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Camp Encourages Dialogue Between Youth From Areas In Conflict


Finally, we've been having conversations with people who have been thinking about and working on ways to close deep divides like the ones that have been on full display over the course of this year. We've spoken with members of truth and reconciliation commissions, to street outreach workers in Chicago and to a community organizer who helped residents decide how to move forward after a school shooting.

Today we're focusing on work being done by young people to break cycles of violence and mistrust. We're talking about the Seeds of Peace summer camp in Maine, which first brought together Israeli and Palestinian teenagers in 1993. Now the camp and its year-round programs facilitate conversations between young people from many different trouble spots in the Middle East and South Asia, Israel and Palestine, but also India, Afghanistan, Iraq and Bosnia. The camp puts those young people in front of each other for an intense summer of physical activities and talking and listening, creating friendships between people whose forbears have been locked in deadly conflicts for generations. Twenty years ago, the first group of young people came to the camp who were already in the United States, a group of teenagers from Maine which was experiencing tension with the arrival of East African immigrants.

And I'm joined now by Spencer Traylor, who participated in the Seeds of Peace program. Spencer, welcome.

SPENCER TRAYLOR: Thank you for having me.

MARTIN: And Eliza O'Neil is one of the directors of the Seeds of Peace U.S. program. She helps to facilitate those dialogues between campers. Eliza, welcome to you as well.

ELIZA O'NEIL: Thank you so much.

MARTIN: So, Spencer, I'm going to start with you. What was it like to be an American teenager there with your particular kind of unique experience and other kids from - I guess you were there, there were kids from all over the world there. So what was that like? What do you think you got from that?

TRAYLOR: Yeah. It was confusing at first. There were campers who were there from, you know, Israel and Palestine. And we were this cohort of students from Maine who weren't necessarily sure what conflicts we had to work through. And I think that once we started digging into our identities and having some of these really hard conversations, we started to realize that there were a lot of divisions and a lot of tensions that were just below the surface. But once we brought them out, I started to realize that there was a lot of work to do here as well.

MARTIN: Eliza, let me turn to you. You sort of often hear a lot of Americans think, well, this is not this here. This is someplace else. This has nothing to do with me. And I was just wondering if there's any resistance ever to getting Americans to participate in this experience because they don't think it has anything to do with them.

O'NEIL: What I have found is that even students from the same city - from New York City, for example - are amazed and fascinated and eager to meet and become friends with fellow students who live even in a neighboring borough but lead completely different lives. And I think in many ways, access to difference is what draws youth to our programs the most. People are really eager for it but often don't know where to turn outside of social media to find it. And social media certainly has its limitations when we're talking about deep conversations. So finding ways to expand into different circles can be a really impactful and surprising experience for kids.

MARTIN: Spencer, what about you? When you got there, did some of the other kids wonder what you were doing there?

TRAYLOR: Yeah, absolutely. I think when you're a kid from northern Maine and you're talking to a Palestinian camper who's, you know, experienced significant loss because of a conflict and the conversations that they're having in their dialogue are really intense, right? And they're looking at you and saying, what could you possibly have to talk about that's as intense as what I've been going through?

And, you know, I think for a lot of us as campers, we had that same question. You know, what are the conflicts that we have? Why are we here? Why are we doing this work? And I think that it takes starting to unpack the levels of division that exist in the U.S - right? - and actually working through those and talking through those different experiences to start to really understand how deep the divisions run in this country and how much work there is in starting to overcome those.

MARTIN: And you're a history teacher now, so you interact with young people all the time. I'm just wondering, how are your students processing what's going on in the country right now, the division, you know, the violence? Do the kids want to talk about it? And how are they processing it?

