It was tough being a student in Jerusalem during the winter of 2008-2009. War had broken out. And it was unclear what could be done about it.
Two of my outlets for angst were interfaith dialogue and falafel. The former was becoming a central passion in my life. The latter was just plain delicious.
One day, I had a daydream about bringing the two together. What if communities that didn't get along so well in the Middle East could grow chickpeas and make falafel together? Everyone loves falafel. The falafel could then be exported to a rapidly growing chain of falafel restaurants in the U.S. They could be called Peace Falafel and quite literally help grow peace. Then, the falafel restaurants could themselves become centers for interfaith dialogue.
My idea was only half thought out, and I think the name Peace Falafel was already taken. But the underlying concept still made sense: people come together when they have a common cause. If we could build socially responsible businesses, run by groups that might otherwise be in conflict, we could reduce tension and build peace.
Three years later, I still loved falafel, but had come to love coffee even more. As fortune would have it, the Coexist Foundation was thinking about how to use business to bring people together. Their early focus was my favorite beverage, grown through sustainable agriculture by a religiously diverse community in Uganda. But it would go well beyond coffee -- to T-shirts made socially responsibly from organic cotton in India and other products down the line, as well. It would be called the Coexist Campaign.
It was a far more sophisticated idea than mine had been. They would sell the products online and find donors to underwrite the overhead costs. That way 100 percent of proceeds from purchases, as well as 100 percent of additional donations could go right back to the communities producing the coffee, T-shirts, or any other products. While workers would already be fairly paid, these profits would underwrite schools that bring together students of different backgrounds for a good education.
It was a win-win-win. American consumers get wonderful products. Communities that might otherwise be in conflict get access to larger markets to help scale up their peace-building businesses. Profits from the sales go right back to bring students from different communities together.
With more in common and more to gain from collaboration, religious and cultural communities can put aside years of conflict. As the quality of life improves for everyone, so too does their dedication to the peace-building businesses and the chance to educate their children together. The children, having grown up together, might not fear the 'other' and instead redouble their efforts as adults to work together in collaborative business ventures. People come together. And a cycle of peace is born.
The Coexist Campaign holds the potential to change the way peace-building is done around the world. By working at the grassroots level, but connecting to global markets through the latest in digital technology, it can bring people together as never before.