Working for Peace at Project Common Bond

By: Mike Wilper
Middle School Humanities

I often think that education, at its very best, is hope in action, a parallel of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s vision of justice as love in action. I’ve been privileged to witness many moving and transformative moments in schools: Moments when students leap beyond past expectations; when they discover the power of supporting one another; when their intellectual curiosity becomes insatiable. Implementing a “dignity” thread into the curriculum helped to multiply these moments, and it put me into contact with other educators and peacebuilders dedicated to building safe, inclusive communities.

It was through this network that I was introduced to Project Common Bond, a summer camp for young people who have lost a loved one to terrorism. It is held on the campus of Bryn Mawr College outside of Philadelphia. Roughly half of the participants travel internationally to attend, and they are accompanied by adult chaperones who are deeply involved in peacebuilding within their respective countries. The program uses a dignity model built on the work of Donna Hicks of Harvard’s Weatherhead Center for International Affairs, the same foundation of our own sixth grade humanities program. This was my first summer working at Project Common Bond. I helped facilitate daily sessions with a small group of 15- and 16-year-old participants. We discussed the rich tapestry of individual complexity, the realities of our daily lives, the conflicts that impact us, the ways we honor those we lost and the ways we might contribute to a more peaceful future. The afternoons were filled with elective modules masterfully run to maximize communication and inclusivity. The evening featured speakers, workshops and one, life-affirming talent show.

As a humanities teacher I tend to focus on the role political violence plays in the narrative of a community, how it alienates swaths of the population and escalates revenge cycles. A violent event is just one point on a long timeline. This distance gives us room to look for patterns and extrapolate general lessons. But I’ve come to appreciate that it glosses over the most important component of history: The actual pain of individuals. By hurrying past this pain, it’s easy to miss the fact that our collective hope often survives through the actions of those directly impacted by conflict, those who have experienced the full weight of trauma, who are somehow strong enough to turn their pain into a better future for everyone.

Our greatest moral category is reserved for those like Nelson Mandela or Malala Yousafzai who have suffered greatly, who could have nursed an understandable thirst for revenge, but instead insisted on peace. From what I can glean, this feat of moral courage is sustained by a deep sense of self, a supportive community, models to emulate and open paths to follow. I hadn’t expected to meet anyone inhabiting this category in my lifetime, let alone so many at one time in one place and so close to Philadelphia. Never have I been more inspired than when watching the young participants at Project Common Bond labor for peace under the full weight of loss. They offer a model of hope in action on the grandest scale, beautifully crystallized by the camp’s motto, “Let our past change the future.”

(Read more about Project Common Bond in People magazine.)

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Photos By Mike Green