Pan-Africa Program an Example of Excellence
by George Wolfe
Twice this year, Ball State University has hosted an exceptional program for students from African countries to visit and study in the United States. Entitled the “Pan-Africa Youth Leadership Exchange Program,” it is sponsored by Meridian International Center, a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization based in Washington D. C. that is funded by grants from the U.S. Department of State.
The students stay in the United States for roughly three weeks and are hosted in private homes by families in Muncie, Anderson and other nearby cities. They come from English and French speaking African countries and are mostly from Islamic and Christian families.
According to Nick Sabato, Associate Director of the Center for International Development, Ball State University provides the core academic component for this Pan Africa student exchange. The focus of the workshop is social entrepreneurship and community development, and each participant creates an “action plan” to create lasting change in their local communities. The university was approached directly by the Meridian International Center because of its success with a similar program which brought to the U.S. students from Iraq.
Lecture topics covered during the three-week program include volunteering, the responsibilities of citizens in a democracy, leadership and collective problem-solving, and interactive training in conflict resolution.
For each visit, I have been asked to give a presentation on behalf of the Ball State University Center for Peace and Conflict Studies entitled “Achieving Harmony between Religious and Ethnic Groups: Strategies for Inter-religious Dialog.” This presentation begins by defining peace, not as a static state or condition, but as an unfolding process. Peace should be viewed as a means to building relationships of cooperation, trust and mutual respect. The focus of these relationships should then be directed toward mediating and addressing social and environmental problems.
As my presentation progresses, I list and explain several common themes and symbols that the great religions share. These themes include humility, charity, forgiveness, pilgrimage, nonviolence, respecting one’s elders and service to the community.
The students are then asked to focus on wisdom teachings, such as the golden rule, that they may have learned from their own faith tradition or from their family elders. I am always amazed at how enthused and insightful these high-school aged students are when speaking about wisdom teachings they have absorbed from their respective cultures.
The leadership emphasis of this Pan-Africa program challenges the students to take back to their home countries ideas for improving their local communities. A short video produced by an interfaith organization known as the United Religions Initiative explains how they can setup interfaith “Cooperation Circles” for the purpose of organizing community efforts to solve local social and environmental problems.
The Pan-Africa Youth Leadership Exchange Program is one of the most educationally beneficial, well organized and worthwhile peace-building efforts I’ve experienced. Ball State University should be commended for its part in bringing this program to East-Central Indiana. For more information, contact Nick Sabato, Center for International Development, 200 Carmichael Hall, Ball State University, 765-285-2678.
George Wolfe is Professor Emeritus and Coordinator of Outreach Programs for the Ball State University Center for Peace and Conflict Studies. He is also chair of the Muncie Interfaith Fellowship, is a trained mediator, and is the author of The Spiritual Power of Nonviolence: Interfaith Understanding for a Future Without War.