Formative and Memorable Events

Unlike the other participants in SPP, I took the course for credit at MIIS, and the credits were added to my Fall semester workload. It is now December 14th, and the end of the semester is just around the corner, BUT I have not finished all of the supplementary work I need to in order to receive academic credit for SPP. I could easily beat myself up for not being more proactive and instead waiting until the last minute to write blog posts, but, in all honesty, I am thoroughly enjoying the opportunity to go back over the readings and my notes and reflections from SPP…even though it is now four months after the program ended. I feel like this is giving me an opportunity to revisit three of the richest and most challenging/inspiring weeks I’ve ever lived through. I also appreciate how this is forcing me to refresh my knowledge on the topics we covered because it is apparent that I didn’t retain as much as I could have (or wish I had!). Fortunately for me, I still have all of the course materials and I am just as interested in peace building as I ever was before. This is also a good reminder that I will be a lifelong student of peace building and I should always be revisiting what I learned in the past.

With that said, instead of continuing to analyze some of the themes/topics and lessons learned from SPP, in this blog post I want to write about two formative events that took place at MIIS this semester. I think they directly relate to what I studied in SPP and they keep popping up in my head as I revisit the SPP curriculum.

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The first event was having Dr. Peggy McIntosh as the keynote speaker at the annual conference put on by the Center for Conflict Studies (the center is directed by Dr. Pushpa Iyer and organizes SPP every year. I also had the opportunity to work for CCS during my first semester at MIIS). This year’s conference was titled: Breaking Through Shades of Color: Transforming Race Relations and Conflict.

This was the fifth annual conference put on by CCS, and they now have quite a reputation for brining together inspiring activists, artists, academics, practitioners, among others, for three days of storytelling, panel presentations, discussions, films, theatrical performances, community building, and so much more than I can ever express. The point I’m trying to make is that these conferences are special. It is not your traditional academic setting where experts talk about what they’ve accomplished/what they know and open it up for questions. Instead, the CCS conferences encourage a much more interactive experience where thought leaders and newbies come together and learn in a dynamic space that is conducive to sharing, reflection, and analysis through deep/crucial conversations and activities. I really love these conferences and hope to attend many more in the future.

Before I revisit her keynote address, I want to say that Peggy McIntosh was one of the most influential scholars on my late teenage/early twenty years). I still remember reading her famous article, “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack,” when I was 17 years old and the speechless awe I felt afterwards. How had I lived on this earth for almost two decades and was completely oblivious to how much unearned privileged I carried with me everywhere I went simply because of the color of my skin? Sure, I had explored issues around racial injustice and knew there were systems in place that disadvantaged people of color, but I was overwhelmingly oblivious to how deep this issue permeated into the very structure of U.S. society, and also the extent of advantage and privilege it gave me. Fortunately, Peggy McIntosh (and the help of several other inspiring and patient mentors) woke me up!

Remembering how Dr. McIntosh had shaped my teenage years and played a pivotal role in inspiring me/helping me to become an advocate for racial equity and social justice throughout my time as an undergraduate, I felt very fortunate to get the chance meet her this past November at the conference. And, just as my expectations alluded to her being great, she was truly magnificent. 🙂

Dr. McIntosh spent a good amount of time sharing her story of how she came to realize both her white privilege and internalized racism. She humbly spoke about how she would often feel noble for working with people of color during a time when few others would. Yet, she recalled that she was still looking at her coworkers of color as if they were lesser or different than her and her white counterparts. She was tolerating them, but she was not accepting them. Dr. McIntosh then compared this to the way she felt when her male coworkers would allow her to work with them, but they usually failed to acknowledge her abilities, intelligence, and potential. Something clicked for her back then, and we have all reaped the benefits. Since beginning to understand the way in which her behaviors and attitude were not supportive or accepting of people of color, her journey as a feminist and anti-racism activist took off.

In addition to sharing her personal journey, Dr. McIntosh asked the audience to participate in a reflective exercise. We divided ourselves into pairs and were given two minutes to share openly about advantages and disadvantages that we’ve all faced in our lives. Whoever wasn’t speaking would listen actively, but without showing any emotion whatsoever, or responding to the person talking in any way. After two minutes the speaker and listener would switch. We also did a second round where we talked about things we have done to weaken systems of oppression around us, and things we wish we had done. Rereading this on the screen, my words don’t exhibit the powerful experience that this activity created. Although my partner was a good friend of mine, I learned things about his identity and past that I would never have learned otherwise. I also discovered aspects of my own privilege, as well as deep regrets around specific events, that I hadn’t given myself the opportunity to explore. In less than ten minutes, the entire audience had been transformed and the energy in that auditorium seemed completely different.