TRAYLOR: Students are coming in with a huge amount of curiosity. Some of them have been out of school for months because of the pandemic. And obviously the country was going through huge upheavals that they didn't necessarily understand or that they were hearing different perspectives on and didn't have a lot of space and time to process it. So this year they came in with so many questions and wanting to have these conversations. But there was also a tension, right? A fear of bringing these things up and starting to really, you know, understand like, do people in this classroom think about this differently than I do? So in

one of my eighth-grade classes, a student brought up the Black Lives Matter issue. And we said, is this a conversation we want to talk about? And every student in class was like, absolutely, we need to talk about this. And so we took a day and, you know, set up a mini-dialogue process to be able to share perspectives that people had heard and that people were experiencing. And that was enough to alleviate a lot of that tension. And now we're able to have those conversations a lot more openly in class without students feeling the fear of sharing their opinions and talking through some of the complexities.

MARTIN: I wanted to ask about that because I think that there is kind of an instinct on the part of many people to avoid conflict, thinking, well, just avoid it. And it's my understanding that part of the Seeds of Peace ethos is to learn to kind of lean into the conflict rather than avoid it.

TRAYLOR: Yeah. I mean, from my perspective and my experiences, I think a lot of our society's institutions, communities - there's this sense that if you open up conflict, it's going to disrupt that community, and it's going to cause divisions that don't already exist. Sort of don't sit around the dinner table and talk about politics or religion, right? There's this fear of opening up conversations about our different ideas. And the Seeds of Peace model is the exact opposite, that you have to open up those conversations. You have to talk about divisions. You have to talk about conflict in order to have a functional community.

MARTIN: Eliza, do you want to jump in? What are some of the ways you sort of address things that could be really volatile?

O'NEIL: You know, this stuff is really painful, being misunderstood, mischaracterized right in front of your eyes. But what we've found is that when we encourage the airing of those conflicts, even if it's messy, even if it is scary, if the shared purpose is trying to understand and be understood, this - it can bring people together. And then I think a key part of it is that no matter how heated or upsetting the session had been that day, everyone shows up the next day. You know, they're still friends. They're still in each other's lives. They haven't been shut out. That's a huge deal for kids to be able to see conflict through kind of to the other side and still have an intact relationship and actually, in many cases, a stronger relationship.

MARTIN: So let's talk now about how people can consider drawing on the experiences that you have both had with Seeds of Peace and perhaps bringing it into their other contexts. I mean, one of the - I guess part of the appeal of Seeds of Peace is you're all there together. You're all doing fun things together as well as doing hard things together. Right? And everybody isn't going to have that. So how would you - what do you draw from that experience that you can sort of apply to other situations?

TRAYLOR: I mean, in my perspective, any group of people that is expected to work together, expected to live in community together needs opportunities to have conversations. And when you start to structure your systems around this idea of having open and honest conversations, you can start to see a lot of progress in the way that people communicate with each other, the way that people work with each other.

MARTIN: Eliza, what about you? Are there some circumstances that you can think of where the techniques that you all use at Seeds of Peace might be applicable to other environments?

O'NEIL: The way that we talk to kids about naming the differences that you're seeing, not trying to diminish or erase them because they're uncomfortable or they make us feel further apart, and trying to name the shared values that lie beneath them, you know, to be safe and secure, to have opportunity to be listened to, to belong, like all the things that make us human, that the beliefs may never line up, and the differences may never be gone, but the values almost always do. And then I think just stories. Stories have a lot of power. Facts and figures are important, but you often get stuck in these conversations in kind of a spiral of figuring out sources. At our program, the kids very intentionally don't have their phones, which compels them to speak from experiences and stories. And this vulnerability really moves conversations deeper.

And then the last thing I would say in any context is listening. When listening is happening, people can move through the airing of their differences and just coexist. You know, when you don't feel heard, you just keep saying the same thing. It's a stuck cycle. It's a spiral. And suddenly, when you have mechanisms for them to feel heard, they can either go deeper or move on.

MARTIN: Eliza O'Neil is one of the directors of U.S. programs in the Seeds of Peace program. She's also a dialogue facilitator at the camp. Spencer Traylor is one of the teenagers from the United States who took part in the Seeds of Peace camp in Maine, which was originally created for Israeli and Palestinian youth. He's now a middle and high school history teacher and the co-founder of Next STEP, which is an alternative high school program. Thank you both so much for talking to us.

O'NEIL: Thank you.

TRAYLOR: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.