038: RJ Khalaf, conversation 2: Making productive leaders from hopeless martyrs, full transcript

March 28, 2018 by Joshua
in Podcast

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RJ Khalaf

What a great conversation with RJ. I can’t tell you the feeling as a professor to have a student take what he learned in your classroom and apply it, and beyond applying it on a global scale to a situation so complex as Palestine and to have him be so enthusiastic and have it means so much to him. Of course, most of that was before me and independent of me. I don’t want to take all this credit. Most of this credit goes to RJ of course. I’m kind of torn between which was more valuable to me – listening to him talking about his leadership projects in Palestine or hearing him taking on his personal challenge. Of course, the personal challenges are on a small scale compared to the Palestine situation but it’s that mindset shift and I hope you listen through and listen to the mindset shift and hear how he’s taking on new things and trying to share these things with the others around him such as his parents. So, without further ado, here’s RJ.


Joshua: Welcome to the Leadership and the Environment podcast. This is my second conversation with RJ. RJ has spent the summer, most of the summer in Palestine where he’s doing a leadership project and part of it was to take on a personal challenge of avoiding bottles which I think would have been very difficult there. But you’ve been home for some time and I want to ask about the bottles but I’m going to [unintelligible] myself and I believe the listeners to ask a bit about Palestine which actually Leadership and the Environment podcast you were doing, I would bet that you were doing a lot of leadership there, and I haven’t heard anything more so this is all going to be news to me. Can we talk about your leadership work in Palestine?

RJ: Absolutely. I would be happy to.

Joshua: So, can you give us a frame? How long were you there? What were your goals? How big of a team were you there with?

RJ: Yeah. So, I spent two months over the summer in Palestine between the city of Ramallah and the city of Nablus and our goal there was to implement an organization that I started in your class at NYU called LEAD Palestine. And LEAD Palestine is an initiative where we aim to inspire, motivate and empower the next generation of Palestine’s youth. And the way that we aim to do that is through a series of hands-on, fun, leadership-based workshops, activities, games throughout the course of a week-long summer camp and we connect the students to a local mentor and these mentors are local university students who have grown up in Palestine, live in Palestine, understand the context and they are there year-round. So, these are you know if you can think of the Big Brothers Big Sisters program here in the States, it’s kind of the equivalent to that but in a refugee camp called New Askar in Palestine.

And just to give you kind of the context of New Askar and what some of the unmet needs are, it’s home to a 70 percent unemployment rate, zero police presence, high drug abuse. The UN has described generally speaking the refugee camps in the West Bank as just a situation of hopelessness. There are generations of people who have now lived in these refugee camps that have seen no way out. You know just failed, failed, failed peace processes and who just really kind of see the enduring conflict and occupation as something that’s not going to go away. And the situation hopelessness is really dangerous, Josh, because when you lose hope you don’t feel empowered and when you don’t feel empowered I’ve really seen the absolute danger in that resulting in a child’s life.

I’ll give you a story that we had a conversation with a student over this past summer named Muhammad and Mohammed, or as you might say in English Mohammed, expressed to his counselor that he just wants to live his life and become a martyr and that meaning he wants to die for the Palestinian cause. And so, when you think about that at first you know your first reaction might be, “He’s just a violent kid or he might just be a bad guy.” But if you really look to the cause of it, he’s just a kid who’s looking to feel important. He’s just a kid looking to show his manhood and he’s looking just to you know fight for his community. There is almost this sense of glorification for becoming a martyr.

And so, when that’s what you grow up to see and that’s what you grow up as the leaders and that’s who you see are the heroes that’s going to impact your psyche is how you develop as a young man and as a younger child. And so, what we did over the course of the week is we presented a different kind of leadership whereas many of the students including Muhammad saw leadership in a leader as a politician or as a military figure. We wanted to show them that leadership can come from a place of self-awareness, a place of kindness, a place of working together with a group people towards a common goal to address unmet need in your community and your surrounding areas. And so, part of that was through an experiential project in the last few days at the camp where we basically asked them to find an unmet need in their community in their small groups and create a solution and you’re going to present that on the final dinner that we hosted.

Now what I saw throughout the course of the week was the development of Muhammad, a kid who was kind of more reclusive, a kid that was more quiet to someone who became more outgoing and showed us more of his passion of photography. And by the end of it he took the lead on his team of five people to develop a project to combat the drug abuse in his community and which he presented it along with four other young men to really kind of challenge one of these issues that are plaguing his community. And that’s kind of where I’m really excited to see how the mentorship plays out with his counselor whose name is Ahmed because if Ahmed can continue to make these impacts with Mohammed they already did, I think he will continue on showing him that, “Hey, there are other ways you can get back to your community. There are other ways you can show your manhood and really feel important and feel valued.”

