BPR Interviews: Leslie Lewin

Leslie Lewin is the Executive Director of Seeds of Peace, a leadership development program founded in 1993 committed to developing mutual understanding among high schoolers from opposing sides of conflicts, with a particular emphasis on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Seeds of Peace takes place at Camp in Maine, where hundreds of teenagers and educators across lines of conflict come together to engage with each other. She is also a Term Member at the Council of Foreign Relations, involved in Womensphere, and is a board member at the Country Roads Foundation.  


Can you give a brief overview of Seeds of Peace, its mission, and how the program works?


Seeds of Peace is a leadership development organization working in a few regions around the world to support and invest in social change makers. Our goal is to provide transformational experiences at a young age that can link to societal transformation at an older age. Seeds of Peace might be best known for the summer camp program that we run in the United States each year where we bring together hundreds of people from communities in conflict, primarily the Middle East and South Asia. We also have just launched a new program working with young people in the United States, and we have worked historically in the Balkans and in Cyprus. [Seeds] started as a pretty unique way to bring together young people from opposing sides of conflict who had no opportunities to meet one another to explore the identities and narratives of the other, let alone do so in such a structured, positive, safe environment that encourages dialogue.


Why did Seeds adopt this specific approach dependent on shared experiences among young people?


Camp offers young people the chance to come together at a critical age to engage in conversation and explore narratives that are different from their own in a substantive manner. Dialogue is at the heart of what we do. Seeds of Peace’s approach is very much toward the long term and, through Camp, is an enormous part of what we do; It is only the entry piece and leads to a series of life-long opportunities to build relationships that otherwise wouldn’t exist. We invest in leadership in unique and critical ways to put leaders in communities where they feel needed to address issues in new and pivotal ways. I think our approach for starting with young people is recognizing that they’re at an age that is old enough to be aware, to be able to represent themselves, and to engage in difficult conversations, but young enough to be open minded and to do something with the experiences and understandings that emerge. We do think this is a critical moment in the development of people, and the approach and program structure that we created gives an emphasis on the individual, an emphasis on recognizing and learning from the variety of different stories that make up each one of these conflicts. I don’t think there are many places in this world where people are coming together to talk about the direct impact of living in regions of conflict, talk about feelings, talk about ideas and personal impact and hopes and dreams. It’s very easy to stay home and be surrounded by people that are like-minded and share the same political, religious, and cultural identities as you. The harder thing to do is to surround yourself with people who hold different and challenging views from your own. Our tagline is “courage to lead change,” and I don’t use the word courage lightly because I think a critical part of what we do is create a space for people to come forward and engage in difficult and courageous conversations that can have critical impact [on] the lives of the people in the room.


How does the environment of Camp, including having sports games and activities, contribute to the dialogue?


I think that it is an important hybrid. There’s dialogue, which is a time that you know you are going to have a conversation [that] will likely be difficult, and then there’s time to build relationships and discover humanity in a much less formal setting. Every aspect of Seeds is reinforcing those themes. It’s not surprising that playing soccer or producing a music piece or engaging in a ropes course program is reinforcing some of those same critical components of building communication and trust building for dialogue conversations. Of course the shared living experience is pretty important too, bringing young people to literally sleep next to people that you have had no positive exposure to in your entire life is a pretty dramatic thing to engage in.


How does Seeds measure the success of the programs? What metrics do you use on to measure impact on a larger scale aside from individual impact?


Measuring long term impact is a challenge in the same ways for us as it is for many organizations and nonprofits that are investing in personal and societal transformation, which is not a statistically friendly thing. On a short term basis, we do a lot of work around additional shifts that happen at Camp and can show very strong percentages about the ways that ideas of the “other” and stereotypes are broken down. We’re able to show the shift in attitudes that takes place over the course of the Camp program. On the long-term spectrum, we’re looking at the endeavors, positions, and professions that we see our alumni in. Post-Camp programing is a trajectory to invest in young people who are taking their Seeds of Peace values and relationships into the positions of influence they find themselves in as parents, teachers, journalists, politicians, lawyers, doctors, etc. We’re able to draw a throw line in the way in which they’re doing their work, approaching their communities, and influencing their stakeholders.


In your view, what role can a foreign NGO play in the broader context of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict? How can Seeds have an impact given the general state of intransigence surrounding the conflict?


I think that this is a very tough region and it’s becoming more and more of a difficult political landscape to do this kind of work in. But for me, that only makes it feel more important. I think that we’re creating experiences that feel necessary and missing, regardless of the political situation. In the absence of leadership, it’s not just about signing a peace treaty. It’s something much deeper and more nuanced than that. It’s about creating levels of understanding and tolerance and appreciation that need to be nurtured and invested in.


How can Seeds transcend the a dynamic of conflict in American politics?

I think what’s playing out in our American political system is a complete lack of dialogue. We’re allowing ourselves to become more and more divided which in some ways speaks to the very heart of what we’re trying to do, which is to engage in conversation and allow for various voices to be heard and understood, even if they are incredibly difficult and different and challenging to one and other. In the US we’re missing that crossover so it’s the divisiveness that feels the most scary. I think it reinforces the need for dialogue in whatever way can be applied to the community or the local context. It is also a reason we have grown our work here in the United States, to provide spaces for kids here to engage in the dialogue process about issues surrounding racism, refugees, Islamophobia, anti-Semitism, and economic and educational disparity. These are the kinds of topics that have become so divisive for us. Investing in young people and giving them the tools to have these conversations and be leaders in their communities and cross lines of difference on these topics feels pretty important.


Do you believe peace between Israel and Palestine is possible? How can it be achieved?


Peace means many different things to many different people, and it’s really important to recognize that. Obviously we believe that we are building the conditions for peace so I think that the type of work that Seeds of Peace is engaging in to address change through linking individual transformations to societal transformation in the economic, political and social spheres is important. I think and hope that that is leading us in the right direction and creating the right conditions for peace.