Promoting human rights so people don’t go all Gaddafi on each other

In another hotel room, this time in Toronto. I don’t know what it is about hotels room, but I invariably feel the need to write about something, anything. I can’t write about jet lag, because the one-hour flight from Montreal was far too short. But the passengers were not the usual lot I travel with. Almost entirely businessmen, dressed in suits, talking on the phone about the most mundane of things – to me, at least. “What’s your sense on today’s meeting?” “Will we [something something] the stocks tomorrow?” and the cryptic “We have to have a meeting about the crates soon.” One man complained to his wife on his Backberry that he was so tired, but that did not stop his wandering eye to follow the occasional pretty woman walking through the terminal. One of the few women waiting around me told the other person on the end of her call that she missed her children. Three guys had Louis Vutton bags – I’m guessing the real ones, not the knock offs that most passengers at the airport in Jakarta have slung over their shoulders.

I’m here to play games. My organization, Equitas, has had a program called Play It Fair! for use in day camps aimed at children 6 to 12 years old. There’s a whole educational approach behind the program, but in a nutshell it’s about using games as a way to promote human rights values. There’s a training for City of Toronto staff tomorrow and I’ve been asked to help in the facilitation.

It’s something I take seriously, but at the same time I place almost no effort in preparing, in part because I’ve done it a number of times, but mainly because the approach resonates so clearly with participants that the program sells itself. Participants instantly see the value of using games with children as a way to ensure greater respect among them. Tomorrow’s workshop should be, as all the others in the past, fun.

The value of any human rights program lies not only in the types of activities offered but also in the kind of results it achieves. It’s not enough to say, Wow this is great!; one must also ask the question, So what difference does it make? Thankfully, the advantage of having a program that’s been going on for years is that there are clear results that can be illustrated, from a reduction in bullying and violence to a greater respect for each other. As a friend’s Facebook update this evening humourously intoned, “Another word has been added to the Oxford dictionary: Gaddafi (adj.), means crazy, nuts. Example: You drive me Gaddafi!” This program with kids has made them less Gaddafi with each other.

Which brings me of course to a topic to engrossing, so world-changing, so tumultuous, exciting, and frightening, that I have avoided writing about it altogether (and I still will). The uprisings in the Middle East and North Africa have been difficult to watch from a distance. It’s a region I started visiting four years ago, and since then have made many friends who have been amongst the most ardent, determined, strong-willed, and caring human rights defenders I have met. Many of them have written to me to say that they are doing all right, but that they are living through exciting and equally dangerous times. Times when social upheaval leading to the removal of ancient despots will inevitably bring a vacuum of uncertainty, and it’s especially pivotal during these times that a human rights discourse becomes one that is adopted in a smooth transition to democracy. I feel woefully inadequate by sending “all my thoughts” (sorry I can’t send “positive vibes,” I’ve never been that kind of guy) to my friends in the MENA region through a Facebook message. From Tunisia to Egypt, from Yemen to Bahrain, from Libya to Morocco to Algeria to Palestine and all points in between, if you who fight for freedom and human rights gain strength in knowing others around the world are in solidarity with you, even though not we’re not there with you, then I hope that is just enough to keep you going, despite the hardships you are enduring.

As I end this post, I’ll take the words from another Facebook friend who put as her update Galatians 5:22-23:

But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace,
long-suffering, kindness, goodness, 
faithfulness, gentleness, self-control.

A Letter to My Sons, Part 6: Coming Home

Dear Alexandre, Dear Sam,

I’m coming home. As I write this final letter to you, I am sitting in my room at the Paragon Hotel, which was the first hotel I stayed at in Jakarta seven years ago. I look at my reflection in the mirror and realize that I’m wearing the same shirt I wore back then as well.
Rooftop bath, early morning, Jakarta
The hotel hasn’t changed since my first visit back when you were just a little baby, Sam. The rooms look the same, although the bed sheets are grey now instead of white. There is still at least one cockroach lying on its back to greet me in the morning before I go to the bathroom, and there’s still only one plug in the room that works. I looked out my window as I woke up and noticed two men bathing on top of the building next to me; it looked like no one ever finished constructing the building.

