PORTLAND – When Portland High School students had the opportunity to meet and talk to a high-profile Egyptian human rights activist on Friday, they had a simple topic to discuss.
“Just … how to change the world,” said Wael Nawara, an author involved in the 2011 protests that took down President Hosni Mubarak’s long-standing regime.
Nawara, who was recognized in Time magazine’s 2011 Person of the Year issue about the global protesters who shook the world, came to the high school during a fellowship at Harvard University’s Institute of Politics at the invitation of a student and Portland High School graduate, Mikhaila Fogel.
In front of about 70 students in the school’s Global Studies program March 9, Nawara spoke rapidly about Egypt’s revolution and the country’s political developments since Mubarak’s fall.
Egypt’s political environment is still evolving, he said, even as Islamist parties come to power after the country’s most recent elections. The open system is still a new idea to many, he said.
“You have to explain, ‘what is democracy?’ Is it just elections?” he said. “Democracy is not an end destination. It is a journey.”
Nawara’s first-hand account of revolution by the people was not enough to keep some students from losing interest, and the quick clip of his talk was likely too fast for some of the ELL students involved in the global studies program to keep up with, one teacher noted.
But some teenagers and Nawara himself became visibly more engaged as he opened the floor to their questions.
After a few inquiries from social sciences teachers who were clearly as – or more – interested in the eyewitness account of current events as the students, the pupils began to ask their own: Are liberal political parties forming to combat Islamist ones? Can violent revolution be justified? What advice do you have for revolutionaries struggling to elevate their movements in places like Saudi Arabia and Bahrain?
Nawara said he was “very impressed” with the student’s questions. He had been warned that they might not be interested, or that they might not ask questions, but said found “that they were really in tune and asked difficult questions – but important questions.”
As the conversation progressed, Egypt faded into the background and more global issues came up. “I start by talking about Egypt,” Nawara said. “(But in the end) it’s not about Egypt.”
The most obviously applicable lesson to American students was the capacity of social media for societal change, said Kate Suslovic, a junior. American high-schoolers tend not to use their Facebook and Twitter accounts for great causes, she said. But “you could do something and do it really quickly,” she said.
While Nawara talked about the importance of having a real message for social media users to latch onto, the classroom intercom crackled, asking for a student to be sent to the office.
“Big Brother,” he joked.
“You don’t even know,” replied one teacher, perhaps only half joking.
The next student asked if Egyptian schools are helping or hurting reform.
Nawara said they are doing both: providing a place for people to meet and share new ideas, but also still tied to a curriculum and version of history dictated by the old regime. But schools are vital to healthy societies, he said.
“I would say in fact education is the most important priority a government can make,” Nawara said. “You want to push critical thinking. Even if there is something good, you can improve it.”
The school’s global studies program holds monthly seminars with guest speakers from a vast array of backgrounds; the next will be Unity Dow, Botswana’s first female judge.
The program was initiated three years ago to provide a more authentic way for American students to interact with their immigrant peers, teacher Sarah Shmitt said.
At the time, the school’s ELL students and American-born ones were put on different academic tracks that offered few opportunities to mingle. That has begun to change at the school, one of the state’s most diverse, but the program continues to provide an important venue for cross-cultural interaction.
Fogel, the PHS grad turned Harvard student leader, said she wanted to bring Nawara to Portland because of the school’s varied demographic, and because she wanted to show students how to stand up for themselves.
Working with Nawara to promote his weekly study group on democracy in Egypt at Harvard has been “completely inspiring,” she said.
Wael Nawara, an Egyptian writer and human rights activist who participated in the 2011 protests that ended President Hosni Mubarak’s regime, spoke to students at Portland High School on March 9.