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.

Emotional Intelligence (EI)

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It was a chilly and foggy morning. I woke up at 6.30 to practice yoga with Claire. It was thin and aeriform rain. Shavings of mist passed over the field. The mist was grey and noiseless. While walking to Yoga Center, I recalled what my first yoga instructor told me some years ago:” To take care of others, you should take very good care of yourself first. You will be able to help others far more than before.” A part of that interpersonal peacebuilding (or self care) practice is to understand ourselves. Not long after stepping my food into the field, I read an article about people with high Emotional Intelligence have higher mental health, job performance and leadership skills. We all have different personalities, different wants and needs, and different ways of showing our emotions. Navigating through this all takes tact and cleverness- especially in peacebuilding field.

That was how the term Emotional Intelligence came across. I decided to do some research and was attracted to it. According to a dictionary of Psychology, Emotional Intelligence (EI) or emotional quotient (EQ) is the capacity of individuals to recognize their own, and other people’s emotions, to discriminate between different feelings and label them appropriately, to use emotional information to guide thinking and behavior,and to manage and/or adjust emotions to adapt enviroments or achieve one’s goal(s). Although the term first appeared in a 1964 paper by Michael Beldoch, it gained popularity in the 1995 book by that title, written by the author, psychologist, and science journalist Daniel Goleman.

The term came across my mind again in a lecture this afternoon called :” Emotional and Cultural Intelligence” with Ms. Kathy Goodman. She introduced our class to EQ-i 2.0 Model of Emotional Intelligence. It was very interesting for me to learn more about my strengths and weaknesses. While having high stress management score, I found myself have low scores at Impulse Control (in Decision Making category). Impulse Control is the ability to resist or delay an impulse, drive or temptation to act and involves avoiding rash behaviour and decision making. Some years ago, my Impulse Control must have been terrible. Being aware of that, I have been working on it to improve. For example, if I receive any irritating emails/messages, I will evaluate the messages again once I calm down before replying.

Besides, I hope to increase Reality Testing capability in the future. That is the capability to remain objective by seeing things as they really are. This capability involves recognizing when emotions or personal bias can cause one to be less objective. So often, when travelling and being in a community with very different culture, I often tend to judge the local behaviour and customs. By reminding myself to step back and put myself in others’ shoes, I hope to have more objective evaluation of an emotion or thought.

This lecture has helped me to be more aware of feelings and actions, and how they may affect people around me. In peacebuilding field, being able to value others, listen to their wants and needs, empathize with them on many different level is very important.

Peace and love

meaning-behind-daisy-flowers_a4fc2a05779a6a6bI believe that people are inherently good beings and able to respond positively. The lecture today about “Power and Love: The Militant Power of Nonviolence” by Mr. Kazu Haga (Founder of East Point Peace Academy) enhanced my belief.

Humans are naturally inclined to feel compassion and love for others. In other words, many of us have slowly been corrupted by society. Considering babies, they have barely any stored information about what is right and what is wrong. They have no friends, no cultural influence, no public communication. Infants are known to likely touch anything they find interesting, hold an object they like, or stare at something that catches their eye. Hurricane Katrina, or Hurricane Sandy, instead of angry mobs looting everything, humans band together in times of crisis to help each other. Natural disasters are very examples. Yet something as simple as opening a door for someone in a wheelchair is a kind act of giving just as much as saving someone’s life in a deadly storm.

My other core belief is that humans function better when they are happy. Helping others, expressing gratitude, talking about positive experiences, being with other people all literally boost your dopamine in your brain. With this chemical, people are obviously happier but we are also more capable of being able to learn, our learning ability goes way up when we are happy. Most humans do not just kill, rape or hurt people, they want to help. We are born into this world as innocent and good.

Our souls are magnificent and capable of extraordinary. It’s about open-hearted mindset. I promise to always live with this mindset, like Mr. Kazu Haga mentioned in the lecture:” Hating someone is like drinking poison and hoping other person to die.”

