Social media, team building, and a whole lot of reflection
Posted June 19th, 2009
The location is Grisslehamn, a sleepy summer resort town located approximately two hours north of Stockholm by drive. With a small number of restaurants, cultural attractions, or bars, the town has few distractions. The only place that appears to stay open “late,” past 6 pm that is, is the local gas station two kilometers away.
Perhaps the perfect setting for conference attendees to stay focused, in other words.
Almost everyday began with what the organizers called “a reflection session,” in which participants were asked to air their thoughts and opinions on the lectures and activities in the program, either orally or in written form. Much of the first week focused on lectures and exercises in team building, idea development, and reflection - a daunting task for the program’s more impatient participants, who felt it was, “A lot of talk about talk”.
Others, however, appeared to genuinely appreciate the space given for personal expression.
“In my country there is a dictator who controls freedom of speech so it is good that we get the opportunity to express ourselves,” one participant from an unnamed Arab country said in her reflections.
As for team building, one of the more memorable exercises was the rope binding game in which the 33 program participants were blindfolded and asked to find a rope and make a square out of it - all in complete silence.
The rope was found and the square eventually formed under somewhat chaotic circumstances.
Rami Abdel-Rahman, a journalist and media researcher of Jordanian origin living in Sweden and also one of the participants in this year’s YLVP, sarcastically described the game as an exercise in Arab democracy in a blog post.
“We did it, Arab democracy style - screaming and shouting at one another - a microcosm of blinded Arab liberals who lose their temper whenever cornered with a new challenge - I am politically incorrect, and I consciously choose to be so. However, we made a perfect square, thanks to a couple of people who took initiative silently and thought effectively,” he wrote http://ramiswall.blogspot.com/
Over the past couple of years, a number of European countries have organized programs focusing on intercultural and interfaith dialogue between Europe and the Middle East. Sweden has now jumped on the intercultural program bandwagon with the Swedish Institute launching its Young Leaders Visitors Program in 2008 in an effort to build “a network of young leaders and opinion-makers in the MENA region and Sweden to work on issues concerning freedom of expression and human rights.”
Abdel-Rahman believes the program was in large part launched in a bid to boost Sweden’s image in the Arab world and to eradicate stereotypical myths about Swedes among Arabs and vice versa.
“It all started with a presentation about Sweden's image in the Middle East and North Africa. Apparently, Sweden is losing business in the MENA region against competition, typically in the form of big nations with long history of trade with the MENA region”, wrote Abdel-Rahman in a blog post.
He then embarked on presenting his view of the cultural stereotypes Arabs have of Swedes and how Swedes view Arabs.
“There are still many cultural stereotypes about Swedes: they have lots of sex then they jump off a bridge and suicide because they aren't challenged with any problems. Kind of like saying all Arabs are terrorists who drink oil and eat sand, live in tents and under camels. Yep, ladies and gents, we still know squat about each other.”
The YLVP 2009 invited what the Swedish institute described as “young opinion-makers from Sweden and selected countries in the MENA region who are actively working for social change in their respective contexts.”
The program itself focused in large part on leadership and teamwork with a special component of training in social media tools. The first week was spent in Grisslehamn and the remaining two in Stockholm where participants attended lectures and worked on group projects at the digital media school Hyper Island.
In addition to the Arab participants, five Swedish journalists partook in the program.
“YLVP is designed to give you innovative tools to shape public opinion in cutting-edge media while strengthening your intercultural and leadership skills. You will be part of an exclusive network that will boost creativity and support your personal and professional development, while also laying the platform for a more connected future,” said the Swedish Institute in a statement describing the program.
At the beginning of the program, participants were divided into groups of 4-5 people and given the task to develop an idea for an innovative project using social media tools. A stream of initiatives was presented, ranging from web portals for alternative musicians in the Middle East to an online graffiti network, and a web-based recruitment agency for volunteers interested in working in human rights organizations in the Arab world.
'Painting our projects with the diversity of our colors'
The lectures on social media were given by veteran journalist educator and social media guru, Mark Comerford, whose unique way of teaching soon made him become a popular figure among many in the group. For some, however, it took some time to get used to Comerford’s remarkable ability to incorporate the “f word” in a suitable context in almost every sentence.
“What is the chain of command motherf-ckers,” read one of Comerford’s slides in his presentation on who controls the media in today’s Internet age.
And in regards to social/digital media, Comerford partially described the phenomenon as a “disruptive media” that will “fuck you up.”
“I found Mark’s lectures very interesting,” Salima Belouadi, a human resources manager from Algeria and volunteer in a youth empowerment program, told MENASSAT.
Chantale Kallas, one of the Lebanese participants, said she found the program a “valuable learning experience” and a good opportunity to connect with people working in her field. But she had hoped to gain more “hands on experience” working on social media platforms.
“YLVP was a valuable experience whether through the sessions and modules or through the interaction with the other participants. What I liked the most was the opportunity to participate in the intensive study experience and to be able to meet people working in the same field as mine. I would have preferred more hands-on work and better in depth knowledge and to know more how to work on these platforms though,” she told MENASSAT.
YLVP also featured a number of study visits at various media organizations, think tanks, and human rights groups in Sweden, including Swedish TV and radio and Subtopia, an umbrella organization for dozens of creative and entrepreneurial agencies.
One visit that caused a few heated debates in the group was the trip to Sweden’s lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender rights organization, RSFL, where some of the participants felt that there should have been a discussion about the organization’s work prior to the visit.
Meanwhile, there were also many who praised the diversity in the program. Tunsian children’s book writer and student Samar Mezghanni reflected on the YLVP in the following way:
“I guess what I learnt the most from the YLVP experience is that whether you think you are blue, green or red you are always a multi-colored person, with the different ideas, experiences, skills and perceptions you have. Painting our projects with the diversity of our colors, countries, orientations and beliefs was hard…but not impossible! The YLVP letters mean much more than four letters to me. If only this Young Leaders Program wasn't just a Visit!” she told MENASSAT.
The second phase in the program will be held in Paris this fall.
Find more information on the YLVP here.
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