Non-violence and Nonviolence: Working Towards Positive Peace

Yesterday we had the pleasure to attend one of the most inspiring and exciting lectures so far: Power of LoveThe Militant Power of Nonviolence by Kazu Haga. Kazu, who has over 15 years experience in social change and nonviolence work, is the founder and coordinator of the East Point Peace Academy based in Oakland, CA. Generally, nonviolence encompasses several practices and “branches,” including civilian peacekeeping, grassroots organizing, nonviolent communication, nonviolent meditation, and nonviolent civil resistance. Personally, I have been interested in studying nonviolent movements around the world, and in particular I am interested in the ways this political tool is used as a method to stand up against an oppressive government that does not allow protests and political participation in general. For this reason, Kazu’s perspective was both incredibly relevant to my area of interest and very informative, as this was the first time I had the opportunity to formally learn about Kingian nonviolence methods.

Kingian noviolence is a philosophy and practice that provides the knowledge and skills needed for people to pursue peaceful strategies for solving problems in their communities and societies. The six key principles of this approach include: (1) nonviolence is a way of life for courageous people; (2) the community is the framework for the future; (3) attack forces of evil not persons doing evil; (4) accept suffering without retaliation for the sake of the cause to achieve a goal; (5) avoid internal violence of the spirit as well as external physical violence; and (6) the universe is on the side of justice.

Besides this, one of the most important lessons from this was learning the distinction between non-violence and nonviolence, and how we should reflect upon the values that each of these terms stands for. In essence, the hyphen in non-violence changes the word into an adjective. So, non-violence stands simply for the absence of violent behavior/action—as in “I am not violent, therefore, I consider myself non-violent.” On the other hand, nonviolence is not about what not to do. Instead, it is a principle that calls for standing up against injustice in order to make a positive change in our communities. This relates to the Kingian idea of negative peace, which basically refers to the “peace” (i.e. quiet, calmness, absence of riots, avoiding conflict) that often serves as a facade for injustice. In contrast, positive peace is aligned with building community based on respect and mutual justice for all people.

In short, Kazu introduced us to an inspiring and effective set of principles in order to fight injustice and shake up the status quo in societies where violence and oppression are the norm.

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Fixing Criminal Violence Amidst Chaos: Reflections from the SPP (Part II)

Coming from Caracas has fueled my academic interest in criminal violence, as well as my motivation to find solutions to this complex and pervasive issue. In fact, finding alternative ways to tackle crime in the streets was originally one of the areas that drove me to apply to the SPP.

Given my personal and academic interests, therefore, I found Joseph Bock’s lecture Health Challenges and Peacebuilding incredibly useful, as it provided some insights on some of the most innovative and promising initiatives to tackle criminal violence. One of the most interesting examples to tackle criminal violence is the Cure Violence project (www.cureviolence.org), which approaches violence as a contagious disease that can be cured. In a nutshell, this initiative consists of a three-pronged method that is similar to the three components that are used to reverse epidemic disease outbreaks: (1) detect and interrupt the transmission of violence; (2) change the behavior of the highest potential transmitters; and (3) change community norms. The first component involves trained “violence interrupters” and an outreach team that prevent shootings by identifying and mediating potentially dangerous conflicts in the community. The second component consists of a trained outreach team working with high risk individuals to dissuade them to commit violence by meeting them where they are at, talking to them about the costs of using violence and the potential consequences they face by doing so. Finally, the third component involves engaging community leaders as well as business-owners and residents to convey the message that violence should not be as the norm, but as something that can be changed.

Another interesting and very successful example came up in our discussion with the chief of the Salinas Police Department, Kelly McMillin, who introduced us to the idea of the call-in process. This idea was originally developed by David Kennedy to alleviate crime in Boston, as he realized that gans were at the heart of the violence problem and that an extremely small number of gang members were responsible for a vast majority of the city’s violent incidents. The call-ins involve a face-to-face meeting with gang members in a forum setting, where different community leaders (including business-owners, religious leaders, and others) deliver a clear moral message against violence as well as a credible ultimatum from law  enforcement officers about the consequences if violence persists.

