Unprecedented Interconnectedness: opportunity or threat?

By Sushimita Maryam, Bangalore, India

(This article was first published on IndiaAhead.com and is re-published here with their permission and the author’s)

Life is a bag of mixed experiences – some interesting some not so interesting – but all relevant, all impart learning, all best lived in the present. So when a student from one of the groups that I was facilitating an intercultural dialogue with asked me – ‘Sushmita what about you- what has been your great experience?’ as they were all sharing their own, I was taken aback. Not only because I was not expecting to be asked a question (that is a part of my job as the dialogue facilitator) but also because it is really hard to pick just one.
That dilemma though was only for a moment –and it seems I did not have to really think hard.‘Soliya!’ I heard myself say, straight from the heart. It is impossible to not see how incredibly rewarding an experience is when you are right there living it. ‘It is great to be here getting people from different parts of the world to talk to and listen to each other. As much as it is a wonderful learning opportunity for you, it is for me as well. This feeling of high watching you all connect with each other despite of the differences that supposedly divide you is amazing.’ I said to my group that had ten students – 2 Jordanians, 3 Egyptians, 2 Americans, One Italian, One Dutch and One Pakistani.

What is the challenge in ‘talking to each other’ and in ‘listening to each other’ and why is there the need for a facilitator to get people to do that? I would have asked that question had I not been doing the work that I do now as a mediator and as a dialogue facilitator.

Doing this work online is hugely challenging; more challenging however is to bring these students on one platform where they feel safe to open up and comfortable enough to talk, not only about themselves but also about how they see the ‘other’ and to listen to the other with an open mind and be willing to explore the possibility of a relationship together. This requires a facilitator to create that safe environment where dangers of judgments are explored and where empathy and care are practiced and promoted. At Soliya where I volunteer, our effort is to bring cultures together. We help people from diverse cultures – from the pre dominantly Muslim societies and the western societies, communicate with each other, understand each other and each other’s cultures and facilitate relationships which withstand the cultural or ideological differences people from these regions have. Ill interpretations and misunderstandings of these differences continue to wreck many million lives and prevent people from being empathetic to each other, and from forming genuine relationships based on care and trust.

Interestingly personal relationships in our everyday life are not very different; what we see happening in the world is a manifestation of how we relate with those around us. In a personal relationship the regional and cultural differences may not be as complex as in the case of a Soliya group; however there are differences in the way each of us perceive situations, see the world. Most often than not these differences are the result of what we’ve been taught, our beliefs, our experiences, what we see in the media, our regressive social structures etc. And unfortunately they fuel prejudices; judgments and stereotyping of the ‘other’. Take any relationship – friends, spouses, parent and child, colleagues, strangers – we always ‘know’ how the ‘other’ is. As paradoxical as it may sound, our ‘knowing’ the other, limits our relationships.

What I witness in Soliya’s connect program online is how these students from such diametrically different backgrounds in a span of 8 weeks move from a place of knowing the other to a place of not wanting to assume anymore; a place of judging the other to a place of real curiosity in seeing and understanding each other’s realities; from being Westerners and Easterners who were guarded in each other’s presence talking about contentious world issues, exploring the role of their respective countries and communities in it to being youngsters who are eager to visit each other’s countries, sharing recipes and talking about the great experiences they’ve had in their lives. In that journey most are amazed to find how similar they all are at the very core, as the skin of differences are peeled off, examined together and left aside.

Soliya group photo
Picture Courtesy: Soliya and Willow Brugh via Creative Commons

Witnessing that kind transformation or even the beginning of it makes me feel immensely privileged. I feel grateful for the opportunity to facilitate that and hopeful for a world which is peaceful and stable and happy for the students who are able to gain from it. A great experience indeed, humbling and ‘eye opening’ as a student of mine expressed her Soliya experience in one word.