Joshua: I can’t help but ask a personal question. When you found out about Muhammad’s desire to become a martyr how did that feel for you? You knew Muhammad, he wasn’t someone that was like a third party something, you’d met him, you’d talk to him face to face. What was it like to hear about these plans?

RJ: When I heard it, I was quite shocked you know because it suddenly became an issue that was direct. Like in my face I now have a friend you know someone that I care deeply about, someone that I have good memories with who showed me how to dance and we spent time together hanging out before that. That now this story that you kind of hear off as just one offs and you just kind of hear about these stories through articles or magazines or through conferences. Now I have a name to this story and have a face to this story. And it kind of makes me take a step back and think, “Damn, I mean this is really real.” What’s happening to these students despite anyone’s use of the occupation, of the conflict it’s really dangerous because like hope matters so much for an individual. And once they lose hope things can really become quite dire. I’m not trying to say they’re bad people. You know violence is bad when you take it out the context. They’re just trying to save themselves and trying to save their situation.

Joshua: When I first responded I said, “They don’t have any other options.” If he doesn’t have any options, if that’s the best option he’s got… So, it seems like there’s a tight line here that you’re not bringing in resources that weren’t there before, you’re not bringing material resources but you’re bringing something that… Well, are you bringing something new that they could never have done before or is it showing them something that they could have done before [unintelligible]? Because it’s kind of tough if you say, “They could’ve done this at any time” than “They weren’t really hopeless.” You see how that’s kind of like… How much do we say that there is no options and how much do we say that… Or maybe we say that the leadership skills they are not material but still it’s not something that you can just easily come up with on your own.

RJ: Well, this is like the beautiful thing about all this, Josh. I think you agree with me in that leaders are not born, I believe leaders are made. And I think we have qualities within us and we can just learn them. I mean we can just learn how to become leaders. But sometimes these… And so often for these students they just never even heard that concept because for them just the term of leadership that they understand so rigidly is just reserved for so many or for so few. It’s just reserved for a select few people, the most brash and the loudest people in the community and the ones who you know really just kind of act more as managers than anything else. And so, when you show them that, “Hey, this is leadership too and you can be a leader by doing X, Y and Z,” I think that kind of shifts their perception. And something that we did was we just created a space where we could ask them questions that they’ve never been asked before and consequently face emotions that they’ve never faced before in a way that they were never allowed to face before.

So, these were not very like hard questions but questions like, “What is leadership? Who’s a good leader? Why are they a good leader? What specifically do they do? What are your goals? What are your dreams? How do you hope to achieve them? What makes you happy? What makes you sad? So, what that resulted in was just a real vulnerability where these students for a moment were just allowed to be students and who are now having conversation which they told us, “Wow, we’ve never had this conversation before.” And where by the end of it they were asking us for more reflection time, more time to just really have these conversations and ask these kinds of questions.

Joshua: And why all guys? Was it only men or did it just happen to be that way, young men or boys?

RJ: No. There was 15 boys and 15 girls. And so, that was also kind of another beautiful thing in that we wanted to respect you know the cultural and gender norms but we also wanted to show that you can really benefit, especially in a society which is very patriarchal, that you as a man can greatly benefit from listening to the woman sitting next to you if you just listen to her. And so, a lot of the exercises and activities were done between the young men and the young women and which they told us time and time again, “This is really nice. We’ve known each other from before and you know we’ve seen each other around but we’ve never actually talked and we’ve never actually worked together. And I really enjoyed this.”

And that’s really, really important because if you’re a young girl in the back of the room and you’re quiet and maybe you’re experiencing depression or whatever you’re experiencing, it’s really hard for you to buy into leadership and think you can be a leader when all you think of a leader is just that military dictator. But now if you can finally see a leader as your teacher, as your coach, as your friend or as your mother, that changes the whole game.

Joshua: I mean that to me you’re talking about self-empowerment and being able to take responsibility and being able to act and having hope. And from a certain perspective I think of… I do a lot of corporate training and working with corporations and the more prestigious organization, the more they are about training people and helping empower people within the company. You know if you’re like a Wall Street bank or a consulting company, you want to develop your people as much as you can and in these places it’s like somehow, we don’t connect and say if it’s helpful there, it’s helpful everywhere. And we know how to teach the stuff. And why wouldn’t we teach in a place where leadership is so lacking? And I don’t mean leadership in terms of the military people that you were talking about or you know the people think of but leaders of people that empower and enable and give people the ability to take responsibility for themselves and instead of throwing stones or blowing themselves up to actually to… I guess what you’re doing now is to introspect and learn about what their interests are and to be able to meet with each other. A big piece of leadership is creating the understanding in the context where people can share their vulnerabilities which normally they don’t share and therefore people don’t really understand each other because everyone’s protecting themselves.

