What 30 Days in the Middle East Taught Me About Charlottesville

I am now back home in the United States to give a keynote for 500 superintendents, principals, teachers, and staff of the Jericho New York school system. Their top request is for me to address the recent domestic terrorism in my hometown of Charlottesville, VA, and guide them on how to lead students through this changing landscape of American society. Having just spent the past two months giving keynotes on cultural entrepreneurship and songwriting in comparatively peaceful Iraq and Lebanon, my perspective on terrorism and religious/ideological divides has been greatly fine tuned.

The Middle East was truly life changing for me (see past two blogs here). I had Iraqi students from Mosul who had been captured and tortured by ISIS and liberated only days before I arrived, Kurds who still live in fear ever since their families had been gassed by Saddam Hussein 30 years ago, and Syrians whose homes in Aleppo have been recently bombed and turned into rubble.

A few days ago, my wife and I drove through Hezbollah Lebanese territory along the Syrian border in order to discover more of Lebanon. Baalbek is one of the most fantastic cities I have ever seen. Many advised us not to go because the two hour journey through the heart of Hezbollah is said to be dangerous, and the US Embassy even warns that it will not assist citizens if something goes wrong. However, a few locals that we grew to trust said that it would be a missed opportunity not to go. So, we hired a reputable driver that would not sell us out to terrorists (apparently this is a serious possibility) and only spoke in French to disguise my being an American. Our ten hour trip is one that we will remember for a lifetime.

About half way to Baalbek, a soldier at a checkpoint got into our car and rode with us for fifteen minutes as we crossed the "Christian/Muslim border" in the Beqaa Valley. I still don't know why he joined us, but one of the two roads to Baalbek appeared to be closed and clearly we were taking the one that was unfamiliar to our driver. After the soldier got out, our Christian driver periodically had to ask the local Hezbollah community for directions. This made me very nervous, however, he told us that this has happened to him before. In fact, he said that Hezbollah often offers him a cup of coffee or tea before sending him on his way. He explained that it doesn't matter if one is Christian, Muslim, Hezbollah, or Army. "We are all Lebanese first," he said. "And this is how Lebanese treat each other."

As much as we believe that the Middle East is filled with radical ideology, today's America seems more radical than anywhere else. How ironic it was to have been peacefully traveling throughout Iraq and Lebanon, and on the very day that I am surrounded by Hezbollah, the international "breaking news" reports domestic terrorism in Charlottesville VA.

America is rapidly moving to left and right extremes, but civility only resides in the middle. We must peacefully lure each other toward the center in order to have civil discourse, and if necessary, agree to disagree. Whether one is Christian, Muslim, socialist, alt. right, straight, or gay, we are all Americans first.





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The American Dream in the Middle East

It was an honor to give the keynote a few days ago to the Colorado Association of School Executives. I shared stories from last week's trip to Iraq and from the experience of working with my students from Mosul who endured the worst suffering under ISIS simply because they committed the crime of playing music. Their poignant journeys provided an opening for my keynote unlike any other I have given (if you didn't see my last blog post, let me know and I'll forward it to you). I'm still moved to tears each time I talk about them, and I will be telling their stories for a long time to come as an example of bravery, determination, and creativity in defeating fundamentalist ideology with music.

Dr. Jill Biden (former United States "Second Lady"/wife of Vice President Joe Biden) was the other keynote speaker. Both of us work with children in Syrian refugee camps in the Middle East, and we both come from political families that have shaped the world's most influential democracies. So, I gave her and Joe my grandmother's biography, We Nehrus—the inside story of my own family's fight for independence and how my great uncle, aunt, and cousin created and governed the world's largest democracy for over 40 years.

I typically do not discuss my family history in my presentations and didn't in Colorado. However, it had relevance to my Cultural Entrepreneurship students in Iraq last week and I think that it may also be important to my Syrian students this week in Lebanon—some of whom live amongst the rubble of Aleppo. The freedom to pursue one's passion is a distant concept in this part of the world, and harsh realities of the Middle East make an entrepreneurial mindset seem like naive idealism.

In order to earn my students' confidence, they needed to know that my own family fought for India's independence and were assassinated for their beliefs about the future of their country. This created a bridge between the students and me. While most of them do not believe that things can change in their country, they now realize that they will lose this defeatist argument with me.

As I tell them each day at our American Voices YES Academy Lebanon, "Things won't change by themselves. Someone has to 'be the change' (Gandhi), and that 'someone' may very well be one of you.


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Iraq: Gaining New Perspectives on Life

When I first announced my trip to Iraq, some questioned why I would ever go to such a place. While I knew intellectually that it would be a growth opportunity personally and professionally, I greatly underestimated just how life-changing it would be. As I now sit in beautiful Breckenridge Colorado to give the keynote for the Colorado Association of School Executives, I have new stories to tell that will enhance my message of educating for peace in a globalized world.

