Sisterhood, Segregation & Safe Spaces

Sisterhood, Segregation & Safe Spaces

By Fadumo Adan

When I was taking a Community Organizing and Development class this past spring, a friend of mine asked if I was doing anything over the summer. I didn’t have anything planned or a full time job, so I was open to any opportunities. Then, she suggested I apply for a position with a pilot program that was seeking more women of color as facilitators. She knew me quite well, so I had an inkling the position would have something to do with economic justice, race, immigration etc. I emailed our program director soon after.

She followed up with a plethora of forms and prompts for an essay submission. That was definitely a first. I’ve never had a job ask for essay responses. It was my favorite part of the entire process! For the first time, I was being asked about my own experiences. Finally, I had an opportunity to actually incorporate my readings into a framework that would (hopefully) augment my role as a facilitator. Two weeks later, I was interviewed. I found out the model for the Colorado program mirrored a Middle East/U.S. program that focused on American, Palestinian and Israeli participants. However, this year’s summer intensive would be specific to segregation in schools along racial, ethnic and socioeconomic divides. I accepted an invitation to join the team the very next day.

I consider myself an expert in the above mentioned. After all, I am a first generation college student and a woman of color who grew up with working-class immigrant parents. This was my calling. I was being invited to have conversations that almost never happen beyond the secluded ivory towers of academia. It was in college where I developed the vocabulary to talk about my experiences in a way that commanded visibility. I had context, theories, statistics and everything else I needed to deconstruct parts of my story I felt were void of insight. While I mulled over how the training would be like and the kind of roles and responsibilities I would have, I looked forward to overcoming challenges and the personal fulfillment that comes with doing just that.

Facilitation training consisted of repeatedly being confronted with my own assumptions. We spent a little over a week working through internal conflicts that were impeding our ability to create a container of safety and trust amongst all of us. We would spend our entire day discussing and acknowledging the experiences, events and narratives that have taught us how to rehearse our responses. Sometimes, it hurts too much to revisit how parts of my story unfolded, but doing this work is how I will avenge for my silence. By working through conflict and surfacing our own unresolved issues, we created a milieu built on support, care, acceptance and sisterhood. We practiced intentional listening, experienced workshops firsthand, painted masks, modeled self-care, engaged in the practice of empathy and sang camp songs. Creating a community of safety requires an immense amount of trust and follow-through. I don’t think any of us knew our training was going to equip us with the communication skills and insight we would need to recreate this experience for the participants.

When the participants arrived, I witnessed how ill-equipped most Americans are in navigating tensions caused by legacies of oppression, segregation and inequality. We deter conversations about race by speaking in codes instead. Participants from a particular high school differentiated between international baccalaureate and traditional students. “Traditional” is this context alluded to someone who was potentially violent belonging to a Latino or Black racial/ethnic group that did not value education. The imagery associated with the word is so engrained that admitting who exactly is a traditional student would require days of intensive programming and building of trust. It was only when we established group norms and cultivated a community of inclusion and safety, could we honestly discuss free/reduced lunch, the DREAM act, the model minority myth, gender, sexual orientation, ‘pulling oneself up by their bootstraps,’ power and privilege in the context of each person’s lived experiences. My role as a facilitator was to create suitable conditions for participants to address conflict rather than avoiding it. I was to ensure they felt safe enough to speak their truth and they did.

In the United States, many of our problems are embedded in fear, prejudice and hate. We are the only industrialized country with an astonishing number of gun-related deaths without a foreseeable solution, we have more children living in poverty than any other industrialized country, our safety nets pose a danger, and we grapple with deportation, mass incarceration and income inequality we haven’t seen in a century. These policies undermine our sense of safety, our right to exercise citizenship and advocate for change. We remain in a continuous cycle of violence, poverty and destruction because we are too afraid to talk honestly about our experiences with each other. We choose to be color-blind instead of color-brave. One of my fellow facilitators said something that resonated with me: when we accept the responsibility we have to begin healing, we are able to break cycles of violence. We can affect change that will impact future generations to come. Healing begins once we feel safe enough to create space for our collective trauma and experiences to be shared and acknowledged openly.

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Reflections on Facilitator Training

We have just finished facilitator training for Building Bridges Colorado, and we are tired but brimming with happy anticipation of the participants’ arrival. Last night, at our closing training circle, one facilitator mentioned that, at that very moment, our participants were at home, checking their packing lists, and wondering what in the world they got themselves into, and it was astonishing to consider, because we’d already been through so much.

