Sunday, July 11, 2010

Seeds of Peace shout-out!

Seeds of Peace, the fantastic people-to-people diplomacy organization I started working for three years ago, is always working to improve its regional efforts to bring young people from different sides of their conflicts together. This summer they encouraged seeds (young people who have attended the Seeds of Peace international conflict resolution camp in Maine) to seek out leaders in their communities. They also honored me and YALA Peace's young leaders with this shout-out!

What didn't exist.

"Any intelligent fool can make things bigger, more complex, and more violent. It takes a touch of genius -- and a lot of courage -- to move in the opposite direction."

-Albert Einstein

In this past year, YALA Peace came into existence. And with a touch of genius and a lot of courage, they made the connections between each other closer, easier, and more peaceful.

They expanded their worlds while making the world a smaller, more connected place. They moved to that fantastic spontaneous music of the heart: they moved themselves and me.

They moved in the opposite direction.

One of the last times I guided the YALA stars as they mentored younger children in an arts workshop, they painted on photos and magazine pictures. They created multi-dimensional collages with oil pastels on photographs. They let the existing pictures spark their imagination, and then filled in what was missing: they invented what didn't exist yet in the spaces that opened up.

Spaces always open when you look for them with intention. With this comes the power of awareness that we are all creators. The expressive freedom young people are known for is so powerful. People often ask me how 13 year olds can really make a change in their communities. Einstein also said, "Common sense is the collection of prejudices acquired by age eighteen." Armed with imagination and open spaces, the YALA Peace girls are creatively filling in the areas that are yet to be drawn.

Young Artistic Leaders Association for Peace.

They are creators, artists, and leaders, all the while working for peace. Yes, the conflict in this region is massive. But as everyone makes things bigger, more complex, and more violent, we can also take a closer look at the gaps in between. Make the holes bigger with doubt: question and open ourselves. Fill the spaces in a new way, cross the gaps, cross the bridges to the others.

Saturday, June 19, 2010

Hip hop don't stop

YALA Peace is getting down, people.

Free-styling to hip hop beats and living the motto:


! ! !

Last week the YALA Peace stars rounded up some younger boys and I taught everyone some hip hop dance moves.

We even were joined by 3 cool kids who organized a trip from their school in California to learn about peace and young people in the Middle East.

When YALA star Princess started filming, the attitude got bumped up.

In honor of the heights we've achieved in self-expression, YALA Peace presents their music video: LOW

Sunday, June 6, 2010


"And finally the day will come when the risk it takes to remain tight in the bud will be more painful than the risk it takes to blossom."
-Anais Nin

A quick note on flowers and YALA Peace:

flowers come up in our workshops and our creative work often.

They are symbols, for peace and for love, for spring and for renewal.

We give them as gifts, we express love through them.

When we talk about our growth, we say, "we bloom, we blossom."

And we ARE blooming and blossoming -

the YALA Peace stars have been encouraged all year to open their minds and hearts and honor their creative growth, and with that nurturing push, they are now encouraging that freedom and expansion to the eager little children who come, more and more of them every week, to drink in the fresh water and sunshine of free expression that we shower on them.

We are all thirsty for it.

And now the YALA Peace flowers are wildly overgrowing their boxed gardens, and taking risk after risk to bloom all over the place.

Keep your eyes out for these wildflowers, beautiful beyond belief.

For the Mothers

Different days around the world are singled out to honor Mothers. In America, that day falls in May, and at the Arab-Jewish Community Center's American Corner, that day fell on a workshop.

To specifically mark one day a year to honor Mothers is a little bit crazy -

one day to the person who gave us life, L I F E !

And who shaped us with love, and who can be our grandest hero, our challenger and most loyal friend for life.

Really, I feel every moment is reserved to live in a way to honor the woman who gave you life.

Anyhow, it was a good excuse to make presents for these indescribable forces in our lives. (And if not for a mother, then for another important person in our lives.)

Everyone loves their mother and wanted to make something cool. The YALA Peace leaders wanted to show the kids how to create something special and interesting instead of a traditional boring card. Each child wanted to give their mother something beautiful, like flowers. So we decided to make our own flower sculptures out of colored clay.