But a leader one of the things that they can do is make the stuff expose so that you could do something about it. I would imagine that it would be inevitable that if you get people, even if you’re just working within the community, that at some point they’re going to start… Their skills will develop enough that they’re going to start doing these leading…First, they will lead themselves, then they’ll be people who are close to them and then they will start leading people who are adversarial with them. And I don’t mean leading telling what to do. So, I’m not saying that you guys would push them in that direction but it seems to me that if you succeed, that that would become inevitable. That people would say… I would imagine some would say you know these people who are thrown rocks at, “Why are they doing what they’re doing? Why don’t I find out? Maybe how can I find out and to find out from them?” I don’t know. I mean I wasn’t there. I’ve never been…. The last time I was even anywhere near there was a long time ago. So I’m out of my element here. But it seems like that’s a direction where things would happen even if you weren’t the one making that happen, their leaders eventually emerge as taking responsibility and acting on their own.

RJ: Yeah. I mean ultimately at the end of the day if you want to bring you know peace between Palestinians and Israelis, a lot of things have happened but you know the first step is I think for the two sides to really come together, and I think be flexible in seeing each other’s viewpoints.

Joshua: Now I guess…. Something that’s been at the back of my mind, you keep talking about these students, these students. You’re a student. I mean you’re not that much older than them. And on a personal note, what do your parents think of this? Are they like proud or are they supportive or are they like, “This is crazy”?

RJ: I think they’ve been really supportive. I think when I first approached them about the idea two years ago I think they kind of thought it was a fleeting idea as did a lot of people. I’m someone that has the tendency to come up with a lot of ideas and I don’t always follow everyone through, every single idea through. And so, when I came with this idea two years ago now I don’t think they thought how long I would follow it through. But when they saw… They visited the camp actually for a week and they didn’t come to [unintelligible] camp but they visited the refugee camp. And I think once they kind of engaged with some of the people and had some conversations with the local stakeholders they walked away feeling really proud and I think they definitely understood especially why I have the love for the New Askar community that I do.

Joshua: What about for you? [unintelligible] now after having done what you’ve done and looking forward to what you are going to keep doing? Is school more important, less important, different, the same?

RJ: I think when I mean truthfully speaking when I think of like my priorities right now I would say LEAD Palestine and I’m the president of the Muslim Students Association on campus. Those both kind of hold the tie for first place in terms of my priority and like where my energy and time goes into. And so, school falls into third place not because I don’t like it but I think I just have… My love, my passion is both between LEAD Palestine and Muslim Students Association otherwise known as MSA.


Joshua: If someone’s listening to this and they want to help you and they want to contribute is the best thing they can do is to donate money, is it donate time, is it just know about you or are you a guy self-contained?

RJ: No. I would love for everyone to check our website leadpalestine.com and there [unintelligible] free sign up for our mailing list. And we also, if you can, we love donations and just to really support our work. And we will be releasing some updates over the next couple of months especially about some of our impact over the past summer. We’re releasing a mini documentary highlighting the camp. And we will by next year also be opening up spots especially for interns and to really grow our team to try and broaden our impact.

Joshua: And so, people interested in doing, in participating, should they wait a little bit because you’re just back and you’ve got to catch up or do you want to hear from people asap like as soon as they want?

RJ: If they’re interested, you can check our website or you can e-mail me. My e-mail is rjkhalaf@nyu.edu and I’d love to hear from anyone that’s interested in helping in any way or just asking questions or advice or whatever. But I’m happy to talk to anyone about anything.

Joshua: It’s great and I feel like I’ve just indulged in like following my own curiosity. I hope people are still listening. So, I want to thank you for sharing all of that. And now if you don’t mind can we talk about some bottles?

RJ: Yes, let’s do it.

Joshua: So, let’s see. While you’re in Palestine, there was no fresh drinking water or safe drinking water so you couldn’t really… You were kind of hamstrung there. How long you’ve been back in the States?

RJ: I’ve back in the States now for two weeks.

Joshua: And can you repeat what was the personal challenge as you did it?

