Just World Ed: Our record in 2020, plans for 2021

Just World AdminBlog, China, Gaza, Global Balance, JWE news, South Africa, Syria

Report by Helena Cobban, Executive President

This year’s multiple crises spurred Just World Educational to develop innovative forms of programing in support of our knowledge-expanding mission. This report shares my review of what we have achieved in 2020 and previews our plans for the first part of 2021.

To be honest, I am pretty proud of what we’ve achieved in 2020. It wasn’t just the number of mind-expanding online conversations we were able to share with the learning public during the four webinar series we’ve presented since late March– see all our panelists and interlocutors lined up above… It was also the amazing quality and depth of those conversations, each one of which retains its value as an online learning resource and will continue to do so for months or years to come.

In 2020, Just World Ed discovered– and exploited to the hilt– the value of having, and publicly sharing, well-prepared conversations on often thorny issues that feature a range of participants from all around the world.

“Commonsense on Syria”

At the beginning of 2020, we were just starting to plan a U.S. speaking tour project that would feature a range of different voices on Syria. But when the pandemic hit, we swiftly pivoted to presenting a much wider-ranging version of our earlier plan– and did it via webinars.

Our webinar series, “Commonsense on Syria”, presented 15 speakers in a total of nine bi-weekly sessions. Only two of these speakers hailed from Washington DC. Three joined us from elsewhere in the United States; four from Damascus; and the remaining six from a total of five other countries! What a rich array of voices and perspectives!

We decided early on not to let those powerful and informative discussions just disappear into the ether. Instead, we used the videos of these sessions as the basis for a longer-lasting Resource Page on our website. It has already received over 2,400 visitors!

With this project, we aimed to present a wealth of strong information about the situation in Syria, presented by speakers of a variety of political viewpoints– especially those seldom heard in the U.S. media. We also wanted to demonstrate in our sessions that it’s possible for people with differing views on Syria to discuss those differences in a collegial way that can expand everyone’s horizons… rather than letting the disagreements descend into the kind of name-calling and acrimony that over recent years have driven deep divisions on this issue right through the the heart of so many progressive, antiwar, and Palestinian-rights organizations.

We’ve heard from numerous colleagues and organizations that this project had exactly the kind of impact we had sought! I feel deeply grateful to all the wonderful people who joined us as panelists. (And if you haven’t seen their webinars, check them out on the Resource Page!)

The World After Covid

In April and May, my JWE board colleague Richard Falk and I were both starting to survey the changes in the global system that the Covid-19 pandemic was spurring. JWE’s next project was thus an open-ended series of webinars in which we’d explore different aspects of what was happening in “The World After Covid.” During the eight weeks this series ran, I had a series of mind-expanding, one-on-one conversations with people like African-American scholar-activist Bill Fletcher, Jr., Codepink’s Medea Benjamin, global organizer Vijay Prashad, renowned rights defender Marjorie Cohn, veteran diplomatist Chas W. Freeman, Jr.– and Richard Falk himself (twice.)

This time, we knew even more about what we could do to build on the “raw material” provided by the videorecording of a webinar, to build a Resource Page of longer-lasting value. So on the Resource Page we made from that series, we presented not only the videos of those amazing conversations but also transcripts of the videos and links to an even broader range of related resources.

Once again, reactions from attendees were strongly positive. Here is just a small sampling:

  • “You are doing a magnificent job!” 
  • “Your choices of guests are excellent and I’d say 100% have been valuable resources.” 
  • “You are bringing history to us that has been drowned by the narratives of…the US, Britain, Israel, and others.” 
  • “Brava! A wonderful contribution to understanding. Much needed. Fascinating discussions!” …

Our U.S.-China Public Dialogue

After summer break, we decided to expand on one of the key issues we’d discussed in “The World After Covid”: the rapid shifts in the U.S.-China balance that the pandemic had caused (or, more precisely, accelerated.) It was the lead-up to the presidential elections here in the United States, and I was worried that the pre-election period might see a ramping up of anti-China feeling by both campaigns. So, working in partnership with the Chongyang Institute at Beijing’s Renmin University, we organized a series of U.S.-China dialogues that would explore some of the tough issues in the bilateral relationship…

And by presenting these dialogues in full to the online-learning public we would demonstrate to citizens in both countries that these issues need not be a cause for conflict but could be approached in a collegial manner, marked by mutual respect, and thereby moved toward de-escalation, not escalation of tensions…

Amb. Freeman was a big help in planning this project, as were all the colleagues at the Chongyang Institute, including their Senior Fellow, John Ross. We had planned to launch the series with a dialogue between Amb. Freeman and the head lof the Chongyang Institute, Dr. Wang Wen, but illness on Amb. Freeman’s part (not Covid, thank G-d) prevented that. We went ahead anyway and held two extremely fruitful sessions of our “U.S.-China Public Dialogue”: one that looked at tough issues on the security agenda and the other at tough issues in economic relations.

