Down a dusty path marked by a hand-painted sign reading “Dialogue Alley,” a cluster of pine-needle green wooden structures sits like a chain of islands: similar in appearance from a distance, but a busy ecosystem plays out within each.
As anyone who has attended Camp knows, what takes place within these buildings—facilitated dialogue—is at the core of Seeds of Peace.
While most summer camps offer immensely bonding experiences, Seeds of Peace realized from the beginning that this wasn’t enough: if profound and lasting transformations were to take place, then people from across lines of conflict or difference also needed a way to engage with one another on deeply personal levels.
“If Camp had been only about singing, dancing, sharing a bunk, I don’t think we’d enjoy the same special friendships that we do now,” said Jiya (Indian Delegation, 2008). “It’s dialogue that made us Seeds, and dialogue that will keep us Seeds.”
In broad terms, dialogue sessions give Seeds a safe place where they are able to listen and to be heard; to experiment with conflict in ways that don’t tear communities apart, but might actually bring people closer together; to understand what needs to change in society, and cement a desire to work for those changes.
But for those who are not Seeds, dialogue can hold a bit of intrigue. The 110-minute daily sessions are completely off-limits to anyone who is not a facilitator or a member of that particular dialogue group. This isn’t meant to hide the proceedings, but rather to create a sacred space—one where people who normally wouldn’t be in a room together can feel safe being vulnerable and honest with one another. This privacy is essential for transformation to occur.
Invariably, one of the most common questions we hear from non-Seeds is: “So what really happens in dialogue, anyway?” The answer is as layered as the people participating, and the intricacies change by the year, the Camp session, the group, the day, the minute. But in a series of interviews with Seeds of Peace facilitators and a presentation given to a small group of Seed parents in New York City in October, we attempted to get a peek behind the curtain.
Dialogue has changed in myriad ways over Camp’s 26 years, and the focus has expanded from primarily confronting the conflict in the Middle East, to developing empathetic leaders and addressing a wide variety of issues on personal, interpersonal, and structural levels.
The process begins each spring, with Seeds of Peace staff members painstakingly assigning campers to co-ed dialogue groups of 15 to 20 members each, which are purposefully different from their bunk and dining table assignments.
During sessions of Camp that focus on international conflicts, campers are divided into Middle East and South Asian groups, with American and British campers sprinkled among the two.
During sessions of Camp focused on divides within the United States, the groups are formed to represent a diverse mix of races, regions of the country, and, when the information is known, religious and economic backgrounds. In all the groups, the goal is to have a variety of voices, experiences, and identities that can each bring something unique to the conversation.
“A central idea of dialogue is that we all have important knowledge about what it means to live in this world, in a particular body with particular identities,” said Greg Barker, Seeds of Peace’s Facilitation Programs Manager. ”And by bringing these pieces of information together, we’re able to paint a much more complicated picture of the world around us.”
There are two facilitators in each dialogue group, and for the Middle East groups, one is always Palestinian, and the other Jewish-Israeli. The facilitators are not there to serve as authority figures, fact checkers, or judges; rather, they act as guideposts to help the Seeds stay on track in their journeys, and often serve as role models as well.
“We don’t pretend we don’t have differences,” said Danny Metzl, Seeds of Peace’s Co-Director of Middle East Facilitation. “The kids see that you can have different opinions and still work together, and that becomes a model for what can be.”
INTO THE HUT
Sitting in a circle of their peers, the first dialogue session usually begins with a lot of nerves and uncertainty. Some campers may be quiet and perhaps only nervously giggle or nod from time to time, while others may ask questions about what exactly they’ll be doing, or spout facts and figures, but be reluctant to speak from personal experiences.
In the Middle East groups, “both sides are very willing to come and speak, but they’re also very afraid. They don’t know what’s OK to say, and how free it is,” said Claire Dibsy Ayed, a Palestinian facilitator. “Some are feeling fear and guilt, saying things like, ‘I shouldn’t be here; they oppressed my people; everything being said by the other side is a lie.’”
For these reasons, the first few days in all of the groups are focused on building trust and community so that campers can become more honest with themselves and one another.
That work begins in small ways, including basic name games and getting-to-know-you exercises, as well as demonstrations from the facilitators of what good listening and bad listening looks like.
Perhaps one of the most important elements in the beginning can be creating group norms that must be reached by consensus, and that the campers agree to follow throughout the rest of the sessions. Common norms include speaking one at a time; agreeing to confidentiality; or “step up, step back,” a phrase meant to encourage those who don’t usually share in groups to challenge themselves to step up, and those who have a tendency to talk often to step back and give more room for others to share.
