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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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Circles of Change our most successful event yet

Thank you for making our 2013 Circles of Change event the most successful yet, raising needed funds for participant scholarships.

Read about our 2013 Event.

Our annual Circles of Change event honors individuals who make a positive difference in the world locally, nationally, and internationally. By celebrating others’ accomplishments each year, we hope to motivate community members through demonstrating that positive change is possible and that the courageous acts of one expand into circles of change. We also hope to pass this belief onto Building Bridges participants and teach that the tireless acts of individuals are what create more just, inclusive societies.

Circles of Change gives our sponsors a unique opportunity to directly support our participants. One hundred percent of sponsorships, beyond the cost of each ticket, are used to fund scholarships for our participants who cannot otherwise afford to attend our life-changing programs.



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Building Bridges East is Up and Running!

A permanent office in Jerusalem is a dream come true to help us better serve our current participants and alumni in the region.

Extensive feedback and years of experience tell us that when our participants return to their home communities, they need support. Having an office will allow us to convene regular home group meetings, and alumni gatherings and events.  It will also enable us to provide on-site support to our Home Group Leaders, develop partnerships with other organizations, and build our reputation in the region.  This summer we worked with the Jewish Studies Department at the University of Colorado, Boulder, which placed two students in our Jerusalem office for their summer internships.

Building Bridges East has already launched the 2013-2014 MUES Follow-up program, including an alumni mentorship program, and hosted one of our major donors!

Read Middle East Program Director Rawan Zaitoun’s blog post about what this means to her.

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Zimmerman Verdict

The news of George Zimmerman’s acquittal in the killing of Trayvon Martin produced an immediate and very emotional reaction. I absorbed the quotes and articles, friends on Facebook, talking heads on Sunday morning news shows, perspectives, justifications, and over and over again, people trying to talk about ‘what this is really about.’  The conversation feels frustratingly limited, considering the complexity of the issue and the strength of all the opinions. It’s also a powerful example of the need for Building Bridges to expand our work addressing the divisions that exist within the US.
Depending on the news source, this was an isolated, tragic incident in Florida, or it  was one more in a litany of cases that prove how Black lives are valued less than White.  It was proof about how wrong racial profiling is, or an unfortunate byproduct of the need for it.  It was about the erosion of civil rights, for the victim or the gun owner.  It was about the injustice of and the need for Stand Your Ground laws.  And, it was about the pain of a parent who has to explain to her children the dress, posture, and manner of speech they need in order to survive their trip to the corner store for candy.  What it was not was nuanced, or complex, or in context.
I believe that Trayvon Martin’s death is an immeasurable loss to his family and his community, and potentially to us all.  And, I believe his death is an example of how racism makes our society a dangerous place to live, especially for young Black men.
Zimmerman’s acquittal, however, is less clear.  I have feelings about it that I’m not going to share here because in our world of shorthand, hashtag communication, how we feel about this verdict will quickly fit us into some political or social box.  And that will be our loss.  In fact, it is the complexity of what happened that we need to address to learn more about how the interplay of race, class, and gun laws continue to affect our daily lives.  I don’t fully understand the perspective of people who believe differently from me about the issues involved here, because their perspectives are not available to me in any meaningful way.  We can watch the news channels’ coverage, or read blogs, where we’ll hear the extremes.  And then, when we find out our neighbors think differently than us, we work to avoid the topic because it’s so uncomfortable, or we don’t know how to talk about it.
Our culture exhorts us to fit into sides or colors or boxes, and I believe those labels paralyze us. We are forced to stand on one side or the other of multi-faceted issues.  And, when there is no space or opportunity for complex views to emerge and be shared, the same story, the same issues, play out over and over again.  This acquittal comes the same week as Fruitvale Station, a film about the 2009 killing of a young Black man by a police officer in Oakland, who served less than a year for the crime.
When we talk about Building Bridges forming a US only program, we often get asked what the participants will talk about, since there isn’t an ongoing, visible conflict like the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.  And today, I am sad that the answer is clear.  Our program will offer a space for participants to step outside of their labels and their boxes and begin to unravel what’s true for them.  We’ll offer them the opportunity for those truths to get complex.  They’ll get to talk about it with someone who thinks differently from themselves, and they’ll emerge with skills and new ideas and the hope that change is possible.
Today, our hearts are with the Martin family, and our passion is for creating a world where complex conversations can bring about real change.

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Alumni Jerusalem Tour

This is Rawan, the Jerusalem office director, and I was so excited to get the call from Adaala, one of our alumni who recently moved to Jerusalem for her last requirements of school and she suggested we do a Jerusalem tour for our alumni.  As an alumna, I look forward to opportunities to connect with other Building Bridges alumni, and as a staff member, I am always looking for creative ways to do it.  I thought the Jerusalem tour was a great idea because it would bring our alumni from different years together, and also  allow them to share the experience of their daily lives on the ground.  Adaala helped me put a plan together and we reached out to every alumni who lives in Jerusalem and that we have a personal relationship with, and scheduled the tour for June 15th.

When the day arrived, 12 Palestinian and Palestinian citizens of Israel alumni from Jerusalem and parts of the north joined our tour. We started with one of our own alumni’s talking about her experience living in the Old City, where she shed light on the social and political dynamics there. What stood out for me about what she said was her honesty about what she loved there, and what she thought was challenging, and the process she went through to make a decision about remaining a resident in the Old City.  Her sharing sparked a great discussion about topics like oppression, social problems, settlements, security, and injustice.

The tour started at Damascus gate, going through the narrow roads to the Christian quarter, the Wailing Wall, and the Dome of the Rock.  Then, we visited a community-based organization and finally had a nice breakfast at one of the most delicious and famous hummous and falafel places in the Muslim quarter.  You know, it’s Building Bridges and we eat well!

Our alumni talked about the diversity in their lives and talked about some of the challenges they see today after years of participation in Building Bridges. They emphasized the importance of the Building Bridges skills and knowledge and the relationships they made in the program and talked about how they are challenged today and at home.

For me, this day was so amazing because not only did it bring our alumni together, but it allowed talking about our experiences in time and space, the now and here. As a Jerusalemite myself I felt very connected but also educated by the experience of other alumni. The only drawback was that there were no Israeli participants on the tour, mainly because it was a Saturday. However, we are looking forward to more activities designed by and for our Israeli and other alumni.

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