Saturday, December 1, 2012

Speaking Tour: One-Month Reflection

Updated Schedule:

November 2nd-8th: Michigan
November 9th-13th: Chicago
November 13th-23rd: Washington D.C. (Friends Committee on National Legislation conference, Middle East institute conference)
November 24st-26th: Dallas (Palestinian-American Youth League conference)
November 26th-December 5th: Washington D.C.
December 5th-10th: New York City
December 10th-15th: Chicago
December 20th-30th: Seattle
January 2013: California!


I can't believe it's only been a month. This experience has been so jam-packed and inspiring, and I've learned so much already.

Here are the highlights:

-Going to the Students for Justice in Palestine conference in Ann Arbor. I got to meet student activists from universities around the country, learn from grassroots organizers and distinguished speakers (Noura Erekat was especially great), and join in on the planning of SJP's new national organization. I left the conference feeling strengthened and inspired by all the people I'd met there. 

-Speaking at the Unitarian Universalist Church in Ann Arbor. This was a speaking event I picked up after the original speaker, Iyad Burnat, was unable to enter Jordan. That was bittersweet because I know Iyad and his message is so important (and he should be able to travel wherever he wants!), but I was so grateful that Mares, a long-time friend of Rebuilding Alliance, was able to connect me to the church's social justice mission and arrange for my presentation in his stead. The organizers are very active on this issue and were very supportive of my work!

-Spending Election Night at the Democratic Headquarters of Livingston County, a conservative Michigan County. Mares introduced me around to all her friends as the teacher from Al Aqaba village, and they were very curious to know more. It was also cool to see the national election results with people who had worked so hard for Obama. 

-Spending two days in Detroit with two amazing community organizers and artists. We shared our work with each other and they took me around Detroit and showed me what's being done with youth and building and theater and gardening and community improvement and social justice, and though I could only be there for two short days, to make initial contact with churches, journalists, and the Arab-American community, Detroit is definitely a place I want to return to.

-Meeting the Palestinian American Council in Chicago. My friend Mahmoud, who I met initially in Ramallah, introduced me to his friends in the suburbs of Oak Lawn and Bridgeview ("Little Palestine"), and that connection turned my tour around! The men at the PAC heard my presentation on Al Aqaba for five minutes, and immediately invited me to speak at their youth conference in Dallas after Thanksgiving. I was amazed! I didn't know there was a Palestinian-American Youth League, or that someone could want to send me, all expenses paid, to speak to a young audience! I said yes, and Rebuilding Alliance was very, very supportive. I started brainstorming a project that I could set up between the Palestinian-American youth and the youth in Al Aqaba/Tubas area. Those same few days had been really difficult, because of the Israeli military trainings around Al Aqaba that drove people out of their homes. I was really down in the dumps, not knowing what I could do to help my friends back in the Jordan Valley, and this invitation to Dallas felt like really, really great sign that there was something I could do, something I was uniquely suited for. That ended up being a very good day. 

-Attending the Friends Committee on National Legislation conference in Washington D.C. Over the last few years I've learned that the international Quaker community is a very well-organized, effective peacemaking force. I didn't know how impressive their presence was in Washington. This conference brought people (and not all Quakers) from around the country to learn about the status and direction of our national military budget. That was a pretty dismal introduction, but looking around and seeing all those people who had come to learn and challenge it more effectively was very inspiring. The people I met were amazing, as was their energy. After one of my friends asked me if they served good oatmeal on Facebook (much love to you anyway! :) I knew I had to explain a little bit more about my experience with the Quakers. I was really impressed by their internship program, which brought young people of all faiths to the Capitol to research and lobby on specific issues like Kenya, Iran, Israel/Palestine, Native Americans, disarmament ...I actually started looking into their internship program. The best thing that came out of the FCNL conference was the opportunity to learn how to lobby Congress! I went with twelve other Washingtonians to our Senator's office and talked to her staffer about our reasons for support the FCNL "ask," which was to cut the Pentagon budget by $1 trillion in the next ten years. I was a little nervous, but on my turn I told everyone that I'd lived in the West Bank for eight months and was concerned about our military spending that supported policies, especially demolition policies that violated basic human rights and made our country less safe. In my head I was thinking "ahhhhhhhh don't mess it up" but I could see the pens scribbling, and heads nodding. I felt so good walking out of the Senate building knowing that I brought a unique experience to the table, and knowing that Congress isn't as intimidating and inaccessible as I thought. I will definitely cultivate a relationship with my Senator's staff, and as it turns out, one of her aides knows at least a dozen of my friends from back home in Seattle. :)