As I write this, I cannot help but think about the need and relevance of similar spaces in India, a country that once swore by its ‘unity in diversity’. No one can deny that in recent times India has been seeing increased efforts in inflating ideological differences and translating those craft fully into communal disharmony and even violence. Opportunities like this in our system of education would help in making youth gain awareness of the ‘self’ and the ‘other’ – that there is no real division, that differences do not have to divide. This awareness is necessary for them to be able to see that which is being subtly but surely done in many multiple ways to create division in their minds, a dangerous division that will otherwise be apparent in the way this country functions, sooner than we may think.

Prevention as they say is better than cure. Although the situation in India has not reached the stage of ‘cure’ as yet, it is not anywhere near the realm of ‘prevention’, not anymore; and hence the urgency in facilitating this awareness among the youth here.

About the Author:
Sushimita Maryam
Sushmita Maryam is a Mediator and a Conflict Resolution Practitioner who has co-founded the ‘We are Peace’ network that works with Educational Institutions in facilitating awareness of conflict and peace using tools of dialogue and skills of mediation among teachers, students and their parents in an effort to awaken youth to being peace promoters their personal lives, homes, communities and the world at large. Sushmita is the chosen participant from India for the United Nations Alliance of Civilisations (UNAOC) summer school 2014 that brings together 75 youth from across the globe, to address pressing global challenges, within the context of cultural and religious diversity.
About Soliya: Soliya combines best practices for constructive dialogue with innovative use of new media technologies to shift the way societies resolve their differences from a confrontational & coercive approach to one defined by cooperation & compassion. Exchange 2.0 is the primary way they are doing that, based on the belief that, in the 21st Century, it should become the norm for students to have a profound cross-cultural experience as part of their education, whether it is in person or online. The Connect Program is their flagship program that demonstrates the potential of Exchange 2.0. It is an online cross-cultural education program that has been implemented in over 100 universities in 27 countries across the Middle East, North Africa, South Asia, Europe and North America since 2003.

3 thoughts on “Unprecedented Interconnectedness: opportunity or threat?

  1. Privileged we were able to repost this on EdContexts, Sushimita. Thanks for providing a passionate and insightful account of your work at Soliya and what sounds like a really important and groundbreaking program.
    What struck me about this was the power of personal connection and conversation for facilitating critical changes in mindset (and – subsequently, behaviour), and how seeing how similar we really are, at the core, can be powerful for breaking down barriers and socially constructed biases. However, I don’t doubt that it is extremely challenging to facilitate these conversations, particularly at the outset. I would be interested to hear more about some of the techniques and ways you might achieve this.

    1. Thank you Tanya. Yes it is not really easy, especially since facilitators themselves have their own biases and opinions as individuals. It is incredibly important to be self-aware and not let personal views affect the way one is facilitating these conversations. Otherwise students will find it hard to trust the facilitator. Creating a safe space of ‘no judgement’ is really the key for students to come forward and talk their hearts out – for this the facilitator has to demonstrate neutrality / multi-partiality through-out. It is also important to let conflicts happen in the group. Sometimes students are too diplomatic and shy away from talking about contentious issues, especially their personal opinions on them. Only if they are fully honest about their opinions can there be a space for another to challenge it and for the group to explore it further.
      Really effective way for students to connect according to my experience has been to get them to talk about personal lives, because that really brings in an understanding of how similar they are as human beings and how different their circumstances are which have played a huge role in creating all kinds of perceptions that cause division; that understanding really shifts the way the see each-other.

      1. Thanks for the additional insight into what you do and how Sushmita – it really is fascinating. A lot of this makes sense to me – only though because I have been involved in a project on unconscious bias recently, and through this, learnt a lot I never knew about our hidden biases – how we all have biases, despite how unbiased we consciously believe we are, or want to be. And how important self awareness of our thinking is.
        You raise a number of really interesting points about how to foster open conversations and break down barriers across people who may be culturally or socially divided – talk about their personal lives as see their similarities rather than focusing on differences through discussing contentious issues.

        I’m learning more and more than so much about building bridges, building communities – and even networks – is about the personal connection.

        Thanks for bringing this to light and showing us the power of this in your context.

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