Search for Common Ground uses TV soaps to promote peace

Now in its 30th year Search for Common Ground uses a variety of methods, including TV soap operas, to build peace and avoid conflict in 30 countries around the world.

By , Staff writer

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    John Marks founded Search for Common Ground in 1982. It's now the largest conflict-resolution and peace-building organization in the world, with offices in 30 countries and a staff of about 600.
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Peace building and conflict resolution conjure up images of persuading rival leaders to sit down at a table to talk.

They don't often bring to mind producing a TV soap opera.

But in 17 countries around the world, soap operas are one of the principle ways the nonprofit Search for Common Ground is breaking down barriers between religious, ethnic, and economic groups and building a basis for ending or averting violence.

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Each of the soap operas concerns a soccer team, simply called called "The Team," and is adapted to fit the situation in each country.  In Kenya, the members of the team come from different tribes; in Morocco, they're both urban and rural, rich and poor. In the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), the players on an all-girls team are all having problems related to sexual violence.

"The messages are interjected into the plots," says John Marks, president and founder of Search for Common Ground. In much the way the US television program "All in the Family" dealt with the thorny social issues of the 1970s, these stories make for compelling viewing while making a point about choosing nonviolence, he says.

Now marking its 30th year, Washington D.C.-based Search for Common Ground has become the biggest conflict-resolution and peace-building organization in the world, with offices in 30 countries and a staff of about 600. It also works with about a thousand partner groups around the world.

"We have a very diverse toolbox [of approaches to problems], which includes having people sit around the table," Mr. Marks says. "But it also includes [making and broadcasting] a music video, participatory theater, TV soaps."  For example, in the DRC, he says, "We're retraining about 25 percent of the Congolese army in respecting the rights of women."

His organization's funding comes mainly from government sources, including the United States but mostly in Europe. "USAID and the [US] State Department both support us, as does the European Union, the British government, the Dutch government, the Danes, the Swedes, the Norwegians. We try to have a diversity of funding, which gives us a good degree of independence."

While the group can't safely operate in situations of open warfare, such as in Syria today, it does play a role in some pretty volatile countries, including Pakistan, Tunisia, and Yemen, as well as in Jerusalem, "places of danger with some violence," he says.

Common Ground is also in the process of setting up operations in Libya and Myanmar (Burma).

Marks founded Search for Common Ground in 1982 after a career in the foreign service and as an author. He had been a vocal critic of the Vietnam War.

"I got to the point in my life where I saw that what I was doing to a large extent was being defined by what I was against," Marks says, "and I decided I wanted to build a new system rather than tear down the old system."

At first Common Ground concentrated on reducing tensions between the United States and the Soviet Union. "That there might be common ground between America and the Soviets was not a very popular idea at the time of the Evil Empire," he recalls.

Today, with conflicts or the potential of conflicts around the world, Common Ground is busier than ever. "We're going to be growing 25 percent this year," Marks says. "I wish it were the opposite. I'd like to be unemployed."

On Nov. 8 the group's annual Common Ground Award will honor five peacemakers. Past recipients have included President Jimmy Carter, South African Archbishop Desmond Tutu, and boxing legend Muhammad Ali.

The five honorees:
• Ingoma Nshya (“New Era”) is Rwanda’s only female Hutu and Tutsi drumming troupe and is the subject of a new documentary film "Sweet Dreams." ("Drumming was a man's thing in Rwanda," Marks says. "It's the national music form but it wasn't something women did.") The group provides a place where ethnic hatred can be replaced by a culture of hope, faith, love, respect, and tolerance.

• Charlayne Hunter-Gault, the TV, radio, and print journalist, helped integrated the University of Georgia as one of its first two African-American students. She has written about her experiences in a new book “To The Mountaintop: My Journey Through the Civil Rights Movement.”

Peace Child International, which also marks its 30th year this year, encourages youths to take action for peace.

• An interfaith award to three leaders from different faiths: Lord George Carey of Clifton, former archbishop of Canterbury; Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf, founder of the American Society for Muslim Advancement; and Rabbi David Rosen, international director of inter-religious affairs, American Jewish Committee.

In addition, a posthumous award will be given to Christopher Stevens, the US ambassador to Libya who died in an assault on the US embassy there in September.

"His sister is coming to collect it," Marks says. "He was a friend of mine. I've known him for 15 years. We were in Libya at his house in July, my wife and I.... So we have a very close connection to him.... We felt he was exactly the kind of person we wanted to honor."

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