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[PODCAST] The JAMS Foundation and Hands of Peace: Empowering American, Israeli and Palestinian Youth to Be Peacemakers, Agents of Change

A podcast from JAMS featuring David Brandon of The JAMS Foundation and Gretchen Grad and Scott Rasmussen of Hands of Peace, discussing Hands of Peace’s work empowering American, Israeli and Palestinian youth to be agents of change in their communities.

In this podcast, The JAMS Foundation managing director David Brandon introduces the recipient of The JAMS Foundation’s 13th Annual Warren Knight Distinguished Service Award, Hands of Peace. Hands of Peace founder Gretchen Grad and executive director Scott Rasmussen discuss the organization’s mission and their goal of giving American, Israeli and Palestinian youth the skills, experience and motivation to tackle the issues that are important to them in their home countries.

[00:00:00] Moderator: Welcome to this podcast from JAMS. This year, the JAMS Foundation presented its 13th annual Warren Knight Distinguished Service Award to Hands of Peace, along with a $25,000 grant. The award recognized the organization's work to empower American, Israeli and Palestinian youth to become agents of change in their communities.

To talk about that award, as well as the mission and work of Hands of Peace, we have three guests, David Brandon, managing director of the JAMS Foundation, Gretchen Grad, founder of Hands of Peace, and Scott Rasmussen, executive director of Hands of Peace.

David, let's start with you. Tell us a little bit about the history of the Warren Knight Distinguished Service Award.

[00:00:43] David Brandon: Thank you. It's hard to talk about the history of the Warren Knight Award, without including at least a little bit about the history of Warren Knight himself. Warren was the original founder of JAMS, and I was very lucky to have gotten to know and work with him for several years before he died.

He was a long time Superior Court Judge in Orange County, California, sort of a gruff former Marine. But that gruff demeanor sort of belied not only his essential kindness as a person, but also his vision and his commitment to what was then called alternative dispute resolution, mediation, arbitration, and related processes.

But over 40 years ago now, Warren made the then very unusual decision to step down from the bench and to start mediating civil cases in a private office all by himself, except for his dog, Jesse, that sat at his feet under the table. Over time, his pioneering commitment led to JAMS becoming the largest and the most successful commercial dispute resolution company in the world. The JAMS Foundation, which I am proud and incredibly fortunate to be the director of, is JAMS effort to transform some of that professional success and expertise into supporting conflict resolution and peacemaking efforts across the U.S. and around the world.

Warren was the JAMS Foundation's very first chairman, and he was our fearless leader until his passing and the Warren Knight Award was, and is the Foundation's way of honoring Warren by recognizing the work of extraordinary people and organizations that are committed to resolving conflict peacefully and constructively in the communities they serve.

[00:02:15] Moderator: Okay, what about Hands of Peace this year stood out among so many potentially worthy recipients?

[00:02:22] David Brandon: You know, over the years, the JAMS Foundation has awarded its only distinguished service award to a fairly wide range of organizations that work in the dispute resolution field. Sometimes working with kids and young people, others working with adult populations, some operating exclusively within the United States, and others working to address conflict around the world. In some cases they've been involved with governmental policy and others working directly with communities at the grassroots level, and even there at the grassroots level, we've recognized efforts, both to build constructive trust in a positive way, as well as to just prevent outbreaks of further unrest and violence.

Our Foundation has tried to be responsive to the many contexts in which conflict happens and to honor some of the people and organizations that are on the front lines, trying to help resolve it. With this year's award to Hands of Peace, I think we found a real sweet spot. Their work includes both the transformative program for young people, as well as ongoing skill building programs for their adult alumni.

They have a strong base, both in the U.S. and in the Middle East. They're addressing the need for both grassroots capacity building as well as meaningful changes in governmental policy. And they're cultivating young leaders who can hopefully spare future generations from further violence and war by working toward constructive peace now.

 If we had an actual official checklist for considering award recipients, Hands of Peace would have pretty much checked all of the boxes.

[00:03:46] Moderator: High praise. Thank you, David. Gretchen, can you tell us a little bit about the mission of Hands of Peace and a little bit about its history?

