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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Self care for Peacebuilders

Self care for peacebuilders

Almost every practitioner we have heard from over the past three weeks has stressed the importance of self care. Anyone who participates in the caring for others should take time out to care for themselves. Kathy Goodman, a mediator and Emotional Intelligence (EI) expert, told us her research showed high levels of empathy for most people who engage in peacebuilding. Empathy is an common trait for those who work in professions like peacebuilding and development.

According to the EQ-i 2.0 model of emotional intelligence, “empathy is recognizing, understanding, and appreciating how other people feel. Empathy involves being able to articulate your understanding of another’s perspective and behaving in a way that respects others’ feelings.” For anyone who sees or hears stories of violence, it can be harmful and cause trauma. Empathetic peacebuilders are especially vulnerable because of their extended exposure, and close contact with victims (vicarious trauma).

What happens to the body when it is under great stress, or witnesses traumatic events? Symptoms can include: depression, insomnia, anxiety, anger, sadness, poor concentration, and mood swings. Our class speakers each mentioned the importance listening our bodies, and diagnosing stress before it becomes too damaging. Some suggestions we’ve heard for self care have been: walking, yoga, journalling, meditation, breathing exercises, tapping (EFT or TTT), talking to a friend, cognitive behavioral therapy, eating healthfully, and avoiding excess caffeine and alcohol.

Wishing all of my fellow students, and practitioners, safe and healthy interactions our in the world. Remember to check in with yourself, and please do not be afraid to ask for help if you are struggling.

“We can never obtain peace in the outer world until we make peace with ourselves.” – Dalai Lama XIV
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Environmental dangers to civil society

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The Big Sur wildfire is less than 100 miles south of our retreat center, in Northern California. Since we arrived three weeks ago, the fires have burned over 107 square miles, and destroyed 57 homes. There are currently more than 1,700 firefighters working to save homes, crops, trees, and towns in it’s path. If the state of California, and the federal government did not have the resources to fight the fires, it could conceivably threaten larger cities, and cause widespread economic and environmental harm. In a worse case scenario, environmental damage can trigger scarcity, which can then result in conflict.

What do I mean by environmental damage causing conflict? According to, our class reading by Thomas F. Homer-Dixon, “environmental scarcity simultaneously increases economic deprivation and disrupts key social institutions which in turn causes ‘deprivation’ conflicts such as civil strife and insurgency. Environmental scarcity does produce economic deprivation, and this deprivation does cause civil strife.”

Despite living a comfortable life in a first world country, we are still vulnerable to environmental damage, and the scarcity and conflict which can follow. Thankfully, our government currently has the resources to fight this fire, but if it continued to burn, it would destroy towns and cities all along the Central California coast, displacing families and businesses, and destroying food crops and vital infrastructure. This destruction would put pressure on the government and population, and the individual loss of homes and jobs would put extra pressure on those already struggling financially. This is because they do not have second homes to escape to, or the means to move to other areas. The temporary shelter set up in the Carmel Middle School was shut down because few residents needed it: they had the means to leave the area, stay with family or friends, hotels, or second homes. If the fire threatened Salinas or Watsonville, or other less affluent areas, there would be tremendous pressure to house and care for the immediate needs of thousands. Long term, thousands would have to migrate to other areas, putting pressure on their resources, and possibly causing social tension. The loss and damage to the soil, trees, and crops along the Central coast would also be felt financially, and possibly led to conflict if food became more expensive or scarce.

Thankfully, the fire is currently 50 percent contained, and it’s expected to be fully contained by the end of the week. As a result of Dr. Richard Matthew’s lecture on environmental change, extreme poverty, and acute violence, I was able to imagine how damaging a large environmental crisis could be to this area.

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Conflict and development data

Dr. Ed Laurence introduced us to the wide variety of statistical data available online. This specific data ranks, compares, and/or relates information about countries, goals, and social development. As part of his presentation on the impact of conflict and violent development, we looked at: the (HDI) Human Development Index, the (FSI) Fragile State Index (which ranks 178 nations on their levels of stability and the pressures they face), the Homicide Statistics for 2012, the 2011 World Development Report, SDG the Sustainable Development Goals, (GPI) Genuine Progress Indicator, the UN Sustainable Development Goals, and the UN Millennium Development Goals.

By looking at this data, we were able to complete group research and share our findings with the class. One of the exercises we performed in class was to choose one UN development goal, research it, and explain its importance. Sustainable Goal number 6: clean water and sanitation was our choice, and we learned about infrastructure projects designed to increase access to safe drinking water.

As part of the class, Dr. Laurence asked up to post our top five “take away” reactions to the data we studied in class.

#1. We were surprised that India was ranked at 131 on the HDI.

#2. Our group was also surprised that Brazil’s homicide rate was so high, at number 10 in the world.

#3. We thought the homicide, GPI, and FSI would be more closely linked, especially the last two.

#4. We were shocked so many countries have failed to complete even ONE Millennium Goal.

