Monday, August 16, 2010

WEEK TEN: Farwell Lunch with the CEO

On my last day as an intern at the Carter Center, seven of us had the opportunity to go to lunch with Dr. John Hardman, the President and CEO of the Center. If you want to be impressed, read his bio: It’s nearly impossible to repeat the conversation that transpired over 1.5 hours with Dr. Hardman, but perhaps one particular topic of that afternoon had special significance to me: Sudan.

Dr. Hardman spent much of our lunch speaking about the tenuous situation in Sudan. Following the elections in April, the international community is now focused on the lead up to the referendum in January. The majority of reports expect the South of Sudan will vote to secede from the North, and whether this type of transition could be achieved peacefully is one of the major challenges. Moreover, the capacity of the South to organize a fully-functioning government in such a short amount of time is an ambitious goal. It is admirable that the Carter Center is doing all it can to play a non-biased role in the referendum process, and yet the issue itself is daunting.

For me, the conversation struck a personal chord because Sudan is basically the reason I have shifted my career path. When I was 26 years old, I was three years into running my not-for-profit dance company and looking for a new choreographic challenge. I came across the book, “The Devil Came on Horseback”, which follows the life of US Marine Brian Steidle as he serves on the African Union Observation Mission in Darfur. For me, the images and deep inner turmoil Steidle expresses in his book were so powerful that they created a sense of individual responsibility for mass atrocities that destroy the human spirit. I knew I wanted to further Steidle’s story and message, and I used the voice I knew best to do it: choreography.

In 2008, my dance company premiered a ballet called “Darfur” based on Steidle’s story. It performed in several different cities and raised funds for an organization that assists victims of genocide, Global Grassroots. But at the same time, I did not feel that was enough to meet my responsibility as a human being to raise America’s awareness of the situation in Darfur or genocide in general. I looked toward foreign policy and NGOs for answers. I enrolled in a Masters program in International Relations, and two years later, I found myself in an internship at The Carter Center in Conflict Resolution.

Dr. Hardman speaks about Sudan in a way that pushes the boundaries of how I understand a conflict zone. Regardless of whether or not I can play a role in that dialogue through policy or the arts, I know that the Carter Center has been a significant part of my journey to meet my threshold of personal responsibility.

WEEK NINE: The Lunch Game

Did you ever play that game as a kid when you list the famous people with whom you’d most like to go to lunch? Although kids today would be answering Lady Gaga and Justin Bieber, in my day it was more like Mariah Carrey and Arsenio Hall.

However, a more interesting collection of guests were at the table I found myself sitting at last week. On Wednesday, a group of twelve people went to lunch as a way to recognize the work of the Carter Center interns over the course of the summer.

Each of these individuals is fascinating:

1) The Arabic-speaking law student
2) The sophisticated Jamaican-born MBA businesswoman
3) A former leader of a youth project in Northern Ireland
4) The tennis-playing law student who has enough extra brain cells to educate another planet
5) President Carter’s son who is just about the best storyteller-ever
6) The PhD student whose heart is big enough to support her family – both in NY and in Lebanon
7) The former director for the office of the U.N. Secretary-General's High Representative for the Elections in Cote d'Ivoire
8) The English teacher who taught in Palestine and China before working in Afghanistan
9) A former Amnesty International UK student organizer who spent 18 months in Namibia after working in Central India
10) A Lebanese woman who seems competent to manage coordination of the entire world while working in multiple languages
11) The most energetic intern who happens to be a Paris graduate and knows more about “So You Think You Can Dance” than me

It’s pretty incredible to think that I have the opportunity to spend time with this dynamic group of individuals over lunch – mixing in Caesar salad with questions about the tri-presidency in Bosnia-Herzegovina and the status of the revoked residency permits of four Palestinians in East Jerusalem.

Everyone at the table is part of the Conflict Resolution Program at the Carter Center. The diversity of experience and areas of expertise is quite broad given the specific geographic focus and primary issues of the Center’s current work in conflict resolution.