[00:03:51] Gretchen Grad: Sure, we're so honored to be selected for the Warren Knight award. To be amongst the company of previous winners is really a high honor for us. As you said at the beginning, the mission of Hands of Peace is to empower Israeli, Palestinian and American youth to be agents of change. What that means is we give them the skills and the experience and the motivation to tackle issues that are important to them in their home communities. For many that does mean becoming directly involved in peacemaking, involved with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but it can also mean they have the skills to apply to any community issue that speaks to them. We have alumni who are working on issues with the environment, women's issues and anti-violence issues.

The skills we impart are really life skills to create concerned and engaged citizens. So that's the mission. The history goes back to motivation that I felt in the wake of the events of September 11 to do something meaningful and hands-on to help create some kind of understanding and bridge connections in a world that felt like it was really spinning in the opposite direction.

 For reasons, I still can't fully articulate, I was pulled to the Israeli Palestinian conflict without having had any hands-on personal engagement in that area of the world prior to that. We started as a very grassroots organization based in the suburbs of Chicago.

We've expanded over the years. Our summer program takes place in Chicago and now in San Diego. We have year round presence in both those places and the Middle East. So that's kind of the thumbnail of the beginning. I would be remiss if I did not weave in an individual who's been essentially important to both JAMS and Hands of Peace, and that is Judge Wayne Andersen. He Is well-known to the JAMS community as an effective mediator. Wayne and his family have been involved with Hands of Peace since the very beginning in 2003. Their family hosted Israeli and Palestinian teen participants, 10 years in a row. During that time, Wayne's three daughters really grew up with the program.

So Wayne has had a foot in both of our organizations for many years.

[00:06:09] Moderator: Quite a commonality there. So, Scott, can you tell us a little bit about how Hands of Peace goes about accomplishing its mission?

[00:06:15] Scott Rasmussen: Yeah, absolutely, thank you. For a little bit about what we do, both in terms of our summer program and that's where it starts for our youth, then we continue to support them with skills training and other life building experiences as they grow older as adults. You heard a little bit, as Gretchen mentioned, it all starts with our Summer Program in Chicago and San Diego. So each July we bring together about 80 15- and 16-year-olds from Israel, Palestine, and the United States.

They get off the school bus, wearing their purple shirts that say Hands of Peace on them. They're greeted by their host American family, and they're ready to start a three-week journey that many of them describe after the fact as, as transformative. So over the course of this program, the participants learn to see and hear the other.

For the Israelis and Palestinians, many of them, it's the first time they've had a chance to meet someone from the other side. This largely takes place through a series of facilitated dialogues that are led by trained facilitators from the Middle East. These can be difficult and emotional conversations. I talked with one of our Israeli alumni last week, actually, who described in one session, watching it go from a shouting match to several people crying, to laughter at the end.

The purpose of these sessions really is to introduce the youth to the other side and the other narratives and points of view about the conflict, which really helps them to humanize the other that they're facing. For these young people, the experience helps them understand what is possible if you're willing to sit down and listen and talk with the other side. So in addition to the dialogue sessions in the program, the Hands also participate in team building and leadership exercises. I think there's a few things that could help build trust in someone like standing on a platform, 20 feet above the ground as part of a ropes course and trusting your newfound colleagues to help you cross safely.

 Then one of the other more powerful experiences comes when as a group, they visit a religious services at a synagogue, a mosque and a church. For many of them, it's the first time they'd been in another house of faith and for some of them, they have a chance to speak to the congregation.

It's a real powerful moment for congregants to see, for example, a Palestinian Muslim speaking from the bimah in a synagogue or a Jewish Israeli speaking for them in a mosque. So one of the other things I wanted to mention, the unique parts of our program is, and I think Gretchen mentioned as well, is the host family component.

So our Palestinian and Israeli participants stay in the homes of average American families in San Diego and Chicago, building close relationships that lasts beyond the life of the program.

[00:08:37] Gretchen Grad: I think that aspect of having host families open their homes to our Israeli and Palestinian teens, as well as staff members who come over, I think that's a really germane part of the program because it means it's not something that's happening in a vacuum.

We are intimately tied to the host communities that support Hands of Peace. Over the years, I've had four young women. We always had women because I have had daughters growing up in our household. So we've hosted four young women - two Israelis, two Palestinians - and they are my daughters. When I travel to the region, I follow up with them, we have lunch, I see their families. I'm welcomed into their families. These are connections for life. So by engaging people in our community to be host families for these young people, it makes the lives of people living in a conflict situation, very real. It takes it off the front pages and takes the stories of their lives to their dinner table.

