By: Martin De Leon
Cross-posted from Georgetown University School of Foreign Service blog article from May 5, 2016.
As a second semester CULP senior with the freedom to take as many electives as I would like, my course load was solely picked on how “cool” the class titles sounded. One of those classes was Media, Arts, and Culture: Fueling War or Creating Peace? As it turns out, not only was the class incredibly cool, but also, I can definitely say that it has been the best class I have taken at Georgetown.
Media, Arts, and Culture was created and taught by adjunct professor Honey Al-Sayed, a bilingual communications professional (Arabic and English), award-winning journalist, and co-founder of SouriaLi, an independent online radio network. One of Al-Sayed’s most notable accomplishments is her radio show, “Good Morning, Syria,” which garnered 7 million daily listeners when it was on-air between 2005-2011. Through “Good Morning, Syria,” Al-Sayed pushed for positive cultural and social reform by engaging Syrians from all religious, political, and ideological backgrounds in conversations that were typically taboo in an effort to foster peace through dialogue.
Unfortunately, after a decade of informing and entertaining the morning commuters of Syria and throughout the MENA region, Al-Sayed was forced to leave Damascus for good. Syrian journalists were under immense pressure to portray the government in the best light, to the point that media channels that were not even remotely political quickly became pro-Assad in order to remain on-air. The pressure on Al-Sayed was arduous despite her attempts to remain neutral and encourage peace; so in 2012, Al-Sayed fled to the United States in search of political asylum.
After receiving her Masters from the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University, where she earned a full scholarship, Al-Sayed combined her experience in media and arts with her passion for education to create Media, Arts, and Culture: Fueling War or Creating Peace? In spite of her inspiring story and tremendous accomplishments, every Wednesday in White Gravenor Room 411, Al-Sayed is just Honey to her 25 students.
During the course of the semester, we surveyed the impact of mainstream digital and social media in contemporary case studies where media and arts were used for both war and peace. Through our assignments and discussions, Honey encouraged us to think outside the box, be creative and strategic in communicating, and be imaginative in telling our own stories – pushing us to exercise skills that we did not even know we had within us. We also learned about the importance and the power that these tools have in creating lasting impact.
“Media, arts, and culture for peace are a solution, not the solution,” says Al-Sayed. “But they are very important means because they are universal, because we all as human beings, wherever we are in this world, appreciate the arts, have expressed ourselves creatively using different mediums be it media or arts or the interplay of both. And this is what we have done throughout history, it’s very important to express ourselves, tell our human stories, especially during conflict.”
Even though the class focused on the way the arts and media are used for mobilization and changing public perception, the skills we acquired and refined throughout the semester are applicable even for those of us who are not going into media or the arts. As explained by Al-Sayed: “It’s very important to open up your imagination in this very complex world of ours that is in continued conflict. Creativity in your leadership is very important [as is] having an understanding of the media/arts landscape.”
A major component of the course was the inclusion of guest lecturers who are active in the field. Nearly every class featured professionals in media, arts, advocacy, and social change who spoke to the class on their work and their successes in using the media, the arts, and communications for promoting peace. A few notable speakers were playwright Hedda Krausz Sjögren, senior policy fellow at USIP Maria Stephan, CBS producer Josh Yager, photographer Eman Mohammed, nonviolent practitioner Nadine Bloch, new media sculptor Matt Kenyon, among many other professionals.
The SFS curriculum emphasizes the use of policy and hard power as a way to impact diplomacy, and the value placed on culture and the arts is typically underplayed. But as I learned in Honey’s class, media, art, culture, and nonviolent actions have a way of breaking down barriers and creating lasting social impact. Not only are these tools universal and speak to core human values, they produce measurable results, which make a case for the arts that is not typically promoted at Georgetown. Because of Media, Arts, and Culture: Fueling War or Creating Peace, I have learned that my creative skills can be applied in an impactful way. Thank you Honey, for bringing a refreshing take on diplomacy to Georgetown, and demonstrating how we can use the arts to become women and men for others.