After more than a dozen panels and testimonials and many hours of working groups at the Google Ideas Summit Against Violent Extremism, several former extremists and survivors will attempt to recap the four days in a presentation Thursday to a couple hundred Google employees at their Dublin offices. The presentation is meant to summarize the events of the conference, what they’ve learned, what their ideas are and what action they are taking going forward.
That’s a tall order, after bringing together 80 former extremists and survivors and another 120 representatives from the academic, non-profit, business and government worlds.
“I’m still trying to digest what happened on the first day,” said Google Ideas director Jared Cohen.
In what may have been the most tearful segment, former State Department Director of Policy Planning Anne-Marie Slaughter led a ”mother-to-mother” talk with Aicha el-Wafa, whose son, Zacarias Moussaoui, is the “20th hijacker” of the 9/11 attacks.
El-Wafa, who was forced to marry at 14 and withstood her own share of hardships, saying, “Sadly I was born in a country where a woman is a woman, a second-class citizen.” It was a condition that transferred even when the family moved to France.
Eventually, el-Wafa found housing, left her abusive husband and worked as a seamstress, doing the best she could to support herself and the four children, while not realizing her son was becoming radicalized.
“I never really looked further. I wish I had,” el-Wafa told the audience. “I’m cross with myself. I didn’t know.”
Gill Hicks, who lost her legs below the knee in the London July 7, 2005 bombings, moderated a panel with a former neo-Nazi, a former gangster and a former Muslim extremist.
Former Irish extremists sat on a panel with IRA survivors. And former President of Colombia, Alvaro Uribe Valez, led a panel that included a former member of FARC.
At one point during the conference, Google Executive Chairman Eric Schmidt showed his frustration at questions about why the company and its think tank were taking on de-radicalization, a topic usually left to governments and non-profits.
Schmidt told a reporter he was becoming impatient with the questions, and said the company and Google Ideas were acting “simply as a convener.”
Cohen had been assured that this kind of gathering was impossible, and that if he could bring such a group together, the outcome would not be fruitful.
But Cohen said that all of his expectations were met. “I honestly can’t think of a single thing that I wanted out of this conference that didn’t happen,” said Cohen, adding, “In fact, there are things that happened here I didn’t even know I was looking for.”
More tangibly is a YouTube channel for former extremists and a website that will act as curation points for organizations and individuals in the de-radicalization field. Until now, there was very little coordination. Officials from some organizations located in the same city had never met until the Dublin summit.
One outcome is certain: Google Ideas is not getting in the grant-giving business. “From the beginning, we’ve consistently stood firm on not wanting to be in funding projects,” said Cohen.
Cohen said that they were not willing to risk the relationships they worked hard to build by having them compete for funding under Google’s auspices. But that doesn’t mean Google Ideas won’t be pitching other foundations and companies to fill that void.
In breakout sessions, teams of 10 or 12 formers, survivors and other stakeholders developed tangible ideas, including films, a WikiKoran and speaking tours. At the end of the conference, participants voted on the ideas and the top three were awarded financial awards from Edelman public relations, e Boost and Gen Next.
The Edelman ‘Catalyst’ Award provides for up to $25,000 of pro bono services; the Boost Positive Activism Award provides for up to $20,000 of digital consulting services and the Gen Next ‘Innovation & Impact’ Award provides $15,000 for the implementation of the winning idea.
Jane Rosenthal of the Tribeca Film Festival, a partner in the conference, said she’s working with HBO to create a documentary on de-radicalization. “I’m walking away with more compelling and courageous stories than I ever could have imagined,” said Rosenthal.
The conference was also a defining moment for Google Ideas. The conference, which was the think tank’s first endeavor, is helping the organization refine its mission and structure.
“We didn’t come into this with a perfectly defined organizational structure and defined roles for each position,” said Cohen. And it’s not something that is likely to change at Google Ideas.
“We just might be the ones to break the mold on the way think tanks think of themselves,” he said.