Hostels, Peacebuilding and the American Heritage Dictionary

Hostels have long been about welcoming travelers with safe, affordable accommodations.  For one, the American Heritage Dictionary defines a hostel as “a supervised, inexpensive lodging place for travelers, especially young travelers.”

HI-USA is evolving a more expansive definition of hostel that encompasses community as well.  And as we are increasingly successful, American Heritage will need to revisit that definition, as it did for “mouse” (rodent -> computer device), “twitter” (a slight chirping sound -> an online networking site), and “swipe” (to steal -> to pass through an electronic reader).

Our idea is a simple one.  Travelers who want to learn more about the locality they are visiting can themselves become a community asset.  How?  By interacting with community members.   HI-USA believes conversations between visitors and local residents can result in deeper knowledge and understanding for both.  And we are promoting it through hostel programs and activities that bring together travelers and local residents.

Yet an innovative HI-USA regional chapter asked itself, why stop there?  Last weekend I was invited to make the welcoming address at a community-focused peace conference organized by the HI-San Diego Council.  Or to be more specific, a peacebuilding conference.

Don’t leave that American Heritage Dictionary just yet.   Look up “peacebuilding” and you get an even more indeterminate result: “no word definition found”.

And so HI-USA finds itself out in front of a quite unintentional push for semantic change.

Yet we are in good company.  The United Nations uses peacebuilding, along with peacemaking and peacekeeping, in a taxonomy that gives context to its global efforts.  For the UN, peacebuilding involves actions that solidify peace and avoid relapse into conflict.  Peacemaking brings hostile parties to agreement, and peacekeeping is actively maintaining a truce.

In the aftermath of World War II, hostels were part of classic, post-conflict peacebuilding.  Governments and nonprofits rebuilt war-torn hostels as places where young people could mend transcontinental relations.  In the time sense, hostels have become places where destructive stereotypes are addressed through conversation and exchange, before conflicts ever emerge.  Now, as then, travelers can return home peacebuilders in their own right.

At the San Diego conference last weekend, the event took a community focus on peacebuilding, bringing together both local and national personalities.  The keynote speaker was former Iranian captive/backpacker Josh Fattal, who shared engaging stories and insights about his imprisonment.  The 50 or so attendees actively participated in a day-long format designed to encourage discussion and dialogue.

As HI-USA further advances both hostels and peacebuilding, we can look to an unlikely yardstick for our success: future revisions to the American Heritage Dictionary.

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