“We cannot solve the world’s problems with the same thinking that created them.”

By: GNG Educator, Jennifer Anderson at Virginia Episcopal School, Lynchburg, VA

If I take this quote by Einstein to heart, I believe that opening up in dialogue to one another, listening and understanding multiple perspectives, is a good start.

In October, 2015, high school students at Virginia Episcopal School (VES) met their peers at the American International School in Gaza (AISG) for the first time — in an interactive videoconference. Over the next six months, these young people continued connecting as part of Global Nomads Group’s YouthTalk program*, against the backdrop of attacks in Beirut, Paris, Cote d’Ivoire, Brussels, and too many more. AISG students shared how they were personally affected by the demonization and discrimination of Muslims after these attacks. Both schools decided they needed to do something about it. For VES, that started at home, in Lynchburg, Virginia.

With the statistics on global poverty, religious intolerance, hunger, social injustice, pollution, disease, and the world’s estimated 60 million displaced people, which leaves more of our children out of school than ever before, what is the answer? These are complex and multifaceted issues, which require mutual understanding, collaboration, deep critical thinking and problem solving of an unprecedented nature. It is for this reason that Virginia Episcopal School (VES) partnered with Global Nomads Group (GNG) in order to participate in the Youth Talks program and connect with the American International School of Gaza (AISG).

After the San Bernadino and Paris attacks hit the news in late 2015, we asked our friends at AISG for their perspective. With their hearts full of emotion, they poured out their disappointment for the few that use violence as a platform for their faith. They told us that they wanted the world to know that Islam is a religion based on peace and that the news and images we were witnessing in recent years is not the perspective of a majority of Muslims. Upon hearing the heartfelt feelings of their Palestinian friends, the VES students knew immediately that this message of understanding true Islam and its misconceptions in contemporary American society had to be their Youth Talks Global Citizenship Project.

This was a launching point for VES students to say, “We want to learn more.” We want to understand, and bring awareness to our local community especially in the wake of recent inflamed political rhetoric in the 2016 race for the presidency. As a result, the VES Global Nomads put together a week of learning for the community which included films, documentaries, speakers, as well as a trivia activity. VES used the GNG framework for learning, acting, and reflecting which helped the students connect the dots and make better sense of each portion of the curriculum.

GNG also provided a manner for VES to measure our learning by supplying us with a survey at the start of our week as well as a survey toward the end. The results were noticeable. For example, at the start of the week, a majority of students stated that the first thing they think of when they hear the word “Muslim” is “terrorism”. Toward the end of the week, those perspectives shifted in a profound way. A majority of responses to the same question included “Islam” or “A religion not too different from Christianity.” There was even one student who said, “This week of learning was worth my last two years of tuition alone!” Wow!

“I thought Islam idolized terrorism, but I have learned that the terrorism that cultivates the news does not represent the Muslim people and their culture.” — VES Student

In the end, VES’s partnership with AISG was the catalyst for an entire community to bridge understanding and differences in order to embrace our shared humanity. We are so grateful to have had this opportunity provided to us through the amazing Global Nomads Group, who provided a curriculum and framework for our students’ learning and provided a platform that enabled rich and meaningful dialogue that will undoubtedly change our lives forever.

___________________________________________________________________*YouthTalk, an initiative of Global Nomads Group (GNG) and Bridges of Understanding, connects secondary schools in the US and Arab World. Paired classrooms learn from & with each other through GNG’s curriculum, videoconferences, & online connections. Alwaleed Philanthropies is the Presenting Underwriter of YouthTalk.