Saturday, July 31, 2010

From "The Peace Activists Survival Handbook"

I do hope you've noticed I’ve not been around here for awhile. I’d like that; to know my presence makes a difference, even a slight bit. Thank you. 

Well, I’ve not been far. Just intently involved in one of the Small "Zones Of Peace" Projects favorite undertakings. July is the month we (Small “Zones Of Peace” volunteer leaders) prepare our “Conflict Resolution and Anger Management #101” presentation for the UNESCO Center for Peace, Model United Nations Camp. 

We, especially, our veteran facilitator, Jim French, have come to love presenting this program. At the end of this year's presentation, Jim said that working with this young group of peace-builders gives him hope for the world. Jim's tireless and skillful contributions to our program, year after year, uplifts my spirit, too. They truly are an "awesome" group, these teens that gathered in Hagerstown, Maryland the past few weeks -- from around the world. 

This year's group brought together young, dedicated peace-builders from as far away as Australia, Brazil, Columbia, China, India, Mexico and South Korea. Be sure to check out the massive scope of this summer camp and model United Nations program at

It is a genuinely inspirational endeavor, offered as a result of the dedication and persistance of my dear friend, Guy Djoken, the program's executive director, and his beautiful, wife. Jinji Zhou. 

This was our third annual presentation. However, we had been spoiled, I think now, by the ease with which we had been able to create a modicum of awe with the teen students in 2008 and 2009. Compared to this one, the previous two workshops were a breeze for us. 

This year's challenge: 

Close to 1/3, by my count, of the participating students spoke only Chinese (and, only through an interpreter). We didn't know that! Not until we found ourselves stuck in a puddle of polarization (a very banal one) that we had to tug ourselves out of for awhile. 

We may not have reached the peak on our “Mountain of Awe,” however, we (our volunteer team and the students) get an A for having achieved the point of “elegant solutions.” And, bravo we have it all on video! 

Thanks to a very industrious, creative summer volunteer, Kevin Paul. Kevin hopes to have the transformation we did achieve ready for YouTube, sooner rather than later, pending the limitations of his returning to St. Mary’s College in the Fall. 

More to come soon.

Saturday, July 10, 2010

Identity Called Up Short

Identity: Culture And Conflict

Having a discernable “identity” can be a tricky affair. To do life right, you need to have enough of this thing called “identity” but not too much.

One thing that “identity” can mean is that you honor what’s true for you. Yet in order to be at peace, you cannot cast aside what is true for others. Finding the balance between these “truths” can be challenging.

This lesson was brought home to me when, a few years ago, I served as the local president of a national Jewish women’s social action organization. My presidential term of office began on almost the exact same day as a local Jewish/Muslim controversy, minus two days. (In other words the controversy had already been set in motion before my first official “presiding” occurred.)

As a result of this, community polarization was brewing, both within the Jewish community as well as in the surrounding community at large. It was a difficult time for me to assume the presidential role, especially as I was new to the local Jewish community. Thank goodness, that as the executive director of a peace-building non-profit organization, the New Horizons’ Small “Zones of Peace” Project, I had a profound back-up support system from my volunteer team.

Because of these circumstances, I, personally, got buffeted about rather severely in my role as president of the women’s organization. However, to respect my personal sense of integrity, I needed to have and openly express an opinion on the crisis for the situation was impacting upon the organization I was attempting to lead.

How the Jewish community was handling things was in direct opposition to what I held to be responsible course of action as a peace-builder. If you read the articles I have written about "The Middle East Crisis In My Backyard,"you will notice my taking a stand against the “hiding out” I believed the local Jewish community was doing.

This was probably the first time in my life that I felt, personally, called to take a public stand on anything. It was a very uncomfortable and unpleasant ordeal for me.

What unexpected lessons I was learning on “identity: culture and conflict,” being the local president of the Jewish women's social action group! Nonetheless, I could not allow the situation to go unacknowledged.

My personal experience of most of the Jewish community not responding appropriately to the situation was one of grave concern. I saw a group I was representing placing all who were affiliated with them in a negative light in the greater community, even provoking anti-Semitic reactions.

