“It’s pronounced like the peppah,” said the young woman from London, her red and black braids swaying over her shoulders while I struggled to say her name, spelled KyAnn, properly. (Cayenne pepper, my slow-moving brain finally figured out!) KyAnn was one of sixteen young adults sitting in the circle at the first meeting of our LivingSideBySide (LSBS) workshop this summer at the Global Youth Village (GYV) in Bedford, Virginia. In the circle with us were Abomullah, from Saudi Arabia; Marwa, from Aswan, Egypt; Luciana, from Dominican Republic by way of Boston; and a dozen other young men and women from all over the world. Our common task was to learn more about ourselves, each other, our shared human values, and the communication skills necessary to build peace in our diverse world. I was honored and thrilled to have the chance to work with these extraordinary young people.
Global Youth Village is a summer program for high-school youth from all over the world who come to a camp near Bedford, Virginia to expand their peace-building and leadership skills through study, play, collaboration, challenge, discovery, and friendship. The program has been running each summer for forty years, and the lessons learned by the parent nonprofit organization, Legacy International, have been put to good use in many other youth development programs, including the creation and growth of the LivingSideBySide (LSBS) peace-building training, the educational core of GYV.
As a member of the GYV staff this summer, my role was to facilitate a LSBS workshop, providing training in self-awareness, multi-cultural appreciation, and effective communication skills in a concentrated morning session each day for seven days. In between our sessions, those in my workshop joined a larger multi-cultural group, totaling 44 young adults, engaging in a wide variety of activities designed to reinforce the LSBS workshop content, with many opportunities to practice and reflect upon their new knowledge. All of the young adults at GYV participated in LSBS training – mine was one of three workshops. In my group of sixteen, some participants were Muslim, some were Christian, one was Jewish, some were white, some were black, some spoke English well, some spoke English as a second or third language, some were from cities, and some were from rural settings. Their ages ranged from 14 to 19, and their life experiences were vastly different. What united them was a willingness to recognize their shared universal values and their consistent efforts to treat each other with deep respect.
Our workshop focus on effective communication and serious engagement with challenging issues led to an Open Space Technology meeting on the second to last day of the camp. The format allowed the 44 youth participants to create their own agenda and facilitate their own conversations about critical issues in today’s world. Participants offered penetrating questions for discussion, including: Why are Muslims seen as terrorists? How can we eradicate gun violence? Is arranged marriage OK? Is organized religion needed in the modern world? Is capitalism failing western countries? Is formal education necessary for success? How can we end poverty? Can blacks be racist? How can we solve the housing crisis? These questions, among others, were all generated by the youth participants, and the discussions that followed were serious, passionate, respectful, and entirely youth led. None of the staff participated except to create the framework in which the questions were offered, and the space and time for the discussions.
At one point during the Open Space Technology meeting, I found myself moved to tears, watching these earnest, passionate young adults discuss deeply some of the very questions that challenge our world today. My heart was buoyed by their intensity and dedication, their mutual respect, and their ability to listen deeply to each other. The knowledge and relationships they built during GYV will persist as they enter the worlds of university and work, creating a tightly-knit network of understanding across the world. The skills they practiced during GYV will serve them in their daily lives to build peaceful, respectful relationships with everyone they meet. It was an honor to work with them, and I am confident the world will be better because of their presence in it.
My experience at GYV reinforced my belief in the power of the LSBS curriculum. I have been working with Legacy International to help bring the LSBS curriculum to American teachers and youth workers, who are faced with increasingly diverse classroom populations and a youth and media culture that distracts from effective, respectful communication. LSBS training for adults will lay the foundation for developing peace-building skills in the youth with whom they work. On the eve of the anniversary of the August 2017 violence in Charlottesville, I am deeply aware of the need for American youth to expand their awareness of self and others and to develop their ability to work respectfully with those who don’t agree with them but who share their common humanity.