However, this activity is just one example of how her keynote address was able to challenge the audience to think in new ways. When I think back on the other parts of her talk, one phrase that has consistently stood out to me is “I am a body in the body of the world.” I won’t retell the story of how this phrase came about, but I think the point Dr. McIntosh was making is that that we are all connected through our humanity – the good, the bad, the ugly, the beautiful that lives in each of us – but, at the same time, each one of us is also unique and moves through the world in their own beautiful way. As I continue to reflect on what she shared, and also what I experienced in SPP, my goal is to learn to embrace this way of viewing humanity so that I may do a better job at dismantling my own biases and assumptions about what is appropriate, right, normal etc…After all, I am only one body in the body of the world, but I can make that one body stronger and wiser if I am intentional and committed. Perhaps I’ll start by reading every paper by Dr. McIntosh that I can get my hands on. 🙂

 

Musings on Culture

As I reflect on SPP, I find myself thinking a lot about culture. It seems like the more I study or use culture, the more aware I become of it’s complexity.

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I’ve always appreciated the iceberg model and the idea that culture is divided between observable and unobservable characteristics. What we often see immediately when we meet someone new is obvious cultural characteristics like attire and language, but it takes much more time and dedication to decipher what lies beneath the surface –e.g. core values and learned behaviors.  Things like “concept of justice” and “attitude toward the environment” are certainly not visible to someone who merely observes or engages in light interaction with someone of another culture.

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I also like the idea of culture as a toolkit. I’ve never thought of culture as a set of assets that you can utilize as you need – but it is exactly that! Culture is a toolkit of learned values and behaviors, and that toolkit is unique to each person, even though there are commonalities among members of a specific community, geographic area, ethnic group etc… For me, this metaphor helps me better understand how our own cultural identity is a combination of multiple components, and that certain aspects are useful/helpful in certain situations, perhaps while being a hindrance or barrier in others.

The above metaphor also tells me that I will not always have the right tool for every situation. Really, I could look at part of my life’s work as expanding this cultural toolkit so that I am better prepared for challenges in multicultural or foreign/unfamiliar setting, but I know that there will always be more tools to acquire and old tools to be sharpened.

Going back to SPP now, I appreciate how Dr. Pushpa Iyer talked about cultural analysis as an essential component of peace building. How can one ever understand a conflict without examining the cultural landscape of the parties involved? This is similarly expressed by Dr. Kevin Avruch, who wrote about the necessity of cultural analysis in “Conflict Resolution in Intercultural Settings; Problems and Prospects.” In this chapter (and also when I saw him present in my intro to conflict resolution course at MIIS last year), he explained that that we must perform cultural analysis on ourselves. When analyzing a conflict, we are, in a way, bringing ourself into that conflict and therefore must understand where we are coming from. For example one must be hyper aware of when and how we confront moments of “non comprehension and unintelligibility.” Instead of dismissing these, or glossing over them with value judgments, we must try to understand why we don’t understand, and then take it a step further – attempt to learn how to view what was previously unintelligible  to us as normal/regular/essential etc… In this way we are building upon our ability to empathize, and also strengthening our understanding of cultural norms and identities that are very different than our own.

I now find myself reflecting on all the times I thought something was strange or crazy when I lived in Laos or Tanzania, and even how I made fun of certain norms or traditions. While I was certainly not right to do that, and sincerely hope I will be more open minded in the future, I appreciate the memories for showing me how I could have done a cultural analysis on myself at the time. 

An Abundance of Privilege

I wrote this post in August, but for some reason never actually published it. I guess now is as good a time as ever!

It’s hard to believe this three week course has come to an end. What an incredible journey it has been: inspiring students from all over the world who have influenced me to challenge my assumptions and opinions; practitioners, academics, and activists who have made me revisit my personal code of ethics and make sure I know what my values are and why they are so important to me.

I feel truly honored to have participated in this program, however, I am currently so overwhelmed by all that we have learned and experienced that it’s hard for me to pick something specific to write about here. Instead, I think I’ll return to the two things that have helped ground me throughout this entire course: yoga and singing.

