Participants Blog hosted by Center for Conflict Studies at MIIS

Category: Paroma Soni

Reflections on SPP

Reflecting on the past three weeks, there are many lessons I have learned, both academically and emotionally. There is no doubt that for anyone in the field of peacebuilding, human rights, or social justice, a great deal of emotional strength has to be cultivated. These are difficult issues to deal with and the task of working alongside people from very different backgrounds, disciplines and mindsets is challenging. This program introduced us to a diverse sample of professionals who had so much to offer intellectually and personally, but more than anything it taught me the importance of being honest, upholding integrity and working hard through every challenge. Many people told us that to be in this field, one has to develop a “thick skin.” While I agree that it is important to be able to manage emotions and maintain composure in the face of adversity, for me personally I think the minute you close yourself to really feeling what you do, you lose what lies at the heart of peacebuilding itself. While you must not crumble under stress, I think there is a lot of merit to allowing yourself to be vulnerable, to be unafraid of showing that vulnerability, and really channeling it to keep bettering yourself. The process of learning never stops – regardless of your age, gender, race, ethnicity, nationality, and so on. I am grateful to have met and befriended so many different people on this program; creating such strong bonds across all our differences is truly what made this program incredible.

PS: I also love that everyone we talked to could not resist recommending books and films and media and organizations that are doing incredible work, and I made it a point to note down each one. If there’s anything we have learned it’s that knowledge must be shared – so hear it is for anyone that’s interested (attached as a picture)!


Breath of Fresh Air/Water

It is hard to always maintain an optimistic view of the world given how much is wrong with it. It is an important quality for peacebuilders to have, no doubt. The talk with Jeff Langholz was one of those sessions that really does restore your faith in humanity and the capacity for positive change. His enthusiasm, optimism and passion for environmental justice really did shine through and it was quite honestly a breath of fresh air. None of us students were science experts, but it is obvious there is a big need for creative, innovative solutions to address the issues of climate change, particularly on vulnerable populations across the world. I loved hearing about Jeff’s organization, Water City, and the process by which it came to be. The five ways of harvesting water which did not threaten to dry up natural reservoirs – (a) rainwater harvesting, (b) fog and dew collection, (c) atmospheric water generation, (d) gray water recycling and (e) black water recycling – seem simple but were incredibly effective. I am now looking at researching how these models can be adapted to different climates, urban spaces and particularly developing megacities.

His work was another striking example of the incredible work that members of local communities can do when we take the knowledge and experiences we have and really apply ourselves to making a difference in the world. Most of the sessions we had this week, including especially the ones by Sujata Moorti and Elizabeth Cole, were inspiring, radical and thought-provoking. I will keep these lessons in mind as I work towards building a career in human rights and social justice.

Freedom of Speech and Constructive Dialogue

We have frequently discussed what the challenges of peacebuilding are and how we, as peacebuilders, need to build an empathetic, compassionate community where we can work together despite disagreements. To me, that includes taking responsibility for one’s words, holding oneself accountable for opinions expressed and really practicing what one preaches. The wider conversations happening across the United States on academic freedom and freedom of speech are relevant and important to have; in order to move forward critical debate and constructive dialogue are fundamental and should not be silenced. Whether that manifests as classroom discussions, or interpersonal conversations among friends, or even online – we are in a global moment with lots of positive potential for social transformation, one that is not limited to this program. As peacebuilders, we ought to capitalize (and not in a monetary sense) on the tools and diversity we have to really engage in a deep conversation that centers our shared goal instead of allowing the baggage we all carry to get in the way of that. There is space for resistance, protest and resilience, and standing up for what one believes in, and then perhaps there is the potential to restructure that space into a constructive arena for ideas and critiques. But in my opinion, that space cannot be created if things other than a commitment to peacebuilding take precedence. For me there is no difference between activism and peacebuilding. If something is problematic, I feel a personal and professional obligation to call it out – respectfully, and acknowledging the subjectivity that comes with it. I will take responsibility for my words, just as I will not shy away from defending my academic integrity. At the end of the day, if all of us – from all walks of life – are not willing to walk the walk, our work seems to become nothing more than a meaningless exercise in self-validation.

Healing a Broken World

“You should always strive to make a difference” and “create positive change, however small” are among the many things I was taught growing up. As I transitioned into academia and adulthood, it became harder and harder to see the world with the same optimism I once had. Quite simply, I often thought to myself that if so many organizations around the world are already doing so much great stuff, then why is the world still so broken?

