Interview with Our Executive Director

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Originally published on YES! Magazine

Each week, Global Oneness Project features its "Story of the Week" and free supplementary lesson. October's story is My Enemy, My Brother. With this real-life story, students watch, analyze, discuss, and write about two former enemies, Zahed and Najah, who fought in the Iran-Iraq War and later became blood brothers for life. The complete collection of stories and lesson plans, plus a host of films and photo essays, is available on the Global Oneness Project website.

Cleary Vaughan-Lee is a writer, explorer, mother, and education director for Global Oneness Project. Global Oneness Project’s films and photo essays have been featured on National Geographic and PBS, and in The Atlantic Monthly, The New York Times, and The New Yorker. Lessons plans and educational materials created by Cleary are used in schools around the country, such as Chicago Public Schools, MIT, UC Berkeley, and AltSchool.
Cleary spoke with us about the Global Oneness Project, which she co-founded with her husband, filmmaker Emmanuel Vaughan-Lee, in 2006. Her answers have been lightly edited.

What inspired the Story of the Month, and why is it important to you? What makes this curriculum unique?
I believe in the power of stories. Stories told through short, global documentaries and photos can transcend boundaries and cultures.

These engaging multimedia stories help students understand social, environmental, cultural issues, and universal human values.

What makes our curriculum unique are the films and photo essays that we use. All of the filmmakers and photographers are personally invested in the people and places they capture. Most of these stories are about simple people, from all continents, leading ordinary lives. I think that’s what makes them so relatable.

In ten minutes or less, students can enter someone else’s world, through a film or photo essay, and live their experience. That is a beautiful thing.

What do you want students to take away from these lessons and stories? What do you want them to know and do, and are there any ways to assess this?
We want students to walk away with an experience of the world through the lives of the subjects in the stories—to connect to the characters and to develop empathy.

If the story is about a woman who is the last speaker of her Native American indigenous language, we want students to see and feel what it is like to be someone who could lose her language and, ultimately, her tribe’s cultural knowledge. If the story is about Mongolian herders who are trying to live their traditional nomadic lifestyle in a modern world, we want students to see and feel what it’s like to survive in a changing economic landscape and record-cold temperatures.

I recently shared a film, Isle de Jean Charles, about a small island in the bayous of Louisiana that is slowly sinking in the sea, with a high school class. After the film, I asked the students, if they were in the character’s shoes, would they stay on the island? One student said that because his parents were in the military, he moved frequently and understood the importance of stability. He said with conviction that if he lived on Isles de Jean Charles and had to make the difficult choice, he would stay on the island to defend his home.

What advice do you have for teachers who want to use this curriculum and stories?
My advice to teachers is to be open to using film and photography to bring the world into the classroom. Stories can transport you somewhere else in a way that nothing else can.

They provide a lens for students to make personal connections and bring relevancy to how they fit in this increasingly fast-changing world. Let’s face it: students today are strongly influenced by visual media. This is a great opportunity to meet them there, in this digital landscape.

After the Nepal earthquake in April 2015, I shared a photo essay with some high school students. The photographer happened to document cultural artifacts that were damaged in the Kathmandu Valley. The students not only learned about the cultural artifacts of this place, but also made the connection that artifacts tell future audiences about how people lived in a certain time. They discussed the smartphone as a modern artifact, and how this object could define our culture in 50 years.

Also, find stories that you and your students resonate with—and use them as a starting point. I’ve met teachers whose students have never left their state or town. These resources can expose students to people and places they never knew existed!

What additional resources do you recommend?
The Learning Network from The New York Times
PBS Learning Media
TED-Ed, video and lessons that spread great ideas.
National Geographic Education
Common Sense Media, find the best digital tools for student projects and collaboration.
Asia Society, resources to promote mutual understanding between Asia and the United States.

What’s your story?
Music and stories shaped my childhood. My mother was a high school English teacher for over 35 years, and the love of literature, stories, and music was passed down to me.

When I was 19, a book literally fell off of a bookstore shelf and landed in my hands. It was Peace is Every Step, by Thich Nhat Hanh. I read the quote, “If our love is only a will to possess, it is not love.” This changed my worldview. I decided that I wanted to live a life of service.

Seven years later, I met my husband Emmanuel, a jazz musician, and filmmaker. He founded the Global Oneness Project and we have been a team ever since. I started the education arm of the project, creating the curriculum to accompany the films he documents.

Occasionally, people ask us, How can you make it work—living, raising children, and working together? First, we live and work in Point Reyes Station, one of the most beautiful places in the world. Second, we balance work with being in nature—with our 10-year-old son and 13-year-old daughter we visit beaches and hike almost daily. Finally, there is a lot of love—both in what we do and with each other.

Image from the photo essay, "Mongolia's Nomads," by Taylor Weidman.

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More to Explore

My Enemy, My Brother

Meet two survivors of the Iran-Iraq war who meet again years later under remarkable circumstances.

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Isle de Jean Charles

Meet two residents of a tiny island vanishing in the rising waters of the Louisiana Bayou.

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The Nepal Quake: Protecting Cultural Heritage

These photographs capture Nepal's efforts to protect irreplaceable cultural artifacts after the 8.7 magnitude earthquake in 2015.

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