In one week of training, we laughed together, cried together, learned, played and challenged each other. During facilitator training, we spend a few days experiencing the program, both so we are prepared to conduct the workshops, and to surface some of the assumptions and challenges that might cause tension between us. We also go over the curriculum, review and revise, practice facilitation, and much, much more.

It is as emotionally and intellectually stimulating as any other experience I’ve had. For me, this is my ninth Building Bridges facilitator training. I’ve had the pleasure of watching a team gel, and that humming, happy feeling when you realize that your team has your back. I thrive on the late-night slap happy laughing that makes your cheek muscles ache, and the curious pep of the morning people.

There is nothing quite like the community of a summer camp, and nothing at all like the community of Building Bridges.

This summer with the Colorado program, the work takes on a whole new dimension. In our culture, we don’t often talk about the differences that divide us. More often, we take them in stride, or pretend they don’t exist. We know that racism and classism and power and privilege are out there impacting our world, but we don’t often acknowledge how we play into those systems in big and small ways. We don’t talk about the how we are personally affected by those massive societal ills, or ask someone different from ourselves how those forces touch their lives.

Except at Building Bridges. That’s all we talk about. The experience is eye-opening and enlightening. For me, it’s a few weeks a year when the masks we all wear in order to function in daily life get to fall away, and we talk about our true lived experience. The best part is, those conversations serve to bring us closer together, rather than further apart. We learn how to make space around even the scariest, most hurtful truths, so we can examine where they come from and what purpose they serve.

And, when all that is done, the session closes, the facilitator makes the invitation to continue the conversation, and we get down to the business of building this warm, vibrant, truly inclusive community with the power to change the world.

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Circles of Change 2014

Circles of Change for feature


Colorado friends, thank you for making our 9th annual Circles of Change event our most successful yet!

Congratulations to this year’s honorees:

Denver City Councilman Albus Brooks

Muna Aghawani, Building Bridges Alumna and Lead Social Scientist

Shift Award winner artist Inocente Izucar



Thank you to our 2014 Circles of Change Sponsors.

The Sea Change Circle:

Nancy Reichman and Charlie Gwirtsman
Zinn Mediation Associates

The Rising Tide Circle:

The Koff Family
Sabrina Merage Foundation

The Making Waves Circle:

Celeste Grynberg
The Kurtz Family in honor of Olivia LaRocco
Hogan Lovells
Elaine Selsberg and Dan Recht
First Universalist Church of Denver
Hogan Lovells
Carol and Mike Sarché

The Ripples Circle:

Rachael and Michael Barkin
The Benchmarq
Mary & Glen Burbridge
Cynda Collins Arsenault
Denver Film Society
Molly and Michael Frank
The Marvin Naiman and Margery Goldman Family Foundation
Lynda Goldstein
Melanie Grant
KRG Capital Partners LLC
Hannah and Mark Levine in honor of Aili Miyake
Lohf Shaiman Jacobs Hyman & Feiger PC
Mimi and Keith Pockross

Zinn Mediation Associates
Sabrina Merage Foundation
Lohf Shaiman Jacobs Hyman & Feiger PC
Hogan Lovells
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A New Program for Colorado

Colorado enjoys an incredible range of diversity in terms of race, ethnicity, class, nation of origin, language, gender identity or other exceptionalities.  Segregation between our populations, however, is persistent in many ways, including our state’s schools.

This June, we are piloting Building Bridges Colorado.  During the summer intensive, 24 young women from our school partners George Washington in Denver and Greeley West, and other schools yet to be identified, will come together to address the segregation in their schools.  Often along race or class lines, segregation can be due to social norms, special academic programs, or other causes.  Building Bridges Colorado will offer the participants the opportunity to discuss the things that divide them, and to build deep relationships.  They will also acquire Building Bridges’ set of communication and leadership skills designed to allow young people to explore their own identities and to amplify their own voices.

Following June’s summer intensive, participants return to their home schools, to continue the work and find ways to share what they’ve learned.