In my opinion, that diversity of thought allows the Center to integrate existing best practices into innovative and pioneering programming approaches. In fact, this is reflected in one of the organization’s five guiding principles: the Center addresses difficult problems and accepts risk. In the limited time I have spent here, I’ve seen that principle embodied in so many different ways – from a re-doubling of efforts in Sudan to a persistent commitment to observe the elections in Guinea.

Sitting and looking around the table at these particular people deepens my belief that the “resolution” part of the conflict-resolution equation is possible. If 12 people can sit-down and brainstorm ideas that an organization is willing to institutionalize and implement, then there is some sort of pathway forward – even if it does involve a little trial and error.

As the group packed up and left the restaurant, I couldn’t help but think Lady Gaga missed out.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

WEEK EIGHT: Adversity

Four years ago, Gerry Lenfest, one of Philadelphia’s hallmark entrepreneurs and philanthropists, told a group of young business students to be prepared for three things in life: hard work, adversity, and steadfast vision. His comment about adversity struck me then, and now, I wonder what a former president would say about adversity?

On Friday, the Carter Center interns had their second chance to interact with President Carter and Mrs. Carter in a Q&A session in Atlanta. Forty young people perched on the edges of their seats in newly dry-cleaned suits, listened intently as the Carters spoke about the history of the Center as well as the demographics of this intern class.

In true entrepreneurial fashion, the Carter Center started with just two people in 1982. Instead of a 35-acre state of the art facility and a $90 million annual budget, the Carter Center was housed in a spare room at Emory University. Even then, President Carter recognized the critical role of education and academics in his pioneering international work by forging a partnership with an educational institution. Nearly 30 years later, the Center has observed 77 national elections in 30 different countries, nearly eradicated Guinea worm disease worldwide, and built an Atlanta-based staff of 175 employees with field offices in 12 countries around the world.

Once again in an uncanny show of appreciation and respect, President Carter complimented us! Our class of interns had an 8% acceptance rate from the applications submitted this year. Collectively, 12 languages are spoken fluently – ranging from Khmer to Swahili to Arabic. There are three law students and three Ph.D. candidates. We have lived and worked in countries around the world: Lebanon, Ecuador, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Ghana, Cambodia, Iraq, China, Jordan, Guinea, and many more. Two students were missing the day we met with the President – because they were in Democratic Republic of the Congo and the West Bank in the Middle East. President Carter acknowledged the importance of the work interns provide to the Center each and every year.

The questions we asked ranged from the mental health work of Mrs. Carter to advice from the President on career paths. I simply couldn’t resist asking my question:
“President Carter, could you please give us some advice about how we might handle adversity in our future careers?”


“Well, I wouldn’t have thought that a group like this would need to handle much adversity…” President Carter explained to us that we represent one of the most fortunate (“blessed”) groups of people in the world, perhaps representing the top 1% or so of young, educated multi-lingual students entering the workforce through the United States. He reminded us that three-quarters of the population in Liberia live on less than $1/day where the idea of education simply does not fit into their daily fight for survival. So,“ just put in perspective the challenges you face or the setbacks you have,” he said. “If something doesn’t work out for you, perhaps it wasn’t meant to be and another opportunity will emerge.”

He acknowledged that the question “caught him by surprise.” He then added the most important remark I’ve heard yet since arriving at the Carter Center, which is perhaps a re-affirmation as to why we are all here:

“In my view, you have a great obligation to use your talents and the resources you’ve been given to a greater good and to serve those around the world where you can be of assistance.”

The next time I see Mr. Lenfest, I am going to tell him that “vision and hard work” trump “adversity.”

Monday, July 19, 2010

WEEK SEVEN: Meeting President Carter in Plains

The local saying in the small town of Plains, Georgia, is simple: “We have peanuts and Jimmy Carter.” As it turns out, that is 100% true.