The kids sculpted intricate flowers with many petals out of the soft clay, colored like paradise birds and exotic fruits. Each child concentrated fiercely, some adding details like miniature thorns along the stems and some whimsically dusting their handmade botany with golden glitter. One of the boys asked for paper on which to mount his sculpture, and then proceeded to paint an idyllic landscape of grassy hills and blue sky, adding clay birds to the mixed-media piece.

Each sculpture was unique and of great importance to the creator. They handled their work with delicate care and respect for what they had worked hard to produce with their own hands. The small children cherished the ability to make something complex and beautiful with the help and attention from their YALA mentors.

The pride in the room was contagious, and the energy was high. Soon golden glitter was fluttering and sparkling through the air, making its mark on everyone's face. I hope the mothers saw the concentrated intention behind their children's sculpture gifts, the glittering love, and not only the gold glitter so difficult to rub off their children.

We left a trace of magic behind in that room.

Sunday, May 16, 2010



It's exciting.

Newness, just by being new, brings new life. A new spark. Surprises.

What is more new than creating something that hasn't existed before?

Than meeting a new person, than making a new connection?

The YALA Peace girls are starting to guide younger kids in the kind of creative leadership and peace-building work that they were introduced to and that they fell in love with this past year. Taking it to the younger kids will be new. They will have to see them in a new way.

These children may be small, but they are all individual people with their own minds, anxieties, gifts, experiences, futures, loves, dreams...

The girls are now connecting with these children, helping them to create something new.

And all that newness brings...

They are creating new works of art, experiences, dances, encounters, community... and together, they are all making a bigger connection and creation.

Before the first mentor meeting, I invited the YALA girls for a special brainstorming meeting. They told me what creative areas they felt most excited about leading, and we revised our past activities to be used with younger kids. The YALA stars lit up to be working with me as partners, to be in it together. They took to the new responsibility like birds to the sky!

We decided together what to do with the children to help them open up, be creative without feeling limited, and to bond. They decided to create balloon faces.

We set up a colorful and exciting table and the girls set to work making balloon faces of their own to intrigue the kids at the American Corner, who usually get homework help from a few volunteers or play on the computers. The kids quietly and curiously came to see what we were doing. We invited them to sit with us and surprised them by banging our hands on the tables, smiling at the kids and gesturing to them to join, until everyone was making noise and feeling free and fun. This has become a tradition at the start of every mentor meeting. Then I quickly hold up my hands and everyone stops and we shout our names out in a circle. This soothes the restless kids and makes them laugh and feel comfortable. As we hold these mentor meetings at the Community Center's American Corner (with funding for materials coming from the Arab Jewish Community Center), the girls speak English, but then translate in Hebrew and Arabic if the kids don't understand.

At this first meeting, the YALA stars helped the children fill the room with colorful balloons. Everyone quickly became deeply engaged in making their little characters - balloons with goggly eyes and pipe cleaner glasses and motorcycle sticker earrings and red lipstick and mustaches and unibrows and so much life in their faces!

The YALA leaders took on an authoritative and comforting role so that the kids were clamoring for their help and opinions. By the end, the room was filled with different colored balloon faces, characters were born out of all the limitless creativity, little children were running around hugging YALA stars and the new leaders were beaming with pride and connection.

One of the small children, an inquisitive and bright little star named Sara, asked her new YALA mentors to contribute a drawing to a poster that she could hang in her room. As each person painted something, little Sara complimented them on what they had contributed and the YALA mentors praised Sara and showered love on her so that the room was shimmering with reflective light and colorful balloon faces and newness.

Friday, May 14, 2010

Takes One to Know One

When I helped each YALA Peace girl set up her own blog, I encouraged them to write every week. I sent them inspirational ideas like writing compliments on little pieces of paper and leaving them around school for people to find, and then writing about the experience in the blog. I told them to think of it as a daily journal, as a sketch of everyday life, as a place to observe their thoughts and growth...

