World Wide Waves

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Twenty-five hundred peace activists have crowded into an auditorium in The Hague, and in the first seat of the first row sits 18-year-old Rocio Silverio. With her hair in a ponytail, she dons the two-way headset of a stagehand and confidently hoists a cardboard sign announcing “TIME.” Her job this morning is to monitor the speakers–Nobel laureates, international dignitaries and celebrities–and keep them within their allotted eight minutes.

It is a formidable task for a high school senior. Silverio, however, seems undaunted as she signals to halt the Netherlands’ Minister for Foreign Affairs, the secretary general of Amnesty International, and actor Peter Ustinov. But her frustration creeps in when UNESCO’s Federico Mayor ignores her waving sign.

“The director-general won’t stop,” she whispers into the mike of her headset. “He won’t look at me!”

The other two dozen dignitaries onstage can’t help but notice. When Desmond Tutu laughs in sympathy, her brown eyes dance as she squeals, “Desmond Tutu just smiled at me!”

So began The Hague Appeal for Peace for Silverio, who attended May’s four-day conference with seven other students representing the Manhattan-based youth organization Global Kids. It was worlds away from her Bronx home in University Heights. After the plenary session, the pace quickened: When not speaking on panels or leading workshops, Silverio and her companions attended sessions about peace for Cyprus and child soldiers in Sierra Leone. They crowded into Indonesian and Italian restaurants, discovered other young activists from Colombia and Ghana, and rushed to a screening of a fellow Global Kid’s video interviewing Serbian teens.

Along with the fun came a somber realization for Silverio. “No matter how much I read about conflict, I’ve never been through a war or that kind of active persecution,” she says. “At The Hague, I was hit hard by meeting these people who had.”

Global Kids started 10 years ago, after educator and peace activist Carole Artigiani kept hearing students say they were curious about international issues. For her, it was a wake-up call. “Being good global citizens and good local citizens are the same,” she says. “It’s commitment to community.”

That philosophy has guided Global Kids’ participants as they recognize that the problems they see in their neighborhoods–homelessness, poor health care, labor exploitation, racial tension, gun violence–are also found in most neighborhoods of the world. By helping these students deal with the conflicts they face, whether down the street or halfway across the world, Global Kids is helping them develop confidence that they can help resolve them–as both local citizens and future international leaders. Their organization’s foundation funders share that faith, putting up the money to send the teens to Croatia, Northern Ireland and other hot spots.

“These are the kids for whom social policy is usually made,” says Artigiani, the organization’s executive director. “We want to turn that around so they are the ones shaping policy.”

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The students who gravitate to Global Kids aren’t recruited from tweedy prep schools or graduate programs named after their donors–the traditional breeding grounds for international careers. They are city teens from New York’s public schools. Their interest in international affairs is often personal: Most of the 175 participants in Global Kids’ leadership training program have international backgrounds, so many are already bilingual and steeped in more than one culture. (Silverio’s parents, for example, came from the Dominican Republic.) The program also reaches about 600 other students each week through global studies workshops.

The leaders-in-training generally heard about Global Kids through the workshops, youth conferences or word of mouth. They’re an ambitious, self-selected group–of the dozens of students who saw a Global Kids presentation at Onassis High School, which specializes in international business, only Silverio signed up.

On a recent Tuesday, Silverio and a dozen other students arrived at Global Kids’ cramped Soho office for the weekly meeting of the Human Rights Group. Other themed working groups meet regularly, too. Monday is the Labor Project, while Friday is Peer Leadership Training. For Human Rights, they watch a video about inmates who were wrongly sentenced to death row. “What are we supposed to see here?” asks someone as they move their chairs toward the monitor. “I don’t want to say anything,” responds staffer Peter Wilson, who, in jeans, T-shirt and shoulder-length dreads, doesn’t look much older than the students. “I want you to form your own opinions.”

Wilson’s edict runs deep at Global Kids: Students need to develop their own ideas to help them evolve as thinking leaders. The first step in that direction, they find, is structuring their own program. After signing up, participants have few formal obligations. But if they stay with the program, and most do, they find themselves in a fast-paced arena in which the staff helps them develop public speaking and organizing skills. For the past three years, a series of frequent roundtable discussions at the Council on Foreign Relations, the New York-based think tank, has given about 20 students a year a chance to get involved, participating in ongoing conversations with council staff about such heady issues as the United States’ relationship with China and the role of the media in shaping opinion about international relations. It’s the only educational forum the council sponsors for nonmembers.

Important as the talking is, it’s with “social action projects” that Global Kids makes a global impact. In August 1997 four students spent 10 days in Croatia with 40 teens displaced by war in the Balkans. The New Yorkers conducted workshops about bridging differences, building coalitions, participating in democracy and resolving conflicts–all issues that they had dealt with in their own communities. Siva Persad, who learned video production through Global Kids and used it on the Croatia trip as well as a previous journey to Northern Ireland, says it made him proud to help the Bosnian youth realize that “they have the right to say anything they want and to say it freely.”

The following year, representatives from the Croatian youth center visited New York to learn Global Kids’ interactive exercises, designed to get the students talking. One is the “human scavenger hunt”: A group of participants might be asked to find a fellow player who lives in a country that has been at war, or who has parents of different ethnic backgrounds. While they circulate around the room, they are forced to talk intimately with each other about their personal experiences. Another drill is the “human barometer,” in which a moderator makes a provocative statement–such as “Young people have nothing to contribute to world peace”–and asks students who agree to move to one side of the room and those who disagree to go to the other. Once clustered, participants explain their positions, free of interruptions or attacks on their views. By this May, the Croatians had established programs similar to Global Kids in four schools, and 18 teens were learning how to reach their peers the same way their New York counterparts did.

Before his trip, says Persad, who grew up in Washington Heights, he “didn’t understand why Bosnians, Serbs and Croats fought against each other. I thought racism was black and white.” But experiences like his, and how they changed his ideas about his own environment, are at the heart of Global Kids’ reason for being. “When young people gain insight into what is happening internationally, they gain insight and broader perspective on issues confronting their own community,” says Evie Hantzopoulos, the program’s deputy director.

Even leaving their own neighborhoods can be transformative. Silverio recalls that one of the strangest trips she took was the first time she went to the Global Kids office, just 45 minutes away from home. She had never been to Soho before. “I was shocked,” she says. “I thought, ‘Okay, where am I?'” For the most part, when the students join Global Kids, college is a place others went. But by the time they’re done with high school, more than 85 percent of Global Kids students go on to higher education, some on a leadership skills scholarship established for them at New Jersey’s Ramapo College.

By the time Silverio graduated from high school in June, she had participated in two trips abroad. The 1996 United Nations conference on sustainable development, held in Istanbul, subsequently led to a Global Kids project on homelessness. Silverio read to youngsters in women’s shelters, and worked on a handbook about homelessness in New York City. She has been a regular at the council’s roundtables, did an internship at Human Rights Watch, moderated a panel at this spring’s Global Kids conference on Human Rights, and, last spring, received the Urban Hero Award from the Catalogue for Giving. Then there was The Hague.

As she packs for Ramapo’s summer orientation, Silverio proposes that her Global Kids experience will likely lead her to work for peace in an international arena. For now, she intends to do that through education. “When you have this energy and are willing to stand for one cause, it gives you the sense you can do it,” she says. “To work on social change is not a part-time job. You have to give of yourself.”

As for Global Kids, she intends to participate as an alumna. “Global Kids was my first school,” she says. “They make us think.”

Phyllis Vine is a historian and freelance journalist.