This past weekend, 40 interns travelled three hours outside of Atlanta to visit Plains, the hometown of President Jimmy Carter. The population of Plains is 637 (no, I am not missing any zeros). However, if one of those 637 people is the 39th President of the United States, you really don’t need anything else.

Our trip included a tour of “the” street, a non-ballet lunch of fried chicken and boiled peanuts, and a walk-through the schoolhouse. However, the highlight for me was a one hour conversation with the President at his boyhood farm.

Sitting on wooden benches and swatting flies, all of the interns shuffled our feet and watched the horses graze as we anticipated the arrival of President Carter. Then, all of a sudden, we hear “hey all” and the President wanders out of seemingly nowhere, waving his hand, and sit down right in front of me (yes, of course I sat in front). In less than 10 seconds, he had launched into a detailed account of his recent trip to Spain where he was awarded the Catalonia International Prize and celebrated his 64th anniversary with Mrs. Carter. As his sparkly blue eyes captured our attention (and hearts), the President shared with us some of his most impressionable memories of growing up on that particular farm in the 1920s.

Instead of re-telling his stories, to which I could never do justice, I will instead encourage each of you to buy one of President Carter’s 26 books. What I will share, however, is how this most impressive orator responded to two of the questions posed to him from our group.

I asked him if there was any emphasis on foreign languages when he was growing up.

“No” was the short answer.

“But…” One of the most influential figures in his life was Miss Julia Coleman, his school teacher. Miss Julia would encourage her students to learn about everything. She would play records to test students’ knowledge of classical musical compositions and composers. She would create a list of 100 books and challenge the students to read each and every one by the end of the school year. (Carter was the only student to ever succeed in doing so.) She would have the students create one-act plays to compete in the local and district drama festivals. Through these methods, the President explained, he learned to appreciate the breadth of knowledge that one acquires through hard work. And he swears to this day that he cannot allow himself to end a sentence with a preposition because Miss Julia would have a fit.

Another intern asked the President to recall his most powerful childhood memory.

“The time I shared with my Daddy” was the short answer.

He then proceeded to tell us how it meant the world to him when his “rather aloof” father would allow him to join in his activities, such as hunting trips and fishing holidays. To be considered a “semi equal to him” on those rare occasions were his “fondest memories” as a child.

I couldn’t help but think about this ever pervasive issue of “equality” as Carter reflected on the relationship with his father. Here is a former President of the United States, a Nobel Peace Prize winner, and the individual soon-to-be responsible for eradicating guinea worm – the second disease ever to be eradicated on the planet. What was important to him? The respect of his father.

But it’s more than just “respect.” It’s a feeling of equality. This theme runs through all of the President’s life, particularly in his pioneering work to bring equality to African-Americans and women in the United States. Through the Carter Center, programs around the world aim to bring equality to citizens of newly forming democracies by enabling national elections that are free and fair. In Liberia, the Carter Center’s work is trying to strengthen a justice system so each and every citizen knows his or her rights. In the Middle East, the Center is working to stimulate dialogue so that different nationalities can co-exist in peace.

What is the most striking to me is how President Carter exemplifies the idea of equality in absolutely every way. In a sense, his humility in sharing with us his most impressive accomplishments brings equality to this moment: interns sitting on benches before a President sitting on the wood table, while everybody is eating peanuts. Nevermind the secret service agents bordering the parameters, or the tourists madly snapping away with their cameras. Right now, we are all just thinking together about how we can collectively make the world a better – and equal – place.

Monday, July 12, 2010

WEEK SIX: Reconciliation? A Day of Remembrance for Srebrenica

Is there such a thing as “reconciliation”?

Today, July 11th, 2010, marks the 15th anniversary of the massacre of 8,000 Bosniaks in Srebrenica. The genocidal act was led by Radovan Karadzic, who is now on trial through the International Criminal Tribunal for Yugoslavia.

He isn’t the only person standing trial for war crimes…so is Charles Taylor.