Other strategies for reducing criminal violence that I am familiar with include Antana’s Mockus’ (ex-mayor of Bogota, Colombia) ideas to “denormalize” violence and revitalize slums and other public spaces. The rationale of such strategies is to make it harder for people to ignore criminal violence and to create spaces for community participation and action. In my view, these type of strategies would greatly complement initiatives such as the Cure Violence or the call-in process, and would be great alternatives to the top-down and often coercive approach generally adopted by governments throughout Latin America. And in countries like Venezuela—which do not count with the resources, institutions, and a strong criminal justice system—all of these initiatives seem far more appropriate than the narrow and ubiquitous top-down approach to strengthen the criminal justice system. Thus, bottom-up, community-oriented approaches such as the ones described above seem far more effective to alleviate the issue of criminal violence in a country where the government neither has the capacity, the political tools, or willingness to address the issue.

Fixing Criminal Violence Amidst Chaos: The Challenge of Venezuela (Part I)

 

How to address criminal violence in a country where the government is responsible for scarcity of food and medicines, where there are no incentives for businesses to produce, innovate, and be effective, and where there is no respect for basic democratic principles including human rights and political freedom? How to prioritize criminal violence in a country where the economic system is collapsing due to hyperinflation, corruption, failed policies, and mismanagement? How to even begin to address the structural factors that account for crime on the streets in a country that does not count with the basic political and societal institutions, and where the police force is corrupt and ineffective? Is it even reasonable to be thinking of working on criminal violence in such conditions, and if so, what steps do we need to take in order to accomplish this seemingly unreachable goal?

Venezuela, where I was born and raised, is a country that is now facing all of these structural, institutional, political, and socioeconomic issues. It is a country where failed policies, price controls, shortages, nationalizations, and a general mismanagement of the industrial sectors are the order of the day, and have all contributed to a sense of general despair among the general population. Amidst this situation, and following a historical trend of it should not come as a surprise that the country tops (together with Honduras and El Salvador) most of the global homicide rate indexes, and that it has some of the most violent cities in the world (including the largest urban centers such as Caracas, Valencia, Maracaibo, and Barquisimeto). In particular to the criminal justice system, some of the most striking and important features include: Venezuela has become one of the most significant routes for drug trafficking; the ubiquitous barrios (slums), which represent between 30 and 40% of the total urban population, are hotbeds for criminal activities; and where about 98% of crimes do not result in prosecution. Considering all of these factors, together with the polarizing and hateful rhetoric of a political regime that violates the most basic political rights of the opposition, I have grappled with the following question over the last two weeks: How can I apply (or adapt) some of the models and policies I have learned in the SPP to solve some of these pressing issues related to crime and peacebuilding in a collapsing nation, in order to and alleviate the incredibly complex issue of criminal violence? 

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Image obtained from insightcrime.org
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Image obtained from kbia.org

Call-ins and Redemption: Fixing the Criminal Justice System in the U.S.

 

Last week, we took a closer look into the criminal justice system and gang violence in Salinas, CA, and we discussed ways in which we, as future peacemakers, can address some of the most important issues related to mass incarceration and gang violence. In the afternoon, we had the pleasure to listen to Julie Reynolds’ lecture on The Prison-to-Streets Connection, which provided an overview of the U.S. prison system and the issues surrounding the disproportionate incarceration of racial minorities. Mrs. Reynolds is a journalist who covers criminal violence in Monterey County, and has done extensive research on the Nuestra Familia gang (one of the largest prison gangs in the country). In this conversation we were able to identify the main causes of the incarceration boom in the US, the role of the so-called “Willie Horton effect” and the mass media in creating an environment of fear, and the rise of prison gangs in the state.

One of the most important takeaways from this discussion was realizing that there are several novel ways in which we can address gang violence by working directly with gang members, communities, the police, and local leaders. One successful example involves “call-in” sessions in which gang representatives meet with the community in order to emphasize deterrence. Originally applied in Chicago, the general message of these call-in sessions is “we will help you if you let us, but we will stop you if you make us.” In other words, the two main components of these call-ins are the element of redemption and reintegration into society (initiated and conveyed by members of the community who are present), and coercion (emphasized by law enforcement officials who give an ultimatum to the gang members). This initiative was particularly effective in Salinas, and according to the Chief of the Police Department and Mrs. Reynolds violence in Salinas decreased drastically in the months after the call-in.