So the hosting aspect is really an important part of the Hands of Peace Program.

[00:09:38] Moderator: Scott, how will Hands of Peace use the $25,000 grant from the JAMS Foundation?

[00:09:42] Scott Rasmussen: As Gretchen said before, we really are honored to receive the Warren Knight Award and grateful to JAMS Foundation and David for their vote of confidence in our work.

As I mentioned before, our mission to empower the young leaders isn't just about the summer program. It's about the continued investment we have with our alumni after they leave the program. So we continue to provide education programs in peace building and leadership skills. So for example, this year we provided training in resiliency. We're doing something later in the year on design thinking in social entrepreneurship.

So through these trainings, our alumni continue to strengthen their relationships and hone the skills that they started in the summer program. So the grant from the JAMS Foundation will help us expand these offerings this year. Particularly we're excited to put on a negotiations training for our alumni, October 3rd through November 7th of this year.

So for this partnering with the PATHWAYS Institute for Negotiation Education, which is an organization in Israel that uses a methodology developed by the Harvard Negotiation Project to train participants with practical skills and some frameworks that they can use for problem solving negotiation in their personal and professional lives.

Then, in fact, this is something that our alumni have requested is specifically training in negotiations. So we're excited with the support of the JAMS Foundation to be able to bring that, that opportunity to them later this year.

[00:11:03] Moderator: Gretchen, obviously the organization's work depends and revolves around face-to-face relationships and dialogue.

How has the organization's programming been affected by the pandemic?

[00:11:13] Gretchen Grad: We know nobody has been able to escape the effects of the pandemic and this applies to Hands of Peace as well. For 17 years, July meant that bus loads of purple-shirted teenagers would be present in San Diego and Chicago. It was kind of a shock last year not to have that happen. We couldn't do the face-to-face, so we didn't have the purple t-shirts abounding, but we, um, we use that time, very constructively to do something we'd wanted to do for quite a while, which was to take a breath and review all of our programs once we were at the 17-year mark and do a bit of reassessing to make sure we're still delivering programs effectively.

So we pivoted in 2020 to do some internal introspection and came out with some highly helpful and insightful advice from our constituents, largely our alumni about what they wanted in their older years.

We've gone in a new direction this summer, too, which Scott can talk more about.

[00:12:15] Scott Rasmussen: Yeah. So as we were looking at planning for summer of 2021 last fall, it became clear it still wasn't going to be safe to bring Israelis and Palestinians to Chicago and San Diego given the risks associated with COVID.

So we took the opportunity to do something again that we had been talking about for a couple of years and that our alumni recommended, which was why don't you have, they said, why don't we have a preparation session for the in-person dialogue? You know, having a chance to practice dialogue skills, listening and speaking in high-stakes conversations without having the pressure of also talking about the conflict and having that all come together at one point. So what we're running with this summer is something called the Summer Program Launchpad and the delegations are meeting with each other. So the Palestinians will meet with Palestinians, Israelis are meeting with Israelis for eight sessions of learning and practicing kind of the skills to go into dialogue. The response so far has been really positive. The participants have been very engaged and in fact are taking on a leadership role in organizing themselves to do additional sessions beyond the eight that we have planned and also planned some activities they want to work on as a group between now and when they come together in Chicago and San Diego next summer.

 So really, for us, you know, obviously the pandemic has been difficult for everyone, but I think there's been some silver linings. For us, it was the chance to try this preparation session that we've talked about for a couple of years. I anticipate that we'll take the lessons learned from this year, make some adjustment and incorporate some version of this preparation phase in future years.

[00:13:47] Moderator: So the JAMS Foundation awarded its annual Warren Knight Distinguished Service Award before the Israeli Palestinian conflict flared up again this year. Gretchen, can you talk about the reaction you've heard from the alumni of your programs?

[00:13:59] Gretchen Grad: Sure, I appreciate the question because first it gives me a chance to address kind of the form of the question itself, the perspective that the conflict flares up periodically.

 I think that's very common amongst Americans. It seems we only pay attention to what's going on in Israel, Palestine when bombs are being dropped or rockets are flying out of Gaza. It seems like it does flare up from time to time. But for Scott and I, who work with and know people on the ground, it's very clear to us that this is a conflict that exists day in and day out.