Charles Taylor, Liberia’s former President, was indicted for war crimes in 2003. He is associated with widespread atrocities, ranging from the use of conflict diamonds to recruitment of child soldiers, in conjunction with the country’s 14 year civil war.

Today, both Karadzic and Taylor currently enjoy the amenities of special facilities housing the trials that are underway by the International Criminal Court. In fact, Taylor recently celebrated the birth of another child since his wife is permitted to visit him regularly. The UN pays for her travel to and from The Hague.

These leaders are not alone in their freedom. Ratko Mladic, widely considered to be Karadzic’s right-hand man, lives in Serbia and has yet to be arrested. Nevertheless, on the 11th of each and every month for the last decade, the “Women in Black” of Bosnia-Herzegovina have marched to protest such impunity while paying tribute to the victims of Srebrenica.

When I went to Srebrenica around this time last year, I felt like I lost a bit of my soul. I couldn’t believe that fellow human beings committed the horrific acts that happened there. When you stand at the entrance to the mass graves, you see endless rows of crosses in every direction. Then, you walk along the road and see the old UN bunkers with some of the most shocking graffiti and messaging that only distorted, disturbed minds could produce.

I am not the one who can do justice to the stories of these victims by re-telling their personal accounts. But, as a human being alive on the anniversary of Srebrenica and learning about events like Taylor’s trial and the status of justice and reconciliation in Liberia, it seems to me that I have a responsibility to search for a solution to end such unsettling injustices.

I highly doubt “reconciliation” is possible, but that doesn’t make the fight for it any less important. At least there are organizations like the Carter Center who are strengthening justice systems in post-conflict countries and doing their part to build hope.

WEEK FIVE: Visualizing Liberia

What is that totally overused phrase, “a picture says a thousand words”?

This week I received a new assignment as part of my work as a Carter Center intern in the Liberia program. I was tasked with reviewing footage from a national conference that was held in Gbarnga in April. Then, I am to edit the footage together to capture the diversity of opinions that were expressed regarding the traditional and formal justice systems in the country.

For those of you who think this task sounds a little tedious compared to perfecting “arabesque pirouettes” to Nine Inch Nails, well, you’d be in for a surprise.

I popped in the first of six DVDs from the national conference to view the raw footage on my laptop. I think two hours passed before I realized that I hadn’t even moved; it was captivating to uncover footage of a country that I had spent a month reading and learning about only through words.

As a visual learner, I felt like a thousand light bulbs went on in my head as I saw the Liberians filter into the building, exchange greetings and make speeches. Things like a “National Traditional Council” and “the first female president in Africa” now mean something to me beyond mere academic ponder. To hear the music, see the buildings, watch the kids play outside…these are the things that make all of the detailed analytical work relevant and full of meaning.

And, as with everything, as things come to life – they also become more complicated.

This national conference brought together an incredible breadth of stakeholders to discuss access to justice in post-war Liberia. From the President of Liberia to law fellows to traditional chiefs, the eclectic group truly represented nearly all walks of life. And, there were nearly just as many opinions represented.

In Liberia, custom-based practices have historically been the predominant method of conflict resolution. In the aftermath of the war, however, there was a need to strengthen the existing local judicial framework to resolve a vast number of cases regarding a broad range of crimes. Different countries have dealt with a similar problem in different ways. For instance, Rwanda brought back gacaca and Sierra Leone developed community policing. Liberia, today, has the unusual mixture of traditional practices alongside a statutory system.

For instance, a chief may resolve a dispute in a rural county by having the accused perform a physical test, known as “trial by ordeal”, to determine guilt or innocence. At the same time, a man accused of bribery may appear in a formal court in Monrovia and be represented by an attorney. Can these two methods work effectively side-by-side? This conference asked that exact question and there is no clear answer.