I couldn't wait to read what they had to say - but everyone didn't write. What everyone DID do was change their photos multiple times, to blond American pop stars and sometimes a picture of the movie star who plays a vampire.

I wondered why these kids didn't put their own pictures or thoughts on their blogs, but kept returning to these celebrities they love. Didn't they see how cool and interesting they are themselves?

Then it came to me: "It takes one to know one."

Every time we love something in someone, we must have some of it in ourselves in order to recognize it and prize it.

Suddenly I knew what I had to share with my YALA stars.

Inspired the brilliant psychological work of Debbie Ford, I planned what I would do at the next project meeting. Ford emphasizes that what we can't stand in other people acts as a mirror for our own dark parts, the shadows, that we don't like to see in ourselves. The same goes for our light: the light we have within, we can see shining out of others. We recognize this light outside of ourselves and allow ourselves to shower all our love and adoration on these others. When we recognize our own light, we can harness it and turn those amazing qualities into true leadership, manifesting all our intentions and dreams into the world with confidence and completeness.

I arrived with a secretive smile, anticipating the reaction after my kids did this work. They sensed the mystery and got very excited. We decided to sit closer to the sea than usual, and a magic wind arrived to fill the sweet silence.

I had each girl think of someone she admires, someone she finds simply amazing.

They visualized this person, and let their minds focus on what they love so much about them. Then I asked them to write 5 qualities that they respect and love in this person.

They decorated these pages: made them beautiful to represent this person they find incredible. Some chose famous musicians, some chose their mothers or fathers, some chose friends. They could share or keep their lists private.

After each page had been carefully written and lovingly decorated, honoring the person and the qualities they admired most, it was time for the surprise...

I asked them to put themselves in the place of their favorite person. Don't even think yet about what it means, I told them -simply replace your name for the person you chose.

So if someone wrote, "Avril Lavigne is sweet to all her fans and they all love her back", I had them write: "I am sweet to all my fans (friends) and they all love me back." If someone wrote, "My dad is always seeing the best in people", I had them say out loud, "I am always seeing the best in people."

Whoever wanted to share said a sentence like this out loud. I had them think for a minute how the sentences they just made about themselves could be really true, as true as for the person they initially wrote about.

One by one, each girl lit up as it dawned on them: there WAS truth in each loving sentence with their name in it!

They were suddenly flying with laughs and happiness.

To honor the best in each Yala star, i wanted to show them how to honor THEMSELVES. This is more important than any outside critic or fan. Honor yourself, I taught them, and you will see even more light in others.

Because, after all, it takes one to know one.

These new leaders are building crucial confidence in their real star qualities, and finding that they can generously see starry light in others and connect with them and bring it out so that all can shine.

This leads us to the next stage in the YALA Peace program: YALA stars mentoring younger children at the Arab Jewish Community Center's American Corner, and imparting their leadership training onto them. Once a week, each girl will direct and lead her own workshop with younger kids. Sometimes they will lead special workshops in pairs, and draw from activities and exercises I have introduced to them throughout the year, using our paints, music, and cameras. Each girl will decide what creative experience she wants to share, and it will be her chance to independently guide younger kids towards the self-expressive confidence she herself has attained.

To congratulate the girls before the start of their new and exciting work, I presented each YALA star with a rose.

They felt like royalty and ran to the sea shore to collect beautiful washed soft glass and stones shaped like hearts.

With pastels they wrote messages on the grey stones and folded up their messages of admiration to give to their intended recipients. These kids are like the colorful washed glass we keep finding by the sea - becoming more beautiful with their new experiences, transforming and letting the light shine through.

At the end, they had new light in their faces.

Sunday, March 21, 2010


"Spring Sprung"

-by Ed Ruscha (baby ben clock mainspring on photography)

“Ever since happiness heard your name, it has been running through the streets trying to find you.”

-Hafiz the Persian poet

Saturday, March 20, 2010

Happy Persian New Year!

Today is the Persian New Year, a time to celebrate spring and all that comes with it!





new life


A few days before, you jump over a fire and give it your darkness, and take from it light.

At the end of the celebrations, you take all the things that were on a special table to represent spring, like apples, and throw them in the sea.

