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

Posted by & filed under Collaborators and Partners, Feature Friday.

Yangbo Wang

Who am I? Where am I from?  What do I do with my time?  What got me interested in World in Conversation? I turned these questions over and over in my mind, and it just went blank. Streams of memories of the past and consciousness of the present crowded at the door of my mind and tried to get in, but didn’t fit.

I stopped thinking about the questions for a while and began to read some of the other WinC blogs.  As words like conversation and dialogue repeatedly came to my attention, I couldn’t help but ask myself: when was it that I had my first conversation with a native English speaker? With this question, my mind floated back to a peaceful spring afternoon 22 years ago.

Back on the central plains of China, Hubei Province, “a fertile land of fish and rice”, I was attending a middle school in its capital city, Wuhan.

On the playground of a middle school, a Grade-7 class of about 50 students were having PE class. Before the merry boys and girls were aware of anything, the PE teacher came back with a piece of unexpectedly exciting news. “A group of foreign guests are here visiting our school. They would like to talk with our students.” We felt like we won the lottery because we had just happened to be having outdoor class on their route through the area! After that initial reaction, however, the following words inevitably caused some uneasiness among us: “We need to choose two of you as representatives.”  Although every one of us wanted to see the scene – much the way one would want to see a UFO – none of us had ever been face to face with a foreigner.  No one jumped out to claim his/herself as a representative, because we were not used to manifesting our desire too strongly and because we were nervous at the notion of meeting foreigners.  After a brief awkward exchange of opinions about whose English was better, another boy and I were chosen as the lucky dogs.

Memory of details filtered by time slowly came back to me. Soon I was alone in front of a silver-haired lady and three or four of her companions.

She said something to me, smiling warmly. I couldn’t understand a thing, feeling like a swelling red balloon, but I was somewhat comforted by her smile.

She kept on talking, smiling affectionately. I was quiet, but all of a sudden my ears were open.

“Do you like PE lesson?”

“Yes.” Hooray! I couldn’t believe we were talking in English.

“What do you do in PE classes?”

“We play volleyball, basketball.” I suppressed the excitement in my stomach and tried to retrieve those long big words I’d learned. Words like volleyball and basketball were big enough for language beginners like us.

“May I have a picture with you?”  This was a line from our English textbook! How did she know?!     “Yes, of course!” This time without any hesitation. Her companions all burst into bigger smiles and approvingly repeated my reply, one of them held up a camera.

In the conversation group about three yards away, the boy was  obviously was not much luckier than me. The boy kept nodding, shaking his head or staying quiet, from the beginning to the end. He never got a chance to utter a single word. Later, he reluctantly confessed that he couldn’t understand what the man had said.

I stood beside the lady. With a click, the moment was forever preserved on film and in my heart, the only two places available at that time.  In the following years, I sometimes remember this picture and I find myself vaguely wondering about where they may be now and if they are okay.

For quite some time after that amazing afternoon, I often got lost in the dream of conversing with foreigners again when my English was good enough for a real conversation.  Then I could get rid of the unsatisfying exam paper I had handed in to those guests. However, the opportunity never came and it gradually slipped into a corner of my mind, where it emerges occasionally with the same tangible, peaceful, spring sunlight on that day.

So many years back ago, I didn’t realize, as I do now after traveling half a globe to knock at WinC’s door, that conversation with people from other nations is more than possessing linguistic competence or giving good linguistic performance. Basically, it provides a window for both sides from different worlds to meet each other in the first place. It makes each other’s existence tangible. It gives possibility of further communication.

With the lady and her companions’ willingness to make a field trip to a Chinese local school, with their friendliness, with their patient talk with a shy Chinese child, these guests from afar, and I, and, if I may say, all my class, had already had a meaningful conversation.   Although I did not contribute much in terms of language, the seed of curiosity and expectation was sowed.

Maybe this also gives an answer to the question of why I had no intention to turn my back on that embarrassing experience as I did with poorly-scored exam papers. In fact, it was like a Skittle I could put into my mouth when I walked into the school that seemed a little plain most of the time.  It served as a source of inspiration for many years to come.  When I found work at World in Conversation, where I knew I could continue to be inspired, I couldn’t wait.  It was like a bag of Skittles that would never run out, I could keep taking candies and keep being inspired.

