When Alexandra Friedlander, 16, first heard of a camp in Maine that focuses on bringing together teens from diverse backgrounds to engage in conflict resolution and dialogue, she was eager to enroll.
The program, sponsored by the nonprofit organization Seeds of Peace, was right up the alley of the then 10th-grade student who had founded her own dialogue initiative for middle and lower school students at her school, Winchester Thurston.
Though Friedlander did not live in one of Seeds of Peace’s five core locations — Chicago, Los Angeles, New York City, Syracuse, N.Y., and the state of Maine — from which the camp typically draws its campers, she nonetheless began emailing its program director, arguing her case for admission.
Her efforts paid off, and from July 24 to Aug. 12, Friedlander and three local educators attended the camp. They are now poised to create safe spaces for dialogue in Pittsburgh.
Seeds of Peace was founded in 1993 by John Wallach in the days following the Oslo Accords between Israel and the Palestinians. The camp, located in Otisfield, Maine, brought together American Jewish teenagers along with teens from Israel, Egypt and the Palestinian territories for typical camping activities along with opportunities for dialogue. While the camp still offers an international program, it has added a second session for American teenagers.
Acceptance to the camp is competitive, with about 5 percent of applicants chosen to attend. Friedlander was the only camper from Pittsburgh selected, and one of only five who do not live in one of the organization’s core cities.
Friedlander enlisted three local educators to accompany her to the camp; they in turn were required to attend their own sessions while there: Marissa Tait, youth advisor at Rodef Shalom Congregation and director of youth programming at Congregation Beth Shalom; Mary Martin, a faculty member at Winchester Thurston; and Rachel Libros, teen and family manager of Repair the World Pittsburgh.
Friedlander’s zeal for productive dialogue is palpable, and it is that enthusiasm that convinced the director of Seeds of Peace to accept her into the program.
“I was first exposed to dialogue later in the game — last year,” explained Friedlander. “But it is important to get kids involved earlier. I founded a program with third- and sixth-graders at my school, which meets once a month. When I told the director of Seeds of Peace what I had been doing, he said I could apply.”
Reggie Miller, director of U.S. programs for Seeds of Peace, was impressed with Friedlander.
“Alexandra is very passionate about the broader scope of the work we do,” said Miller. “She was very persistent, in terms of trying to make this a reality for herself and potentially opening doors for a lot of other folks.”
Friedlander described the Seeds of Peace program as “a conflict resolution camp, with international counselors and staff” that is “focused on problems in the United States,” with issues of identity at the foundation of the discussions.
A main objective of the program “is to bring together folks who normally wouldn’t have the opportunity or reason to come together in the same space,” according to Miller.
Each day, campers engage in small group dialogue sessions, sharing personal experiences and competing narratives. Consensus of opinion is not a goal; rather, emphasis is placed on learning dialogue techniques to facilitate listening and understanding the perspectives of others.
When camp concludes, the campers and educators are expected to use their experiences to create inspired programming back at their schools and in their wider communities.
The 178 campers attending the program this summer came from a variety of socio-economic backgrounds and a diversity of ethnicities, races and religions.
“This was the most inclusive environment I had ever been in in my whole life,” said Friedlander.
The program provided instruction to the campers in “skills they are not learning in other places,” such as “trust and cooperation,” said Tait.
If Friedlander and the educators who accompanied her can get some momentum in Pittsburgh through the utilization of the tools they gained at camp, Pittsburgh could be added to the roster of Seeds of Peace’s core cities, Miller said.
“It’s incredible how a 15-year-old put herself out there and made this happen,” said Tait. “Alexandra is intelligent, kind and tenacious. This was a huge accomplishment, and a beginning for Alexandra to bring new tools into Pittsburgh. We have time now to think about what we’re going to do and what that’s going to look like — time to digest what we learned and to think about our best moves.” PJC