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1st “Earth Children” International Youth Festival

Two Native American, four Israeli youths, and three intrepid chaperones arrived in Novosibirsk very early on the morning of July 3rd, 2007, for the start of two weeks of high adventure at the First “EARTH CHILDREN” International Youth Festival for Social Creativity in the Altai Republic. They were joined there by members of the First Cultural-Educational “EARTH IS A GARDEN OF PEOPLES” International Expedition (coming from Arkaim in the Urals) and participants coming from Novosibirsk.

The purpose of the camp was to develop leadership and self-organizing skills and to build communication bridges between the youth of Altai and youth around the world.

Altai is a particularly powerful place for such activities because the process of harmonization is enhanced by a powerfully harmonic Earth energy field there. This is why the work of Altai Mir University is focused here. The mechanism is usually that individual disharmonies that have been stored in the body—such as the result of traumas—are accessed so they can be processed and released. The end result, in my experience, is always healing, but the process can rocky, as was demonstrated in this case.

The camp was located in the remote village of Tyungur, so the journey to and from was an integral part of the experience. After a day of sight-seeing and adjusting to the time zone, we piled all our gear and food supplies onto the overnight train to the city of Biysk, which is as far as the tracks go. There, we boarded a bus that would be like a second home for the next ten days.

We spent that day getting acquainted, as guests at a lakeside retreat center near Biysk called Altai Gates—swimming, sleeping, feasting, and in the evening, singing, dancing, and skits.

The next morning, we drove on to Gorno-Altaisk, the capital of the Altai Republic. Here is where the magnitude of the challenge before us began to become apparent. All travelers in Russia must register with the local migration office. Altai Republic is a border region, so additional registrations are required. And a foreign delegation—of youths—was highly unusual. Despite considerable advance preparation and reassurances from local officials, the one key person had forgotten that we were coming and taken the day off. So 25 of us were stuck overnight in Gorno-Altaisk.

Suddenly, across languages and cultures, we had to self-organize. And the promised leadership facilitation experts had also not shown up. No practice and exercises, but the real thing, without anyone to organize our self-organizing. So people simply stepped forward to do what they could see needed to be done. The process frequently wasn’t smooth, and it required a lot of invention, but it did develop leadership and self-organization skills for the youths and adults alike. And as one challenge after another arose, this was how things went for the remainder of our time together.

After registering the next day, we went on to the town of Ust Kan, where we were given a warm traditional welcome and feast by Altai people. They had expected us a day earlier, but the food was ready when we got there. First we were greeted with a shared cup of fermented mare’s milk, a traditional welcoming drink. Then in a 6-sided ail, we all sat down to chicken pilaf, cole slaw, smoked goat cheese, fried bread, fruit juice, renowned Altai honey, home-grown tomatoes and cucumbers, and home-made jams and pickles. After dinner, tea and chocolates were served while welcoming speeches were made.

After a night’s sleep stretched out on floors and in tents, we started the final leg of our journey to the camp. After another half-day wait for the second round of registration, we arrived in the late afternoon at a beautiful but very rustic camp, and were enthusiastically welcomed anew. We had expected that there would be several delegations of Altai and Russian children, with chaperones, but they had not come either, so our bus-load of 25 people (mostly adults) were greeted by about a dozen people, also mostly adults.

Building on the self-organizing that we had begun in Gorno-Altaisk, dinner was quickly and efficiently prepared. Thankfully, this aspect of the camp operated smoothly from beginning to end.

However, the self-organizing had not happened without some bruising, and a division had arisen between the youths and adults. A second division arose between cultures: the Russians who had organized the camp had no idea that the highly regimented, adult-driven organizational structure that is typical for Russian camps was completely unfamiliar to the international delegates—who had very different ideas. And a third division arose between those who spoke Russian fluently and the five Americans (including me) who didn’t. The numerous bi-lingual people there, including the entire Israeli delegation, were quickly exhausted by the translation process because several of the adults continually started side conversations during group discussions, which made group communication impossible.

The resulting chaos was a nightmare for me and the two American chaperones, because as far as we could see, no consensus had been established even regarding basic safety, and our efforts to create it dissolved into multiple, simultaneous Russian-language conversations that we couldn’t follow. Safety was also a concern to the property owner, of course, but none of the Russians were able to offer any effective leadership in this area. There were no crises, however, and the day-do-day camp routine was, basically, smoothly self-organized in small groups.

There were some wonderful breakthroughs, however. The smooth food-preparation was one.

A second occurred during a group circle, when one of the Israeli youths was able to voice his vision for self-organizing without being interrupted. The youths all agreed with his vision, and immediately set about doing all the necessary tasks—cooking and clean-up, wood gathering and fire tending, and carrying of water from the river. So that went smoothly from then on.

A third breakthrough was around development of a group vision. One of the Russians facilitated a process that involved each person drawing his or her own vision with colored pens on paper, then joining with others in ever larger groups to coalesce the vision. The group got as far as about five vision murals when it was time to break for dinner. Then they did not come back together again until one of the American chaperones, with group approval, “word-smithed” the vision into a coherent whole. This was translated and unanimously approved by the group:

The vision for the camp is to create a community that provides a model of international and intercultural peace, demonstrating unity through diversity. Participants will develop conflict resolution skills that are applicable in both intergenerational and cross-cultural contexts. They will organize themselves in a broad variety of activities that prepare them to become tomorrow's international leaders. Situated in a safe and comfortable environment, the camp represents an open and inclusive cross section of world populations and utilizes an holistic approach to relationship building and leadership training.

The fourth breakthrough was a belated group consensus about very basic safety and respect, approval of which was necessary before the group could go rafting.

The biggest breakthrough involved group music. We had the opportunity to make a camp music/dance presentation at a regional celebration being held in the nearest town at the end of our camp time. Altai Mir University had sent a huge duffel bag of instruments including a tambourine, recorders, and mouth-harps, and one of the Russians brought a guitar. There were some extraordinarily talented musicians in the group. A few of the Russian adults organized open practice sessions that were enthusiastically attended, and the campers pulled together an exuberant song/dance presentation that was well-received by the celebration audience.

One of the most interesting breakthroughs occurred as we were making our way back to Novosibirsk. I tried to convene a two-hour group assessment of the camp, including future action plans. With a late start and a small group, we were interrupted in the middle by a couple of panicked Russian youths had just realized that they didn't have tickets for our train that night. And tickets are frequently sold out. We were miles from the station where the tickets could be bought, and there were no Russian-speaking adults present who could take them to get tickets. I gave up on my hope for group co-creation, and tried to help the kids sort it out, which they did. Then, to my amazement, the group spontaneously reconvened and called me back to wrap up the process, having expressed their deep hopes for the future in several concrete statements of intention.

Then we made our way back to Novosibirsk, where all the youths spent their last night together, singing, laughing, sharing their cultural honoring rituals and ceremonies until the time came to pile into taxis to go to the airport.

All in all, the challenges we faced as a group provided a much more powerful intercultural leadership experience than any set of exercises, because the participants had full ownership of their experience. We all gained first-hand knowledge of the full breadth of both how difficult and how rewarding intercultural exchanges can be. The international youths were profoundly affected by the experience of living inside of a different culture, and the local youths were exposed to foreign cultures as well, although not as intensely.

Great friendships were formed across cultures, and lives were enriched. A huge thanks to all who worked hard to make this momentous event happen!

To enable us to continue important peace-building programs like this,
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