I recently attended a New England Association of Schools and Colleges conference. The luncheon keynote speaker was a man named Carl Hobert, who is the founder and director of an organization called Axis of Hope. I was riveted by Mr. Hobert's address, in which he discussed how Axis of Hope works with adolescents to help them develop an understanding of alternative, nonviolent approaches to resolving complex conflicts locally, nationally, and internationally. I knew right away that this was something that would be powerful in my own school. Read on to find out what happened when we held an Axis of Hope workshop at Revere High School.
Revere High School is very multicultural; nearly every country across the globe is represented in our population: Bosnia, Albania, Tanzania, Morocco, Algeria, Egypt, Kurdistan, Colombia, El Salvador, Haiti, Mexico, Honduras, Vietnam, Cambodia — to name a few. While our school celebrates diversity, I thought it would be an amazing experience for my students to participate in an Axis of Hope workshop so that, in the words of the Axis of Hope mission statement, they could learn about conflict analysis, management, and prevention "in ways that enliven the imagination, awaken moral reasoning, and impart lifelong social and civic skills."
Bringing Axis of Hope to My School
After his presentation, I stalked Professor Hobert. I told him that I worked in Revere, and I described our students. I also told him that we were a low-income school and did not really have funds to bring in outside workshops. Professor Hobert gave me his contact information and told me that he would arrange to set something up in Revere. The next day we had a date to bring Axis of Hope to Revere for a one-day workshop.
Since I'm an English teacher, I wasn't sure how to go about selecting students to participate in the workshop, so I informed teachers and guidance counselors and made a general announcement. Within one day, I had over sixty students signed up! The students varied in age, background, and ability: this was not a workshop exclusively for the best and the brightest. I wanted everyone to have a chance to experience what would turn out to be a life-changing event.
I had to work quickly to secure a spot in our high school where we could hold the workshop. The library and larger conference room areas were already booked. I found a large classroom in a newer part of our high school building that would just barely hold sixty students. The workshop was to take place from 8 a.m. to 2 p.m., and students would only have a working lunch.
When the day arrived, I was concerned about how the students would handle being in a hot room (it was at least 85 degrees out that day, and there was no air conditioning) for such a long time. I should not have worried; the students were engaged from the minute they walked into the room until the bell rang to go home. In fact, Professor Hobert was surrounded like a rock star at the end of the workshop, and I finally had to tell the students to let the poor man go home!
Axis of Hope calls the workshop experience "Intellectual Outward Bound" because it promotes intensive, hands-on leaning opportunities through geo-political role-play case studies. Professor Hobert began the workshop by providing the students with a history of Arab-Israeli negotiations, which included part 1 of a PBS video. Then individual, pre-determined role-play groups read "Whose Jerusalem?" a packet with confidential instructions. As teams, each group then authored individual two-minute summary statements and presented those statements. This was followed by three rounds of negotiations, which lasted until the morning debriefing. The "working lunch" included part 2 of the PBS video.
During the negotiations, students were often called upon to take a point of view they would not take in real life. Jewish students were required to present the Arab position; Muslim and Arab students took the Israeli position. The experience was both eye-opening and transformative. Students began to see issues with new eyes. One student remarked that she no longer saw problems as black or white — in fact, it seemed like almost every issue was grey.
At the end of the workshop, the groups worked together to author a 250-word Mideast Peace Proposal for President Obama, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, and Special Envoy to the Middle East George Mitchell, focusing on security, education, and health care reform. My students felt as though their voices would be heard, and that they actually had a chance to contribute something to the world in which they live.
The students who participated in the Axis of Hope workshop learned valuable skills that day. They learned how to study international conflict and develop valuable negotiation skills. They began to understand that these skills could now be employed in their everyday lives. Because I still had to teach my English classes that day, I wandered in and out of the workshop. Each time I was amazed at how totally engaged the students were. They were just as passionate and enthusiastic about the experience at 2 p.m. as they had been at 8 a.m. And the students did not stop talking about Axis of Hope. A few weeks later, Professor Hobert invited my students to visit Axis of Hope headquarters on the campus of Boston University. Later, he invited them to a party for Axis of Hope at BU's Photonics Center, where they enjoyed a gourmet meal, and three students spoke to the audience about their experience with Axis of Hope.
Many of my students remarked that they had often heard about the Arab/Israeli conflict, but they did not know what the issue was or how it could possibly affect them in their daily lives. Many lived insular lives and lacked a larger worldview. During the workshop, the students gained valuable knowledge. They saw that what happened across the globe did impact them, and they realized that their voices and opinions could also help change the world.
Axis of Hope transformed my students. They were profoundly impacted by the opportunity, and they have now become part of the effort to create future peace. On Saturday, January 8th, Professor Hobert will be back at Revere High School to do another workshop. This time we've invited students from other high schools, and the former "Axis of Hopers" will help mentor the new students in the peace process.
I thank Professor Hobert for providing my students with this amazing experience. He has raised their global consciousness and given them a chance to form an understanding of and compassion for those who live in areas of conflict. Axis of Hope is laying the foundation for a new group of leaders who will truly help make the world a better place.
A great follow-up book is Jimmy Carter's Talking Peace, which gives young people ideas for helping the world. Changing Borders also gives a timeline, which explains how borders have changed over the years.
Here's hoping for a peaceful 2011!