Another brick (in the virtual wall): Reflections from an Alternative Education Experiment

by Haris Shekeris

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Recently, we launched a new online course for civil society activists and peace practitioners.

The online course is the continuation of a face-to-face course we delivered for the first time last semester in the Buffer Zone, when twenty-nine participants from across the island joined us.

The high interest in the course was unexpected and inspired us to go ahead with a new curriculum, this time in a virtual space. We hoped this would bring even more of the unusual suspects, who may be geographically or otherwise challenged to attend courses in a physical space.

We thought: Why not harness the power of technology to bring knowledge to the people, instead of always expecting them to come to us?

If our previous course was a success – with participating students from not only Cyprus, but also Palestine, Italy, Germany and Ukraine – offering it online has been nothing short of a miracle: 140 participants, hailing from as far as Bosnia and Herzegovina, Egypt, Tunisia, Morocco, Kenya and Greece.

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But of course, offering a course online is not as simple as renting out a virtual space.

We have had to overcome several technical and practical difficulties to make the most out of this new format.

We’ve created a wealth of audio-visual lecture material, produced in collaboration with MediaZone. These are mostly 20-minute lectures accompanied by audio-visual interviews (some of them produced by the Cyprus Community Media Centre) and animated material.

We’ve designed the content of the course to stimulate dialogue on various aspects of the concept of citizenship.

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Our lectures include extensive interview material on a wide range of topics, such as the civil war in Syria, the rise of ISIS and its impact on statehood in the region, as well interviews on the topics of legitimacy and legitimation crisis and a case study on Cyprus and the impact of the economic measures prescribed by the so-called Troika of the ECB, the European Commission and the IMF.

And the result? So far, it’s looking good – we are delivering lectures to a highly engaged audience. It’s great to see there are discussions taking place both in the lecture forum and in the Facebook group created for the course.

If you’re interested in our work, but missed out on the chance to register for the course, do check our project’s website (Resources for Democracy). We’ve started uploading a number of resources – and we’ll follow that up soon with interviews and discussions, both in audio and audio-visual form, with academics and civil society activists on the topics of discussion. Also, there’s a second online course coming up in May!

After all, the material, which is freely accessible to everybody, is intended to enable you – the reader – to take informed steps into making the most out of your rights as a citizen, so why not join us and demand more of it from their powers that be?

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Good things are happening in Famagusta

We continue to cover inspiring initiatives from across the island. This week, Maria Zeniou talks about her experience at the Green Streets action, organized recently in Famagusta.

green streets 1As the end of the year approached, things seemed to be slowing down with the peace process. The same could not be said for Famagustians. Indeed, it has been a pleasure for me to experience first hand the various activities organized in December by the people of Famagusta Walled City and Deryneia to work together for the future of their region.

Of the number of activities under RENEWAL that recently took place, I wanted to share with you one of the first and the most memimage002orable for me. It was one of the notoriously rare bad weather days (that Cyprus doesn’t see much of) where the sky was pouring, the streets were flooded and you could barely walk outside, let alone do outdoor activities. Well, I wouldn’t believe it if I hadn’t seen it with my own eyes. Not even the rain stopped them: Turkish Cypriots and Greek Cypriots Famagustians, soaking from head to toe, planting trees around the walls of Famagusta. Two hours under the rain, and they managed to plant around 900 trees!

Perhaps the ‘Green Streets’ event is not what you would call a game-changer. But it shows that even under difficult circumstances, given the right opportunity, the people of Famagusta have the will to work for change. The RENEWAL project, currently underway in the region of Famagusta, is working to create exactly this kind of opportunity. After all, only if Turkish Cypriots and Greek Cypriot Famagustians work together can the social and economic change they envision for their region finally come.

green streets 2image001image004Editor’s Note: You can follow the RENEWAL project and its activities via their Facebook page at: https://www.facebook.com/renewal2014

David Officer: “Our courses have been a real act of cooperation between Cypriots”

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Quiet and revolutionary actions are taking place in the Buffer Zone and online every day. One of these is the State, Civil Society and Citizenship course, offered in the Buffer Zone and soon to be offered online by David and his team. This week, we talk to David to find out more about their initiative.

Hi David! Can you tell us a little bit about yourself?

I was born in England and spent my working life in three main locations – London, Northern Ireland and Cyprus. I have worked as an academic, researcher, community worker and NGO activist.

You must have some very interesting insights that have led you to your current position in Cyprus.

Perhaps the most important and formative experience for me was leaving school at 17 and leaving England to work for a community education project in Belfast, Northern Ireland. This was during a particularly violent phase of the “Troubles” as the conflict there was euphemistically called. I gained the kind of education there you couldn’t get in a college or university.

That time gave me a very human insight into the factors which can drive some people to take up arms and prosecute a war against others, but also how even in the midst of conflict, life goes on. People continue to try and live as peaceful a life as possible. In many ways these early experiences set me on a course to try and understand the nature of inter-ethnic or inter-national conflict and how the neccessary difference between individuals and groups might be managed without lethal outcomes.

david 7You are part of the team behind offering a Civic Participation Course for NGO activists. How did the idea come about?

The initiative for this course arose out of a partnership established by three very different organisations responding to a call for proposals made by UNDP in Cyprus during the summer of 2014. The NGO Support Centre is based in Nicosia and largely serves the Greek Cypriot community. SeeD is a bi-communal organisation that is mainly concerned with attempts to overcome the deep-seated divisions evident on the island whilst the University of Nicosia is an academic institution, based south of the partition line but working with an increasingly international student cohort.

david 5What are you trying to accomplish with this project?

