long-standing anguish that the other has endured.

 

Ultimately, pressures from society to view each group of people as the other, inhibits both groups of people from empathizing with real human beings on the other side of the conflict.

 

Through conversation and dialogue each side is given the opportunity to overcome this reality and for uninformed citizens to question and formulate their own opinions based on real experiences rather than ideas that society depicts of what truth is in the matter of the other.

 

Choosing a side in conflict allows for feelings of acceptance and alleviates the social stigma and social pressures that come from being considered as the outsider who cannot comprehend the gravity of the situation nor absorb what is going on.

 

It is the ill fortune that members of both Israeli and Palestinian societies find comfort in alienating not only each other but also those in their societies who seek to learn more about the conflict through understanding both sides. In doing so, this provides comfort to the alienator only, by feeding their nationalistic pride and faulty sense of self.

 

As human beings given the choice of free will, it is my hope that one day instead of choosing sides, we’ll choose each other.

 
 
Thank you, Shayna, for this insight. You can check out the original article here on The Times of Israel Blog.

Posted by & filed under Staff Insights.

colleen

Wednesdays are the days that we, WinC Facilitators, have open dialogue with each other. It’s a time that we are able to unpack our thoughts about how our personal experiences have shaped us, and a place where we can explore them together. This particular day, one of my fellow facilitators was expressing her hesitation in interrupting or cutting off black women in dialogue. She also stated that it was much easier for her to get along with black men, and so I asked what it was about black women that she felt perhaps uneasy about. She tried to respond but finally came to the conclusion of that she didn’t know and then another facilitator, a black man, said it’s because “b****** be crazy”. The room filled with subtle laughter. Wow was I offended, and I made it known by looking at the man and saying I was offended as I sat way back in my chair. I felt as though everyone was co-signing what the black man had said about black women. Although I know this black man pretty well, I still took offense because I knew the reaction everyone gave revealed many things that went unsaid when it comes to the black woman. It is hard to admit the stereotypes we hold about other people, and it is even harder to explore where we learned it and why we feel as we do. Unfortunately, this opportunity to unpack these stereotypes was quickly passed over as everyone else glazed over this event and started talking about other things.

The conversation continued, and I felt that the significance of that moment and the ways in which black women were viewed by society were swept under the rug once again. I, as a black woman, could not truly say how I felt for fear of fulfilling the lose-lose stereotype of the angry black woman. When we went back and finally addressed what had happened, some said they didn’t associate the stereotypes of black woman with me, and I thought that it would probably only take me yelling to be put into that category. No matter where I go, I am seen as a woman who has black skin and therefore am a black woman. These stereotypes put on black women such as always being angry, being assertive, and being loud, are universal, which makes fulfilling these stereotypes unavoidable when just simply being another human reacting to the world fulfills them.

Although these are the stereotypes that may be held against me, these are also ones I have tried distancing myself from. Through the distancing of myself from black culture and identifying as Eritrean only, I have co-signed the notion that those stereotypes do indeed occur in black women, just not my kind of black woman. It is hard for me to admit, but I hold these same stereotypes for other women who look JUST LIKE ME! This is another facet of being a black woman: trying to show that you are not the stereotypical black woman. We make these assumptions about ourselves too. I try to distance myself from the stereotypes placed on black women and African American women, but it turns out I am a perfect example.

As I reflect and try to unpack where and when my image of a black woman and this reflection of myself developed, I think back to my important childhood memories. I can remember having dreams of being able to “unveil” myself as a white girl with long, flowy, BLONDE hair. What I was, or AM, was just a facade. I was able to unzip and reveal a white girl instead of who I was in reality. That was my favorite dream.  I would try to fall asleep to the recreation of that dream and the different adventures I would be able to have being white. How old was I? Too young. Just like the young girls involved in the “Black or White Doll” experiment, I was completely aware of the skin I was in, but was taught that what I was not what the world or myself loved. We were choosing the dolls that looked nothing like ourselves to be the ones we considered “nicer and prettier.” I was that young girl choosing the white doll over my own reflection. But now, I must “accept” who I am, and for me that includes accepting the fact that the world still sees me as an inferior, mean, and ugly woman, just like how I used to see myself as a young girl. No matter how much someone will try to tell me that this is not true, you are asking me to “accept myself” Do white girls go through a phase of accepting themselves? I am actually curious to know if they must learn to “accept” the skin they are in.

The bottom line is that that conversation stirred up a lot of emotion within me because I was finally seeing what it really means to be a Black or African American woman in America. It hit me hard and I cried. It was a reality I was finally willing to accept; a different world that I previously turned away from was actually a part of myself that I was constantly rejecting. In order to not fit into stereotypes, I was hiding pieces of myself, always hiding some of my disagreements and thoughts on topics, all because I was afraid of the stereotypes. I also cannot say my fears are unreasonable because they are very real in the ways they affect how I am perceived from the moment I am seen. Even in times when I’ve been present and I expressed my opinions, the stereotypes were present as well.  In some cases, they were working against me. It’s frustrating to think that I have held back things consciously, but I am now aware and working towards being more self-aware. I have meditated on what the conversation shifted in me and about what it means to be an African/Black child of African immigrants. I will continue to think about this and am moving forward to showing, exploring and embracing who I am and may be.  Hopefully, I will have an answer soon, but something tells me that this will be a lifelong lesson in who I am as a person and as an African-American woman.

Posted by & filed under From the Director, News and Updates.

LauriePhotoForBlogI am honored to share the news that we just received a grant from Penn State’s Center for Online Innovation in Learning (COIL) to initiate Phase One of a three-phase project that will use video conferencing paired with online learning modules to engage a global community of online learners in experiential, peer-facilitated learning.

What does that actually mean? :-)

Well, think about this: The key to the success of World in Conversation is effective facilitation. Simple enough. But facilitation is based on using a combination of “soft skills” that are nearly as difficult to teach as they are useful to people in every profession across the globe. A highly trained communicator who can facilitate conversations can manage both conflict and collaboration with equal deftness. This turns out to be essential to any dynamic and effective social group. However, as many of you know, this kind of training is labor intensive (emphasis on labor). At WinC, fully trained facilitators have gone through one semester of basic training, one semester of advanced training, and two semesters of a practicum that involves hundreds of hours of facilitating and dozens of hours of both live and recorded observation and feedback sessions from skilled coaches.

Not easy to produce in an online medium.COILHeaderBanner2

However, due to the demand for more facilitators everywhere we turn, we have an ambitious plan–to use our most creative minds to somehow build our training into an online platform, one that can be made available to an immensely diverse population of learners around the globe for free. The challenge of this task obviously centers on finding a way to make a dynamic, effective learning experience happen in a virtual environment. This challenge necessitates an innovative approach to not only retain learners where other mediums have failed, but also to implement true experiential learning virtually, to scale, and cross-culturally.

I said this was “ambitious,” right?

So the support from COIL will be a cornerstone in the design of the first phase of this immense undertaking where content will be developed around a knowledge-based understanding of each facilitation skill. This will serve as a building block for effectively developing Phases Two and Three of this project–where we dive into actual skills development. It sounds impossible. But I thought meaningful virtual dialogues would be impossible too. And I was so wrong about that!

So we’re on our way.

Thanks, COIL, for believing in us