EngagePerspectivesUnlikely Friendships: Identity and Difficult Conversations
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Unlikely Friendships: Identity and Difficult Conversations

What does it look like to develop a friendship with someone who may be different from you? In some way? Does it cause you to grow socially and intellectually? And if so, how? For our very first interview in the “Unlikely Friendship” series, we are joined by Penn Seniors in the College, Laila Shadid and David Garnick. Here, they explain their friendship to us, why it is unlikely, and what they have learned from each other. By bravely entering into hard conversations. They are wise and kind, and though they are describing their particular friendship, there are many larger lessons that can be gleaned about how friendship contributes to our well-being.

city of Jerusalem with sun set

Excerpts from Edited Transcript

Dr. Lia Howard: Welcome, David and Laila. Would you tell us a little bit about who you are giving us? Your name, your major, maybe your hometown, or anything else you’d like to share?

Laila Shadid: My name is Laila, and I am a double major in Middle Eastern Studies and sociology. I’m from Boston, Massachusetts, originally, and I’m from I have roots in Lebanon as well.

David Garnick: And my name is David Garnick. I am a senior as well, studying urban studies and political science in the college here at Penn. And I am from outside of Philly originally and excited to be here.

Dr. Lia Howard: How wonderful. Well, welcome. Will you tell us a little bit about why your friendship is an unlikely friendship?

Laila Shadid: I was just joking with David about this, but we are such similar people. And so it’s funny to think about us as an unlikely pair, but we came together because we wanted to learn about each other’s identities and backgrounds, specifically related to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. And we met in sophomore year. David reached out to me and we had an incredible conversation.

I was about to leave and go to Palestine for the summer and he was going to Israel. And we had a conversation about our upbringings and our points of view on this very complicated conflict. And since then, there’s much more to say. But since then, I’ve learned a lot from each other. And so I think that’s what makes us unlikely having, you know, come from different ends of a spectrum on this issue.

David Garnick: I think Laila you’re exactly right. And it is so funny because I think if you just put us up next to each other without knowing our backgrounds, our connections to the Israel-Palestine region and our academic interests associated with that. We’re just two Penn seniors who are funny, young, exciting, queer, and to have these shared identities that kind of foster our relationship in some ways.

But still, it’s hilarious just to think that we’re an unlikely relationship and we have so much in common that would make us good friends. But yeah, I think Laila’s right. I think our relationship is really the inception of it was that sophomore year when I thought that it would be an amazing opportunity to speak with Laila, someone who I had heard is an activist on campus. And Laila will speak about her background, but she’s the president of Students Against the Occupation. And so I thought what a wonderful opportunity to be able to sit with Laila. And before I embarked on my summer journey to Israel to really hear what she has to say and educate myself on her experiences and the work that she’s done at Penn and abroad.

Dr. Lia Howard: I’m so glad to hear that part of your friendship story. And I wanted to ask you a little bit more, too, if you could tell us a little bit more about your friendship story and how do you maintain your friendship? Are people ever surprised that you are friends and what do they say?

Laila Shadid: I think a great story to tell would be the journey we embarked upon this past summer. It really encapsulates the way that we work together and the way that we’ve connected. When I was living in the West Bank in Palestine this past summer, I was doing a journalism fellowship with the Pulitzer Center and I was speaking with children, families, educators, activists in Palestine, trying to learn about what childhood looks like under occupation. And at the end of the summer, David was also there doing research for his thesis, which he can tell you more about. But basically we met in Tel Aviv and we had a wonderful day on the beach, and then he came back with me for the weekend to Ramallah in the West Bank and met a lot of my friends, saw the community that I’d been living in for the entire summer.

That was such a powerful experience for me. We’ve had so many conversations since, but that first conversation we had sitting outside of Hillel sophomore year during COVID with social distancing and going from the Penn community all the way to the region that started this relationship and sparked this desire to have a mutual understanding of each other and our experiences. And then we were there and we were together and we were learning together and we were talking to each other, talking about some really hard things, some topics that I didn’t know how to approach without being in the place where all of this is happening. And it it was amazing.