While at Mt. Madonna, I snuck away from the group several times to pass quiet moments in the yoga shala. On one such outings, I began to sing some of my favorite songs. One that seemed appropriate at the time is a song called “Beautiful Day,” by India Arie. I made a recording of the song on my phone while in this peaceful place and you can click the link below if you would like to listen to it.

This is a song that I often sing when I’m stressed out, but in this particular instance, I began to reflect on my most common theme this class: my abundant privilege. One: I’m sitting alone in a peaceful yoga studio at a retreat center in one of the most stunning parts of California. Two: I happen to be at this retreat center as part of a course for my master’s degree in development practice and policy. Three: I’m singing a song about how I can make any day beautiful simply by choosing to open my heart and mind to the lovely things in and around me (a choice that is perhaps/probably not available to people who are constantly bombarded with violence or oppression). Four: I could go on and on and on and the point remains the same. Most people do not have the opportunity or time to improve their surroundings by positive thought. I believe we must already be in a zone of heightened privilege in order to do that. I know that this doesn’t mean I shouldn’t continue to embrace my optimistic nature and attempt to see things in a positive light, but I do need to better understand why/how I am able to do this.

Last lectures

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I woke up at 7am with a tingly feeling of excitement passing through my veins. Gradually opening my eyes, I could see the rays of sun shine on my beds. I reached up tall and leapt out of bed. Today is our last day on Mount Madonna Center. We had the privilege to meet Mr. Jerome Sigamani and talked about Drivers of Peacebuilding.

In the lecture, we learnt about  Gandhian concept towards conflict resolution & peace. Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi was the preeminent leader of the Indian independence movement in British-ruled India. According to this philosophy, conflict is omnipresent in the life of an individual living in this world. We can see and feel a conflict at various levels. In today’s society, conflicts are so apparent and prevalent. Millions of people have been killed in conflicts in Syria, Pakistan, Afghanistan,… and many other parts of the world. Looking back, we can see the roots of these conflicts, many of them are initiated by the so called the developed countries. The impact of conflict on any community cannot be captured by statistics alone. Many civilians, especially women and children, have to experience various trauma such as violence and deaths.

One of the most interesting activities in class was to analyze a case study about a village in Nicarague. In this exercise, at first we looked at the situation from different angles. The country in the case faced two major armed conflicts due to inequality in land holdings. It also suffered political instability. The population was divided into supporters of government and other others. Drugs and gangs had taken over streets, which increased conflicts between gangs. From top to down level, there was  a lot of corruption and control by militia. Meanwhile, from bottom to up level, disunity and lack of community leadership was apparent.

As a group, we were able to come up with solutions from two approach. The first thing was to break down discrimination and disunity. This approach would result in a revolution. Clear examples could be an increase in community ownership by supporting families with small business. An a result of domino effect, this could be spread out. From top to down, we thought about a positive dictatorship. Since the country had a lot of conflicts at the same time, a benevolent dictator would help to solve violence and unify people. Still, we agreed that this would not be the most effective approach.

From this exercise, I found it important to analyze roots of any conflicts and consider different parties/ stake holders at the same time. Conflicts have led this world into lot of wars, lives, physical damage, trauma,… and many times making the generation suffer. I hope to be a part of the team that create a better world. I would love to end this final blog post with a quote from Gandhi. Happiness is when what you think, what you say, and what you do are in harmony.

Final Reflection Piece

It has been a “week and some change” since SPP ended. For many of us, these past couple of days involved extensive traveling and settling back into old rhythms and patterns, or beginning new roles and assuming new obligations.

I have been thinking deeply about what SPP represents for me. Perhaps the biggest takeaway is that I now have more clarity about the trajectory I want my academic career to follow. The opportunity to learn from “industry experts” as to what the field of peacebuilding and/or development entails in such an intimate and relaxed environment is a difficult one to come by, and as such, I am continually grateful to Dr Iyer for organizing this.

Additionally, SPP was a refreshing reminder that the world is not such a dark place after all! It is easy—especially if one follows the major media outlets in this country—to believe that the world is on the brink of anarchy. Indeed, there are “pockets of extreme violence”; this violence fueled by sentiments that appear to be contagious. However, SPP was a reminder that there are many passionate, intelligent, industrious and caring people committed to establishing positive peace in various communities globally. And for that, I say thank you to my colleagues for all the insights and energy (most times, lol) we brought to SPP.