Last year I also thought about what quality from the water I wanted to take, and what I wanted to give to it:

peace, and the quality of always moving and changing while being strong and being itself.

every time YALA Peace stars enter a meeting, i want them to feel renewed: maybe at first shaken, but with balance, and perpetually blossoming like spring.

in this land in turmoil with Persia, even with so many Persians here and over there yearning for true friendship, this year I wish for the sea nearby, the sea we look at from the community center of our meetings, to give us all the qualities of the water.

Let us be spring-showered with this renewal, to bloom with peace like flowers at the top of a hill . . .

Family Connections and Traditions

The YALA Peace girls each have that unmistakable star quality of natural leaders.

Coming from underprivileged circumstances will not dull their stellar ambitions and abilities to better themselves, their communities in Tel Aviv-Jaffa, and the larger community of the world.

Although none of these girls can rely on nepotism (or want to), we do have a celebrity connection in our midst.

Someone in our group is directly related to the creator of the BEST HUMMUS SPOT IN THE WORLD.

At the top of a tiny uphill alley in Jaffa stands Abu Hassan's hummus joint, where one can find the most delicious bowl of simple, perfect hummus.

It is so good, you have to make it there before noon when it runs out.

The recipe is an old family secret, passed on from generation to generation. Maybe we can get the owner's niece (a YALA Peace girl) to share the love.

In the Aboriginal tradition, at YALA Peace we haven't celebrated the girls' birthdays (none of the meeting dates have fallen on any of the girls' birthdays yet.)

However, like the Aborigines, we declare to the others when we feel we have accomplished growth to be celebrated. So every few months, after moving to a new level of trust, creativity, and self-growth, I take the YALA Peace girls out to celebrate.

The time is coming to honor this tradition again...

They always want to go to Max Brenner, a chocolate heaven.

Just look at this irresistible, decadent description from a menu:

"Spy-thriller chocolate Black Forest cake, covered with Alpine whipped cream and cherry, the German double agent on top."

(cake painting by Wayne Thiebaud)

The every-person's food in the mideast, hummus has a beautiful symbolic power.

But apparently, love for chocolate is a more universal power. So let's celebrate the connections and oneness beyond what we were born into!

Thursday, March 18, 2010

The Modern Age

Exciting news: at our last meeting, each of the YALA Peace stars designed her own blog.

They will soon start posting ideas, photos, artwork, and whatever else they want to share! When they feel ready, I will share their individual blogs here.

Most of these kids are familiar with online gaming, internet surfing, and social networking sites. On facebook they can post links, pictures, and notes to share their thoughts. However, there the girls have a persona to maintain, peers to appease, and families to please. They enjoy the online culture they share with their friends, but it does not encourage their individual expression free from judgement, obligations, or expectations.

These YALA blogs will be a new way to use their imaginative powers, to honor their unique thoughts and styles. If they don't want to share the blog links, they don't have to. They can express themselves freely without anyone watching until they want to share.

They already have a small, ready-made accepting audience in the other YALA Peace girls. We are becoming a close community of creative individuals. They know that what they write on their YALA blogs will be valued by us.

It is a thrilling, modern public-speaking task, to bravely publish your thoughts online for anyone to access! These girls have a lot to say, but not always the words or even the English to say it in. They will try, but there is a shyness to overcome.

When we discussed the idea of designing individual blogs, everyone was shouting out their ideas and their favorite colors to use. As we started setting up blog usernames and passwords, they started getting nervous: "What will I write?", they asked me suddenly. "Probably I will forget how to do this later," I heard someone say to herself.

So then I thought - ok, maybe this isn't a good idea, maybe they're not really interested. But then one of the girls, Mirage, looked at me and said. "What if I can't sign in? Maybe it won't work if you're not here." And then it was so clear - she wanted to do it. They all wanted to do it.

Maybe we have all been taught not to get too excited about new experiences. We aren't sure what will happen, so we try not to get our hopes up. We think we are preparing ourselves, but we are actually numbing ourselves to those magnificent possibilities that breeze in through open windows.

