Compassionate influencers and new media

Soliya‘s home page asks: “What if every student had a profound cross-cultural experience as part of their education?” This non-profit is founded on a vision that meaningful contact between young people in different cultures can have a profound transformative effect – on them and on the world. Soliya focuses mostly on the relationship between Western and predominantly Muslim societies. They argue that new media has provided tools to a much larger pool of “influencers”:

A pastor from Florida, the leader of an Al-Qaeda cell in Pakistan, a lieutenant from Ohio, and a blogger in Egypt can each now significantly affect how our societies relate to each other. When there is a “spark” between societies, such as an act of violence against civilians committed or the desecration of a holy text, many of these new influencers fan the flames and exacerbate the tension.

I wrote a while ago about how we should imagine how new tech can be used for war so we could turn these tactics to the advantage of peace. That’s Soliya’s strategy too: enable a critical mass of young people to become positive “influencers” in Western and predominantly Muslim societies, promoting values of compassion and collaboration. And do this using the same new media that negative influencers use.

We believe that best-practices in dialogue from the field of conflict resolution present models that can and should be applied through these new tools to ensure interactions are constructive and promote deeper understanding and empathy.

The main component of Soliya’s work is their Connect Program, an online cross-cultural education program linked to undergraduate programs. Connect has brought together students from 100 universities in 27 countries since 2003. Students join a group of about 10 students and 2 facilitators, meeting online for two hours over ten weeks. The group talks about every day life and culture, but also about controversial social and political issues. Facilitators are trained to manage tensions, introduce activities and maintain an atmosphere for constructive dialogue.

Online platform used by the Connect Program

Online platform used by the Connect Program

It all takes place on an online platform that Soliya’s tech team have developed. The platform allows for video, voice, group text chat, private text chat and document sharing. It adjusts well to low bandwidth environments (the program would be unable to run otherwise). The way the mic is passed round, allowing only one participant at a time, helps respectful dialogue. The visual aids (video box highlighted when someone is speaking, next in line for the mic displayed) are also very useful. For anyone who’s had to endure messy group Skype conversations, this platform takes away all the pain. Even the technical difficulties (which almost invariably affect participants in developing countries most) are a source for an interesting discussion on the power dynamics exacerbated by new technologies.

The Connect Program regularly receives rave reviews, both by students and by staff:

“Soliya allowed me to open the box that I was living in for a long time and see the world around me. It taught me never to judge people according to where they live…It made me discover my personality all over again.”
-female student, University of Jordan, Jordan

“The Soliya program was phenomenal in terms of its impact on the students’ capacity to engage, learn, and quite frankly, be transformed […] Across the board, all of the students displayed a heightened consciousness of the diversity and multiplicity of perspectives. […] the aim is to open up minds and spur young people to taking their responsibilities as global citizens more seriously”
-Dr. Junaid S. Ahmad, Lahore University of Management Sciences, Pakistan

But Soliya aren’t stopping there. The Connect Program has created a pool of potential influencers in day-to-day life, which is hugely important. Many transformative moments happen in daily interactions, during conversations over the kitchen table. Every participant in the Connect Program is already changing the world. But Soliya wants to make some of these influencers catalytic at a larger scale. From among the brightest participants in the Connect Program, the organization selects a few for a fellowship program. Soliya Fellows use their new found understanding of the importance of cross-cultural dialogue to create “civil media” that amplifies positive messages. They also work with civil society organizations to identify specific issues of popular concern and organize “public squares” – online dialogues that address these issues constructively.

There’s not much on the Soliya website about the achievements of Fellows to date – it may be to early to report. Still, it’s exciting to see an organization that is serious about using  new media to give positive influencers a greater voice in society. I’ve written before about the importance of providing alternative narratives in peacebuilding, and how technology can help this process. To my eyes, Soliya’s approach follows the same logic, but is broader and potentially more revolutionary.

Many thanks to Heidi Rosbe for introducing me to Soliya and encouraging me to apply to become a facilitator. I just graduated from Soliya’s facilitator training, and will hopefully start facilitating this coming semester. I’m excited. I know already that it will be humbling to spend (online) time with young people as they come into contact with each other, come to new understandings. And remind us: this can still happen anywhere, not everything is lost.

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