We’ve brought that back with us to Penn and tried to foster that mutual understanding and other areas of passion and tried to show people that you can have these conversations and this this doesn’t have to be a topic that is so off limits and so polarizing.

David Garnick: Absolutely. Laila just brought the fact that we are two students in the middle of Israel and Palestine on the beach together and meeting her friends from Palestine, which was such an eye opening, an amazing experience. Laila trusting me because of our friendship, coming with her to Palestine and being open minded and being able to understand. The fact that Laila trusted me with that is something I’m very grateful still today, because I otherwise wouldn’t have had that opportunity.

That is a great example of the way we continue building upon our relationship. And even during our senior year, this issue that we’re really interested in of bridging two polarizing groups like Israelis and Palestinians as Laila and I have done with ourselves, we see a possibility of a better future.

That’s why for our senior year we’ve been working towards projects at Penn that we’re trying to work on that have really been able to help us continue building a relationship and continue to make the people around us, I think a little bewildered at how despite coming from different backgrounds continuing to work toward this greater good in this project definitely can get people confused. I think it’s so fun to watch because as Laila and I said, we share so many friendship qualities beyond just this issue. One of the ways we continue building upon a relationship is caring about this issue and figuring out how we can continue [the work] into this year and post-grad.

Laila Shadid: Yeah, I couldn’t have said it better and just to add on to that. People do ask questions like, “how does that work?” “How are you guys able to talk so openly and honestly about an issue like Israel and Palestine that is so closely tied to both of our identities in different ways?” And I’m very proud to have a friend like David, who I think has taught so many people around him that we can listen to each other. And he’s taught me that as well. And I hope that’s a message that I’m bringing to people in my communities, that you can have these hard conversations and you can really learn from your peers when even when they don’t necessarily see eye to eye on every issue or have the same experiences within their family or the way they’ve been raised. That’s been really powerful for me.

Dr. Lia Howard: Well, Laila, David, thank you so much for sharing this. And I love how you’ve shared so contextually about how your friendship, what it was like at Penn and what it was like when you were in Palestine and Israel and how it continues to grow. And so as I’m listening to you, I’ve heard the answer to this implicitly a bit, but I want to ask you explicitly, what are some of the things that you most value about your friendship and how does this friendship contribute to your well-being?

David Garnick: The trust that we have between the two of us to know that we come from a point of wanting to have better understanding about the things we care about respectively and the issues. And I think that when you approach our friendship with an open mind, that if you say something that could be considered wrong or something that we we just don’t know yet, we don’t view each other with judgment, really. We’re patient with each other. And I think that there’s been a few examples. I think one is that Laila took me to a queer film cinema that happened during Laila was that the Palestinian…

Laila Shadid: The Palestinian Film Festival.

David Garnick: Exactly. And that was an awesome experience where Laila having that trust in me with that open mindedness to bring me in really was an amazing thing that I think is the characteristics of the relationship that is so valuable. And I think that it’s the trust and the open mindedness that I really find valuable.

Laila Shadid: I could not agree more. I think that bringing David to Palestine over this past summer, I was obviously nervous because not only did I want him to feel comfortable, but I just I didn’t know what how people around him would react. I didn’t want people to say the wrong things. I was really nervous to make this a fun weekend for everybody.

And he made that so easy. That moment for me just made me trust David as a friend, as a person, as an intellectual thought partner. I love to have somebody in my life who can challenge the way that the things that I think, but also we can have constructive conversations and work together and just learn a lot from each other. And I respect that so much about our relationship. And I really value that. We are able to help each other develop as people. And apart from all of that as well, David is one of the most he has an incredible energy. He is amazing. Everybody loves him and he’s so much fun to be around.

And so apart from having this, you know, mutual trust and growth, we have so much fun together. And he gives great advice and he’s an awesome person. So these are all the things that I really love about our relationship.

David Garnick: I didn’t know I could blush on a podcast, but that’s exactly what’s happened.

