Towards Global Citizenship: Building Community through Art and Conversation at the UN

Kelly Johnson traveled to the United Nations as part of a URI North America-sponsored program for young adult interfaith leaders. This trip occurred during World Interfaith Harmony Week. Kelly works at the Rothko Chapel,  a sacred space and work of art by painter Mark Rothko. Rothko Chapel is a Cooperation Circle member of the United Religions Initiative.


Before I left Houston for NYC, the Rothko Chapel offered a Bon-Buddhist meditation focused on the importance of community support, in response to recent local and national events that have engendered division, hate, and fear across the country. The Chapel, located in a city as diverse as the UN itself, hosts meditation leaders from different spiritual and faith traditions each month, but this gathering was particularly special.

Upon closing, the 90 seated meditators were prompted to emerge from their individual, inner practices to stand and join hands in a circle. Participants were asked greet and embrace their neighbors, extending their peaceful practice outward—reaffirming what affects one affects all, and that we can only move forward if we do so together. Integral to this harmonious atmosphere, Rothko’s sobering purple-ish paintings served as stoic witness, mirroring the moment of unity.

With this auspicious gathering setting the tone for my own journey outward, I wondered if and how the UN might structure community building moments like this, both locally in NYC and on a global scale, and how interfaith work and art might play a role. My UN experience was profoundly shaped by conversations with the URI cohort, along with the UN’s art collection, which inspires and honors the meaningful exchanges that transpire within.

Our group visited during the 55th Session of the Commission for Social Development, focusing on the seemingly impenetrable topic: “Strategies for eradicating poverty to achieve sustainable development for all.” We attended several panels concentrating on approaches to empowering youth across the globe, highlighting new avenues for access to employment, housing, policy, technology, and communications.

During these fascinating, but rather choreographed sessions, representatives spoke from scripts one at a time about their experiences and observations in their countries on these topics, with little comment or cross-conversation between presenters.

It is within the art-filled corridors and interactive side panels organized by smaller UN agencies and NGOs where real community building takes place.

Between sessions, our group explored the lobbies, lounges, and hallways of the UN, stopping frequently to admire and inquire about the artwork on the walls. The UN’s art collection comprises a range of objects: tapestries, paintings, and sculptures gifted by member states sharing their ideals and traditions with one another; historical artifacts and photos from peace and war times; and illustrative graphics, maps, and exhibits on rotating topics.

While each artwork maintains its own unique story from its country of origin, when placed within the UN, it joins a diverse collection that establishes new transhistorical, transgeographical, and transideological community space.

Here paintings serve as landmarks for meetings between colleagues from different nations, sculptures provide a location for moments of ritual and remembrance, and murals play backdrop to tourist photos that are shared digitally with communities around the world.


Among my favorite works is Friend of Peace (2000) by Vasko Taskovski, a gift from Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (which previously hung in Former Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon’s office). The airy painting depicts a rocketing dove-as-space station hovering in the clear atmosphere—a lush hub attracting visitors from across the universe to peacefully convene within.

Perhaps the artist imagines this as the funky future of the UN, or as an ideal progression toward a larger intergalactic community of humankind thriving in concert with others. Friend of Peace divines a space, even a state of mind, that welcomes all.

Back in meetings, we were able to explore that vision of a peaceful world more deeply through conversation. Returning to the UN on our second day, fellow URI trip participant Leah and I were lucky to participate in a side panel organized by several NGOs, including URI, on establishing a Coalition for Global Citizenship education as “a conceptual and practical prerequisite to the eradication of poverty.”

We were invited to help activate this side panel by reading aloud the Coalition’s working statement on the importance of establishing international curriculum for Global Citizenship. Following the reading, we facilitated small group workshops on the statement, in order to glean community input and identify action items to further advance the agenda.

This side panel finally offered time for focused conversations between people from all over the world on what it means to be a global citizen, while sharing solutions on how to bring this issue to the attention of more UN agencies.

The Coalition and participants alike agreed that spirituality—a sense of universal interconnectedness on our shared Earth—is integral to understanding Global Citizenship, enacted through discourse and action from “the individual to the local to the global and back again.”

While the UN remains a significant meeting ground, the work comes alive when the individual (ambassador, tourist, etc) returns to their local community mobilized to activate global concepts within their own sphere of influence. Upon arriving home, I am inspired with refreshed insight to continue working at the intersection of art, spirituality, and human rights—providing a Global Citizenship curriculum of our own for Houstonians at the Rothko Chapel.


Read reflections from other trip participants here and here