In the afternoon, we met with Willie Stokes, who gave a lecture titled Redemption. Willie, a former Salinas gang member and current executive director of the Black Sheep Redemption Program, now dedicates his life to counseling local youths to stay out of gangs and other criminal activities. Willie’s life story, and his experiences in and out of penitentiary, added an important human perspective to the problems and particularities of the criminal system, as well as the structural factors that lead thousands of young people into gangs (poverty, lack of counseling, lack of recreational and academic opportunities for underprivileged youths, racial inequality, etc.). This conversation was both incredibly inspiring and upsetting at the same time, and it provided a much needed reminder of the importance of field work to have a more nuanced and informed opinion when talking about the criminal justice system in the U.S.

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Smiling Through the Apocalypse: Communities and Peacebuilding in Times of Crisis (Part II)

What is it that makes communities such an ideal level of change in our world of transnational crises? To find an answer to this, it was helpful to reflect upon our conversations with leaders of NGOs such as Harmony at Home (focused on ending violence and bullying in schools), 2nd Chance (working on “intervention programs” for gangs in Salinas), and Cornerstone Hauling and Gardening (providing jobs to ex-convicts and help them reintegrate to society). From these conversations, one of the most evident and encouraging aspects of community-level initiatives is that they target immediate and specific problems which are often hard to address at the regional or national levels. Another important aspect of the “community” as an ideal level for peacebuilding is the basic fact that it is the level of governance and organization that is “closest” to the people. In a democratic and participatory sense, this is one of the cornerstones of communities being an ideal vehicle for change and peacebuilding, as they depend on the active participation of peoples from different backgrounds and perspectives. Moreover, I now believe that community organizations such as the CASP are often the most adequate to identify the most pressing problems and often find the most adequate and community-sensitive solutions to problems such as poverty, violence, and social injustice.

The ability of communities to come up with effective and innovative solutions to issues of violence, poverty and sustainability is certainly dependent on actors, institutions, and policy at higher levels of governance (i.e. national governments, international organizations, the business sector, etc.). Indeed, one of the main conclusions from our meetings with the CASP and NGO leaders is that their programs are often constrained by funding, expertise, and policy guidance from national governments, international organizations, and major business groups. For example, one of the most interesting and effective initiatives from our conversation with Linda McGlone, who works at the Monterey County Health Department, was the Crime Prevention through Environmental Design. This program seeks to create safe and livable spaces in the city of Salinas by painting and cleaning streets, installing lighting posts and building parks and green spaces. However, the process of revitalizing community areas is expensive, and it would not be possible without the help of the U.S. Center for Disease Control and Prevention.

One of the most powerful lessons from the SPP so far is that, although seemingly insurmountable and complex, many of the twenty-first century challenges we now face can be addressed by communities at the local level. Indeed, community-level initiatives often depend on actors and institutions at higher (i.e. at the provincial, regional, national, or even supranational) levels for funding and policy guidance. However, it would be futile to think of tackling climate change or extreme poverty, for instance, if individuals and communities around the world are not on board with such initiatives. Given this potential for change and effectiveness, local-level initiatives give us good reasons to smile through the apocalypse by finding innovative, effective, and participatory ways to solve some of the world’s most pressing issues.

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Photo obtained from the Monterey County Sheriff’s Office Facebook page

Smiling Through the Apocalypse: Communities and Peacebuilding in Times of Crisis (Part I)

We were very lucky to meet Dr. Richard Matthew last Wednesday, who gave a lecture titled Environmental Change, Extreme Poverty and Acute Violence: Transitioning from Crisis to Sustainability. This session was truly special in that it touched on the main challenges that we, as a globalized world community, are facing in the near- and long-term future. One of the main takeaways from the lecture is that twenty-first century demographic, technological, and environmental changes have introduced a set of potentially destructive challenges that peacebuilders cannot ignore: from ocean pollution, to climate change, to the spread of infectious diseases, and growing global inequality. And even though humankind has certainly made achievements in several key areas (i.e. in medicine, sciences, communication, etc.), the magnitude and complexity of many of these twenty-first century challenges made us feel disillusioned and pessimistic about our ability to overcome them.