Dr. Lia Howard: It is great to hear you all talk about friendship. It’s so wonderful. And I’m so glad to have you on on The Park here talking to us. And I want to ask you now about the Penn community. So how does the Penn community make it easy for friendships like yours to develop and grow? And how does it perhaps make it hard for unusual friendships to develop and grow?

Laila Shadid: I would say that I think, unfortunately, when it comes to the topic of Israel and Palestine, Penn makes it very difficult. It’s really unfortunate to me because I see Penn very clearly supporting one side of this issue and giving very clear support to those students who share that point of view and really neglecting a lot of Palestinian students and, you know, censoring Palestinian activism in a lot of ways.

That is another thing that makes our, David and I’s, relationship so special is that we were able to overcome those barriers that Penn has put in place. I think in a lot of other ways, Penn fosters a very diverse community, but they’re lacking in this specific issue, and I don’t think they’re brave enough to speak out or to have dialog around this, even if it is in, you know, a point of view that they share that there’s it’s a lot harder to speak up for Palestine, Palestinian human rights and feel comfortable in a space like Penn.

David Garnick: And I think, you know, this is a very unique example. I think the way in which our relationship has grown among this very polarizing issue. And I think it’s not a reality for people on both sides who might really feel strongly about this issue, whether it’s pro-Palestinian activists or students on campus or pro-Israeli students or activists on campus.
That’s a very unique example. But it really goes to show that this issue, even beyond the Penn bubble, is it’s just incredibly hard to overcome divisions among it. Right. And I think, of course, Penn is a microcosm for that. Beyond this issue. I think, you know, Penn, like any a lot of universities, it’s unbelievable how they can bring different people together and create relationships from all walks of life.

I can give you a ton of examples of students from all over who somehow were friends with X student or that student. And it’s a really beautiful thing. I think it’s what makes a place like Penn so special. But I think just like any place, Penn has its issues and it can be hard, right, As you go through the years here.

Maybe freshman year is a lot of Kumbaya, a lot of, “it doesn’t matter who you are, we live on the same hall, we are besties.” And that’s a beautiful thing. But I think over time, it can be really hard with the institutions that we have on this campus, whether it be Greek life, which is a big force here. Or whether it be people getting in their own bubbles or communities that they find that maybe they just are more comfortable in. Maybe more homogenous than what their freshman year dorm look like. As you continue through your Penn experiences, it’s harder to push away from that and harder to find those unlikely friendships.

And I think that’s all the more reason why, you know, you need to continue doing some of the things that I think Laila and I share and find and forum. Curiosity, for instance, is something I didn’t bring up in the last question. But I think Laila and I share curiosity just as so many of our really intellectual classmates do as well. And I think curiosity is so key in building those unlikely friendships and going the step further to meet someone who you probably wouldn’t have met otherwise. Because these bubbles can get really small at Penn. And I think trying as hard as you can to get out of those and find yourselves in different communities is and it should be any student’s goal.

Because that’s why we’re here. We’re here to meet different people and we’re here to grow. And that, I think, is the really important and probably top way to grow is to foster these unlikely relationships. And I hope students can just get out of their comfort zone a little more as they progress through their education and do just that.

Laila Shadid: This is like the most diverse place that you will ever be a part of just because there are so many people from different places, from different backgrounds, different countries, beliefs, you name it. And so Penn does give you that foundation, but it’s up to you to make the effort to meet other people and to be uncomfortable and to step outside of your circles and your beliefs and the spaces that you have felt comfortable in to grow and to create Unlikely Friendships.

Dr. Lia Howard: All tremendous advice. And I just wanted to see if I could push you all to ask and give a little bit more advice to to students who may want to have friendships that might be unlikely. How do they find folks and how do they cultivate personal dispositions that might make them open to unusual friendships? You mentioned curiosity. I wonder if there’s any others.

David Garnick: I do think there are ways that students can be proactive in doing that, and I think one very useful way is getting involved in something you may have not thought you would want to be involved in and just out of, you know, pure, like I said, curiosity, but pure or, you know, with a goal of wanting to learn more.