We sat in at one of the group sessions with inmates from the Common Ground Project in the Correctional Training Facility of Salinas, and it was perhaps one of the most enlightening and emotional experiences I have ever had. We witnessed what I am sure was a very transformative series of moments for a whole group of men who had been forgotten by the rest of society, and most poignantly by their own families. When we broke off into smaller groups, the men shared some touching stories of how they felt they let their children down, how they wanted to break the vicious cycle of systemic violence that sucked their sons right into the same situation as them, how they felt like failures, how their own parents had never been around, how they had dealt with abuse and neglect and discrimination and poverty, how they were victims of circumstance. Then the leader of the group looked over at us and asked us if any one of us could relate to anything they were saying. Our collective privilege in that moment was laid completely bare, because we responded first with a short, uncomfortable laugh. But then we talked about how much our parents cared for us, sent us to school, loved us unconditionally. They asked us what we thought were the most important family values they should pass on to their children. Kindness. Compassion. Empathy. Forgiveness. Honesty. Love. Love. Love.

Love. It sounds a little silly to say “love can change the world” but it was during this session that I reflected so much on the idea of love and what it means to society. So much of my research has been about cultivating empathy for the “other” and learning to care about the world even when it does not directly affect us. Many, many organizations do embody that and work for sustainable change and development, but ultimately love is something so deep and so personal that every person has to harness it for themselves, first as self-love, and then to spread to others around them. We don’t teach kids how to “love” in schools. We don’t train adults how to “love” in the workforce. We don’t even tell parents to “love” their children because we just take it for granted that they will. We don’t tell children from minority communities that they should love their identities, their appearances, their backgrounds, themselves. We are failing as a system because we have dehumanized the system. We have forgotten that each and every one of us is the system.

The personal is political. I think we have forgotten how much of a difference each individual person can make. Our conversations with the inmates at CTF reminded me of it. Julie said the same thing. Sometimes all it takes is for someone to say that they care. For someone to feel that they are loved. If conflict arises over the lack of our deepest needs being met, then feeling loved is right on top of that list. It might sound crazy, and I am fully aware that centuries of oppression cannot be overturned with “love” – but if we are serious about healing our wounds as a global community, then it’s a very doable start.

Architecture of Violence

The American incarceration system is one of the worst in the world – that is a widely known fact. I have had some years of experience studying and working with incarcerated populations here, and at every step I have been truly shocked. One of the great things about our program is the diversity in nationalities and cross-cultural experiences of its participants. Certainly prison systems in many of the countries we are from are or seem far more horrific, but when one country – and the United States at that – is responsible for twenty five percent of the world’s incarcerated people, that is something that needs to be addressed.

The demographics of incarcerated populations are unsurprising given the long history of systematic violence in this country. Our talk with Julie Reynolds about the prison system and our visit to the Salinas Valley State Prison was incredibly informative about the structures that continue to oppress so many different groups. I have worked in a Connecticut women’s prison before, and using that as my frame of reference for this visit – to a high-security men’s prison on the other side of the country – was interesting. I was expecting this prison to be a volatile, tense and scary place where the wardens abused their power and prisoners lived every moment in fear. It certainly was a tense environment, but the issue of gangs and gang violence complicated the experience. Julie left us with this question: Do the prisons design the gangs or do gangs design the prison?

I was surprised at how respectful and friendly all the guards we met were. I was not at all expecting that. At the risk of generalizing, it also seemed that they had seceded their “power” or “authority” to the gang leaders in exchange for peace and harmony within the prison walls. “We don’t segregate them; they segregate themselves,” is something we heard often from many of the sergeants. Prisons by design are meant to be a symbol of power, yet here the center of power seemed so shaky. During our debrief, I mentioned that we as a group had not been searched or even asked to pass through a metal detector, which seemed very strange to me given the hype around its level of security and the ease with which our visit could have led to complications. The architecture of this entire system showed me really what a stronghold this area is for the gangs.

Interestingly, I immediately thought back to our discussions on terrorism and the continuous emergence of terrorist cells in other parts of the world. Why can’t the giant American military destroy a couple thousand ISIS fighters? Well, why can’t the American prison system successfully stop a handful of criminal gang members and their illicit activities? Clearly and overwhelmingly, the system is failing. I am aware that it is easy to point fingers at the “system” – whatever this “system” entails – but without a deep, critical analysis of this system we simply cannot address the question of changing it. And while we engage in intellectual critique, we must simultaneously find a way to maintain and instill peace that manifests immediately and materially for the populations torn apart by this violence – from guns or knives or bombs or missiles. I am not sure that the prison system does much to live up to this role.

The Fundamental Problem

“What is a possible alternative to the War on Terror?” was a question posed by Richard Rubenstein during our session on the Logic of Terrorism and the Fallacies of Counter-Terrorism. This is an immensely complicated question, and one that cannot be answered without first discussing global power structures, Western imperialism, hegemonic neoliberalism and the system of structural violence that has underwritten all our studies here. What is “terrorism”? Who constitutes a terrorist? What is the magnitude of the threats post by current terrorist activity? Why have so many counter-terrorist strategies failed so bitterly? The answer lies not in a political or policy-level analysis of the war-on-terror efforts but rather in a deeper understanding of Western intervention in the Middle East, and a broader lens on history and society without falling trap to generalizations and cultural stereotypes.

