Common Ground Awards: A Night of Celebration
By Karen Meberg and Juontel White
Every year since 1998, Search for Common Ground has presented Common Ground Awards to people and organizations that have made outstanding achievements in conflict resolution, community building and peacebuilding. Recipients came from all parts of the world and combined, their work positively impacts a variety of peoples and groups—from inner city youth to former child soldiers, small communities and international agencies.
This year Search for Common Ground honored the following awardees: CeaseFire, Luma Mufleh and the Fugees Family, Karen Armstrong, Dr. Izzeldin Abuelaish, Congressmen John Lewis and Elwin Wilson, Playing for Change, Melissa Etheridge and Salman Ahmad.
Hosted at the Canadian Embassy on October 29, the 2009 Common Ground Awards was a grand affair. The embassy was a prime location for the occasion as it is the only embassy to stand directly between Capitol Hill and the White House- and thus is a true symbol of common ground, Guy Saint-Jacques, Deputy Head of Mission for the Canadian Embassy jokingly remarked.
Ambassadors, musicians, congressmen and even her majesty, Queen Noor of Jordan, joined SFCG staff in celebrating the honorees. The evening began with a reception, where guests and recipients mingled while tasting savory appetizers and listening to the smooth sounds of gypsy jazz. Then, everyone filled an auditorium eager for the program to begin.
Mistress of Ceremonies, Susan Collin Marks, co-founder of Search for Common Ground, gave a warm greeting and awardees were each introduced through a 5-minute video montage. After the video, they were invited to the stage to accept their award and give a speech.
The acceptance speeches were far from the provincial and curt thank-you remarks followed by traditional polite applause. Rather, recipients shared their personal stories, revealing the life changing experience(s) that motivated them to perform their work.
For some it was overcoming a tragedy, for others a serendipitous encounter; but all shared a common desire to make peace and uplift humanity. The sincerity of their stories caused tears to swell in the eyes of some audience members and all recipients received boisterous applause.
In addition to the speeches, several musical sections were interspersed throughout the program—namely a screening of “Ring the Bells”
SFCG’s promotional video by Melissa Etheridge and Salman Ahmad as well as a live performance by Ahmad, who strummed his guitar while singing a medley that included traditional Pakistani music and John Lennon’s “Imagine.”
SFCG Co-founder, John Marks gave closing remarks, and the celebrations were brought to an unwanted, but inevitable, end.
About the Awardees
CeaseFire is an antiviolence initiative in Chicago, IL and received the Common Ground Award for Community Peacebuilding.
Founded by Gary Slutkin, M.D. and based at the University of Illinois at Chicago School of Public Health, CeaseFire treats gun violence as a public health problem, and works to cure it by changing both individual and community behavior.
Much of CeaseFire’s success has resulted from the work of “violence interrupters”—streetwise individuals (some former gang members) who use their connections to dispel conflicts before they become violent.
The Chicago community where CeaseFire was launched experienced a 67 percent decrease in crime within the program’s inaugural year. Tio Hardiman, director of CeaseFire Illinois, accepted CeaseFire’s Common Ground Award for Community Peacebuilding
In 2004, Luma Mufleh began coaching a team of refugee boys outside of Atlanta, GA. Two years later, she founded Fugees Family, Inc. an organization that uses soccer as a tool to give hope to child survivors of war and help them realize their potential.
The organization consists of a year-round soccer team and has expanded to include after-school tutoring, a private academy and an academic enrichment camp for about 90 boys, each of different backgrounds. On Fugees Family teams, Northern and Southern Sudanese, Sunni and Shia Muslims and boys of many other ethnicities all play together. Mufleh believes the collaborative nature of team sports allows the boys to put aside their differences and focus on their commonalities. She hopes to one day have girls join the team.
British author Karen Armstrong is widely known as one of the most provocative and original thinkers on religion and its role in the modern world. She has published more than 20 books on comparative religion, preaching the similarities of Islam, Judaism and Christianity.
In 2008, Armstrong received the TED Prize, which grants each recipient “One Wish to Change the World.” Armstrong’s wish was for the creation, propagation and launch of a Charter for Compassion, based on the principles of universal justice and respect. The Charter focuses on what Armstrong believes is the one thing all major religious, spiritual and ethical traditions have in common: the mandate for compassion!
Submissions to the Charter were open to the public and more than 150,000 people from over 180 countries contributed their words. The final document will be unveiled on November 14 and on that day, will be posted in churches, mosques, temples and other religious centers throughout the world. Though she was unable to attend the ceremony, Armstrong sent a video acceptance speech to SFCG.
Dr. Izzeldin Abuelaish is a Palestinian doctor who has practiced in Israel and the Palestinian Territories. He has conducted joint research projects with Israeli physicians and worked to bring injured Palestinians to Israel for treatment.
As one of the few Palestinians with a work permit in Israel, Dr. Abuelaish serves as a bridge between the two worlds. During the Gaza crisis earlier this year, three of his daughters and a niece were killed in their home. Despite his grief, Dr. Abuelaish remains committed to spreading his message of forgiveness, hope and non-violence between Israelis and Palestinians.
In honor of his daughters’ legacy, Dr. Abuelaish is developing a foundation that will provide leadership training and access to education for Middle Eastern women.
Almost 50 years ago, Representative John Lewis was a member of the Freedom Riders, a move that would propel him to become anational leader of the Civil Rights Movement. When he and other Freedom Riders attempted to enter a waiting “Whites Only” area in Rock Hill, SC he was brutally attacked by a mob.
Elwin Wilson was part of that mob. This January, the two men met on Capitol Hill, where Wilson expressed remorse for his racist attitudes and for taking part in Lewis’ beating.
Rep. Lewis forgave Mr. Wilson without hesitation and the two hope that their reconciliation will inspire others who were involved in Civil Rights-era violence to come forward and work towards healing the wounds of racism thatpersist in the United States.
Two music videos, both expressing messages of peace and unity, were shown at this year’s awards. “Stand By Me,” produced by Playing For Change (PFC), is an international collaboration of 37 musicians. PFC traveled the world collecting footage of musicians playing Ben King’s classic. The video has become one this year’s most unexpected cultural phenomena and has gone viral, with over 20 million views online.
Ring The Bells was created as a result of conversations and jam sessions between Melissa Etheridge and Salman Ahmad. The song blends Melissa’s raspy vocals and pop-folk style with Salman’s Sufi singing in a call for worldwide unity and change. The video was produced by Participant Media, whose mission is to tell compelling stories that raise awareness on global issues and encourage the audience to make a difference. Youtchi von Lintel accepted the award on behalf of Participant Media.