I taught cultural entrepreneurship to 150 Iraqis and Kurds last week, however, my special project was to work with four musicians from Mosul who over the past three years had been robbed, captured, and tortured by ISIS. Their crime was playing music, and execution was the standard punishment.

The timing could not have been more poignant since Mosul was liberated only days before I arrived. After they spent nine hours in 120 degree weather trying to cross a checkpoint in order to work with me, we shared stories, wrote incredible music together, laughed and cried, and hugged each other so tightly that there is no doubt that we will be great friends for life. I may be their teacher, but they taught me more than I could have imagined about values, courage, and life.

The depth of their suffering is only superseded by their ability to rise above it. These four young men—Ameen, Hakam, Khalid, and Mouhamad—are the bravest soldiers I know. They don't fight with guns or bombs to kill terrorists (people) who will simply resurface; they fight terrorism (ideology) with musical instruments by defying ISIS and inspiring others not to surrender to fundamentalism. Their ability to escape their fate yet still fight with music is a level of courage that I cannot fathom. True heroes.

They honored me with gifts that are hard for me to process. Ameen signed and dedicated to me his shirt that he wore the first time he played his violin atop the rubble of Yunus temple destroyed by ISIS, risking his life to make a point (google it...many news stories on him). Khalid, a professional barber, cut my hair—ISIS made it illegal to shave or get a haircut so he had no business for three years, but once ISIS was defeated, people cut their hair in both celebration and defiance symbolizing their newfound freedom. Hakam gave me a guitar-shaped key chain that almost got him killed until he convinced ISIS that it was a chicken leg and not a guitar. And Mouhamad, who was tortured by ISIS in ways that we have only seen blacked-out on TV news, gave me a beautiful journal in which he wrote in Arabic that our friendship is immortal.

Not only do they smile, laugh, and express so much love toward me, but they extend their hands to their neighbors, the Kurds, with whom there has and continues to be so much conflict (chemical attacks, fight for independence, battles over oil, etc.). Their open hearts enabled my Kurdish students to collaborate with them, and together they will all rise up as millennial musicians and "be the change you wish to see in the world" (Gandhi).

Iraq is an incredibly complex country and it was profound to know each day that at any moment I could be killed by a car bomb or stray bullet (every Iraqi thinks about this constantly as it is part of life). However, in order to truly make a difference in the lives of others and gain a better understanding of the world in which we live, some risks are most definitely worth taking.

To book a keynote, please contact me at info@RaviUnites.com or 1-202-838-7088

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Independence Day Around the World

I have started a travel blog to bring you along on the cultural diplomacy journey I am taking this summer. Along with faculty from American Voices' YES Academy and US Department of State, I will be travelling to Iraq and Lebanon. My government sponsored tours promote cultural exchange and understanding through keynotes on entrepreneurship—a pillar of democracy—and music programs that bring together talented individuals from traditionally opposed cultures and religions. My goal is to create global harmony through innovation and the arts, and this blog will share the excitement, photos, reflections, and results.

Watch a clip from last year’s global music mentoring in Jakarta.

As I prepare to leave on this United States Independence Day, I cannot help but think about the ongoing fight for independence taking place at my destination. Mosul may be just days away from being free of ISIS, and the Kurdistan region will vote later this year on becoming independent of Iraq. The goal of independence is universal but also very personal to me because my great uncle, Jawaharlal Nehru, led India to independence 70 years ago this summer.

I encourage you to remember that every individual has the ability to make a difference, especially in a young person’s life. Dr. Abraham George is the founder of the Shanti Bhavan Children’s Project for impoverished students in India—another education program partner of mine. He is realizing his dream of breaking the cycle of poverty for the poorest of the poor. Shanti Bhavan is the feature of a new Netflix documentary series, Daughters of Destiny which will premiere on July 28.

Please tune in and follow this blog for more information on that program, on my work with American Voices and US Department of State, and on my keynote speaking schedule which is heating up for the remainder of 2017 into 2018: I will be at the Colorado Association of School Executives on July 26th, keynoting their annual conference with none other than Dr. Jill Biden!

To book a keynote, please contact me at info@RaviUnites.com or 1-202-838-7088

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Give the Gift of Empathy

As 2016 comes to a close and the holiday season is in full steam, one cannot help but reflect on a year that has us on a path of global uncertainty.  Terrorism and religious conflict preoccupies us, and waves of nationalism follow in its wake.  Globally, the election of Trump, vote for Brexit, and rise of anti-immigration movements seem to be dividing the world more than uniting it.