#5. We also were surprised the international community doesn’t recognize the refugee crises in any development goals. It is not mentioned once on the list of 17 SDG issues.

http://www.undp.org/content/undp/en/home/sdgoverview/

http://hdr.undp.org/en/content/human-development-index-hdi

http://library.fundforpeace.org/fsi

Pay attention to your thoughts

“Pay attention to your thoughts” was written on the white board at the Correctional Training Facility (CTF) we toured last week. Three of us students had the opportunity to observe and participate in a group session with fifteen inmates and one counsellor, as they “checked in” with themselves. The counsellor started the session, and everyone continued by going around the circle, mentioning a few words about their weekend, maybe a book they were reading, and finished by talking about their current state of mind. Each individual “check in” session finished with stating a single word in order to sum up their mood/feeling for the day. As we participated in this exercise, we were welcomed into the group with varying degrees of enthusiasm and attention.

The main point of the session was to get each person out of their shell, and to discuss an incident when their thoughts resulted in actions they now regret. As part of this “Criminal Thinking” class, the counsellor (and other group members) assisted in breaking down the feelings involved during these conflicts, By breaking down each step of the run up to conflict, the individual was able to freeze time and determine at which point different decisions could have been made, thereby changing the outcome. We heard a story of jealously, where the individual realized his own insecurity was responsible for the chain of events which culminated in a fight. More importantly, we listened as they each talked through how to handle emotional situations in the future, and how to pay attention to their thoughts, in order to make better decisions in the future.

In essence, they are analyzing past mistakes through telling stories, and also playing out their future reactions and behaviors by describing the same story, but with an alternative (better) ending. Making new endings for their stories, and being hopeful for the future, reminded me of the final exercise we performed with Susan O’Halloran for our module on storytelling for peace. As part of this exercise, we told two classmates where we would like to be in 5 years, including our personal and professional dreams. The two classmates then had a conversation (as if it was five years past), incorporating those aspirations in their story. The original speaker was able to observe their dream life being discussed as if it was reality. This simple exercise had a very powerful effect on us as participants, and could be used by counsellors (for at-risk youth andoffenders) as another form of storytelling and goal setting.

 

www.susanohalloran.com

Going beyond the pairs of opposites

In “The Moral Imagination: The Art and Soul of Building Peace”, John Paul Lederach writes: “Cycles of violence are often driven by tenacious requirements to reduce complex history into dualistic polarities that attempt to both describe and contain social reality in artificial ways. People, communities, and most specifically choices about ways they will respond to situations and express views of conflict are forced into either-or categories: We are right. They are wrong. We were violated. They are the violators. We are liberators. They are oppressors. Our intentions are good. Their intentions are bad. You are with us or against us.”

It is easy to fall into this pattern of thinking. Our news media thrives on brief and facile explanations of complex issues; ten second soundbites set the stage. The 24 hour news channels introduced the balanced forum format, with panelists either “for” or “against” an issue, usually identifying them as liberal or conservative, republican or democrat. This mode of either/or, black/white thinking provides us with the most abbreviated and un-nuanced view of the world. We’ve seen how this thinking divides nations and communities, turning voters “winners” or “losers”, and other countries into “friends” or “enemies”.

In order to understand issues and conflicts, and to tackle the challenges before us, we should ask: who is benefitting from this binary way of viewing the world? How does this way of thinking limit our ability to solve problems? What would happen if we looked beyond the pairs of opposites?

Viewing history, issues, and conflicts through a holistic lens prevents us from resorting to simplistic labels and putting people into boxes. A more comprehensive view also makes space for compassion and understanding.  This important, closing quote from Lederach provides the following lesson for peacebuilding, “People who display a moral imagination that rises above the cycles of violence in which they live also rise above dualistic polarities.”

 

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A few bright spots

I believe our environment plays an important role in our development as human beings.  Earlier this week, we toured the Salinas Valley State Prison (SVSP), and the Salinas Correctional Training Facility (CTF).  There was literally no color inside of  the SVSP, and the only bright spots outside were the red geraniums, and the shiny cars in the parking lot.  Everything else was a shade of sandy brown, black , or white.  The prison was on a “lock down” while we were there, but we were still able to walk across “the yard” and through some 180 degree and 270 degree cell blocks.  The distances were vast, and the architecture was so large, with an emphasis on automatic doors and gates that would open and close at the touch of a switch by an officer.  Everything we touched or saw was either concrete or metal, and it was hard to remind ourselves we were not in Star Wars, or another modern, alien environment.  Rationally, I realize the materials are chosen for their durability, and that society has designated these facilities to be a punishment, therefore comforts are basic.  My overall impression was that it was stark and un-alive. The massive scale of the buildings made me feel very small, and the automatic gates and doors reinforced feelings of not being in control.  Furthermore, the geographical location was very remote and disconnected, which exaggerated the feeling of isolation, and/or being forgotten by the outside world.

