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Grassroots Peacemaking During a War

Scott Silk
For the past 12 years, Hands of Peace (HOP) has created a space for intensive dialogue, leadership development, and unlikely friendships between Israeli, Palestinian, and American teenagers. The ultimate goal is to equip young, empathetic leaders with awareness of the conflict’s multiple narratives, and the communication skills to share new perspectives with their communities upon returning home. Up until 2014, the program’s sole site was in Chicago, but after two years of networking, fundraising, and planning, Hands of Peace opened a second program based at Pacific Ridge School this past summer. 
Five current Pacific Ridge students with an exceptional interest in international affairs and conflict resolution were among the pioneer participants. They were joined by four additional American participants and 16 teenagers from the West Bank and Israel. One Pacific Ridge alumna, who is currently studying at Barnard College, worked as the American chaperone. Seven Pacific Ridge families were among the host families.
Here, Pacific Ridge history teacher and HOP California Director Scott Silk talks about the origins of the San Diego program, the trials and tribulations of the first summer, and the amazing growth witnessed in the student participants: 
How did Hands of Peace California begin?
When I interviewed for a teaching position at Pacific Ridge in 2007, I had recently completed my fourth summer as a dialogue facilitator for Hands of Peace Chicago. Founding Head of School, Dr. Mullady, casually asked whether I might consider opening a similar program at Pacific Ridge since the program complemented the school’s mission so well. At the time, I didn’t think to pursue it. I was just excited for a new teaching challenge, the sun, and the waves. The idea of expanding Hands of Peace to California was never far from my mind though, and in 2011, I proposed the idea to the program’s founder. 
Once the San Diego program was approved, the real work began. I spent the first year banging on doors and talking to anyone who would listen about the merits of Hands of Peace. A few people listened, and I was able to raise about a third of the money needed for the first summer. My real break occurred when Josh and Khalid, two of my students at Pacific Ridge, agreed to participate in the 2013 Chicago program with the intent of helping start the San Diego program the following year.  With those two gentlemen as spokesmen, and a team of 25 eager volunteers, I was able to raise additional funds and garner the necessary interest to plan a program. Little did I know that our startup summer would coincide with a horrible war between Israel and Hamas.
What does an average program day consist of?
Each day at Hands of Peace begins with icebreaker games and three hours of professionally facilitated dialogue. Over the course of 18 days, summer program participants move through four stages of the dialogue process: trust building, discussion of politics, sharing personal stories, and preparation for returning home. Afternoon and evening programming covers the gambit from educational to just plain fun. This summer, participants visited the Mexican border to dialogue with teenagers from Tijuana about similarities and differences between their respective borders/walls, listened to the wise words of renowned non-violence trainer Azim Khamisa, and pondered the role of internal peace in making external peace while practicing yoga with a team of instructors. They faced the uncomfortable by attending religious services and delivering speeches in a mosque, a church, and a synagogue. To unwind, participants also played soccer, explored the San Diego Zoo, enjoyed the beach, and spent time getting to know their homestay families.
What were some of the most memorable trials and tribulations of the first summer?
July 17th was both the best and the worst day I have ever experienced at Hands of Peace.  This was the day that Israel invaded Gaza after two weeks of Hamas rocket attacks and an Israeli aerial campaign. It is hard for me to explain what I was feeling that day. As the director of the program, I felt a profound sense of responsibility for the emotional well-being of participants and staff. Some of our Israeli participants had brothers or sisters who were part of the Israeli Defense Force army that was moving into Gaza. Other Israeli families were sleeping in bomb shelters. Although we did not have participants from Gaza, some of our Palestinian participants have extended family in Gaza. On a personal level, it is hard to remain hopeful when you see so much hatred and violence at the same time that you are striving for peace and understanding. But the most amazing thing happened that day. In an effort to be sensitive to the needs of the participants and not feeling so great about having the Hands enjoy the upcoming afternoon musical performance without knowing the reality, the staff decided to stand on the stage for a moment of silence in honor of those who were suffering in the region. We didn’t know what to expect. Would the Palestinian and Israeli kids start pointing fingers at each other and trading insults? Instead, a Jewish-Israeli girl by the name of Tamar silently stood up. Then, one by one, all of the other participants stood in silent unison.  There was not a dry eye in the house. It was simply one of the most beautiful and inspiring things I have ever experienced.
How has the experience affected the Pacific Ridge student participants?
The five Pacific Ridge student participants—Khalid, Josh, Alyssa, Roxi, and Robert—were amazing to begin with. That said, Hands of Peace has had a profound impact on their lives. No matter how talented the teacher, no lesson plan can match the power of an 18-day peer-to-peer dialogue process. It is the ultimate global engagement experience. These students learned much more than just the facts of one of the most entrenched international conflicts. They felt the pain of their friends as they shared personal stories of how the conflict has impacted their daily lives.  Further, each American teenager gained something different. Khalid was able to deeply connect with his Palestinian identity and find his voice as an orator. Josh learned to be a compassionate leader. Alyssa discovered that conflict resolution is her true passion. Roxi wrestled with what it means to be an American. Robert learned to express his ideas with confidence. All discovered their power to make a difference.
My profound thanks go out to Dr. Ogle and the Pacific Ridge community for supporting the work of Hands of Peace. It is my hope that Hands of Peace will form a deep partnership with Pacific Ridge School for years to come, and I hope many more PRS students, families, and faculty will have the opportunity to be involved.

Scott Silk