I had a fulfilling year giving keynotes to incredible audiences, mostly in education leadership.  Cultural divides was a recurring theme which I centered around my most rewarding project of 2016: I created a twelve day songwriting camp in Jakarta, Indonesia for Millennial singer-songwriters from ASEAN nations (Cambodia, Indonesia, Phillipines, etc.).  Sponsored by the US Department of State and in collaboration with American Voices YES Academy, I invited fifteen musically compatible participants who in some cases come from communities that are religiously and culturally incompatible.  My goal was to prove that music truly could transcend such volatile barriers, and we certainly did.  Using a combination of live workshops and my video course 1-2-3 Songwriting, we wrote twelve new songs, performed four high-profile concerts, and created sixteen new cross-cultural friendships that continue to this day to collaborate and compose new music together.  I plan to launch more of these programs globally in 2017.

There is nothing like the arts as a means to teach and foster empathy, and the Millennials and Gen Z are naturally inclined to collaborate across cultural barriers (religious, racial, and sexual identity).  Our job driven economy, fear driving politicians, and self-serving corporations continuously distract Baby Boomers and Silents from seeing what may very well be the true path to world peace.  If we can recognize this as individuals and think globally, every one of us can act locally to establish artistic forums for talented local multicultural youth to create art and co-exist harmoniously. It can be once a week or once a month, and it can take place at a community center, private home, school, or any non-denominational facility.  As American public education faces significant challenges from a new administration, we can assume that arts programs will become even less of a priority.  An absence of arts is an absence of empathy. What will you do about it?

This holiday season, give the gift of empathy by creating an opportunity for people to come together in artistic ways.

Entrepreneurship, a weapon against radicalism?

This week’s horrific events in Brussels (following the November attacks in Paris–my home away from home) reinforces my belief that cultural diplomacy with a message of entrepreneurship can be a strong weapon against radicalism.  Entrepreneurship is a pillar of democracy.  Inspiring a dream and providing the tools to live that dream offers an attractive alternative and counter identity to jihadism.  The growing disaffected youth population around the world needs to hear and recognize this message.  We must plant the seeds that inspire a positive identity within each of them, and most essential, follow through by teaching them how to turn their passions into professions.

It is incumbent on every artist, teacher, and entrepreneur to use “business as a force for good” (borrowed from Richard Branson).  We can complain about our leaders’ political and economic motivations, or we can use our skills and talents to change the world despite political and economic motivations.  The military must not be the only boots on the ground.

Politicians – Experienced or Not Experienced, that is the question

Why is it that the inexperienced politician is as or more desirable than the career politician? Imagine going to your doctor and having him tell you that he wants to perform heart surgery because it is what you need.  He goes on to promote that he is confident about it because he has never done it before and isn’t even a career doctor but understands the mechanics of medicine (and plumbing) with an objective view and can therefore do it differently and better? Would you sign the consent?

As a society we have become so skeptical of expertise that we seem to think a lack of it is beneficial. This skepticism is especially true among millennials who value Amazon customer reviews over Consumer Reports expert analysis.

Of course there is corruption in Washington like there is on Wall Street, and plenty of waste. But to think that someone with no experience in the environment can (or should) bully his or her way into getting things done is disconcerting. Navigating politics and fellow politicians is a skill. There is culture that must be understood and respected, whether one likes that culture or not. Running a country is not simply a business; it is also an art…the art of diplomacy.

Is the Asian Dream the new American Dream?

The “Asian Dream” is the new “American Dream.” I gave lectures to young entrepreneurs in China last year and their thirst for information and motivation was obvious. I did the same a couple of years earlier in India and found the entrepreneurial spirit amongst the millennial dominant demographic inspiring. But even slow emerging markets like Russia present a curiosity about entrepreneurship that while more difficult to implement, are ripening–I spoke there twice in the last year, once before the Ruble collapsed and once after, and found the worsening economy to be more of a motivator than a detractor.

The world is becoming fertile for the millennial entrepreneur and a global perspective is the answer, especially for today’s American entrepreneur. The American Dream is alive, and the opportunity to share it around the world is better than ever.

Should government meddle with the pilot shortage?

One of the most thought provoking yet simple solutions to the pilot shortage is something I read buried in the comments of a post sometime ago. Instead of mandatory retirement for pilots (many of whom lost their pensions and need to work), why not give them the option to move into the right seat? There would be a whole lot of experience on that flight deck. Experience is always a good thing and for that reason alone the 1500 hour ATP rule is positive, but of course the ATP economic reality is catastrophic.

While a common argument from aviation leaders is to let the market work its magic, I don’t necessarily agree that market forces alone will fix this issue. Arguably, much of our problem was created by the opposite, deregulation. Market forces have put the industry in a position where passengers have been conditioned to bottom dollar fares and CEOs have been conditioned to absurd bonus structures and golden parachutes. This is not only an economic imbalance, but a psychological and sociological imbalance that butts heads with millennial ideology.