Participants Blog hosted by Center for Conflict Studies at MIIS

Category: Vanina Morrison

Ways of Interpretation

Yesterday we had a session on interpretation and its role in conflict resolution and peacebuilding. I learned a lot about the difference between translation and interpretation (the former is written the latter is from one spoken language to another). We also learned about the challenges that are present when interpreting one language to another, on behalf of both the speaker and the interpreter. It is definitely a very taxing and difficult job and I admire our speakers for their incredible talent and knowledge that they must possess in order to carry it out well.

Another form of interpretation that came to mind during this session was the fact that language cannot be interpreted without culture, which I believe is one of the main facets to be considered in the peacebuilding and reconciliatory processes. The importance of cultural interpretation in dialogues involving mediation and conflict resolution is important to consider when relaying the viewpoints of others on issues that may affect them. I believe that in many cases it may often be overlooked in these processes of reconciliation that lead to starting conversations of peace. Relaying cultural values and morals, as I have learned over the course of the program, needs to be taken into a higher level of understanding, if, in the future, we wish to achieve the positive peace that we seek globally.

Homes of the future!

Jeff Langholz made a point at the beginning of his presentation stating that the future of water is brighter than we think and he then continued to show us why he thought so with on site alternatives to water consumption. For me, this was one of the most fascinating sessions we have had yet, and this reminded me of when I visited the Earthship models ( in Taos, NM when I was in boarding school in New Mexico. An Earthship combines much of what Jeff talked about into a sustainably built home made of recyclable materials, that allows for self-sufficiency in terms of electricity, water and vegetable or fruit growth depending on where each one is built.
So what did Jeff talk about? He talked about the different ways of how the on site water revolution is changing the way we can access water that is all around us in the air. This ranged from black and gray water recycling to getting water from fog or dew. He discussed the business model that he is planning on following to integrate these into individual homes starting in California at no cost to the home owner, thus taking away the complexity of the entire process. Jeff’s business model is very important because I believe not everyone has the time or capacity (in cities) to build an Earthship (even though I believe they are the suburban homes of the future), and in this way water sustainability is available to even the busiest people in society at very little cost and incredible profit to them and to the environment in general.
At first, when he said the future of water was very bright, I was definitely not convinced. I can’t say I am fully convinced now either, as this process may take a while to catch on globally but it is definitely a better future than I first thought.

The Role of Gender in Peacebuilding

Society has always placed obstacles in the way of women and minority groups in every single aspect of life. It is not easy to over come these obstacles but it is something that must be faced by millions of people today. When we spoke to the Police Chief of Salinas, she said something that struck me; she is not a female police chief, she is simply the police chief. We tend to either ignore gender or how we presents ourselves as masculine or feminine or overly emphasize it through this method of ignoring it. It is a hard route to navigate when so much in society is made to be either masculine or feminine, when I believe and agree with Professor Moorti that gender is a spectrum, but society is the one who built and continues to perceive it in a way that is simply binary.

We talked about this extensively in our session with Sujata Moorti, and we discussed how we indicate our gender to others, and how that indication may be different in different cultures. We also spoke about the idea of how capitalism and the consumerist nature of society takes advantage of this ‘perceived’ binary to manufacture products that must either be feminine or masculine to cater to what has been developed as extreme restrictions on what it means to be a woman or a man (particularly in western societies). At times it can become absurd. For example this BIC for her pen:

These ways of gendering almost every aspect of our lives also has a way of gendering the nature of how we tend to deal with conflict. We discussed this in the way in which men and women tend to be militarized in different fashions based on masculinity and feminity, and how war or conflict tends to take away or add to these perceived ideals. I found this the most interesting out of what we discussed because perhaps if there were not these gendered ideals involved in conflict of how men express bravado or being macho , or how women tend to be pictured as being subdued or not dominant, the presence of conflict might be lessened. I believe these divisions constructed in society of how gender must be interpreted are the cause of many other divisions and conflicts in general.

