Originally posted June 2011

With arts programs continuing to be cut throughout  the United States, educators are scrambling for new ways to integrate the humanities and art education into students’ curricula. Educators are also pressed to impart international understanding because they know that today’s young people must not only develop diplomacy skills for use in their native lands, but also know how to apply these skills in a globalized world. Non-profit organizations can assist in these goals with educational programs that function outside of the school boundaries. We are proud to do just that with the Istanbul Center Annual Art & Essay Contest, whose tagline, “creating a legacy of understanding,” articulates the contest’s goal.

The Istanbul Center is inspired by the idea that the world would be a better place with better citizens if individuals the world over would engage in more dialogue. Anecdotal evidence indicates that, for all its strengths, the American educational system does a poor job of teaching students to understand other cultures. In an atmosphere of polarization, such understanding is not a luxury; it is crucial. Addressing the obvious problem fostered by insular thinking, dialogue is often most effective when such programs target young people.

Dealing with social issues and overcoming social conflicts is key; we believe that young minds should be engaged in thinking about social issues and how to solve them. The Istanbul Center Art and Essay Contest does that by asking students to meditate on a yearly theme and create works that reflects that theme. The 2009–2010 contest theme of “Who’s My Neighbor?” drew submissions that related to literal, next-door neighbors, to classmates of different origins and to people involved in international conflicts. Students were able to highlight their differences while recognizing the breadth and depth of their similarities with neighbors as close as the next house and as far away as other continents.

The 2010–2011 theme was selected with input from a large committee including teachers, contest judges, students, partners, sponsors, and Istanbul Center board members. Serving also as the overall institutional theme for this year’s IC programming (involving educational, cultural, environmental, social and humanitarian issues), 2010–2011 operated under the theme of “Empathy: Walking in Another’s Shoes.” When given direction through a theme, students are able to conceptualize issues like social justice and foreign cultures easily and have fun while they are engaged in the topic.

Contest support has grown over the years to include more than 100 sponsors and partners in the Southeast region. The Georgia Department of Education has identified the program as a “co-curricular activity.” Buttressing the international orientation of the contest is support from the United Nations Alliance of Civilizations (UNAOC), which has sponsored this contest since 2009. The UNAOC “aims to improve understanding and cooperative relations among nations and peoples across cultures and religions, and to help counter the forces that fuel polarization and extremism. [1] It is composed of 125 member countries and involves many international and private organizations. The UNAOC supports international initiatives and partnerships, helping all of us to work together to “build bridges” between diverse peoples and cultures.

The inaugural art and essay contest in 2007 involved only forty-five submissions. The 2010-2011 contest expanded to the entire Southeastern United States; including Alabama, Florida, South Carolina and Tennessee, as well as Georgia. This brought the Contest and its message of international cooperation to thousands of schools in the region and drew more than 2,500-selected submissions — an incredible increase over the past five years. With a reach of more than 4,000 schools and 150,000 students in five states, The Istanbul Center’s Art and Essay Contest has become the largest program in its kind. The organization’s long-term plan envisions nationwide expansion and, eventually, internationalization.

The Istanbul Center also partners with local universities, holding the contest’s awards ceremony at a different institution of higher education each year. Furthermore, professors of art at area universities volunteer their time in judging the art submissions while English professors judge the essay submissions. The number of judges this year has increased to 300 academics from many colleges, universities and civic organizations.

The Istanbul Center’s Art and Essay Contest is unique in its recognition of teachers as well as students. Each student’s sponsoring teacher receives prizes along with the student, whether an 8th-place high school art contest winner’s gift certificate or a 1st-place middle school essay winner’s all-expenses-paid trip to Turkey. We also invite sponsors to present their gifts to students and teachers directly. This phenomenal prize distribution has brought dozens of teachers and students to Turkey, offering them the special opportunity to learn and explore a foreign culture together.

Turkey is an appropriate destination for such winners, as it is a land of both ancient civilizations and modernity, situated at the crossroads of Europe and Asia. At least 25 civilizations have passed through Anatolia. Turkey was the seat of the Ottoman Empire for several hundred years. Visitors to Turkey can see not only archeological and historical sites, but (through the hospitality and open minds of the Turkish people) they can experience first-hand the ancient Turkish tradition of “The Art of Living Together.” Art and essay contest winners visit public and private schools and meet young Turkish students, with whom they discuss shared values and educational goals. They also are able to meet important Turkish governmental representatives of education, culture, media and politics.

Participating teachers have often expressed afterward that they are better teachers for having had the experience, and that they plan to be all the more ardent in encouraging their students to pursue study abroad opportunities and similar experiences. Participating teachers and students have subsequently joined the advisory board of this program and dedicated themselves to the following year’s contest. They have been especially helpful in choosing the yearly theme publicizing the program. Parents regularly report that their sons and daughters return from Turkey with a new passion and understanding that augments all their academic and personal pursuits. I encourage anyone interested in this program to contact one of the students or teachers who have traveled with the Istanbul Center to Turkey. Their enthusiasm for the Contest is the greatest testament to its success.

The United Nations’ Alliance of Civilizations office decided to have an exhibition of this program in the UN building in New York while the Youth Art Connection of Boys and Girls Clubs in Atlanta decided to exhibit the winners in their art gallery in downtown Atlanta. In one of its farthest-reaching effects, visits from program participants to superintendents and other education officials of big cities in Turkey such as Ankara and Istanbul have inspired the Turkish officials to create similar programs in their school systems.

We invite everyone — students, parents, teachers, principals, superintendents, education board members and community leaders — to learn more about the Istanbul Center’s Art and Essay Contest and to help us create a legacy of understanding.