RJ: My personal challenge was quite simple but it was to completely eliminate the use of water bottles from my life and to just kind of move towards like a Nalgene or a reuse the water bottle and just be very conscious of that and to only use a reusable water bottle.

Joshua: So, I’m curious. That was a goal. And what happened? What’s the facts? How did it go?

RJ: They went well. I got mine Nalgene and I just started and it’s been going great. I haven’t… I kind of made myself a promise that if I forgot my bottle at home or I lost it or whatever, I would only use like a reusable cup or use a drinking fountain that I would not spend the money on buying a water bottle. And that’s been great and I haven’t forgotten it any day until today actually. So, after this podcast I am going to go out to the drinking fountain and grab some water but it’s been great. But something that’s really interesting to me is that it definitely made me really more conscious of the amount of paper products that I use. So, it’s going beyond just thinking about water bottles but I drink coffee every day and I take a coffee cup every day. So, I’m going to buy a reusable coffee mug that I can carry on from class to class and know transition into using much like reusable products [unintelligible] you know stop getting plastic bags from the store but really seeing it’s super easy. I get it’s not that hard to just use reusable products rather than constantly relying on the paper and plastic that I have done for so long.

Joshua: OK. So why did you do it for so long? Was it just you weren’t conscious of it or… I mean it was easy before.

RJ: Yeah. No, I think no one challenged me. Like no one said, “Hey, I challenge you to do this.” When I think about my own faith as a Muslim it is what I actually like the tenants of our faith in order to be a good Muslim, you have to respect the environment. And I mean just to understand that this world and the air and the oxygen and the water and the animals and the trees and everything that is in it it’s like a gift from God. And so, you have to really respect that gift from God. And so, for me in a way like I see it as a form of worship to be more mindful of the way the kind of footprint I leave on this earth. And you know I leave a massive footprint. Every time I fly home to Las Vegas, every time I buy something from the store and there’s like a plastic bag or whatever or you know anytime I buy something there is some sort of carbon cost to that. And so, to be really conscious of my consumption not just in food but in products. And so, I guess you feel almost empowered I guess in a way to say hey, you know me by just you know stop buying these bottles of water which you know I might have bought multiple a day sometimes, it’s a small step but you know if everyone did it as cliché as it sounds it would make a big difference. And so, it’s hard for me to tell other people you should watch your consumption levels and you should recycle more and you should stop drinking from water bottles and you should start using reusable stuff if I’m not doing it myself. It sounds like cheap advice.

Joshua: Yeah, I mean I’m reading you’re glad, you wish you’d made this change before.

RJ: Yeah, absolutely. I mean it is something that I want to push my family to make. My family, we buy multiple cases of water a week. We go through ridiculous amounts of bottled water. And while I was home over this past weekend I really noticed that, especially as I’m being more conscious of the amount about not using bottled waters I just saw how much bottled water my family was using and it made me think you know as a family we should do better. And so, I’ve kind of brought it up my family, they weren’t super [unintelligible]. We’ll keep on trying to push them to consider moving towards reusable cups and bottles.

Joshua: I’ve got to tell you if you’re trying to lead people in the air or the environment, it’s a challenge. All these leadership skills that you have it’s like use them here and let me know what works and what doesn’t work. I mean this is music to my ears because it’s a big thing for me is one of the big things I want to get out of this is to create other leaders not to create followers. And it’s really hard to motivate people not to pollute. But on the other hand, when it kicks in the way I’m reading you is like, “I wish I’d done it earlier. I’m really glad I’m doing this. I like consciousness.” There’s an element of divinity in it for you if I hear you right. And how do you look back at you before? How would you describe your youth with respect to the environment pre this challenge?

RJ: I mean it’s not like I’ve ever denied climate change or anything like that but you know you could say climate change is happening and global warming is bad and we need to enact policies and all that stuff. But then like what am I doing on individual level? And in a way like I wasn’t doing anything. I was just retweeting stuff and you know saying, “Ah, this congressman or this senator is just denying climate change and they suck.” And like that was kind of like all my engagement was with it. And so, I guess it just kind of… I was this was you know how invested was I really in it? Just kind of how I look at myself in the past. And I don’t look at myself you know with from like a place of animosity or anger towards myself but saying that I could do better and I’m looking forward to seeing you know how I’m going to look back at myself a year from now to see you know what steps I’ve made you know from just going from using reusable bottles of water.