Up until yesterday, I played games from morning until late at night. I know, it’s hard to believe that’s my work, but it’s true. I met a wonderful group of elementary school teachers who work in schools called pesantren. Pesantren are Islamic boarding schools; in other words, they are schools like any other schools but the teachers also teach about the Islamic religion. Bing and I spent three days with the teachers showing them how to play the games from our Play It Fair book. Sam, do you remember when we went to the gym in Vancouver to see Tom and you played a game called Robots and one with Daddy called Squirrel in the Trees? We did the same thing here, only most of the teachers have never seen a squirrel before.

We came all the way here to show them how to play these games with their students because the games help kids like you to learn about important values. Some of these values are helping each other (cooperation), being nice to each other (respect), playing with other children and making them feel like someone cares (inclusion), and a few other ones too. The children play the games and then the teacher sits down and asks them if they liked the game and if they learned anything by playing it. The last game we played yesterday was Bullying. Remember how each of you came home sad because some other kids were pushing you around during recess? Remember how Mommy and I told you to stand up for yourselves and to tell the bullies to just STOP? The last time it happened, I pretended I was you Sam, and you were the bully and you jumped on me. I didn’t like it and used my words to say stop.
With two of the workshop participants.
That’s what we did when we met the teachers: we showed them how to help their students get along better with each other. The games also help everyone to become better listeners. Before playing the always-popular Noisiest Game in the World, I asked the teachers if they’ve ever been in a situation where they try to talk to their students but the students simply don’t listen. One teacher opened her eyes wide and said: “You mean it happens elsewhere? I thought it only happened in Indonesia?” There are a lot of similarities between our lives and the lives of those here in Indonesia.

We played around twenty games over three days, and there’s one clear conclusion: all the teachers love the games and can’t wait to try them out with their students. They are all convinced that the students will love the games. For me, this makes me think that no matter where you are on this planet, children love to play. And if they can learn about helping one another and being kinder while doing it, so much the better. I was really glad that the teachers were happy and had fun – I don’t think I’ve heard so much laughter in a long time. We even talked a lot about SpongeBob.

Once the workshop was over, Bing and I said goodbye to everyone and hopped in a taxi to the other side of town. After checking in to this last hotel, I went downstairs to check my email and that’s when I saw Hendy. Hendy greeted me seven years ago when I arrived in Jakarta for the first time. He’s the one who gave you those World Cup shirts and always helps me find the “poopy coffee” no one back home likes. Last night he drove us to a nice restaurant where I gobbled up a much-needed cheeseburger and guzzled a cold beer. Today he patiently waited as I got my watch fixed and went searching for cool shirts for the two of you. Every time I am in Jakarta and he’s around, he goes out of his way to see me, to help me out, to drive me around. He even showed me a pair of Darth Vader Adidas shoes that you would love, Alexandre.

I guess what I’m trying to say is that as you grow older, you realize that the dozens of friends you had as children trickles down to only a few good friends later in life, and that’s if you’re lucky. And over the years you will make new friends, like I have. Friends are worth holding on to. I miss you, Alexandre and Sam, and I think of you every day and show your photos to everyone to the point where they are probably sick of seeing them. But even though I’m far away, I want you to know that I’m in good hands, because friends like Hendy and Bing and everyone else I’ve been with over the last two weeks take care of me. Your mother always tells me to be careful when I’m away, but in a sense I know I don’t have to be, because there’s always a friend wherever I go.

Je t’aime Alexandre, je t’aime Sam, bonsoir.