As president of the women’s group, I saw myself, also, being put in a difficult position, publicly. One in which I was being chastised by members of the local community. It was not a situation which I believed I could "pretend" not to see; the damage accruing from the Jewish community electing to put its collective head in the sand. Or, do nothing about.

Additionally, I saw other, more effective ways to handle the situation, even “teachable moments” that were being overlooked. Eventually some of these were adopted by a small select representative group with beneficial, though short-term results. That is a related tale to be told at another time.

Overall, the position I took was not a popular one with the Jewish women's "social action" group, especially in my role as president of their organization -- and - as a newcomer to the Jewish community.

To date, I, personally, still haven’t gotten the “right” and the “wrong” of the situation and my role in it entirely sorted out. However, the pay back from the “elite” of the Jewish women’s group continues to fallout; a blight on me!

Speaking out about my experience of the situation and the lessons it spotlights about modern American life (not only contemporary Jewish American life) has, thus, now become important to me, so much so that I am working on an entire book on the subject, "The Middle East Crisis In My Backyard." What else could I call it?

I am grateful for the opportunity the controversy brought me in this way; lemons out of lemonade, once again. I anticipate surprising rewards from my work on this manuscript in progress.

Already it is helping me clarify where it is that I now stand as a Jewish woman in 21st century America. An important, but not an easily reconcilable issue, faced as we are, today, with the “real” Middle East crisis.

Strange isn't it how life brings us lessons we didn't even know we needed to learn? Jewish identity hadn't even crossed my mind as an area of contemplation in decades. Now it stands out as an critically important part of who I am, intricately entwined with the other 999 masks I wear, all of which are aspects of me.

And, the Jewish/Muslim controversy that was so challenging for me -- in my backyard -- has turned out to be a life changing experience! However, I was already a bit spoiled by the paths I had walked prior to taking on my presidential mantle in the women's "social action" group.

From years of community development and violence prevention experience, I knew there was a higher level of possible resolve to our local Jewish/Muslim controversy. I knew how it could be achieved if people worked together and were willing to go the distance required.

That is why I am still actively seeking that kind of resolve today; higher levels of Jewish/Muslim (and Christian) reconciliation on local levels, at least here in the United States.

And, teaching others from the medicine bag of peace-building tools I have been given.

That “knowing” of "what" is possible in situations like the one that was encountered here is what I am striving for in my life -- here and now -- in everything I do.

Fortunately, I have been blessed with mentors, guidelines and formulae to teach me the "how" of reaching this possible dream -- the vision of building small “zones of peace.”

As a result of “The Middle East Crisis In My Backyard,” the lessons I have learned and the teachings that have been available to me are now an integral part of the New Horizons’ Small “Zones of Peace” Project, a successful community development model that I head.

Not surprisingly, one of this projects main programs "Coffee House Conversations" has as its objective -- "cultural mediation." You can read more about these on our blog site (link posted above).

I am amazed that such unexpected and profound gifts, such as the Small "Zones Of Peace" Conversations Project model, came to me from my challenging experience as president of a Jewish women’s “social action” group that took almost no action at all.

Friday, July 9, 2010

Storytelling and Blindness:
Overcoming the Separation

I have never seen my friend Sarah Blake. For one thing, she lives faraway in another state. But, if we could meet face-to-face, which we almost did two years ago, she would still not be able to “see” me. For although I have regained my eyesight, Sarah has not.

In some ways it doesn’t matter that we have never laid eyes upon one another. Sarah is one of my “best friends.” How can I possibly know that for sure? Of course, it’s the stories we’ve been telling each other for years now, around seven, I think.

Sarah and I have told one another stories about losing sight and regaining it. Stories about being blind. Stories about working with people. (I am so proud of my friend Sarah as she has recently become an “almost” ordained minister.) We have also shared stories, simply about day-to-day life, relationships with family members and men!

Sarah has listened to my stories of not knowing how “to be” in the world. The challenges I’ve experienced when faced with the --

“Pleased to see you, again. What have you been doing in your career the past few years? Oh, you’ve been being blind? Well how is your new book coming along?”

If you value the overcoming of human separation, I hope you have a “Sarah Blake” in your life. I’m so glad I do. People like Sarah in my life are the gifts that are helping me take off the 1,000 masks I wear.

With love to Sarah from Anastasia