On November 8, 2014, AFS Intercultural Programs, under the patronage of UNESCO, hosted an international high-level symposium Learning to Live Together—from Ideas to Action: AFS Global Intercultural Education Symposium for more than 1,000 attendees.

It was an amazing milestone in AFS history when representatives of the AFS global community convened with global luminaries in the world of peace and justice at the UNESCO Headquarters in Paris, France to make a bold statement about the importance of global citizenship education and the role AFS has taken to advance this movement.

“Our mission for the Symposium and going forward is to drive the global citizenship education movement to reach and cultivate partners, advocates, influencers, thought leaders and potential global citizens—young and old—especially those living or working in areas of great turmoil,” explains Melissa Liles, Chief Education Officer of AFS Intercultural Programs.

Building on the powerful recommendations presented at the 100 Years Young! AFS Youth Symposium earlier in the day, both the audience and the speakers were charged with anticipation and excitement. Roberto Ruffino, Secretary General of Fondazione Intercultura and Honorary Chairperson of the European Federation for Intercultural Learning (EFIL), set up the afternoon conclave with reflections on the theme of the conference, which was inspired by Jacques Delors’ challenge that we “learn to live together by developing an understanding of others.” Mr. Delors is the former three-time President of the European Commission and Chairperson of the UNESCO Commission on Education for the Twenty-first Century.

The distinguished roster of speakers then facilitated a thought-provoking conversation exploring the dimensions and challenges of developing global citizens who can work across cultural differences to create a more just and peaceful world.

“We must recognize that our students are not ready for the world if they have no grasp of the 21st century’s challenges,” stated Oscar Arias, Nobel Peace Prize laureate and former President of Costa Rica (1986-1990, 2006-2010) in his keynote address. “We must make intercultural understanding, not a footnote in our educational systems, but rather a mandatory course of study.”

Critical to the discussion of global citizenship education is the topic of ethics, and whether living together requires a common morality code. For Mr. Arias, the answer is yes, but only if morality was not bound to any specific religious or spiritual code. Instead, he defined morality as the basic values of integrity, compassion, respect, solidarity, tolerance and peace. “No weapon has ever settled a moral problem. Education can,” added Mr. Arias. “Education is the only solution to our world’s challenges. Education is the only answer to the crime of war. Education is the only light in the darkness.”

AFS, like many leading voices in this movement, echoes Mr. Arias’ commitment to education. Specifically, AFS believes that intercultural education provides the foundation for preparing global citizens to engage effectively. Vigdís Finnbogadóttir, former President of Iceland, agrees:

“If we are to have peace, we need to learn about other cultures.” Also, she added: “The education of women in the world is a great step to saving the world.”  

Representing the AFS Youth Workshop and Symposium, Chernor Bah, the youth representative on the High-Level Steering committee for the UN Secretary General’s Global Education First Initiative, pressed the speakers to explore specific actions that learning to live together require, while questioning who sets the agenda for educating global citizens and what values should prevail in this process. During his remarks, Bah also underscored the importance of education, adding that a “lack of opportunity in the world leads to extremism.”

That may be why “the greatest global citizens are small children,” said Andreas Schleicher, head of the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) at the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development. Responding to that comment, David Blythe of AFS International tweeted, “Andreas Shleicher is right. They haven’t learned to hate.”

As promised, the panelists offered some concrete steps to help turn ideas into action. The audience was elated to hear Mr. Shleicher announce that PISA 2018 will “judge schools on how they educate youth to be global citizens.”

Impressed with the advocacy of young people in this field, Éric Falt, Assistant Director-General at UNESCO encouraged them to do more: “Youth are not challenging the establishment enough,” said Mr. Falt. “Young people must join the ranks of policy makers and start influencing decisions directly.”

J. Brian Atwood, Chair of Global Policy Studies at the University of Minnesota and former Administrator of the U.S Agency for International Development (USAID), sent a very clear message to global leaders: “Politicians need to stop demonizing others to win votes,” if they are serious about tackling international challenges.

And what advice did the panel have for everyday citizen changemakers striving to make a difference in the communities or across the globe?

Roberto Ruffino provided words of inspiration by telling the story of how AFS transformed itself to make a difference. “Within a century that has transformed our planet into a global village, AFS has carved a new identity, from a humanitarian organisation on the battlefields of France to an [international] network of partners dedicated to intercultural education worldwide,” explained Mr. Ruffino.

“For a hundred years, in different ways,” he added, “AFS has tried to overcome borders: borders turned into front-lines, political borders between nations, cultural and linguistic borders, borders that exist in the minds of people. This is the outstanding contribution of the American Field Service to life and education for the 21st century.”

In closing, facilitator Vishakha Desai, Special Advisor for Global Affairs at Columbia University and President Emerita of the Asia Society, encouraged everyone in the audience to think differently about their own efforts.

“Be the change you want to see in the world. That is, my friends, what we are all about,” advised Dr. Desai. “If you think you’re too small to make an impact, try to fall asleep with a mosquito in your room.”