Several weeks ago, we invited our Quaker meeting/church liaisons to join our staff on a call to learn more about the "If I Had a Trillion Dollars” youth film festival, which is entering its fourth year. The festival asks young people (middle school through college age) to create a short film on how they would redirect the money in our nation's budget that has been spent on war.

Below are the reflections of AFSC staff member Peter Lems on the festival that call on the impact young people are making in furthering dialogue about how to shift our national budget priorities.

Peter Lems works as a program officer for Integration and Impact, a department that has been newly created to synthesize and streamline the organization’s work throughout the world. He has been particularly involved in work with the Wage Peace campaign, and in issues relating to the Middle East. 

To learn more about how you can invite young people to participate in this festival and consider our nation’s budget priorities, visit the festival’s website, www.ihtd.org. Start a conversation, make a film, and join in the movement. Submissions are due Jan. 11.

-Madeline

Shaping the dialogue on our nation’s budget priorities

In the early years after 9/11 and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, we really had a focus on the human cost [of war] — we always tried to bring up issues of tradeoffs and how that money could be better spent. 

But it really was the economic crisis that hit this country that gave us an opportunity to think about ways that we could have conversations with students and young people about their ability to affect the budget. 

I think that as hard as it has been to affect our country’s penchant for war, it’s almost as hard to change the nation’s budget priorities. So we’ve learned a lot on how much information to share with people, how to listen to their feedback, and refine our messages.

One of the ways that I think the film festival has helped us in organizing to talk about budget work, has come out of the lobbying trips to Washington, D.C. 

I remember one of the chaperones, after his experience, said that he had two reflections: one, he said, “I’m shocked at how young the staffers are in Washington, D.C. that we generally end up meeting.” Then he said, “They’re not so very removed from some of these young filmmakers.”

There was a sense of being able to show that while the budget issues may seem very distant and may seem impossible to change, there was also this experience that they’re meeting people who aren’t so much older than themselves in the halls of Congress, and certainly not all that different from themselves. And they are engaged in the process, trying to make political change.

What has happened in the past two years is that we have seen patterns in films [that students are producing for the festival] that are being done all over the country that are really looking at very similar issues. So the film that you might see around issues of education from Kansas City, Chicago, and Los Angeles look very similar, as well as the videos that were being done focused on hand gun violence and homelessness in different communities around the country. 

The other connection that I think we’ve really learned a lot about is the question about personal transformation—the idea that a young filmmaker or a young artist can have an impact on people in the community with their work. The power of symbolism and film to bring about social change has really been at the core of what we’ve been trying to do with the project.

Quaker youth discuss our federal budget priorities

Erin and I and a colleague of ours who was on a summer fellowship from Earlham College went to the FGC Gathering in Colorado.

Workshops meet for two hours a day for a week, so we had an opportunity to really think out a number of different exercises that we wanted to do. We built in some time for worship and some time for dialogue; we built in some time for lectures; we built in some time to show the participants some films that other people have done to inspire them.

For me it really was a wonderful experience. On the one hand, just being at the FGC Gathering with 1,200 other Quakers on a college campus, so it’s a very unique and empowering situation and scenario.

To have the chance to have a workshop that was targeted just for high school students was also something that we were affirmed for doing. The participants appreciated the chance to hear from us and to be guided, in a sense; but more importantly, they really appreciated the chance to talk to each other and to be in an environment where we were giving them some provocative ideas to respond to and they felt safe responding. It was really good.

Bringing young Quakers together to have these discussions is really valuable. They enjoy it, and the work that it takes on our part is worth it.

About the author:  Peter Lems is the Program Director for Education and Advocacy on Iraq and Afghanistan for the American Friends Service Committee and the co-coordinator of the Wage Peace campaign. He coordinates and implements educational and advocacy initiatives around Iraq, Afghanistan and U.S. foreign policy. Since 1988, he has worked for a variety of organizations focused on the Arab world, including the Palestine Human Rights Campaign, the Palestine Human Rights Information Center - International, and the Association of Arab-American University Graduates. He is a graduate of Earlham College in history and peace and global studies.