The Colorado program will include:
⁃    A 10-day residential summer component, June 8-17 in Allenspark, CO.
⁃    Monthly school-year programming from July 2014 to May 2015
⁃    Two weekend retreats, one in fall 2014 and one in Spring 2015
⁃    Individual or group school-year projects

Participants will include:
⁃    Female students entering sophomore, junior and senior classes in the 2014-2015 academic school year who are interested in meeting peers from different backgrounds
⁃    Diversity across grade level, race, class, nation or origin, language, gender identity, sexual orientation, or other exceptionality

For more information about Building Bridges Colorado, please contact Deme at

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For twenty years Building Bridges participants have embraced the idea that seeking to understand difference, rather than fear it, would lead to a more just and inclusive world. During the two decades since, we have involved thousands of young people, who have in turn touched many more. We are proud of their courageous work and grateful to the entire Building Bridges community for making this possible. Together, we look forward to continuing our work to creating lasting change.


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Mandela: In Memoriam

Nelson Mandela is a shining light for good.  He personifies strength in the face of oppression, and brilliance in the face of ignorance.  At so many junctures of his life when he could have chosen what was easy, he did not.  He chose a life that was hard.

This is not to say he chose to be born into apartheid, and the horrors it entailed.  Rather, he chose to be human in a system designed to steal his humanity.  He chose strength when his society was built to sap that from him.  He chose to stand out, when that meant risking his life and his freedom.  He chose to hope, rather than submit to hopelessness.  And, when he had the opportunity to lead, rather than recreating a system of hatred to his own advantage, he chose to lead with a vision of inclusion, reconciliation, and truth.

He is a true hero.

The question we are left with in his death is how to honor his memory with our own lives.  How to find those opportunities for making choices and to make them for good, for hope, for the better, rather than recreating and enacting on each other the systems of division that are so familiar, and so crippling.

Nelson Mandela, thank you for your life, your compassion, and your example.

Here is a link to a celebration of Mandela by Johnny Clegg, South African artist, and anti-apartheid activist.  Mandela comes out around 2:30.

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U.S. Home Group Retreat Report from Emma

I arrived at the bus late, flustered and the feeling of unease was clearly written across my face. “I can’t talk right now, I have to do this!” I said as I stared at my phone while the friends I haven’t seen in a month try to ask me how my life is going. A few moments later I looked up in shock at how curt and dismissive I just acted. I apologized immediately and almost began crying at the sudden realization that my life had gotten far too hectic and that the peaceful, calm days of the summer intensive were gone. It seems a little paradoxical to have the words calm and intensive in the same sentence but that’s just what it was. Being surrounded by people I can be myself around, in a place where I don’t have to worry about homework, SATs or how long I can go without sleeping was complete and utter bliss. Sure, we dealt with some extremely powerful issues, but somehow I felt at peace knowing that everyone around me was there because they want to change the world for the better.

“This is your weekend,” I told myself. When I’m 40 years old I won’t remember the one weekend I stressed about all the work I needed to do because let’s face it, that’s every weekend for me. I will, however, remember the weekend I focused on issues in my community and had an amazing time free of worries with some of my closest friends. Once I let the pressures of my personal life slip from my mind I began to smile and turn my attention to the even more daunting issues that are prominent in my community such as the portrayal of women in society, racial stereotypes, LGBTQ issues and the various splits between people that are often times ignored. These topics seem were definitely difficult to talk about because of all the emotion that accompanies each of them. For me, the challenging aspect of the discussions is realizing that even though I want to change these problems in my community, I don’t truly know the solution and even if I did, it would not be an easy fix. The conversation, however, came as easy as can be. Speaking in an environment where people value what I have to say and attempt to understand my point of view is what helped me to be comfortable talking and sharing my own thoughts. Countless times throughout the weekend there were groans when Deme and Ali, the program staff, stopped the conversation for obviously unimportant reasons like food or breaks.  I, along with many of the other girls, didn’t want to stop talking. Maybe I don’t know how to solve the issue of how women are portrayed in society, but I can honestly say that after talking about it with the other girls and hearing their thoughts, I feel one step closer to figuring out a way.

The issues we discussed during the weekend were surely impactful on my thinking of how to better my community, but this was not the only part of the weekend that was important to me. Getting to know the other U.S. participants better and establishing a true sense of friendship between each one of them was absolutely wonderful. During the summer intensive I only really got to know 3 or 4 U.S. girls because of the groups we were put in and who I clicked with from the beginning. Throughout the weekend, however, I got to know each girl that was there and developed a friendship with them. This weekend was one of the few times in my life where I was completely myself with no pressure to say the right thing, wear the right clothes or act in a certain way. I felt safe. I went from barely knowing some of the girls to missing them so much right now as I write this a week later. It was nice to break out of the small group of girls that I know really well and learn about the lives of the other participants.