It may only come to American consciousness periodically, but if you're Israeli or Palestinian, it's very much a part of your everyday life. If you're a Palestinian, you're passing through checkpoints every day. If you're Israeli, you know that at age 17 or 18, you're going to be joining the Israeli Defense Force, the IDF.

So it is very much a day-to-day phenomenon, but as you point out, the events of the spring did impact both our alumni and our staff on the ground to a great degree.

[00:15:09] Scott Rasmussen: Yeah. I could jump in on that. So as things intensified in May, our first site as an organization was obviously with our staff, our alumni and their families. Many of them were facing threats in their own homes, and as we did outreach as a team at Hands of Peace, our board and our community to our alumni to express our support, they were telling us some of the stories and their experiences and what they were seeing. It was particularly harrowing to hear, for example, our representatives from our Palestinian citizens of Israel who talked about seeing mobs in the streets, outside their homes, who were basically daring them to show their faces outside.

I think this underscores the point that Gretchen made that the racism and the hatred, the intensity of the conflict is always there, even when there aren't rockets or bombs flying. So what we did is we pulled together small group conversations for our alumni, all virtually, where they could get together and talk about their experiences and what they received and what they wanted to do.

Many of them spoke, I should say some, you can imagine were frustrated and discouraged by what they were seeing and the dissonance that they felt between their Hands of Peace experience and seeing what's possible, but then see the reality of what's happening on the ground. Many of them then spoke about the role that Hands of Peace plays in their life and helping them to see what is possible and to learn to humanize the other side.

 They talked about how important it is for them to have this community of people who have been through the transformative summer program experience and share their vision for something beyond the violence and fear of the moment. For me, I think that that was instructive and powerful to see that that's really what we're doing at Hands of Peace, creating a community of people who have that shared experience and have that shared vision and the skills for working within their own community and across communities to create a more free and just reality for everyone.

[00:17:02] Gretchen Grad: It takes such incredible courage to stay involved with a program like this. If you're Israeli or Palestinian, you are going against basically the grain of your society. By saying I want to be engaged with the other. I want to understand the stories and the suffering of the person on the other side of that wall.

 When we experience intense violence, as we saw in May, it puts extra pressure on those young people when they state I still believe in this cause, I believe in this mission, I choose to be engaged with the other side. My respect for them is enormous. Imagine being 16 or 17 and as I said before, going against the grain of everyone around you, not joining that drumbeat of hatred and violence and revenge. They are my heroes. They're just incredible.

[00:17:55] Moderator: To a typical citizen, again, with the experience of yours and Hands of Peace, seeing the conflict on TV or reading about it can be depressing. What, what keeps you engaged?

[00:18:06] Gretchen Grad: Well, to me, it's the individual stories. I've had the privilege of being involved with this program since the beginning, so I've seen the arc of the lives of young people who have come in at age 15 or 16 and what they do with that experience as they go to college, as they choose careers, as they raise their children, I think... there's so many, there's just dozens of stories, but one that I love to share that I think helps get across the real impact of a program like Hands of Peace is to tell you about a young woman named Rana, who is a Palestinian citizen of Israel. She lives in Haifa, and she came to the very first Hands of Peace program in Chicago in 2003, as a 14-year-old. She was one of our youngest participants and was very moved by the experience and excited to go home and share what she learned with her family, with her community, with her school, and she did, she went back and started giving presentations.

 Within a few months, this was October of 2003, and this was still in the time of the Second Intifada. Her extended family owns a very popular seaside restaurant in Haifa. In October of 2003, a suicide bomber entered the restaurant and detonated explosive belt and killed over 20 people. The tragic, ironic part is that this was a restaurant that was a gathering spot for both Jewish Israelis and Palestinian Israelis.

So the victims were from both nationalities. As Rana tells this story, she shared it with us in real time, that just rocked her to the core. She had been to this program, promoting peacemakers and to her the bombing just signified that nothing had changed, made her question why she even took part in such a program, and she was ready to turn her back and walk away from the program.

