Founding CivilTEA Helps to Promote Open and Productive Design
“‘Remember you are always the head and not the tail,’” our mother would tell us every morning,” says Naissa Isaro, 21. “She reminded us that whatever you do, you have to put your head into it. You have to lead,” adds her sister Priscilla, 22. Naissa and Priscilla have taken that advice and are now using the leadership skills their mother imparted. They are co-founders of CivilTEA, a series of peer-to-peer led dialogues about topics that can be difficult to discuss. like race, sex, and religion. They founded CivilTEA when they were just 16 and 17, undaunted by their age, their gender, or the fact that they are immigrants from Rwanda living in Maine.
Naissa and Priscilla came to Portland when they were 2 and 3 respectively, as asylum seekers with their mother, Sylvie, Aunt Sada, and Naissa’s twin brother, Nathan, “Our mom came here with young babies from Africa. She gave us an example of proving people wrong and showing that you can do anything,” says Priscilla. Her priority was to find opportunities for her children and to instill in them the confidence to pursue their passions. Sylvie was fortunate to get a good education growing up in Rwanda, where education is often limited for young girls. She sought out a similar experience for her girls and found a good fit in the Cathedral School in Portland and a good friend in Sister Theresa, the Head of School.
Both girls went on to attend the Maine Girls Academy (MGA) for high school. At MGA, the Principal emphasized that, “actions speak louder than words.” In school, they learned valuable leadership skills and also were presented with opportunities to engage in the community around them. For Naissa and Priscilla, it was important to create and develop ties to the immigrant community in Portland. “The community here is really tight,” they both say. “It is like we had a little Rwanda with us in Portland. And our mom worked hard to maintain traditions like sending traditional lunches with us to school.” They wanted to be a part of broader efforts to engage with the immigrant populations.
One of those opportunities came when Naissa was invited to participate in the Seeds of Peace summer camp in Otisfield, Maine. Seeds of Peace is an international organization that works in 27 countries on peace-building initiatives. The Seeds of Peace Camp is designed to cultivate that process in young students by teaching them how to have open dialogue about difficult topics, where people’s opposing views can keep them apart. “We spent hours each day learning to resolve conflicts,” says Naissa. “It was really hard, but I had great mentors there that gave me the tools I needed,” she adds. Priscilla was invited to attend the next year, and it was around this time that the sisters got the idea to take their experiences in improved communication skills beyond the summer program and into the schools.
Priscilla and Naissa recognized an opportunity to introduce the same concept of open dialogue to their peers. They also recognized that teenagers don’t always feel comfortable discussing topics like sexuality, race, and cultural differences. That’s where the idea of incorporating tea came from. It was inspired by a school tradition of “Tea Day,” a day where students celebrate the life of Catherine McAuley, the founder of their school, by sharing a cup of tea together. “It’s a very inclusive tradition that we have always enjoyed,” says Priscilla. “We decided that that when you have uncomfortable conversations, we wanted people to have some kind of comfort, and what’s better than having a warm cup of tea in your hand,” she adds. “We want to say, ‘Pull up a chair and have a cup of tea with me’ to our fellow students.”
They started by meeting with people in school leadership and with interested students, both to choose topics for the year and to select student facilitators for each dialogue group. Six topics were selected for the year—three per semester—and a training day was organized for the student leaders. In those training workshops, students learned many of the communication techniques and “rules to protect a safe space for dialogue” that Naissa and Priscilla learned at the Seeds of Peace Camp.
They also organized a panel of community members to represent different sides of each topic, ahead of the dialogue sessions. “We wanted people to share personal stories,” says Naissa, “So, we decided to keep the groups to ten students and also to separate students into age groups that might have shared experiences.”
Following the Seeds of Peace model to spread the peaceful work, Priscilla and Naissa introduced CivilTEA to four other high schools in Maine that are now holding these dialogue sessions. Naissa also returned to the Seeds of Peace Camp to be an Educator and then was awarded a Gather fellowship to expand CivilTEA to other schools. “We will always be part of the Seeds family,” says Priscilla. “And we will always be there when they need us to participate.”
One of the goals of these CivilTEAs is to have open dialogue and to have as much listening as there is talking. “It is so easy to talk and to hear your own voice and feel like you’re correct, but we always say, “listen, listen, listen. You may have heard what someone said multiple times, but you may have missed one word that is crucial to your understanding. That is how you become more inclusive,” says Naissa.
The two sisters have kept improving their communication skills, and they joke about their ability to silently communicate during CivilTEA. “We can look at each other and have full on conversations without having to open our mouths,” says Priscilla.
But, as is true for most siblings, these two don’t always get along. “We butt heads a lot,” says Naissa. “We are both very stubborn, and we see why many siblings don’t work together. “Sometimes, we have to take off our sister hats and put on our business hats. Then, afterwards, we can go back to being upset with each other,” says Priscilla.
A testament to the closeness of Priscilla and Naissa’s relationship is their decision to live together when they both headed off to Emmanuel College in Boston. While busy with coursework International Relations (Priscilla) and Business Administration (Naissa), CivilTEA is still very much a priority for both sisters. They hope to expand the program to more grade levels, including their colleges and also to areas beyond New England.
They both want to come back to Maine. “We love Maine,” says Naissa. “There’s a tight community here that we are a part of.” And Priscilla likes the accepting natural environment here. “I love the fresh everything here—the nature, the air. It is so easy to lose yourself and just be you here.”
“Our mom came here with young babies from Africa. She gave us an example of proving people wrong and showing that you can do anything.”
But, she adds, “we would still like to see more support for immigrant communities throughout the state, and we want to come back here to do the work.”
Their mother is also in Maine. “She still takes care of us even though we are on our own,” they laugh. They both return again to the model their mother has set for them. “My mom is a short woman,” says Naissa, “but I’ve never met someone so steadfast and resilient.” Priscilla agrees, adding, “She is also the funniest person I know. If you ever have a chance to have a conversation with her, she’s sure to make you laugh.” Their mother’s sense of humor informs Naissa and Priscilla’s willingness to talk about difficult subjects. And her determination gives them the drive to do the challenging, worthwhile work that is CivilTEA.