Lastly, there was one part about the weekend that was particularly challenging for me. This was the disappointment I had in myself. How could I let my life get so busy and stressful that I didn’t even apply the things I learned over the summer? How could I sit back and watch as the issues in society continue to have damaging effects? I was extremely upset with myself. In the past 4 months I had only been concerned with personal issues like how many activities I can be involved in to put on my college application and what I could do for my brother so that I wouldn’t have to rake the leaves. I wasn’t making a conscious effort to think about the issues and try to make even the slightest of changes. The racial splits within my school are very prevalent and instead of doing things to understand and help mend this problem, I was ignoring it altogether. The dissatisfaction I felt for my efforts is not something that I want to feel again. Therefore, when Deme asked me what goal I had for myself to go back into my community, I knew that it was awareness and application. This is a pretty hefty goal, but I know that if I truly focus a little less on my own crazy life and a little bit more on issues in my community, I can actually make a difference, even if I don’t completely solve the issue of women’s portrayal in society. I got off the bus with a smile on my face, ready to start the hours of homework awaiting me.

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Building Bridges East – Up And Running!

I am so happy to announce that Building Bridges has registered and become an official non-profit organization in Jerusalem.  I am Rawan Zaitoun, Middle East Program Director, and to me, this means that Building Bridges as an organization will be better able to provide consistent and ongoing support to our current and past participants as well as develop programming that is planned and implemented locally, based on the needs of our participants.

When I participated in Building Bridges 13 years ago, I was introduced to Building Bridges by a local organization in Palestine. What I found odd at that time was the absence of the Building Bridges staff from the US. Trusting the connection and the people who already been to Building Bridges, I applied knowing that I would learn about the organization and the amazing people behind it when I got there.

After the program we all arrived home and only a month later the second uprising (intifada) started. The Building Bridges experience and climate at home made it absolutely necessary for us to come together, share and support one another. The absence of a Building Bridges office and staff in the region made it this extremely hard. We, as participants, started planning events that were never enough. The US office tried to be involved as well, but the lack of infrastructure made that very challenging.

Since the establishment of the Jerusalem office in July, 2012, in collaboration with the US office, we launched the 2013-2014 follow-up program for Building Bridges MEUS including an alumni mentorship program.

It was truly a pleasure to host one of our major donors in the office this past October.  While, to many, the establishment of the Jerusalem office could be seen only as a physical space to conduct work, to us as participants, staff, alumni and families it represents a commitment to our values and the consistent and long term support and development to all Building Bridges representatives.

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I Don’t Despair: Reflecting on the Anniversary of September 11

Like so many others, I spent September 11th thinking about where I was when I heard the news, and the terrified astonishment I felt as I watched the towers fall on live television.  For me, more than anger, I remember being consumed with sadness and confusion; who could be so filled with hate?

Unfortunately, that was not the first or last terrorist attack.  With sad frequency, I remember the car bombing I witnessed in 1994, in Afula, Israel.  As I drove to work on September 11th last week, I heard about suicide bombs in Egypt and Iraq. Along with the rest of the world, I’ve been watching the slow-motion nightmare take place in Syria over the last two years.  When I arrived at work, I spoke to my dear friend, a faculty member at Al-Quds University in Jerusalem, who told me how she’d been trapped in her building for more than an hour as students and teachers were tear-gassed outside.

The violence that pervades our world is breathtaking in its scope and its impersonality.  People are killed or punished for being something: American, Israeli, Palestinian, Shi’ite, or Sunni, or some other ‘other.‘

As part of Building Bridges since 1995, I have spent a large portion of my life unlearning those labels.  I can’t think of the people killed in the twin towers as solely American, because I know that ‘American’ has such limited meaning in terms of who they were.  I think of them as people. People whose new puppies kept them up all night.  People who always told their friends when they had poppy seeds stuck in their teeth. People who went digging in the bag for the black jelly beans. People who constantly lost their keys, and people who could speak of nothing but their adorable toddlers.  I think this way because it’s what my experience with Building Bridges has taught me.

