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The Focus on South Asia Peace Conference inspired young people to be peace workers every single day. Conference facilitator Michael Shank reports.

Becoming a Prophet

“You can take as much time as you'd like, Michael. We've got the place reserved until 6pm,” whispered one of the organisers of Focus on South Asia, the peace conference recently held in Lahore, Pakistan for delegates from India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Nepal, Maldives and Bhutan.

He was referring to my opening speech as part of the welcoming ceremony on the first day of the peace conference. I had been asked earlier that day to speak to the participants and now it appeared that I had a full hour to talk with the newly arrived youth from all over South Asia.

I hate the idea of lecturing and try to avoid it at all costs. If I am handed the microphone or asked to deliver a speech behind a podium, I usually step quickly off the stage, ask the audience to sit in the first three rows and then proceed to engage in dialogue rather than speech-delivery. If you have witnessed any of my workshops you'll soon see that I'm a devout believer in learning through interaction, experiential processes, role-playing and questioning.

This welcoming ceremony was no different. I gathered the sprawling bodies and plunked them down in the first three rows, jumped off the stage, kicked off my shoes and engaged with the forty young folks with whom I would be spending a revolutionary and transformational week.

”Who thinks that they are a prophet?” I asked of the participants. A few shy hands were raised but the majority of the conference delegates remained unmoved. “Well, I see then that we have some work to do!” I responded with a smile. These conferences, in my opinion, are about the awakening of one's leadership, peace-making and organising capabilities. I proceeded to explore with them what structures in today's society prevent us from becoming the prophets that we were born to be. The youth readily listed a host of reasons that prevent an evolution into prophet-hood: educational institutions, television, and rampant consumerism.

What if everyone in the world pursued the path of a prophet? Would corporate structures fail? Are not many of our societal systems designed with the understanding that a majority will follow, without asking questions? Are not our schools designed to produce students with the ability to score high on their SAT tests but fail to equip students with good communication and leadership skills, the confidence to question and challenge the system, and the motivation to revolutionise society for the betterment of humankind?

My new friends in the audience thought so. Little did they realize that my time with them that week would be centered on the idea that they were prophets waiting to self-actualise and that this conference was going to begin the awakening (or continue the awakening).

”Why do you think I came to Pakistan to help facilitate this conference?” I inquired, expecting a range of suggestions. “Because you want to inspire us to find our prophet selves” “Because you were asked to come” “Because you know how to do this stuff” - all potentially correct but not the answer I was looking for.

”I came to Focus on South Asia” I interjected, “because I wanted to be inspired by you.” They didn't seem to understand so I continued, “to surround myself with people that are willing to take risks and to discover within themselves a power untapped is hugely inspiring and unceasingly contagious for me.” Even I need to fuel up on this energy periodically.

And so it began. Focus on South Asia kicked off ten days of training and mobilizing for youth from all over the subcontinent; training them in communication, conflict management and arts-based organising skills and mobilising them to initiate peace work effectively in their home communities.

For those who might still be stuck on my earlier comments about emerging into prophet-hood as peace workers, let me assure that it is not a difficult transformation to make. In fact, I addressed this very issue in one of my first workshops with the participants. I asked them to paint what their future looked like as peacemakers while simultaneously quizzing them on their passions, their potential career choices, and how they could work for peace and justice within those realities.

”I'm going to be an architect” shouted one participant, busily painting an abstract yet provocative painting of something seemingly symbolic. (He explained the symbolism later.) “And how can you work for peace and justice as an architect?” I prodded. The lack of response allowed for continued brush work on their canvasses until someone finally responded, prompting several other answers: “By designing buildings for hospitals,” “Building houses for people who can't afford it,” - and this one which I really liked, “Using materials that are recycled!”

Exactly - that is how we ALL can be peace workers every single day of our lives.

But I still haven't addressed the prophet-hood aspect of my earlier statements. Let's first take a poll on the top ten prophets of the last century. Who comes to your mind? Some of you might be thinking about Gandhi or Martin Luther King, Jr. but I'm guessing that the international top ten takes a while to conjure up. I'm guessing that if I'd ask you to list the top ten explorers, serial killers, professional sports players, actors, or musicians that the list would quickly compile itself. In my opinion, we need to do a better job of embracing and empowering people (prophets) to speak the truth, promote peace, and actively work for equality and justice in this world.

How did Focus on South Asia embrace and empower these young prophets? For the sake of brevity, I won't delve into the role-playing sessions on conflict resolution that involved practicing good communication, truth-telling, understanding and respect; or the nightly brainstorming sessions on regional peace initiatives that entrusted the entire work into the hands of a few youth - empowered to implement their own ideas, in their own way, at their own speed. (It's amazing what a little respect will inspire.) What I will touch on is how the delegates learned a new form of activism: arts-based activism.

I think that activism in its traditional form (letter-writing, protests, vigils, phone calls) while necessary, is failing to do its job in reaching the inactive mainstream community. The media in the US simply isn't covering protests anymore. Now there are several reasons for that (including a corporate-controlled media that loves censoring) but I would suggest we start thinking of creative alternatives. This conference addressed that very issue.

The peace initiatives they'd already planned. I couldn't stress enough the value of making “the movement” accessible to many communities. Too often the peace and justice movement is unprofessional, boring and lacking smart approaches. (I can't tell you how frustrated I get with old-fashioned activism in the US and how all my work is now about involving celebrities and their fan-base, designing attractive and hip websites, and using witty and provocative advertising to lure in like-minded but inactive prophets.)

The participants knew exactly what to do - the material they created was witty, charming and fun. Nepal's waste cleanup plan was suddenly transformed into a catchy and provocative rap that quipped “Picking Up, Picking Up, Picking Up - the GARBAGE!” The record studios would've been all over this track had they been there!

It became evident to me throughout the week that I was not teaching anything new to these bold prophets. This conference was more about empowering each other to shine their lights freely, step courageously into this world, and to not rest until freedom comes. The last part of that call to action reflects our theme song of the week (sung frequently in the eight languages represented at the conference): “We who believe in Freedom shall not rest until it comes”.

I think that freedom will indeed come more quickly if all prophets (i.e. all people) become active. What a joyous day that will be!

Michael Shank currently works in the U.S. as the Artistic Director of Barefoot Theatre Group, a political theatre company based in Seattle, and as the Outreach Director for Biodiversity Northwest, an environmental nonprofit working to protect forest ecosystems.