In this session, I found myself increasingly frustrated at the ease with which phrases like “their ideologies of radical fundamentalist Islam” were thrown around. “Radical fundamentalist Islam” is itself a fallacy, a fancy term to point fingers towards for all the problems we face. Islamophobia is a convenient foreign policy tool. That is not to say that groups like ISIS or the Al Qaeda are not murdering innocent people, but they are most certainly not an existential threat to the United States/Western civilization/the world as we know it. The people most disadvantaged by the rise of terrorist cells are the citizens of the countries in which they exist. A more pressing question to ask is what gives rise to terrorism? It is not some warped, inflammatory Islamic ideology that entices young people from around the world become murderous “jihadist ideologues.” For the majority of ISIS fighters, there is a very real, economic burden that they face and the wages they earn by becoming fighters are what allows them to make a living. Is that a justification? Perhaps not. But we cannot eliminate the decades of American (and Soviet) bombs dropping on countries like Afghanistan and Iraq from the conversation. Even today, the use of (imprecise and poorly executed) drone strikes has been nothing but a massive violation of international law that naturally causes resentment and anti-US sentiments to fester. In 2016 alone, over 30,000 bombs had been dropped on Syria and over 5,000 drone attacks were executed. In total, the number of people killed in Iraq and Syria alone in the last five years is close to one million. The number of ISIS fighters is estimated to be around 20,000. Even statistically speaking, how could the country with the world’s largest $600 billion dollar military not eliminate a few thousand fighters?

The answer is not simple, but it is obvious. War is profitable. Raytheon stocks surged after the missile strikes in Syria earlier this year. Donald Trump’s defense stock holdings skyrocketed (literally). I am not making the case that it is one man behind the entire military industrial complex (this issue long precedes Trump), but corporates control this country. It is careless, in my opinion, to attribute the failures of the war on terror on religious fundamentalism in the Middle East without a serious critique first on American complicity. The questions I always come back to are how we, as a group of grassroots organizers and peacebuilders, can use this information to hold truth to power. We discussed that the solution seems to be to bring gradual, incremental change in hegemonic structures, but in the meantime, can we just forget about the thousands of people being relentlessly shelled by American bombs on the other side of the world?

Hegemony is Not Stasis

In Kent Glenzer’s talk on the Structural Pathologies of the Development Enterprise, he referred to an idea put forth by Dan Kahneman. It challenged the basic assumption of modern day economic theory: that we are rational actors. So much of our political and economic system is premised on the idea of rationality yet it is so easy to see, if we just took a step back, that our global patterns of consumption in the “free” market are anything but rational. The tenets of neoliberal capitalism have created a deeply divisive system that, at its core, puts profit above people. As a result, there was a need for various development policies, humanitarian aid and philanthropic initiatives to combat the onslaught against poor, marginalized populations. But unsurprisingly, the world order is so entrenched that what emerged was the development enterprise – a set of discursive plans and projects that only superficially and ephemerally addressed complex, longstanding problems across the world. To truly bring social, transformative action to a community, we discussed the absolute need for a project to be long-term, incremental and adaptable. Most ODA projects today use a single-loop model where there is one set goal and the project is deemed finished when the goal is met. But in reality there are so many variables and factors beyond our control that goals become obsolete or irrelevant all the time. We talked seriously about action research as a way to build an inclusive system that allows for periodic reflection and reevaluation of the community’s goals and needs.

What I loved most about his session was how Kent encouraged us to think creatively and critically about how we can move forward. Towards the end of the session he said “hegemony is not stasis.” Structures can be transformed. As peacebuilders an important characteristic is to remain optimistic and perseverant. In Rich Rubenstein’s session we talked about structural conflicts and hegemonic power structures, and how even international politics is based on rationality. But is it really rational to pursue power with so much ferocity? When deep human needs are denied, conflict arises. People need a strong cultural, social and emotional solution to their grievances, but what we are left with is a world where glitter and gold deludes us into filling those voids. War is endless because we fight over things that don’t exist – no amount of material or discursive gain can change an intangible endemic structure. How then, do we change the system in a way that is radical enough to make a difference yet humane enough to not cause so much suffering?

Let’s save the world!