That can mean going to a speaker that you wouldn’t usually go to. It could mean going to a GBM for students against the occupation. And even if I don’t maybe agree with everything where if I am skeptical at first. I think it’s entering these spaces that of course it takes a lot of vulnerability and it’s hard. But is probably going to be worthwhile and you’ll probably meet some kids who share a little bit more than you may have thought on the surface.

I think one of the key things that I’m so grateful to have learned more about specifically through the SNF Paideia course. I talk with Dr. Howard on Political Empathy and Deliberative Democracy. But we learned a lot about the power of active listening and how you can actually be mindful to write while you listen and to really hear someone not just hear them and then move on, but take what they’re saying and really reflect and digest on that appropriately, to really hear that person. And I think that’s a great step in moving in the direction to have these unlikely relationships.

Laila Shadid: Some advice I would have for freshmen or sophomores who are a little bit earlier on in the journey is make sure that you are constantly putting yourself in different spaces, whether that be joining a bunch of different clubs or trying to make multiple friend groups. It’s so important not to limit yourself to just three or four people for your next four years because you need to make different friendships to be able to understand who you are as a person.

And different people bring different sides out of you and help you learn new things about who you are and who you want to be and what you want to do in the world. And I wish I’d gotten this advice when I was a freshman, because I think really quickly, you want to find one group of people that you spend all your time with because you feel secure at a time in your life when there’s a lot of change and insecurity. But it’s so important to to, yes, find your people, but find your people in a lot of different spaces and a lot of different ways from a lot of different backgrounds.

Dr. Lia Howard: Laila and David, you are so generous and so wise and we appreciate your time with us. Is there anything, as we wrap up, any other thing you’d like to share?

David Garnick: I’m curious, Dr. Howard, from your vantage point, if I don’t mind, if you don’t mind us turning it back on you and the host of this podcast. But what maybe you why you reached out to us, why you felt that Laila’s and my relationship was an unlikely one. I mean, I obviously it could be a lot of what we talked about, but I’m just kind of curious from your perspective here.

Dr. Lia Howard: Well, David, thank you for that. This is a fun opportunity to talk and be interviewed on my podcast. David to be quite honest, when I heard your stories of your trip to Israel and how you visited Laila and how your friendship grew in spite of or maybe because of the different identities that you had, even though you share the identity of being Penn students I thought you would be the perfect group to kick off our Unlikely Friendship series. When we would meet in person or on Zoom, and you glowed when you talked about your friendship with Laila. I was like, that’s exactly what we want to communicate with our listeners here that it is through friendships that challenge us and make us brave and that we can then glow.

So yeah, again, unexpected question, but so, so appreciate being asked. David and Laila, so appreciate having you. Is there anything else you want to share with us though, before we end?

Laila Shadid: Now I’m blushing, but I just really, really love this idea. I’m so honored to be considered to be included in this podcast and to be able to share this wonderful friendship that I have with David and hopefully resonate with with some people who want to connect with others who are an unlikely friend, I guess. And I really hope that we see more unlikely friendships and I just I’m really grateful to be a part of this. So thank you so much.

Dr. Lia Howard: Well, thank you both so much. And I want to tell our listeners, we’ll be back with another friendship soon. But I hope you’ve enjoyed listening to Laila and David as much as we have here. Thank you.

From Laila and David, we have heard so many benefits that unlikely friendships can provide. Unlikely friendships give us a particular type of thought partner, where, according to David and Laila, we can be nurtured towards growth in a series of important areas, such as having patience with each other, trusting each other’s help, developing a more open mind, learning deeper respect for others, curiosity, active listening, having open and honest conversations, and finally growing in mutual understanding.

You get practice in that safe and trusting space to talk about increasingly hard things. Where to quote today’s conversation, “No topic is off limits because of the friendship and because of this.,”Again, to quote our conversation, “these kinds of unlikely friendship provide hope and allow us to build a better future.” Thank you for joining us today. Maybe this made you think about a friendship that you have.

If so, please respond to our call for unlikely friendships at the survey that you will find on our website under the Engage tab. Join us next time to hear from another group of friends that call their friendship an unlikely one.

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