I think the biggest lesson I learned in SPP—and this is not because it was the focus of the last few seminars—is how important it is to establish a clearly defined moral and ethical framework, and, to take time for self-care. I’ve already mentioned the difficulties of a term like “self-care”, so I do not see the necessity of going into it now. However one defines the term, it is important to participate in activities and/or rituals that allow you to be your best self in service of others. Additionally, having a clearly defined framework from which you operate brings an integrity to your character—a trait so important everywhere–but particularly in this line of work. So again, the biggest thank you from my heart to everyone who was involved in making SPP a truly unforgettable 3 weeks 🙂

Final thoughts

Looking up at the full moon in the sky tonight reminds me of the penultimate evening of the MIIS summer peace program. This is definitely the right time to write the final blog for the summer peace program. Our final few evenings on Mount Madonna were filled with the unexpected thrill of the perseid meteor shower. After so much time spent in concentration, and contemplation together, it was delightful to just sit back and relax and soak up the show from space. I was able to view the meteors first with our professor, and then later with my fellow students. And even now, I still feel connected to everyone because we are still under the same sky, and the same beautiful full moon tonight.

Tonight may even be the right time to remove the purple string I’ve been wearing since we arrived at Mount Madonna. It was a symbol to the staff that we were their guests: the 2016 “Peacebuilders”, according to the sign outside of our lodge. It was also a symbol of our social identity as a group, since we all had to wear the same simple, cotton, purple string around our wrists. In social identity theory, symbols can both include you in an in-group, and differentiate you from a larger out-group. It is  my hope that everything we learned has shown us to try and work past differentiation and separation, for the good of everyone on the planet.

Despite leaving Monterey last weekend, all of the knowledge shared with us over our three week program will stay with me, as will the identity of being part of this group of potential “peacebuilders”. I look forward to using my knowledge in the future, and seeing all my fellow students achieve in the field.  I know they all have bright futures ahead, and I’m grateful for the time we had together.

Thank you, Professor Iyer, and all of the guest speakers, who shared their time and experience with us.

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Let’s talk about culture…

A discourse system, in a simplified term would mean a conversation. But the system has a deeper meaning that not only includes conversations but any type of communication. Discourse systems come under different outlines according to specific contexts, which help the general growth of communication ethnographically. Intercultural interactions help us understand individuality, sentiments and other different features that diverse civilizations use to exchange and communicate ideas.

The way we communicate with one another is different depending on where we come from. The use and interpretation of one word varies across cultural environments. Depending on your relation with the sociocultural area you will feel as an insider or an outsider. On my behalf I would say that I am an insider of the Rwandan culture. Though I have lived in different countries, adopted different cultures and interacted with different people, I am internally attuned to the Rwandan culture. Being an insider of the culture allows me to speak with freedom and less anxieties. I am able to give a political opinion, to speculate about the future, the past and the present and to speak for others with whom I share the same culture. An insider has no limits or he only has “natural limits”, natural because they were naturally set by the culture he belongs to.

Cultures can be shown, experienced and tasted but to fully understand a culture and feel as an insider you would need to start by comprehending the local language, then by understanding the discourse systems from the sentiments to actions to finally integrate unconscious habits that come along with the culture. This integration helps reduce trust issues some may have. No matter where we go, as peacebuillders will face trust issues from the people we work with. Doing our best to understand and adopt the culture would ease our goal to reach peace.

 

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The Myth of Peaceful Women

In the past few weeks, we have dwelled over the different roles associated with peacebuilding, especially ones that hold particular weight in our identity. Gender is one of the first roles that comes to mind, and its role in peacebuilding is particularly interesting as different practicioners and academics have very different perspectives of it. Throughout this reflection, I will briefly analyze some of the main ways in which peacebuilders thought of women and their role in the field, and then proceed to explain my perspective on nature vs. nurture.

Perhaps one of the most compelling perspectives on women in peacebuilding is that they are not real actors in it, and as such play very little role in influencing decisions. For example, during our panel with military officers at the beginning, all of whom had served in either Afghanistan or Iraq for at least over a year, one of them admitted to only having interacted with women only once during his entire time on the field. An interesting documentary we watched with Professor Poethig called “Redefining War” on the discourse surrounding women on the frontline looked at how with the shift of international focus from national security to human security, there was more emphasis on the pacifying role of women in war – which brings us to the dilemma on whether women truly are more “naturally” peaceful than men. Professor Monteville stressed on the destructive effect of testosterone in foreign policy and the fact that the mature male brain is not fully formed until they’re 26 years old; a compelling premise for a battle cry to involve more women in the field.