From Living Room to Global Stage

On Thursday, we had a long discussion about mediation and the role emotions can play in the peacebuilding process. In the morning we came into a small group circle and debriefed on the past two days of the prison visits, our visit to Rancho Cielo and the Salinas Police Station. These were conversations filled with a lot of emotion where we learned more in terms of the background of people and what an experience might mean to them and how different that experience might resonate with you based on your own background and the context of that situation. This was an interesting and beneficial preliminary session that contributed to a lot of the dynamics that we had going in later on the living room conversations.

The living room conversation in my group went really well in comparison to the other groups. This perhaps might have been because we were all females or perhaps because we all had a decent amount of experience in US society, but even when we were talking, our experiences were all different. We spoke about class and privilege and even though we were all from very different backgrounds, we could agree on the core idea of the struggle we felt between our own identity and how we were perceived in society. I found that the benefit of the living room conversation was the ability to personalize an issue and even allow for some level of agreement where one would think none is available.

These two sessions really made me think about the importance of grassroots movements in changing the global stage for how we approach conflict in a more personal and empathetic manner.

Is Restorative Justice possible?

American society is built on the prison industrial complex. It might not be obvious at first, but the more you look and the more you learn, the more it is clear how much is invested in this billion dollar industry. And it is kept up by each and every one of us, from huge private universities, to companies that sell products we use everyday, to the way newly released prisoners are treated in civil society. Is there a way to change it completely? Well, yes, but I think the only way to do that is to overthrow and completely reform the entire system that has existed for centuries in America, and that is difficult to do. Are there ways to slowly improve it? Perhaps, but we never know until we try. For example, we visited a youth rehabilitation center (Rancho Cielo) for young former gang members or children who were being pulled into gangs and from what I could tell there, a small incremental change could be made with hard work in different sectors can begin to change things.

I saw hope after visiting the prisons and then visiting Rancho Cielo. You could see the true dedication that the NGO put into making sure the lives of so many of these kids were not destroyed by the gang violence that surrounded them from birth. You saw what the inmates in our group discussions had wished for when they were younger, someone to simply say that they care about them. It was only a simple thing, but to see the difference that just empathy and love could do in trying to combat a systemic problem that comes out of the hopelessness of youth was truly something special and touching. Of course, I recognize that this is not the only way to begin solving such a huge problem, but it’s a start and it’s those little steps that can really add up to pushing forward towards the positive change in a system fraught with violence.

Exporting Western Ideologies Does Not Equal Sustainable Development

Today in Professor Ed Laurance’s discussion on the effect that development has on conflict, I thought a lot about how much of development has to do with using Western theories as the ‘right’ way in which development is done, and as the base for what defines development globally. We examined the sustainable development goals of the UN, and while I agree with each of the goals set, I do not think they will be reached if many organizations do not recognize the importance of using the knowledge of a local culture to implement these development goals. (This is not to discredit the organizations and programs that do use this knowledge, but to acknowledge that there are many organizations and programs that could do better.) We also discussed a case study of the use of text message reminders for Malaria treatment in Sub-Saharan Africa and what drawbacks we saw in the program, in reviewing its description. My group came up with the dependency that comes with having a reminder sent to you in order to take the drugs and how once the study is done, so is the effectiveness of that reminder. There is also the problem of relying on a cell phone that can easily die or lose service and the privilege that allows one to have constant access to a cellphone. There are other drawbacks such as the fact that the study did not include very young children, who are often affected by the disease, and focused on those in the private health sector since they are the ones who were privileged to the study.


However, what came to my mind as one of the most interesting drawbacks was when one of the others in the discussion brought up the hesitancy many people have to the drugs in the Western pharmaceutical industry and it got me thinking about what I have heard from people about their experience with Western medicine, especially in Jamaica. What I have found is that many times when Western medical techniques are brought to countries where their own holistic methods exist, the Western doctors almost force these ideas of medicine upon many people, bashing their cultural practices. This is not to say that many Western drugs, including the malaria drug do not have their countless benefits, but it is to criticize the approach with which many of these drugs and medicinal practices are presented. I find that whenever Western medicine is presented as superior or more chemically trusted, that many local peoples tend to trust it less because the way the drug and way of ‘medicinal development’ is presented is in a way that takes away from their own cultural practices, so, of course they reject it. It, therefore creates this idea that these medicinal tactics cannot be trusted and are not necessarily proven to work.

