Northern Irish youth support group brings social change model to Israel

A program aiming to heal the Protestant-Catholic rift of Northern Ireland may not be the most obvious model for social change in Israel, yet that is exactly what the organization Public Achievement has recently been promoting. Organization director Paul Smyth and Action Research officer Laura McFall wrapped up a whirlwind week-long tour of Israel and the Palestinian Territories this weekend as part of their involvement in the European Union Community Relations Council's Peace II program, Youth Work in Contested Spaces. Smyth and McFall made specific visits to Ramallah, Haifa, Tel Aviv and Jerusalem to meet with partner organizations and conduct training sessions for them. The organization Public Achievement was initiated in 1999 by a group of educators from Northern Ireland who had encountered a similar project in Minnesota, Public Achievement piloted the program in Northern Ireland with a mission of building democratic communities, specifically between youth, local governments, schools and organizations. Supported by local adult "coaches," Public Achievement provides "a safe place for youth to talk to each other," said Smyth, and tackle problems seen within their communities, such as bullying or underage drinking, through group work and discussion of the issue, as well as social and political divisions that exist within that community. Their model is centered on a five-step process of involved youth picking an issue, planning and doing a project to meaningfully influence society, publicizing the project and then evaluating and celebrating its success. Smyth and McFall's visit to Israel had two primary goals. The first was to support the ongoing work of the YWICS project, particularly through support of volunteer coaches doing Away from Violence, projects with local teenagers aimed at finding non-violent solutions to local social and political unrest. Secondly, they aimed to build consensus around a new proposal to establish a three-year project to build youth leadership networks in Israel and the PA to be submitted to the EU. Smyth is of the firm belief that "violence is the antithesis of democracy," and Public Achievement has a strong commitment to nonviolence and conflict resolution. This quality of their work led them to be ideal candidates for involvement in YWICS. For the past four years, Public Achievement has formed connections in the Balkans, South Africa, the Basque region of Spain and the Middle East, including Israel, Iran, Iraq, Syria and Lebanon. "The Public Achievement model creates a shared vocabulary for participants to talk to 'the enemy' or 'the other' and create shared experience," said Smyth. Rather than project the view of Northern Ireland onto other conflicts, Smyth and McFall bring the model to other regions to build parallel endeavors dealing with the unique conflicts of the area. In the Palestinian territories, for example, at this point men and women cannot be part of the same group, starkly contrasting with Northern Ireland's core value of diversity within the group. Further, all of the coaches in Israel are university students living in the same community where they are coaching; this differs significantly from the program in Northern Ireland, where most coaches are adults living outside the community. Smyth sees value in these differences, as "you can often learn more from other contexts about yourself." He hopes the notion of university-age coaches who live near their groups will translate to his own home project and would like to see Palestinian groups eventually integrate, though he recognizes the risk youth workers may take in conflicted regions such as the PA, for example, when women there lead groups to discuss and take on issues of sexual violence. Public Achievement has formed a particularly strong collaboration with Or Yarok ("Green Light"), an Israeli youth organization aimed at improving road safety. "The model of Public Achievement is to let youth decide and claim life," said Ofir Germanic, head of the Youth and Student Department at Or Yarok. He intends to integrate the Public Achievement model into his newest project, Angels, in which women, perceived as generally less reckless drivers, encourage others - particularly young men - to drive safer. Germanic encourages participants to take the core concept of Angels and run with it, forming groups in every city, to make Israel's roads safer for everyone. "This model is unique to Israel. The traditional model of a youth movement is a project with a theme, and youth play along where there is already an agenda," said Germanic. "I believe that youth are looking for places to be effective and the culture of driving needs to change through the actions of these passionate people [youths]."