We bring four groups together in our Middle East/U.S. program, Palestinian, Palestinian who live in Israel, Israeli, and American.  But even as we read the participants’ applications for the program, those terms become laughably inadequate to capture their incredible diversity.  To define the young women who come to our program by those words glosses over who they are in the same way the word ‘flower’ doesn’t begin to capture the unique beauty of roses, lilacs, and daisies.

The basic horror of the violence that we bear witness to is the erasure of identity.  It makes no sense to the child of the mother who smelled like warm bread and shampoo that she died because she was ‘American.’  She was his mother.  Just as it’s utterly meaningless to think about my friend who loves white mochas and jigsaw puzzles being tear-gassed because she is ‘Palestinian.’  She’s my friend.

I don’t despair, though.  I don’t despair because I am lucky enough to live the transformation that takes place when the labels can’t work for you anymore.  After years and years of working to strip down and challenge assumptions and stereotypes, I take pleasure every day in the wonder of a world where I know nothing about anyone until they teach me.  That the woman in hijab waiting on the bus stop might be a hip hop DJ.  That the guy with bowlegs and a ten-gallon hat may have a PhD in philosophy.  That I can take profound pride in working for an organization that stands against the violence by teaching individuals to see each other not as other, but as layered, complex and beautiful human beings.

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It’s Not Peace Camp

This is Jen, Deputy Executive Director of Building Bridges, and after my 7th summer, I think the most common misunderstanding about Building Bridges is that the work we do is lovely and sweet.  People think of us as ‘peace camp,’ a place where young women sing and dance together – a warm, fuzzy idyll in the mountains.

It’s not the case.  In fact, when the participants arrived in Denver this summer, we asked them to anonymously write down their thoughts and reactions to certain words.  And then, when we arrived at the camp, we showed them what each other had written.  The words they wrote revealed the real challenge before them.  Under the word, “Terrorism,” we saw the response, “Islam.”  Under “Israel,” the words, “I hate you.”  Under “United States,” we saw, “Land of the free, home of the bigots.”

This activity accomplished two things: it acknowledged that just because we come to this program, it doesn’t mean we are like-minded; and it invited truth into the room.  We believe that if participants aren’t able to talk openly about the perspectives they bring with them, no matter how hard or hurtful, nothing real will be accomplished.

But an exercise like this is also extremely unsettling.  It’s scary to realize that these ideas about you exist in the room around you among the people you are going to work, sleep, play, and eat with for the next two weeks.  And, we spent the next two weeks building relationships with those same people, while talking about these divisive assumptions.

We slowed down the conversation.  We learned to listen before we spoke.  We got frustrated by the shower schedule.  We struggled with the issues of power and privilege that played out in everything we did.  We were simultaneously afraid of, and hoping to see, the bears.  We learned to make grilled cheese in the toaster. We explored what we each have to offer in a program like this.   We wondered how the work we were doing matters, and how we’ll bring home what we learn.  We built a safe space in which we were free to shift – ourselves, our thoughts, our ideas.

Two days before we left the camp, I was sitting with two participants, an Israeli and a Palestinian who lives in Israel, who were talking about terrorism.  Specifically, they were talking about whether the Israeli army could be considered a terrorist organization, comparable to Hamas.  This was not an easy conversation.   They did not agree on the answer, or even whether it was a reasonable question.  Yet, they were taking turns, asking each other clarifying questions, and listening.  They did not resolve their differences.  But, they did know a lot more about each other and how they each came to think the way they do.  And then they went to dinner together.

The desire and the ability to have a conversation in that way is the heart of our work.   And, it also makes our participants’ lives more difficult.   Before these two remarkable young women had that conversation, they were both sure they knew the right answer, and that’s a comforting feeling.  But being right is limiting in terms of solutions, and it’s an illusion, as the two see the same issue in such different ways.  Walking away, they didn’t change their minds, necessarily, but the possibility of a different way of seeing opened.   And so the possibility of a different way of being also opened.

Participants go home having voiced their deepest thoughts and opinions.  They also go home understanding that theirs isn’t the only truth.  They are able to empathize with someone who thinks differently than they do.  Most importantly, they are eagerly curious to learn more, which they’ll do as they return home, and enter our follow-up program.

It isn’t easy, and it isn’t peace camp.  It’s hard, and it’s deep.  It’s possibility camp.  It’s hope camp.

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