Hannes Richter

Search for Common Ground

Hannes Richter
Ambassador Eva Nowotny, Mr. Ashafa Muhammad of the Interfaith Mediation Center, Muhammad Ali

"Our mission is a very ambitious one requiring a leap of faith with the audacity to think that one can change the world." John Marks

There is nothing as old as human conflict. Throughout history, man has resorted to fear tactics, physical violence or armed warfare in an effort to resolve disputes. During the first part of the 20th century, with the world steeped in militarism surrounding the first and second world wars, "peace and conflict resolution" was considered subversive and unpatriotic. Nationalism reigned and victory in war was glorified. With the second half of the 20th century, this all changed. The world was under the threat of nuclear proliferation and destruction of the planet, and consequently, the study of peace became a part of the curriculum at most schools and universities.

At the height of the Vietnam War, John Marks, a former U.S. diplomat in Southeast Asia, ventured to create a new approach to conflict. He envisioned himself as a "social entrepreneur" and in 1982 founded Search for Common Ground (SFCG) in Washington, D.C. The SFCG is the largest non-profit organization (NGO) in the world dealing with conflict prevention and resolution. Its official mission statement runs follows: "To prevent and resolve conflict by helping conflicting parties understand their differences and by acting on their commonalities."

Since its founding the organization has grown and now sponsors work on four continents with offices in nine different countries. In 1995, another headquarters, the European Center for Common Ground in Brussels, was founded. Each year awards are bestowed upon individuals or groups who have made outstanding contributions toward peace initiatives - including former U.S. President Jimmy Carter, media guru, Ted Koppel, and South Africa's Archbishop Desmond Tutu. Every year for the last seven years, the ceremony was hosted by the Austrian Ambassador at the Austrian Embassy in Washington, D.C. On March 17, Ambassador Nowotny welcomed a group of unusual and remarkable recipients of this year's Search for Common Ground Award. Here are four of their stories.

Model of Reconciliation
Two former leaders of rival gangs in Maryland's Prince George’s County, declared truce after two decades of street violence that had plagued the community. Dominic Taylor, 24, and Henry "Hank" Johnson, 33, met face to face for the first time in September 2004. Only a few months earlier, Johnson had shot Taylor. The two men were brought together by the Alliance of Concerned Men, a grass-roots organization that brokered the agreement. The consequences of their truce have been felt well beyond their gangs. A community model of reconciliation has been established for other communities to emulate. The two young men received the Award for Community Peacebuilding, and, more importantly, they have become de-facto mentors for other urban youth.

A Lifetime of Achievement
His name is legendary throughout the world. Muhammad Ali is known as the three-time winner of the World Heavyweight Boxing Championship, but his life transcended boxing. He championed people in need, in particular those who at times had been isolated by U.S. policy - in North Korea, Cuba, Afghani-stan, Iraq and South Africa. He has delivered medical supplies to an embargoed Cuba; helped secure release of fifteen U.S. soldiers in Iraq and provided over 200 meals to the world's hungry.

He has been multi-dimensional in his approach to helping people, and has touched many lives. On the evening of the presentation, Muhammad Ali received the Lifetime Achievement Award from SFCG. The Award was bestowed upon him by none other than former gang leaders Dominic Taylor and Henry Johnson. Nothing could have been more fitting.

Educating for Peace
They differ in generation, culture and religion, but for the past nine years they have been passionately promoting Israeli-Palestinian peace. Adina Shapiro, (29) a young American born Israeli lawyer and Dr. Ghassan Abdullah, (49) head of the Center for Applied Research in Education in Palestine, received the Award for Education. Together they founded the Middle East Children's Association (MECA). It believes that teachers have an essential role in changing pre-conceived ideas among young children and students. By providing them a forum for open communication, teachers explore issues of justice, human rights, tolerance and pluralism, countering racism and built-in stereotypes.

Hope Not Hate
Racism and xenophobia is perhaps the most tragic by-product of any war. The aftermath of 9/11 and the fight against terrorism was no different. It spurred, however, a need for dialogue to combat growing tension between the United States and the Islamic world like never before. One such example was the Hope Not Hate program developed by Seith Green, of the Americans for Informed Democracy, and Nikki Stern of Families of September 11.

It was a series of town hall meetings from the East- to the West Coast, open to citizens with discussions on U.S.-Islamic relations by members of Congress, ambassadors, journalists, scholars and military officers. The goal was to build a bridge of understanding between non-Muslims and Muslims in the U.S. and later to extend that bridge to include the outside Muslim world. Seth Green and Nikki Stern organized satellite video conferences between youth leaders at universities in the U.S. and in Egypt, Indonesia, Lebanon, Morocco, Pakistan and Turkey. For their initiative in promoting global security through global meeting of minds, they received the Award for International Understanding.

These are the stories of peacemakers, an extraordinary and yet disparate group of people. What do they have in common? Perhaps the answers lie in the closing remarks of SCFG’S Board Chairman Ted Howard: "A young woman once asked Helen Keller if there was anything worse than losing your sight. Helen Keller reflected briefly and replied, ‘Yes, losing your vision’". Search for Common Ground all began with a vision. Its success, illustrated by stories like these, prove that NGOs can play a key role at the grassroots level in complementing the work of governments and international organizations.

For more information, see the Search for Common Ground website at http://www.sfcg.org