(Written on July 25, 2017)

To say the first day of the program was intense would be an understatement. Although a lot of the day was grounded in theoretic frameworks of conflict, so much of the discussion we had was centered around reflexivity, emotion and relationships. We can’t “solve” the conflicts of the world if we don’t resolve the battles we face internally. I loved that we started off the program by discussing our own positionality, complicity and even intentionality with the work we want to do, now and for the rest of our lives. For me, this has always been a big challenge. I grew up in Mumbai, but unlike most of the city’s population, I was afforded a large set of privileges that determined so much of my own success. As a middle-class family, my parents worked very hard to send my sister and I to good schools throughout our lives. I spoke English at home, I went to a UWC, I went to the United States for college, I have traveled to over 32 countries – this reeks of privilege; it is an exception, not the norm. Even among our particular social strata, my family is different. They are open-minded, understanding and accepting; we have a strong, trusting and respectful relationship. I am able to talk to them freely about whatever I want. I never had curfews or protective parents like the rest of my friends did. Of course, I was still a woman of colour living in a patriarchal world, and when I came to the US the conversations about privilege were more complicated.

But the elephant in the room was always the “saviour complex” conversation – what is my place in the fight for human rights? Whose voices was I amplifying? Whose anger was I embodying? Who was I speaking for, or speaking with? I cannot begin a journey of human rights change and peacebuilding without first acknowledging where I stand. Our discussions in class spoke to these questions – we talked about being a bystander, a witness, the responsibility of someone on the outside, capable of doing something, to do the best they can.

Ivan from the Alligator story (pictured above) during Jill Stoffer’s session was a character least liked by most of the groups for his non-intervention. Yet we are quick to judge those who do do something, but perhaps incorrectly or ineffectively – like Slug, whose form of intervention meant beating up the bad guy. As peacebuilders, or advocates, or human rights activists – we should certainly not be the Ivans of the world who watch by as conflicts happen when we have the tools to do something. But we must also not be the Slugs who enthusiastically dive in headfirst to a “let’s save the world” project without any deep understanding of the conflict, its history, or its people – and end up doing more harm than good. A friend once told me she thought of privilege and identity as physical spaces – the more privileged you are, the more space you take up in any given situation. The point, especially when fighting against injustice, oppression and suffering, was to recognize your place, respectfully refrain from dominating a moment that can be quite liberating for someone else, and give credit where it is due.

The way our discussion unfolded, the dynamics within the group and the weight of our words pointed to the intersection of these spaces and really the way we reconcile diverging worldviews. Perhaps that is what draws me so much to film and media as a way of observing the world, telling stories truthfully and respectfully, spreading awareness without preaching, and straying away from a vested ideological agenda. (Again, this is an incredibly subjective claim). Watching Parzania was a highlight of my day for this reason; it showed me once again the emotional power a film can have – both in how it heals or provides an outlet for grief to the family that was affected, but also in how it shapes our understanding of the world – how it humanizes conflict (as Yondeen mentioned in class) and reminds us that humanity ought to come before any political or economic gain.

Empathy and conflict

I was once listening to a podcast on NPR by Sunil Yapa, author of Your Heart is a Muscle the Size of a Fist (inspired by the WTO riots in Seattle in the late 1990s – a must read!) when he said something that has stuck with me till date: “Sometimes, empathy is a revolutionary act.”

The world for as long as I have known it has been characterized by conflict, in so many different forms. I used to think of “conflict” in a strictly physical, armed sense. I took a class on Conflict Resolution at the University of Maastricht during one of my semesters abroad, which significantly transformed my understanding of the world. I spent a lot of time working with Syrian and Palestinian refugees in Jordan, with many indigenous groups in Chile fighting a losing battle against big oil giants, and with several non-profits in Mumbai – my hometown – that assisted survivors of sexual abuse, rape and dowry violence. I studied at the Mahindra UWC and later attended Trinity College, CT, where I double majored in Human Rights and Film Studies. I now work full time as a canvasser and field manager for the Working Families Party in New York City and am beginning a part-time internship as a contributing writer to the Borgen Magazine. A majority of my research and intellectual curiosity is dedicated to understanding structures of conflict: What causes such deep-seated feelings of animosity that lets us “other” and dehumanize people with so much blind resolve? I would like to believe that loves does come more naturally to the human heart than hate, so what are the various social, political, economic factors that render whatever “innate humanity” we have useless? How have we so wholeheartedly embraced capitalism and a love of money to the point of becoming completely closed off to seeing its deeply disturbing fallout on the planet’s most vulnerable populations? On the planet itself?

I study and engage heavily with media and film because I believe in its potential to elicit attitudinal change; but like everything else in the world, these are complex and dense subjects that must be tackled with lots of nuance. I applied to SPP as a way of continuing to learn, mature my thinking and expand my knowledge of conflicts and their resolution. I am excited to work with local grassroots organizations and understand the ways in which they tackle the issues close to them – both for its didactic value as well as for the inspiration it is bound to give me. I see so much apathy, everywhere in the world, and my hopes with SPP is to dive right into understanding why that is so – why something that should be ubiquitous is something charged with being so revolutionary.

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