Forest trail

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When I was a kid, I was told that forests were dark and foreboding. Mount Madonna forest was so beautiful, unlike what people said. That afternoon Alexia, Kim and I entered the oak-brown forest with excitement. The grasses we stepped on were crackly beneath our feet because of the recent dry spell. The trees were densely packed together, just leaving enough space to allow someone to maneuver through. Because of the undergrowth and the greenery, it was hard for us to see very far away. My ears became sensitive. There were many familiar noises: crows, woodpeckers, and crickets. I also heard some strange noises- a squeaky-squeaky kind of creaking noise. It must have been a bird. The tranquility of the deep woods, with the sign of the wind through the treetops was what I cherished. There was peace in its sullen ambiance…

Having stalked many animals in the woods, I realized that most of them were very quiet. The loudest thing in the woods was three of us walking and talking about “Negotiating with Armed Groups” section earlier. Dr. Pushpa Iyer started off the lecture by telling us that armed group was just another organization. I found this point of view very interesting. Learning how armed groups make decisions and communicate from commanders was what peace builders should approach. Before this course, I often thought of armed groups negatively and named them as terrorists. Labelling any stake holder group was not the right way to approach. In Dr. Pushpa’s story, I was amazed by how much time and effort she spent into getting the right connections for her research. The main difficulty was that Sri Lanka people were very suspicious. Then in the most unexpected moments, the right people opened the window for her and the adventure began.

A lot of people questioned why she chose LTTE, an active armed group at that time, to do research. The Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam is the only terrorist group which once possessed its own ‘Military’ – Tigers (infantry), Sea Tigers (sea wing) and Air Tigers (Air Wing), in the world, began its armed campaign in Sri Lanka for a separate Tamil homeland in 1983. For Dr. Pushpa at beginning, it was such a romantic idea to live in the jungle, and talk to people who were in that militant organization. In such sensitive research, her identity was a very conversation. The advantage was that she could understand the language used by the fighters there. The main disadvantage was trust issue. As an Indian, she was questioned a lot about how she thought of her government’s work on the organization. Still, by being honest and sincere, she was able to gain trust from the armed group.

During the documentary shown in the lecture, we noticed that there were a lot of female fighters in this organization. Since the start of the Sri Lankan Civil War in 1983, Tamil women have occupied a key role in the conflict. Women grew stronger and more empowered as a result of their participation in the violent and conflict. Many of them were raped and harmed in their lives and LTTE empowered them. As young women, we partly understood the reasoning behind their joining the armed group. Our conversation went on and on about the topic until we reached the end of the trail. The beauty of the forest opened our heart…

Zen

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At 9am we departed from Monterey city to Mount Madonna. The air was still chilling and numbing. On the way to the mountain, my head was dizzy with delight while looking at the spook-grey mist from my window seat. The tranquil valley was swaddled in a veil of the mist. Driving closer to the mountain, we were surrounded by a forest. I was in awe of the size and majesty of the trees. They were hoary fortresses and stood proudly…

We arrived at a wide glade, where the trees fell away, revealing the bespeckled sky. There it was, the Mount Madonna retreat and yoga center. It is located on 355 acres of mountain top redwood forest and grassland overlooking Monterey Bay in Northern California. Checking in the accommodation, we slowly walked to the community building for lunch. The surroundings were peaceful and beautiful! The food was delicious and quite nourishing with a varied vegetarian selection served cafeteria-style. This is such a place for awareness building and spiritual development. My friend who was in the program last year kept telling me:” You will see, Mount Madonna Center is a health- oriented, clean, friendly environment with plenty of good hiking trails, mountaintop views of the ocean, blue skies and nutritious food…”

We are now in the mountains where there is fresh air and water, where there are trees and plants and streams, the idea is to attain peace. While sitting in the conference room for the evening section “Who are Peace-builders?” with Dr. Pushpa Iyer, I thought a lot about what Prof. Joseph Montville mentioned in one of his lectures:” Business can actually contribute to a vision of problem solving in peace building.” Our group has a great discussion about this topic. Personally, I used to think that only the non profit organizations can create peace. My mindset has gradually changed after two weeks in the program. People like Jordan and Brian, who committed crime and were in jail for years, are truly peace builders. They came back their community and wanted to help people who were in the same shoes. Jordan has his own business that creates job opportunities and a structured environment for re-entry inmates, so inspiring!

The conversation also touched on a question whether a person can work both in highly paid job sector and poorly paid sector. I have a friend who works in an investment bank. She insists that after several years when she makes “enough” money, she will work for a NGO or non-profit organization. If the highly paid job does not align with peace building values, why will somebody still want to do it from beginning? The section today also challenges myself when thinking about my own future. While loving to work in Marketing field of fashion industry, I hope to dedicate my time to peace building projects and organizations. Peace comes from within, do not seek it without…

Hope

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Mentally, I was not recovered from the visit to Salinas Valley State Prison. Images of cells, cold vibes and immense pressure still wandered in my head. Still, we woke up at 5.30 to get ready for our next field trip. On the bus, I kept thinking about how the inmates would be able to cope with the outside world after many years in the prison.

