School Beat: Project Spera helps Local Youth Grasp Global Issues

by Madiha Murshed and Dana Curran on August 11, 2005

American youth haven’t always been applauded as the most globally aware group of young people in the world. Most people think youth today don’t care about domestic and international causes, much less understand the intricacies of global issues such as outsourcing, immigration, rising fuel prices and trade restrictions.

A 2002 survey by National Geographic found that young adults in the US ranked near the bottom of those in industrialized countries in their knowledge of world and national geography, as well as current affairs such as the Middle East crisis. Only 1 in 7 young Americans could find Iraq or Iran on a map of the Middle East. For those of us looking ahead, this isn’t an encouraging sign from our future leaders; as the world becomes smaller, and the problems that our communities face become more global in nature, many young Americans enter adulthood unprepared to live and work in a global society.

My name is Madiha Murshed, and I co-founded the nonprofit Project Spera three years ago with Dana Curran. Dana is a graduate of the public school system in New Jersey, while I was educated in the Middle East and Asia in schools that stressed ‘global citizenship’. There is certainly a necessity in every country for this kind of awareness, but Dana and I agreed that there is an even greater need in a country as economically and politically powerful as the United States. So when we met at Columbia University’s graduate program in international affairs, our discussions lead us to create a program that addresses the need to increase global awareness among youth.

In San Francisco in particular, young people are growing up in a truly global city. In 2002, some 40% of SF County residents were born outside the US. Most of us live, work or study beside people from all over the world. Understanding and appreciating the ways in which world affairs affect our diverse community at home is fast becoming a necessity. As local challenges continue to broaden in scope and involve global issues, solving them will require global awareness.

The challenges are numerous. Currently American youth simply do not learn enough about the world, or even about their own communities. The 2002 survey faults inadequate classroom exposure as a major cause of poor global awareness among youth. But it isn’t easy for teachers to consistently incorporate current affairs and global issues into daily lesson plans. Unfortunately, the pressures of standardized testing, overcrowded classrooms and the need to teach to standards have become a priority over international affairs.

Project Spera takes these challenges to task. As a global education nonprofit based in San Francisco, our mission is to educate youth to have a deeper understanding of contemporary international affairs and to foster a sense of responsibility so that youth see themselves as global citizens, and act as such.

We work directly with teachers and schools, helping them bring international issues into the classroom. We look at the curriculum that teachers have to use and then brainstorm various global issues that they can easily incorporate into their lesson plans. We then provide them with the teaching materials to do so. We also help schools internationalize extra-curricular programs. We recognize the constraints teachers face-time, standards, knowledge of international affairs- and offer a service that eliminates these barriers.

Our youth programs, the World Affairs Challenge (WAC) and the Global Youth Media and Arts Program (Global Youth MAP), are engaging hundreds of young people annually in learning about and seeking solutions to global problems. The WAC is an academic competition stressing research and presentation skills. Students spend up to four months preparing a formal presentation on an international topic related to the annual theme, with administrative and research support provided by Project Spera. The theme for the 2006 Challenge is “Contemporary Conflict”.

Global Youth MAP enables youth to examine international issues through a variety of artistic mediums, including painting, film, radio, music, and spoken word, culminating in a festival in December. This year’s theme will be “Peace and Conflict: From Local to Global”. Throughout fall 2005, Project Spera will work in close collaboration with media and arts organizations and schoolteachers serving youth in the Bay Area, preparing students in these programs to participate in the festival. Festival events and exhibitions will provide a public forum for youth to present their perspectives on the political, economic, social and cultural issues facing their communities and the world.

Drawing connections between academics and the real world often motivates youth to learn more. Studies point to the need to make education more relevant to the lives and cultures of students. Project Spera’s programs are designed to achieve just that.

Our students are vocal about their engagement in this learning process: “I really enjoyed the World Affairs Challenge because it offered more than what we would learn in school, and it offered it to anyone who wanted to participate. I learned more (and really knew it, not just memorized for a test or something) in the weeks preparing for the Challenge than I do on a regular basis at school. Most of what is done at school is to fill requirements, but with the WAC, everything had relevance and felt more important because I could really relate to it, and the WAC helped me realize that” (student at International Studies Academy in San Francisco).

Education will never be able to tackle every global issue in depth in the classroom, but programs like this can teach young people skills to think critically about all global issues and understand their importance to our lives and our local communities. Only then will they be prepared to find solutions as leaders in the future.

Learn more about how Project Spera can work at your school at www.projectspera.org.

Madiha Murshed and Dana Curran are the co-founders of Project Spera.

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