In light of this pessimistic (and rather necessary) outlook, I was left wondering: As future peacebuilders with limited time and resources, what should our role be in this seemingly apocalyptic and complex set of challenges? How can we stay optimistic and work within our narrow field of interest, or confined within the boundaries of certain communities, while ignoring larger and potentially more devastating issues such as global terrorism, cyber crime, human trafficking, small arms proliferation, natural disasters, pandemic diseases, etc.? Are there reasons to “smile through the apocalypse”?

The answer, after almost two weeks of being in the SPP program, is a resounding yes. There are numerous reasons, initiatives, projects and organizations that are both inspiring and should make us optimistic about the work we are doing as future peacebuilders. For example, getting to know the members of the Community Alliance for Safety and Peace (CASP)—a coalition of organizations and leaders from Salinas and Monterey determined to reduce violence and build community—reminded me that when people with good intentions and a desire for peace and justice come together to work towards a common good, their efforts can represent an important step towards creating a more peaceful society. And in spite of all the constraints and challenges (from lack of funding and governmental support to getting community members to cooperate with their initiatives), the CASP is a real example of how community-based solutions can often be the most viable and effective approach to peacebuilding.

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Non-conventional Tools for Peacebuilding

When thinking of conflict resolution and peacebuilding in general, it is easy (and often insufficient) to center our attention on the more traditional methods for peacebuilding. There is a tendency in academia, as well as in the more well-known international organizations and NGOs who work on post-conflict situations, to place a disproportionate emphasis on the macro-level factors of conflict resolution, mainly focusing on aid, democratic institutions, and so on. Meanwhile, academics and practitioners alike often forget to focus on trauma healing and reconciliation at the community level. Enabling conversations between peoples who have been torn by war, creating venues for contrition and forgiveness, working on healing the wounds of those in the affected communities who have come to antagonize others.

Even though I recognize that the “macro” factors are indeed critical in the process of peacebuilding, I am also deeply interested in learning and working with communities (especially back home, in Caracas, Venezuela) towards reconciliation. This is why Wednesday’s morning activity was so special. We had the fortune to begin the day with an incredibly interesting and fun session: Storytelling for Peace, with Susan O’Halloran. Sue’s talk helped us discover the ways in which we can use storytelling as a vehicle for peacebuilding among diverse peoples, and gave us excellent advice on how to tell our stories in a way that is engaging, respectful, and that conveys a powerful and long-lasting message. We are all natural storytellers, and people naturally like to listen to others tell great stories. All we need to remember is to include all the key elements good stories require, and to follow the STAR (Sensitivity, Trust, Appreciation, and Respect) principle when telling our stories.

Ever since I participated in a month-long theater workshop focused on social reconciliation and peacebuilding in Belgrade, Serbia, I have been aware and excited about the power of the arts and communication in shaping people’s identities towards this goal. I learned that we can use powerful and moving theatre plays, music, visual arts, and comedy, to heal the wounds of peoples who have been divided by war and violence. And it is this personal curiosity about community-level tools to promote reconciliation and conversations among conflict-torn communities that made me enjoy every single second of Sue’s lecture. All in all, it was a great pleasure, as well as an intellectually stimulating opportunity to learn about how useful storytelling can be in the process to bringing these communities together.

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Thinking of Peace and Conflict in a Different Light

What a way to begin the SPP! The sessions, activities, and conversations from the very first day were a perfect way to begin our summer peacebuilding journey. We kicked off the program with Peter Shaw’s session Creating a Peaceful Community, in which we had the opportunity to get to know each other better as a group and to get some important lessons about communication, working collaboratively, and being mindful about our different perspectives. We have an incredibly diverse group (12 students from 10 different countries!) with all types of backgrounds and academic/professional interests, so this session on community building was what we needed to start the program the right way. It was very interesting (and a lot of fun) to work on The Alligator River Story with the rest of the participants. In this story, there are five different characters whose actions and motivations, although very different, were in some way reprehensible and offensive. Working individually, in small groups, and then as a whole class, we had to rank who behaved best and who was the nastiest among these five characters in the story. It was fascinating to realize that many of the participants strongly disagreed about their rankings, but it was also encouraging and very interesting to see that through discussions we could also come up with a list/ranking that was agreeable to the whole class.