Joshua: Yes. It’s funny because from my ears when I first started it’s hard for me not to think like, “Not getting bottles? Like how hard is that?” It’s like so trivial but that’s a leader… You know it’s the other person it’s where they are and it really is a big deal for a lot of people, some people what look like after… You actually, you’re going to look… Someone at some point is going to talk about making some changes and think about, “That’s so easy.” But it’s not you know it might not be from their perspective.

RJ: I’ll tell you like it was funny on the plane. I left my water bottle in my bag that was in the checked luggage. And so, I’m like, “Man, I’m really thirsty.” I broke the rule to get you know a cup of water. And I asked the guy, I said, “Hey, can I get a refill?” And he was about to fill up another cup. I said, “No, no.”

Joshua: Yeah. On the airplanes it’s insane.

RJ: I said, “Dude, it’s OK. Like can you please just use mine? It’s ok, I don’t another cup.” And he just didn’t listen. He just pulled up another cup. And I was really mad about it. I think in the past I wouldn’t have cared at all. But that moment it really [unintelligible]. Like, “Man, I’m telling you I’m OK with using the same cup. Why would you not just listen to me in that moment and use the same cup?” But he filled up two.

Joshua: Get ready for more of the same because you’re going to get a lot of that. The big thing is not just… The amount of bottles that you change compared to the global bottle production is like nothing but it’s the mindset shift that once it starts then you start influencing others. I respect that the first couple times you talk to your parents about it you’re probably going to step on the landmines that I did. People push back and they think you’re imposing on them and so forth, and then you got to find out some people… You got to find out how to lead them effectively or not. If it’s not going to happen because some people really think, “I got mine, you get yours” and you know I’m not trying to influence them. I’m trying to help people who want to do to do more and to hopefully have results like you’ve had, or for me to learn from different experiences because there’s a lot more people out there than I know about. But I think that there’s a lot of people who are going to go through this change of like, “Oh, I can take responsibility. When I do take responsibility, I like what happens. It’s like what more can I do, how much more can I do?” And those people who do all those other things. There’s people who’ve done more than me. Now I see why they do it. They really like it. So, thank you very much for sharing this. I’m curious, I’m going off the cuff here but would you be interested in upping the personal challenge and going on for a third conversation?

RJ: Yeah, let’s do it.

Joshua: Anything come to mind?

RJ: No more paper coffee cups. And for me that’s a big one. I drink one to two coffee cups a day. And so, no more paper coffee cups.

Joshua: So, no restrictions on the amount of coffee?

RJ: No, I love coffee. I love coffee.

Joshua: OK. And oh, yeah you said that you’re going to get yourself a mug, a reusable mug or something like that.

RJ: Yeah.

Joshua: How are you going to get the new one? Because you have to avoid a lot of paper before you make up for whatever… I don’t know where you’re going to get the mug.

RJ: Do you have any recommendations for me? Do you have an extra one?

Joshua: I don’t have… You want something with a lid that you can carry around, right?

RJ: Yeah.

Joshua: I mean if I were going to get one, I would go to Goodwill. So, all right. So how long do you think you have to do it before it kicks in?

RJ: How about three weeks?

Joshua: All right, so it’s September 7, so one, two, three weeks, 28. OK, cool. So, I will send you the calendar invitation after this. Anything else to cover before wrapping up?

RJ: Oh, no. I think we spoke for a while. We covered everything.

Joshua: All right, cool. So yeah, I mean I talk to you for a long time about Palestine and it’s really fascinating and I can’t wait to hear more. And I wonder if there will be even more stuff about Palestine when we are talking in a few weeks.

RJ: Yeah, we will be presenting at a conference. Well, actually the weekend that weekend after the 28th. So we got invited to speak at our first conference which is exciting. And so we’ll see how that goes.

Joshua: Everyone, go… Please, say the web page again.

RJ: leadpalestine.com.

Joshua: Thank you very much and I look forward to talking to you again in a few weeks.

RJ: Thanks, Josh.

Joshua: Bye.


I hope I’m not the only one who finds RJ’s leadership work incredible and effective, and the stories that he’s bringing it’s hard to fathom, especially I have to keep telling myself he’s 21 years old. All the more impressive is that he’s bringing a new style of leadership into a place where according to him machismo, martyrdom are the standards and that people there, people have spent time there and have roots there and have a stake in the outcome, they tell him, and I take him at his word, that what he’s doing works. I also loved hearing his heightened awareness about garbage and water bottles and it’s so interesting to me that the main thing holding him back from changing before was that no one challenged him, no one had asked him if he wanted to try it. Now that he’s tried it, he wants to do more. So, I can’t wait to check on him again in a few weeks.

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