Seeds of Peace inspires and cultivates new generations of leaders who have the skills and the will to transform conflict. This is a mantra we repeat over and over again; it is why we exist.
We know how we approach our work: we bring people together across lines of difference; we promote dialogue that challenges assumptions, fosters empathy, and builds conviction; and we continue to support our young leaders to be the change they want to see in this world.
But what does that support look like? What are the best practices we have learned through 27 years of developing such leaders? We reached out to our programming staff around the world to get their advice on how they encourage teens to believe in the power of their voice and get involved in the issues that they care about.
Here are six pieces of advice that anyone who works with young people should take to heart.
Expose young people to multiple narratives in order to develop critical thinking
“It’s important to guide young people by giving them different narratives to a given story and seeing how they make up their minds about that story,” said Mostafa Ismail, Director of Egyptian Programs.
“For teens to find their voices,” he told us, “they need to understand how their minds work as well.” In other words, giving them the soft skills to be able to question, doubt, and navigate their own thoughts—as well as the thoughts of others—will help them tremendously on their paths to becoming leaders.
“It’s all about giving young people the ability to think for themselves and come to their own conclusions, rather than just spoon-feeding them information,” Mostafa added.
One way he recommends doing so is for teachers and mentors to incorporate design thinking principles in their work with youth. “Engaging students with exercises that involve design thinking teaches them how to be solution-oriented, while also fostering openness to other ideas and narratives,” he said.
Build community across lines of difference
According to Farah Bdour, our Jordanian Programs Director, “everything comes down to an educator or mentor’s ability to create a strong sense of belonging within their community among young leaders.”
“For example,” she added, “in places that host many refugee families, youth workers must establish and nurture the notion that one doesn’t have to be born and raised in the larger community to be an integral part of it.”
Farah recommends that people working with teens encourage them to express their multilayered identities by giving them the platform to explore them. So often, she told us, young people are eager to make their voices heard—they just need to be given the space and permission to share it.
Educators are also well-served by keeping their fingers on the pulse of the communities their students come from, and showing commitment to the issues that those communities face. When talking about underserved or oppressed communities, Farah recommends using inclusive language (“we” rather than “they”) and vocalize love and solidarity.
“All of this works to create a strong sense of belonging among young leaders, which will result in them being more engaged in their wider community,” she said.
Redefine what it means to be a leader
When teenagers are exposed to wrongdoings around them, or to things they don’t like that are happening in their communities, they sometimes react by saying, “But I’m only 15, I was born into this reality and I had nothing to do with making it,” according to Maayan Poleg, our Director of Israeli Programs.
Maayan believes this reaction doesn’t come from a place of not wanting that reality to change. Rather, it’s a defense mechanism, “aimed to protect them from realizing they have responsibility towards reality as it is, even if they did not actively contribute to creating it.”
“In these cases,” says Maayan, “I find that the key to push them forward is by helping them understand that leadership is usually not about fixing something we ourselves did wrong, but about taking ownership over things others did wrong in order to change that reality.”
A great way is to do so is by showing them examples of leaders they can identify with: people who were “simple” or “normal” without any outstanding power in their hands, but who decided to take responsibility and act anyway.
Acknowledge privilege—and show that it can be used for good
Privilege is a touchy subject for many people, adults and youth alike. People often have a deep fear of seeing and acknowledging their own privilege or power, and the process to do so can be a painful one.
But privilege can also provide a bully pulpit to advocate for change and show solidarity. In order to navigate this realization towards leadership, it’s important to speak about privilege not from a place of guilt, but from a place of empowerment. Ashraf Ghandour, our Alumni Community Manager, refers to this as “being blessed, rather than blamed,” as he recently told a gathering of Israeli Seeds.
For example, if an educator or facilitator is talking to a 17-year-old white male teenager, they shouldn’t accuse him of having privilege. After all, he didn’t make the choice to be born that way.
Instead, they should help him see the ways that his privilege allows him more access than others, and how that privilege could therefore be used as a platform for change, rather than to unintentionally oppress someone else.
To do so, our dialogue facilitators use group activities that help participants see the different kinds of privileges that exist within the group, and even more importantly, the different ways in which we are all privileged in some ways but oppressed in others.
“The most important thing here,” Ashraf said, “is to not talk about privilege through blame, but through seeing it as an opportunity.”
Create a space for mutual aid
One of the core ways that Seeds of Peace develops leaders is through dialogue. For Andrew Koskinen, our US Program Director, the experience shares similarities with his group practice as a social worker.
“In social work, there’s this concept called ‘mutual aid’ that really applies to community-building and leadership development,” he explained.
Mutual aid encourages participants to respond to other group members’ needs, form supportive relationships, and work together to achieve both individual and group goals.
“Through the process, they develop support systems, the ability to form relationships, a sense of belonging, acceptance for who they are—qualities necessary for anyone who wants to lead change,” said Andrew. “And this is what I see happening at Camp.”
“During orientation this summer,” he continued, “an American Seed told campers, ‘Seeds of Peace is the one place where I can truly be myself.’ The confidence that grows out of being part of a space where you feel brave enough to take risks, try new things, share your story, and listen to others, is hugely important to being a leader.”
Treat teenagers with the respect young leaders deserve.
Teachers, by definition, inhabit a position of authority over their students. That being said, “adults have to talk to teenagers like real human beings, and never from a place of ‘I am older and therefore I know more than you,’” Maayan told us.
She recommends that adults should offer their life experience and knowledge as tools and advice, but nothing more. “Treating teenagers with that level of respect will encourage them to do just the same for themselves,” she said, “and will help them ask the same of others.”