However, the biological argument is definitely brought to discussion when in extraordinary circumstances, women are given the same social status as men and their genitalia does not stop them from committing the same level of aggression as men. The first case that comes to mind is the “sworn virgins” in rural mountainous Albania, where by radical social code they adopt the social role and status of a man, while vowing to remain abstinent for the rest of their lives. Despite the fact that this is one of the most conservative isolated communities in Europe, and that the “sworn virgins” had lived fully as women until the point of the decision, there was no distinction between the level of social aggression that the “sworn virgins” were capable of committing to fulfill their role and men. Furthermore, despite this being one of the most conservative isolated communities in Europe, it was the first one to accept cross-dressing unanimously for as long as it served a cohesive purpose – there was absolutely no dissent with  regards to the way the “sworn virgins” were treated by the community for as long as they embodied their male role.

This example truly illustrates my perspective on the nature vs nurture debate on gender and te role it’s currently playing in peacebuilding. Whether it’s “sworn virgins” only being respected because they perform the male gender, or the female prison guards being respected only when they act uber-masculine with their counterparts, we keep dwelling in the nature of gender as a social construct. This construct in itself is so deeply ingrained within our society and its patriarchal tendencies that even when the glass ceiling is “broken” and women are allowed into male spaces, they have to embody the performative male.

Reflections

We had our penultimate session yesterday with the ever brilliant Dr Pushpa Iyer. She challenged us to think about the elitism inherent within the Peacebuilding field, an elitism I think runs throughout academia. As a Ghanaian post colonial scholar, I am keenly aware of  how certain epistemologies are delegitimized while others elevated and portrayed as an apparent universal standard worthy of emulation. I recognize that academia has functioned historically as the ideological apparatus that has sustained missions of oppression and colonization. Presenting Africans as this ‘barbaric Other’ without a set of moral and legal codes justified the Christianization and colonization of the continent. Presenting women as irrational beings incapable of self determination justifies the violence that is continually acted out on their bodies and spirits. Academia can-because of the ideas that gain currency-can literally change the world.

However, the goal of yesterday’s session was not to lambast academia, but rather, call attention to the interesting fact of power dynamics. Who gets to produce knowledge and why? What types of  knowledge are validated and which ones are excluded?

Peacebuilding work requires extensive engagement with different cultural communities. However, what happens when the cultural framework of the community is in contradiction to that of the individual Peacebuilder? What happens when ideas endorsed by academia do not find currency in a particular context? Dr Iyer asked us to think about the ways culture and subject locations influence our understanding of self care.

I am beginning to recognize that crucial to being an effective Peacebuilder is the ability to navigate both high and low context cultures with sensitivity and intelligence from a clearly defined ethical framework.

It’s all about consciousness raising

I understand consciousness raising as the capability of perceiving the world through different angles, which enables us to transform it and advocate for what we believe in. And consciousness raising is the compulsory first step that any revolutionary movement need to undertake.

When women started raising their consciousness through lived experiences about the men-made society, not only they were becoming stronger but they were also creating a feminist movement based on mutual respect and communication. It all started with a sense of shared reality, which “lead us to our theory, theory to our action, our feelings about that action to new theory and then to new actions (Sarachild).” Though consciousness raising is the first stage for a greater impact, it incorporates sub-phases that one need to go through to be aware of her own situation and where she places herself in society. While increasing their knowledge on social conditions women provided themselves with the basis for social identity.

Consciousness raising allows women to approach the patriarchal world they live in through different angle. It allows them to find a way of changing the idea of male superiority and idea that has been internalized for centuries. Even though consciousness-raising focuses on women’s growth bug men should be encouraged to address this concept as well. Because the be social relation between women’s inferiority and men’s superiority has always existed and has not yet ended. Educating not only women but men as well would make greater impacts. It shouldn’t be a single fight but a mutual one between men and women.

In a peacebuilding group it is important to talk about why and how the problem we face is important to us. From that we will understand where we stand as an activist group. This will finally allow us to create a world outside our structured society.

 

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