NPR’s Michel Martin speaks with two people affiliated with Seeds of Peace, Eliza O’Neil and Spencer Traylor, about how the program helps heal divides and what we can learn from it.
The Seeds of Peace summer camp in Maine first brought together Israeli and Palestinian teenagers in 1993. Now, the camp and its year-round programs facilitate conversations between young people from all over the world.
The camp brings those young people together for an intense summer of physical activities, talking and listening to create friendships between people whose forebears have been locked in deadly conflicts for generations.
Twenty years ago, Spencer Traylor was part of a class of attendees who came to the camp from the U.S. — he was part of a group of teenagers from Maine that was experiencing tension with the arrival of East African immigrants. He says the program was “confusing at first,” because he was just “a kid from northern Maine” comparing his struggles to a Palestinian camper “who’s experienced significant loss because of a conflict.”
Traylor, who is now a history teacher and the co-founder of Next STEP, an alternative high school program, says the experience fundamentally reshaped his view of conflict resolution.
He says there is a pervasive idea in society that if you open up conflict, it’s going to disrupt a community and cause divisions, so it’s best to keep quiet. Seeds of Peace takes a different approach, encouraging participants to have uncomfortable conversations in order to quell divisions.
“You have to talk about divisions,” Traylor says. “You have to talk about conflict in order to have a functional community. And you have to create methods and give tools and resources for young people and adults to be able to have those conversations in ways that are productive and constructive and in ways that people can start to see and understand each other rather than try to hide their feelings and thoughts away from each other.”
Eliza O’Neil, one of the directors of Seeds of Peace, says that one of the biggest takeaways from the program is a “paradigm shift around navigating conflict.”
“Being misunderstood, mischaracterized, right in front of your eyes is extremely painful,” O’Neil says. “But what we’ve found is that when we encourage the airing of those conflicts, even if it’s messy, even if it is scary, if the shared purpose is trying to understand and be understood, it can bring people together. And then I think a key part of it is that no matter how heated or upsetting the session had been that day, everyone shows up the next day. They’re still friends.”
O’Neil says that it’s powerful for people to see that you can have a disagreement and still keep a relationship intact, and that the knowledge that this is possible brings “a sense of openness and willingness to engage and courage in future conversations with those who disagree with them.”
Interviews for this series were produced by Janaya Williams and edited by Tinbete Ermyas and William Troop.