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.