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January 17, 2012 > Students learn conflict resolution skills

Students learn conflict resolution skills

By Miriam G. Mazliach

Learning the art of diplomacy can be daunting, but putting those skills into practice can be even more so. Recently, fifty seventh grader students at Horner Junior High School in Fremont were up to the challenge when they had the unique opportunity to participate in an all-day workshop. Conducted by Professor Carl F. Hobert of Boston University, a noted conflict resolution expert and founder of Axis of Hope, students were given the chance to learn invaluable lessons that would benefit them and others with future life challenges.

Axis of Hope, a non-profit organization, housed at Boston University and founded in 2002, declares in its mission statement that it is, "dedicated to developing in adolescents an understanding of alternative non-violent approaches to resolving complex conflicts locally, nationally and internationally."

Through the efforts of Horner vice Principal Anne Renoir, the school was able to host Professor Hobert, who presented the seminar free of charge. "My daughter attends Boston University and participated in Axis of Hope service learning in Rwanda last summer. She became such a fan of the program and its mission that she took a class from Professor Hobert this last term." When Renoir found out that Hobert would be coming to California to visit another school, she asked him if he would also be willing to present at Horner, and he agreed. "We asked seventh grade history teachers to help select interested students," explained Renoir.

For the day-long workshop, the Axis of Hope case study chosen was entitled, "Whose Jerusalem? The Arab-Israeli Conflict." Besides this scenario, a collection of case studies have been created by students in the program at Boston University that can be used to train students on conflict resolution and the art of negotiation. Among these are Rwanda and Illegal Immigration. New case studies are always under development.

Professor Hobert became interested in the field while working at a school in Avignon, France during the 1980's. At the time, he noted the hostility between the French and Algerian populations. "I thought, 'How could I work with kids?' and then had an epiphany about getting kids connected locally to learn cultural differences and to look at other people and conflicts," said Hobert. "I saw it as 'preventative diplomacy,' acting as a vitamin C, to prevent the cancer of conflict," he added.

Meanwhile, inside the Horner multi-use room, students were assigned membership in one of six groups designated for this exercise: Hamas, Fatah, the Arab League, Likud, Labor and the Quartet (U.N., U.S., European Union and Russia).

Their goal was to reach agreement on security, sovereignty and settlements, as they relate to Jerusalem.

A student from each group was assigned to represent their pod area. Students studied the history of the region and its conflict and began the process of "walking in others' shoes." "Co-existence," said a student.

There were four rounds during which the groups met and shared their viewpoints based on their assigned roles and what they had learned. Students negotiated to determine who would be the spokesperson for their group.

Vocabulary and semantic differences were discussed. How can one word have two different perspectives? For example, the term "freedom fighters" as used by one group, might be interpreted as "terrorists" by another group. Hobert says, "Think about words in different ways."

Rotation of the groups of students was arranged as follows:
Round 1: Hamas with Fatah, Arab League with Quartet, Likud with Labor.
Round 2: Hamas with Arab League, Likud with Quartet, Fatah with Labor.
Round 3: Hamas met Quartet, Fatah with Likud, Labor and Arab League
Round 4: Hamas met Likud, Fatah and Arab League, Labor with Quartet.

"It's important to stay focused the entire time," says Hobert. "Sometimes in rounds three and four, things can become more heated."

Later on in the afternoon, the students viewed a documentary containing news footage of the peace process, "Elusive Peace: Israel and the Arabs." Hobert asked for student reactions and reminded them, "Notice the body language of the diplomats as they negotiate. Observe the seating arrangements and blockage."

For the final exercise of the day, students wrote a 250 word "position paper" focusing on the three areas at issue, with each group responsible for an 80 word contribution. The students' recommendations regarding Jerusalem were to be included in a typed and signed position paper sent to President Barack Obama, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, and to US Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman John Kerry, among others.

Humza Ali Khan, a seventh grade student who took part, expressed his appreciation, "I am just amazed at the time and effort that Professor Hobert spent just so kids like me and my friends can learn diplomatic skills which will indubitably help us in our nearing adult lives. Because of Professor Hobert, I am sure that many a life is saved in the future."

Vice Principal Renoir added her reaction to the day's activities, "I hope the students walked away with a sense of responsibility to seek to resolve problems, understanding that each side has differing needs, perspectives and valid concerns."

Professor Hobert feels that this process brings awareness to the students of current events and global issues beyond their town or city, increases decision-making skills and instills self-confidence. "Axis is teaching the art of negotiation and conflict analysis prevention and opening eyes to the world. It's important to take part as an active global citizen. We can empower kids to do this."

For more information on Axis of Hope, visit www.axisofhope.org.

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