There might have been an invisible line that connected this happy experience to my later years of devoted to studying English and its related cultures. But I see a long journey that started from when I had my first special conversation, to where PennState is, which looks like the starting point of my next journey in exploring the magic world in conversation with all the members of WinC.

Posted by & filed under Staff Insights.

Alexa St. MartinMy journey with World in Conversation began with a simple question: “Are you ready for your life to change?” At the time I was slightly amused by the question; feeling skeptical despite my eagerness to move forward in the program. However, my amusement was quickly dismantled as I embarked on the most powerful and challenging journey I have experienced to this day. I understood that my life would change, very much, but I did not necessarily expect to change the lives of others (although I hoped to).

As a facilitator with WinC, I have heard a myriad of insightful, though-provoking, and enlightening ideas. I have also heard my fair share of frustratingly stereotypical comments, most of which leave me feeling unappreciated, unmotivated, and defeated. I find it all too easy to get down on myself, criticizing my facilitation skills when a conversation goes downhill. Yet I find it unnervingly difficult to give myself credit when a dialogue is clearly leaving an impact. I have left countless dialogues kicking myself, asking myself questions like, “Why am I even doing this?” and “Does this even really matter?” These questions were answered for me in a single, monumental moment on a busy street in State College.

It was a typical Saturday night in State College: the sun was still shining at 7 pm, thanks to the advent of Spring after a seemingly endless Winter. Due to the warmth and clear skies, the busy street of College Ave was littered with students celebrating on their porches. Horse-shoes, hackie sack, and red solo cups danced as far as the eye could see, surrounded by laughter and shrieks of excitement. As I walked along, I heard someone call my name from across the street. I looked back, seeing a girl about thirty feet away from me yelling my name from the porch she was occupying. I did not recognize her, but what she said to me will sit in my heart forever. “Alexa! Alexa, I was in one of your discussion groups. You changed my life, and I will never forget you as long as I live.” Immediately, I was paralyzed with shock. My chest became a heavy weight as I felt my heart beat against its walls. Tears welled in my eyes, fogging my vision. Tears fill my eyes even now as I recall the experience. I thanked her and walked away, unable to fully understand the impact of her words.

By the next block I was full on sobbing, holding up my group of friends as I found somewhere to sit. It was a while before I could form any sound other than guttural sobs, and even then I was without words as I let the situation sink in. I had affected someone’s life so profoundly they had felt inclined to yell at me from across the street, insisting I become aware of the impact I had on them.

Facilitating dialogue can be frustrating work – we all understand that at the center. It can be easy to want to give up and stop trying so hard. It is far too easy to feel like there is no point, and that we are wasting our emotional energy when others really do not want to be challenged or explore their beliefs. But I want to say to my fellow facilitators, if you ever find yourself wondering, “Am I making a difference?” I can assure you, the answer is yes.

Posted by & filed under Thought Blog.

Dr. Peggy Lorah has been a longstanding supporter for the Gender work that we do at world in conversation. Her insight, collaboration, and guidance have helped develop this initiative significantly in the past several years and we want to share with you her thoughts:


 

plorahEvery semester, I have the good fortune to spend a few hours with the staff and student facilitators who are part of the World in Conversation, specifically those doing the Gender Dialogues. The ways in which they engage students in meaningful discussions and reflections is work we all aspire to do. I have always believed that students want to talk about significant issues, whether the significance is personal or global. Through the World in Conversation, they are welcomed into that process, and they jump at the opportunity. The depth and breadth of discussions is impressive. Each time I am there, I see that students truly want to learn and grow and be challenged, and they want to challenge themselves. The World in Conversation invites students to struggle and to make meaning of their lived experiences, and this encourages them to claim agency for their thoughts, feeling, and actions. Students grapple with issues of difference, they learn to see and hear the nuances that make each person unique, and they learn to value the differences and similarities in us all. I believe the World in Conversation is transformative, and I am grateful that Penn State students have the opportunity to be part of this program.

 
Thank you, Dr. Lorah, for all that you do for the university. It is a better place for it!