When we try something new, when we put ourselves out there, it can feel better to announce to everyone before they get any funny ideas that we know this probably won't work. That we have nothing to say, so that when we say it, nobody is waiting eagerly to judge us. When some of the girls said they weren't sure what to do with their blogs, I had to hear beyond to what their beautiful 13-year-old eyes were saying: those eyes were utterly betraying their natural curiosity, adventurous spirits, and spontaneous expression...

I hope we will all overcome those moments of false limitations the same way these girls are already bravely doing. It's not that our insecurities are false - they really did feel anxious that they might have nothing to write. But they do have things to write. I want to mark this in them deeply so that one day, when someone says, "But what would you write?", they will laugh and reply, "What do you mean? Anything I want!"

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Being Artists

I love to introduce the YALA Peace girls to different art forms; maybe they will simply enjoy experiencing all the new things we touch on, or maybe they will get exposed to a medium that speaks naturally to them and then surf that discovery on and on like a wild wave. Who knows how far these blooming seeds will go?

We all have creative energy that can be channeled into honoring our ideas and basking in different forms of art.

"Let the beauty we love be what we do. There are hundreds of ways to kneel and kiss the ground."

Whatever way you choose, look into yourself and make space for ideas. Take your ideas and make them real. One of the most elegant things about painting is you simply take a vision from your mind's process and make it something tangible, able to be experienced by you and others who see it. The same goes for making music, moving your body in dance, capturing a photograph, writing a story, and any other form of creativity in action.

Being passive clouds your creative sky, and blocks the light from nurturing your courage to take your ideas far. I want these girls to see another option inside themselves at all times, something that will always be worth their attention: their unique, creative self-expression and exploration.

They can turn to their minds, their notebooks, their cameras when they are unsatisfied with the daily passive intake of television, roaming the internet, and dutifully sitting quietly as they are expected to. A strong wind of inspiration can blow through their minds at any time, and I want to give them the tools to value and record these infinitely interesting thoughts. Authentic spontaneous creative experimentation reaches out to the explorer within us all.

A straightforward, pragmatic article in the Washington Post points out that arts education is so significant, we cannot consider it a mere luxury.


While I find the article simplistic, I absolutely agree that passive activities "encourage conformity", and that the arts "offer that sense of agency, of creation."

In this volatile region, where progress between two peoples of conflicting narratives looks like a silent film in slow motion, these girls have the power to break from conformity, to use their analytical and empathetic minds, to honor creativity in themselves and each other, and to harness their agency and create change. They are already living differently, doing something different, every time we meet.

Mask project

The mask project inspired the kind of stirring inner reflection and beautiful expression that YALA Peace is all about.

I gave the girls blank theatrical masks and we took some time to try them on, look around the circle at the hidden blank faces, and feel wild inside of our protective covering. We talked about what it felt like to be behind the mask, the thrilling moment of being able to do whatever you want behind it, and then the frustration of not being able to show yourself, your nuanced and multilayered self, behind one stiff mask. We talked about the masks we wear, the different personas we present in different environments of our daily lives: at school, at home. We even talked about the larger masks we present as an identity throughout our lives: child, daughter, good...

One of the girls, Yara, described her daily mask and her inner self as "white and black" - polar opposites, the outside tight and the inside wild, as she gestured with her hands chaotically. She used words to describe her inner self like "free" and "scream".

We did a free-write and then each girl painted her mask. Using watercolors, they also painted explorative abstract pieces to represent their true selves.

The pieces they created are stunning:

YALA Peace at work

Here are some things we've done so far at our meetings, and at the end, a few things on our agenda:

-dream sharing, literal and life dreams
-nightmares and fears, write and draw them and then rip them up
-abstract watercolor paintings of our inner selves
-landscape and portrait photography

-mask painting
-self and partner portraits
-discussion of strength and female identity

-language discussion: multilingual frustrations and benefits
-jewelry design
-what is beauty? inside and out
-makeovers, inside and out
-60 second free-writes
-history of your name

-family tree
-hebrew and arabic lessons
-school stress and the need for an energy outlet
-success and achievement
-group support silent compliment exercise

-family story interviews
-mixed-media illustration
-documentary videos
-music videos
-cultural identity and music tradition sharing
-cultural dance and free dance
-memory of the conflict drawings
-mirroring and role-play
-improv comedy

Monday, March 15, 2010


At the very first meeting, I brought all the girls a simple gold bangle so that everyone could have something in common right away, and to make them feel part of something special. It is important that they know YALA Peace is theirs, that it is their place to shine together and take that light out of the workshops every day. Also, they all love bracelets.