The only traditional rule that is enforced is no physical or verbal abuse. Beyond that, if they need to go to the bathroom or take a break, they don’t ask, they just go. If they don’t want to talk, they don’t have to do so. The experience is an exercise in anti-oppression for an age group that typically has little control over many of the details of their lives, from curfews, to clothing, to schedules, to whom they can date.
“Here in the dialogue huts, you get to decide for yourself how you’re going to be in this space. And this way, I think part of the power of dialogue is not just the content—it’s also the experiment in how humans can be together,” Greg said. “My experience is that once you have felt what it is like to be a little freer and to share power with each other, it changes how you exist in the world, because you know something else is possible.”
THE TIPPING POINT
After several sessions of setting up the framework, “there is usually a day where the real conflicts come out, and they’re ready to get into it,” said Eliza O’Neil, who has been a facilitator with the South Asia groups for the last two years and now serves as the US/UK Program Coordinator at Seeds of Peace.
In many of the groups, it usually starts to happen around the fifth or sixth day of dialogue, when campers stop worrying about disappointing the adults in the room, stop relying on facts and figures, and start speaking from personal experiences.
“It’s a tipping point,” Eliza said. “They realize that the stories they’ve been told all their lives are not always in alignment with the stories that their peers have lived, and there can be explosions of anger, or sadness, and feelings of being misunderstood.
“But then, we have something to work with—it’s no longer just back and forth trading positions and facts, these are actual stories.”
At this point, the Seeds typically begin to run the dialogue sessions themselves. Sessions may start with journal exercises to help get the kids thinking about different topics, but it usually doesn’t take much to get them ready to talk.
As the Camp session progresses, the campers may go through various exercises, with the facilitators making adjustments as they see fit within the groups—perhaps breaking off into smaller groups to explore issues on a more intimate level before bringing the group back together, or giving campers the chance to act out feelings they are having trouble expressing.
And as needed, facilitators will also push the campers in different ways to help them think more deeply about their opinions. These days can be intense; tears and frustrations are not uncommon. But these can also be the most powerful days, the ones where transformation begins to take place.
OUT OF THE HUT, INTO THE WOODS
There’s nothing quite like dangling together from a wire high above the ground to instill trust between two people.
Twice a week campers participate in Group Challenge, a series of increasingly difficult outdoor activities that serve as the physical component to dialogue.
The work begins on the ground with problem-solving activities, and progresses to low-ropes, then high-ropes courses that build confidence, trust, and cooperation skills. The activities could look like any team-building exercise, but there’s a twist: Working closely with dialogue facilitators, Group Challenge facilitators will often make adjustments to help address issues within the group. For example, two people who are butting heads in dialogue might be paired together on the ropes course, or a soft-spoken teen will be given a leadership role.
“These tools in Group Challenge exist specifically to address and disrupt group dynamics in dialogue,” Greg said. “And they are a major part of the process of transformation.”
THE WAY LIFE COULD BE
The goal of dialogue is not to sign peace accords, to find a solution to structural problems in society, or even to agree. It’s about profound personal transformation that Seeds will carry with them back to their communities and for the rest of their lives. In just three weeks, it begins to show itself in small but meaningful ways: challenging the status quo; asking questions to learn, rather than to make a point; really listening to what a person is saying, rather than just quietly formulating their next point; or seeing that “the other” is actually much like them, with fears and family and funny quirks.
It’s an experience that forever changes their view of the world, their place in it, and their sense of responsibility for improving it.
“We make a big deal here about the phrase ‘the way life could be,’ but I don’t think it’s cheesy or silly. I think it’s very real,” Greg said. “As a society, we’re really good at thinking about bad futures—just look at all the dystopian movies and books that are big blockbusters—but we’re really bad at thinking about what a good future might be like.”
In those humble green dialogue huts, however, there is something like a time machine, Greg explained, one that allows campers to travel to a different kind of future in which they can create the version of society in which they want to live.
“They start out creating a version that they’re familiar with, where they’re fighting each other. But slowly, as they experience life at Camp, and the person they thought was the enemy is now the person they dance and play with, they have to deal with how that goes together,” Danny added.
“And in dialogue sessions, they experiment with how they can live a better life here in this group. If it can be done here in a small group, perhaps it can be achieved outside in the real world.”