This does not only happen only in the medical field of development, but almost every other part of development. I think in order to have the sustainable development that the UN is striving for is to, not only, consider the current cultural practices or local ways of development that exist in many countries, but to be able to share those practices with those that are being suggested to come to a cohesive solution and development goal that benefits both parties. It is really important to have this conversation before exporting ideas that one considers to be the only way to develop and maintain a peaceful society.


Finding Yourself: Telling Your Story

Storytelling has been and continues to be an integral part of the two cultures that I grew up in, and has always been an important way for me to not only get to know others on a deeper level, but also to get to know myself. Every time I tell a story I find myself telling it a little differently based on where I am, who I’m with and what has changed in my life since the last time I told the story. It’s never easy to talk about something personal especially when it has to do with a conflict in your life or a crisis relating to ones needs. However, it is one of the best ways to empathize with the situation that someone has been through and also learn from a first person perspective. I’ve always thought the importance of storytelling is absolutely invaluable in many situations.


When Amy Hill from Story Center came to talk to us about storytelling in the context of peacebuilding, I was already aware of a lot of what she was describing about the process, as I took a storytelling workshop when I attended United World College. Even though everything she was saying seemed very familiar, it made me think back on the story that I had told almost four years ago very differently than how I had viewed it at the time that I had recorded it with Audio Revolution at Warehouse 21 in Santa Fe. It was a personal story about my identity growing up as a mixed child in a predominantly mono-racial society and my struggle with finding my identity. When we were instructed to write a short story about ourselves in our group discussion I decided to reflect on this story and realized that my identity could never be decided until what society has to say about who I am did not have such a strong value in how I identified myself. It is difficult to be at peace with yourself and your identity when you come from two polarized opposites and I have learned from my two experiences with storytelling that talking about these difficulties can helping in healing.


From my experience with storytelling, I believe it is a key tool in understanding conflict and definitely the other party’s ideals and morals and how many conflicts have affected their lives and their stories. Telling stories can also help in facilitating intimacy between parties and encouraging honest conversation that can lead to healing. Understanding those ties has further sparked my interests in storytelling through media such as music. Music has been, since the beginning of humanity a unifying factor for many different groups and incorporating the making of music and its enjoyment to promote further unity could be a key grassroots campaign that could help in reducing conflict.

Reconciling Differences and the Meaning of Justice

Transitional justice and trauma associated with areas of conflict are definitely intertwined and trying to separate the two results in an unfair reconciliation process. Richard Rubenstein, in his discussion about transitional justice, defined it as a part of the peacebuilding field that refers to techniques that an integral part of peacebuilding that take place in the transition between conflict and post-conflict towards reconciliation and ‘positive peace’.  We also learned about the effects of trauma on your brain and how it completely can change the chemical and physical make up of your brain due to unhealthy or stressful situations and situations of conflict. The intersection between transitional justice and trauma is one that I believe is one of the most important in the peacebuilding process because each person deals with severe trauma situations differently, so to find that equilibrium of justice within the transitional justice process for these cases can be very difficult.

Another thing that sparked my interest was the fact that reliving trauma tends to keep an ethnic conflict alive. The way that trauma changes the brain, changes the way that the brain reacts to other events (that it may deem as traumatic) to the point that reliving that trauma can cause it to be passed down generationally, thus being incorporated into an ethnic or social conflict for years. This also causes the transitional justice process to be treated very differently. It is hard to say that Truth and Justice Reconciliation Commissions should allow people to recover and remember blocked memories to aid in the healing process, when that could also be against the culture of healing in that community. Therefore, I find that when it comes to trauma and restoring justice in a conflict community once conflict has been resolved it is important to let that community decide how and when they want to heal, or better yet, how and when the individuals in the community want to heal.

Can a pressure cooker release infinite steam?


