Peacebuilding from Coast to Coast

I recently returned from traveling and speaking about peacebuilding awareness with youth, educators, and the general public.  Though travel can be exhausting (particularly when taking returning “red eye” flights leaving the west coast!) it is well worth it to see the good work that is being done around the U.S. Much of this work goes unnoticed in the press and with public officials.   As media outlets continue to focus on “big” conflicts and global crises in Nigeria, Ukraine, Syria and elsewhere, in communities around the country important foundational work is being done with public groups, and more importantly with young people in teaching them strategies to solving differences based in dialogue, negotiation, nonviolence, mediation, and other peaceful means.

Steven Pinker, in his book The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined (Viking, 2011), makes the argument that the overall the rate of violence has lessened over time.   Though many can take satisfaction in his thesis, others will argue that he fails to recognize structural violence based in social and gender inequality, denial of basic human rights, and economic deprivation. (I don’t think he would share Mahatma Gandhi’s admonition that “poverty is the worst form of violence.”)   Though overt violence might have been reduced, the ways that violence manifests itself and is caused will continue to challenge our abilities to respond.   Where in the past, war was fought because of convenient though not always practical alliances (as in the case of World War I, which started 100 years ago) or for basic human needs such as communal safety, the variables that lead to violent conflict today including religious intolerance, mental instability, militarization, and radicalization often leads to results that are especially insidious and vicious.  As the world becomes more complex because of diversity, technology, trade and other effects of globalization, violent conflict will continue to be a bane we will need to address, hopefully in a preventative way.  Fortunately, we have benefited from the increasingly number of practitioners and scholars that focus on conflict resolution and transformation, and peacebuilding. But ultimately, the ability of the global community to respond to conflict in a healthy way will rest on the capacities of local communities.

Speaking to students at San Jose City College
Speaking to students at San Jose City College

My travels started in the Bay Area at San Jose City College where I was part of its Middle Eastern Heritage Week.  There I spoke to students, faculty, and the public on peacebuilding approaches that are being used in community colleges and in local contexts.   The classes I spoke with were typical community college: students of all ages, ethnic and cultural make ups (though largely Latino), and backgrounds.   I had one student – who because of a disability posed his questions through a speech generating devise – ask: “Will we ever see peace in our world?”  In answering, I shared that I would hope we would learn to settle our differences in other ways besides warfare and violence, but we will always have acts of violence that shock us and challenge our ability to respond as in the present situation in Nigeria.  I might have been “darker” in my view then he anticipated. Another adult student listening was very involved in the local peace movement and shared with me events that are taking place in the area, recommending that there is always an untapped nonviolent response to violence.

Faculty seminar at Chabot College
Faculty seminar at Chabot College

I then ran a faculty development program for a client at Chabot College near Oakland, California.   During one session, we talked about activities that college students could engage in that might constitute service learning.   I suggested training students in conflict resolution and mediation skills.  One faculty member from the Los Angeles area felt that these skills were critical for her urban students who are often from marginalized environments.    Though we heavily focus on literacy and computational stills with underserved populations, we also need to expose them to approaches to resolving differences that steer them away from violence.  Unfortunately in many of our communities, violence is a ubiquitous fact of life.

I then traveled to Auburn, Washington and visited Green River Community College.  There, I met with administrators and the college president who is dealing with labor issues with the faculty.   We talked about ways of building trust and creating a climate of collaboration where negotiation can be successful.   I also spoke to students about peacebuilding in other parts of the world, looking specifically at the efforts of youth in the Middle East.  My discussion focused on the need for dialogue and engagement in dealing with differences.   The audience was very international, students that were from groups that had long settled in the region, but also students from overseas, and largely East Asian.   The Middle East seemed to be an area that they didn’t regularly focus on, but, I pointed out, the antipathy that exists between Israelis and Palestinians is present in many places around the world.  One Korean student mentioned the environment of distrust and fear that exists on the Korean peninsula.  Finally, I had the opportunity to talk with adult members of the community taking mediation training that was offered through the college’s community mediation center.   Many shared with me the need for conflict resolution skills as critical to their being successful in their work, especially in a multi-cultural environment.

Poster for UNC/Greensboro talk
Poster for UNC/Greensboro talk

After a day at home, I travelled to the University of North Carolina, Greensboro. I was the graduation speaker at the masters in peace and conflict studies program.  I was impressed with the determination of the students many of whom had struggled and sacrificed to get a degree.   Though some had uncertain plans, others were sure of their futures. Some students planned on work in restorative justice thereby helping communities to heal after violence, or in educational settings to raise awareness with youth about peaceful alternatives.   While in Greensboro, I talked with students at Northwest Guilford High School and Walter Hines Page High School.  At Northwest, we talked about conflict and discussed that though it is often viewed in a negative way it can actually be an avenue for change.  Though words like “war,” “hatred” and “violence” are associated with conflict, but so can “opportunity,” “change” and “freedom.”   I talked about Martin Luther King, Jr. and his view of conflict and using nonviolence as a means for positive and meaningful change. (This was an important reminder for them in light of the 1960 Greensboro sit ins).  Students at Page talked about peace as being an issue that many take different views on, but that we need to seek agreement on before engaging in a resolution.  We also talked about the work of peacebuilding and the many talents and skills that need to be used by workers in conflict zones around the world.

Finally, returning home, I spent an afternoon with members of the Anne Arundel County (Maryland) Board of Education.  The board had just hired a new superintendent and wanted to have a facilitated discussion on approaches based in consensus and dialogue to getting their work done.   I was impressed that this board was interested in the “means” to their work, not just the policy implications.   They wanted to establish an environment that was inclusive of all members and “heard” all voices.  Also important to them was making sure that avenues were present for stakeholders that depend on the public schools to engage.

Coming back home with a bit of jet lag, I now have time to reflect on the important work that is going on in U.S. communities to find ways of responding to conflict that lead to constructive policies and strong community, and the building of skills and awareness that can empower individuals in facing future challenges.

Engaging students at Page High School
Engaging students at Page High School

While keeping our youth focused on the big picture: peace in the world, we also recognize that they need to be skilled in the means to settle differences in positive ways. Getting youth in particular to see the opportunity in conflict and how it can be used to make positive change, is critical, and that peace, though in the eye of the beholder, cannot be assumed among groups, but must be discussed and agreed to.  Raising their awareness of challenges in other parts of the world can provide them with perspective in dealing with issues at home, and thinking about ways of contributing globally to building peace.   It will continue to be important for educators to explore methodologies they can use with their students to help them navigate a world that is often conflicted.  Presenting and supporting career paths for graduates is an important outcome: this draws attention to the value we as a society place on professional peace workers.   Finally, the public, especially those working in education, can hone  peacebuilding skills that will lead to building better communities and improve learning, and can be modeled by those who observe from the sidelines.  There is much to be hopeful for in today’s communities.

Though the global issues of the day continue to draw our attention and drain our resources, by promoting peacebuilding awareness in our communities and with our youth, we ensure that they will have the ability to deal with the challenges of the future, be they global or local.

Published by David J. Smith

I am a career coach, consultant, and head of a not for profit - the Forage Center - that offers humanitarian education training. I also teach at George Mason University and Drexel University. A one time lawyer, I spent many years teaching in a community college where I was a Fulbright U.S. Scholar teaching in Estonia. I'm the author of Peace Jobs: A Student's Guide to Starting a Career Working for Peace (IAP 2016). I've been married to my best friend for over 31 years and we have two well adjusted adult children who teach me something new everyday. I live in Rockville, Maryland.

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