For a jewelry-making workshop, I brought the girls little blue, turquoise, red, and gold beads to make necklaces and bracelets with. When I was younger, I was always told to make presents for other people. And there is a deep joy in giving a present to someone else, especially something you made with your own hands! But I wanted to make it ok to give a present to yourself too, to show self-appreciation, to feel worthy to make a present from you to you! So I also gave them each one silver heart charm, and one golden key charm, so they could make jewelry for themselves and a friend. Most of the girls said they were making something for their mother.

My mother, who leads her own brilliant workshops on parenting in Miami, and is a never-ending spring of inspiration, wrote this to me after coming home from a dance class recently:


"I observed this very friendly 5 year old who dances with all the grown ups (she is named AMELIE after the movie).
she makes all the other normal children look anti-social, but she is totally unaware, she just is that way.
It made me think -
How shy i was at that age with strangers, how many times i had been shamed for every spontaneous uttering.

Amelie's mom takes my workshops, so Amelie comes and gives me hugs. While giving her a hug back, I thought of
sending a hug to the 5 year old me, telling her how amazing she was. How she can reclaim her innocence &
cuteness, now. How it is never too late, to make things right.

Then I had this amazing idea, that we can heal the little ones trapped inside with some desires, by giving that very gift we needed to a living child who needs it.

EXAMPLE: if you had a desire for a coloring set, at age 8, go to a shelter and give one to a child who loves to draw but has no paint.
If at age 13 you wanted a designer dress, or a protector, buy one, become one for a child of that age....
(The caveat is that the child must want it.)"


I was so taken by this, and it stirred in me the same passion that propelled me to make YALA Peace happen - that when I was 13, I would have loved for an older girl to give me a pen and ask me to read out loud whatever I just wrote, to see the beauty in my photographs, to listen to my whole story about my family tree, to tell me I can speak loudly and that we are all beautiful geniuses. I want to give every one of these girls the creative chance to do whatever they always dreamed of, and the vision and confidence in themselves to live largely in every way.

It's not so easy - first of all, I want to sit back and quietly observe exactly what each girl is dreaming of, to know each individual for who she is. Also, some of these girls come from painful homes and situations in which they are subtly oppressed or silenced or sad, and these meetings are a time for them to live lightly and laugh and be 13 years old in the presence of other 13 year old girls. I want to let them just be. Then again, I want them to just be their truest selves, which can shrink when oppressed or tired or sad. So I do my best to lift it out of them, to start that deep belly laugh that I had as a child and still lives in me, coming out so loudly during our meetings. And I love to hear it coming back to me from one of these girls, like jewels.

-a photo of my mother and little me

Dream Sketchbooks

In the first week of the project, the girls were given sketchbooks / dream journals / notebooks to take with them wherever they go.

They all decorated their inside covers and wrote their names, and then the first few pages were filled with drawings from the other girls as they passed their notebooks around.

We use the notebooks in almost every meeting - sometimes I have them write for 60 seconds non-stop on a topic to unleash surprising subconscious thoughts. When we did this free-writing exercise on the subject of "future", words like "businesswoman", "movie star", and "doctor" came out on the same page.

In the most recent free-write, the topic was "the real me" - and these are some of the words that came out of the girls' pages:


Sometimes we listen to music and color abstractly in our sketchbooks to the songs. Someone always brings out their phone and shares a popular American song, and everyone tries to teach me the words at the same time.

Maira Kalman draws the city

Fantastic writer/artist Maira Kalman's impressions of Tel Aviv-Jaffa: