My name is Dylan Sparks and I am currently a Global and International Studies major at Bard College in upstate NY. Originally South African, I graduated from UWC South East Asia in 2014, which was where I had my first opportunities to get involved in peace-building on a personal level beyond discussion. During my time at UWC, I was part of the Initiative for Peace group where we organised and facilitated a peace building conference in Sri Lanka. The goal of the conference was to bring together Sri Lankan youth from all different ethnic and religious groups — mainly Sinhalese, Tamil and Muslims — who were between the ages of 18 and 25, for a 10 days conference. We underwent facilitation and conflict resolution training over the course of 1 year. A primary focus of the conference was normalising interactions between people had had very little interaction between their respective groups in their lives. The conference was residential, which meant that all of the different participants shared dormitories, meals, ablutions and leisure time.
Despite all the training we went through, the workshops organised and guest speakers who presented various different theories and agendas — the most effective tool of integration was bonding over mundane daily activities. This experience allowed all participants and facilitators to be reminded of the universality of youth: there was far more that united, than divided. It is much harder to paint negative images of an “other” when the “other” lives in a different village or province — but a bit harder if you are sharing a room. A memorable activity was asking participants to draw up a timeline of the history of civil conflict in Sri Lanka. Once everyone had completed their timeline, they had to present their perspective of history to the group. The result was interesting differences between demographics — what had been viewed as “key” or “critical” events for some, had been left out of other peoples timelines. During the conference, a peer (and fellow South African) and I did a presentation on the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa. Through a role play we demonstrated what might have transpired at one of the sessions. During the course of this we decided that it holding a mini-TRC might be a good idea. However, in order to keep things civil (we had no idea how things could transpire) we decided that it was going to be an open platform for people to discuss their grievances, experiences, memories and emotions about the conflict. We decided that the platform would be 1-way, and there would not be an opportunity for audience members to challenge their peers. So in this critical sense, the exercise did differ from the original TRC. Anyone was allowed to go up to the podium and speak — no one was allowed to respond to them, and there was no obligation for anyone to share at all. After explaining the guidelines we sat down and waited for someone to volunteer. Eventually they did, and the enthusiasm for the exercise was fantastic. Again, things didn’t necessarily go according to plan, and again, this was not a bad thing. Many people discussed issues which were not directly related to Peace per se, such as bullying, social/family issues — but they all further contributed to the greatened sense of trust between participants.
Other experiences that I’ve had with this area are quite academic – the focus of my major means that Security Studies, as well as Inequality (of which violence is often a symptom) are at the forefront of my course load. The majority of my other experiences with the topic have been focused on education for children in South Africa and Kenya — while these efforts, which mainly relate to assisting NGOs with marketing, private-public partnerships, social media and donor outreach — I am a strong believer in the value of education as a tool to combat misunderstandings, conflict, hate and violence.
I am excited for the SPP program, particularly sharing ideas with my peers, interacting with instructors and learning about different perspectives. I look forward to meeting everyone and sharing an enriching few weeks together!