At 7am we were welcomed by two young ladies to CASP meeting in Salinas. The Community Alliance for Safety and Peace (CASP) is a coalition of organizations and leaders from Salinas and Monterey County. This is such a great example and model of how organizations work together for a better community. CASP is made up of youth service organizations, county housing and health officials, local and state elected officials, criminal justice and law enforcement officials, educational leaders, business leaders, representatives of the faith community, and private funding organizations. More than 70 organizations and leaders are involved.

While the immediate tragedy of gang violence continues in the community, CASP seeks to achieve both a present and long-term benefit across the continuum of prevention, intervention, suppression, and re-entry. This made me feel so hopeful about a better future for society. In the meeting, I talked to people like Jordan and Brian who were in prison for many years. They re-entered the community, and received a lot of help to have their own businesses. More than that, they are creating re-entry programs to help others who were inmates. Jordan did mention that more than 65% of inmates go back prisons within a year in California (that number is 82% nationally) and he hoped to help more people like him. The transition is always the most difficult for inmates who are like babies to the new world. Many of them are forced to go back prison since they are shocked and cannot handle the pressure. Image someone who has been in prison for 40 years, many things (especially technology) has changed, how could he deal with that?

Certainly, returning to the community from jail or prison is a complex transition for most offenders, as well as for their families and communities. Upon reentering society, former offenders are likely to struggle with substance abuse, lack of adequate education and job skills, limited housing options, and mental health issues. I really hope more and more re-entry programs will be created, not just in Selina and Monterey, but in many other parts of the world. A long way for a better society 🙂

Trapped

08/02/2016: We woke up earlier than any days since we came here to get ready for our field trip to Salinas Valley State Prison. On the way, many thoughts wandered in my head about the notorious prison. Salinas Valley State Prison is located in Soledad California. The facility is responsible for the incarceration and rehabilitation of minimum to maximum security inmates. Currently this correctional facility houses over 4,500 Level I-Level IV inmates, which is double the original constructed capacity.

Like many other prisons, this is a place in which individuals are physically confined or interned and usually deprived of a range of personal freedoms. Everyone seemed pretty nervous thinking about the experience ahead at the prison. My hands made fists to fell my palms had moistened. I could feel my nerves tingling like being tickled with a small feather. To ease the nerve of the group, Luigi put some nice music on. All participants started to sing along, till we arrived the site.

There were several layers of protection we went through beside security checking. There was an unspoken intense, cold and unease pressure the moment we walked in with a police officer. We visited 270 degree and 180 degree buildings where the designs are very different. In 270 degree, the  cells face each other at the accordingly angle. Therefore, inmates can see each other through small window at each cell door. That does not apply for 180 degree door.

Each wall carefully designed to hold one back from the freedom which an inmate would longed for. A small cell with barred doors and no window confine him, with a small metalic frame with a worn out matress and thin blankets make your sleeping area. Sometimes there are two beds if the prison lets you share cells. In the corner of the small inhumane cell is a toilet bowl, unclean and overused, with no walls around since privacy is non-existant there. Sometimes a part of the wall would be personalized with the occupant’s letters from the outside or pictures of a loved one. We got to see one of the inmates’ cell.

Outside the cell, there are numbers or letters to designate which cell belongs to whom. A guard is stationed at every post to monitor and surveillance the area to make sure prisoners never make it out. The hall in each building is just as emotionless, with numerous tables and benches spread out evenly and orderly. It takes several armed guards to keep watch while many of the prisoners here eat their daily meal. Any disruptment could prove hazardous and further punishment would await one who did.

According to the officers, prison overcrowding is a serious problem in the USA today. When prisons and jails are holding more convicts than they are designed to hold there is an increased chance of violent encounters between a prisoner and a guard … or between two prisoners! The solution is not an easy one. The best solution I can think of is to incarcerate fewer people! Increasing the use of treatment for drug offenders would be a good start. Drug courts are a good example of treatment in place of incarceration, from what I have read … drug courts in some areas are very successful. All of these laws contribute to the prison overcrowding situation.