Our second visit, to the CTF, was exactly the opposite: this building was much older, and therefore much smaller with lower ceilings and normal sized doors and windows.  We entered and exited most doors with a key, and the inside of one of the buildings we toured displayed inspirational quotes and posters of historical heroes on EVERY wall.  The staff walked the hallways alongside prisoners, and when programs were in session, hall passes were available for moving from one area to another.  Soft furnishings and brightly painted walls made the space feel more welcoming and familiar, and the smaller spaces reflected a more natural, human-sized landscape.  We were invited to participate in small group programs with the inmates and counsellors, which I may describe in more detail in a future blog.  The white board of our meeting room said, “Pay attention to your thoughts”, and we discussed difficult times when our thoughts led to risky behavior.  It was a reflective exercise that seemed a million miles away from the nearby SVSP, with it’s barren interior and exterior, and “lock down” atmosphere.

As a final note, I would like reiterate that we were only there for one day, and only witnessed a few spaces and interactions.  This brief, blog-sized, analysis of the two spaces is solely based on my observations.  Despite being out of sight from most of society (and possibly out of mind, as well), I would argue that the conditions are important because increasing numbers of our citizens have been subjected to them.  According to the National Research Council, the U.S. penal population of 2.2 million adults is the largest in the world, which means 1 of nearly 100 U.S. adults in prison or in jail.

 

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Participate joyfully in the sorrows of the world

 

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The majestic redwood trees in Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park have stood in place for up to 2,000 years. These trees represent two millennia of life on this planet. As living organisms, they have absorbed enough water, light, and nourishment in order to continue growing for the equivalent of 80 human generations. This achievement should be recognized and appreciated. Perhaps as humans we can learn from their relationship with the natural world, and be inspired by their strength and resilence?

The wild fire currently burning in Big Sur reminds us that the natural world faces challenges such as fire, drought, floods, and disease. While the outer bark of the redwoods can be burned and charred by fire, the inner core of the tree remains healthy and alive. When a redwood falls, it often continues to sprout new trees from the stump and roots, creating new “family” trees around it. They are truly resilient in the face of hardship and disaster.

As we progress through this peace program, there are days when the subject matter can seem overwhelming, and the real world challenges ahead may appear impossible. It is difficult to remain positive and hopeful as we study genocide, war, nuclear proliferation, gang violence, trauma, and the refugee crises. May I humbly suggest we try to adopt some of the strength of the redwoods? While we may become scarred and affected by our experiences, we can strive to retain a healthy, intact center, in order to better help ourselves and those around us. The following quotes by the mythologist, Joseph Campbell, may provide comfort when the troubles in our world seem overwhelming. His words also remind us that these trees continue to thrive and grow, despite what they have experienced, and that we have the same choice.

“The world is perfect. It’s a mess. It has always been a mess.”

“Participate joyfully in the sorrows of the world. We cannot cure the world of sorrows, but we can choose to live in joy.”

 

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Reflections on giving and receiving aid

Yesterday, I had breakfast on the outdoor patio at Peet’s coffee in downtown Monterey. Despite being mostly vegetarian, I ordered the egg, ham and gouda breakfast sandwich, and I just picked off the meat. It was three, large pieces of thickly sliced ham, almost as large as the english muffin.

I noticed a few casually dressed people, with duffel bags or backpacks, milling around, and lingering near the rubbish bins. My first thought was that one of them may be homeless or hungry, and that I could offer the ham to one of them. My next thought was that it was strange to be in the position of choosing not to eat high quality protein, based solely on my ethical convictions. I also realized my assumptions may mirror the assumptions of some aid organizations.

1. I am assuming they are without resources, and that they would actually want mine if I offered. They might just be backpackers, or they might not even be interested.
2. I realized how important it is for the potential recipient of aid to be able to maintain their dignity. Specifically, they must have the choice to accept it or reject it. Essentially, if I am wrong, I am offering them wrong thing, or possibly causing offense.

Therefore, the best option I could come up with was to just leave the ham sealed in the clean, paper bag it was served in, and to place it on the top of the rubbish container (not IN the container). That way, it was a choice for someone to take it, if they wanted it. Thanks to the MIIS SPP, this small dilemma made me consider the transaction of giving/receiving aid on a much larger scale.

My name is Katie Hutchens, and I’m delighted to be a part of the MIIS 2016 Summer Peace Program. As an undergraduate, I majored in International Studies, and spent a year in Canada. My journey to graduate school, and this course in peace building, has taken many years and miles, but I truly believe each experience prepares you for the next.

My introduction to peace building was in Derry/Londondery, Northern Ireland, with Gonzaga University’s Peacebuilding Through Dialogue class in 2014. We spent time with former combatants from both sides of the troubles, and participated in story-telling workshops.  The different traditions/communities welcomed us, and each one of us left changed as a result. I’ve returned to Northern Ireland twice already this year, and plan to write my thesis on the political murals and reconciliation. I’m also interested in forgiveness rituals as part of the healing process.

I look forward to learning more about the different disciplines found under the Peacebuilding umbrella, and appreciate this unique chance to learn from the academics and practitioners here at MIIS.  It’s difficult to not be discouraged by world/current events, but it is truly encouraging to be surrounded by so many who are determined to make a difference.

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