Mixed in with the fascinating video images of Liberia, I started to appreciate the daunting challenges of harmonizing not only different legal practices, but also the whole range of issues that accompany such a systemic change: power hierarchies, inherent gender relationships, respect for elders, the educational superiority of urban youth, ethnic tension, disparate incomes, international intervention, and the tenuous nature of trust.

So, when I consider the fact that I’ve been enthralled with the physical challenge of perfecting “pirouettes” for over two decades, it gives me pause to realize that watching footage from a national justice conference in Liberia is, indeed, more riveting than doing “soudechauts”…even without the Nine Inch Nails.

Thursday, July 1, 2010

WEEK FOUR: Teaching The Middle East

It’s easy to be impressed when you don’t know anything.

Then again, some people are just simply impressive.

As an intern in the Conflict Resolution/Liberia Program at The Carter Center (TCC), I regularly interact with the staff and interns working on other conflicts, including the Middle East. I’ve never followed the Middle East the same way I’ve researched and worked in other areas, like the Great Lakes Region of Africa and Eastern Europe. This is possibly because the conflict in the Middle East has always seemed so complicated that I just gave up, which is of course, inexcusable.

So, what’s changed in the last seven days that’s made me fascinated with the Middle East and eager to learn more? A great teacher.

On Wednesdays, the Conflict Resolution interns meet with Jeff Carter (yes – he is the son of President Jimmy Carter). We informally discuss our projects and progress – though it’s hard to feel informal in front of the President’s son.

Last Wednesday, the Assistant Director for the Middle East program joined the conversation and shared with us highlights from his recent trip to Syria and the West Bank. The Assistant Director, Nathan Stock, started with a kind caveat, “for those of you who don’t follow the conflict regularly…” (i.e. – for those of you like Rebecca who insist on glossing over these articles in the NY Times.) He then proceeded to outline two very specific situations: the steps needed to generate an open dialogue on US-Syria relations, and the status of the Israeli-imposed embargo on Gaza.

In the case of Syria, TCC is initiating a series of open meetings between high-level former government officials from the United States and Syria in an effort to generate dialogue with the ultimate goal of improving relations between the two countries. Syria is a crucial player in the Middle East peace process and is willing to engage with the United States if existing misconceptions can be dispelled. For instance, such a dialogue may lead to a restructuring of the existing sanctions imposed on Syria. Policymakers and the international media need to be part of the conversation if a full, supportive and long-standing friendship is to develop. Syria is open and willing to engage in dialogue, especially if the TCC can foster a series of hospitable, highly-visible meetings bringing both sides together – exactly what President Carter and the entire Carter Center excel at.

Second, Nathan explained the significance of the blockade Israel has imposed on Gaza within the context of a protracted interstate conflict. Until recently, Israel had created a short list of selected items that were the only goods permitted to pass into Gaza. This excluded numerous things like cement, shoes and candy, and consequently, it comes as no surprise that the unemployment rate has risen to 44% and eight of ten people rely on aid (Guardian Weekly, 6/11/10). Regardless of one’s political views on a two-state solution, this type of embargo is a barrier to peace. However, Israel has now changed its policy in regulating flow into Gaza from a short list of permitted goods to a short list of prohibited goods. This could be a positive sign, but it is too early to know how this policy adjustment will play out. The actual implementation and adherence to the new guidelines have yet to go into effect.

To hear someone summarize these events and place them into a larger context provided me a method to start my own learning process about the Middle East. I certainly don’t understand the Middle East conflict (yet), but these brief thoughts shared by the Assistant Director sparked a new curiosity in me to learn more, which after all, is the sign of a great teacher.

At the same time, this conversation revealed how pretty amazing some TCC staff are; they work tirelessly on these efforts and are sometimes faced with a series of serious, frustrating setbacks that could halt or reverse all the progress that has been made to generate peaceful dialogue. Nevertheless, they show no signs of fatigue and continue to press onward - while still finding time to teach others the basic foundations of their work.

Like I said, some people are just simply impressive.