Yay! S and I Won the Soliya Innovation Award!

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S and I spent between ten to twenty hours per week working together for eight consecutive weeks. We’ve known each other since last summer. The vast majority of that “togetherness” took place on Skype. S is my first co-facilitator in the Soliya Connect Program. We first met in our advanced facilitator-training course, which was held online in a Soliya session room last June and July. We were surprised to be paired up as co-facilitators–because we are both Americans based in NYC and typically pairs are made up of two individuals from different linguistic and cultural backgrounds–but were both super excited to delve into our first semester as facilitators. Truth be told, we immediately connected and hit it off. Our first session, on October 17th, was off-the-charts amazing because we were blessed with the most amazing group of participants. You can read my review of our first session here.

As we completed our session notes and reflected on that first session, we knew right away that we were working with an extraordinary group of young people and we committed to work hard to ensure that each session would be challenging and worth waking up for early on a Monday morning! (Two of our participants were based in California, where it was only 6:45am when our sessions began! After we dropped the clocks back, our meeting time did not change, our guys in California woke up at 5:45am to meet us online! Now THAT’S commitment. How many college kids do you know who voluntarily attend a class being held THAT early on Monday mornings?!) Some sessions were stronger than others, and we both certainly learned a lot about facilitating cross-cultural dialogue in an online environment, but there were definitely some very notable positive moments throughout the semester.

Our favorite: After our second session, S and I had a sense of who was very talkative, who was a bit shy, and we had some exposure to participants’ respective worldviews. Every Sunday night we would ask each other–as we planned our Monday session–how can we really push them tomorrow? How can we challenge them and bring them into new territory? How can we facilitate a situation that will enable them to expand their comfort zones? Our participants were so seemingly starstruck by one other (they all were very sweet in their enthusiasm to interact with peers from around the world) we wondered if they would ever move past that honeymoon stage and uncover points on which they disagree or ways in which their linguistic and cultural backgrounds shaped their perspectives. As we mulled over these questions the white noise of the interWebz was filled with stories related to the Arab Spring, including innumerable editorials and articles about “What happens if the Islamists are elected,” and other such conversations about secularist versus non-secularist governments.

Note: S and I are both media junkies…neither of us are young enough to be reasonably categorized as Millennials (uh, sorry about that S….OLD-HEAD. ;-)) but we are both consistently at risk of suffering from information overload–especially when events in Egypt have flared up. (S and I both lived in Egypt–for four and three years respectively–and found it difficult to peel away from Twitter, FB, Al Jazeera live stream, among other sources when people rose up again en masse to protest the SCAF.) In light of these ongoing debates in the media and what we had observed in our group, we developed a pretty nifty activity: The Constitution Activity. Eh? Let me explain.

Our eight participants were divided into two groups: one group was asked to argue for a secular constitution and the other was asked to argue for a non-secular constitution based on Islamic law. Each group went into a breakout room (the Soliya platform has a main room and breakout rooms to support activities like this) to brainstorm with their delegation about how they would revise or leave in tact the following articles in order create a constitution in line with their group’s agenda. (As you can see, S and I pulled these articles from three different living constitutions–can you guess to which constitution each article belongs?)

Article: Islam is the religion of the state. The principles of Islamic law are the chief source of legislation.Article: Excessive bail shall not be required, nor excessive fines imposed, nor cruel and unusual punishments inflicted.

Article: Citizens have the right to form associations, unions, syndicates, and parties, according to the law. It is forbidden to form associations whose activities are opposed to the order of society or secret or militaristic in nature. It is not permitted to directly engage in political activity or form political parties on the basis of religion, race or origin.

Article: The state guarantees the freedom of creed, and the freedom to practice religious rites. Freedom of opinion is also guaranteed, and every person has the right to express his opinion and publish it in spoken, written, photographed, or other form within the confines of the law. Personal criticism and constructive criticism are a guarantee for the safety of national development.

Article: The president of the country will appoint within a maximum of 30 days after assuming his/her duties at least one vice president and determine his/her responsibilities, so that in the case of his/her stepping down from the position of president, another will be appointed in his/her place. The conditions that must be met by the president will apply, as will rules governing the accountability for vice presidents of the country.

Article: The family is the kernel of society, and its members shall be brought up on the basis of the Islamic faith, and loyalty and obedience to God, His Messenger, and to guardians; respect for and implementation of the law, and love of and pride in the homeland and its glorious history as the Islamic faith stipulates.

Article: After one year from the ratification of this article the manufacture, sale, or transportation of intoxicating liquors within, the importation thereof into, or the exportation thereof from the United States and all territory subject to the jurisdiction thereof for beverage purposes is hereby prohibited.

Once we got in the breakout rooms, it was fascinating to see that some participants had considerable difficulty arguing in favor of something (secular or non-secular) that they did not personally support. This was a surprise to other participants. In short, there was a lot of intense learning going on and–I’m so proud to report–throughout the process our group remained actively committed to the ground rules they established during the first session. That is, the discussions were always civil, based in mutual respect, and supported honest inquiry.

After spending about thirty or forty minutes in the breakout rooms, both groups returned to the main room to engage in dialogue with the opposing delegation. They each presented their suggested revisions along with reasoned arguments in support of each revision. It. Was. FASCINATING. Seriously, I nominate AT LEAST three of our participants for the young diplomat corps. They were wonderfully bright, articulate, respectful and reflective. As usual, S and I were blown away by our group members’ character and intelligence. The two-hour session flew by and all participants were shocked when we stepped in to notify them that it was time to do our closing round. They each gave positive feedback and requested to repeat the activity–but on the opposite delegation–the following week.

S and I found, throughout the semester, that the deeper we dug within ourselves as we planned for upcoming session, the more intense and engaging those sessions ended up being. We knew we were blessed with an amazing group and are so psyched to have had the opportunity to work with them!

Thank you Soliya for recognizing our efforts with the Fall 2011 Soliya Innovation Award! Thank YOU to our awesome group!

P.S. After months of intensive collaboration, S and I FINALLY met in person last weekend! She’s much taller than I imagined!

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