On July 26th we listened to Dr. Genzler talked about the Structural Pathologies of the Development Enterprise, and the hegemonic systems that further complicate the peacebuilding process. He made a reference to the hegemonic system as a pressure cooker that was unintentionally made to let a little steam escape every now and then in order to maintain the structural construction of the system in place. He constructed this metaphor around the Occupy Wall Street protests of a few years ago, saying that the system allowed for these protests, but we see no difference in the earning power of the elite 1%. In fact, in recent years the stark wage gap difference between the richest and the poorest has been growing more than before. Listening to this information, I was, of course, a bit discouraged. If we are working to change a system, that allows for seemingly small ideas of change to exist before reverting back to its original construction , then how can we as peace-builders enact that real change that we seek?

The pressure cooker comparison reminded me of my childhood in Jamaica when my father would be cooking my favorite meal, oxtail in our small pressure cooker in the kitchen. I was an impatient child when it came to food and every 5 minutes I would either peek in the kitchen to catch a look at the steam increasing and listen for the whistling of the pressure cooker or tug at my father’s sleeve with those questioning eyes about when it would be time to eat. Something I observed from this is that, yes, the pressure cooker always did let a little steam go and never allowed the rich juices of the oxtail to overflow, but it also slowly softened that oxtail meat until it was perfectly ready to cook with gravy and eat. Once it reached that point, the steam coming out of the cooker would be so strong that the pot would begin whistling and we knew that the meat was just about done. It was those incremental and slow moving changes, that led to the final release of steam, that were key in changing the meat from raw to cooked. So, what I was trying to say from all of this is that perhaps, we need these incremental changes and small steps to slowly generate enough positive peace to tackle such strong hegemonic systems.

These were my thoughts throughout that day the somehow helped to brighten my outlook on tackling these historical structures that help to uphold systems of violence and conflict globally. I think it is through reaching everyone in different ways, through grassroots movements, their interests, and even trying to understand their intentions that we will begin to to speed up this change on the pathway to building peace.

Searching for Peace

I can pinpoint the exact moment that I became interested in peace building in relation to privilege and isolation. I grew up in Kingston, Jamaica (a beautiful country, but one also rife with crime and corruption) for most of my life and lived in Downtown Kingston, which, other than the financial district, was known to be very dangerous. Few of the the kids I went to school with were allowed to visit me, and most people in the safer parts of Jamaica were shocked to hear where my family and I lived. In 2010, there was an incursion into a neighborhood in Downtown Kingston (Tivoli Gardens) for the extradition of a famed drug lord. The poorer neighborhoods of Downtown Kingston were under siege by the National Guard: children were searched for guns on their way to school, families were thrown out of their homes so that soldiers could occupy their houses, and many were injured or killed during the week of the incursion. The entire city was in a state of emergency, and for once, those who I went to school with felt the smallest inkling of what it meant to live in a place of civil unrest and violence, and from my bubble in downtown Kingston I did too. It was during this incursion that I realized that peace in my country, or even peace globally was so far from being achieved when isolated from the most basic human emotions of empathy and generosity. It was not until the most privileged of Jamaica’s livelihoods were threatened, that there was an urge for something to be done about the civil unrest, and even at that point the system was irreversible.

A few years later, I attended UWC in New Mexico, for my last two years of high school where the mission statement was to “make education a force to united peoples, nations and cultures for peace and a sustainable future”. The idea of education as a core structure in peacebuilding has always been, in my opinion, one of the most important factors in the process. It made me think about the children in Tivoli Gardens whose schools were destroyed in the incursion and whose access to what basic education they had was gone. It also made me think about the difference education played in this children’s lives, but also in encouraging the engagement and continuation of the peacebuilding process.

During SPP, I hope to learn further how education can be used universally, without class bias, to promote ideas of peace and erase the borders that privilege and distance can wedge in the peacebuilding process. I also hope to learn more about the theoretical aspects of peacebuilding and how they can be applied practically in different areas where factors preventing peace are constantly changing. I hope that with the experience from this program  I will be able to more wholly understand what factors are most important in the peacebuilding process, so that I can work with those who want peace , and also learn how to maintain that peace long term.

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