America's Unofficial Ambassadors

We work at the grassroots level throughout the Muslim World to counter violent extremism before it takes hold, to promote tolerance and understanding, and to foster better relations with the United States.

Leadership, Service, and Activism in Grand Rapids, Minnesota

Educator Eric Northard discusses how School-2-School has increased student-led activism within the Grand Rapids Community. Read on to learn more! 

Eric teaching 3_Gillen_June 2016

It is hard to believe that over a year has passed since we started a digital exchange with students and staff at the Sidi Moumen Cultural Center in Sidi Moumen, a neighborhood on the outskirts of Casablanca, Morocco. I do not doubt the tangible benefits this exchange has for our students and for the young people in Sidi Moumen.

Although there has been great success in student-to-student involvement, our most demanding challenge is maintaining digital contact. This difficulty arose partly due to changes in staff and fluctuating numbers of student participants; however, this issue was worsened due to technical barriers. Different voice and video communications, such as Skype, were shut down in Morocco for several months. Despite these operational challenges, our students’ enthusiasm has not wavered.

Thankfully, this digitally-connected generation found other ways to keep abreast of their distant friends and create lasting connections through Facebook, Snapchat and Instagram. Our students were pleasantly surprised to learn that their Moroccan peers are just as concerned as they are about keeping digitally connected and maintaining social media presences. They bonded over topics such as sports, shopping, fashion, and music. My students were really impressed that Moroccan students like a lot of the same music and pop culture that they do! As our students learned about the daily lives, aspirations, and challenges of their peers in Sidi Moumen, they often discussed how they could interact with members of their respective communities to make a difference.

The School-2-School (S2S) program has sparked student-led leadership, service, and activism in the Grand Rapids community. We recently worked with the Grand Rapids High School (GRHS) “Future Farmers of America” chapter to design and plant a pollinator and rain garden in a local park. The GRHS Interact Club, which includes nearly all of our student participants in the S2S Program, took the lead in raising funds and procuring the necessary permissions for the project. The Interact Club also led fundraising for the S2S program, and collected backpacks, new books, games, and school supplies to send to the Sidi Moumen Cultural Center.

What I am most proud of is how the S2S program has helped our students develop strong voices for global awareness in our community. They have enthusiastically become involved in several community venues, promoting the program and the expansion of global engagement. Our students were the featured speakers at both local Rotary Clubs, they participated and set up booths at Rotary District Conferences for the past two years, and sold coffee to raise funds for global service projects. Student participants in the S2S Program also comprised the first-ever GRHS teams to participate in the Minnesota Global Challenge sponsored by the Minnesota International Center. Furthermore, they were honored guests at a reception and luncheon with the Moroccan Ambassador to the United States. These activities have been well-publicized in our community, causing increased awareness for global literacy programs at GRHS.  As a result of their work, our GRHS students were invited to participate in the “Grand Gathering”, a Grand Rapids Area Community Foundation sponsored forum that gathers voices from across the community to identify community needs. Several of our S2S participants took the lead in facilitating sub-groups at the Grand Gathering, providing their own reports on improving their community.

A year and some months ago when the S2S partnership began, it was hard to see exactly where it would take us. I am amazed at the growth and leadership that has emerged in our students— most of whom are 10th graders now. They have developed a cohesive bond with each other and a strong desire to share more with their Moroccan peers. Their positive energy has been well received by GRHS and the community; they have been nothing less than excellent “ambassadors” for the S2S program, generating continual global engagement.  Participation in S2S has been a key part of motivating my students and I to think outside the box when we are developing interactions with people of good will across the globe.

I am extremely excited, as well as a bit nervous, because tomorrow I leave for Morocco, embarking on the next stage our S2S partnership has to offer. I feel fortunate and thankful that I will have this opportunity to visit Morocco and be a part of the Sidi Moumen community. I am sure that our friends in Sidi Moumen will be excellent hosts. Their openness, and desire to engage, mirrors that of my GRHS students, providing an established foundation that will certainly expand our partnership.


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This entry was posted on June 2, 2016 by in Volunteer Related.
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