The next two sessions for the day were run by Dr. Iyer, who introduced us to the subject of peacebuilding and provided a solid theoretical foundation to have more informed and engaging discussions about the wide range of topics we will be covering in the next few weeks. Dr Iyer’s passion for the topic, and her great wealth of experience in the field and academia was evident from day one, and made us all excited about the program. One of the most important lessons from the day was learning the fact that “conflict,” even though it often has strongly negative connotations, should also be seen as a positive thing. Indeed, it should be seen as an opportunity for reinvention and positive change, and we as aspiring peacebuilders should be aware of this. Other key takeaways from this session include learning the distinction between critical and liberal peacebuilding, the different styles of conflict management, learning about Leaderach’s principles for peacebuilding, and discussing Galtung’s thoughts on ending cultural violence. It was also useful to learn some of the most important theoretical frameworks to understand peacebuilding, including the basic human needs theory, Gurr’s relative deprivation, and social identity theory.

For our evening session we watched and discussed the film Parzania. The plot of the film, which is based on the story of Rupa Modi, tells the story of a Parsi family whose son went missing after the 2002 Gujarat riots–a three-day long episode of riots and violence against the minority Muslim population in the state. This was a powerful and incredibly touching film, and it was truly special to have had the opportunity to hear Dr. Iyer’s thoughts about it (She comes from the state of Gujarat and has a deeply personal connection to this dark episode of the state’s history). The film and the discussion provided an excellent way to start thinking about some of the main topics we will be covering in the next few weeks–extreme violence, conflict resolution, trauma, forgiveness, reconciliation, and peacebuilding.

Film poster for Parzania (2005)
Film poster for Parzania (2005)

A Unique Learning Experience

After a long and challenging academic year and a couple of flights from the east coast, I am genuinely excited to finally be here in Monterey for the 2016 Summer Peacebuilding Program at MIIS! I first heard about the SPP from a good friend, and I quickly knew it would be a unique learning experience. One of the main goals of the program is to bridge the (often seemingly irreconcilable) gap between theory and practice of peacebuilding in societies coming out of conflict or violence. And I could not be happier after sharing and learning from an incredibly diverse and inspiring group of participants, lecturers, and practitioners that I have met in the last few days. Together with a brilliant group of assistants, lecturers, and collaborators, Dr. Pushpa Iyer (the program’s coordinator) has designed a truly fantastic program.

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My name is Luigi Mendez, born and raised in Caracas, Venezuela, and I’m currently a PhD student at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Growing up in Caracas, a city with some of the highest rates of criminal violence in the world, made me aware of the complexity and challenges often faced by policymakers and practitioners who work on this area. This, together with my academic background in Political Science, has fueled my interest in peacebuilding, conflict resolution, and in particular, criminal violence and sustainability (which are also some of my main research interests!). And even though I am currently on the more academic side of the spectrum when it comes to my interest in peacebuilding, I’m also very interested in exploring more practical ways to find solutions to some conflicts in Venezuela and Latin America.

I have had some memorable experiences learning about the different dimensions and tools for conflict resolution around the world. I was lucky to spend a month in Belgrade working in a theater workshop with the group Dah Teatar, which was founded in 1991 when the war started in Yugoslavia. This opportunity with Dah Teatar taught me about the powerful role and meaning of theater and arts in bringing reconciliation to a country that was torn by war. I also had the opportunity to travel to rural Costa Rica, to study the sustainability and equity dimensions of the struggles faced by Nicaraguan migrants in the country. And, more generally, I have spent time researching about criminal violence in Latin America.

I could not be more grateful to be here, more inspired and excited to share and learn from the SPP participants and lecturers, and more delighted to be studying in such a beautiful city.

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Sites DOT MIISThe Middlebury Institute site network.