On the Resource Page we made from the U.S.-China project, you can find not just the videos and transcripts of these two intriguing dialogue sessions, but also links to the audio versions of them– and again, a lot of related resources.

By the way, because of the 12-hour time difference between Washington DC and Beijing, we did not run these dialogue sessions as webinars, with members of the public invited to attend in-real-time. Instead, for this project, we ran (and recorded) the sessions as regular Zoom meetings, releasing the multi-media records of each one just a few days after it happened. (We still hope we can schedule the Freeman-Wang session, sometime in the New Year: Stay tuned.)

We worked to make the records of these dialogue sessions available as widely as possible in the English-speaking world (and would much appreciate any help you could give us in that!)

In the Chinese-speaking world, meanwhile, the Chongyang Institute published the entire transcripts of both of our dialogues on Guancha.cn: Here is the dialogue on security affairs, and here’s the one on economic affairs.They each won more than 100,000 viewers!

Our “Beyond Survival” project

To wrap up our busy year of webinar-plus programing, in November-December we presented two webinars in the “Beyond Survival” series, which explores the quite inhumane stress that Israel’s suffocating– and fully U.S.-supported– siege has been inflicting on the food system of the 2 million residents of Palestinian Gaza.

Our longtime friends Laila El-Haddad and Maggie Schmitt (the widely acknowledged doyennes of the Palestinian cookbook world) worked with us to lead these webinars, each of which we conducted jointly with another great organization: respectively, the Boston-based Grassroots International and the DC-based Museum of the Palestinian People.

One innovation we built into the second of these webinars was to commission from some colleagues in Gaza 5-minute pre-recorded films in which participants in Gaza’s food system could speak for themselves about their lives and the challenges they face. We did this to avoid having to deal with Gaza’s horrible power-out situation as well as its Covid situation– both of which, along with the time difference, would have made the  “live” participation by these Gaza farmers and food processors an iffy proposition. But the short films themselves are also a very informative online resource! We’ve included them, along with the videos and transcripts of the webinars themselves, on the Resource Page for the “Beyond Survival” project, which we will be continuing to expand over the months ahead.

We’re planning  to resume work on this project in late Spring 2021. (See below.)

Other projects

South African liberation shero Ma Rita Ndzanga, on the “Reunion” with a great-grandchild

At the end of November, we worked with the South African organization Value Ed to present an extremely moving webinar that was part “family reunion” for four amazingly courageous she-roes of their country’s anti-apartheid struggle… and part community celebration of these women’s track record and tenacity. You can read more about that small project, and find a link to the video of the hour-long webinar here.

Plus, throughout the year, our Just World Ed blog continued to post content on a wide range of content on the issues of our concern– including cross-posts of writings also published elsewhere by board members Richard Falk and Alice Rothchild, and myself.

… Finally, several people have asked about what happened to the “Getting to S” project that we undertook in late 2019. That project brought leaders in the leading Palestinian-rights organizations together in Washington DC, to strategize how to get to the “S” in the BDS movement, that is, to win U.S. government sanctions on Israel for its many violations of international law. The unprecedented, day-long workshop that resulted was very successful. We were then very happy that, by mutual agreement, one of the much larger organizations in the Palestinian-rights space took over the project on a continuing basis: Their capacity to do this is very much larger than ours! But Just World Ed had definitely played a unique role in catalyzing that strategic-planning process.

Our first two projects in 2021!

First up will be the project “Women in South Africa’s Struggle Against Apartheid”, which we’ll launch in January and then shift into full steam mode during February (a.k.a. Black History Month.) This project will take as its jumping-off point the publication by Just World Books of Woman Surviving Apartheid’s Prisons— now scheduled for February 1. But it will also look more broadly at the little-known story of the role that women played in South Africa’s freedom struggle.

I’m thrilled to share that South Africa’s Ambassador to the United States, H.E. Nomaindiya Cathleen Mfeketo, who has a distinguished record of her own in the anti-apartheid movement, has agreed to appear in the (online) launch event for the book and the project, on February 1: Stay tuned for details!!

We’ve already started to build the Resource Page for this project. Any help that you can give in any phase of this project would be very much welcomed!

Next up: At some point in March we’ll be resuming the “Beyond Survival” project, pushing yet further forward its investigation into the effects that settler colonialism has had on Indigenous foodways in Palestine and elsewhere.

I am really delighted that with our current and upcoming programing we can delve much more deeply into the record of “White” settler colonialism worldwide– whether in South Africa, Palestine, or here in the United States– and explore the lessons we can learn from the lengthy history of the struggle against it.

As I imagine most people know, Just World Educational is a very “lean” organization, with minimal administrative and managerial costs. (All the work I put into JWE is done pro-bono; and the rest of our board members serve pro-bono, too.) But of course there are costs associated with everything we do to create and share the distinctive learning resources that are our forte.

Any gift you can give will help fuel our mission of building the informed public that’s needed if we want to create the more just and sustainable world that we, our children, and grandchildren all so desperately need.