We know from our experience in Cyprus that there is a need to encourage a more creative engagement with factors which shape our daily lives. Decision-making on this island tends to reside with an elite, largely organised around established political parties. Our interest is to promote both the skills and knowledge for a much wider circle of people to make a difference within their own communities, set their own objectives and realise outcomes which may be neglected by those in positions of power.

Let’s remember also that the conflict on the island has become locked into a stalemate for at least 40 years. We need to be looking at people outside the established power structures who may have innovative ways of addressing this stalemate and moving the situation forward. This is what we wish to encourage.

What do you like most about the Civic Participation Course? 

What is innovative about this project is how we have combined the academic credibility of university modules with a careful attention to the needs of NGOs and community activists. We wanted to try and stimulate a dialogue between those who have considerable academic knowledge related to the role of civil society and the state with course participants who bring with them real practical knowledge about how these issues shape everyday lives. And it’s working!

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There has been a lot of interest from both communities in the courses offered within the Buffer Zone.

What is your proudest accomplishment with the Course?

Well, we are still at an early stage. But I am really pleased that we have already delivered an initial face-to-face course in the center of the Buffer Zone. We have had a mixed cohort of Turkish Cypriot and Greek Cypriot teachers and students. I think it’s been a quiet and undemonstrative act of real cooperation between all who were involved.

How can interested people get engage with the Course?

We will actually be offering an online version of the course soon! It will be University accredited. We would encourage anyone interested in the course or the project more generally to get in touch with us through our Facebook and Twitter. Please don’t hesitate to connect with us.

Editor’s Note: You can click here to see photos from the course.

Maria Ioannou on SCORE: “We’re working to make a complex tool easy to use”

As we continue to support a number of initiatives that work towards engaging more people in the peace process, we want to introduce you an innovative tool in progress: SCORE, a tool to measure the closeness between communities in Cyprus. This week, we are talking to Maria Ioannou to find more about herself, her team and personal efforts at SCORE.

MIoannouHi Maria, thanks for talking to us today. Can you tell us a little bit about yourself?

I am a social psychologist. I got my DPhil in Social Psychology a year ago in the UK. Since then I have relocated back in Cyprus. Academically I’m interested in intergroup contact, prejudice reduction, and conflict resolution; personally I’m also interested in more clinical aspects of psychology, as well as a in exploring new places both within and outside Cyprus, and meeting people from all walks of life.

How did you get involved with SCORE? Can you tell us a little bit about what you do?

imageI was introduced to SCORE when I was hired as a senior researcher at the Centre for Sustainable Peace and Democratic Development (SeeD). I am basically the person behind the data analysis for SCORE.

What is SCORE attempting to do?

SCORE is basically a tool to measure Social Cohesion and Reconciliation (hence the acronym).

Through SCORE, we are hoping to be able to provide information how warm or cold relations are between various groups. We also aim to identify what kind of factors are affecting people’s willingness for a political compromise.

What excites you most about SCORE? 

In Cyprus, SeeD is about to launch an outreach campaign to communicate SCORE’s results to a number of important actors but also to the general public. I think that it is the latter that excites me the most about SCORE; that its findings can be shared and discussed with the general public.

Maria works with the SeeD team. The SeeD offices are located at the Home 4 Cooperation in the Buffer Zone.

What are some of the findings you can share with us today?

One of our key findings is that young people feel left out from decision-making. And when people feel left out, guess what happens? They become less willing for a political compromise with the other community.

Another interesting finding for me is that women particularly in the Greek Cypriot community are particularly resistant to coexistence and to a political compromise. Results such as this are suggesting that there are certain segments of the population that are most vulnerable so to speak. It is my opinion that SCORE results should be communicated primarily to these groups, not least to understand the findings but also to provide the floor to these groups to speak up and to discuss.

What is your proudest accomplishment with SCORE?

People who are more acquainted with SCORE talk about a very complex tool whose usefulness they can see but whose essence they can’t quite grasp. When I entered the SCORE team I realized myself that SCORE was indeed a complex tool and that the analysis of SCORE data was quite a handful. After some intense work with the data, I can say we are now at a place to present key findings which are straightforward, thought-provoking, and right in the heart of the peace process.

We are also excited to be rolling out this tool in Bosnia and Nepal. The lessons we are learning through using this tool in Cyprus will be applicable in those countries. We have already collected data in Bosnia in 2014. Data collection in Nepal will take place in 2015.

How can interested people get involved in/engage with/explore SCORE?

There is going to be a number of events taking place in the next few months in Cyprus, to present and generate discussion on the findings. One event will be bi-communal and the other four mono-communal (two on each side of the divide). People who don’t attend these events (or even those who do) should keep an eye on media. SCORE will also have its own Facebook and Twitter account soon.

Finally, we are working to establish a platform through which everyone can interact with SCORE and its findings (SCORE Bosnia 2014, SCORE Cyprus 2013, and SCORE Cyprus 2014). We want it to be easy to consume and very accessible, so our work is about how best to visualize the data.

We also hope to generate lots of discussion, so we are creating a platform where users can leave comments and provide input into the work.

For more information on SCORE, you can check out the Facebook page for Centre for Sustainable Peace and Democratic Development (SeeD).