Friday, July 25, 2014

Almost Goodbye--A Mixture of Fear and Optimism

I'm laying on the  box-spring mattress that has been mine for the past month, eating chocolate as I contemplate what my life has been these past four weeks. First, I can say confidently (between bites of Reese's peanut butter cups--a staple of Artsbridge life) that no other job I've had has been as fulfilling as this one. My spirits are high, and despite a little lack of sleep, I've never felt better. Tomorrow is the final showcase, the time when the students finally get to exhibit their completed art projects and films to friends, family, and locals (and hopefully a few reporters). Since this is my first year here, I'm not quite sure what to expect, but I imagine it will be an incredibly fulfilling moment for all of them. This presentation is the culmination of their three weeks and their hard work, frustration, tears, and triumphs. They've struggled not only with the physical execution of professional creativity, but they've had to learn to work in teams with people from very different backgrounds and of largely different opinions. Many of them struggled to have their voices heard and to listen to others, and I'm sure at times they felt like nothing would or could change.

Fast forward three weeks, and they're now preparing to exhibit professionally crafted pieces to the larger public. But they're just not displaying their art. They are demonstrating to this community that change is absolutely possible and collaboration can triumph over division. Add to that the fact that some are Israeli Jews and others are Arab, Palestinian, and American, and you have a whole lot of awesome in one place.

This has not been an easy time for the students. There's a war going on in Gaza. It's hit us all in
different ways, and they are all struggling to keep their heads in the program. But they've done beautifully and come out the stronger for it. I had a small experience with rocket warfare when I was in Israel two years ago, yet I know it's nothing compared to life growing up in the region. I struggled to place my feelings into the pool when I came here, but I know that this time has helped me grow up and see war in a very different light.  Now more than ever,  the implications of the work here are  immediate and so crucial.

There have been several interviews and articles written about this summer at Artsbridge. Last week we took the students to the Catuit Arts Center in Cape Cod to talk about the program to potential donors. One question that came up and has come up in many of the interviews is, "but does it work?" And, like the brilliant thinkers they are, our students answer with poise and eloquence something that really boils down to "OF COURSE."

To me the answer is so simple, but I understand why the question is asked so much. "Does it work? Does Artsbridge actually make a difference?" Uh, if you're expecting us to send the students to the debate tables to arrange a cease fire, the answer is no. Will Artsbridge stop the rockets from firing on both sides? No. Not right now it won't. But one of the most important ideas we've discussed in these past few weeks is the crucial notion that every human being deserves the same respect and opportunities and that individuals have an enormous responsibility to retain their own humanity by recognizing the humanity of others. This means putting love, compassion and empathy before violence, anger and hate. Hate is always an easy way out because it takes humanity out of the equation. To hate something, you have to to trivialize it, make it seem small and insignificant. But in learning to recognize the humanity in each other, our students have chosen to love others rather than hate them. If you love someone, you instinctively want to protect them, to care for them, to support them. I've seen an incredible support system develop between these students, who never knew the others existed up until a few months ago. And in the cultural narratives of Israel and Palestine (and in most countries if we're being honest), it is so easy to forget that human beings exist on both sides of the wall.

So, yeah, duh, Artsbridge makes a huge difference. It gives young people the tools to go back into their communities having understood what the view looks like from the other side, having spoken and laughed and cried and danced and swam and played and created with human beings from the "other" side, humans whom they didn't know existed. Abstract concepts about "groups" and "identities" have hopefully been replaced with concrete faces, voices, and unique personalities that have bonded and  will never be forgotten. And I think they've all found that they're not so different after all.

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