 As she shares with us, shortly after the bombing, she started getting phone calls from her Palestinian friends, very concerned for her wellbeing and that of her extended family, and expressing condolences. Then sometime later she started getting phone calls from her Jewish Israeli peers from Hands of Peace, also expressing condolences, checking in on her, wanting to know how she was. This was a big bombing. It made national news. So, everyone in Israel knew about it and the phone calls from the members of the Jewish Israeli delegation completely transformed her reaction. She said she was shocked to be getting calls like that, but it helped her realize that the connections and the relationships she had made at Hands of Peace were genuine, were authentic and were lasting.

 In fact, it swung her exactly the opposite direction and she became incredibly passionate about sharing the message of the importance of dialogue programs and leadership programs. She did go back to her school and gave presentations, and she, in later years, joined staff, first as a chaperone. And for the last, I don't know, 5, 6, 7 years, she has been our regional manager in Haifa. Well, balancing her - she's also a pharmacist. She went to pharmacy school and does that part-time and she is our dedicated staff member. What she says is "I've grown up with Hands of Peace and Hands of Peace has grown up with me."

So her story might've gone in a very different direction had she not had the Hands of Peace experience.

[00:21:53] Moderator: Scott, what would you add?

[00:21:55] Scott Rasmussen: So I think the other part that helps me is to look at examples from places like Northern Ireland or South Africa, where there were conflicts and systems that that seemed intractable, but that have changed. I think part of the reason they changed was that there were people at the grassroots level who were willing to do, like Gretchen described with Rana, the hard work of seeing and understanding the other. For me, whatever agreement politicians or diplomats come to won't... I don't think it will take hold unless the broader population also has the vision of what can be.

That's what we're trying to do at Hands of Peace, and there are dozens of other organizations like ours working in the Israeli-Palestinian context. Admittedly, you know, when you see what happened in May, it is depressing, and we have a long way to go. There were some surveys done three or four years ago among some Palestinian youth, and one survey found that 73% of Palestinian youth in this survey supported violence against Israelis. There was a similar survey done among Israeli high school, seniors and juniors at the same time that found 82% of them said there was no chance of reaching a deal with the Palestinians. So those were stark numbers and I think people see that and they think, well is the work that Hands of Peace is doing or other organizations doing really having a difference.

There have been studies done on the work that we do at Hands of Peace and other organizations. One study just about two years ago found that youth who participate in programs like ours, 77% of them believe that reconciliation is possible and 71% have improved empathy and trust for the other.

So the programs themselves aren't going to solve the conflict, but I think they can help create the mindset and attitudes that will move people forward and building that empathy in that trust I think will be key to, to cooperation and building new structures that are based on human rights and equality for Palestinians and Israelis.

What's interesting is, what's happened in May, this is the conversation I've seen coming out of that. I had a colleague and a friend who has worked in peace-building for more than a decade. She said with what happened this last May, normally when there's something like that and intensification in the violence, she has friends or family even who come to her and say, are you going to give up on your work? It's obviously not working. She said, but this time people are coming to her and saying, we have to do something different. What can we do? How can we make this time different? That's just one, obviously anecdotal example, but I think it's instructive.

I think that's what people are doing. I think that's what we at Hands of Peace are doing is giving people that eye opening experience of what it can be like to see and work with the other and have that vision that they can then share with others. So for me, it's the individuals who are willing to do that work and then also this broader network of organizations like Hands of Peace, who are helping to improve the situation and improve lives in the region.

[00:24:44] Gretchen Grad: Scott mentioned South Africa and Northern Ireland, which as we know from this vantage point, did reach a tipping point, but that's the thing with tipping points, you never know how close you are to it until you've passed it.

So the work of Hands of Peace is to support Israelis and Palestinians who want to take their situation to a positive tipping point and to give them the skills and the support to do that.

[00:25:10] Moderator: Well, we'll leave it there. David, Gretchen, Scott, thank you so much for sharing your stories and your time.

You've been listening to a podcast from JAMS, the world's largest private alternative dispute resolution provider. Our guests have been David Brandon of the JAMS Foundation and Gretchen Grad and Scott Rasmussen from Hands of Peace. For more information about the JAMS Foundation, please visit And to learn more about Hands of Peace, please visit Thank you for listening to this podcast from JAMS.

This page is for general information purposes. JAMS makes no representations or warranties regarding its accuracy or completeness. Interested persons should conduct their own research regarding information on this website before deciding to use JAMS, including investigation and research of JAMS neutrals. See More

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