-The Palestinian American Youth League conference in Dallas! I was flown out of Baltimore, picked up at the Dallas airport and taken to the Hilton Anatole, where I stayed for three nights. There were about 200 participants in the conference, ages 12 and up. A lot of them were high school and university students. I gave my presentation on Saturday morning to all the youth, and it went really well! I had people shout out names of Palestinian governorates, and got Ramallah! Qalqiliyah! Jenin! Bethlehem! Then I introduced Tubas, which virtually no one had heard of. I knew this isolated, very vulnerable place was a perfect place to direct attention and mobilize action. Though I got an outpouring of handshakes and introductions and thanks! after that, it wasn't my slideshow presentation, but my conversation with the youth on Sunday night, that yielded awesome results. I managed to lead an hour-long discussion on Palestinian-American activism, and in the process I learned which of my experiences were most resonating, I heard a lot of inspiring and heart-wrenching personal stories, and I left with dozens of names on my sign-up sheet for a partner program with Tubas youth. These guys were ready for action! Talk about the right place at the right time. I've been blessed to have so many of those moments. My hope was that I'll be able to keep up this momentum with good communication and follow-up. In the last week it's required a lot of Skype dates to Palestine, and explaining to my former student in Tayasir village what exactly I've tapped into. It's strange to remember that it's all in my head at this point, and I'm the one to make it happen! I'll be going back to Chicago to get together with the Chicago youth group and flush out more ideas with the conference organizers who sent me to Dallas. I'm really looking forward to laying the foundations there, given that the adults who have the money and resources are so supportive of projects that channel the energy of the youth into service! It's so exciting!

Now I'm in Washington D.C. again, this time with Donna. We're staying at the William Penn Quaker Guest House, and I'm learning a lot about networking, organizing, and maintaining contacts from Donna, who has quite a bit of experience with this!

Something our tour has needed so badly is a designated planner. Now that we're on the road, it's hard to be going to meetings while scheduling meetings and sending follow-up messages and looking into contact referrals all in the same business day. We are on the move or on our laptops all the time. (If you want to join our team as a scheduler, please give Donna a call at 650 325-4663)  We've visited Senator Maria Cantwell's office, held an in-depth meeting with Senator Feinstein's staff, and met with sister organizations that could partner to move our Rebuilding to Remain and our Stay Human Advocacy programs forward. Our work has been very well received. We just need it to be more widely received. 

So I'm currently learning about all the go-to organizations that are involved in the Middle East, interfaith dialogue, humanitarian aid, and diplomacy. On the flip side, we're also learning about all the best coffee shops to perch in for extended periods of time. Ebenezer's and Busboys and Poets are current favorites.

Donna goes back to San Mateo on Monday, after we meet with people from FCNL, CMEP (Churches for Middle East Peace) and Rabbi Brant Rosen, who linked to my blog while I was in Palestine. I'm looking forward to meeting him in person.

On Tuesday I'll be going with my friend Shelby to talk with her Maine Senator, Susan Collins, then on Wednesday I'll be meeting my other Senator, Maria Cantwell, at her Wednesday morning constituent coffee. Then I'm off to New York, Chicago, and home to Seattle for the holidays.

Like I said, I can't believe it's only been a month. I'm looking forward to December and January, and the new experiences, contacts and confidence they will bring.


Do you want my message to reach more people? I still need your help! We raised $1,400 on our first fundraising page, which has made it possible for me to get this far. Help me continue this journey to New York, Chicago, Seattle, and California by the end of January! Help us spread the word about Al Aqaba and their vision for peace!

Thanks for your support!
Much love,