Tearing Down Walls: Here's How to Start

Tearing Down Walls: Here's How to Start

'Breakingwalls' ambassadors perform in CapeTown 2014 Courtesy of Fran Tarr

"Mr. Gorbachev, open this gate. Tear down this wall." Those words spoken by President Reagan in 1987 and the iconic image of the Berlin Wall when it came tumbling down two years later, gave rise to the hope that this was the start of something big. Now we know: when one wall comes down, another goes up, maybe hundreds or even thousands of other walls: racial, national, religious, cultural, ideological, political and social walls.

That helpless and hopeless feeling that arises with increasing frequency when considering the present plight of humanity was reflected in a recent segment ofThe Daily Show when our funniest-ever comedic talk show host and political commentator Jon Stewart couldn't find any comic relief at all in the recent news of yet another horrific racist-related shooting, this time in Charleston, South Carolina. As he approaches retirement, I have an increasing sense that perhaps Stewart himself no longer feels that comedy is a sufficient salve for the ills of the world, or what he referred to as what we continue "to do to each other". However, even his sense of despair could not resist the positive effect of sitting and speaking with Malala, that Nobel Prize laureate Voice of Hope. Stewart said to her, "Perhaps we forget that we are much more surrounded by Light..." and I wondered if, given the cloud under which the show began, he even realized that he said that. Such is the effect of hope.

There is that famous phrase from Alexander Pope: "Hope springs eternal in the human heart". In view of international, national and personal crises of every sort and on every scale which we see on the front page every day, I cannot help but come back to this one enduring message: Hope. I often wonder if it is all we have and all we should most cherish. Every day is a new day; do we have time to despair? Katherine Sladden, Campaigns director of Change.org UK, has written here recently: "A Million Micro Movements Will Change the World."

Here is a significant micro movement with a macro message of Hope: "breaking walls" is a non-profit, international creative writing and performance initiative, which empowers youth to discover their voice, and offers them a platform on which to use it. Their extraordinarily inspiring website www.breakingwallsprogram.org and their introductory video illustrates how they support young people to become "creative artists and empathetic leaders of tomorrow". Their founder/director, Fran Tarr, educator, filmmaker and playwright, is a unique source of inspiration, forward thinking, and hope for these youth. Her purpose in 'breaking walls' is to enable disenfranchised teens to "tap their most protected places" and write about it; write, speak and perform. They use writing and theatre as their tools for personal and social change, through sharing their thoughts, words and life experiences

This initiative is the outgrowth of Fran's documentary films bethlehem to brooklyn: breaking the surface (2008) and the award-winningbrooklyn bridges- to bethlehem & back (2010) which tells the story of three inner-city Brooklyn students who travel to Bethlehem to write and share life experiences with the teenagers in the Aida refugee camp. In the process, they discovered the things they all shared in common. Both films, not to be missed, are remarkable monuments to hope and inspiration.

Following this, the group selected Berlin for their first breaking walls initiative because of the symbol of that dismantled Wall. Over nine-days 16 artists from Bethlehem, Brooklyn and Berlin experienced the writing-performing workshop while touring Berlin together. Since then they have evolved from a homegrown Brooklyn initiative to a cohesive international enterprise that aims to positively influence the youth empowerment movement.

Their message is simple: that life is really what you make it; that despite the challenges that they endure day to day, they are hopeful and proud. They choose not to be defeated by the world around them. They focus on four main challenges to youth: social unrest, intolerance, peer pressure, and living life in a "virtual world". And they choose to partner with kids who come of age in conflict, in places like Palestine, Columbia, Detroit. They've found they all share the same hopes and dreams: they all want to get a good education; they all want to take care of and improve the lives of their families; they all want to feel free to live life as best they can. They want to break down stereotypes portrayed in the media. They say: "Get to know us. Before you make any kind of decision about who I am, get to know me. See who I am on the inside." Fran Tarr has dedicated her career to getting to know young people of diverse cultures from the inside and connecting them with each other. A student wrote for her, "Some people put up walls, not to keep others out, but to see who cares enough to break them down".

This July, the artists and "ambassadors" of breaking walls will be going to Barcelona, to open a new "hub" there. They'll be coming from Brooklyn, N.Y., Palestine, Berlin, and Cape Town, where other hubs have already been established in the same way: with a 10-day intensive writing workshop that culminates in a live theatre performance written and produced entirely by the young people, between the ages of 13 and 26. They are passionate about impacting the world with their work, to set an example for how young "strangers" can learn to become family, as a model for the future. Presently, they are raising funds and seeking much needed donations to pay for their air fares and help their initiative to move forward.

In his poem, Mending Walls, Robert Frost wrote, "Something there is that doesn't love a wall..." These honest, resilient, determined, 'breaking walls' ambassadors can tell a troubled world all about that. Today is a good day to hear them. Here's hoping they gain the recognition they so deserve. Hope springs eternal....

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