Notes from the Field: Playing with Trainers in Vancouver

Had a great day. It certainly helps matters that the sun is shining, the air is delightfully fragrant from the cherry blossoms, and the participants were eager and enthusiastic to learn. The participants in question are day camp leaders and coordinators who have been implementing the Play It Fair! program that Equitas has been running for a number of years now. The program promotes human rights values – cooperation, respect, acceptance…seven values in all – through games. The key to the approach is that the learning from the games is always discussed with the children afterwards and enables them to reinforce these values in the day camps and in their daily lives.

A number of participants highlighted a challenge with the group discussion that follows a game. The format of the discussion has questions relating to three aspects: the “feel” questions, asking children how they liked the game, the “think” questions, asking them how the game relates to their personal experiences and what the game makes them think of, and finally the “act” questions that prompt children to suggest ways they can improve day camp life with concrete actions.

The format is simple but there are still challenges to leading a group discussion. Some leaders do not have much experience facilitating such discussions, others rely too much on asking the suggested questions in the Toolkit (thereby making the discussion rigid), and others mention that having a group discussion is challenging with multilingual groups of children.

The challenge of leading the group discussion was raised last night over dinner (which included my first taste of beef tongue, masterfully cooked by Tom, one of the coordinators at the Britannia Centre here in Vancouver, on a small heated black rock. He also shocked me with the knowledge that I have been pronouncing Osaka improperly all my life.). My thoughts remained on this (the group discussion, not the Osaka thing) until this morning. I had some solutions to propose, such as developing cards with symbols signifying words or feelings and having the children use symbols to express how they felt, but I felt I didn’t have much to offer. A quick message to an online community of human rights practitioners yielded a number of good suggestions from across Canada, Egypt, and China. Some suggestions: drawing images, painting, pantomime, sculpturing (making human sculptures as a way to represent power relationships between different actors), theatre of the oppressed, using (and not using) symbols. We also explored non-verbal ways of communicating with each other. The response I got from my online inquiry reaffirmed to me the value of networking with others to get their ideas, and it’s something I expect to do more of in the future.

On another note, Tom highlighted the introduction of journal writing for camp leaders. The journal was a regular, often daily reflection the leaders made on the games they played. The journal was private and to be shared only with their supervisor. Tom praised the added value the journals made to the leaders’ abilities to facilitate the games; they wrote their impressions of the games, how well they went (or how challenging they may have been), and how the children were internalizing the values promoted by the games. Writing in a journal was not an automatic gesture for some leaders, said one participant who kept her own journal. And it has to be said that writing is not for everyone either, but it can be a powerful tool. I offered them a simple framework I use when writing a reflective journal (not my idea): three questions – What? (what happened), So what? (what did I learn, why is this important, what does it mean?) and Now what? (what will I do differently now?).  I’d read in Paulo Freire’s Pedagogy of Freedom the other day that if we as educators want to ensure critical thinking among learners, we should be equally critical about our own practice. I felt I learned a lot from the participants today, and I’m thankful for that.

All the participants got to lead the rest in some of the Toolkit games, and we enjoyed being kids again and playing Rock, Paper, Conflict, The Inuit Hand Game, and my personal favourite of the day, Crazy Stories, which was a collaborative story-making activity that had us all laughing (the entire Toolkit is available here).
And now to end this entry, at least one mention of the joys of travel. The day more than compensated for minor annoyances the day before such as the customs officer in Montreal who felt the need to probe everyone’s carry-on luggage for liquids exceeding 100 ml. One could see his eyes bulge with rapturous excitement as he grabbed my new tube of toothpaste and searched for its volume. “It might be over 100 ml,” he whispered to his uninterested colleague. Alas, his disappointment was quite noticeable when he saw “85 ml” at the end of the tube. Honestly, our delays are long enough as it is at airports, should we not be entitled to qualified personnel who can do their job of protecting us rather than inspecting us in the hope of finding a liquid over 100 ml in our bags?
Perhaps one final note, a success story. Our lunch was catered by Pot Luck Catering, a small organization where former street children prepare the food, here they are:

And another final note, to all Vancouver hockey fans, Canucks rock! And good night.