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Rewards of vulnerability

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Another summer morning in Monterey, we had breakfast and enjoyed the fresh air together. It seemed sunnier than yesterday. The sky was painted a light blue, dotted with feathery white clouds. On the way to class, we admired the beauty of front yards abounded with flowers. The shiny green grass glistened in the sun and each garden was simply a riot of color. The sun washed the gardens with a golden glow. How gorgeous! Walking in the sun, we talked and shared our thoughts on the way to class. Everyone was excited about coming lectures, especially “Storytelling for Peace”  section with Ms. Susan O’Halloran.

Since 1969, Susan has led workshops in corporate, religious and non-profit settings. She is author of six books and creator of the diversity curriculum Kaleidoscope: Valuing Differencesand Creating Inclusion plus recipient of national and international video honors for her training films.

Sue produces performances and videos such as White, Black and Brown: Tribes & Bridges at the Steppenwolf Theatre and More Alike Than Not: Stories of Three Americans – Catholic, Jewish and Muslim. For the past twenty years, Susan has led hundreds of diversity workshops in both Fortune 500 companies and the academic world such as Columbia, Wharton, Kellogg and the University of Chicago Graduate Schools of Business.

With such experience and knowledge, Susan brought a lively section. There was a sense of deep understanding and empathy in our class. She said:” We all have blind spots when living or working with other people. It’s not our fault. No matter whether the Dimension of Diversity is race, gender, religion, age or income misunderstandings are inevitable. There will always be days we don’t know what to say or do. Times when we feel we just don’t know enough.”

We started to open ourselves more and more. At the beginning of class, we were asked to say one thing start with:” Just by looking at me, people could never tell that …” Some shared funny facts, others (including me) talked about the embarrassing moments in life. Not until the next activity different layers of us were unfold, our vulnerable sides. The assignment was to talk about the time when we felt left out and not included. We were divided into small groups to share personal stories to each other. There were pauses and silence…

Vulnerability is a necessary element to build empathy, very powerful. We were going out on a limb, opening ourselves to whatever comes. Pain. Emotional wounds. Judgement, blame, criticism, rejection, humiliation, exploitation, and a host of other things no one wants to feel. This is why it is human nature for people to try to avoid feeling vulnerable and to act strong, even when we are not. Being vulnerable is about revealing what we deny or keep hidden from other people.

Through many class activities, we revealed our authentic selves. It takes courage for us to step into that place of openness but the rewards of vulnerability are immeasurable. When we have chosen to be open, to show our authentic self, we experience true connection, true love for ourselves and we begin to attract people to us who are inspired by our openness. Now people in my group know the ugly truth that I used to be overweighted and not to love my self. So what? Being vulnerable expands my world in a way…

Delight

Some months ago after being selected as one of 12 participants for Summer Peace-building Program, I started to research about the professors and lectures. A pleasant feeling of excitement and an expectation of something joyful and solemn has been aroused in my mind since then.

On Tuesday July 26th, after having breakfast, we walked to Middlebury Institute of International Studies. The air carried the scent of citrus flew over our noses, as we approached the small lemon tree standing at the sidewalk. Many ripped bright yellow lemons hung low from the branches. The wind blew in from the north carrying the last traces on a cold night. Being in New York city for a while, the weather here seems to be chilly for me. We passed by many front yards and gardens dressed up with thick green lawns and annual flower beds of colorful impatient. Alexia’s eyes were busy looking every objects at the front yards. Sometimes, our head tilted back and our eyes looked up to followed the sound of birds chirping overhead. All the faces bore the same expression of excitement and enthusiasm.

That walk was like a ritual ceremony before our very first talk to Fr. Cedric Prakash, who is a human rights activist and a Jesuit priest based in the city of Ahmedabad in western India. He is the director of Prashant, the Ahmedabad-based Jesuit Centre for Human Rights, Justice and Peace. He was named Chevalier of the Legion of Honor, one of the highest French civilian awards, acknowledging his commitment to the defence and the promotion of Human Rights in India.

Other than this, Fr. Prakash has also been awarded numerous other awards – the Rafi Ahmed Kidwai Award presented for Humanitarian Work by the Indian Muslim Council, USA in 2003, the Kabir Puraskar conferred on him by the President of India for his work in the promotion of Communal Harmony and Peace in 1995, and the Minorities Rights Award by the National Commission for Minorities of the Government of India in 2006. He was one of the recipients of Mother Teresa Awards for Social Justice in 2013.

Such activist is so inspiring! When I was much younger, I thought individuals like us were too small to address any conflicts. In fact, it only takes one voice to create change, brave and passionate individuals like Fr. Prakash makes me more believe in the power of ones. In the talk to us, he highlighted main challenges for peace building such as truth and facts, attitude, integration and inclusiveness.