[1] See http://www.unaoc.org/ for specific information defining The Alliance of Civilization Program.  The mission of the Alliance of Civilizations is defined by the following “capacities”(globally and within the UN system):

  • A bridge builder and convener, connecting people and organizations devoted to promoting trust and understanding between diverse communities, particularly – but not exclusively – between Muslim and Western societies;
  • A catalyst and facilitator helping to give impetus to innovative projects aimed at reducing polarization between nations and cultures through joint pursuits and mutually beneficial partnerships;
  • An advocate for building respect and understanding among cultures and amplifying voices of moderation and reconciliation which help calm cultural and religious tensions between nations and peoples;
  • A platform to increase visibility, enhance the work and highlight the profile of initiatives devoted to building bridges between cultures; and
  • A resource providing access to information and materials drawn from successful cooperative initiatives which could, in turn, be used by member states, institutions, organizations, or individuals seeking to initiate similar processes or projects.


President Jorge Sampaio

Art & Essay Contest on the Theme: ...Who's My Neighbor?,

Istanbul Center Awards Ceremony
Oglethorpe University Atlanta, Georgia, USA


Ladies andGentlemen.
Young Creative People.

I should like to thank the IstanbulCenter and the Georgia Department of Education for inviting the Alliance to co-sponsor this contest aimed  to spur the thinking of young peopl e on the theme  of ho's My Neighbor.·•

Let   me  express  my  appreciation   to  the  contest's  partners   and  co-sponsors  from  local u niversi ties, media, NGOs and other civil society, the Honorary Consulate General  of Turkey for Georgia, as well as the British Consulate General and the Consulate Generals of Germany, Israel, and Swtizerland.

In my  view, this  wide-ranging partnership is  symbolic of the  efforts  of  the UN Alliance  of Civilizations to bring together governments,civil society,and educational  nstitu t ons to bridge the gaps between different cultural groups. Efforts dep oyed by Geor g a and by  the Istanbul Center are a so emblematic of our  focus on pract cal projects that bring people together from host and migrant communities.

The work of the Alliance is done through practicalprojects in its four areas of act on.Educatoi n, Migrat on,Media, and Youth aimed at enhancing trust and respect among people within and betweendiverse communities.

To give a few  examples: the  Alliance's Youth  Soildarity Fund provides support to a range of grassroots projects that facilitate genuine bridge building between youth from different cultural backgrounds. The Rap d Response Media Mechanism offers a diversity of expert voices to the  media to provide constructive op nions on issues that threaten to divide communities.The new Dialogue Cafe network  to be launched in Riois aimed to connect peop e  n globalconversations showing that people have more  n common with each other than divsi ive differences and that given the opportunity they willexpol re their common interests and spark collaborations".And in order  to he p the next generation develop the skills they need to operate in an increasingly mult cultural world,the Alliance s developing online resources providing inva uable  nformat on  to policy makers, educators,and NGOs on media literacy education, education about diverse religions and beliefs,and goodpractices in the integration of migrants.

However, we can achieve far more  by stimulating and catalyzing projects that are created by local groups who  can come up with creative means to bring people together from different groups.

NGOs,corporations, state and local governments are more  attuned  to successin  fostering mutual understanding,confidence and respect among peoples of dirfferent cutlural traditions because of the r in depth contacts withlocalkey individuals and knowledge of local  ssues.

This is why we are encouraging countries to develop strategies at the nationaland locallevel with the help of partners from various sectors to conceive,plan and implement projects that bring people  together   and  reduce  cultural divides  the  raison d'etre  of  the Alliance of Civilizations.

Ladies  and   gentlemen,   globalization   and   migration   brings   together   different    cultural communities who may previously not have had much interaction with each other.Interaction of different groups can be a source of friction and often of conflict.But  culturaldiversity can also result in cross-fertliization  and success stories  of  people  interacting  in  mutual respect and harmony. Cultural diversity can spark innovation, stimulate creativtiy  and boost the economy. Indeed, Atlanta,Georgia,and the United States have seen this first-hand.

The Istanbul Center's efforts to promote better understanding and closer relations between the Turkish,American, and other communities in Atlanta and the Southeastern United  States are inspiring in this regard.

In my mind, the value of the Istanbul Center's annual Art and Essay Contest is in stimulating young people to think positively and creatively about cultural diversity and the bridging of cultures.

Through this contest  and in  your  future  life, it is important  to  understand  the  di fferences between  you and your  neighbors in your looks, origins, religions, cuisine, and  dress, for example. However,the  commonalities of your dreams,fears,and aspirations are also important to explore because that will determine the shared future that you both have to inhabit. You will soon learn  that the differences are often  less important  than the commonailties of  love for family, fear of the unknown, the sense of dignity and the aspiration for a better future.

To the young peoplethe emerging global generation — gathered here today,Isay: you can go towards the futility of prejudice and hate through building physical and mental walls. Or you can explore the fruitful nature of cultural diversity by breaking down the barriers and discovering the differences--and commonalitiesof your neighbors.

In this busy world,we  are sometimes not aware of our neighbors and often do not understand them and their ways. Even if we are aware of our neighbors and understand and tolerate them, we are still scared of breaking down  the barriers  and build  shared spaces. But only shared spaces enable us to respectfully work with each other towards greater harmony and building a better future for all.

Ladies and gentlemen,the Alliance of Civilizations emphasizes exchanges as a practicaleffort at bring cultures together.The awards of the trips to Turkey for the contest winners and educators presents a powerful  way to learn about yourself,   experience another  culture  first-hand, and engage in the dismantling of  stereotypes and prejudices. Perhaps in the future, Turkish school children will have an opportunity to take part in a similar contest and visit the United States and Atlanta.

Thanks for your support and participation.