One of the major challenges in peacebuilding is the truth and facts. There are bias in every levels in media these days. Media bias is the bias of journalists and news producers within the mass media in the selection of events and stories that are reported and how they are covered. A clear example is CNN report on Syrian Christians on May 18, 2016. Monday morning on CNN’s Newsroom, international correspondent Frederik Pleitgen gave a report on a topic the media often ignores: Christians persecuted by Islamic radicals. Host Carol Costello introduced Pleitgen’s report on “Syria’s most famous Christian town” by describing how “Jihadist groups” were “vowing to oust Christians from Syria, burning down Christian [towns] and destroying priceless icons.” Pleitgen noted that “several townspeople are still missing” and all of the children he spoke to had fled their homes.

CNN ended their report by noting the “sad situation” of the “defiant” Christians “living in fear” in Ma’Loula. Pleitgen noted that what “really got” to him and the CNN crew was the fact that this was the last remaining place on earth that still speaks and keeps the language of Jesus, Aramaic, alive to this day. Pleitgen noted that was now at risk because of the Islamist militants.

In addition, Fr. Prakash stressed the challenge of attitude in peacebuilding. How do I see other people? The way we speak and act can create love or discrimination. Discrimination based on skin color, race, and ethnicity is an intense and polarized issue in today’s society. Based on stereotypes, people often make judgments based on skin color and race, buying into false ideas such as “all Asians are smart,” or “all African-Americans are dangerous.” This is especially poignant due to a multitude of recently publicized police brutality cases based on race. These cases, involving white police officers killing African-Americans for minor offenses, show the systemic discrimination and judgment that is present in our society based on race. By noticing these judgments, we can hope to move towards a future of racial equality.

Last but not least, Fr. Prakash talked about the challenge of integration and inclusiveness. Not long ago, US President candidate Donald Trump implored his supporters to lock their doors to keep safe from Syrian refugees coming into the US. Also, Trump has proposed a ban on Muslims. He is also employing what he terms ‘extreme vetting’ of those who want to come to the United States. Fe’s now more against allowing Syrian refugees into the U.S. than ever, warning it could be a way for terrorists to sneak into the country. “We have no idea who these people are, we are the worst when it comes to paperwork. This could be one of the great Trojan horses.” Trump has been saying for weeks on the campaign trail that the U.S. should not accept refugees from the civil war torn country, and he says he’s only standing by that position stronger in the wake of the horrific terrorist attacks in Paris. I don’t see what else to call it but racism.

And yet, above are just some challenges for peace builders to overcome. At the operational level, awareness needs to be raised in all institutions (including through education and training and the systematic dissemination of policy guidelines). While major improvements are unlikely, it is essential that we should constantly question ourselves:” How can I as an individual act to diminish the challenges?”. We should all believe in the power of one…

The kids at Klong Toey slum and I

Start of something new

After three months hustle and bustle in New York city this summer, I finally left this crowded place. When the plane was landing, I hold my breath looking out of the window in anticipation. Alexia (a good friend of mine, also a participant of the program) and I walked out of the airport getting aroused. The sun beamed upon my face, my gaze was locked onto the cloudless sky, a shining blue. We both were very excited about this new experience. Reading other participant’s profiles made me feel lucky. I will get to know their diverse stories and backgrounds.

The first classes on Monday were mind-blowing. We got to know each other much better after a section called Creating a Peaceful Community with Peter Shaw. He conducted activities that helped us to better listeners. We were reminded that active listening is a way of listening and responding to another person that improves mutual understanding. This communication technique is used in conflict resolution and counselling. While working in New York city, I met many people who did not listen attentively and were often distracted. Also, some people interrupted with counter arguments. That made me I felt fortunate to be with this amazing group of understanding people.

The second section in the afternoon was touching and intense. Beside learning about “what is peace building”, we watched “Parzania” an Indian drama film inspired by the true story. There was a complete silence in the class after the movie got over, I could understand what people were feeling at that moment, that somewhere deep within us the movie had touched a cord. I didn’t know that the 2002 Gujrat riots were actually a well planned genocide. This film was both enlightening and shocking in a way that it revealed a part of history that was kept hidden by media propaganda. We had discussion after that. Some of us have personal and emotional connection with the movie and story. It was eye-opening for me to hear their thoughts, and I know the next few weeks I will learn a lot more from this amazing group of people.

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( Photo taken from my volunteer trip to Kenya)

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